On the Record
It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current "necessity" posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons by striking first.
John Bolton, in an op-ed published Feb. 28 in The Wall Street Journal
On Our Radar
The U.S. Slaps Tariffs on China. U.S. President Donald Trump announced on March 22 that his next trade moves against China would be to place 25 percent tariffs on up to $60 billion worth of high-tech goods within the next two months. The tariffs, the biggest levied against China to date, have sparked concern that the United States will trigger a trade war. But Trump's trade moves have so far been weaker than their initial hype suggested. Since announcing new tariffs on steel and aluminum, for example, the administration has issued exemptions for two-thirds of U.S. steel imports. Concerns that tariffs would damage the U.S. economy and U.S. interests abroad have continued to restrain the White House. We are watching China's response to Trump's actions and Trump's response to China's. Beijing already announced a proportional response to the U.S. measures on steel and aluminum that will take place in two stages: first against fruits, nuts and steel piping, and then — after considering the extent of the impact — on pork and recycled aluminum. The question is whether Trump will retaliate to the retaliation — a move that would risk spiraling events into the trade war we are not yet in.
A New Battery Poised to Launch. Building a better battery is a must to further the energy transition away from fossil fuels. Last week, Sila Nanotechnologies and BMW announced a partnership that could put lithium-silicon batteries in cars by 2023. Amperex Technology Ltd., the Chinese battery manufacturer, believes the new, much-improved battery technology could be in consumer electronics even sooner, by 2020. With the technology's commercial availability in sight, it's important to remember the hurdles that remain — namely, the shift in manufacturing and supply chains. Switching from graphite to silicon in the anode won't alter the bigger picture much, since China is the primary source of both raw materials. Bringing lithium-silicon batteries into wide use, however, will require a shift in production facilities. Watching the speed with which these shifts occur will allow us to discern between optimism and realism.
Military Drills Take a Back Seat to Talks. U.S. and South Korean forces will gather April 1 for their annual military exercises, which were delayed by the Winter Olympics. But in light of an inter-Korean summit planned for late April and a U.S.-North Korea summit possibly happening in May, the drills have been scaled back to keep the dialogue on track. The exercises have been halved in length and likely will not feature a carrier, nuclear-powered submarines or bombers. It will be important to see what the deployments entail: Rumors suggest an increase in the total number of troops compared with recent years. Military developments on the Korean Peninsula are still essential to watch given the sheer difficulty of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis and the looming appointment of a more hawkish U.S. national security adviser in John Bolton.
Elections Mask Long-Term Woes. The winner of this week's presidential election in Egypt is all but guaranteed to be incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who effectively has sidelined all opposition with the help of the military. But long-term challenges to the government's authority are simmering under the surface of a seamless election. The challenges include questions about whether the government can meet Egyptians' economic needs. Egypt's inability to quash militancy also is driving infighting and reorganization in the highest ranks of the government and security forces.
Postelection Frictions in Russia. The conclusion of the March 18 presidential election has not ended political debate across Russia. Instead, a flurry of intense issues is roiling the country. There is open dissent from Kremlin loyalists who are calling for the governor of the Moscow region to resign over toxic landfills in the suburbs. Numerous major media outlets, meanswhile, have boycotted coverage of the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, over its dismissal of sexual assault charges against one of its senior deputies. This kind of discourse has been unheard of in the past decade of President Vladimir Putin's rule. At the same time, the Kremlin is gearing up for a controversial move to raise taxes to pay for a large spending plan to stimulate Russia's stagnant economy. How the Kremlin handles these sensitive issues will set the tone for Putin's fourth term as the populace demonstrates its willingness to make its displeasure known.
On Our Minds
Loading the Bolton Bullet. Trump is moving fast to align his foreign policy team with his worldview. Along with Mike Pompeo taking over the State Department, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. The fate of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is unknown, but the higher concentration of hawks in the White House raises several important questions:
- On North Korea: Bolton firmly believes that a containment policy toward a nuclear North Korea must be avoided at all costs. He also views dialogue as pointless. Pyongyang now has to calculate a higher risk of a U.S. preventive strike against its nuclear program and all the collateral damage that such a strike could entail. On the one hand, North Korea could be driven toward a grand bargain with the United States. But with little reason to trust Washington's word in a potential deal, Pyongyang is more likely to stretch the dialogue and buy time to quietly advance its nuclear program. Can North Korea cross the nuclear threshold and strip the United States of a viable military option?
- On Iran: Bolton sees a clear nexus between the Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation threats. He has called for ripping up the Iran nuclear deal countless times. Will he advocate a methodical dismantling of the agreement by trying to work through the legal process to charge Iran with violations? Or will the White House make a swift unilateral move to pull out of the deal, regardless of what the Europeans try to deliver on sanctions? With prices rising, oil markets are already anticipating a breakdown of the deal. But the United States won't have a strong coalition this time to enforce sanctions since Europe and big Asian consumers such as China aren't willing to play ball.
- On China: Bolton has strongly advocated an end to the United States' "One China" policy. We've already seen moves by Congress to ramp up support for Taiwan, and a concerted White House push to leverage the issue to contain China would accelerate this trend.
- On Russia: Bolton, like Pompeo, maintains a traditional hard-line stance against Russia. He is a skeptic on negotiations with Moscow, which could spell trouble for already stressed arms control agreements, discussions over a U.N. peacekeeping deployment to eastern Ukraine and coordination over the conflict in Syria.
Moderating Education. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's statements about nuclear weapons aside, Saudi Arabia is trying to project a new, moderate image, declaring it would purge both Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers and ideology from its education system. Building an education system to promote the knowledge economy it covets is critical to Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 reforms. Purging extremism from the pages of its textbooks is just the first step toward moving the system away from religion and is an indirect challenge to the country's conservative clerics. But promises of change in Saudi education have been made before, and it remains to be seen whether this new push will move the cultural needle away from the conservative clerics and set the country up for economic success.
In Case You Missed It
On Our Calendar
In the coming week, Egypt will hold a presidential election, Uzbekistan will host an Afghan peace conference, and South Korean and North Korean diplomats will meet to prepare for a summit in late April. For more, see our Geopolitical Calendar for the week of March 26.