Chinese, Russian, and NATO Warships Maneuver Off Syria

The Jinggangshan, a 689-foot-long warship, has just cleared the Suez Canal and is now patrolling the eastern Mediterranean. Unconfirmed reports place other Chinese vessels in the area. 

Beijing says its ships are heading to Syria’s coast merely to “observe” American and Russian vessels, but a less benign interpretation is that the Jinggangshan is there to augment the Russian fleet and intimidate the US Navy. This sleek-looking Chinese amphibious-landing vessel can carry a battalion of marines and was used earlier this year to stare down the smaller nations surrounding the South China Sea, an area Beijing is trying to close off to other countries.

Each day brings new reports of warships converging on the eastern Mediterranean. US ships are now backed up by French and Italian ones and face the Russian and Chinese navies.

Xi Jinping, China's Strongman in the Making?

On Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Jiang Jiemin was removed from his post as head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

The report follows Sunday’s announcement that the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was investigating Jiang for “serious disciplinary violations,” Beijing’s code for graft. The corruption probe is thought to be the first initiated by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, against a ministerial-level official.

Xi inherited investigations of various officials, especially Zhou Yongkang, the former internal security czar. Zhou, Jiang, and virtually all other recent high-level targets either have or had some connection with China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s largest oil company, raising speculation that Xi is conducting a purge of the “Petroleum Faction.” Zhou, for instance, once was head of CNPC, as the oil giant is known.

Punishing Assad's WMD Supplier

One week ago, Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in Ghouta, near Damascus. Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355, with another 3,600 showing “neurotoxic symptoms.”

Where did the Syrian regime get its large stores of chemical weapons? There are many sources spread across the world, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems to be Assad’s main supplier. Moreover, North Korea’s ally, China, looks like it also has had some role in the deadly trade, at least behind the scenes. The international community needs to begin asking questions of both Pyongyang and Beijing.

Syria’s program is by no means homegrown. North Korea built at least two chemical weapons factories in Syria, according to Bruce Bechtol, the author of a trilogy of books on the North’s military and its proliferation activities.

China’s Incredible Shrinking Economy

How big is the Chinese economy? Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that the country’s gross domestic product totaled $8.28 trillion last year.

Perhaps. Christopher Balding, an associate professor at the HSBC Business School at Peking University, thinks it’s more than a trillion dollars smaller. GDP numbers are supposed to show changes in a country’s output without regard to inflation or deflation. In an August 14th paper, Balding persuasively argues that the NBS grossly understates and underweights housing costs in adjusting nominal GDP for inflation to arrive at real GDP.

Does China Need a Jinping the Great?

“The Chinese,” wrote Garnet Wolseley, “are the most remarkable race on earth, and I have always thought, and still believe them to be, the coming rulers of the world. They only want a Chinese Peter the Great or Napoleon to make them so.”

Yes, the Chinese are indeed remarkable, and on Friday Tom Holland, the South China Morning Post columnist, argued that Wolseley, a 19th-century British field marshal, was farsighted. Yet Wolseley’s words, from 1903, have been proven wrong. China, as Holland should know, got its fair share of larger-than-life figures in the 20th century. There was, most notably, the willful Chiang Kai-shek and then the charismatic Mao Zedong. Neither was lacking in ambition or strength, and yet both ultimately failed the Chinese people.

Wolseley was correct that the Chinese needed leadership, but they did not need a Chinese Napoleon. What they needed then—as they still do today—is a system that allows them to lead themselves. The Communist Party of China, however, insists it has a historical obligation to rule.

Soliciting China—a Failed Policy

When he visited Washington in February of last year, then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping talked about “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century.” Since then, he has been elevated to general secretary of the Communist Party and this formulation has been shortened to “a new type of great-power relationship.”

American analysts still wonder what the phrase means. In a short piece in the first (July-August) issue of the Asan Forum, Peking University’s Wang Jisi states that the concept envisions a future where China and the US avoid “the same old disastrous road of great power rivalry that lead to catastrophe.”

As no one is in favor of catastrophic outcomes, Wang, one of China’s most visible foreign policy specialists, finds no argument on that score. Yet he is unable to articulate anything useful beyond that basic proposition. Again, unfortunately, we are left without a guide as to what Chinese leaders ultimately want.

China Eyes a Forward Base in the Atlantic

Last Tuesday, the US House of Representatives unanimously voted to block the Air Force from reducing its presence at Lajes Field. Congress did the right thing in freezing, at least for the moment, the American withdrawal from the Portuguese base on Terceira, one of the Azores.

Lajes, formally called Air Base No. 4, is the second-largest employer on the economically depressed island in the Atlantic Ocean. The Air Force had planned to send home 400 of the 650 military personnel and civilian employees as well as 500 family members. The transfers would have devastated the economy of Terceira and put many of the base’s 790 Portuguese workers out on the street.

