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Europe is wary of China and Britain no longer knows what to expect from its prime ministers

24-10-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 2 times a week.

Politico: Friendship with China - is Europe learning from its mistakes?

It was early fall, 1959. A senior official from Mao’s China was leading a mission to Kyiv, then part of the Soviet Union. He inspected factories, learned about state planning, and took an afternoon boat trip on the Dnipro River with his 30-plus comrades. It’s nothing like the Ukraine his son has to deal with today.

Xi Zhongxun, father of the current Chinese President Xi Jinping, led the visit. As secretary-general of the State Council, the government arm of the Communist Party, Xi the senior spent a total of four days in what is now Ukraine’s capital. The trip also took him to Moscow and Prague, and apparently left a mark on the boy who would one day run the only powerful Communist Party left standing on earth.

As Xi junior, now president-for-life, embarks on a landmark third term in office this week, Europe is gearing up for choppy waters ahead. From the race for tech supremacy to potential armed conflicts between Beijing and Washington, Europe has little cause to celebrate the dominance of China's most powerful leader since Mao.

Indeed, the mood has shifted so dramatically that European leaders last week raised the alarm over the strategic threat China poses to the West. Gone is whatever goodwill there used to be on climate collaboration or trade.

"Under the leadership of Xi, Europe’s relationship with China has deteriorated,” said Janka Oertel, Asia director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "With Xi, China changed – not Europe. But Europeans are now adjusting to the new reality.”

In part, Europe’s awakening is a response to China’s brutal acts of domestic repression, its regional assertiveness and aggressive diplomacy. These have all alienated Western policymakers, Oertel said.

But more than anything, it is China's strategic alliance with Russia — amid Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine — that has driven an urgent rethink in EU capitals. While Beijing has not provided Russia with military assistance, tacit economic and political support is clear.

One theory for Xi’s reluctance to condemn Putin over Ukraine is China’s own ambitions to bring Taiwan — a democratic island of 23 million — under Beijing’s direct control.

“Are we moving in a downward spiral?” Germany’s Ambassador to the EU Michael Clauss, formerly Berlin’s top envoy to Beijing, said last week. “Much will depend on China’s next steps especially when it comes to dealing with Russia and Taiwan.”

Xi's plans for Taiwan might have gone unnoticed had the man he once called his best friend, Putin, not woken up Europe with a brutal invasion of Ukraine. The sheer scale of the eight packages of EU sanctions on Russia saw an unimaginable level of near-total decoupling for Europe since the end of the Cold War, even if those measures pose a direct, negative impact on the European economy.

Xi keeps talking about peaceful reunification as a preferred option in his latest remarks on Taiwan, including during the Congress. In reality, the scope for peace is smaller than ever.

Beijing's military put on a fierce display of prowess in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei, launching ballistic missiles that flew over Taiwan's capital while carrying out live-fire exercises around the island in what felt like a rehearsal for a future invasion.

In boardrooms, international conferences and government meetings nowadays, Taiwan has become the inevitable question facing European businesses and policymakers.

How soon will China wage a war? How will Europe react economically? What about all the businesses they have with the world's second largest economy? And how about the most advanced microchips they have predominantly sourced from Taiwan?

"I think that our failed European policy [on] Russia is making many of us in the room to rethink about our approach to China,” Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told POLITICO, referring to the attitude among his fellow EU peers. "Fool me once, that’s on me. Fool me twice? That’s the other way.”

Countries do not want to find themselves again regretting that they took an “authoritarian power for granted.”

In Brussels, officials are encouraging EU governments to pursue broader economic engagement with Taiwan. At the same time, the EU is also telling capitals to cut their dependency on the advanced semiconductors that Taiwan specialises in making.

As much as Brussels may wish for European unity in the face of turbulence with China, Berlin, at least, still prefers to do things its own way. Indeed, Xi’s instinct has been to turn to Germany when he needed Europe on his side. That was at least until Angela Merkel left her top job as chancellor.

Berlin’s current coalition is so far sending confusing messages on how it plans to handle relations with Xi. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is planning a trip to China early November, bringing with him a business delegation just months after he used a trip to Japan to highlight the need for businesses to diversify away from Beijing.


He's also expected to overrule six of his ministries to approve a contentious deal by China's state-run shipping giant to acquire a minority share of one of the ports in Hamburg, where he used to be a mayor.

