January 2024: A Perfect Global Storm Brewing

It seldom happens that so many significant events in world affairs happen in so few days as has been the case in the first two weeks of 2024. The second epistle of St. Peter comes to mind: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”(A recent variant—“there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” —has been wrongfully attributed to Lenin.) There are clear signs that a series of small-to-medium fires in different parts of the world could soon explode into a global inferno.

The most important event of the new year thus far is the victory of Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in Taiwan’s presidential election on January 13. It came despite warnings from China—which claims Taiwan as part of its territory —that a vote for him would be “a vote for war.” Lai, the current vice president and a supporter of the island’s independence, was in a three-way race with Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), founded in 2019.

Lai’s success, with 40 percent of the vote, is owing entirely to the inability of the latter two—who do not support Taiwan’s bid for complete independence from China—to forge a common front. The fact that they won almost 60 percent of the vote between them prompted Beijing to declare, as soon as the result was known, that the DPP does not represent the mainstream public opinion on the island. A day later an editorial in the official China Daily said that the vote “will not be able to impede the inevitable trend of [China’s] national reunification. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson said that China would adhere to the one-China principle and firmly oppose the separatist activities as well as “foreign interference.”

In his victory speech, Lai said Taiwan had managed to resist attempts to influence the vote, in an obvious swipe at China. “The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election,” he said. He also pledged “to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threat and intimidation from China.” It was a deliberate provocation, from Beijing’s point of view, to talk of “the Taiwanese people” as an entity distinct from the Chinese people, and of Taiwan itself as an implicitly separate nation-state which is subjected to pressure from a foreign power, i.e. China.

On Sunday President Biden said Washington does not support the independence of Taiwan, but the issue is far from clear cut. After over four decades of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, the issue remains dangerously moot. Over the past three years Biden has stated on at least four occasions that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it were attacked. In addition his administration has worked with its allies to communicate to China that there could be a collective effort to defend the status quo.

China is not and will not be deterred by these signals, but with Lai’s election it is more likely the resolve of the U.S. and its allies to defend Taiwan will be tested. The odds of America going to war with China by the middle of this century, which were roughly 50:50 in 2023, now stand closer to 55:45.

In the Middle East the U.S. upped the ante on Jan. 11 with air strikes aimed at restraining the Houthis in Yemen from attacking ships in the Red Sea, hitting the group’s positions at 16 sites. The attacks came after weeks of Houthi attacks on supposedly Israeli-connected ships in the strategic strait of Bab el-Mandeb which have caused most major bulk carriers to divert their routes to the Cape of Good Hope.

The Houthis, an armed militia backed by Iran that controls most of Yemen following a long and bitter civil war, were unimpressed by these strikes. Some experts have noted that the Houthis stand to gain politically from them as they support a narrative that the group has been cultivating: that they are freedom fighters fighting Western imperialism in the Muslim world.

More importantly, the raids were a demonstrative, almost cosmetic operation, indicative of U.S. weakness rather than resolve backed by awesome might. Hitting dozens of radars, arms depots, command centers and launch stations, these raids have not compromised the Houthis’ capabilities. The group has a virtually unlimited stock of light arms and access to inexpensive drones, easily produced and supplied by Iran.

The operation was also limited due to political restraints. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to the area last week was aimed in part to alert reluctant regional players—primarily Qatar and Oman—that retaliation was coming, but at the same time to assure them that it would be limited in scope and intent. U.S. officials made it clear that the objective was not to eliminate Yemeni leaders, but to target their weapons systems which threaten shipping.

The planners in Washington are aware of the impossibility of eradicating the Houthis by remote bombing. The mountainous desert terrain and the dispersed, decentralized nature of the Shiite militia—which had successfully resisted Saudi air strikes for years—ensure that only a direct intervention by U.S. ground forces could neutralize the Houthis, temporarily at least.

Iran would just love it, of course, and a host of other regional and global players would be delighted to see another American quagmire reminiscent of Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the administration is not tempted, especially not in an election year. Therefore, the Houthi threat to navigation cannot be prevented, let alone eliminated. It can only be suspended.

The crisis in the Red Sea has demonstrated that U.S. naval resources are insufficient to maintain the strategy of full spectrum dominance. The Navy is simply not up to the self-assigned, Herculean task of controlling and securing all key sea lanes, and especially choke points such as Bab el-Mandeb. The Navy is well below the goal of 75 ships ready for war at any time. Lest we forget, then-Commander of Naval Surface Forces, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener who retired last August, announced a year ago that the fleet would aim to have 75 mission-capable ships available at all times. They would be optimally maintained, armed, and equipped—with the full complement of trained crews, ready for combat on a moment’s notice. Over the past year, according to Kitchener’s successor Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, the fleet is “kind of hovering between 50 and 60 ships on any given day.”

With the crisis in the South China Sea now more or less permanent, the lack of mission-capable ships is the main reason why last December the Navy dedicated a remarkably small strike group to Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea, consisting of one aircraft carrier and three escorting destroyers. The British provided one destroyer, while Denmark and Greece promised a frigate each. The Netherlands, Norway, and Australia are together sending two-dozen military personnel in all, but no vessels. Singapore’s navy is providing a center “to support information sharing and engagement outreach to the commercial shipping community.”

This amounts to an utter debacle, effectively the U.S. has zero contribution from all but Britain. Australia’s refusal to send ships is a particularly unpleasant shock to the administration. Some nominal members of the operation have even refused to announce their participation in public for fear of being linked to Israel and suffering military or terrorist reprisals.

More importantly, France, Italy, and Spain are staying out altogether, refusing to place their ships under American command. This hints at a coordinated attempt by Europe’s key Mediterranean nations—and America’s nominal NATO allies—to deal with the diminished global credibility of the United States.

Over the past few weeks, it has become clear that, all over the greater Middle East, an insoluble dilemma exists for the Biden administration. While Washington is loath for the conflict in Gaza to escalate, the U.S. is continuing its total support for, and its comprehensive financial, military, and diplomatic assistance to Israel. Consequently, all key Arab countries in the region are rapidly diversifying their political and economic relations, most notably those with Russia and China. Even the United Arab Emirates, ostensibly a reliable U.S. friend, gave Russian President Vladimir Putin an ostentatiously warm welcome last month. At the same time, U.S. military bases in the region—notably in Bahrain, right across the Gulf from Iran—appear potentially more vulnerable than ever before.

Coupled with the looming defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, likely followed by a major Russian offensive come summer, the global mix is becoming volatile in the extreme. Dealing with it demands prudence, wisdom, and strategic clarity. None of this is present in Washington, D.C., in either party. The best we can hope for is that 2024 will not be remembered as a tragic replay of the Guns of August 110 years earlier.

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