While people are seeing a spark of hope that the COVID-19 situation will eventually transition from pandemic to endemic, what is really worrisome now, especially for the US and its friends and allies, is the escalating tension in Ukraine, with the buildup of Russian troops over the border now estimated at 100,000.
The encouraging news is the decline in the number of Omicron infections worldwide. In the United States, cases are also going down in New York, California, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, and several other states, indicative that the surge is peaking, according to experts. But while the situation is becoming less grim, people should not be complacent and maintain masking and health protocols.
In the Philippines, cases are decreasing, particularly in Metro Manila. According to OCTA Research, the one-week growth rate fell to -20 percent and noted that the downward trend is similar to the pattern seen in South Africa where a “dramatic decrease followed a rapid surge in infections.” OCTA also said that daily cases in the National Capital Region could go down to 1,000 in mid-February, possibly less than 500 daily infections by the end of February.
But the world will be coming out of this pandemic with new economic and political challenges. State Secretary Antony Blinken decried the Russian troop buildup, saying “no provocation, no reason” for such action. He raised the possibility that Russia could attack Ukraine “on very short notice.” If that happens, he warns of tough sanctions. US intelligence sources are convinced Russian president Vladimir Putin will use the troops to move into Ukraine, a strategically important nation for NATO and the United States.
“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice,” Secretary Blinken said in a press conference.
Reports that Russia is also moving troops and military hardware to Belarus – with plans to conduct military drills in February dubbed “Allied Resolve” – have fueled the tension even further. Lithuania, which shares a border with Belarus, has expressed concern about the presence of Russian troops.“In the current situation, we consider the entry of Russian military forces into Belarus not only as a destabilizing factor of the security situation but also as an even greater threat to Lithuania,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said.
“Reports that Russia is also moving troops and military hardware to Belarus – with plans to conduct military drills in February dubbed “Allied Resolve” – have fueled the tension even further. Lithuania, which shares a border with Belarus, has expressed concern about the presence of Russian troops.”
Both the UK and Canada are also showing support for Ukraine. The UK has sent antitank weapons and British personnel to provide training, while Canada has warned about severe sanctions and also deployed special forces.
Russia has denied allegations that it is looking for an excuse to invade Ukraine. Security experts believe that such a course of action would be costly – economically and otherwise – for Russia and would be damaging to the political standing of Vladimir Putin. However, they also acknowledge the risk of war if talks between the US and Russia fail to ease tensions. Ukrainians, meanwhile, have expressed their readiness to defend their nation from any attempt at invasion, saying they will fight to the end.
North Korea’s recent firing of suspected ballistic missiles is another cause of tension. It is aggravated by a statement from North Korean state media KCNA that the “hostile policy and military threat by the US have reached a danger line that cannot be overlooked anymore.” Thus, the need to prepare for “a long-term confrontation.”
Japan has issued a condemnation, with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi saying that the “repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan.” And while the missile launches did not pose an immediate threat to the US and its allies, these highlights the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s illicit weapons program, said the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Aside from North Korea and Ukraine, the virtual meeting between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday also tackled China’s increasing aggressiveness and how they can work together to preserve stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
Last Wednesday, Chinese military fighter jets entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone is yet another act of intrusion. Last year, in his congressional testimony, then-Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Philip Davidson said China could attempt to take control over Taiwan within six years, observing that China’s military capability has evolved throughout the 21st century.
“Last year, in his congressional testimony, then-Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Philip Davidson said China could attempt to take control over Taiwan within six years, observing that China’s military capability has evolved throughout the 21st century.”
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also warned about China’s new strategy in advancing its territorial claims. Instead of the nine-dash-line – which the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected as having no legal basis – China is now using the “four sha” (four sands archipelagos, referring to disputed island groups, which China has named as Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha) to justify its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea.
A 47-page report released by the US State Department outlines China’s “unlawful” maritime claims, which “gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention,” the report said.
Countries in the Asia Pacific, especially ASEAN member-nations, will need to be unified in their stand because clearly, any escalation will only make it difficult for nations to recover from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy.
President Biden has already sent out formal letter invitations to all the ASEAN leaders for a face-to-face summit in Washington within the next couple of months. The summit is expected to cover a wide range of post-pandemic economic cooperation and security issues in the region.