5 February 2020

China and Vietnam Went to War in 1979 (China Is Still Upset over the Results)

by Matthew Pennekamp

Several years back, during then President Barack Obama’s recent barnstorm through East and Southeast Asia, he announced in a joint press conference with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang that the embargo on weapon sales to Vietnam was to be lifted. Though the White House had hitherto reassured human-rights watchers that any negation of this Cold War–era policy would be directly tethered to Hanoi’s record of improvement on issues of freedom of conscience (admittedly described by Obama as “modest”), what ended up proving more important in the eyes of Washington officialdom was what Harold Macmillan once described as the primary determining factor in politics: “Events, dear boy, events!”

For Obama, the event foremost in mind is the frightening potential for a hollowing-out of the ambitious Pivot to Asia he christened seven and a half years ago. While the president has allowed his foreign-policy focus to be distracted by the Middle Eastern maelstrom as well as a revanchist Russia, he is not entirely to blame; indeed, both the Democratic and

Why a Travel Ban Won’t Stop the Coronavirus

by Erin James 

In its latest attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Trump administration announced a temporary ban on foreign nationals entering the U.S. who have recently visited mainland China. It is unclear what scientific evidence, if any, informed this policy and who within the administration was behind it. While the influenza virus and the novel coronavirus are separate pathogens, previous travel bans to prevent the spread of influenza can teach us about the likely impact of this ban.

One variable influencing the estimation of effectiveness of outbreak control measures is the transmissibility of the virus - conventionally measured through the so-called basic reproduction number or R0. The R0 is the average number of people a single case will infect in an otherwise uninfected and unimmunized population.

Not Another Peloponnesian War: Great Power Collaboration?

By Jack Bowers

The narrative of great-power competition relies largely on a realist discourse reflected in the well-known plot of the Thucydides Trap. China, playing Athens, is a rising power, causing fear for the established power, the United States, looking like Sparta. The trust between them is eroded by the newcomer’s growth, the hegemony becomes fearful at its relative decline in power, and war becomes a case of not if, but when. It is a comfortable narrative because, in part, it subscribes to a reductionist, Manichean view of the world. It is the Cold War, Season 2, goodies against baddies, facing off from opposite ends of the dusty main street. It is Chicken Little proclaiming an impending catastrophe, while the crowd makes ever more raucous demands for the United States to hold its ground in the face of increasing threat. Perhaps it is time to rewrite this Hollywood narrative. If China is recast not as Athens, but instead as Sparta, the United States then plays the role of Athens adding a little more analogous nuance to the narrative.

The great-power competition between the United States and China as a binary, zero-sum narrative is both dangerous and unrealistic.[1] By broadening the strategic imagination, however, there are creative, viable alternatives. With a deeper appreciation of the other’s strategic assets, weaknesses, and priorities, informed by their respective histories, the tendency to reduce debate into binaries could be circumvented. For the United States, this would allow for ways of working with China rather than competing with it. The challenge for both China and the United States is to find accommodations, and this requires the constituencies of both nations to re-conceptualize their notions of power and to understand, as all minor parties do, that concessions can actually create opportunities to exercise power.

How China can win a trade war in 1 move

Jeff Spross

10 things you need to know todayToday's best articlesToday's top cartoonsThe good news newsletterThe week's best photojournalismDaily business briefingDaily gossip newsletterParenting newsletter

China will not be easily cowed in a trade dispute. Chinese President Xi Jinping is now exchanging threats of tit-for-tat tariffs with President Trump, who announced Thursday he's considering raising the stakes another $100 billion. China vowed to defend itself "at any cost."

Compared to the scale of the U.S. economy, the numbers are still relatively trivial and mostly theoretical. But if things do spiral into all-out trade war, it's worth noting China has a nuclear option.

I'm referring to rare earth metals.

he Economics of Pandemics and Quarantines

Vincent Geloso

News out of Wuhan in China generated a wave of fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus. Public health organizations issued guidelines on how to minimize risks of infection and China’s government took the drastic step of sealing off Wuhan. 

The story is unfolding in a manner very similar to the Ebola outbreak a few years back. Authorities react with strong measures such as quarantines and travel bans to restrict contagion. On its face, such measures appear – purely from the vantage point of public health issues – reasonable. However, economic theory suggests the possibility that extreme measures such as sealing off a city, a travel ban or quarantines may actually make things worse. 

First, it is necessary to point that pandemics have, since the 19th century, fallen in importance. For example, a 2006 article in Emerging Infectious Diseases compared the influenza epidemics of 1918, 1951, 1957 and 1968 in England, Wales, Canada and the United States and found that death rates at each outbreak kept falling relative to the previous one. 

