U.S.-China trade talks. Following deputy-level talks earlier this week, the U.S. trade representative and treasury secretary began a new round of trade negotiations with China’s vice premier today. There are at least two indications outside the talks themselves that suggest the negotiations are progressing. First, a spate of media reports indicate U.S. President Donald Trump is considering a 60-day extension of the March 1 deadline for higher tariffs on Chinese imports. Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with the U.S. delegation tomorrow in Beijing. China, where official data showed a 9 percent surge in exports last month (in part because of concerns over the impending U.S. tariff increase), is keeping the trade talks separate from other high-profile disagreements with the U.S. over issues like Huawei and the South China Sea. As for the U.S., an extension of the deadline would suggest it thinks it can get even more than it is asking for right now.

Russia, Iran and Turkey meet again. In January 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey met for the first time in Astana to pursue a Syrian peace deal separate from the efforts of the rest of the international community – one in which Turkey would not attempt to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Russia and Iran would respect Turkish-guaranteed safe zones in Syria. Their efforts seemed on the verge of collapse a year ago when Iran and Russia backed Assad-led campaigns in some of the safe zones under Turkish control. But they put their difference aside and continued to hold quarterly meetings. As the three countries meet today, the U.S. is sponsoring a conference in Poland on Iranian aggression in the Middle East, Israel is publicly touting its every military strike in Syria (the Israeli prime minister confirmed the latest one just yesterday), and, for the first time, a joint Turkish-Russian force is deploying to Kurdish-controlled areas near Aleppo. With the U.S. declaration of its intent to withdraw from Syria and the Islamic State’s return to insurgent tactics, the troika has much to discuss.

Growing but slowly. The German economy averted technical recession in the fourth quarter of 2018 – growing by a blistering 0.02 percent. (The eurozone’s economy as a whole grew by only 0.2 percent over the previous quarter.) Germany may have gotten a reprieve, but the difference between growing 0.02 percent and shrinking 0.1 percent is academic. Its economy has stagnated, and since Germany is the European Union’s economic engine, the Continent’s prospects in the short term are dim. The problems here are structural, and there are no easy fixes, especially considering that key German export sectors like electronics, automobiles and machinery are seeing declining profits in China, whose imports dropped for a second consecutive month.

Japan non-committal on Taiwan. At a briefing in Taipei, a Taiwanese diplomat confirmed that Japan welcomed Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The diplomat also said Japan’s foreign minister’s comments that a recent Taiwanese ban on Japanese food products could hamper Taiwan’s bid to join the CPTPP reflected the foreign minister’s personal views – not the official Japanese position – and that Japan wanted Taiwan to solicit support from other CPTPP members. There’s no word from Japan itself, which welcomed Taiwan’s interest in the TPP back in 2017 on the grounds that it was open to any new members so long as they could live up to the free trade agreement’s high standards. Japan may well be in favor of Taiwan’s accession, but saying so publicly would cause unwanted problems between Japan and China.

Israelis and Arabs. On the sidelines of a U.S.-led Warsaw conference on the Middle East, Bahrain’s foreign minister told the Times of Israel that his country will “eventually” establish formal ties with Israel. Israel’s prime minister, meanwhile, met with Oman’s foreign minister ahead of the conference. It is remarkable how quickly such meetings have become commonplace, considering that, until recently, very few Arab government officials would meet openly with Israeli officials – let alone the prime minister. More surprising, however, was that a Saudi prince and former intelligence chief sat down for an interview on Israel’s Channel 13. This suggests a new level of openness in relations; however, the prince said Saudi Arabia could have no relationship with Israel until the Palestinian issue was “fixed” – a message aimed at Israel’s prime minister, but one that might as well have been aimed at embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been behind the Saudi push for more pragmatic relations with Israel.

Honorable Mentions

  • The head of Uzbekistan’s State Security Service retired a few days ago because of health issues. But there may be more to the story, as he is now being charged with unspecified economic crimes.
  • Belarus and Russia agreed to a roadmap to end mutual restrictions on trade in meat and dairy.
  • China canceled trade talks with the United Kingdom in response to news that the U.K. was dispatching its aircraft carrier to the South China Sea.
  • Chevron’s CEO said the company was working closely with the U.S. government to remain in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Russia’s deputy prime minister said Moscow would implement defense contracts with Venezuela “regardless of how the scenario unfolds.”
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been discharged from the hospital.