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Is an Electioneering Trump Overblowing the ‘China Threat’?

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As several analysts grapple over the futility of calling for greater international cooperation against the Coronavirus pandemic, US – China relations seem to be plumbing to ever increasing lows day by day. One has to just glance at the daily news cycle to see how both the virus and the US – China rivalry seem to be going almost hand in hand in representing perhaps the most serious threats to global peace and prosperity. Threats that are in turn more than likely to dramatically impact the world’s economic and security outlook for many years to come. 

Yet, even before the COVID-19 pandemic stormed all forms of political and international relations discourse, the primacy with which the US – China rivalry had been afforded was never in doubt of fading anytime soon anyway. Especially considering President Trump’s incessant obsession with everything China in his previous election campaign, it was already expected that his hardline stance on China would only intensify the closer it came to his re-election bid. This for instance was best encapsulated in his ‘successfully concluded trade deal’, which in supposedly ending the long and protracted US- China trade war,was to stand as one of the most significant achievements of the Trump presidency. In fact, it was to represent in essence a vindication of President Trump’s entire ethos of America First as manifest in his more assertive and obstinate approach to US diplomacy and foreign policy.

Yet based on some of President Trump’s most recent statements, even the achievements of his much-touted trade negotiations now stand jeopardized as both the White House and State Department continue to directly blame China for causing the Coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the way both President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have gone about in accusing China of deliberately covering up and mishandling the crises during its earliest stages has stood out particularly for its lack of evidence and sole reliance on hawkish rhetoric. What these claims have instead effectively done is to conflate the security and economic implications of the ‘Chinese threat’ on US primacy. An aspect which has in turn continued to resonate unequivocally with President Trump’s highly conservative and mostly far-right electorate.

Its thus not much of a surprise that China’s response has been to mount an even stronger diplomatic offensive. This has been evident in the collective vitriol expressed by a new breed of more assertive diplomats engaging in what has been ascribed (perhaps more disparagingly) as ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’. Yet, it is worth emphasizing that while such a response is likely to have been expected, it still represents a marked departure from the more subtle, patient and restrained manner that had up till now characterized Chinese diplomacy under the now infamous guiding principlesof Deng Xiaoping. While such assertiveness may represent a benign attempt by China at limiting the defense of its international credibility to the diplomatic front, it could also point towards the growing eminence of more hawkish voices taking hold within the Chinese politburo. Hence, ultimately signifying a more overt and perhaps more dangerous challenge to US primacy on China’s part.

Yet as this back and forth between Chinese and US officials rapidly intensifies, many have been left wondering whether the very threat of China’s rise has been deliberately overblown within US policymaking circles to begin with. This argument for instance has been raised by a number of leading analysts such as Fareed Zakaria among others. In a recent article, Zakaria very pointedly explains how designating China as a strategic competitor has allowed the Pentagon to once again justify the kind of grandiose plans and expenditures which more or less defined some of the most tense days of the US – Soviet Cold War. This kind of thinking for instance is replete in some of the latest analyses and commentary calling for a complete overhaul of the US military – industrial complex in response to the ‘Chinese threat’. Chris Brose’s recent book ‘The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare’, makes exactly this argument drawing on his years of expertise working closely with the Pentagon and the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee. As pointed out by Zakaria, this kind of discourse feeds directly into the perceived inevitability and simple predictability of a US – China conflict in what has been famously ascribed to now as the much-vaunted Thucydides Trap. A concept whose own author – Graham Allison – has warned against turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A similar skeptic can be found in Michael Beckley whose latest research also questions the severity and alarm that has been afforded to China’s rise. Especially when considering the long way China still has go to overtake the US both economically and militarily.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that on the purely political front, this debate on China’s rise while completely stripped off its historical precedents and hard economic numbers has been reduced to just diplomatic vitriol between both powers. Whereas, President Trump has simply continued what he knows best, the more assertive line taken by China now however directly feeds into US insecurities regarding the future of its power projection capabilities even more.

