Opinion | Trump’s Shuffling of the Pentagon Makes for a Rough Transition

The scariest possibility would be a Chinese move on Taiwan. President Xi Jinping may want to signal to the United States and Taiwan alike that any deepening of ties will carry a steep price. If so, Xi might prefer to lay down that marker in the transition so that Biden isn’t forced to respond.

The risk isn’t so much an all-out invasion of Taiwan as it is a lesser step meant as a warning shot across the bow: snipping of undersea telecommunications cables that carry the internet to Taiwan, turning out the lights with a cyberattack, impeding oil tankers in ways that alarm investors and tank the stock market — and, from Xi’s point of view, teach Taiwan a lesson. Clashes could quickly escalate, for Taiwan would want China to pay a price for such bullying.

“Beijing might calculate that the time is ripe for a move on one of Taiwan’s outer islands, but it would sacrifice any opportunity for a moderated U.S. position toward China once President-elect Biden takes office,” noted Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Beijing should also realize that any provocation could backfire and result in closer ties between the United States and Taiwan, plus pressure to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

One not-so-reassuring sign, Economy noted, is that China recently proved willing to sacrifice its larger relationship with India over a border dispute.

As for Iran, most experts believe that it will be on good behavior in hopes of getting a fresh start with Biden — unless it is provoked by some aggressive step concocted by the newly installed hard-liners in the Pentagon. In other words, any dangerous provocation is more likely to originate in Washington, not Tehran.

Another risk is that Israel may conclude that the next two months offer a last chance to strike Iranian nuclear sites with support from Washington. The ensuing storm would reverberate through the region and might make it impossible for Biden to get Iran back into the nuclear accord.

Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, said that one risk generally is that governments may prefer to take aggressive steps now, while the United States is distracted. For example, Ethiopia’s prime minister has ignited a civil war and Azerbaijan began an offensive against an ethnic Armenian enclave. There’s no proof that the timing for either was shaped by events in Washington — but if you’re an autocrat, this is not a bad time to start a war.

“Any transitional period presents foreign policy risks,” Malley said, “but a transitional period involving Trump by definition magnifies them.”

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