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‘Immense challenges’ as Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen begins second term |

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has never been more popular. As the territory’s first female president takes oath on Wednesday for a second term in office, her approval ratings are at a record high and Taiwan’s international standing is growing over its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic. More: US sails warship near Taiwan ahead of…

‘Immense challenges’ as Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen begins second term |

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has never been more popular.
As the territory’s first female president takes oath on Wednesday for a second term in office, her approval ratings are at a record high and Taiwan’s international standing is growing over its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The self-ruled island of 23 million people has recorded just 440 cases and seven deaths despite its close proximity to China, the origin of the respiratory disease that has now killed more than 320,000 people globally.
But the next four years will prove to be challenging for Tsai, according to experts.
Cross-strait relations with China, which claims Taiwan as its own, are at an all-time low. Calls for a formal break with Beijing are likely to grow, while the island’s export-driven economy is expected to contract as much as 4 percent as the pandemic curbs demand in key markets.
“The challenges are immense,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia. “As President Tsai looks forward to the next four years, she will need to demonstrate the same competency and preparedness that she has shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With swift and decisive action, Tsai’s government managed to check the new virus’s spread early on. Taiwan was among the first to screen arrivals from China. It began doing so in early January, soon after reports emerged of a respiratory illness in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. An aggressive contact tracing and quarantine campaign followed, allowing the island to avoid the infection rates and stifling lockdowns seen elsewhere.
Plaudits and tensions
Taiwan’s successful response has won Tsai plaudits across the world, but the boost to its global status has only worsened relations with China.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions that already existed in the Taiwan Strait,” said J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based analyst at the Global Taiwan Institute.
“China’s cover-ups in the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan, contrasted with Taiwan’s openness and rapid response to the virus, has been noticed globally, and the Chinese Communist Party resents that. Beijing is therefore expected to try to undermine the strategic gains that Taiwan has made since January by acting in an even more belligerent fashion.”
These frictions, according to observers, are rooted in the island’s ambiguous status.
Taiwan, as we know it today, is the result of the Chinese civil war, which Chinese nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Led by Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 and set up the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) on the island. The nationalists initially intended to retake the mainland, but ultimately abandoned their dream. They never declared independence, however.
With its own military and foreign ministry, Taiwan also has its own distinct identity, with two-thirds of the island’s population saying they do not identify as Chinese, according to a recent survey. Another poll from October last year showed nearly a third of the Taiwanese people favour independence, while some 25 percent said they favour maintaining the status quo.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, reunification is an issue of legacy. Xi sees reclaiming Taiwan as a mission that would assure his place in history, alongside leaders such as Mao. In a 2019 speech, he outlined his grand vision of “One China” and warned Taiwan that any effort to assert full independence would be met by armed force.
Support for democracy
Tsai responded by telling China to show Taiwan respect. The island was already an independent country called the Republic of China, Taiwan, the 64-year-old former lawyer said, while also offering to talk to China without pre-conditions.

But Beijing has refused. Since Tsai’s election in 2016, it has cut off official communication with her government and convinced at least seven countries to transfer diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. It also sought to squeeze Taiwan’s economy by preventing individual Chinese tourists from visiting the island.
But ironically, observers say it was China’s actions that assured Tsai her landslide victory in the January election. She had been trailing in opinion polls early last year – amid wage stagnation and unpopular pension reforms – when protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets to denounce Beijing’s increased interference in the territory’s affairs.
Tsai was quick to offer her support to the Hong Kong protesters in a Twitter post saying: “We stand with all freedom loving people of Hong Kong”. In the same tweet, she said Taiwan’s “hard-earned democracy must be guarded” and went on to reject the “one country, two systems” model which ties Beijing and Hong Kong together.
“As long as I’m president, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option,” she wrote. When the Taiwanese headed to the polls this January, Tsai’s firm stance in the face of Xi’s warnings and the crackdown in Hong Kong helped her secure the highest number of votes ever in the territory’s history.
And so with Tsai’s re-election, Beijing has only intensified the military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei.
Chinese military aircraft have crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait at least three times in recent months, while a Chinese aircraft carrier and five warships sailed close to Taiwan through the Miyako Strait in April. Beijing has also reportedly threatened to cut off all economic ties with the African kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland if it does not break off relations with Taipei.
Tsai “can expect Beijing to bring greater pressure to bear on Taiwan,” Cole said, adding that he expected the military and diplomatic action to be “accompanied by ramped up political warfare efforts to erode and weaken Taiwan’s democracy and ability to function as a coherent state”.
US steps up support
The pandemic, however, has created diplomatic openings that could help Taiwan deal with China, he says, namely closer relations with the United States.