With the COVID-19 pandemic now representing the latest battleground for this rivalry to play out, China’s attempts at ‘Mask Diplomacy’ and pandemic aid are adding even more fuel to this fire by appearing to take on a more leading role in international leadership. All while appearing to eclipse the US’s waning influence even further as it undergoes one of the most divisive US elections to date. A development that is to only further complicate this rivalry more along the basis of simple prestige than on any serious hard power discrepancies in the years to come.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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The 4 groups of Senate Republicans that will decide Trump’s impeachment trial

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With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back the Trump impeachment trial to mid-February to make sure things cool down, Senate Republicans’ positions on the vote are far from crystallized yet. Here are the four groups of Senate Republicans, according to views and likely vote. The numbers and composition of these four groups will decide Trump’s future political faith. Which group Mitch McConnell chooses to position himself in will also be a deciding factor in the unusual and curious impeachment trial of a former US president no longer sitting in office.

Group 1: The Willing Executioners

There surely are those in the Republican Party such as Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse who cannot wait to give that Yea and the final boot to disgraced former President Trump, and will do that with joy and relief. Both the Utah Senator and the Nebraska Senator may be vying for the leadership spot in the Republican Party themselves but that is not the whole story. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska openly said “I want him out.” This group is unlikely to reach as many as 17 Senators, however, needed for the two thirds Senate majority to convict Trump.

Group 2: The Never Give up on Trumpers

There are also those Republican Senators who will stick with Trump through thick and thin until the end – some out of conviction, but most as someone who cannot afford to alienate the Trump supporter base in their state – a supporter base which is still as strong. 

At least 21 Republican Senators are strongly opposed to voting to convict former President Trump, as reported by Newsweek. They realize that doing so would be a political suicide. Republican voters, on the whole, are unified in their belief that the presidential elections were not fair and Joe Biden did not win legitimately, with 68% of Republican voters holding the belief that the elections were “rigged”. The majority of the Republican Party constituents are Never Give up on Trumpers themselves.

Among them are Senators Cruz and Hawley. Both will fight at all cost a vote which certifies as incitement to violence and insurrection the same rhetoric they both themselves used to incite the Trump crowd. Cruz and Hawley will try to avoid at all cost the legal certification of the same rhetoric as criminal in order to avoid their own removal under the 14th Amendment, as argued already by Senator Manchin and many others.

Senator Ron Johnson even called upon Biden and Pelosi to choose between the Trump impeachment trial and the Biden new cabinet confirmation. Group 2 will fight fierce over the next weeks and you will recognize them by the public rhetoric.

Group 3: I’d really like to but I can’t be on the record for convincing a President of my own party

Then there is a large group of Republican Senators – maybe the largest – who would really like to give that Yea vote and leave Trump behind but they do not wish to go on the record as having voted to convict a US President from their own party. Some of these Senators will share their intention to vote Yea in private or off the record with the media, but when push comes to shove and the final vote, they will be hesitant and in the end will vote Nay. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida falls under Group 3.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also the illustration of the average Republican Senator right now – someone who said that Trump committed “impeachable offenses” but who is not sure about convicting him through trial, so that probably means a Nay. 

The BBC quoted a New York Time’s estimate from mid-January that as many as 20 Republican Senators are open to voting to convict Trump, but it should be recalled that in the first Trump impeachment trial in 2020, several Republican Senators also shared in private and off the record that they would be willing to convict. After so much discussion, calculations and prognosis, in the end, it was only Senator Mitt Romney who broke ranks on only one of the two impeachment articles, and voted to convict.

The Capitol events, of course, are incomparable to the Ukraine impeachment saga, but it should be accounted for that the trial vote will likely take place sometime in March 2021, or two months after the Capitol events, when most of the tension and high emotion would have subsided and much of American society will be oriented towards “moving forward”. Group 3 will host the majority of Senate Republicans who in the end will decide to let it go. Most of the 21 Republican Senators who already expressed their opposition to convicting Trump actually belong to Group 3 and not Group 2 Never Give up on Trumpers.