Coronavirus: Why China's Strategy To Contain The Virus Might Work

Fei Chen

On January 23, the authorities of Wuhan City, China, sealed off the motorways and shut down all public transport to stop the coronavirus outbreak from spreading. Shortly afterwards, at least ten other cities in China were under quarantine orders, most of them located in the areas surrounding Wuhan.

It sounds unbelievable to quarantine a city of 11 million people, but it may work because movement within and between cities in China relies heavily on public transport infrastructure. Major cities in China are well connected by airports, express railways, motorways and long-distance buses. Once the entry points of these transport routes are controlled and patrolled, people cannot easily get out. The transport infrastructure is built by the state and over 90% funded by public money, so control remains in the hands of the authorities. The one-party government in China also helps to effectively implement such a strategy.

Civilization, China and Digital Technology


Digital China

In our ever-changing digital age, people make use of intelligent technologies: smart phones, smart cars, and smart cities. Governments invest in innovation. Artificial intelligence is the roadmap of the future. Increasingly, intelligent machines free people from mundane tasks, allowing us to interact with distant others, share ideas, and build collaborative networks. The sedimentation of data in the cloud replaces the sedimentation of knowledge in libraries and museums, what many refer to as ‘civilization.’ Whereas knowledge allowed people to elevate their status within society in traditional China, digital literacy is allowing masses of ordinary people to transcend space and time, to reconnect emotionally with distant others using video, images and emojis, to participate in China’s burgeoning sharing economy, or even to initiate a start-up. China is intent on consolidating a digital civilization; and this has widespread implications for industry, governance, population management, and even international relations.

The Complicated Geopolitics of U.S. Oil Sanctions on Iran

Amy M. Jaffe

It is often said, perhaps with some hyperbole, that Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers was the best hope for conflict resolution in the Middle East. Its architect John Kerry argues instead that the 2015 deal’s limited parameter of closing Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon is sufficient on the merits. The Trump administration is taking a different view, focusing on Iran’s escalating threats to U.S. allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Those threats, which have included missile, drone, and cyberattacks on Saudi oil facilities, are looming large over the global economy because they are squarely influencing the volatility of the price of oil. One could argue that the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iranian deal, referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has injected an even higher degree of risk into oil markets, where traders now feel that the chances of Mideast conflict resolution are lower.

But, the Trump administration could argue otherwise. From its perspective, the United States extended to Iran $6 billion in frozen funds, opened the door for a flood of spare parts to be shipped into Iran’s suffering oil and petrochemical sector, and looked the other way while European companies rushed in for commercial deals. In exchange, it’s true, Iran began to implement the terms of JCPOA, but as Secretary of State Pompeo laid out in a major speech on the subject, the nuclear deal has failed to turn down the heat on the wide range of conflicts plaguing the Mideast region.

Why Moroccan Scholar Ibn Battuta is the Greatest Explorer of all Time


The title of “history’s most famous traveler” usually goes to Marco Polo, the great Venetian wayfarer who visited China in the 13th century. For sheer distance covered, however, Polo trails far behind the Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta. Though little known outside the Islamic world, Battuta spent half his life tramping across vast swaths of the Eastern Hemisphere. Moving by sea, by camel caravan and on foot, he ventured into over 40 modern day nations, often putting himself in extreme danger just to satisfy his wanderlust. When he finally returned home after 29 years, he recorded his escapades in a hulking travelogue known as the Rihla.

Born in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta came of age in a family of Islamic judges. In 1325, at age 21, he left his homeland for the Middle East. He intended to complete his hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca—but he also wished to study Islamic law along the way. “I set out alone,” he later remembered, “having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries.”

U.S. Security Policy in the Trump Era Has Been Marked by Change—and Continuity

When President Donald Trump entered office under an “America First” banner, it seemed to herald a new era of U.S. isolationism. After almost more than three years into his term, though, the shifts in America’s military engagements have been less dramatic. Though their numbers are down, U.S. troops are still stationed in Afghanistan. And until recently, the Trump administration had left unchanged the strategy against the Islamic State that it inherited from its predecessor.

Nevertheless, Trump’s isolationist instincts have come into regular tension with his closest advisers, many of whom espouse a more traditional view of American power projection. This was never clearer than in December 2018, when Trump ignored his aides and announced his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, prompting then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other high-ranking officials to resign in protest. Trump subsequently softened his rhetoric, without definitively articulating a final policy, contributing to the sense of uncertainty over America’s security policymaking. The entire process was repeated in October, only this time the decision triggered not resignations, but outrage among even Trump’s closest Republican supporters in Congress.



