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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.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (more than) 60 Seconds:

Biden's first scheduled call with a world leader will be with Canada's Justin Trudeau. What's going on with the Keystone Pipeline?

Well, Biden said that that's it. Executive order, one of the first is that he will stop any construction or development of the Keystone Pipeline. This is of course an oil pipeline that would allow further oil sands oil to come to the United States. The infrastructure is significantly overstretched, it's led to backlogs, inefficiency, accidents, all the rest, but it also facilitates more energy development and keeps prices comparatively down if you get it done. So, there are lots of reasons why the energy sector in Canada wants it. Having said all of that, Trudeau, even though he's been a supporter of Keystone XL, let's keep in mind that he did not win support in Alberta, which is where the big energy patch in Canada is located. This is a real problem for the government of Alberta, Canada is a very decentralized federal government, even more so than the United States. The premier of Alberta is immensely unhappy with Biden right now, they've taken a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project. I expect there will actually be litigation against the United States by the government of Alberta. But Trudeau is quite happy with Biden, his relationship was Trump was always walking on eggshells. The USMCA in negotiations ultimately successful but were very challenging for the Canadians, so too with the way Trump engaged in relations on China. All of this, the fact that Trump left the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris Climate Accords, WHO, all of that is stuff that Trudeau strongly opposed. He's going to be much more comfortable with this relationship. He's delighted that the first call from Biden is to him. And it certainly creates a level of normalcy in the US-Canada relationship that is very much appreciated by our neighbors to the North.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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