Friday News Roundup — January 17, 2020

A good Friday morning to you from Washington, D.C., where the historic impeachment trial of President Trump has begun. While the trial will begin in earnest next week, this week reflected both the deepness of our political divisions and the solemnity of a president, on trial, for the third time in our history. While the conventional wisdom suggests little doubt about the ultimate outcome, it will be fascinating to watch history unfold before us — and we also know our current politics are nothing without the surprises that shatter conventional wisdom.

It is also a long weekend, with Monday as a federal holiday for the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. It is always worth remembering — perhaps especially now — the powerful words of Rev. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

As 2020 continues its torrid start, this week saw the signing of a “Phase One” trade deal with China. This week, Dan looks at what the deal means for now, as well as the broader future of Sino-American relations. There was also the final Democratic Presidential Primary debate before the Iowa Caucuses. With time running out and polls neck-and-neck, it appears things are heating up between Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as they try to consolidate the progressive “lane.” With these developments and more, Chris provides his latest update on the Democratic primary dynamics. Joshua covers how President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional shakeup reflects his continued consolidation of power. With Taiwanese election results favoring more distance from Beijing, Ethan looks at how China’s military might looms over the island. As always, we wrap with news that you may have missed.

The End of the Beginning?

Dan Mahaffee

White House Photo

It’s always been a striking juxtaposition when President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He are together. Such was on display as the signing of the “Phase One” trade deal on Wednesday took place — itself another juxtaposition as the ceremony was split screened with the final House votes to transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Liu is a Harvard-educated economist and is considered one of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s closest technocratic advisors. Carrying himself with a seemingly quiet forbearance, he is also one of the senior Politburo leaders who has decided to forsake vanity and forego the traditional heavy application of black hair dye that senior Chinese leaders have often utilized to hide the march of time. President Trump is, of course, President Trump.

The juxtapositions of course, do not end there. As it was a “phase one” trade deal, President Trump stated that the negotiations on “phase two” would begin, “as soon as this kicks in.” In remarks to reporters later, Vice Premier Liu stated that it would be foolish to do so, so quickly. He cited a Chinese proverb, saying that the U.S. and China doing so would be like a “bear losing itself in a corn field.”

To get a truly in-depth look at the details of the trade agreement, I recommend the work of our “cousins” over at CSIS. In broad strategic strokes, for the purposes of this roundup, the trade deal accomplished what both sides needed for now — a floor on further deterioration of the economic relationship, especially as geopolitical and technological competition loom ever greater.

The economic pain has been felt on both sides of the Pacific, but it has hardly been crippling — especially for the U.S. economy. While agriculture and manufacturing have suffered and business investment has been tepid, the consumer appears happy and stocks are at-or-near record highs. Still it has not been without its costs, with $28 billion, over two years, coming from the U.S. Treasury in trade aid to farmers — an amount greater than the auto bailout following the 2008 financial crisis and payments made without any act of Congress via an executive reinterpretation of the Department of Agriculture-run Commodity Credit Corporation. Despite this and other sector-wide largesse, farm bankruptcies continued to surge through 2019, as total farm debt hit $416 billion.

For President Trump, this deal arrests the threat of a deterioration in the trade relationship — as if one did occur, it would, in turn, threaten his economic record as he seeks re-election. For General Secretary Xi, it forestalls any shocks to the vital export sector, as China faces significant economic headwinds and the slowest economic growth since the post-Tiananmen slowdown in 1990. More importantly, it provides him the breathing room for him to continue to consolidate his power and seek to close technological gaps that China sees as vulnerabilities in the competition to come.

That competition to come is apparent in another juxtaposition this week, for even as a trade deal largely covering manufactured and agricultural goods was being printed for signing, the Trump administration had sent senior officials to London to try to keep Prime Minister Boris Johnson from allowing Huawei into the United Kingdom’s 5G network. This is the battle for influence in setting the standards for the information domain that will determine the future balance of power. This is what cannot be solved merely through tariff threats and trade wars. Neither side is willing to push to the brink of mutual assured recession, nor can the economies be swiftly and totally decoupled. Short of a total breakdown in the relationship, there will always be powerful incentives to do business with China, and for China to do business with us.

