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M110A2 self-propelled howitzers fire munitions during the Republic of China Armed Forces’ annual Han Kuang military exercise in Taichung, Taiwan, on Thursday, July 16, 2020. With U.S.-China tensions increasing on a number of fronts, the main issue that could spark a military conflict over the long term is still one that is fundamental to their relationship: Taiwan. Photographer: I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sensemaker, 12 October 2020

Sensemaker, 12 October 2020

M110A2 self-propelled howitzers fire munitions during the Republic of China Armed Forces’ annual Han Kuang military exercise in Taichung, Taiwan, on Thursday, July 16, 2020. With U.S.-China tensions increasing on a number of fronts, the main issue that could spark a military conflict over the long term is still one that is fundamental to their relationship: Taiwan. Photographer: I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Covid case numbers in India, expected to overtake those in the US, passed 7 million and are rising at more than 70,000 a day.
  • Alex Cruz stepped down as CEO of British Airways as BA’s parent company said it was going through “the worst crisis faced in our industry” (more below).
  • Lewis Hamilton and Rafa Nadal matched records set by Michael Schumacher and Roger Federer, winning the German Grand Prix and the French Open respectively.

Annals of wargaming. The best-case scenario whenever it becomes necessary to issue warnings of World War 3 is that they are alarmist, premature and wrong. In that spirit it’s time to look again at Taiwan’s relationship with China, which is strained by

  • Taiwan’s determination under Tsai Ing-wen to preserve its independence;
  • China’s determination under Xi Jinping to annex Taiwan;
  • Xi’s need for external distractions from Covid’s impact on the Chinese economy; and
  • America’s unpredictability under Trump.

In this context Taiwan’s foreign minister has given an interview to the Atlantic in which he says he’s “very concerned” that China will use its standing claim on Taiwan as an excuse to “launch an attack”. Such concerns are a given in Taiwan-China relations but China stepped up its incursions into Taiwanese airspace last month, at one point sending 18 military aircraft over the mid-way line in the Taiwan Strait to register its irritation over a high-level US visit to Taipei and to remind the world that it doesn’t recognise the line as a border anyway.

In other developments:

  • Tsai, the Taiwanese premier, said on Saturday she was open to “meaningful dialogue” with Beijing – but as equals and without diluting “our commitment to our sovereignty and democratic values”…
  • … to which a spokesperson for the Taiwan affairs office in Beijing responded that Taiwanese independence was a dead end and Tsai was heading down the “wrong path”.

The Trump administration has been more consistently supportive of Taiwan than of most US allies (and than some previous US administrations). But it never had much bandwidth for foreign policy and has even less now as it fights an apparently losing battle for re-election. Would the US go to war with China to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty? Would Xi take the risk of finding out? We don’t know the answer to either question, which is why this is a time to worry.

The lessons of 2008 and 2014 won’t be lost on Xi. In both years Putin invaded neighbouring countries. In neither year did any western power lift a finger to stop him.

In the app today… Listen to part 1 of a three-part podcast on the extraordinary, moving and significant story of Happy, an elephant in the Bronx Zoo whose lawyers say she has a right to leave the zoo and retire to a sanctuary in Tennessee. Sign up for tonight’s ThinkIn on loneliness and another tomorrow morning (8am) on Britain’s infrastructure priorities in the age of Covid. On Wednesday we’ll be asking if Nicola Sturgeon will lead Scotland to independence. Join us then too.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Going down
Shepherding a giant airline through a pandemic that has grounded most of the world’s civilian aircraft was never going to be easy. For Alex Cruz it has proved terminal. He’s launched a plan to shed 13,000 jobs at British Airways and cut the pay of cabin crew lucky enough to be staying on at a time when BA is flying fewer than a third of its normal number of passengers. And now he’s gone. IAG, BA’s parent company, has replaced him with the boss of Aer Lingus, Sean Doyle. It says it hopes the shuffle will “ensure IAG is well-placed to emerge in a strong position”. The truth is nothing can ensure that. Every airline in the world is fighting for its life.

