Posturing in the South China Sea. Two U.S. warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands today. (Nearby Fiery Cross Reef was the subject of controversy in the Philippines last week following news that China had built a maritime rescue center there.) Meanwhile, in a speech at the Royal United Service Institute, Britain’s defense secretary said the United Kingdom was sending the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the Pacific to demonstrate Britain’s willingness to use “hard power” to defend its interests, and especially to confront Chinese and Russian aggression. On their own, a freedom of navigation operation and a hawkish think tank speech don’t mean much, but the intensifying competition between China and the United States (and, increasingly, U.S. allies) makes even this sort of posturing significant.

The end of the Islamic State? Backed by the United States, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are staging a final assault on Islamic State-held territory in the eastern Syrian desert. The outcome of the assault is not in doubt. It will succeed, and for the first time since 2014, IS will not control territory in Syria or Iraq. But IS has always been more than a territorial entity. Its resilience comes from its ability to inspire large numbers of young, disaffected Sunni Muslims to pursue a hard-line and fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran. Eliminating its territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq is one thing; it’s quite another to destroy the underlying forces that led to the Islamic State’s emergence. For now, it’s only possible to keep a lid on them.

Storms in the global economy. One month after the International Monetary Fund lowered its global economic growth forecast, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told the World Government Summit in Dubai that the global economy is still growing more slowly than the IMF anticipated and that a “storm” may well be on the horizon. One has to appreciate Lagarde’s frankness when she noted that the IMF had “no idea how it is going to pan out.” It’s clear that going into 2019, global trade growth was already slowing; disappointing economic data out of Europe and China, in particular, indicated as much. The underlying causes of this slowdown and what it means for geopolitical developments in 2019 are also becoming clearer.

Trade talks resume. Speaking of the global economy, a high-level U.S. delegation has arrived in China to continue trade negotiations. Deputy-level negotiations began today, laying the groundwork for talks between China’s vice premier and the U.S. trade representative and treasury secretary. This may sound like cause for optimism, especially considering that both sides have good reason to make a deal – China, so that it can relieve some pressure on its economy, and the U.S., so that the administration can show it is following through on campaign promises. But even if these talks go well, and even if the parties announce some kind of deal in March, there is no deal on the table that can paper over the differences and the competition that has emerged between the two sides. These trade negotiations are more about buying time than solving underlying structural problems. Buying time can be important, especially considering the current uncertainty in the global economy, but it doesn’t put off the reckoning indefinitely.

Turkey criticizes China. On Saturday, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said what was happening to Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs in China’s western regions was “a great shame for humanity.” This is a departure from Turkey’s previous efforts to avoid criticizing China for its policies toward ethnic Uighurs. Turkey has long tiptoed around the issue to avoid jeopardizing economic and strategic partnership opportunities with China. Beijing responded angrily to the criticism. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Turkey had made “a very bad mistake.” China then produced a video of a Uighur poet Turkey claimed had been killed by Chinese authorities. The video might mean China wins this bout, but in the bigger picture, China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects are to be built largely through Muslim countries, so what it’s doing to maintain order at home could cause problems for its plans abroad.

Honorable Mentions

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced a number of top officials across several law enforcement and investigative agencies.
  • South Korea and the U.S. signed a deal raising South Korea’s contribution to defense costs by 8.2 percent.
  • South Korea’s trade minister said the country was looking into ways to reduce its reliance on exports to China.
  • Iran said it was prepared to boost its uranium enrichment capacity so that it can be self-sufficient in nuclear fuel at its research reactors and the Russian-built power station at Bushehr. Iran originally announced this target in 2014.
  • Russia is hosting talks between several Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s medical condition is improving.