Embracing Taiwan and provoking China: Over the weekend, the Trump administration eased long-standing restrictions on US diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In essence, just as President Trump is preparing to exit the White House, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lobbed a diplomatic Molotov cocktail toward Beijing and doubled down on the outgoing president's challenge to US orthodoxy on cross-Strait relations. In 1979, the US cut ties with Taiwan to open a new era in relations with China. Though Washington has continued to support Taiwan's security against possible Chinese attack, including by selling Taipei sophisticated weapons, Pompeo's directive goes much further in establishing new US-Taiwan ties — diplomatic and military — than any US administration in four decades. Although this isn't a complete break with the "One China Policy" and the US-Taiwan relationship remains "unofficial," we're watching now to see how the Chinese government will respond. It has good reason to wait to see what the incoming US president will say and do. That leaves Joe Biden with interesting problems, and Beijing wondering whether a future Republican president will push even harder on this hottest of hot-button issues.
The US debate, round #1: US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden will clash tonight in Cleveland in the first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle. The debate will, as always, provide a first opportunity to see the two candidates speak directly to (or over) one another, and Trump's line of attack will be interesting to watch. Will he hammer away at Biden's career as a DC insider in order to hurt the former vice president's support among working-class folks? Or will he try to knock Biden off balance with shots at his mental acuity? And Biden will need to come prepared to parry Trump if the president distorts facts or tells lies about his record. Surely the most anticipated moment will be Trump's response to the New York Times' bombshell weekend report on his tax returns. Will Biden use those revelations to attack Trump as a failed businessman, a tax cheat, or simply as a person with privileges that few voters enjoy? The event will certainly be a big spectacle, but barring a big surprise, its impact on the race itself might be smaller than you'd think: there appear to be few undecided voters this year, and neither man is a mystery at this point. According to a recent poll, less than 30 percent of Americans say the debates have mattered to them when casting their vote over the past twenty years.
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The coronavirus pandemic has monopolized much of the world's attention for months now, but the conflicts and crises plaguing some of the most vulnerable countries have not stopped. In some cases they have only gotten worse. Here's a look at what's been happening in some of the world's most intractable hotspots in the months since the COVID-19 crisis took center stage.
Yemen's COVID cluster: Growing concerns about the coronavirus reaching some of the world's most vulnerable populations are playing out this week as Yemen's port city of Aden reported its first cluster of cases. Although the country has recorded only a handful of cases overall, the UN says that given the near absence of testing, the disease is likely spreading undetected, and has issued a new call for an immediate ceasefire in the five-year civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed coalition forces, in order to deal with the pandemic. We note that a similar call from the UN Secretary General last month still hasn't had much effect. A COVID-19 outbreak is just one of many woes facing Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, which has faced a deadly cholera outbreak in recent years and unprecedented levels of hunger, with some 24 million people relying on some form of aid to survive. The combination of a shattered healthcare system and zero testing capacity against the backdrop of constant conflict places Yemen in a uniquely dangerous situation.
Tenuous cease-fire in Yemen: The Saudi-UAE led coalition that has been battling Houthi rebels in Yemen announced Thursday a unilateral ceasefire, responding to a UN call for a halt in hostilities as coronavirus threatens one of the poorest countries in the world. Details are murky but the measure is to last for at least 14 days. The coalition's Houthi insurgent opponents, for their part, seem to have agreed to a cessation of hostilities but only if the Gulf states lift a yearlong air blockade. While there are potentially crossed signals, the ceasefire itself is still the most significant step towards peace in a five year civil war that's already killed some 100,000 people and left millions exposed to disease and starvation. Though no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Yemen (likely because of a lack of testing), the country's decrepit medical system could not withstand a serious outbreak of disease. The UN hopes this lull in fighting will pave the way for broader peace talks. Past attempts at halting the conflict have failed, and recent months actually saw increased fighting in a war that is largely viewed as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Will the specter of a pandemic finally bring these bitter rivals to the table?