Washington is Taiwan’s security guarantor and has seized on the opportunity to boost the island’s international status at a time when its own ties with China have deteriorated amid disputes over trade relations and the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, US President Donald Trump signed a law that requires his country to press for Taiwanese recognition in international forums – a move Chinese state media slammed as US support for Taiwanese separatism.
But Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says “the tools the US has to help Taiwan are limited” mainly because of Taiwan’s isolation on the international stage. At present, only 14 nations recognise the territory.
Yet Tsai is still likely to “face pressure from some of the radical elements of her own party, who would like her to seize the opportunity to press more pro-independence measures,” Glaser added.
That is certain to strain cross-strait relations even further. But Glaser says conflict remains unlikely, with China seeming unwilling to risk a military confrontation with the US that risked plunging the region into chaos.
Despite the uncertainty, Glaser says she has faith in Tsai’s ability to lead Taiwan. 
“She’s a very good listener. She’s very calm, very cool. And she has enormous skills as a negotiator,” the analyst said, noting Tsai’s lead role in negotiating Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002.
At her inauguration on Wednesday, Tsai left the door open for talks with China, saying ties were at a turning point. But she again stressed Taiwan would never consider “one country, two systems”.

Tsai Ing-wen stands before a portrait of Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen during the ceremony for her inauguration on Wednesday [Taiwan Presidential Office Handout via EPA]

“She will stand her ground in preserving a position despite the fact she is widely criticised. And I respect that,” Glaser adds, referring to Tsai’s decision to push through much-needed pensions reforms despite widespread opposition. “And when she makes mistakes, she’s also able to recover from them. If you look back on her first term, there were points where she had very low support in public opinion. But she was able to come back.”
Still, Glaser cautions: “It will be difficult for any president to handle all of the challenges that Taiwan faces. The hurdles are enormous, regardless of how capable a president is.”
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MJ Hegar challenges John Cornyn for Texas Senate seat

Democrats are bullish about ousting Sen. John Cornyn in November from his seat from Texas, where they have MJ Hegar — a tattooed, motorcycle-driving, decorated military combat veteran — fighting to prove that the state is indeed trending away from Republicans. The Republican Party has had a stranglehold on statewide elections in Texas since 1994,…

MJ Hegar challenges  John Cornyn for Texas Senate seat

Democrats are bullish about ousting Sen. John Cornyn in November from his seat from Texas, where they have MJ Hegar — a tattooed, motorcycle-driving, decorated military combat veteran — fighting to prove that the state is indeed trending away from Republicans.

The Republican Party has had a stranglehold on statewide elections in Texas since 1994, but there is a sense that the state has been inching toward Democrats and that Mr. Cornyn’s old-school, low-key cowboy style has lost a bit of its political luster.

These days, bomb-throwing, high-octane Republicans are more in vogue in the Lone Star State.

“I think Cornyn is as vulnerable as he has ever been,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Having said that, he has not been terribly vulnerable in the past.”

Texas has changed a lot since Mr. Cornyn cruised to a third term in 2014. Mrs. Hegar is shaping up to be his toughest rival to date, Mr. Blank said.

“MJ Hegar still has a lot of work to do, but has a larger profile — both in Texas and nationally — than his last two Senate opponents,” he said.

Mr. Cornyn, 68, has been a longtime staple of Texas politics. He served as a state Supreme Court justice for more than five years before he was elected as state attorney general in the 1990s.

In 2002, Mr. Cornyn won his Senate seat by 12 percentage points and followed up with another double-digit victory in 2008. His best showing was in 2014, when he won by nearly 30 points.

Along the way, he has climbed the ranks of power in Congress and served as minority and majority whip.

Mrs. Hegar, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to politics.

The 44-year-old served in the Air Force for 12 years, first as a maintenance mechanic and then as a pilot. She was awarded the Purple Heart after co-piloting a helicopter shot down by the Taliban during her third tour in Afghanistan.

She recounts her combat duty in her 2017 memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl.”

In 2012, Mrs. Hegar served as the lead plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that helped pressure the Defense Department to lift its ban on women in combat.

