In Other News: Israel Signs Accords, Belarus Blames US for Protests & More – September 18, 2020

September 18, 2020

Israel signed accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House on Tuesday, making the UAE and Bahrain the third and fourth Arab states to establish formal ties with Israel and marking another significant step towards a fundamental shake-up of the geopolitical balance in the Middle East. The accords themselves encompass few concrete details, the most substantial of which is a commitment to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE. However, they have brought back-channel relationships with Israel, borne in large part out of collective concern over the regional threat posed by Iran, out into the open. The signatories of the accords are framing them as a step toward peace in the Middle East. There is also some speculation that trade matters were somehow folded into bringing the accords to fruition, including the potential U.S. sale of advanced fighter jets to the UAE, as well as a conspicuously timed $615 million investment in a US LNG producer by Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund. Whatever the case, there is reason to hope that a regional alliance – if it grows – will help to contain Iran. There is also a real possibility that, feeling increasingly backed into a corner, Iran may feel compelled to accelerate its nuclear program.

Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko has accused the U.S. of fomenting weeks of protests throughout the country triggered by the August 9 election that delivered him yet another term, and that many Belarusians and other observers have called fraudulent. Lukashenko, who is backed by Russia, has been Belarus’s president since 1994. Lukashenko’s claims about U.S. involvement echo those of the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, who has claimed to have evidence that the U.S. funded the Belarusian opposition and provided other forms of encouragement and support. Attempts to delegitimize the opposition are a shift from Lukashenko’s previous strategy to stem the unrest, which involved violent police suppression of protests and the detention of more than 7,000 demonstrators. After decades of close alignment with Moscow, Lukashenko has shown some signs of independence, most pointedly by refusing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calls for de facto reunification of the two countries. However, his refusal to step down in the face of powerful popular opposition leaves him with little recourse other than to seek Kremlin support, a move that will ultimately require some concessions to Moscow.

The U.S. has charged five Chinese hackers with targeting more than 100 U.S. firms and other victims, including video game companies and universities, and accused the Chinese government of turning a blind eye to their misdeeds because they also provide services to Beijing’s intelligence apparatus. The U.S. says the hackers are affiliated with a high-profile Chinese cyber outfit known as APT41, which has links to China’s Ministry of State Security. Additional arrests were made in connection with the case – two Malaysian businessmen the U.S. says conspired with the hackers in profiting off their infiltration of video games. The U.S. move to penalize the hackers is part of a long-standing effort to address widespread efforts by cybercriminals in various countries to target U.S. firms and other entities. However, publicly linking the crimes to China’s state security apparatus is more in line with the U.S.’s recent pivot to a confrontational approach on issues where China is broadly perceived as an aggressor, from island-building to research-stealing to extralegal territorial claims in the South China Sea. (We note that this is not the first or only instance – for example, a federal grand jury indicted four People’s Liberation Army hackers for stealing data from credit rating agency Equifax in February). This latest incident is not likely to add significantly to tensions between the U.S. and China – which are already running high – but it does not bode well for future phases of the U.S.-China trade deal. The phase 1 deal is still intact, but as more contentious issues in the bilateral relationship have come to the fore, it has lost its utility as an incentive for restraint.