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A nation must think before it acts.
Welcome to week three of social distancing and quarantine. Due to the increased number of cases in the United States, President Donald Trump has renewed all restrictions on social gatherings until the end of April. As everyone remains in their homes to flatten the curve and stay healthy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute will continue its discussions of important issues that would normally receive attention but aren’t due to the pandemic. This is our fourth “installment” of Beyond COVID-19. We hope that this discussion will inspire you to follow-up on these important developments from around the world.
This Round Table features a conversation between Thomas J. Shattuck, Research Associate in the Asia Program at FPRI; Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program and acting Director of the National Security Program at FPRI; and Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI. The intention is to convene these conversations twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for the duration of the crisis (with occasional guests popping in), so that readers will not miss pertinent information and stories from the areas that FPRI covers.
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Thomas Shattuck: Maia, let’s start with you. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has some exciting news this week. The Republic of North Macedonia joined the alliance! What can you tell us about this development? I know that there was much controversy over the course of many years leading up to the country’s NATO accession.
Maia Otarashvili: On March 27, North Macedonia officially joined NATO. In his press statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that North Macedonia’s accession should remind other aspirant nations that NATO’s door remains open to them, and reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Article 5:
As President Trump has said, the NATO Alliance has been the bulwark of international peace and security for over 70 years. North Macedonia’s accession to NATO today represents the culmination of many years of effort by the government and people of North Macedonia to join the North Atlantic Alliance. North Macedonia’s NATO membership will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability across the region. North Macedonia’s accession also reaffirms to other aspirants that NATO’s door remains open to those countries willing and able to make the reforms necessary to meet NATO’s high standards, and to accept the responsibilities as well as benefits of membership. As NATO welcomes its 30th member, we reaffirm our commitment to collective defense under Article 5, the cornerstone of the Transatlantic Alliance.
Greece had been one of the main objectors to North Macedonia’s NATO and European Union accession, due to an age-old dispute between Athens and Skopje. Until 1991, North Macedonia was known as the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Once it became independent, it was named Macedonia. Greece already had a region called Macedonia, which includes much of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia ruled by Alexander the Great. Both Greece and North Macedonia take a lot of pride in their ancient past and consider Alexander the Great an integral part of their history and national identity. Part of the name dispute included Greece’s worry that North Macedonia may make claims over the Greek region of Macedonia. The dispute was formally resolved in 2017, when both parliaments voted to approve the name change to North Macedonia.
With this move, Skopje joins the largest security alliance in the world, made up of almost one billion citizens of the 30 member states. On the same day, North Macedonia, alongside Albania, received a final green light from the EU leaders to start EU membership talks. These are major positive developments for both Europe and NATO, but sadly, they will go without much ceremony.
Shattuck: Over the last couple of years, Russia’s involvement in the Balkans has expanded both covertly and overtly. What can we expect from Russia in regards to North Macedonia’s accession into NATO?
Otarashvili: It’s no secret that Moscow opposes any further NATO or EU expansion. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement reflected that sentiment: “Obviously, the fact that Skopje has joined the alliance does not add any value either to European or to regional or to national security. This move will certainly not promote the joining of effort for fighting common threats and challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic. This will only create new separation lines.”
In the past, Russia has supported Macedonian radical nationalists and has cozied up to increasingly authoritarian political forces in order to keep the country isolated from the West. It also tried to get involved in the name dispute in order to perpetuate the situation and keep Skopje from joining NATO and the EU. Moscow funded the radical nationalists’ movements to sabotage the name change, and took things so far that it even angered a major ally, Greece. Athens even expelled two Russian diplomats over Russia’s meddling in the name dispute. It seems Russia has lost this particular battle. But North Macedonia, or the Balkans, really, aren’t a top priority for Moscow, like the Black Sea region is. I’ll be interested to see how Albania’s EU accession process goes—Moscow has more interest and influence there than in North Macedonia.
Tom, Taiwan has been in the news a few times this week. What can you tell us about the TAIPEI Act that President Trump signed last week?
Shattuck: Last week, President Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act. The bill really gained steam in September 2019 after the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic ties from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China. The purpose of the law is to deter Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies from making a similar switch. The most important part of the TAIPEI Act says that the United States should essentially reward or punish nations depending on their relations with Taiwan. Section Five of the law states:
It is the sense of Congress that the United States Government should consider, in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests, increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan; and consider, in certain cases as appropriate, in alignment with United States foreign policy interests and in consultation with Congress, altering its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.
The caveat “in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests” gives the president an easy way out if he doesn’t want to carry through on punishing any of Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies if they switch to China. The symbolism of the law is important because it demonstrates solid American support for Taiwan, but the law could backfire if overused. It could more thoroughly push countries into China’s orbit if the United States overreacts to a decision vis-à-vis Taiwan. Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies are primarily located in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific. These countries, while small geographically and economically, have varying levels of strategic importance for the United States. It is better for the United States to have them in the Taiwan “camp” than the China “camp” because the latter comes with strings attached, generally in the form of predatory loans.