Scholz’s approach has raised eyebrows in Brussels, where last week he flatly told his EU counterparts there should be no “decoupling” from Beijing.

It’s not a view universally held in Berlin, after the Ukraine war exposed the folly of relying on energy links with Putin's Russia.

In a recent interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Scholz’s coalition partner, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attacked businesses for building up their dependency on China.

“Complete economic dependence based on the principle of hope makes us politically blackmailable,” she said.

“The task of a responsible economy — and even more so of politics — is not to allow us to get back into a situation where in a few years’ time, [we] have to save the chemical and auto companies with billions in taxes, because they have made themselves dependent on the Chinese market, for better or worse.”

Reuters: Russia prepares new pretexts to escalate conflict in Ukraine

Russia fired missiles and drones into the Ukrainian-held southern town of Mykolaiv, destroying an apartment block, and said the war was trending towards "uncontrolled escalation" in a flurry of telephone calls to Western defence ministers.

The strike on the shipbuilding town about 35 km northwest of the front line in Kherson came as Russia ordered 60,000 people to flee the region "to save your lives" in the face of a Ukrainian counter offensive.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the "rapidly deteriorating situation" in phone calls with British, French and Turkish counterparts, the ministry said.

He also spoke by phone with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for the second time in three days. The Pentagon said Austin told Shoigu he "rejected any pretext for Russian escalation."

Without providing evidence, Shoigu said Ukraine could escalate by using a "dirty bomb", or conventional explosives laced with radioactive material.

Ukraine does not possess nuclear weapons, while Russia has said it could protect its territory with its nuclear arsenal.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rejected the accusation as "absurd" and "dangerous", adding: "Russians often accuse others of what they plan themselves."

In a joint statement after the talks, Britain, France and the United States said they were committed to supporting Ukraine "for as long as it takes" and rejected Russia's warning about a "dirty bomb".

"Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory," they said.

"The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation."

On Sunday, Ukraine's General Staff said anti-aircraft defences had shot down 12 of Russia's Iranian-made Shahed-136 attack drones in the past 24 hours.

Tehran denies supplying the weapons to Russia.

Britain's defence ministry said Russia was using the Iranian uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) to substitute for increasingly scarce Russian-made long-range precision weapons.

But Ukraine's efforts to contain the UAVs have been successful, the ministry added on Monday in its Twitter update.

Ukraine's advances in recent weeks around Kherson and in the country's northeast have been met with intensifying Russian missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure, which have destroyed about 40% of Ukraine's power system ahead of winter.

On Monday, the region's Russian-installed administration announced the formation of a local militia, saying that all men remaining in the city could join.

Russian troops have withdrawn from parts of the front and occupation authorities are evacuating civilians deeper into Russian-held territory before an expected battle for Kherson, the regional capital on the west bank of the Dnipro river.

Kherson is a gateway to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Ukraine's military said it was making gains in the south, taking over at least two villages it said Russia had abandoned.

Russia's defence ministry said on Sunday its forces had kept up attacks on Ukraine's energy and military infrastructure, destroyed a large ammunition depot in the central Cherkasy region, and repelled Ukrainian counter-offensives in the south and east.

Reuters could not independently verify the accounts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the Russian attacks on energy infrastructure had struck on a "very wide" scale.

With the war about to start its ninth month and winter approaching, the potential for freezing misery loomed.

Ukraine also accused Russia of hampering a deal on grain exports via the Black Sea, saying its ports were working only at 25% to 30% capacity.

AP: Boris Johnson has no intention of running for prime minister

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Sunday he will not run to lead the Conservative Party, ending a short-lived, high-profile attempt to return to the prime minister’s job he was ousted from little more than three months ago.

His withdrawal leaves former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak the strong favorite to become Britain’s next prime minister — the third this year — at a time of political turmoil and severe economic challenges. He could win the contest as soon as Monday.

Johnson, who was ousted in July amid ethics scandals, had been widely expected to run to replace Liz Truss, who quit last week after her tax-cutting economic package caused turmoil in financial markets, was rapidly abandoned and and obliterated her authority inside the governing party.

Johnson spent the weekend trying to gain support from fellow Conservative lawmakers after flying back from a Caribbean vacation and held talks with the two other contenders, Sunak and House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt.