This trade deal could mark the “end of the beginning” for a reshaped U.S.-China competition. My read is that this will still be just the “beginning of the beginning.” In his remarks at the White House, Vice Premier Liu He cited another Chinese proverb, saying “the beginning is the most difficult part.”

Here, the beginning is the most difficult part, because this competition will be very different than the Cold War, and far too many are applying Cold War mindsets to this challenge. This coming competition is one for the power of influence. Traditional economic, military, and diplomatic power will remain foundational, but the ability to control, shape, and structure commerce, technology, and information in a manner consistent with your national interests and values will be the basis of the competition. This is what we see at play when we wonder whether or not our partners will use Huawei equipment. It’s what is at stake when companies fear the economic backlash lest some employee, actor, or athlete have the temerity to speak up about the brutal crackdown in Xinjiang or the harsh response to Hong Kongers’ democratic demands.

Still, what is similar to the Cold War is that this competition will also be like a marathon, and the most important part of such an endeavor comes in the preparation — getting in shape. That will be the hard part, because there’s a laundry list — from issues as grand as our nation’s unsustainable deficits and debt to ones as “wonky” as military personnel promotion policy — where we need to get in shape, and fast.

Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Gamble

Chris Condon

Taxman comes to mind when thinking about the 2020 Dems’ proposals

The Long And Winding Road of the 2020 Democratic primaries has brought us here: Joe Biden still sits atop the field, but many shifts (large and small) have taken place since our first analysis roughly 10 months ago. Longtime readers might remember the cheap Beatles puns, but for those who don’t, a quick read through of that first analysis of the Democratic “invisible primary” will show that there is precedent for the small dose of silliness I Will engage in throughout this piece. Why have I decided to Get Back to the Fab Four theme for this edition? Originally, this series was meant to chronicle changes in the invisible primary, things like polling and fundraising that indicate the trends will affect the primary elections before they actually occur. Since the Iowa Caucuses are scheduled for the beginning of next month, this is likely the last iteration of this series that will fulfill this original purpose. That said, let’s get to it.

First, the broader observations must be made. Since our last primary analysis about a month ago, three candidates have dropped out: Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Marianne Williamson. This means that, over the course of the campaign, 16(!) candidates have dropped out so far. For comparison, the historically large GOP field in 2016 was 17 candidates at its peak — the current Democratic field still contains 12 active candidates.

Although Williamson was perennially a good candidate to poke fun at, she never really gained any ground in the contest. Booker and Castro, on the other hand, were once thought of (by myself and others) as heavy hitters in the field; while Cory Booker recently said he is “taking a breather” from the race and withholding his endorsement for now, former Secretary Castro almost immediately endorsed Elizabeth Warren after dropping out of the race himself. His quickness in doing so has led some to speculate that he is in the running for Warren’s running mate should she win the nomination. This may help Warren among Latino voters and others in the Southwest, but it is difficult to see how it will help her among the constituency she performs weakest with: African-americans (especially in the South). Let’s face it: up to this point, Warren’s candidacy has been Only A Northern Song.

Perhaps the biggest news in recent weeks has been a dust-up between Warren and Bernie Sanders, anticipated by many since the beginning. Because both candidates are competing for similar left-wing constituencies, pundits have long speculated what avenue each might take in trying to siphon supporters from the other. A news story recently circulated (apparently originating in the Warren campaign) asserting that Sanders once told Warren that a woman can’t win the presidency. Onstage at the primary debate this Tuesday, moderators brought up the exchange to Sanders, who denied that he ever said as much. They then asked Warren to double down or confirm Sanders’ version of the story, but she chose to deflect the question as best she could and move on. Regardless, the story has sprouted arguments among supporters that either Sanders is a sexist or Warren is defaming Bernie for political gain.

