Geopolitical Tensions, a Red Herring

The last thing the world needs, as it struggles to control the pandemic and revive economies, is another war or attack on another country’s sovereignty. Yet, for the past couple of months all one has been reading and hearing in the media – particularly international media – is about geopolitical tensions coming to a boil. In the West, it is the threat of Russia invading Ukraine. In the East, it is the possibility of China attacking Taiwan. These have been the most hyped-up news events though they are yet to take place and there is very little reporting on specifics. In between these news reports, there is also some reporting on the fractious talks going on between Iran and the JCPOA member countries, on reviving the nuclear agreement that Trump had America walk out of.

Even world leaders are so concerned and perhaps even rattled by these possibilities, that the most recent G7 Summit of Foreign Ministers is reported to have discussed Ukraine, as they did, the nuclear talks with Iran. There was no mention of whether China and Taiwan featured in their talks; not surprising if it didn’t feature, since these are western industrialised countries who have yet to engage with the China-Taiwan issue. And guess what? Suddenly, China vs Hong Kong tensions are no longer an international issue. And neither is the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan an issue, even as the country faces a humanitarian catastrophe. 

If you ask me, a lot of fuss is being made over both Russia and China’s perceived threats on Ukraine and Taiwan respectively. It is media creating news, where specifics are few and the hype is what makes headlines. Hopefully, it will not be a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Of course, the world needs to be prepared for such eventualities, and there must be a plan for concerted action. But here is why I think the fears are exaggerated and the world needs to calm down a little and concentrate on more crucial matters, such as the pandemic and revival of economies around the world. China and Russia too are in the grip of the pandemic and they need to revive economic growth in their countries as well. China, in fact, has even closed its borders to any international travel.

That said, it is possible that both countries are keen to flex their muscles and send a message to the wider world of (particularly western) countries. And that they have chosen a particularly bad time to issue threats, if any have been issued yet. It would suit them to cause international disruption at a time when economies are vulnerable to pandemic-induced weakness. But think, whether such an international disruption would not affect their own countries, were China and Russia to act as expected.

Ukraine is still the main conduit for Europe’s gas and energy requirements from Russia, while Nord Stream2 is being completed. And Taiwan is the world’s leading supplier of semiconductors and other electronics components. As it is, the world is suffering from a chip supply shortage which is forcing manufacturers to cut production, prices to go up, and consumers to cut back on consumption. These countries, small as they might be, are vital as supply routes to economic recovery. They are also of great strategic, military and economic importance to Russia and China, if one were to understand why they might want to annex or take over Ukraine and Taiwan.

The two countries are not in identical situations, however. Russia insists Ukraine was once part of Russian territory, as indeed it was both in pre-Soviet days and during the Soviet regime. However, with the fall of communism and the Iron Curtain, Ukraine as many other former Soviet republics decided to break free and secede from Russia, in order to pursue western style democracy and free-market economics. That Ukraine hasn’t quite succeeded is another matter, and this might be a subject for further discussion and debate whether western democracies, especially those in Europe have done enough to assist Ukraine through its transition. It seems to lag countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that seem to have done better both economically as well as politically. They have been members of the European Union as well as NATO since 2004, and have also adopted the Euro as their currency: Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015.

A lot has been written in recent years about endemic corruption in Ukraine being one of the country’s biggest stumbling blocks, but other than that not much is really known about Ukraine as an economy. I read this piece on Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s website and it does shed some useful light on Ukraine, its economy and its dependence on the energy transit fees for gas piped through to Europe from Russia, for those of you who might be interested.

Russia’s latest demand that Ukraine not be admitted to NATO is odd, considering that Ukraine is a sovereign country and free to decide its future for itself. All this massing of troops on the Ukraine border, just to arm-twist NATO and western countries not to admit Ukraine? Why didn’t Putin take such a step when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were admitted into NATO?

There might be other reasons, but a significant one appears to be Ukraine’s strategic location north of the Black Sea, and the vital road, rail, trade and military routes and links to the Mediterranean that pass through it. The country is also said to have fertile soil, rich mineral deposits, expertise in metallurgy (from Soviet days) and boasts a significant number of oligarchs, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The last would be of particular interest to Putin.

Finally, Ukraine is a sovereign democratic republic and the world recognizes it as such.

When it comes to Taiwan, however, the country thinks of itself as an independent country, but China does not and the international community is mostly forced to toe China’s line of “one country, two systems”. It was once part of China, but it became a trading post for America, when it was known as the Formosa Islands. With the defeat of the Kuomintang Nationalist Party at the hands of the Communist party in 1949, its leaders fled to Taiwan. With American support, both financial and in education and modernizing their economy, Taiwan became an island of resistance to communism, much to the Americans’ delight, who were engaged in a long, ideological battle with China.

For decades, American investment, trade and defence equipment have flowed into Taiwan, strengthening and growing its economy. Today, like I said earlier, it is one of the world’s leading makers and suppliers of semiconductors and electronics components and is of vital economic and strategic interest to China, as well as to America, the world’s superpowers. In 2020, US FDI stock in Taiwan was US$ 31.5 billion a growth of 8.8% over 2019, and Taiwan had a trade surplus of US $ 30.2 billion with the US in goods, a growth of 31.2% over 2019, while the US enjoyed a trade surplus in services of US $ 2.6 billion, a reduction of 16.2% over 2019.

Taiwan is also of great military and strategic importance, given its location in the South China Sea, which China increasingly sees as its territory. Taiwan is also an important trade and shipping route in the region. Besides, continued US arms sales to Taiwan, including a possible missile defence shield, irks China no end.

As far as the international community is concerned, it would be much easier to intervene in the case of Ukraine were it to be attacked, than in the case of Taiwan. Especially since most countries have had to accept that Taiwan is part of China under the one country, two systems rule. Anyway, I think an imminent threat is still far away, if at all, in both Ukraine and Taiwan. Perhaps, Putin doesn’t even need to attack. Perhaps, he just needs a friendlier regime in Ukraine, like he has in Belarus. It is not the first time he has meddled in a former Soviet republic, having done so in Georgia years ago. Remember his plan for a Eurasian customs union, one that would win back all the former soviet republics in a free trade pact?

I think both countries might be flexing their muscles, but will refrain from any attack in the near future. There are too many important and competing issues at hand to deal with, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the economy. Besides, since Ukraine and Taiwan are both of so much importance to Russia and China respectively, it wouldn’t suit them to attack and jeopardise their immediate and near-term economic and strategic prospects.

I think the international community ought to plan for how they would deal with such an attack were it to happen, and I think the world should stop fretting over these geopolitical tensions. The areas for immediate intervention and assistance ought to be Afghanistan and its humanitarian crisis, vaccine inequity in African countries, as well as continued dialogue on the JCPOA agreement with Iran. Those are issues that demand immediate attention, since they would also help relieve millions of people from economic and health-related miseries as well as sanctions in these countries.

A perceived, but not imminent threat, ought to get the treatment a red herring deserves: plan and verify. Ongoing and festering issues need immediate attention and action. Ditto for dealing with the pandemic and economic growth.

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by animatedimages.org and I am thankful to them.  

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