Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Beyond COVID-19, Part 9: Space Launches and Growing Authoritarian Crackdowns
Beyond COVID-19, Part 9: Space Launches and Growing Authoritarian Crackdowns

Beyond COVID-19, Part 9: Space Launches and Growing Authoritarian Crackdowns

The end of April is in sight. Most of us have been working from home and living under quarantine and social distancing policies for six weeks now, but somehow, April’s almost over. Some misguided individuals are now protesting to end the social distancing policies, which could increase the number of cases and add an unnecessary stress on healthcare workers. So, simply put: don’t be stupid and stay home. Important non-COVID developments are still happening around the world; some countries are making controversial decisions while the world is focused on the pandemic, so we continue to keep you up to date on important developments from around the world.

Last week, I interviewed Senior Fellow Anna Mikulska about a variety of topics related to energy, which almost seems prescient since oil prices for the May contract dipped into the negative territory on April 20 due to lack of demand and fear of lack of available storage. This week, I am back with Aaron and Maia to discuss Iran and Eastern Europe. There’s also plenty of news out of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan that I’ll be covering.

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: Aaron, amidst the pandemic, Iran managed to pull off a space launch. What can you tell us about the launch and what it means for the country?

Aaron Stein: The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (IRGC) launched a satellite, the noor, into space with a satellite launch vehicle, dubbed the Qased. This just happened so a group of us are still looking at the images that the Iranians released. It appears, as of now, that the SLV was used in the three stages, the first of which was liquid fueled. Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has suggested that the upper stage uses a carbon fiber motor, which Iran had showed off for use on a different system, the Salman, a few months ago. The launch did not use the gantry at the Shahroud missile test site and blurry images from the video of the launch may show a transporter erector launch, or TEL, which would suggest that the Qased is a mobile system. 

More information will soon come in, as the Iranians release more imagery and people use open source tools to check if the Iranians were able to actually place a satellite in orbit. The bigger issue is that the launch is certain to increase tensions because of the applicability of certain elements used in this launch for the development of longer-range missiles. The IRGC has run a space program in parallel to Iran’s civilian space agency since, we think, around 2005. The IRGC track uses solid fuel propellants, a fuel that is more useful for the military than liquid because missiles can be stored, fueled, and fired more quickly. It also appears that the IRGC is pursuing this sliver of space technology to get around a 2,000 km range cap that the Supreme Leader instituted. This approach allows the IRGC to continue to develop systems that can fly further than the 2,000 km, albeit in a way that does not contradict the Supreme Leader. The program suffered a catastrophic explosion in 2011 that killed key scientists. It burst back on the scene in 2020 with the release of images of the Salman carbon fiber motor. Things are never boring with the Iranians, and 2020 is turning out to be quite the year for Iranian missile developments. 

Tom, what can you tell us about what’s happening in Taiwan?

Shattuck: There have been quite a few developments in Taiwan over the past week, both COVID and non-COVID. On April 17, Taiwan’s Central Election Commission announced that the recall election for Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu is set for early June. The recall campaign received the required number of signatures (over 400,000) to move to the next step: a final recall vote after passing the signature drive thresholds. Han’s story over the past couple of years is an  interesting one for political junkies to follow. He catapulted from a relatively unknown figure in 2018 to becoming a political superstar, winning the Kaohsiung mayoral election. Kaohsiung traditionally votes “green,” or for the Democratic Progressive Party. The city had been a stalwart green enclave for years, but Han, a member of the Kuomintang, managed to break through with his charismatic and “Trumpy” campaign style. He became so popular that after winning the 2018 election, he became the KMT’s nominee for the 2020 presidential election. His immediate switch from campaigning for mayor to campaigning for president angered the citizens of Kaohsiung who felt swindled; they believed that Han should have served out his first term before considering a run at the country’s highest office in 2024. In the end, he lost to President Tsai Ing-wen, who received a record-breaking 8 million votes. Now, less than six months after losing the presidential election, Han could find himself out of a job.