Her first stab at politics was in a failed 2018 bid to replace Republican Rep. John Carter in his district in suburban Austin.

Last week, she won a runoff election to capture the Democratic nomination and the chance to face off against Mr. Cornyn.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan campaign tracker, rates the Senate race as “likely” to stay in Republican hands. It applied the same ranking to the reelection races of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

Mr. Cornyn has nearly $15 million in the bank, and Mrs. Hegar has about $1 million cash on hand, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

The disparity could make it easier for Mr. Cornyn to define Mrs. Hegar before she can define herself. His campaign has moved to do just that by dismissing her ability to replicate former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s stronger-than-expected bid against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

“MJ is no Beto,” the Cornyn campaign says.

His campaign also has branded her “Hollywood Hegar” and accused her of being more show than substance, casting her as a manufactured product of Hollywood and Washington liberals. Ads link her to liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and far-left policies on climate, taxes, schools and health care that are “anathema to the majority of Texans.”

“Why won’t MJ answer questions?” a narrator says in a recent Cornyn ad. “Because Texans know the difference between reality and Hollywood.

“Hiding behind the curtain and bright lights might work in other states, but not here,” the narrator says. “MJ Hegar, don’t fall for the special effects. She’s Elizabeth Warren on a motorcycle.”

The landing page for Mr. Cornyn’s campaign website warns that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, “is meddling” in the race and “Pouring Money Into Flipping Texas Blue!”

The message is accompanied by an animated, cartoonlike image of Mr. Schumer piloting a helicopter and tossing bags emblazoned with dollar signs into the state.

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden started running a television ad in Texas last week, but it remains to be seen how much money Democrats plan to invest in the state.

Democrats are projecting optimism.

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said polls have shown voters are not as enthusiastic about Mr. Cornyn as they are about other Republicans in statewide office.

He pointed to a recent Dallas Morning News survey that found fewer than 4 in 10 voters planned to vote for Mr. Cornyn and 3 in 10 voters were on the fence.

A Quinnipiac University survey showed Mr. Cornyn trailing President Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott and Mr. Cruz on the favorability scorecard.

“Sen. Cornyn is the least liked [statewide] politician in the state of Texas, and he is very highly unknown despite the fact he spent the last 20 years representing them,” Mr. Rahman said. “This is the most competitive race that he will likely face in his life.”

The Texas Republican Party is going through a leadership shake-up.

On Monday, former Rep. Allen West of Florida won the race to become chairman of the Texas Republican Party, stopping James Dickie from securing a second term and adding to the sense that it pays to be a renegade in the Lone Star State.

“Cornyn is a Republican about two vintages older than the most recent crop, and I just mean stylistically,” Mr. Blank said. “Cornyn is a very patriarchal and a traditional Republican senator, who has been surpassed in the minds of Texas Republicans by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.”

That is not lost on Democrats. They say the state’s demographics have been trending in their favor, which is born out in recent elections.

In 2012, President Obama lost the state by nearly 16 points, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton shaved that down to 9 points.

Democrats got a big emotional lift in 2018 when Mr. O’Rourke came within 3 points of defeating Mr. Cruz.

Democrats flipped a pair of House seats and hope to roll that momentum in November. They are targeting seven Republican House seats, including three that are considered toss-ups.

They say Mrs. Hegar could be a tough opponent for Mr. Cornyn, whom they plan to portray as a career politician.

“MJ is everything Cornyn isn’t,” Mr. Rahman said. “Cornyn is a bootlicker, and MJ is an ass-kicker.”

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Challenges ahead as UN set to extend ‘most dangerous’ mission |

The United Nations Security Council is expected next week to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA. Often dubbed the UN’s most “dangerous mission”, MINUSMA will enter its eighth year at the centre of a multilayered and complicated conflict that has spread across the Sahel, a semi-arid region directly south of the…

Challenges ahead as UN set to extend ‘most dangerous’ mission |

The United Nations Security Council is expected next week to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
Often dubbed the UN’s most “dangerous mission”, MINUSMA will enter its eighth year at the centre of a multilayered and complicated conflict that has spread across the Sahel, a semi-arid region directly south of the Sahara desert in northwestern and central Africa.
Its challenges are myriad: a volatile environment that often proves deadly for UN forces, restricts peace-building initiatives and keeps the mission on a defensive footing; an inconsistent Malian ruling class; and a shifting and complex crisis that has exploded in the centre of the country that lacks an adequate framework for resolution.
Despite such obstacles, Security Council members have not yet been able to deny that the 15,000-strong mission, which includes 13,000 peacekeepers, is a necessity in a country considered the epicentre of the wider security crisis in the region, said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Programme.