Although some reports have indicated that Warren campaign staffers have been instructed to Let It Be and play down the scuffle, it may gain steam in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucuses. It is also possible that it was Warren’s strategy to pick a fight with Bernie to boost her own poll numbers, as they had been sliding before her disagreement with Sanders gained steam. Either way, it is unlikely that the debate will change many minds, but could serve to rile up the bases of each candidate in a critical moment for each campaign. What Goes On from there is anyone’s guess.

There were also two candidates conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s debate. Andrew Yang, whose candidacy has become one of internet fame and is popular among various celebrities, failed to garner enough polls to qualify. Even though he is polling multiple percentage points above Amy Klobuchar nationally, Klobuchar’s ability to reach the polling threshold in Iowa has held her head above the water so far. Yang’s inability to do the same consistently will make it difficult for him to qualify moving forward. Nevertheless, Yang was one of the most tweeted-about candidates during and after the debate, and apparently has some staying power as we move into February. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was also excluded from the debate, although this is due to his decision not to accept any Money from supporters, which makes it impossible for him to meet the DNC’s donor threshold.

Joe Biden is the undisputed frontrunner in the race right now. If he can hold onto his slim lead in Iowa and New Hampshire and translate that lead into votes, it is extremely likely that he will secure the nomination and square off against Donald Trump. However, we are a Long, Long, Long way from the Iowa Caucuses in the scope of an election, and much can happen in three weeks. We are an even longer way from the Democratic National Convention in July, where the real nominating process may take place if no candidate can secure a majority of delegates by that point. No lead is safe, and no one can be sure of what will happen until The End.

Putin’s Power Plans

Joshua Huminski

Kremlin Photo

On 15 January, the entirety of the Russian government abruptly resigned taking many observers and analysts by surprise. The resignations followed President Putin’s announcement of reforms that could, if implemented, extend his hold on power in Moscow well beyond his presidency.

Formally, his time in office ends in 2024, but it is clear that he is working to ensure that his leadership of Russia continues and that his potential successors will remain subservient, or at least weakened, after he (and if he) steps down.

There are several components that need consideration. On paper, some of the reforms sound sensible. He is seeking to limit the power of the presidency and vest the Russian parliament — largely a stamp on his decisions to date — with more authority. In any other government or country, such a move would be seen as enhancing checks and balances. In Putin’s Russia, it is about weakening any successor to Putin himself, while keeping options open for Putin.

Putin has not announced a successor or plans for succession, or even if he will step down from office in 2024. Just before the Western Christmas holiday, he held his annual multi-hour news conference. During the press conference sidestepped questions as to whether or not he will stand down or, alternatively, amend the Russian constitution to allow him to stay in office beyond his current two terms, or some other mechanism that would allow him to remain in office or in power such as becoming head of the State Council.

He hinted that he may amend the constitution — or rather ask for it to be amended — to allow him a third consecutive term. Indeed, this is amongst the proposals he advanced before the government’s resignation. Amending the constitution is not out of the question. Putin managed to extend presidential terms from four to six years and the current parliament is largely a rubberstamp on his initiatives.

He could become prime minister again, as he did in 2008, swapping office with then Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, who was only a placeholder until Putin resumed the presidency in 2012. Medvedev, who also resigned, was appointed the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, headed by Putin. His successor, Mikhail Mishustin, a relative unknown who didn’t even have an English-language Wikipedia page prior to Wednesday, headed the country’s Federal Tax Service before becoming Prime Minister. Mishustin can be expected to support Putin’s efforts and is very unlikely to chart an independent course.

Thus far, Putin avoided publicly commenting on his future plans one way or the other, in so doing avoiding the inevitable politicking and court drama that would surround his succession plans, while keeping would-be opponents and successors off-balance. Perhaps more than anything, Putin prioritizes stability in Russia’s domestic politics, particularly after he assumed office following the turbulence surrounding then-President Boris Yeltsin’s exit from office.

Domestic opposition to Putin’s presidency in Russia has not gone away, despite being severely repressed and subject to aggressive Russian-state counter activity. As the potential end of Putin’s presidency looms, the opposition movement and its state-response will undoubtedly increase.