China awoke to this outbreak with greater attention as a nation, having been through the SARS outbreak. Officials were more transparent in sharing news and the genetic sequence of this novel strain. However, no drugs, vaccines or other medical interventions are yet available Below: Health workers check on an elderly man who collapsed in the street in Wunan.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/GETTY

In 2011, a novel virus,MEV-1, emerged from China and quickly spread throughout the world, killing 2.5 million people in the U.S. and 26 million worldwide.

That outbreak wasn't real, of course—it was the plot of the film Contagion, providing a Hollywood-style glimpse into the panic that surrounds a global pandemic. At the moment, we're in the midst of a very real outbreak spreading throughout the world from China. The real outbreak and the fictional one are related in one important way: a virus made the "jump" into an unprepared world.

Mind the Gaps: Russian Information Manipulation in the United Kingdom


This commentary is part of a new CSIS project exploring the impact of Russian and Chinese information operations in democratic nation-states. Part I of the project examines Russian disinformation campaigns in the United Kingdom and Germany and Chinese disinformation campaigns in Australia and Japan. Read the first piece on Japan here.

In today’s conflicts, nonmilitary tools are becoming as prevalent as military ones. Cyberattacks, information operations, and the leveraging of economic investment for political influence have all become instruments of some countries’ foreign and security policies. The world has watched in disbelief at Russian intelligence operatives attempts to hack the computers of international organization such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, meddle in other countries’ elections, or assassinate former Russia military officers and intelligence agents.

As U.S. and European leaders try to analyze and anticipate information manipulation operations and other malign activities by actors such as Russia and China, a look at the manifestations of recent Russian information manipulation in the United Kingdom provides a helpful case study in understanding Russian objectives, measures countries can take to reduce vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to influence operations, and ways to deter or diminish the impact of future information manipulation efforts.

Germany Is Afraid of America's 'Big Tech'

by James Pethokoukis

Perhaps the only people more terrified of Big Tech (AppleMicrosoftAlphabetAmazonFacebook) than American anti-tech activists are America’s economic competitors. Take Germany, for instance. It’s the economic engine of Europe. And for some US politicians, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, it’s an example of capitalism done right. Germany makes stuff! It has a trade surplus!

But many German business and political leaders don’t see things that way. Not at all. But how could they, really? As a great new piece in the Financial Times notes, not only is Apple alone worth more than 20 times German industrial giant Siemens, but “at $1.35tn the iPhone maker is worth more than the entire Dax index of Germany’s 30 leading companies.” That disparity, FT reporters Patrick McGee and Guy Chazin continue, “is a striking example of how Europe’s largest economy risks being left behind by the 21st century tech boom.”

Can the United Kingdom Manage Not to Anger Both America and China Over Huawei?

by Stratfor Worldview

London is attempting to compromise between its trade and security interests with the United States and its ability to compete technologically in the years to come. The British government has decided to grant Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies a limited role in the development of its 5G network. Despite labeling it a "high-risk vendor" and barring the company from operating near high-risk sites, such as nuclear facilities and military sites, London will allow Huawei to develop the non-core elements of the network.

According to a British government source, London had few alternatives to Huawei, and excluding the company would have set back the development of the United Kingdom's 5G infrastructure by several years and substantially increased associated costs. The decision came despite U.S. pressure on the British government to exclude the company from its 5G development over national security concerns and threats that Washington might limit its intelligence-sharing. However, London reaffirmed that the decision won't affect how the United Kingdom shares sensitive information with its allies.

Three Huge Defense Threats For Which Washington Is Woefully Under-Prepared

Loren Thompson

The United States outspends every other nation on defense, and as a result has the best trained, best equipped military in the world. The joint force regularly undertakes missions that no other country’s military would be capable of executing.

However, there are existential defense threats for which the nation is not prepared—existential in the sense that they could make the continued functioning of democratic government within U.S. borders nearly impossible.

These threats get short shrift in national strategy, either because they have never occurred before or because there are no easy remedies. Unfortunately, the vulnerability of the U.S. to the threats could make them attractive options for America’s enemies in the future.

Here are three such threats.

There are fewer wars when you take power away from men in big castles

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the foremost practitioners of old power, while other nations are handing more power to the people. Itar Tass / Reuters

Those who have power want to be told they have it and how to keep it. Those that don't have power want someone to envy. As a result, the audience for books on power is seemingly endless.