New things technology, science, engineering

For now, TikTok reigns supreme as the app of choice for teenagers sharing viral memes and dance routines. But its success in the US depends on American and Chinese approval of a deal between ByteDance – TikTok’s parent company – and Oracle and Walmart. Triller, an American-owned video-sharing app, is presenting itself as a challenger to TikTok should that deal fail, and it’s been signing stars like Charli D’Amelio (92.5 million TikTok followers) to lure users to the platform. Is Triller serious? The WSJ says two of its owners have been embroiled in fraud cases, and notes Triller’s disputes with download-tracking firms about its user numbers. It claims to have logged 250 million downloads and to have 65 million active users and it’s threatening to sue analytics companies that report otherwise. They have been warned.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Klingon at the BLM
A Trump appointee who runs the Bureau of Land Management is refusing to leave his post even though a federal judge has told him he has no right to be there. William Perry Pendley was temporarily appointed to the job – which comes with responsibility for 10 per cent of America’s land mass – last year. Trump then nominated him but withdrew the nomination when Democrats made clear they wouldn’t approve it. Pendley says he won’t budge because he has the president’s support, setting up a battle between the executive and the legislature that could fizzle on 3 November, or drag on if Trump wins. Pendley, by the way, is a career advocate for greater freedom for miners and drillers on America’s public lands.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Variation on a theme
Boris Johnson is expected to announce a new three-tier system of lockdown measures for England today, with Liverpool among the first cities to face the most severe level of restrictions after a spike in cases.Pubs, bars, gyms and bookmakers will have to close. Infection rates are surging across much of the north and Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Huddersfield and Sunderland have been put on standby. With businesses under threat, northern leaders – including the Tories’ own “Red Wall” MPs – are displeased by the Treasury’s proposals that the government will cover only two-thirds of the wage bill for businesses forced to shut compared with the 80 per cent supported by the government under the furlough scheme that ends this month. The big question for central government is whether regional and local governments will play ball or write their own rules – and point out when challenged that Dominic Cummings wrote his, too.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

German migration
Die Zeit has produced a remarkable data visualisation of the migration of East Germans to old West Germany – and back again – over the past 30 years. What’s interesting is that those eventually moving east are not only former Ossies tiring of the pace and price of life in the western two thirds of the country. They’re wessies too. In sum, it’s an amazing picture of Germany making reunification work.

the week ahead

– Cobra meeting ahead of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s expected statement on a tiered system for regional lockdowns; Covid Recovery Commission report due; Public Accounts Committee to take evidence from senior civil servants and NHS officials on supply of ventilators, 13/10 – MPs expected to vote on coronavirus restrictions, including the 10pm pubs, bars and restaurants curfew, 15/10 – Johnson’s “deadline” for agreement between EU and UK on their future relationship; UCAS application deadline for medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and Oxbridge, 16/10 – Northern Ireland executive to review coronavirus restrictions in Derry and Strabane; domestic transfer window closes in English football, 17/10 – European Rugby Champions Cup Final held in Bristol

12/10 – confirmation hearings begin for US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett; informal Brexit negotiations between EU and UK officials expected to begin; Ruth Bader Ginsburg tribute event to take place virtually; State of Europe annual conference, 13/10 – Michigan court hearing for six men charged with plotting to kidnap the state’s governor; Mars’ “opposition” to bring it closer to Earth, appearing to be directly opposite the sun; court hearing for R Kelly due in Chicago; oral arguments due in Ghislaine Maxwell’s bid to block release of a deposition about her sex life, 14/10 – Nasa to launch Expedition 64 mission to International Space Station; G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meet, Israel’s Higher Planning Council for the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria expected to approve new settlements in the West Bank; England play Denmark in UEFA Nations League; Frankfurt Book Fair opens, 15/10 – October European Council summit starts in Brussels; Tony Awards held online, 16/10 – World Food Day, 17/10 – New Zealand general election alongside referendums on cannabis and euthanasia, 18/10 – UN embargo on export of arms from Iran expected to be lifted; presidential elections in Guinea and Bolivia

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Ella Hill