In the near term, Putin needs a strong showing in the 2021 parliamentary elections to ensure that whatever legislative proposal he advances are approved. The performance of his party, United Russia, with which he has maintained an arms-length relationship, leaves a bit to be desired. Its popularity is waning, falling to 35% after pension reforms in 2019.

The key takeaway is that Putin will not be relinquishing power or leadership in 2024. This is in and of itself is not a surprise. How he will retain his authority and how it is received by the Russian people will be of interest in the coming months.

Equally of interest is what would a post-Putin Russia look like in the event his machinations are not welcomed, accepted, or supported? At least to outside observers, it appears that so much of Russia’s stability is predicated on a Putin-led, Putin-dominated government. Indeed, anything but the maintenance of a Putin-led Russian order is inconceivable at the moment. In some ways, the stability of Putin is preferable to the unknown. At least with Putin, you can largely know what to expect, unsettling though it may be.

Chinese Military Interference: Taiwan

Ethan Brown

Democracy scored some points this week as the voters in Taiwan made certain China heard their voices clearly, and re-elected Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen in a landslide. This choice by the people of Taiwan demonstrated their resolve to retain independence from the growing Chinese giant, despite sustained pressure from Beijing to accept a “one country, two systems” paradigm from the Chinese mainland.

The rhetoric emanating from Beijing decrying the result has been strong, with the Foreign Minister Wang Li citing fake news and western interference as catalyst for the anti-China outcome. The Chinese Communist party, of course, has overtly and subtly made every effort to influence Taiwan’s political and social outcomes in recent years. The purpose of this analysis is to address the use of military force by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in influencing Taiwan, while continuing an assessment of the PLAs modernization from previous analysis.

Financial Times Graphic

On High Alert

Chaiyi and Tainan air bases are situated on the southwest portion of Taiwan, nearest to the Taiwan Strait which separates the island nation from its Chinese aggressor by a mere 80–110 statute miles. Located at these sites are the Taiwan Air Forces rapid response squadron of Lockheed Martin F-16V variants, whose aircrews and pilots maintain a twenty-four-hour alert posture against PLA Air Force (PLAAF) incursion. The F-16 is a US-built fourth-generation air interceptor, highly maneuverable and the benefactor of recent upgrades to its avionics, radar, and air-to-air missiles in the case of the Taiwan Air Force.

The PLAAF has regularly sent bomber sorties into Taiwan airspace, with 2019 marking the first crossing of the Median line in 20 years. Such incursions in 2016 prompted the $8 Billion deal to send the upgraded F-16 fighters to Taiwan. The unfortunate reality is that despite the new equipment and proficiency of the US-trained Taiwan pilots, they are simply dwarfed by the inventory and capabilities of the PLAAF in terms of technological and mass airpower.

Tools of Influence: Air Power

The PLAAF is equipped with a variety of fourth-generation aircraft, most notably the Shenyang J-11 and Chengdu J-10. The former is a licensed-built clone of the formidable Russian Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’ fighter-bomber, while the latter is a Chinese-built air interceptor which has become the flagship of the PLAAF. The J-10 has undergone rapid improvements in its short service history with advanced avionics upgrades and reduced radar cross section. Further, the PLAAF is also feverishly developing its fifth-generation stealth capability, producing the potentially formidable J-20, which like its American counterparts is data-linked to national defense networks as a “family of systems” enterprise.

Agnostic of the platforms, the PLAAF is additionally equipped with the PL-12/PL-15 air-to-air missile suites, with engagement ranges of 100–400km. These weapons are data-linked, interference hardened, and offer increased ‘no-escape zone’ capabilities, essentially rendering this weapons death-sentences to the Taiwan Air Force.

Tools of Influence: Maritime

The single greatest issue facing the PLA when planning a potential invasion of Taiwan is the geography of the island itself. Taiwan possesses a mere 14 beaches capable of supporting an amphibious landing of ground forces. Thus, the terrain offers some feasible defense against a conventional Chinese incursion. The PLAs response to this and other coastal warfare issues appears to be the Type-075 Amphibious assault ship commissioned and activated into service in September of last year. These assault craft would operate as a flotilla of helicopter landing pads, which would enable the PLAAF to insert those ground forces without the need of a beachhead to be seized.

