Morning Brief

U.S. Officials to Hold High-Level Talks With Taiwan as Tensions With China Worsen

The meeting between top U.S. and Taiwanese officials is sure to provoke a strong reaction from Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks about vaccine development on May 15 in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks about vaccine development on May 15 in Washington. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States will hold high-level talks with Taiwan, calls for revolution greet French President Emmanuel Macron in Beirut, and the Rajapaksa family wins Sri Lanka’s election in a landslide.

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Top U.S. Officials Travel to Taiwan 

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan on Sunday to meet with senior Taiwanese officials in a rare high-profile visit to the island. Planned discussions will focus on the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the visit comes as tensions between Washington and Beijing have rapidly escalated. It is expected to provoke a strong reaction from China.

China considers Taiwan to be a part of its national territory, and it has blocked the island from joining several international bodies. The United States broke off formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 as it began cultivating a closer relationship with Beijing, but it has continued to sell weapons to the country and continues to be its biggest arms supplier. Members of the U.S. government occasionally make trips to the island but visits by cabinet officials are rare.

China threatens countermeasures. In advance of Sunday’s visit, China threatened to take “strong countermeasures in response to the U.S. behavior.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin did not provide details on what retaliatory action Beijing might take, but it threatened to sanction the U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin last month for selling weapons to Taiwan. Recent decisions to close a U.S. consulate in Chengdu and to sanction some U.S. politicians could also provide insight into the Chinese response.

Something more. The meeting is also expected to involve discussions on the broader U.S.-Taiwanese relationship. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the visit would be a “testament to the solid mutual trust and smooth communication between Taiwan and the U.S.” On Thursday, Reuters reported that the United States was negotiating a deal that would send four large, sophisticated drones to Taiwan, meaning the island nation will join an exclusive cadre of U.S. allies that have been allowed to purchase U.S.-made drones.

Skip the nukes. Sunday’s meeting, coupled with arms procurements, are part of a wider effort by Taiwan to strengthen its ties to the United States in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. Some hawkish voices in Washington have even suggested arming Taiwan with nuclear weapons in response to Beijing’s growing aggression in the region. “That would be a provocative mistake, as students of the Cuban missile crisis might predict,” Bradley Bowman and Andrea Stricker argued earlier this week in FP. “Instead, the United States should urgently provide additional conventional military aid to address the dangerous shift in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait, which if left unchecked could invite aggression by mainland China,” they wrote.

What We’re Following Today

Calls for revolution in Beirut. The shock that followed the explosions in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has turned into anger as details of the government’s negligence are coming to light. French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to the city on Thursday and delivered a speech in which he announced aid to support relief efforts and assured citizens that he would propose a new political pact to the country’s leaders. During the speech, protesters chanted “revolution, revolution!,” echoing a growing chorus of opposition to the government.

Information showing that high-level officials not only knew about a massive supply of ammonium nitrate in the city, but that they were aware of the immense danger it posed is emerging. The resulting backlash against the government is part of a much wider feeling of discontent that has been evident in the country since late last year. Protests against government corruption erupted in October and were further inflamed more recently after the pandemic hit and a severe financial crisis set in.

The future of Belarus is at stake. Belarusians will head to the polls on Sunday in an election that could dramatically change the country’s political landscape. President Aleksandr Lukashenko is trying to extend his 16-year presidency, a term that stretches back to the early post-Cold War days.

But he’s fighting an uphill battle. Facing his stiffest opposition in years and massive protests against his rule, Lukashenko’s behavior has become increasingly paranoid and erratic. The one-time Moscow favorite recently defended the arrest of 33 Russian mercenaries in the country, claiming they were quietly staging a revolution to overthrow him. Lukashenko’s shift away from Russia is reflective of the fact that even he doesn’t know whether Belarus should tilt east or west. If he loses and the election is followed by a prolonged period of political instability, it may entice Russia to make that decision itself.

Microsoft wants all of TikTok. The United States just upped the ante in its dispute with China over the popular social networking company TikTok. On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that U.S. tech giant Microsoft now wants to purchase all of TikTok’s global operations, after announcing on Sunday that it was in discussions with ByteDance, the Chinese parent company that owns TikTok, to buy the platform’s U.S. operations. Microsoft announced the move after President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok from the country. Negotiations are ongoing, but Microsoft executives are reportedly pushing hard to strike a deal ahead of the Sep. 15 deadline Washington has set for the ban to come into force.

Keep an Eye On

In Sri Lanka, Rajapaksas romp to victory. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party has won a landslide victory in the country’s parliamentary elections, securing 145 of 225 seats while the main opposition party secured only 54.

The result puts both the legislature and the presidency in the hands of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party. The vote was considered a crucial test for the future of democracy in the country. The Rajapaksas made it known during the campaign that their objective was to secure more than two-thirds of seats in the country’s parliament, enough to change the constitution and return sweeping powers to the president. While the 145 seats they won are just short of a two-thirds supermajority, they can likely count on the support of some smaller parties.

New leader for Mauritania. On Thursday, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani appointed Mohamed Ould Bilal, a longtime public administrator, as the country’s next prime minister after the resignation of the entire government. Mauritania has been in the throes of a political crisis since a parliamentary investigation was opened into cases of alleged corruption by the government of longtime President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz earlier this year. On Wednesday, investigators submitted the report on their findings, which documented corruption on the part of several current ministers. The publication of the report led to the government’s resignation.

Turkey faces currency crisis. The Turkish lira plummeted against the U.S. dollar on Thursday, suffering its steepest decline since March 2019. Turkish officials first became concerned about the currency in March when investors started pulling out of emerging markets as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit. The Turkish central bank has since invested an estimated $65 billion in an effort to keep the lira afloat, but those efforts failed on Thursday when the currency dropped 2.7 percent in a single day, falling to approximately 7.24 against the dollar.

Odds and Ends 

Beaver rights. The British government granted a family of beavers the legal “right to remain” on the River Otter in East Devon in an important decision that could have lasting implications for wildlife and environmental regulation. The Devon Wildlife Trust, which produced a five-year study on the impact beavers have on their environment, found that the animals improved water quality and their dams worked as natural flood defenses, helping to reduce the risk of homes flooding downstream.

The Trust called the ruling “the most ground-breaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation.” Beavers went extinct in England centuries ago due to overhunting, but Thursday’s decision marks the first time the government has ruled in favor of reintroducing a previously extinct native mammal. 

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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