Group 4: I am a Never Give up on Trumper but I really want to look like Group 3

And finally, there is the most interesting group of Republican Senators who are secretly a Never Give up on Trumpers but would like to be perceived as belonging to the hesitant and deliberative Group 3 – willing and outraged but unwilling to go all the way on the record to eliminate a former Republican President.

Senator Ted Cruz might move into Group 4 in terms of rhetoric. Never Give up on Trumpers will vote Nay willingly but will try to present themselves as conflicted Group 3 politicians doing it for different reasons.

Which group Mitch McConnel chooses will be the decisive factor in aligning the Senate Republican votes. McConnel himself seems to be a Group 3 Senator who, in the end, is unlikely to rally the rest of the Senators to convict Trump even though McConnel would really like Trump out of the Republican Party, once and for all. The very fact that McConnel is not in a hurry and is in fact extending the cool-off period places him in Group 3. 

Yea voters don’t need time to think about it and look at things. It took House Democrats exactly three days to get it over and done with. McConnel is quoted as willing to give time to “both sides to properly prepare”, allowing former president Trump enjoy due process. But Trump’s legal team will notice quickly that there is not much to prepare for, as they won’t find plenty of legal precedent in the jurisprudence on American Presidents’ incitement to violent insurrection for stopping the democratic certification process on an opponent who is the democratically elected President.

McConnel himself has said that he is “undecided” and that speaks volumes. He is a Group 3 Senate Republican, and with that, Group 3 will describe the mainstream Senate Republicans’ position in the impeachment trial. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set 8 February as the start of the impeachment trial, pushing earlier McConnel’s time frame. This is when it all starts.

It is my prediction that when all is said and done, there won’t be as many as 17 Senate Republicans to vote to convict former President Trump. Trump will walk away, but not without the political damage he has incurred himself and has also left in American political life.

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Two Ways that Trump Spread Covid-19 in U.S.

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

1. Encouraging infected workers to continue working even if it infects others:

On 12 May 2020, two hundred and twenty five labor organizations signed a letter to Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia who was Donald Trump’s appointed Secretary of Labor, and it urged his Department to change its policies “that address the standards that apply under the federal U[nemployment] I[insurance] law to determine when workers remain eligible for regular state UI or P[andemic] U[nemployment] A[ssistance] if they leave work or refuse to work due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.” In more-common language, an economist Jared Bernstein headlined in the Washington Post six days later on May 18th, “The Labor Department is forcing workers back to jobs that could make them sick” and he explained that Scalia’s Department “has issued guidance that virtually ignores health risks and encourages employers to report workers who refuse job offers [while unemployed] so their unemployment payments can be taken away. The agency is busy urging employers to snitch on ‘claimants that have turned down suitable work.’” Trump’s Labor Department ignored the labor-organizations’ letter. Then, a barista headlined at Huffpost on 22 January 2021, “I Work In A Coffee Shop In Montana. Anti-Maskers Have Made My Job Hell.” She complained that the many customers who refused to wear masks were causing her to fear working there — she was blaming those customers, but not Trump. However, Trump and his Labor Secretary were responsible and simply didn’t care about the safety of workers, such as her, and were instead encouraging employers to force these workers to stay on the job, though doing so endangered themselves and their co-workers. Millions of infected workers were infecting others because not to would cause them to become fired and could ultimately force them into homelessness. Maybe the billionaires who funded Trump’s political career profited from such exploitation of their employees, but nationally this policy helped to increase the spreading of Covid-19. Also: since so many of those bottom-of-the-totem-pole employees are Blacks and Hispanics, etc., this Trump policy helped to cause the drastically higher infection-rates that have been reported among such groups.

