Today, we'll detail worrisome new US-China frictions, explore deepening divides in Ethiopia, explain Cuba's food crisis, and track US forces back into Syria.

Thank you for reading Signal,

- Willis Sparks


Today, we'll detail worrisome new US-China frictions, explore deepening divides in Ethiopia, explain Cuba's food crisis, and track US forces back into Syria.

Thank you for reading Signal,

- Willis Sparks


Over the past eight days, the US-China relationship got notably hotter. None of the new developments detailed below is big enough by itself to kill hopes for better relations next year, but collectively they point in a dangerous direction.

US jabs over Hong Kong: On September 14, the US State Department issued a travel warning for the city because of what it calls China's "arbitrary enforcement of local laws" by police. The US is closely monitoring the case of 10 people detained by China while attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat. China's response to US criticism of its new security law in Hong Kong remains muted. That could change if relations deteriorate further.

Action on forced labor in Xinjiang: Also on September 14, US Customs and Border Protection issued import bans on computer parts, clothing, cotton, and hair products made at five facilities in China's Xinjiang region following accusations that they're made by slave labor. Xinjiang is home to most of China's Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, and Beijing has faced accusations from multiple countries that much of this population has been forced into internment camps. The economic impact of this action is limited, but China has reason to fear that other governments might follow the US' lead.

US strikes China's Belt and Road project: On September 15, the US Treasury Department unveiled sanctions against Union Development Group, a state-owned Chinese company, for the seizure and demolition of land in Cambodia as part of a construction project associated with China's Belt and Road Initiative. Here too the economic impact will be limited, but this is the first time the US has issued this type of sanction for actions directly related to China's signature international investment and development project.

US ban on China's TikTok and WeChat: On September 18, the Trump administration moved to block WeChat and TikTok from operating in the US on national security grounds, setting up a long legal battle. For now, a tentative deal involving US firms Oracle and Walmart will allow US downloads of TikTok to continue, but confusion within the administration over its terms could still kill it.

New tensions over Taiwan: On September 19, US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach visited Taiwan, which Beijing insists is a renegade Chinese province, to attend a memorial for former president Lee Teng-hui, and to discuss the opening of a new US-Taiwan Economic and Commercial Dialogue. Krach is the second notable US visitor to the island in two months. In both cases, Beijing responded with a show of force, this week by launching military exercises and sending 16 fighter jets and two bombers careening through Taiwan's airspace. The US is reportedly also considering the sale of long-range missiles to Taiwan in the coming weeks. China has responded with threats of sanctions against US companies.

China flashes a trade weapon: Beijing faces domestic pressure to push back harder on the tougher Trump administration line. On September 19, China's Commerce Ministry took a big step in that direction. By publishing a "Provisions on the Unreliable Entities List," the Chinese government issued a stern warning that further steps to block supplies of critical technologies to Chinese companies will draw retaliation against at least one high-profile US firm. More multinationals may find themselves caught in the crossfire.

A turning point? All this comes in the lead up to a US election that will prove pivotal for the world's most important bilateral relationship. How will the outcome change things? China would love to know.

The current Cold War logic suggests that if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, China may test him to look for signals of a change in US strategy. If President Trump is re-elected, these latest escalations might prove a sign of bigger fights to come.



Many in China think President Trump is deliberately provoking China in order to boost his chances of winning the US election, says Wang Xiangwei from the South China Morning Post. Are we headed for a "hot war" over the South China Sea or Taiwan? Find more highlights of our interview here, and check out the full project Global voices on the US election here.



When US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016 — 269 days before the US election — Senate Republicans blocked then-President Obama from filling the vacancy, arguing that — ostensibly to respect the wishes of the voting public — the Supreme Court seat should be filled only after the the next US president was elected some nine months later. That precedent is now at the heart of the debate over whether the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday just 46 days before Americans head to the polls, should be filled immediately — or whether the process should be put on hold until the dust settles from the upcoming presidential election on November 3. President Trump has already pledged to nominate her replacement, and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (who stalled the process in 2016) says he will put the nomination to a vote. It's an argument of power vs precedent. But what has happened in the past when Supreme Court seats have opened up in election years? We take a look at the ten vacancies that occurred closest to the vote in past years.



