Saturday, March 25, 2023
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China achieves what even US could not in the Middle East

US has sanctioned five Chinese companies for selling aerospace components to Iran, which is supplying drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war.

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Li Qiang, a Xi ally with little national experience, was appointed as the next premier of China. A PLA officer sanctioned by the US, Li Shangfu, was appointed as the new defence minister. Beijing brokers diplomatic détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is set to visit New York and California, say sources. Taiwan will resume direct flights to 23 mainland Chinese cities suspended since 2016.

China over the week

When Li Qiang walked out on the stage with President Xi Jinping and five other members of the Politburo Standing Committee in October 2022 during the 20th Party Congress meeting, it was clear that Xi had set his mind on making the former his next premier. 

Last week, Xi’s presidential order confirmed it.

Li comes from a humble background, unlike Xi, a princeling. Li studied agricultural mechanisation at Zhejiang University and later joined the Communist Youth League. He earned an executive postgraduate degree from the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School.

Between 2004 and 2007, Li served as Xi’s chief of staff while the latter was the party secretary in Zhejiang province. It’s the reason Li became Xi’s most trusted protégé, and the relationship has paid off for Li as he moved swiftly into the role of party secretary in Jiangsu and later Shanghai.

One of Li’s successes was convincing Elon Musk to set up Tesla’s first overseas factory in Shanghai. But Li was implicated in mismanaging the response to Covid during the massive Shanghai lockdown.

Reuters recently reported citing unnamed Chinese officials that Li played a role in accelerating plans to dump China’s stringent Covid measures in December. But Reuters sources may have been attempting to prop Li up as a suitable candidate who would continue the agenda of economic growth.

“He inherits a job that has so many headwinds, starting with the real estate crisis, the debt burden, US sanctions, the ageing of China and the sentiment being down,” Jörg Wuttke, head of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Financial Times.

Li’s elevation to the premiership comes at a time when Xi is doing everything to devolve the decision-making authority of the State Council. The Chinese premier is the head of the State Council and ensures smooth running of public institutions. Another sign of the evolving role of the State Council is the decision to establish a new data regulatory body which will sit at the top of the food chain and deal with all matters related to data governance.

Li is an unusual choice because he has never held a national-level office, and his rise was made possible due to his personal equation with Xi.

In other appointments, Ding Xuexiang, He Lifeng, Zhang Guoqing, and Liu Guozhong were confirmed as vice-premiers of the State Council. He Lifeng will likely replace Liu He as the next economic tsar.

Another key appointment was Li Shangfu as the defence minister. In 2018, he was added to the sanctions list by the US for working with Russia’s defence and intelligence organisations.

Li Shangfu is an aerospace engineer with a degree in automation from Chongqing University and advanced military education from the National University of Defence Technology. In 2016, he served as the deputy commander and chief of staff of the PLA Strategic Support Force. In October 2022, he was inducted into the Central Military Commission.

Though the defence minister has little influence in China’s military hierarchy, Li Shangfu will become the face of public diplomacy involving complex issues such as Taiwan and the regional dimension of US-China tensions.

While it may appear that Xi has installed a whole new team, that’s not entirely the case. Beijing has retained its Central Bank governor Yi Gang despite deciding to set up a new financial regulatory body.

Xi was ‘unanimously appointed’ president for a third term by securing 2,952 votes by NPC deputies in his favour and zero votes against him.

According to a Financial Times report, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen is set to visit the US. On Thursday, journalist Kathrin Hille reported that Tsai would meet US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in his home state of California with stops at Hudson Institute in New York. After the US leg of the trip in late March, Tsai will visit Guatemala and Belize, both of which maintain official diplomatic ties with Taipei.

McCarthy was supposed to visit Taipei, a plan that could have triggered a military response by Beijing. As the presidential elections loom over Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is cautious about allowing the opposition Kuomintang Party to blame Tsai’s government for triggering another crisis like the one we saw during former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taipei visit.

Meanwhile, Mark Magnier of South China Morning Post has revealed that Beijing examined alternate plans to mitigate the fallout from McCarthy’s visit to Taipei by suggesting a ‘track two’ approach to schedule a visit by the US vice-president to Beijing at the same time.

In 1997, when then-US House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan, US vice-president Al Gore was sent to Beijing to cushion the domestic pressure resulting from a high-level visit by US officials to Taipei. McCarthy has said he hasn’t cancelled his plans to visit Taiwan, which means Beijing may deploy such a strategy in case the House Speaker does decide to visit Taipei later this year.

It may appear that military tensions across the Taiwan Strait remain at an all-time high, but the reality is somewhat complicated.

Taiwan has decided to resume flights to 23 mainland Chinese cities, suspended since 2016, to stabilise the cross-strait relations.

Also read: China increases military budget again. ‘Training and preparation for war’ its focus

China in world news

As the world watched Xi Jinping land in Riyadh in December 2022, analysts speculated about China’s plans for the Middle East – a region whose geopolitics the US has dominated for over two decades.

Now, Beijing has brokered a détente between Riyadh and Tehran, two rivals who have had no diplomatic contact for seven years. Beijing has used its influence in Tehran to open the dialogue between the two countries that have, in the past, used heated rhetoric edging close to military conflict.

A Saudi delegation led by National Security Advisor Dr Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and the Iranian delegation led by Supreme National Security Council secretary Admiral Ali Shamkhani held talks in Beijing from 6 to 10 March. On Friday, the director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, held talks with the two sides and officially announced the détente likely to challenge the US’s influence in the Middle East.

‘The Sunni country Saudi Arabia and the Shia country Iran are considered ‘old enemies’. The resumption of diplomatic relations is not only a major event in the Middle East, but also attracted global attention. Many in the US media, experts and scholars exclaimed that ‘China has achieved a major diplomatic victory’. The White House National Security Council spokesperson deliberately avoided China’s leadership of the mediation. For more people, this news can be described as ‘sudden’ and ‘shocking,’’ said a report by China’s Guancha News Network, calling it a victory for Beijing’s diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the US has sanctioned five Chinese companies for ‘sale and shipment of thousands of aerospace components’ for Iran’s drone programme. Iran has emerged as a supplier of drones to Russia, which has been used in the Ukraine war.

Also read: China’s position on Russia-Ukraine war could bring US sanctions into play

Must read this week

Watch Xi Jinping slowly strangle the Dengist economic paradigm – Tanner Greer

How Is India Viewed in China? – Mu Chunshan

The inside story of a US spy in China’s release 50 years ago, and its lessons amid spy balloon row – Jerome A. Cohen

In a Chinese Factory Town, Migrants ‘Lie Flat’ for a Better Deal – Wu Peiyue


Suisheng Zhao, professor and director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is a specialist on China’s foreign policy. Zhao’s latest book, The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy, writes about the Chinese leaders who have shaped Chinese foreign policy. In a conversation, Zhao tells Sheena Chestnut Greitens how Xi has borrowed from past leaders to shape foreign policy. Chinascope recommends listening to the conversation.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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