2. Refusing to deal with the pandemic on a national basis:

On 15 July 2020, the Washington Post headlined “As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan” and reported that, “health professionals have urged the White House to offer a disciplined and unified national message to help people who are fatigued more than five months into the crisis and resistant to changing social behaviors, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Trump, for instance, refused to be seen publicly wearing a mask until last weekend, when he sported one during a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ‘You can get a really strong and eloquent governor who can help at the state level, but it does seem like we need some more national messaging around the fact that for many people, this is the most adversity they’ve faced in their life,’ said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.” Every country (such as China, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Finland) that has been far more successful than America is at having a low number of Covid-19 cases (and deaths) per million residents has dealt with the pandemic on a national and not merely local basis, but all of the worst-performing countries (such as America, which now is at 76,407 “Tot Cases/1M pop”) have not.

It therefore also stands to reason that 

which ranks all 50 states according to how high is the number of Covid-19 infections per million inhabitants, shows (and links to the data proving) that “In 2016, the top 17 [most Covid-infected states] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump.” The correlation of high Covid-infection-rate with Trump-voting was astoundingly high. Trump, it seems, gave the high-infection-rate states what they had wanted. But what he gave to America is the highest Covid-19 infection-rate of any nation that has at least 11 million population. It is the 7th-highest Covid-19 infection-rate among all 219 reporting nations. Trump’s policies produced the type of results that had been expected by well-informed people around the world.

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A Most Unusual Inaugural

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President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden enter the inauguration platform during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Sic transit gloria mundi — thus passes worldly glory, which seems an apt phrase for the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. became the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20th, and earlier  Donald J. Trump departed the White House quietly for Florida — his last ride on Air Force One as president — leaving behind a generous and gracious letter for Biden.  So it is described by Joe Biden himself.  Trump did not attend the inauguration, the first president not to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1921, who remained inside the Capitol building because of poor health while his successor Warren G. Harding was installed.

It was a most unusual inauguration this time.  There were no crowds on the lawns outside; instead row upon row of American flags representing them.  The official attendees all wore masks and included three former Presidents (Obama, the younger Bush and Clinton).  President Carter, who is in his 90s and frail, sent his apologies. 

The usual late breakfast before the ceremony and the lunch afterwards were also cancelled — one cannot eat with a mask in place!  No evening inaugural balls either.  These were sometimes so many that the new president and his lady could only spend a few minutes at each.  In their stead, there was a virtual inaugural celebration hosted by Tom Hanks the actor.  It consisted mostly of pop-singers who supported Biden plus a disappointing rendering of Amazing Grace by Yo-Yo Ma on his cello. 

Biden’s first act was to sign a series of executive orders to undo some of Trump’s policies.  He announced the U.S. would not leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and would continue to contribute to it.  On climate change a complete policy reversal now means the U.S. will abide by the Paris climate accord.   

Biden’s other executive orders totalling 15 responded to the coronavirus crisis with the goal of giving 100 million vaccine shots by the end of April.  He proposes to establish vaccine centers at stadiums and community facilities and also plans to speed up production of the supplies required for making vaccines.

The U.S. now has lost 406,000 lives (and counting) from COVID-19.  That number is noted to be greater than U.S. deaths during WW2.  The virus has so far infected 24.5 million people.  However, the problem is more complicated than simply inoculating everyone.

Swedish authorities report that 23 people, mostly elderly and having other health issues, have died after being given the Pfizer vaccine.  Its side effects apparently can be severe and mimic the disease itself.  Thus given a choice, one would prefer the Moderna vaccine.  

Old age is a poignant sight to behold.  Biden the ex high school football star now having difficulty lifting his feet to walk.  Very gamely, he even tried a jog or two to say a quick hello to bystanders during his short walk to the White House.  We wish him well and hope for a successful presidential term.  Thirty-six years as senator and eight years as vice-president certainly make him one of the most experienced to sit in the White House Oval Office.   Good luck Mr. President!  

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