Late Sunday he said he had amassed the backing of 102 colleagues, more than the threshold of 100 needed to make a ballot of lawmakers on Monday.

But he was far behind Sunak in support, and said he had concluded that “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in Parliament.”

Photo: Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

The prospect of a return by Johnson had thrown the already divided Conservative Party into further turmoil. He led the party to a thumping election victory in 2019, but his premiership was clouded by scandals over money and ethics that eventually became too much for the party to bear.

In his Sunday statement, Johnson insisted he was “well placed to deliver a Conservative victory” in the next national election, due by 2024. And he said that he likely would have won a ballot of Conservative Party members against either of his rivals.

“But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do,” he said. “Therefore I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds.”

But Johnson hinted he might be back, saying: “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

After Truss quit on Thursday, the Conservative Party hastily ordered a contest that aims to finalize nominations Monday and install a new prime minister — its third this year — within a week.

The clear favorite now is Sunak, who has support from more than 140 lawmakers, according to unofficial tallies. Mordaunt is backed by fewer than 30.

If both make the ballot, the 357 Conservative lawmakers will hold an indicative vote on Monday to show their preference before the choice goes to the 172,000 party members around the country. If Mordaunt does not reach 100 nominations, Sunak will win by acclamation.

Sunak, 42, was runner-up after Truss in this summer’s Tory leadership race to replace Johnson. On Sunday, he confirmed he was running again in the latest leadership contest.

“There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead and I will work day in and day out to get the job done,” Sunak said in a statement.

The Guardian: Brazilian politician decides to fight to the death

A Brazilian politician has attacked federal police officers trying to arrest him at his home, leading to an hours-long siege.

Roberto Jefferson, a former lawmaker and an ally of the president, Jair Bolsonaro, fired a rifle at police and threw grenades, wounding two officers in the rural municipality of Comendador Levy Gasparian, in Rio de Janeiro state, on Sunday.

He said in a video message sent to supporters on WhatsApp that he refused to surrender, though by early evening he was in custody.

The events come just days before the Brazilian presidential election. The country’s supreme court has sought to rein in the spread of disinformation and anti-democratic rhetoric before the 30 October vote, often inviting the ire of Bolsonaro’s base, who decry such actions as censorship.

As part of these efforts, Justice Alexandre de Moraes had ordered that Jefferson be taken to jail for making threats against the court’s justices.

Jefferson was already under investigation and house arrest for his alleged involvement in producing fake news. In his decision published on Sunday, Moraes said Jefferson’s actions – most recently using social media to compare one female justice to a prostitute – violated the terms of his house arrest, and ordered he be returned to prison.

In the video message distributed on Sunday, Jefferson said: “I didn’t shoot anyone to hit them. No one. I shot their car and near them. I’m setting my example, I’m leaving my seed planted: resist oppression, resist tyranny. God bless Brazil.”

Brazil’s federal police said in another statement that Jefferson was also arrested for attempted murder.

Bolsonaro was quick to criticise his ally in a live broadcast on social media. He denounced Jefferson’s statements against supreme court justices, including the threats and insults that led to his initial arrest, and Sunday’s attack. He also sought to distance himself from the former lawmaker.

“There’s not a single picture of him and me,” Brazil’s president said. His opponents promptly posted several pictures on social media of the two together.

Bolsonaro and Jefferson, 2020

Bolsonaro’s base had mixed reactions, with some on social media hailing Jefferson as a hero for standing up to the top court. Dozens flocked to his house to show support as he remained holed up inside. One group held a banner that read: “Freedom for Roberto Jefferson.”

The former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is campaigning to return to the top job, told reporters in São Paulo that Jefferson “does not have adequate behaviour. It is not normal behaviour.”

Earlier this year, the supreme court convicted the lawmaker Daniel Silveira for inciting physical attacks on the court’s justices and other authorities. Bolsonaro quickly issued a pardon for Silveira, who appeared beside the president after he cast his vote in the election’s first round on 2 October.

“Brazil is terrified watching events that, this Sunday, reach the peak of the absurd,” Arthur Lira, the president of congress’s lower house and a Bolsonaro ally, wrote on Twitter. “We will not tolerate setbacks or attacks against our democracy.” What exactly Lyra meant by the word "democracy" remains unclear.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva