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Sensemaker: World War Four?

Sensemaker: World War Four?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Emmanuel Macron’s Ensemble! party lost its parliamentary majority as anti-Macron alliances ate into it from the left and right (more below).
  • British unions threatened months of industrial action in addition to the rail strikes planned for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week.
  • Swimming’s world governing body voted to ban trans women from elite women’s competition if they have been through any part of male puberty. 

World War Four?

The war in Ukraine makes another one over Taiwan more likely, not less. That is the message of Chinese diplomacy and rhetoric since February. It’s also the inference the US security establishment has drawn, and it conjures the scenario of an overstretched Pentagon trying simultaneously to support two democratic Davids under attack by totalitarian Goliaths at opposite ends of Asia. 

What’s at stake is how the world is run. Can nationalist Russia and communist China, bound together in a new “no limits” partnership, crush their neighbours and redraw the map at will? Or can a revived cold war alliance of democracies deter them? 

The US has a formidable military presence in the western Pacific but the framework for deterrence in Taiwan is not robust. As a former director of China policy at the Pentagon has noted

  • There is no Nato in Asia.
  • The US does not recognise Taiwan as a country.
  • Nor does it have any formal military commitments to Taipei.

“Washington has few good options there and a great many bad ones that could court calamity,” Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Caitlin Talmadge write in next month’s Foreign Affairs, and it’s hard to disagree.

The rhetoric

  • 15 June: Xi Jinping signed a directive allowing the “non-war” use of China’s military, sparking concern that Beijing was writing the small print for a non-war war in Taiwan like Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
  • 13 June: China’s foreign minister declared that the Taiwan Strait does not count as “international waters” and claimed China “has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” there. He said countries (like the US) that deem the strait international waters were “threatening China’s sovereignty and security”.
  • 12 June: Wei Fenghe, China’s defence minister, said Beijing would “resolutely smash any schemes for Taiwan independence”, and that China would “not flinch from the cost, and will fight to the very end” to pursue its claim over the island. 
  • Last month: China sent 30 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, the largest such incursion since January. 

The diplomacy

  • Western hopes that Xi might restrain Putin over Ukraine fizzled with their new pact, signed in February on the eve of the Winter Olympics.
  • Similar hopes that Xi might look at western sanctions over Ukraine and Russia’s military quagmire there and scale back his threats to Taiwan also look premature (see above).  

Why now?

  • Xi is choreographing his own installation as president for an unprecedented third term later this year. He believes a maximalist approach to what the Chinese Communist Party calls reunification boosts his case. 
  • To that end, he’s spent years raising the tempo of naval and aerospace operations around Taiwan.
  • Last month President Biden responded by tearing up the lexicon of “strategic ambiguity” that has guided US language on Taiwan for four decades, saying explicitly the United States would respond “militarily” if Taiwan needed to defend itself against Chinese attack.

The sit-rep. Six weeks ago CIA director Bill Burns said China’s leaders were “trying to look carefully about the lessons they should draw from Ukraine about their own ambitions in Taiwan”. Since then key voices have sounded more alarmed:  

  • Avril Haines, US director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services committee the threat posed by China to Taiwan between now and 2030 was “acute”: “It’s our view that [China is] working hard to effectively put themselves into a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention.” 
  • Michael Tsai, a former Taiwanese defence minister, told the NYT last week: “We cannot wait; we are competing with time. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine happened in an instant – who knows when the PLA might choose to invade Taiwan.”
  • Philip Davidson, a former admiral who commanded the US Indo-Pacific Command until last year, has highlighted 2027 – the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army – as a key deadline for China.  

Is Taiwan ready? No. It has some Patriot anti-missile defences and a fleet of F-16 fighter jets but its military is underpowered, mostly in terms of personnel. By one assessment, as of 2020, all its frontline military units were understaffed, with effective manpower of between 60 and 80 per cent. 

The US has urged Taiwan to forget about buying big, advanced military systems and to focus instead on manpower, training and arming itself for asymmetric warfare of the sort that the Ukrainians have excelled at in their fight against Russia. Hence the State Department’s recent rejection of Taipei’s request for the costly MH-06R Seahawk helicopter.

The idea is that Taiwan should instead stock up on anti-ship missiles, sea mines and other more agile equipment with the aim of making itself a “porcupine” – a spiky, difficult target.

And China? Not quite yet. The PLA has the largest navy in the world. According to a paper for the Atlantic Council China still “lacks the military capability and capacity to launch a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan for the foreseeable future”. But it is building capacity: China now has three aircraft carriers to match the three (of a total of 11) that the US has on patrol in the Pacific. Its third, a high-tech, homemade ship unveiled last week, is named Fujian, after the mainland province closest to Taiwan. 


Happy birthday, Brexit

Matthew d’Ancona

No wonder our jetsetting PM is so keen on his foreign adventures. At home, Boris “Three Terms” Johnson is becoming a joke.


Cost of Brexit
Brexit is on track to cost Britain about £100 billion a year in what the FT calls lost output, although it might be better thought of as output foregone since it was never there to lose. In any case, that sum would yield £40 billion to the Treasury – enough for a lot of public works or a 6p cut to the basic rate of income tax of 20p in the pound. The paper’s big read on “the deafening silence over Brexit’s economic fallout” is a valuable contribution to a debate that isn’t really happening because of Labour’s neuralgia over all the northern Brexiters it lost to Boris Johnson; fingers in ears at pro-Brexit papers; and – let’s say it out loud – a tendency to self-censorship at the BBC. That £100 billion number, from the Office for Budget Responsibility, is about five times the sum Vote Leave said would be saved by Brexit for the NHS.


Macron hobbled
Whatever Macron had planned for his second term – from cutting taxes to raising retirement ages – he’s looking at legislative gridlock now. His centrist party remains the largest in the National Assembly but last night two alliances – one of socialists and greens on the left and another of anti-immigrant nationalists on the right – have destroyed its working majority. His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said the situation was unprecedented. His would-be socialist nemesis, Jean-Luc Melenchon, said “Macronie” was finished. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally increased its seat tally ten-fold to 89. 


Worker power
Apple workers in Maryland have become the first in the US to unionise, in a reflection as much of general worker power in a tight labour market as of any new tolerance for collective bargaining in Silicon Valley. There are now two job vacancies in the US for every unemployed person, the Motley Fool reports. More than three times as many people quit their jobs in April (4.4 million) as were fired (1.25 million). The Apple workers at a store in suburban Baltimore voted by about two-thirds to one-third to unionise in pursuit of better pay but also, chiefly, more control over their hours. Workers at Apple stores in New York and Lexington, Kentucky are on manoeuvres too. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Implants and platelets 
Stents are great for saving lives and avoiding the need for open-heart surgery, but as alien presences in a body they can prompt unwelcome auto-immune responses and excessive scarring, worsening the blockages they are supposed to clear. Scientists at Sichuan University in China have been experimenting with platelets – naturally produced to make blood clot – as a way of hiding stents and other implants from the immune system. It seems to work. The Economist reports that in a trial on rabbits, platelet-coated stents stayed clean while others became clogged with cell growth triggered by immune activity. What works for stents could work, presumably, for humble titanium implants for broken wrists and collar bones. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Change in Colombia
Colombians have elected as their new president a former rebel fighter who promises to protect the environment from the ravages of the coal, oil and other extractive industries. Gustavo Petro was a member of the paramilitary M-19 group in the 1980s but renounced violence for the pursuit of democratic power in a country that has never had a leftist leader – until now. He vowed yesterday to govern for Colombia’s “silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth”. His win against another outsider was welcomed by fellow leftists in Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Honduras and Mexico. South America is riding a socialist wave. The question is whether Brazil will catch it too. Its presidential election is in October.

The week ahead


20/6 – Office for National Statistics releases data on housing affordability; children’s hospice and cervical screening awareness weeks begin, 21/6 – First day of the biggest rail strike in 30 years; UK permanent representative to the United Nations, Barbara Woodward, speaks on Ukraine at RUSI; Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaks at Institute for Government; Prince William’s 40th birthday, 22/6 – UK inflation figures released; 50th Glastonbury music festival begins in Somerset; national Windrush day, 23/6 – By-elections in former Conservative seats Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton; sixth anniversary of Brexit referendum; prime minister Boris Johnson addresses Commonwealth business forum, 24/6 – Emergency government funding expires for Transport for London; Royal Highland show held in Edinburgh, 25/6 – Armed Forces Day; Amnesty International UK AGM


20/6 – World refugee day; Australian defence minister Richard Marles visits India; Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Egypt; Commonwealth heads of government meeting begins in Rwanda; EU foreign affairs council meets in Luxembourg; International Air Transport Association (Iata) AGM held in Qatar, 21/6 – Summer solstice in northern hemisphere; 2022 consumer goods forum global summit held in Dublin; Olaf Scholz speaks at German day of industry event, 22/6 – Russia commemorates anniversary of German invasion of Soviet Union in 1941; European Central Bank non-monetary policy meeting, 23/6 – Grenada holds general election; Fed chair Jerome Powell testifies to House committee on monetary policy; 24/6 – Venezuela marks armed forces day, inaugural Matariki public holiday in New Zealand to celebrate Māori new year; 25/6 – G7 summit begins in Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, 26/6 – New York City hold’s annual Pride march

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Ella Hill

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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