It’s election season in the United States, which means its election interference season as well. On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had thwarted two campaigns — one linked to Russian military intelligence and another to Iranian state-owned media — aimed at influencing voters in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Latin America and the Middle East. Also on Tuesday, Twitter said it removed 284 Iranian accounts for engaging in coordinated manipulation. This comes a day after Microsoft announced it had foiled Russian cyberattacks targeting conservative groups in the U.S. On Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton warned that China might join Russia in attempting to sway voters ahead of U.S. midterm elections in November.
But the U.S. isn’t the only target. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen said increased Chinese pressure on the island was intended to manipulate voters ahead of its own local elections in November. There’s no reason to expect this issue to go away anytime soon. So long as countries have interests in the outcomes of others’ elections, they’ll have reason to try to influence the results — and the cyber realm has made it increasingly easy to give it a shot. And whether or not claims of interference are true, even mere speculation about election meddling can weaken a new government from the get-go.
Chinese political influence in Australia will become a more public issue too, especially as the government in Canberra deals with a crisis of its own making. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull narrowly survived his second challenge in as many days by a rebel faction of conservative lawmakers from his center-right Liberal Party led by former Home Minister Peter Dutton. Dutton resigned his post in Turnbull’s Cabinet, and at least nine other ministers offered to follow suit after backing Dutton’s leadership bid. If anyone actually succeeds in ousting Turnbull, then Australia will find itself with its sixth leader in just the past decade (none of whom have served a full term), with snap elections possible if the ruling coalition falls apart.
Though Australia’s long-term strategic orientation has remained fairly stable, government volatility breeds paralysis, hinders policy continuity and makes Australian leaders less willing to spend political capital on initiatives abroad — especially those that may risk economic retaliation in politically important sectors.
The latest bout of turmoil comes amid low-simmering tensions about Chinese ties to influential politicians, businesspeople and foreign policy voices — something Turnbull and senior intelligence officials characterized as an unprecedented threat to Australian democracy and sovereignty before pushing through sweeping anti-interference legislation in June. Turnbull’s China policies are not the cause of his political woes at the moment, but the issue will be hanging over the leadership struggle, however long it lasts.
While the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process remains stuck in neutral, Seoul’s reconciliation with Pyongyang is moving forward. On Tuesday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced that the South will vacate at least 10 guard posts in the demilitarized zone on a trial basis under a reciprocal agreement with Pyongyang. The top commander of U.S. forces in South Korea threw his support behind the plan. Seoul also confirmed plans to open an inter-Korean liaison office — a move U.S. officials have said may violate U.N. sanctions on the North — and said South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will likely hold a third summit in mid-September. Last week, the two Koreas held their first general-grade military talks in more than a decade and agreed to restore all military communication lines.
These moves are only somewhat consequential. But considering how vulnerable both sides are to moves by the other to exploit the peace process for tactical gain, these are the exact kinds of incremental steps they would take if they are to rebuild trust and tackle more important issues down the road. By comparison, Pyongyang has successfully kept talks with the U.S. bogged down over largely symbolic issues like a declaration ending the Korean War. On Sunday, Bolton said Kim told Moon in April that he was willing to denuclearize within the year. There’s been scant evidence that Pyongyang is actually moving in that direction, though, and the U.S. doesn’t exactly have many tools in its belt to prod the North along. A “frozen peace” may be the best they can hope for, but it’s still worth watching for signs that Washington’s patience is wearing thin.
- German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for an independent EU payments system to protect EU firms doing business with Iran from U.S. sanctions.
- Bolton said Turkey could resolve its standoff with the U.S. instantly if it released the American pastor currently being held under house arrest – an apparent shift in the U.S. position compared to a couple of days ago.
- Russian officials said three Syrian militant groups, at least one of which is backed by Turkey, have rejected talks with Damascus and are preparing to go on the offensive.
- Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said his country may reimpose compulsory military service.
- Japan is sending three warships on a tour of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Japanese and Indian defense ministers agreed to open talks on an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, which would boost interoperability by facilitating exchanges of food, fuel, ammunition and equipment.
- China and Russia announced plans to hold their largest joint military exercises in 40 years in Siberia.
- Tunisia and Canada held a joint naval drill.