TALK TO AL JAZEERA | UN envoy in Mali: Sahel crisis could spread to Europe

“However difficult the track record, however troubling the situation, however slow the pace of progress, where there is any, when the Security Council is confronted with the actual reality of the situation on the ground, they come to the conclusion that there is no alternative,” he said.
“MINUSMA needs to be there.”
The mission has become “life support” for a Malian state teetering on the edge, providing critical infrastructure, in particular air transportation, for a government that has largely retreated from large swaths of the country, said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think that without MINUSMA, for as dire and desperate as the situation in Mali is, it would slide even further down into instability, unrest and un-governability,” he said.
“The most generous thing we can say about MINUSMA is that it slows Mali’s slide … But Mali continues to devolve and worsen despite MINUSMA’s presence.”
Strategic priorities
Mali’s crisis was triggered in 2012 when ethnic Taureg separatists, allied with fighters from an al-Qaeda offshoot, launched a rebellion that took control of Mali’s north. But the armed group fighters swiftly pushed over the Tuareg rebels and seized key northern cities until they were driven out in early 2013 by French troops, together with Malian forces and soldiers from other African countries under the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) banner.
On April 25, 2013, the UNSC established MINUSMA, or the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission, which took over operations from AFISMA in July 2013.
MINUSMA’s strategic priority first focused on the sprawling north, a flat and unforgiving desert and semi-desert area about the size of Afghanistan. Its mandate included protecting civilians, aiding in implementing a 2015 peace agreement between the government and some separatist groups in the north, helping to re-establish the state authority and building the security sector, which was and continues to be largely absent in some regions.
The mission is also charged with monitoring human rights abuses by armed groups and the array of security forces operating in the country, a tenuous role, at times, since MINUSMA works in cooperation with many of those forces.  

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita inspects the damage after an attack by gunmen on Fulani herders in Ogossagou, Mali in March of 2019 that killed at least 160 people [File: Reuters]

In 2018, the mission began to shift focus to Mali’s hot semi-arid centre as the situation there began to devolve drastically. A year later, MINUSMA added a second strategic priority that includes helping the Malian government restore stability in central Mali, while also protecting civilians, helping to restore the presence of the state and promoting political peace initiatives. 
In this region, various armed groups – including Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate – have been jockeying for control while exploiting poverty and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups, notably Fulani herdsmen and Dogon farmers. Those communities have already been pushed to a breaking point as climate change stifles resources in a land where the dry season is long and rainfall unreliable. 
Attacks in Mali have spread into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso and grew fivefold between 2016 and 2020, with 4,000 people killed in 2019, up from about 770 killed in 2016, according to the UN. This year, the unrest including armed group attacks and intercommunity violence has so far killed 580 civilians just in central Mali.
Meanwhile, the number of people forced to leave their homes due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the region has surged from about 600,000 internally displaced people recorded in May 2010 to 1.5 million by April 2020.
The evolving situation, and the increase in violence perpetrated by “jihadist” armed groups in central Mali, as opposed to the northern rebel separatist groups, has created a unique position for the UN mission, said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). 
“MINSUMA is not a force that does counterterrorism,” he said. “However, it collaborates with other forces that operate on the ground … So it is not unengaged in the counterterrorism arena, even though it does not engage directly in it.”
‘Most dangerous’
MINUSMA’s most recent renewal signifies a temporary truce between the United States and France, both permanent UNSC members and veto-power holders, analysts say.  
The US, citing the security deterioration in recent years, has repeatedly called for a “major drawdown” in the mission and that it be repurposed with the sole aim of protecting civilians.
Meanwhile, France, which has taken the most active military role of any foreign power in its former colony since its 2013 intervention, sees MINUSMA as an essential component of a broad coalition of forces currently attempting to root out armed groups. 
The forces operating in the Sahel include France’s Operation Barkhane, whose roughly 5,000 troops are largely based in the north and east of the country; the internationally supported G5 Sahel Joint Force, which is mostly composed of troops from neighbouring Sahel countries while operating in the south, centre and east of Mali; a European Union training mission that supports Malian security forces; and the recently approved task force Takuba, an EU special forces initiative set to be operational in the restive tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger by 2021. 

More than half of the attacks on MINUSMA have occurred in the central Mopti region [Al Jazeera]

Still, insecurity has continued to reign.
Just two days after a virtual UNSC meeting on June 11 to discuss the mandate’s renewal, “unidentified armed assailants” attacked a logistical convoy of the UN mission travelling between the towns of Tessalit and Gao, killing two Egyptian peacekeepers.

Such incidents occur regularly. To date, 209 UN personnel have been killed in the seven-year-old mission. 
“That’s the main challenge and that has lots of implications,” Jair van der Lijn, director of the Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told Al Jazeera.
“The mission becomes more expensive, because you need to have all the protection,” he said. “It means that you are not as close to the population as you would like to be and you’re not able to do the projects in the way that you would like them to be done.”
In the year since the mandate was last extended, in June 2019, MINUSMA was attacked 136 times, according to quarterly reports by the secretary-general. Seventy-one of those attacks, a majority, occurred in the central Mopti region.
Political will
From the Malian government, analysts and observers say the will to end the conflict has fluctuated.
It remains to be seen how recent protests in the capital, Bamako, belying growing unrest with the government that includes its handling of the central crisis, will affect the attitude of officials currently in power. 
The large street demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has been in power since 2013, have been supported by Mahmoud Dicko, a prominent Muslim leader who has long called for dialogue between the government and the armed groups in the central region.

Protests in Bamako beginning on June 5 have called for the resignation of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita [Michele Cattani/AFP]

Prior to the recent demonstrations, CSIS’s Devermont wrote in December 2019 that Mali’s political class has appeared more reticent than other leaders in the region to find a solution to the complex crisis, noting that they have not appeared to view the issue as relevant to the 90 percent of their constituents who live in the more hospitable south. 
“The politics in Bamako and the southern part of the country are paramount and supersede the troubling developments in northern and central regions,” wrote Devermont. “Not only has the government faced little sustained pressure to address insecurity, but it may believe there is an unacceptable political cost to doing more, particularly because it believes the violence does not pose an existential threat to stability in the country’s south.”
He added: “Mali’s political and business classes may have an incentive to prolong the conflict because they benefit from international financial flows into the country.”
A lack of inclusivity in the government, as well as corruption and allegations that some officials are involved in criminal networks that fund the violence, have all hindered attempts at reconciliation in the centre, despite a political peace-building initiative led by Bamako and supported by MINUSMA.
“The government has its plans for how to deal with the centre of the country. And the best [the UN] basically can do is support any kind of the local mediation that is ongoing and support the parties wherever they are willing to do something,” SIPRI’s van der Lijn said. 

More than one million people have been internally displaced from the conflict between May 2019 and April 2020 [Michele Cattani/AFP]

“But the challenge for the UN is, you can strengthen governance or you can strengthen the government, but it needs to become more inclusive. And as long as that does not happen, it’s going to be a very difficult process.”
Moreover, the government support of some local militias against others and accusation of abuses and extrajudicial killings by Malian forces have perpetuated deep-seated mistrust and enmity in regions with little government presence otherwise. 
MINUSMA’s human rights monitor has documented 119 extrajudicial killings in the first three months of 2020 committed by Malian security forces in the central Mopti and Segou regions, including some by local forces operating under the auspices of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Most recently, in June, a Fulani association accused the Malian army of massacring dozens of civilians in a village in the Mopti region. 
No framework for peace
Going forward, several analysts agree the most fundamental challenge faced by MINUSMA is fulfilling its dual mandates in Mali’s north and centre.
Pivoting away from the north without an increase in funding could jeopardise the substantial gains made there, but resources needed to operate properly in the centre have not materialised, said Flore Berger, a Sahel research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).  
“They still don’t have, in the Mopti region, military helicopters and ISR aircraft. So even if there is an attack somewhere in Mopti in the central sector, they cannot intervene quickly,” she said. “They don’t have helicopters and it’s the only way to safely move around the region because of IEDs and the presence of armed groups.”
And while the 2015 accord offers a framework, although laden with obstacles, to approach peace with some of the armed groups in the north, there is no such framework for peace in the centre for MINUSMA to support. 
“The reason why they have been productive in northern Mali is because there is a peace agreement that they’re trying to implement,” said ICG’s Ibrahim. 
“In central Mali, there is no such thing, there is no peace framework that MINUSMA can implement and bring all the actors to respect.”
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