Keeping China out of the Pacific is important for the U.S. Navy to maintain its dwindling strategic edge. Keeping China (or any country) out of Latin America goes all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine of the 1800s, so having El Salvador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic working more closely with China puts the Trump administration on notice. When those three countries made the switch to China in 2017 and 2018, it outraged members of Congress and the administration for the way that those countries handled the situation. Every time that a nation switches ties from Taiwan to China, members of government express their unhappiness, but these three really struck a nerve. That created the main impetus for the TAIPEI Act. I’ve written at length on this particular topic for our special issue of Orbis on Political War in East Asia.
Aaron, Iran has been in the news, with tensions in Iraq continuing and consistent reports of U.S. deliberations about taking more aggressive action to confront Iranian-allied militias in Iraq. What is the latest, and how is this impacting the military?
Aaron Stein: My two worlds intersected last week, when the U.S. Navy released imagery showing two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, reportedly operating alongside a B-52 bomber. The deployment of two carriers comes amid consistent and repeated reporting that suggests that the Trump administration is debating a range of options to counter Iranian support for militias in Iraq. One option, according to the New York Times, is to use military force to destroy Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia that has been linked to rocket attacks on bases where U.S. forces are present in Iraq and which has ties to the Iranian leaders. The Trump administration reportedly has advocated for more aggressive U.S. action. According to Marc Mazetti and Erci Schmitt, “Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces—and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.”
In Iraq, the United States is currently consolidating its positions, withdrawing from bases it used to support the war against the Islamic State, and hunkering down in a few bases better (Baghdad, Ain al Assad, and Erbil) protected from Iranian missile attack. Maya Gebeily, a correspondent for Agence France Presse (and a previous guest on my FPRI podcast, the Middle East Brief) reported, the “United States has deployed Patriot missile batteries to bases targeted by Iranian missile strikes in January” at bases where U.S. personnel are present in Ain al Assad and Erbil.
As I discussed with Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, on the latest Middle East Brief podcast, the deployment of Patriot may strain the force because these missiles are “low in density and in high demand.” The same is true of the carriers. The tensions in the Middle East and the increase in the number of carriers have previously resulted in longer deployment times, which undermine readiness, strain the equipment, and have deleterious effects on the sailors, according to Defense News.
The United States has 11 carriers, but only eight are available at any one time for deployment. According to David B. Larter:
The Asia-Pacific region is covered for six months every year by the forward-deployed carrier Ronald Reagan out of Japan, but U.S.-based ships must make up the other half. And if the Pentagon doesn’t want to leave the Pacific uncovered for large swathes of the year with two carriers in the Middle East, the Navy will need to maintain between two and three U.S.-based carriers deployed year-round—an immense burden on a fleet of eight aircraft carriers.
This is an issue I wrote about in a report for FPRI about great power competition and U.S. military deployments. Tensions with Iran may seem limited only to the Middle East, and focused on U.S. efforts in Iraq, but clearly the choices we make vis-à-vis Tehran have impact throughout the armed forces.
Tom, last week, the U.S. Navy once again sailed one of its ships through the Taiwan Strait. This time, it was the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell. These transits have become routine over the past few years. What can you tell us about their importance?
Shattuck: Despite having its own COVID-19 crisis to deal with, China has not let up on its pressure campaign against Taiwan. Since 2016 when President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected, Beijing has ratcheted up its military actions at air and sea to push Taiwan to the brink. Fighter jets conduct regular “encirclement” missions around Taiwan, and carrier groups and other ships sail close to the median line (sometimes even crossing it) of the Taiwan Strait, or even to Taiwan’s east in the Pacific Ocean. There are two strands of thinking for the People’s Liberation Army: the Taiwanese military cannot afford to respond to every single incursion by fueling planes to tail Chinese jets and boats; and constant missions will help the PLA find weak points in Taiwan’s defense. Taiwan has done a good job responding to these incursions on its territory so far.
Taiwan is not fighting this battle by itself. The Trump administration has been particularly good at conducting regular transits through the Taiwan Strait. It may not seem like a big deal, but having an American presence in the area serves as a type of protection for Taiwan. It sends a message to Beijing that the United States is in the region and protects its allies, friends, and partners. The U.S. line is pretty simple: we’re allowed to do it. U.S. 7th Fleet Spokesperson Lt. Anthony Junco noted: “The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.” The Tsai administration welcomes this type of support from the U.S. military.
These transit missions always result in denouncement from Beijing. This time, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s spokesman, said the following about the McCampbell’s transit: “The provocative actions by the U.S. has damaged China’s security interests and has endangered the lives of front-line soldiers and their equipment. They constitute a serious violation of international laws on freedom of navigation and are the root cause of problems between China and the U.S. on maritime security.” This pattern is likely to hold for the foreseeable future: U.S. transits to maintain the status quo that Beijing seeks to disrupt through its military incursion into Taiwanese territory.
Aaron and Maia, thanks again for this great discussion!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.