So I was initially cautious about another one released this week – but New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms turns out to be a nifty guide to the 21st century that is genuinely new. Instead of one more catchy way of describing how the world works, they have written a manifesto for organising that world with more humanity and purpose.

Ultimately you'll either hate it or wish you had written it, depending on whether you believe in old or new power.

Europe Can’t Afford to Alienate the UK

Just over 47 years ago, when the United Kingdom finally joined the European Economic Community, following intense debates and a close vote in parliament, the era-defining event was celebrated with a gala concert in London. It included a “Fanfare for Europe,” composed especially for the occasion. An idealistic, conservative prime minister – Edward Heath – had led Britain into Europe. In an effort to convince the skeptics, he said: “We have the chance of new greatness. Now we must take it.”

His eventual successor, Boris Johnson – a gambler rather than an idealist – used almost the same words to mark the country’s plunge into independence. He won his bet with the promise that Britain’s departure from the European Union would give control back to the people of Britain. He sold the illusion that a proud nation state is still the most powerful force of all, even in this age of globalization – freed of the shackles of a woeful and tedious alliance that had been inaccurately sold as a community of fate.

The Approaching Debt Wave


NEW YORK – Over the last decade, the world economy has experienced a steady build-up of debt, now amounting to 230% of global GDP. The last three waves of debt caused massive downturns in economies across the world.

The first of these happened in the early 1980s. After a decade of low borrowing costs, which enabled governments to expand their balance sheets considerably, interest rates began to rise, making debt-service increasingly unsustainable. Mexico fell first, informing the United States government and the International Monetary Fund in 1982 that it could no longer repay. This had a domino effect, with 16 Latin American countries and 11 least-developed countries outside the region ultimately rescheduling their debts.

In the 1990s, interest rates were again low, and global debt surged once more. The crash came in 1997, when fast-growing but financially vulnerable East Asian economies – including Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand – experienced sharp growth slowdowns and plummeting exchange rates. The effects reverberated worldwide.

But it is not only emerging economies that are vulnerable to such crashes, as America’s 2008 subprime mortgage crisis proved. By the time people figured out what “subprime” meant, the US investment bank Lehman Brothers had collapsed, triggering the most severe crisis and recession since the Great Depression.

Brexit Is Finally Here. Now What?

By Caroline Rose

This week, the United Kingdom departs the European Union. For nearly three years the world has watched London exhaust itself over the political deadlock, delayed departure timelines, referendum propositions, and changes of political leadership. The world is well aware of what Brexit could mean for the U.K. and international markets, yet less has been said about what it will mean for the geopolitics of Europe.

The U.K., the EU’s second-largest economy, will withdraw from the region’s largest economic and political institution. Moments like these in history are bound to carry heavy, lasting geopolitical consequences with them, and this is especially the case in a post-Brexit Europe. As the Union Jack is lowered from flagpoles outside EU buildings this Friday, cracks in the EU’s institutional unity will be exposed, further throwing off the political balance between various regional blocs over matters like the eurozone, migration and regulatory policies, and reactivating the fault lines of one of Europe’s most historical competitions between Germany and France.

Economic Impact and the Regional Divide

Ongoing Goings On: A News Update on WTO

Looking back, 2019 was a momentous year for the World Trade Organization (WTO). This year promises more tumult, especially ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) to be held in Kazakhstan in June. On e-commerce, at stake is the fate of the temporary moratorium on electronic transmissions customs duties, pitting developing states against established digital economies. After missing a self-imposed deadline, WTO negotiators will also look to ink an agreement on fisheries subsidies. Disputes may flare up over India’s market access and tariffs on information and communication technology, while China faces salvos aimed at its agricultural and industrial subsidies. Finally, WTO members and leadership will try to build consensus on Appellate Body reform as the United States calls for deeper structural change.
E-commerce Negotiation at WTO

On April 29, 2019, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo held an open workshop for member states to examine the implications of the electronic transmissions customs duties moratorium, focusing on the international development perspective. India and South Africa, however, issued a joint communique asking the WTO on June 4 to “revisit” issues relating to the moratorium renewal. Certain developing countries argue that the inability to place customs duties on electronic transmissions robs them of revenue and prevents them from producing globally competitive internet companies. The United States, European Union, other developed countries, and the international business community are proponents of extending the moratorium. They argue that the moratorium is necessary to prevent costly distortions in internet-driven commerce.

Britain leaves its mark on Europe


From the EU's signature achievement, the single market, to its eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in many other areas, U.K. thinking was highly influential in determining the direction of travel. As Britain finally departs the bloc on Friday after three and a half years of bitter Brexit arguments, it leaves behind an EU that would have been very different without it.