Global Narrative About the Chinese Economy Darkens

Last week, the global narrative on China’s economy changed. On Thursday, the New York Times’s Paul Krugman told us China’s economy was hitting “its Great Wall,” and others raced to pen similarly dire forecasts. As Stratfor’s George Friedman writes this week, “We have gone from China the omnipotent, the belief that there was nothing the Chinese couldn’t work out, to the realization that China no longer works.”

China’s economy has shown signs of not working since the fall of 2011, but most economists and analysts chose to ignore them. Now, just about everyone is commenting on Chinese economic weakness. Expert opinion never seemed more synchronized.

Of course, pessimistic observers today could be wrong. Friedman, however, makes one crucial observation as to why the change in global discourse matters: “The admission that a crisis exists is a critical moment, because this is when most others start to change their behavior in reaction to the crisis.”

South Korea Abandons Its Prisoners of War

Sixty years after the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War, there could be as many as 500 South Korean soldiers held captive by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seoul, incredibly, is doing little to obtain their release.

There were some 80,000 unaccounted South Korean combatants when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Pyongyang returned only 8,300 of them, however, in the prisoner exchange. The fate of the missing was of little interest to the South Korean public until 1994, when the first prisoner of war escaped to the South. Even then, the issue was not considered important to a nation determined to establish good relations with the horrific North Korea. Kim Dae Jung, the dissident-turned-president of South Korea, did not even mention the plight of the prisoners of war during his historic summit in 2000 in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il.

In 2007, the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae Jung’s immediate successor, talked to the North Koreans about the POWs, and Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, did the same. The last time both Koreas discussed the prisoners was February 2011, toward the end of Lee’s term.

Talking to a China in Disarray

The Obama administration is nothing if not persistent when it comes to wooing the Chinese. Beginning Wednesday, American officials are hosting their Beijing counterparts for the fifth round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington. 

The large get-together—hundreds of officials on each side have attended previous sessions—comes a month after the “shirtsleeves summit” between President Obama and Xi Jinping, China’s newly installed supremo. That event, despite high hopes on the American side, proved to be a bust. At the time, then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, in his post-summit press briefing, put his best face on what happened, but he inadvertently revealed how bad things went when he spent almost all his time telling us what Obama said to Xi, omitting what Xi told Obama.

America Versus China in Africa

“I want everybody playing in Africa,” President Obama said on Saturday in Pretoria, South Africa, during his just-concluded three-nation tour of the continent. “The more, the merrier.”

The American leader made no direct reference to anyone as he spoke those words, but everyone knew whom he was talking about. After all, his visit, as the journalist Peter Bergen put it, was just about one thing. “There is a one-word subtext to President Obama’s trip to Africa: China.”

China’s Coming Cash Crash?

Today you could not tell the Chinese banking system is entering a new phase in its month-long liquidity crisis, at least from the Chinese stock market. Shares ended down 0.4 percent, but the big story is that trading was only “choppy,” not volatile. 

Yesterday shares went on a “bungee jump.” First, the widely followed Shanghai Composite Index fell almost 6 percent—to its lowest level in more than four years—and then, in the last 90 minutes of trading, it skyrocketed to close near its opening, down only 0.2 percent for the day.

Beijing Drivers Vent Their Anger

On Monday morning, hundreds of people silently walked by abandoned cars and empty buses on a Beijing expressway. Bloggers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, posted photos of the phenomenon and immediately compared the images of the “drone-like” people to scenes in AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Had zombies invaded the Chinese capital? No, residents were frustrated by traffic moving at the rate of “millimeters per minute.” So they simply turned off their ignitions, locked their doors, and left their vehicles on the road.

It’s not news that Beijing has traffic. There are 5.2 million registered vehicles there, and the Chinese capital has to hold the record for commuter congestion. In 2010, a Beijing traffic jam took 12 days to unclog.

The Kim Regime's 'Peace' Routine

North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, in a statement carried Thursday by the official Korean Central News Agency, accused Seoul of a “sinister intention.”

Why the harsh rhetoric? On Tuesday, South Korea announced that Pyongyang had canceled talks scheduled to begin on the following day in Seoul.

By now we should know: it’s not possible for the regime of Kim Jong Un, the North’s insecure new leader, to maintain good relations with the South.

Cyber Détente with China

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that, beginning next month, the US and China will hold regular talks on cyber matters. The high-level discussions, labeled the first diplomatic initiative on the subject with China, will be part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the framework of annual meetings between Washington and Beijing.

The ultimate goal is to arrive at understandings with the Chinese. As a “senior American official involved in the negotiations” told the paper, “We need to get some norms and rules.”

Actually, we have long passed that stage. What we need to do at this point is stop Chinese cyber intrusions, cyber attacks, and cyber espionage, all part of what many suspect to be the most extensive cyber campaign conducted by one country against another


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