What We’re Watching: G7 warns Russia, Israeli PM in UAE, Blinken in Southeast Asia, Nicaragua ditches Taiwan, Poland may stiff EU
Russia’s big plans for Ukraine. G7 foreign ministers warned Sunday of “massive consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. It was the first joint statement by the group of rich democracies since recent satellite images revealed a significant buildup of Russian troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine. Indeed, according to reports, the force that Moscow is massing near Ukraine is larger than the one it used to annex Crimea in 2014. This comes after the Pentagon said that Russia could have 175,000 troops on the border by the end of January in order to invade the former Soviet republic. In an attempt to lower the temperature last week, President Biden and Vladimir Putin held a long video call, but the Russian president was not deterred by Biden’s threat of more economic sanctions if Russia escalates further. Putin says he wants NATO not to expand membership any further into the former Soviet Union, and to stop military cooperation with Ukraine. Moscow will reportedly send a proposal for a security arrangement this week. But Putin, who has already indicated his willingness to threaten European energy markets, also knows all too well that while Washington talks a tough game, it is not willing to send in troops to defend Ukraine.
Israeli PM meets Emirati prince. Naftali Bennett landed Sunday in Abu Dhabi, marking the first-ever official visit by an Israeli PM to the United Arab Emirates. Bennett met with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, the de-facto Emirati leader. The visit is a sign of the endurance of four groundbreaking diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab states brokered by the Trump administration in 2020. Since then, previously covert relations between the UAE and Israel have warmed significantly: Abu Dhabi has become a popular tourist destination for thousands of Israelis, while bilateral trade reached a whopping $600 million in the first seven months of this year. In the past, the Emiratis made diplomatic ties with Israel contingent on peace efforts with the Palestinians, but Bennett’s visit highlights the changed priorities of the Gulf states, now more concerned with partnering with Israel to contain a nuclear Iran. The Saudis, for their part, share strategic interests with their Gulf partners — and have been cooperating with Israel on intelligence and security behind closed doors for years. But so far, Riyadh has been unwilling to formalize diplomatic ties with Israel for a variety of reasons, including unfavorable public opinion toward Israel.
Blinken tours Southeast Asia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicks off on Monday his first Southeast Asian trip as America's top diplomat with stops in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Following similar tours by VP Kamala Harris and Defense chief Lloyd Austin, Blinken wants to bolster US defense cooperation with ASEAN, an economic bloc made up of Southeast Asian countries, to build a bulwark against China in the South China Sea. He will also pitch Joe Biden's vision for US-led Indo-Pacific trade as an alternative to doing more trade with China, and talk up Southeast Asia as an alternative business destination for US companies looking to abandon China. But what ASEAN really wants is tariff-free access to the US market, a non-starter for Biden because he says big trade deals with low-wage countries will hurt low-skilled American workers. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries are in a bind of their own: doing more business with the US as an alternative to China will create jobs, but the Chinese won't be happy about it — and nowadays they carry a lot more economic sway in the region than America does.
Taiwan’s decreasing diplomatic traction. Nicaragua is the latest country to drop recognition of Taiwan in favor of the People's Republic of China, which considers the self-governing island as part of its territory. Beijing has long lobbied aggressively for the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan with both carrots (mostly promising a lot of cash to those who switch sides) and sticks (like downgrading ties with Lithuania for allowing Taiwan to open a de-facto embassy in Vilnius). China's efforts are paying off: today only 13 mostly small nations plus the Vatican still recognize Taiwan and not the People’s Republic, down from 21 just five years ago. But in Central America the tilt towards Beijing also has to do with US sanctions against the authoritarian leaders of first El Salvador — which ditched Taiwan to embrace China three years ago — and now Nicaragua. Meanwhile, China continues to invest big in the region, and will likely spend more money in Nicaragua very soon. Ironically, Washington’s actions to aid democracy in Central America may actually bring some of its countries closer to America's authoritarian rival.Poland and the EU are at it again. It’s clear that there’s no love lost these days between Warsaw and Brussels, who have been at loggerheads in recent years over rule-of-law issues, particularly a spate of reforms in Poland that undermine the judiciary’s independence. Poland upped the ante Sunday, saying it would withhold payments to the EU budget and veto EU laws if Brussels follows through on a previous threat to delay COVID relief funds after Poland’s top court ruled that its own constitution trumps EU law. The EU has said that disbursement of funds to “illiberal” member states Hungary and Poland is contingent on domestic democratic reforms — a mechanism that the two Eastern European states have now challenged in court. Poland is legally obligated to pay its EU dues in order to reap the bloc’s benefits, but clearly Warsaw is banking on Brussels acquiescing in the near term. However, the EU knows that Poland might not want to push the boundaries much further because a majority of Poles want to remain part of the EU. Who will cave first?