"The U.K. had a strong influence on the EU throughout its membership and much of what the EU is today reflects a very strong British influence," said Michael Leigh, who served as director general for enlargement at the European Commission and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna campus.

Neil Kinnock, a former U.K. commissioner and Labour Party leader, said there is an irony that some of the EU's biggest critics had a strong impact on its foundations. Key policies like the single market "were conceived and developed ... in the [former U.K Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher years largely, but not solely, because of the stimulus from London," he said. "And yet the people that in all other respects are ... fanatical Thatcherites were the leaders of the anti-European element in the Conservative Party."

Brexit: Here's What Happens Next

Simon Usherwood

Anyone imagining that the UK's withdrawal from the European Union on January 31 might mean things will go quiet on the Brexit front, they are likely to be disappointed. It looks like 2020 will be just as packed as the past three rollercoaster years.

The fundamental reason for this is that while the UK has left the EU, it has not yet established a new relationship. This year is a transition period, during which not much changes. The UK will no longer be a member of the European Union but it will continue to adhere to its rules - including on freedom of movement.

During the transition period, the future relationship is supposed to be negotiated. There will be a busy schedule for all involved and a number of pinch points through the year.

Around the halls: Brookings experts on the Middle East react to the White House’s peace plan

Natan Sachs

On January 28 at the White House, President Trump unveiled his plan for Middle East peace alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu. Below, Brookings experts on the peace process and the region more broadly offer their initial takes on the announcement.

Director of the Center for Middle East Policy: This is a demonstrably successful peace plan between Israel and the United States, the only two parties present for the unveiling (or indeed the crafting) of this “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future for Israel and the Palestinian People.” The reaction from many people in Israel, where I am at the moment, is gleeful.

The essence of the American logic — to the degree that there is one — appears to that a “realistic” deal must reflect the fact that Israel essentially won the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that terms necessarily favor the victor. There is, of course, a grain of truth to that, but one glance at the map in the Vision is enough to see what a farce this is. The Palestinian state would be completely enclosed by Israeli sovereign territory (including Gaza’s territorial waters, permanently), and cut into at least six main blocs of land, connected by highways.

Explained: The Artificial Intelligence Race is an Arms Race

by Crispin Rovere

Graham Allison alerts us to artificial intelligence being the epicenter of today’s superpower arms race.

Drawing heavily on Kai-Fu Lee’s basic thesis, Allison draws the battlelines: the United States vs. China, across the domains of human talent, big data, and government commitment.

Allison further points to the absence of controls, or even dialogue, on what AI means for strategic stability. With implied resignation, his article acknowledges the smashing of Pandora’s Box, noting many AI advancements occur in the private sector beyond government scrutiny or control.

However, unlike the chilling and destructive promise of nuclear weapons, the threat posed by AI in popular imagination is amorphous, restricted to economic dislocation or sci-fi depictions of robotic apocalypse.

Alphabet Has a Second, Secretive Quantum Computing Team


In October, Google celebrated a breakthrough that CEO Sundar Pichai likened to the Wright brothers’ first flight. Company researchers in Santa Barbara, California, 300 miles from the Googleplex, had achieved quantum supremacy—the moment that a quantum computer performs a calculation impossible for any conventional computer.

That was both notable science and a chance for Google to show prominence in a contest among big tech companies, including IBM and Microsoft, to deliver the wild new power promised by quantum computing. The usually low-profile Pichai threw himself into marking the moment, penning a blog post, taking part in a rare media interview, and posting an Instagram photo of himself alongside the shiny machine that scored the result.

Just over a month later, Pichai was named CEO of Google parent Alphabet. But neither the company nor its quantum-happy boss have said much about another quantum computing team at Alphabet, at its secretive lab X.

Getting Critical Technologies Into U.S. Defense Applications

by Ankit Panda 

In today’s changing geopolitical environment, concerns in Washington that the United States is falling behind in critical emerging technologies are commonplace. China and Russia—both identified as great-power competitors of the United States by the current administration—are forging forward with critical investments in technologies ranging from quantum computing to artificial intelligence.

But the United States is still by far the most innovative nation on earth. America’s strengths run from its fundamental pull to brilliant minds the world over through its relatively open immigration system to the unparalleled resources of its universities. The free-market structure of the economy, vibrant venture capital ecosystems, world-class universities, and government support of R&D combine to form the most innovative ecosystem in the world. 

However, when it comes to defense and positioning for future competition with Beijing and Moscow, the government has not figured out how to tap this flow of innovation emanating from the civilian sector.