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Aug 24, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

Chinese President Xi Jinping misses speech at BRICS summit

By Bill Gertz
Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised observers this week by failing to show up for a major speech at a meeting of non-Western global powers in South Africa, fueling suspicions the ailing Chinese economy is dimming his political fortunes.

Mr. Xi was in Johannesburg to meet with leaders of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and didn’t show up for the speech on Wednesday. Instead, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao was sent to deliver the remarks, which included indirect political attacks on the United States.

There was no official explanation for Mr. Xi‘s absence, and the Chinese president later attended a leaders’ dinner.

Mr. Xi‘s speech warned that the world must avoid entering “the abyss of a new Cold War.” He also accused “some country” — a veiled reference to the United States — of being “obsessed with maintaining its hegemony” and of having “gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries.”

“Whoever is developing fast becomes [that country’s] target of containment. Whoever is catching up, becomes its target of obstruction. But this is futile,” Mr. Xi said in prepared remarks.

Beijing watchers say it is unusual for a Chinese leader to make such a departure from plans at a major world meeting. Speculation over the reasons behind the absence range from health reasons to something that may have happened in China warranting his attention.

Mr. Xi did meet with several fellow world leaders during his South African trip.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not answer questions from reporters about Mr. Xi’s missed speech.

The prepared speech by Mr. Xi repeated earlier claims that the world is facing a new era of “turbulence and transformation,” according to a text posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

“It is undergoing major shifts, division and regrouping, leading to more uncertain, unstable and unpredictable developments,” Mr. Xi said.

In further veiled criticism of the United States, Mr. Xi called for developing nations to “oppose decoupling and supply chain disruption as well as economic coercion.”

The Biden administration recently imposed restrictions on U.S. microchip manufacturers in an effort to prevent cutting-edge American technology from boosting the Chinese military. China denounced the curbs as bullying and economic coercion.

China analysts suspect that Mr. Xi may be facing internal opposition within the ruling Communist Party over his economic policies that have sought to rein in domestic companies and impose new socialist controls over businesses.

As a result, China’s economy is struggling, dealing with a major real estate crisis, major financial problems for regional governments and soaring youth unemployment.

Foreign businesses have also been further disengaging from China, straining the domestic economy. Forecasters now say China is no longer on pace to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.

In seeking to promote China’s brand of communist system, Mr. Xi said in the speech that developing nations should “expand political and security cooperation to uphold peace and tranquility.”

Mr. Xi recently launched a global security initiative that seeks to gain international support for its autocratic, state-dominated model of governance and economic development.

“As a Chinese saying suggests, ‘Nothing is more beneficial than stability, and nothing is more detrimental than turmoil,’” Mr. Xi said.

On Ukraine, Mr. Xi appeared to blame the United States and its Western allies for the conflict that began with a Russian invasion last year. “No one should add fuel to the fire to worsen the situation,” he said.

Mr. Xi also called for launching a BRICS artificial intelligence study group.

China’s government recently issued a regulation requiring more than 100 Chinese AI service companies to require that the technology support “socialist core values.” The BRICS nations should also develop AI governance standards that make the technology more secure and controllable, he said.

In yet another veiled criticism of Washington, Mr. Xi said international rules should be written by “all countries” based on U.N. principles, and not “dictated by those with the strongest muscles or loudest voice.”

The United States has called for China to abide by the U.S.-led rules-based international order. Chinese officials have rejected that order in seeking to promote the Chinese autocratic model.

“Ganging up to form exclusive groups and packaging their own rules as international norms are even more unacceptable,” Mr. Xi said, a reference to the Biden administration’s expanded efforts to shore up Asian allies and partners.

Both China and Russia have sought to expand the number of nations in the BRICS group in an apparent bid to counter opposition to both governments from the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe.

U.S. eases sanctions before Beijing trip?
The Commerce Department announced Wednesday that Secretary Gina Raimondo will travel to China next week for talks as part of the Biden administration’s policy of seeking a detente with Beijing.

Ms. Raimondo will travel to Beijing and Shanghai for meetings with Chinese officials and U.S. business leaders from Aug. 27 to 30.

“While in the PRC, Secretary Raimondo looks forward to constructive discussions on issues relating to the U.S.-China commercial relationship, challenges faced by U.S. businesses, and areas for potential cooperation,” the department said in a statement, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.

Two days earlier, the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, or BIS, announced it was removing 27 Chinese companies from its “unverified list” of firms deemed uncooperative with the bureau in conducting export control end-user checks in China. Six other foreign firms were also dropped from the sanctions list.

“Our removal of 33 parties demonstrates the concrete benefit companies receive when they or a host government cooperates with BIS to complete a successful end-use check,” said Matthew S. Axelrod, assistant commerce secretary for export enforcement.

The statement said China had engaged in “lengthy scheduling delays” for end-user checks of export-controlled items sent to China.

Shortly after the Commerce action on Monday, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced Ms. Raimondo’s upcoming visit, an indication that removing the Chinese firms from the list may have been a precondition for the trip. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the move by the Biden administration shows disputes can be resolved through communication.

The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated China Daily said the sanctions that were lifted were an attempt to “stifle development” and suppress China’s work on high-technology products.

Officer warns how China could attack Taiwan
Major destruction from an armed conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan makes a direct military offensive unlikely, according to a report by an Army officer.

But China could attack the self-ruled island if the United States is embroiled in a conflict elsewhere and Beijing perceives U.S. forces will be unable to intervene, according to Army Maj. Elliot Pernula, currently chief of administrative law with the 3rd Infantry Division’s judge advocate general corps.

A major war over Taiwan could be set off by a formal declaration of independence by Taipei, or an offensive military alignment with a foreign government, he stated in an article published July 31 on the national security website Divergent Options.

Another danger is economic turmoil in China and disputes among leaders that could lead Chinese military forces to attack Taiwan, he said.

“The PRC will, therefore, continue to engage in unified offensive operations across all of its instruments of national power while it waits for an exploitation point,” Maj. Pernula said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.

Maj. Pernula said that China’s strategy for operations against Taiwan is characterized by the Chinese phrase “wei ji,” which means “where danger lurks, opportunity awaits.”

“It is under this concept that the PRC is preparing to boldly strike against Taiwan as soon as circumstances are favorable, while concurrently hedging its goals for Taiwan against its international ambitions,” he said.

Maj. Pernula also said Beijing is seeking to mask its ambitions for taking control of Taiwan as a defensive measure to protect national sovereignty.

Thus, China has been declaring that it will “reunify” Taiwan, which has been free of mainland control since 1949, when Nationalist forces fled during a civil war.

China is waging a low-intensity war against Taiwan with the goal of defeating the government in Taipei without resorting to military force, the major wrote.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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