What We’re Watching: US pokes China on Taiwan, Yemeni rebels blacklisted, new Kyrgyz president

Art by Annie Gugliotta

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.


US blacklists Houthis in Yemen: Washington now considers the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen to be a terrorist group, based largely on their history of cross-border attacks on Saudi infrastructure. The designation makes it illegal, under US law, for banks or companies to do business with the Houthis. The trouble is that in practice the Houthis now control most of Yemen, after overthrowing the previous government and fighting a six-year ongoing conflict against a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. As a result, humanitarian groups are worried that blacklisting the Houthis will make it harder for them to bring food and aid into the country, where a staggering 80 percent of the population depends on external assistance. It's also unclear whether this move will help or hinder extremely tenuous UN-led peace talks that are aiming to end Yemen's devastating civil war.

From prisoner to president: Sadyr Zhaparov, an outspoken populist who spent three years in jail for kidnapping of a regional governor, is the new president of Kyrgyzstan after winning Sunday's election in a landslide. The vote was a rerun of the October presidential election, which resulted in mass street protests that led to the resignation of then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, whom the opposition accused of rigging the vote. Amid the post-election unrest Zhaparov became prime minister after his supporters broke him out from prison. Zhaparov's victory is expected to bring long-overdue stability to the mineral-rich country, but some fear that he may use a June constitutional referendum to turn Kyrgyzstan into a more authoritarian state like most of its Central Asian neighbors. Outside players are also watching closely: Russia is delighted that the new leader of this former Soviet republic favors close ties with Moscow, while China worries that Zhaparov may dusts off his old plans to nationalize Chinese-owned gold mines.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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