Another story worth mentioning is that last week Taiwan had to deploy its 600-ton “Taichung”-class patrol vessel to scare off illegal Chinese sand dredgers that were operating within 50 miles of Taiwan’s offshore islands of Penghu. Penghu is located off Taiwan’s western coast in the Taiwan Strait, but still close enough to Taiwan that the Chinese ships had to make quite a trek to get to the islands for the sand. Such dredging apparently hadn’t happened since before the COVID-19 lockdowns began on the mainland, but as China slowly reopens its economy, expect these actions to resume, and possibly increase. During the lockdown, the Chinese military didn’t take a break from encroaching on Taiwan’s territory. At air and sea, it continued (and continues) to pressure Taiwan and force it to divert critical resources away from the pandemic response to respond to these incursions. It is entirely possible that China will increase its aggressive actions to stir up nationalism at home in order to divert attention away from the virus outbreak and slowing economy, especially since for the first quarter of 2020, China’s economy shrunk by 6.8%, which is the first time since 1992 that China’s economy contracted.

Maia, the pandemic has shed light on the persisting global authoritarian challenge. We’ve seen authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary use the pandemic to their advantage and further consolidate power in their own hands. How does the recent Amnesty International report on human rights in Eastern Europe and Central Asia assess that problem?

Maia Otarashvili: Tom, you are right, even before COVID-19, the world was struggling to contain the authoritarian wave. This month, Amnesty International published its annual report on human rights in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The international human rights watchdog reports that the entire system of international human rights continues to be under threat, and conditions have only worsened over the past year. According to the report, the situation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is no exception to that global trend: “[In 2019] the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were routinely suppressed, economic and social rights neglected, refugees pushed back, left stranded in or returned to destinations where they remained at risk, while discrimination against women, ethnic and other minorities and marginalized groups continued unabated.” 

While Russia and China are seen as major examples and enablers for this negative trend, no single country in the region seems to have done well in terms of avoiding deteriorating human rights conditions. Particularly alarming is the situation with unresolved, or frozen, conflicts. The report accurately summarizes that “unresolved conflicts across the region continued to stymy healthy development and hold back regional cooperation: Abkhazia, Crimea, Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region and Transnistria all suffered in consequence. In the breakaway territories of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region and Abkhazia, ongoing efforts by Russian forces and the de-facto authorities to physically restrict freedom of movement with the rest of Georgia eroded living standards and the economic, social and cultural rights of local people.”

Despite this grim picture, the report has identified active civil societies in the region as reason for cautious optimism. Ceaseless peaceful protests in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have amplified the voices of the frustrated citizens. The protesters have had to face a lot of abuse in return for very little positive change, but they have not yet backed down, and keep on finding new ways to make their voices heard. 

As I observed these protests throughout 2019-2020, I, too, came away with one major optimistic conclusion: the civil societies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have significantly advanced since the end of the Communist rule in Eurasia. They have matured in a sustainable, irreversible way, often thanks to a lot of Western encouragement and assistance. Yes, their governments and political elites have mostly failed them. It is clear that the majority of the political actors in the region continue to lag significantly behind their constituents in terms of their political maturity. Corruption, injustice, incompetence, and hunger for power still seem to dominate the politics in most of these countries. Of course, this has induced a lot of voter apathy and political fatigue, but it has also awakened the civil society groups and young citizens in a way that cannot be ignored. This is particularly evident in Georgia and Ukraine, where long-term peaceful protests have become a powerful, and at times the only, course-correcting influence on the toxic political scene.

Tom, I’ve been reading about crackdowns in Hong Kong over the past week. What can you tell us?

Shattuck: While the rest of the world is still facing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has decided to make some moves in Hong Kong. Last week, Luo Huining, Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong, said that “Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement was a ‘major blow’ to the rule of law, threatening the one country, two systems principle under which it operates with China, and was influenced by pro-independence and radical violent forces.” The most widely quoted part of his speech is quite the doozy of an analogy, “If the anthill eroding the role of rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the wellbeing of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged.” Luo also called for Hong Kong to pass a national security that had been shelved since 2003 because the prospect of such a law sparked mass protests in the Special Administrative Region. 

Then, days later, the Hong Kong government arrested 15 prominent democracy activists for their participation and role in the massive protests that have been occurring since 2019 over the controversial extradition law. The individuals arrested are some of the most important figures in Hong Kong’s democratic movement: Martin Lee, who helped found the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon, was also arrested for his role in the protests. These arrests and Luo’s comments point to renewed unrest in Hong Kong. More protests are guaranteed to occur if the Hong Kong government bows to Beijing’s pressure to push yet another controversial law that would reduce the freedoms and liberties of the people of Hong Kong. At a time when countries are implementing social distancing policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the people of Hong Kong might, again, be forced to protest for their basic rights.

Maia and Aaron, thanks again for the 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.