Ethiopian PM cracks down on opposition: Ethiopia's most prominent opposition leader, Jawar Mohammed, was one of 24 political opponents charged with a series of crimes in Ethiopia in recent days, including terrorism-related offenses. The charges relate to civil unrest that erupted this past summer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, as well as the Oromia region that left at least 160 people dead. While ethnic tensions have intensified in the country in recent years, violence surged in late June after the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer and activist whose songs called for the liberation and empowerment of the Oromo, the country's largest ethnic group. Jawar Mohammed, a former ally of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is a hero to many disaffected Oromo, and his jailing since July has raised concerns about an intensifying crackdown by the government. Critics say that while Abiy, who won a Nobel peace prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea, has spearheaded ambitious political and economic reforms since coming to power in 2018, he has not done enough to alleviate ethnic violence and tensions in the fractious country.

Cuba faces food crisis: The island nation of Cuba fared well in the early months of the pandemic. A strong public health system and draconian quarantine measures — a police state helps with that — squelched the disease even as much richer nations struggled to contain its spread. Havana even sent its own doctors abroad to help more than a dozen other countries battle the virus. But the economic impact on the island since then has been devastating. Even before the pandemic, the country's badly mismanaged, state-dominated economy was suffering as the Trump administration tightened long-standing sanctions. Turmoil in Venezuela, meanwhile, led to a decrease in the shipments of cheap oil that the Maduro regime in Caracas sends its ideological pals in Havana. Now, a pandemic-driven collapse in tourism —the island's main source of hard currency — has left the government scrambling to amass enough dollars to purchase the food imports that meet two-thirds of the country's food needs. Cuba is facing its most acute economic crisis since the so-called "special period" of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main patron, plunged the island into a harrowing decade of poverty.

US military beefs up Syria presence to counter... Russia? The Pentagon has announced that it will deploy about 100 additional US troops in Syria in order to "ensure the safety" of US-led forces there. The move comes just a few weeks after seven American soldiers were injured when their convoy was hit by a Russian vehicle (in an open field) in northeastern Syria. Although run-ins between troops from the two countries are not uncommon amid the chaos of the decade-long Syrian civil war, and the Pentagon did not cite Russia as the reason to boost the US military contingent in the country, a senior US official called out recent Russian misbehavior, saying it "got us into a dangerous situation" on the ground. President Trump — who controversially decided to withdraw US forces from northern Syria a year ago — has pledged to bring home US troops from "endless wars," but he also is fond of keeping US troops in Syria to protect oil fields, he says. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is still keen to assist Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. All this comes as the White House has yet to respond to the allegations of Russian bounties to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. If the new deployment is indeed meant to send a signal to the Kremlin, we're watching to see what the response is.



75: The United Nations marked its 75th birthday on Monday with a mainly virtual commemoration led by Secretary-General António Guterres. The anniversary comes at a pivotal moment for the UN, which is currently holding its annual General Assembly as it faces the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest global crisis since its foundation.

5 million: Two days after visiting Colombia, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US government is offering a $5 million reward for the capture of Wilver Villegas Palomino, a leader of the National Liberation Army. Washington accuses Palomino of trafficking cocaine to the US to finance the Marxist organization, classified as a terrorist group by the US.

18: Mali's military junta has appointed Ba N'Daou, the country's former defense minister, to lead a transitional government for the next 18 months before holding an election. The Economic Community of West African States had previously demanded Mali return to civilian rule before lifting sanctions in place since the August 18 coup.

6 billion: Switzerland votes next Sunday in a national referendum on whether to spend 6 billion Swiss franc ($6.6 billion) on new fighter jets to replace its aging fleet. Although wisdom of such a move may seem odd for a traditionally neutral country that has no enemies and fought its last war over 200 years ago, a recent poll found that 58 percent of Swiss citizens are actually in favor of the move.



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This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, Gabrielle Debinski, Alex Kliment, and Carlos Santamaria. Art and graphic by Gabriella Turrisi and Jess Frampton. Spiritual Counsel from Michael Lonsdale.


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