Prior to this development, Beijing already had plans in place to move masses of troops over the water, as all civilian-built maritime vessels are required under state law to accommodate military use, to “support strategic projection and maritime capabilities”. Again, the Taiwan Strait is a mere 100 +/- miles from the mainland, making this commandeering feat a relatively simple approach to a tactical problem.

It is no coincidence that the PLA formally announced the commissioning of the Type-075 last year, just as Taiwan’s election process approached the final stretch of the campaigns.

Tools of Influence: Mass

Financial Times Graphic

Simply put, the PLA dwarf’s the collective military capability of Taiwan’s defense forces, as depicted above. The PLA modernization is relatively well documented and speaks to Beijing’s ambitions of assuring its future as the world’s preeminent superpower. However, as with any military doctrine, strategic vision must be broken down into measurable and attainable objectives. Before becoming a unilateral power broker, China is steadily expanding its influence through the Belt & Road Initiative, slowly pushing its area of control outward from the mainland. Standing in the way of asserting dominance of its geographic sphere of influence is an independent Taiwan. China has repeatedly stated its intent for reunification, while claiming its desire to achieve as much peacefully, it reserves the right to use force if necessary.

While modernization of the PLA may be attributed to countering western superiority in military power, preparing for the possible violent reunification of US-supported Taiwan is a clear objective for the Chinese military. It is likely that US support and Indo-Pacific partnerships are the only deterrent from Chinese aggression in an overt military capacity. Thus, China has relied on posturing and suggestive messaging (in addition to a litany of other interference tactics) to sway the recent elections.

Fortunately for democracy, the people of Taiwan have chosen independence over the path to authoritarian subjection.

The views are of the author, and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.

News You May Have Missed

They Live: Scientists create the world’s first living robot

Ethan Brown

A University of Vermont Research Team has successfully created “an entirely new life form”, dubbed the Xenobots. These tiny creatures are created from living stem cells scraped from African Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis) embryos, then left undisturbed to incubate. At the appropriate time, these cells were specially shaped into supercomputer-designed formats with microscopic tools and the cells did the rest…to include developing a heart muscle that beats, skin cells bonding to the superstructure, complete with the ability to self heal.

While science fiction and conspiracy enthusiasts shudder in abject horror at the dystopian possibilities, the research team projects some pretty incredible applications for these programmable creatures. Some can be shaped like a donut, where medicine can occupy the open center, and due to their small size (0.04 inches) inserted intravenously to the patient- much less invasive than traditional drug introduction. Others can be cultivated with tiny arms for microscopic work to include radioactive waste cleanup or microplastic collection in the ocean.

The best part: as a living organism, they are biodegradable, and they come pre-loaded with protein and lipid deposits, making them self-sufficient for the entirety of their week-long non-reproductive life span.

Astronaut: Aliens are real, and they live among us

Ethan Brown

Helen Sharman, Chemist and the UKs first astronaut, stated in an interview with the Observer newspaper that “aliens exist, there is no two ways about it”. Sharman not only has the distinction of being the UKs first astronaut, but after having spent 8 days onboard the Russian Mir space station at age 27, is also one of the youngest people to have gone to orbit. This comes as speculation continues about UFO sightings, including those by U.S. Navy pilots that have been covered in these pages.

Australian Firefighters Save World’s only Dinosaur Trees

Ethan Brown

As the conflagration continues to rage across the continent, a small glimmer of positivity may be found in the heroic preservation efforts by specially trained firefighting technicians. In the Blue Mountains National Park, a copse of 200 Wollemi Pines remain intact despite the advancing wildfires west of Sydney. These pines are the world’s only prehistoric trees known to exist, having outlived the dinosaurs. Prior to the small groves discovery in 1994, the only known samples of the Wollemi Pine were in fossilized form, thus the species was presumed to have been extinct for millenia. The location of the grove remains a closely guarded secret by the Australian government to protect the site from vandalism and tampering.

The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.

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Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress

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CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges