In the latest sign of continuity in US policy in Asia, the newly-inaugurated Biden administration is toughening its stance on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
In its latest Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, the Pentagon deployed the guided-missile destroyer USS Russell well into the 12 nautical mile zone around the Chinese-claimed islands in the Spratlys.
Only weeks earlier, another US warship, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John McCain, conducted a similar operation in the Paracel Islands, which is contested by China and Vietnam. The Biden administration also oversaw the Pentagon’s first dual-carrier operation this year, featuring drills by the Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Groups in the area.
The new US leadership’s expanded naval deployments to the area have coincided with toughening diplomatic posturing. The US State Department lambasted Beijing’s recently-passed controversial China Coast Guard Law, calling it a source of deep “concern” and likely part of the Asian superpower’s broader effort to coercively “assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.”
Beijing’s new maritime law has provoked outrage among US’ allies in Asia, since it calls on China’s massive fleet of coast guard forces, along with auxiliary paramilitary vessels, to use “all means necessary,” including shooting at “intruders,” across the contested waters.
The latest moves by the US in the contested area came on the heels of US President Joe Biden’s characterization of the Asian powerhouse as America’s “most serious competitor” because of its allegedly direct assault on the post-World War II “global governance” structures established under Washington’s leadership.
Though expressing his openness to “work with China when it benefits the American people,” the new US president has largely adopted the former Trump administration’s aggressive pushback against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in Asia.
Major naval operations
In its first month in office, the Biden administration has conducted at least three major naval operations in waters near China, which is by far the most robust American show of force in the past decade.
Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Russell was only the latest American warship to challenge China’s excessive claims in international waters.
“This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan,” a statement by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said.
From practically zero operations in 2014, the Trump administration escalated the operations to as many as six in 2017 and nine in 2019. Based on current trends, the Biden administration could be well on track in matching, if not surpassing, its Republican predecessor in directly challenging Beijing’s expansive claims in adjacent waters, reflecting an increasingly hawkish turn in Democratic foreign policy on China.
Washington claims that such deployments, whereby US warships deliberately ignore China’s territorial sea claims around contested or artificially-reclaimed land features, are essential to constraining the Asian superpower’s maritime ambitions and, accordingly, protecting the legitimate and lawful interests of smaller claimants as well as external powers.
US 7th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Joe Keiley criticized China’s “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea” as posing a “serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations. ”
The Pentagon also warned China against “the unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage,” describing its FONOPs as consistent with prevailing international law and the right to “innocent passage” for warships through international waters.
“China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands. China, Vietnam and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all states – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea,” the 7th Fleet spokesman added, portraying its latest FONOPs as essential to upholding international law in the South China Sea.
“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed” by countries such as China in international waters, the Pentagon claims.
The State Department, meanwhile, has also upped the ante by voicing “concern” over China’s recent moves, especially authorizing coast guard forces to use force against rival claimant states in adjacent waters.
The text of the new Chinese law, according to the State Department, “strongly implies [it] can be used to intimidate the PRC’s [China’s] maritime neighbors.”
“We remind the PRC and all whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities,” said state department spokesperson Ned Price.
“We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he added.
In response to the Biden administration’s tough policy in the South China Sea, China accused the US of “seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security, gravely undermining regional peace and stability, and deliberately disrupting the good atmosphere of peace, friendship and co-operation in the South China Sea.”
‘Free access operation’
There are signs that other key US allies are joining in, concerned with implications of China’s naval assertiveness for regional security. Earlier this month, French Defense Minister Florence Parly revealed that the country had already dispatched an attack submarine to the disputed area, while Britain and Germany are expected to also conduct major drills in waters adjacent to China in the coming months.
Separately, a Royal Canadian Navy warship also conducted its own “free access operation” through the Taiwan Strait en route to joint exercises with counterparts from the US, Australia and Japan.
Michael Shoebridge, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), recently warned “what’s different now, though, is that with this new [maritime] law [China President] Xi [Jinping] has told his coastguard to be wolf warriors at sea – and to use force, including lethal force, to assert Chinese interests.”
Among the US’ major allies, Japan seems to be the most troubled by China’s latest move, with several Chinese Coast Guard vessels entering contested waters in the East China Sea shortly after the passage of the new “open fire” law.
Tokyo described the Chinese coast guard’s latest deployments deep into the Japan-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as “regrettable” and warned any act of intimidation or violence by Chinese maritime forces is “absolutely unacceptable” and will be met with corresponding countermeasures.
“These activities are a violation of international law,” exclaimed Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, describing the contested rocks and atolls as Japan’s “inherent territory.”
The United States on Friday for the first time publicly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, unveiling a raft of punitive measures but stopping short of directly targeting the powerful heir apparent.
The prince, who is de facto ruler of the longtime US ally and oil provider, “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said an intelligence report newly declassified by President Joe Biden’s administration.
The report said that given Prince Mohammed’s influence, it was “highly unlikely” that the 2018 murder could have taken place without his green light. The killing also fit a pattern of “the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”
Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed who wrote for The Washington Post and was a US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, then killed and cut into pieces.
The Treasury Department announced it was freezing assets and criminalizing transactions with a former intelligence official as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit that the report said “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him.”
In honor of the slain writer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the “Khashoggi Act” that will ban entry into the United States of foreigners who threaten dissidents or harass reporters and their families and immediately placed 76 Saudis on the blacklist.
“We have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken said in a statement.
Not seeking ‘rupture’
But the United States stopped short of directly targeting the 35-year-old crown prince, known by his initials MBS, with officials contending there was no precedent for sanctions on a senior leader of an ally.
Blinken, questioned by reporters, said that “this is bigger than any one person,” explaining that Biden is trying “not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate to be more in line with our interests and our values.”
An advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, Democracy for the Arab World Now, called on Biden to go further by imposing sanctions on Prince Mohammed – with a number of lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party also pushing for more action.
“We must also ensure that there are real consequences for individuals like MBS; if not, autocrats around the world will get the message that impunity is the rule,” said Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Saudi foreign ministry in a statement denounced the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment” and rejected “any measure that infringes upon its leadership.”
The Saudi government, which in the initial days said it had no information on Khashoggi, says it accepts responsibility for the killing but casts it as a rogue operation that did not involve the prince.
Biden’s decision to release the report – first completed under Donald Trump – was a sharp departure from his predecessor, who had vowed to keep working with Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom’s lavish purchases of US weapons and shared hostility toward Iran.
Biden spoke by telephone late Thursday with 85-year-old King Salman after the White House made clear he had no intention of speaking to the crown prince, who by contrast had formed a friendship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Fatal consulate appointment
A veteran Saudi journalist who had gone into self-exile, Khashoggi was told by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States to go to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.
Within minutes of entering the building on October 2, 2018, the 59-year-old was strangled and his body was dismembered by a 15-member team allegedly sent from Riyadh under the direction of a top aide to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.
The intelligence report said seven of the 15 Saudis came from the Rapid Intervention Force, which it said had earlier acted to suppress dissent in the kingdom and abroad.
The Central Intelligence Agency had quickly concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed ordered the assassination but Trump refused to release the report and called for moving on.
A US official said it was “obviously reality” that the new administration will still have to deal with the prince, who is also defense minister, on issues including oil, Iran and Yemen, where Biden has cut support for Saudi’s devastating offensive.
Few observers of Saudi Arabia believe the murder could have taken place without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, a calculating strongman who has jailed a number of critics and locked up competing factions in the royal family.
Under heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, the Saudi government put some of the perpetrators on trial.
The closed-door trial exonerated the two officials widely seen as the masterminds: Qahtani, the royal court’s media advisor, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri – who was slapped with sanctions Friday by the Treasury Department.
Five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others given stiff prison terms. Nine months later, the death sentences were withdrawn by the court and replaced with sentences of up to 20 years.
Rights groups called the case a farce but it satisfied the Trump administration, which blacklisted 17 suspects including Qahtani but not Assiri.
The “taper tantrum” of 2013 ubiquitously mentioned as a precedent for today’s market was prompted by soaring inflation. As the first chart makes clear, inflation expectations embedded in Treasury bond yields went vertical as the Fed brought real interest rates down.
Nothing like that has happened this year: the real yield (as measured by the yield on the 5-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Security) moved in a straight line with inflation expectations (so-called “breakeven inflation”).
Central banks scrambled to talk the market down from the ledge on Feb. 26 after a pop in Treasury yields send world equity markets plunging. They aren’t worried about inflation, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said repeatedly. But they are worried about financing a US budget deficit equal to 16% of GDP, something the US hasn’t seen since the Second World War.
A run out of Treasury bonds in the face of $3.5 trillion of new Treasury bond issuance this year could get bloody. So the Fed will do whatever it takes to keep bond buyers coming in rather than bailing out.
The proverbial cat is out of the bag at the 2021 IDEX military show in Abu Dhabi.
Back in November 2020, China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO) announced its Golden Eagle CR500 vertical take-off and landing UAV had completed final inspections and been cleared for delivery to an undisclosed costumer.
We now know who that customer is.
According to a report by Chyrine Mezher for Breaking Defense and quoting an anonymous source, the UAE army plans to buy a bunch of new Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles.
“The deals could include 10 to 15 Golden Eagle CR500 helo drones fitted with Red Arrow 12 missiles, and 20 MR40 unmanned aircraft fitted with BBE-2 bombs,” the official said, adding that both deals will approximately cost US$9 million and US$7 million respectively.
The UAE is also set to receive “thousands of related missile systems,” he added, with the CR500 being able carry up to 150KG of payloads. “We expect the first trials to take place in October and deliveries to start within a year.”
IDEX, by the way, is the only international defence exhibition and conference in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) demonstrating the latest technology across land, sea and air sectors of defence.
It draws defense firms from around the world, and for the first time this year, Israel also attended the show.
Although Israel has had quiet dealing with the United Arab Emirates and some Gulf states for years, the ability to seek joint ventures and partnerships openly is new, National Interest reported.
This has all come about in the wake of the Abraham Accords last year which saw Bahrain and the UAE normalize relations.
According to a Chinese spokesperson, the CR500 has an endurance of up to five hours and can fly up to 3,000 meters, while the MH40 can fly for about 30 minutes over a 5-km range while it performs reconnaissance and research missions, Breaking Defense reported.
NORINCO has said the CR500 Golden Eagle is a coaxial rotor helicopter drone designed for multiple missions including battlefield reconnaissance, target positioning and illuminating, communication relay and battle damage assessment.
“The drone can carry a large payload, has a long endurance even when fully loaded, and a compact structure that can be easily stored and transported. It can also resist strong winds, carry different types of electro-optical pods and payloads, and act as a logistics support craft and deliver materials with pinpoint accuracy,” the company says.
The MR40-series is equipped with four rotors and could be fitted with search and targeting radars and reconnaissance subsystems and armed with an array of weapons, including guided missiles and fragmentation bombs, Breaking Defense reported.
This comes in light of a relatively new Emirati-Chinese strategy to work on long-term R&D projects for unmanned systems, which was obvious at the show.
Located directly in front of UAE’s agglomerate EDGE Group, was the China-Emirates Science and Technology innovation laboratory (CEST), a joint project between UAE’s International Golden Group and NORINCO, Breaking Defense reported.
“This project has been going on for more than a year now and focuses on research and development within the field of UAVs,” disclosed the Chinese spokesperson. “Being here at IDEX adds so much value to our work and proves our commitment to the UAE defense industry and the region.”
CEST showcased a wide range of Chinese products at IDEX but mainly focused on unmanned systems and their missiles including the CR500, MR40 and MR150 UAVs.
Meanwhile, the overall exhibition saw reports of more than US$1 billion in deals announced the first day, National Interest reported.
IDEX runs from February 21 for five days.
Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Teleworking Applications, said that the UAE is a country that looks ahead.
“We plan proactively rather than reactively to changes, and artificial intelligence will reshape the world as we know it. We are seeing an increasing infusion of systems that are productive and critical to our economies. Defending these systems is as critical as defending the sovereignty of our nation,” he said.
According to Al Jazeera, Chinese armed drones have made a significant effect on the battlefields across the Middle East and North Africa.
They have been used to assassinate Houthi rebel leaders in Yemen, kill ISIL-affiliated fighters in the Sinai, and for a time help Khalifa Haftar dominate the battlespace in Libya.
While the US has traditionally refused to sell its latest advanced weapons systems, China is not bound by such constraints and has had no problem exporting its drones right across the Middle East and Africa.
Factories under licence to build Chinese armed drones have been set up in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar. Exports of Chinese drones are so extensive the sales have made China the second-largest arms exporter in the world.
Elizabeth Becker, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, Public Affairs Books, $16.99.
The first time I dealt with small arms fire, I was in a wooden tower buttressed with sandbags looking out over Highway 1 which ran to Saigon. I was on guard duty sometime before midnight when the shift would change. I was trying to stay awake when I heard ka-rack and saw red tracer rounds arcing over my head.
I knew that every eighth round was a tracer, so there were a bunch of rounds I didn’t see. I knelt behind the sandbags, my rifle resting on top, my helmet tipped forward and peed my pants.
Multiply that little scene by a million and you might get close to what three amazing women did for several years during the Vietnam War. To use a grunt phrase, they wanted to be “in the shit.” They got their wish.
Catherine Leroy, a 5-foot tall, 87-pound, brown-haired French photographer; Frances FitzGerald, an East Coast blue-blood American writer; and Kate Webb, a New Zealand-born reporter who moved to Australia at age 8 and who later had a black hole in her past.
Elizabeth Becker memorializes this trio of journalists in her just-published You Don’t Belong Here: How ThreeWomen Rewrote the History of War. Becker, herself a highly respected war correspondent, tells story after story about these three storytellers. While the clause after the colon in her book’s title may exaggerate their impact, the three did show sides of the decade-long struggle that their male counterparts didn’t cover.
The result was that their audiences – on three separate continents – saw slices of conflict and human tragedy and heroism from a different, and in some ways more empathetic perspective.
As Becker puts it: “They didn’t write their memoirs. Two of them (Webb and Leroy) have already died. They made their way to Vietnam at the beginning. I came at the tail end, following their paths. Together, their lives offer a new way to see the war and it is long overdue.”
To do shorthand violence to this memorable work, it might be said that the male correspondents focused on the blood and guts of Vietnam. Webb, FitzGerald and Leroy focused on the hearts and minds.
Becker puts us, the readers, in a C-130 cargo plane with Leroy, getting ready to parachute-jump near the Cambodian border; at a party for Fitzgerald on the rooftop of the Caravelle Hotel arranged by a senior US embassy official (FitzGerald’s father was near the top of the CIA); in the 23-day captivity of Webb by the Viet Cong.
Becker’s diligent research into the three women lets us feel as if we are shadowing a Vietnamese doctor making his bloody rounds in Saigon or traveling with a Vietnamese infantry division or being captured by the North Vietnamese Army during the battle for Hue in Tet 1968.
Becker’s scrupulous use of thousands of pages written by the women themselves and now, in two cases, consultation with their families, places us alongside the reporters as they report.
By doing this, Becker transforms what could have been a good book into a prize-worthy page-turner of tension, suspense and drama. The tone of the book intensifies with each chapter (all deftly named). Becker never loses sight of her goal to illuminate these women in the larger context of America’s biggest foreign policy disaster of the 20th century.
As Frankie FitzGerald wrote in a note to herself: “You must not forget. You simply must not forget. That this war is a tragedy. That the greatest sin is to speak of politics in the abstract … You must stick to the concrete because that way you will be able to see in more points of view than the abstract.”
We learn the myriad dimensions of each woman. Kate Webb, for instance, had inadvertently led her teenaged best friend into committing suicide in Australia; not long after, both her parents were killed in a car wreck.
Frankie’s past included a degree from Radcliffe, a Vogue-like model of a mother and two years on the Left Bank in Paris. Leroy had to endure public ridicule by male reporters and officers and was the victim of that hoary standby slander that she slept around to get information.
Both Webb and FitzGerald experienced heartbreak in wartime romances. A male writer could not have described these with such sensitivity as does Becker. We feel their loss.
Becker shows them pursuing stories in their inimitable ways:
“In the village of Co Luu in Quang Ngaio Province, Leroy photographed Marines moving several hundred villagers into tents surrounded by barbed wire. Leroy took images of an interrogation, which she later described in a diary: ‘A South Vietnamese officer is asking standard questions to an old man who is wrinkled and trembling: “How old are you? Where are your sons.’”
“Frankie FitzGerald spent Christmas 1974 in Hanoi and stayed on through the New Year of 1975, becoming one of the very few journalists who reported from all three sides of the war (the US, North Vietnam and South Vietnam). She wrote that the (North Vietnamese) landscape hadn’t changed since ‘the nineteen-twenties or the seventeen-twenties.’”
In April 1971, Kate Webb and five Asian journalists covering the war in Cambodia were captured by the North Vietnamese who were fighting the Cambodian army of Lon Nol. The NVA held them for 23 days as they marched through the jungle.
On May 1, the biggest holiday in the communist calendar. they were released. Earlier reports had misidentified as Kate a white woman who drowned, so the newspapers down under went wild: BACK FROM DEAD; FREED NEWSGIRL ON CONG: TOUGH MEN, HIGH MORALE; OUR GIRL KATE IS ALIVE AND WELL.
Although all three women were feted during their war years, and won some of the highest awards in journalism, their legacies became murky. For example, FitzGerald’s epic work Fire in the Lake wasn’t listed among the 50 history books on the war recommended by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in the 2017 PBS documentary.
Neither was Webb’s On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong. Nor was Leroy’s Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam.
Becker’s tour de force preserves those legacies. In a Zoom meeting with the Overseas Press Club earlier this month, she said: “I don’t think I could have done it without them, without them paving the way. I don’t want to say it’s gender per se but, as outsiders, [the three women] were much more interested in the humanity of the story, and they dug deep into what would be called ‘the locals,’ ie, the country where the war is being fought.”
Dana Kennedy, a veteran journalist now at the New York Post, said this about them in an email: “These three women were incredibly courageous but not just because they were pioneers who paved the way against great odds for scores of female journalists who followed them.
“What they did was arguably much more admirable and their work all the more profound because they got none of the splashy attention, instant ego gratification and six-figure salaries enjoyed by so many of today’s war correspondents.
“They didn’t have websites showing them in PRESS helmets or bulletproof vests, nor were their exploits caught in YouTube clips culled from the networks. They did hard, scary work with little reward for what I imagine is still the best reason: They loved being reporters on big stories.”
Thanks to Elizabeth Becker, the world now knows they did belong there.
Mike Tharp served in the army in Vietnam with the 16th Public Information Detachment 1969-70. He was awarded a Bronze Star. He’s a veteran Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review and US News & World Report. He’s covered six wars as a civilian.
Hopes for quarantine-free travel from Hong Kong to mainland China were dampened by a recent virus outbreak centered in a restaurant in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui.
At least 30 people, who worked or dined at a restaurant called Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining, in luxury shopping mall K11 Musea, were infected or tested positive preliminarily in the past few days, Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection said at a media briefing on Friday.
A cleaner, who was responsible for clearing tables at the restaurant, developed a cough on February 18 and could have spread the coronavirus to his colleagues and the restaurant’s customers during the lunch hour on February 19, Chuang said.
The man could be a “super-spreader” and his condition remained critical, she said.
“It’s possible that he’s a super-spreader, but we can never confirm this fact. We’re tracing the other customers in order not to miss anyone who might be infected,” she said.
A total of 76 customers who dined in the restaurant on February 19 would be sent to quarantine centers if they had not tested positive, she said. As the infected customers mainly sat at eight tables that were close to each other, it was more likely that they were infected by the respiratory droplets of the coughing cleaner, rather than the objects he touched, she added.
The Center for Health Protection said a total of 24 Covid cases, including six imported ones and 18 local infections, were recorded on Thursday. Of the local cases, one was untraceable, involving a 59-year-old man who lived in Lok Man House at Lok Fu Estate.
More than 20 people tested positive preliminarily on Friday with seven having no known sources. These untraceable cases involved people who lived in different districts across Hong Kong. Many had recently had lunch gatherings or sporting activities with friends.
About 30-40% of local cases had no known sources and it would be good to further increase the quarantine requirements to cut off transmission chains in Hong Kong, Chuang said.
People who had close contact with a newly-identified Covid patient over the last seven days would be sent to quarantine centers for 14 days, instead of only being required to do the virus tests, she said. The 14-days would be counted from the date they met the patient, she added.
On Friday, Hong Kong’s vaccination program kicked off with several thousand people receiving the Sinovac jabs at five vaccination centers and 18 clinics under the Hospital Authority. They were among the 70,000 people who on Tuesday snapped up all the available slots for vaccinations for the next two weeks.
Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip said bookings would be open again on Monday, with another 200,000 doses available. Nip said more than 1,000 private doctors would help inoculate people with Sinovac jabs from early next week.
Three vaccination centers, in Tsueng Kwan O, Kwai Tsing and Tuen Mun that were originally due to provide shots produced by German drugmaker BioNTech, would be giving out jabs made by China’s Sinovac instead, he said.
Originally, the first batch of one million doses of the BioNTech vaccine should have arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday. But the delivery was delayed by two days due to some export procedures.
Nip said about 700,000 doses of BioNTech vaccine would be sent to Hong Kong on Saturday. However, media reports said some of these products would then be redirected to Macau.
Allen Shi Lop-tak, the President of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, wrote in an article on Friday saying the mainland would only reopen its border with Hong Kong if the latter could reduce the number of local infections per day to single digits. He said Beijing would also require that all cross-border travelers be vaccinated.
Shi said not many cross-border travelers could be inoculated in the short term as they were not in priority groups.
Shi said Hong Kong should form “travel bubbles” with Macau and the mainland so travelers with negative test certificates would be quarantined seven days only, instead of 14 days, after arriving at the two places. He said he hoped that all vaccinated people should be allowed to go to the mainland freely as early as possible.
However, Hong Kong officials and medical experts were more conservative about the progress of the border reopening.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said on February 13 that the government would talk to the mainland about the border reopening only if the number of local infections in Hong Kong could stay below 10 for some time.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday urged the public to get jabs as early as possible and help accelerate the progress of achieving full-scale class resumption and quarantine-free travel.
Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said it was hard to predict when Hong Kong would achieve “herd immunity” as most of the pre-ordered jabs would be delivered in autumn. Leung said Hong Kong should not put all its hopes on vaccinations, but continue to implement strict anti-pandemic rules.
An unnamed government official told media on Wednesday that Hong Kong’s economy would probably grow by 3.3-5.5% for 2021, compared with a 6.1% contraction last year. The official said the forecast was made on an assumption that people would be allowed to travel freely between Hong Kong and the mainland in the second half of this year.
He added that it would then take some time for Hong Kong’s tourism sector to recover later this year.
Moscow is painfully aware that the US/NATO “strategy” of containment of Russia is already reaching fever pitch. Again.
This past Wednesday, at a very important meeting with the Federal Security Service board, President Putin laid it all out in stark terms:
We are up against the so-called policy of containing Russia. This is not about competition, which is a natural thing for international relations. This is about a consistent and quite aggressive policy aimed at disrupting our development, slowing it down, creating problems along the outer perimeter, triggering domestic instability, undermining the values that unite Russian society, and ultimately to weaken Russia and put it under external control, just the way we are witnessing it transpire in some countries in the post-Soviet space.
Not without a touch of wickedness, Putin added this was no exaggeration: “In fact, you don’t need to be convinced of this as you yourselves know it perfectly well, perhaps even better than anybody else.”
The Kremlin is very much aware “containment” of Russia focuses on its perimeter: Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia. And the ultimate target remains regime change.
Putin’s remarks may also be interpreted as an indirect answer to a section of President Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference.
According to Biden’s scriptwriters,
Putin seeks to weaken the European project and the NATO alliance because it is much easier for the Kremlin to intimidate individual countries than to negotiate with the united transatlantic community … The Russian authorities want others to think that our system is just as corrupt or even more corrupt.
A clumsy, direct personal attack against the head of state of a major nuclear power does not exactly qualify as sophisticated diplomacy. At least it glaringly shows how trust between Washington and Moscow is now reduced to less than zero. As much as Biden’s Deep State handlers refuse to see Putin as a worthy negotiating partner, the Kremlin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have already dismissed Washington as “non-agreement capable.”
Once again, this is all about sovereignty. The “unfriendly attitude towards Russia,” as Putin defined it, extends to “other independent, sovereign centers of global development.” Read it as mainly China and Iran. All these three sovereign states happen to be categorized as top “threats” by the US National Security Strategy.
Yet Russia is the real nightmare for the Exceptionalists: Orthodox Christian, thus appealing to swaths of the West; consolidated as major Eurasian power; a military, hypersonic superpower; and boasting unrivaled diplomatic skills, appreciated all across the Global South.
In contrast, there’s not much left for the deep state except endlessly demonizing both Russia and China to justify a Western military build-up, the “logic” inbuilt in a new strategic concept named NATO 2030: United for a New Era.
The experts behind the concept hailed it as an “implicit” response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaring NATO “brain dead.”
Well, at least the concept proves Macron was right.
Those barbarians from the East
Crucial questions about sovereignty and Russian identity have been a recurrent theme in Moscow these past few weeks. And that brings us to February 17, when Putin met with Duma political leaders, from the Communist Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky – enjoying a new popularity surge – to United Russia’s Sergei Mironov, as well as State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
Putin stressed the “multi-ethnic and multi-religious” character of Russia, now in “a different environment that is free of ideology”:
It is important for all ethnic groups, even the smallest ones, to know that this is their Motherland with no other for them, that they are protected here and are prepared to lay down their lives in order to protect this country. This is in the interests of us all, regardless of ethnicity, including the Russian people.
Yet Putin’s most extraordinary remark had to do with ancient Russian history:
Barbarians came from the East and destroyed the Christian Orthodox empire. But before the barbarians from the East, as you well know, the crusaders came from the West and weakened this Orthodox Christian empire, and only then were the last blows dealt, and it was conquered. This is what happened … We must remember these historical events and never forget them.
Well, this could be enough material to generate a 1,000-page treatise. Instead, let’s try, at least, to – concisely – unpack it.
The Great Eurasian Steppe – one of the largest geographical formations on the planet – stretches from the lower Danube all the way to the Yellow River. The running joke across Eurasia is that “Keep Walking” can be performed back to back. For most of recorded history this has been Nomad Central: tribe upon tribe raiding at the margins, or sometimes at the hubs of the heartland: China, Iran, the Mediterranean.
The Scythians (see, for instance, the magisterial The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe, by Barry Cunliffe) arrived at the Pontic steppe from beyond the Volga. After the Scythians, it was the turn of the Sarmatians to show up in South Russia.
From the 4th century onward, nomad Eurasia was a vortex of marauding tribes, featuring, among others, the Huns in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Khazars in the 7th century, the Kumans in the 11th century, all the way to the Mongol avalanche in the 13th century.
The plot line always pitted nomads against peasants. Nomads ruled – and exacted tribute. G Vernadsky, in his invaluable Ancient Russia, shows how “the Scythian Empire may be described sociologically as a domination of the nomadic horde over neighboring tribes of agriculturists.”
As part of my multi-pronged research on nomad empires for a future volume, I call them Badass Barbarians on Horseback. The stars of the show include, in Europe, in chronological order, Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Khazars, Hungarians, Peshenegs, Seljuks, Mongols and their Tatar descendants; and, in Asia, Hu, Xiongnu, Hephtalites, Turks, Uighurs, Tibetans, Kirghiz, Khitan, Mongols, Turks (again), Uzbeks and Manchu.
Arguably, since the hegemonic Scythian era (the first protagonists of the Silk Road), most of the peasants in southern and central Russia were Slav. But there were major differences. The Slavs west of Kiev were under the influence of Germania and Rome. East of Kiev, they were influenced by Persian civilization.
It’s always important to remember that the Vikings were still nomads when they became rulers in Slav lands. Their civilization in fact prevailed over sedentary peasants – even as they absorbed many of their customs.
Interestingly enough, the gap between steppe nomads and agriculture in proto-Russia was not as steep as between intensive agriculture in China and the interlocked steppe economy in Mongolia.
(For an engaging Marxist interpretation of nomadism, see A N Khazanov’s Nomads and the Outside World).
The sheltering sky
What about power? For Turk and Mongol nomads, who came centuries after the Scythians, power emanated from the sky. The Khan ruled by authority of the “Eternal Sky” – as we all see when we delve into the adventures of Genghis and Kublai. By implication, as there is only one sky, the Khan would have to exert universal power. Welcome to the idea of universal empire.
In Persia, things were slightly more complex. The Persian Empire was all about Sun worship: that became the conceptual basis for the divine right of the King of Kings. The implications were immense, as the King now became sacred. This model influenced Byzantium – which, after all, was always interacting with Persia.
Christianity made the Kingdom of Heaven more important than ruling over the temporal domain. Still, the idea of Universal Empire persisted, incarnated in the concept of Pantocrator: it was the Christ who ultimately ruled, and his deputy on earth was the Emperor. But Byzantium remained a very special case: the Emperor could never be an equal to God. After all, he was human.
Putin is certainly very much aware that the Russian case is extremely complex. Russia essentially is on the margins of three civilizations. It’s part of Europe – reasons including everything from the ethnic origin of Slavs to achievements in history, music and literature.
Russia is also part of Byzantium from a religious and artistic angle (but not part of the subsequent Ottoman empire, with which it was in military competition). And Russia was influenced by Islam coming from Persia.
Then there’s the crucial influence of nomads. A serious case can be made that they have been neglected by scholars. The Mongol rule for a century and a half, of course, is part of the official historiography – but perhaps not given its due importance. And the nomads in southern and central Russia two millennia ago were never properly acknowledged.
So Putin may have hit a nerve. What he said points to the idealization of a later period of Russian history from the late 9th to early 13th century: Kievan Rus. In Russia, 19th century Romanticism and 20th century nationalism actively built an idealized national identity.
The interpretation of Kievan Rus poses tremendous problems – that’s something I eagerly discussed in St. Petersburg a few years ago. There are rare literary sources – and they concentrate mostly on the 12th century afterwards. The earlier sources are foreigners, mostly Persians and Arabs.
Russian conversion to Christianity and its concomitant superb architecture have been interpreted as evidence of a high cultural standard. In a nutshell, scholars ended up using Western Europe as the model for the reconstruction of Kievan Rus civilization.
It was never so simple. A good example is the discrepancy between Novgorod and Kiev. Novgorod was closer to the Baltic than the Black Sea, and had closer interaction with Scandinavia and the Hanseatic towns. Compare it with Kiev, which was closer to steppe nomads and Byzantium – not to mention Islam.
Kievan Rus was a fascinating crossover. Nomadic tribal traditions – on administration, taxes, the justice system – were prevalent. But on religion, they imitated Byzantium. It’s also relevant that until the end of the 12th century, assorted steppe nomads were a constant “threat” to southeast Kievan Rus.
So as much as Byzantium – and, later on, even the Ottoman Empire – supplied models for Russian institutions, the fact is the nomads, starting with the Scythians, influenced the economy, the social system and most of all, the military approach.
Watch the Khan
Sima Qian, the master Chinese historian, has shown how the Khan had two “kings,” who each had two generals, and thus in succession, all the way to commanders of a hundred, a thousand and ten thousand men. This is essentially the same system used for a millennia and a half by nomads, from the Scythians to the Mongols, all the way to Tamerlane’s army at the end of the 14th century.
The Mongol invasions – 1221 and then 1239-1243 – were indeed the major game-changer. As master analyst Sergei Karaganov told me in his office in late 2018, they influenced Russian society for centuries afterwards.
For over 200 years Russian princes had to visit the Mongol headquarters in the Volga to pay tribute. One scholarly strand has qualified it as “barbarization”; that seems to be Putin’s view. According to that strand, the incorporation of Mongol values may have “reversed” Russian society to what it was before the first drive to adopt Christianity.
The inescapable conclusion is that when Muscovy emerged in the late 15th century as the dominant power in Russia, it was essentially the successor of the Mongols.
And because of that the peasantry – the sedentary population – were not touched by “civilization” (time to re-read Tolstoy?). Nomad Power and values, as strong as they were, survived Mongol rule for centuries.
Well, if a moral can be derived from our short parable, it’s not exactly a good idea for “civilized” NATO to pick a fight with the – lateral – heirs of the Great Khan.