U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Beijing for talks with senior Chinese officials on issues including Russia’s war in Ukraine, trade, and cooperation in counternarcotics. But President Joe Biden’s administration is facing tough questions from congressional critics, as expectations are low that such dialogue will bring substantial results.
Blinken will be the first chief U.S. diplomat to visit China since 2018.
The quick trip to Beijing is unlikely to fix disagreements between the two countries over what U.S. officials say are China’s unfair trade practices and industrial espionage, as well as Beijing’s threats against Taiwan. It is also unlikely to change China’s support for Russia, as Moscow continues its aggression in Ukraine, or bring home Americans wrongfully detained by Chinese authorities.
“You only sit down for talks unless you think you’re going to make progress,” Republican U.S. Representative Michael McCaul told VOA Mandarin on Wednesday. McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “very skeptical” and doubted such diplomatic talks could change Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies.
In the Senate, 14 Republican lawmakers voiced concerns in a letter that Blinken’s meetings with senior Chinese officials from February 5-6 “will simply become a propaganda win” for the Chinese Communist Party and “bring no material benefit” to the United States and its allies. Republican senators’ letter was sent to Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who will also be traveling to Beijing.
McCaul told VOA Mandarin that he plans to visit Taiwan in April. “I will be traveling with [Republican House] Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy when he decides to go. It hasn’t been finalized. So I don’t know when that would happen,” he said.
The Republican representative added “any elected member of Congress has every right to go visit the elected officials in any country.” He noted China’s military escalation against Taiwan following then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last August was “very inappropriate, aggressive, hostile, and provocative.”
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Blinken to raise concerns about China’s “increasing disruption of the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. “Taiwan is one of the most dangerous potential flashpoints in Asia and for U.S. security,” wrote Menendez in a letter to Blinken, asking the top U.S. diplomat to “unequivocally” convey to his Chinese counterpart the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States determines the quality and quantity of its security assistance to Taiwan. That decision is made based on Taiwan’s defense needs, such as the level of military threats from Beijing.
China has ramped up military escalation against Taiwan in recent months following successive visits by U.S. lawmakers to the island. China claims sovereignty over the self-ruled democracy. The U.S. does not take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Beijing has said Taiwan-related issues are at the heart of its core interests, warning Washington not to cross “the number one red line.”
U.S. officials have said Washington’s “One China” policy is “distinct” from Beijing’s “One China” principle. Washington does not subscribe to Beijing’s “One China” principle. For decades, the U.S. has been clear that its decision to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1979 rested on the expectation that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means,” consistent with the wishes and best interest of people of Taiwan.
“We have been providing security assistance to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act and the ‘One China’ policy,” Jessica Lewis, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, said Wednesday. Since 2017, the U.S. executive branch has notified Congress of over $18 billion in Foreign Military Sales to Taiwan, and more than $37 billion since 2010.
The Federal Reserve raised its target interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point on Wednesday, yet promised “ongoing increases” in borrowing costs as part of its still unresolved battle against inflation.
“Inflation has eased somewhat but remains elevated,” the U.S. central bank said in a statement that acknowledged the progress made in lowering the pace of price increases from the 40-year highs hit last year.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, for example, was still seen as adding to “elevated global uncertainty,” the Fed said. But policymakers dropped the language of earlier statements citing the war as well as the coronavirus pandemic as direct contributors to rising prices.
Still, the Fed said the U.S. economy was enjoying “modest growth” and “robust” job gains, with policymakers still “highly attentive to inflation risks.”
“The [Federal Open Market] Committee anticipates that ongoing increases in the target range will be appropriate in order to attain a stance of monetary policy that is sufficiently restrictive to return inflation to 2 percent over time,” the Fed said.
The decision lifted the benchmark overnight interest rate to a range between 4.50 percent and 4.75 percent, a move widely anticipated by investors and flagged by U.S. central bankers ahead of this week’s two-day policy session.
But in keeping the promise of more rate hikes to come, the Fed pushed back against investor expectations that it was ready to flag the end of the current tightening cycle as a nod to the fact that inflation has been steadily declining for six months.
The statement did indicate that any future rate increases would be in quarter-percentage-point increments, dropping a reference to the “pace” of future increases and instead referring to the “extent” of rate changes.
But those, it said, would take into account how the policy moves so far had impacted the economy, language that linked further rate increases to the evolution of upcoming economic data.
The Fed hopes it can continue nudging inflation lower to its 2-percent target without triggering a deep recession or causing a substantial rise in the unemployment rate from the current 3.5 percent, a level rarely seen in recent decades. Inflation, based on the Fed’s preferred measure, slowed to a 5-percent annual rate in December.
The U.S. central bank did not issue new economic projections from its policymakers on Wednesday.
Ukrainian authorities raided an influential billionaire’s home on Wednesday in what an ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted as a sweeping wartime clampdown on corruption that would change the country.
Separate raids were carried out at the Tax Office and on the home of an influential former interior minister, two days before Kyiv hosts a summit with the European Union at which it wants to show it is cracking down after years of chronic corruption.
Ukraine sees Friday’s summit as key to its hopes of one day joining the bloc, a goal that has grown more urgent following Russia’s invasion and has embarked on a political shake-up in which more than a dozen officials quit or were sacked last week.
Security officials searched the home of businessman Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine’s richest men and a one-time Zelenskyy ally, in what several media outlets said was an investigation into possible financial crimes. Kolomoiskiy could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) later said it had uncovered a scheme to embezzle more than $1 billion at oil producer Ukrnafta and oil refining company Ukrtatnafta, companies that Kolomoiskiy used to partly own.
Photographs circulating on social media appeared to show Kolomoiskiy, dressed in a sweatsuit, looking on in the presence of at least one SBU officer inside a large wooden home. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images. In a statement that did not name Kolomoiskiy, the SBU published the same photographs, but with the person’s face blurred out.
David Arakhamia, a senior member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, confirmed the search of Kolomoiskiy’s home as well as the separate raids conducted at the Tax Office and at the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister.
Arakhamia said the entire management of the Customs Service was set to be dismissed and that high-ranking defense ministry officials had been served with notices informing them they were suspects in a case. He gave no details. “The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change,” Arakhamia wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
In a statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office later said, “Corruption in a time of war is looting” and that four senior current and former officials had been served “notices of suspicion,” along with the senior management of Ukrtatnafta. The head of the State Bureau of Investigation said the law enforcement action was “only the beginning.”
Ukraine’s long-running battle against corruption has taken on vital significance, as Russia’s invasion has made Kyiv heavily reliant on Western support and it needs to carry out reforms to join the 27-nation EU.
Domestic politics has largely been frozen as politicians focus on fighting Russia, but Zelenskyy presided over the first major political shakeup of the war last week after an outcry over a corruption scandal involving an army food contract.
Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that more personnel decisions were in the pipeline and promised reforms that would change Ukraine’s “social, legal and political reality.”
He was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket and launched a crackdown on wealthy businessmen known as “oligarchs” in late 2021. The oligarchs took control of swathes of industry during the post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s and continue to wield influence.
The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet said the search on Kolomoiskiy’s property related to an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of oil products and evasion of customs duties.
Separately, Avakov said his home was searched as part of an investigation into a helicopter crash on Jan. 18 that killed 14 people including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi. He said investigators were looking into the purchase six years ago of a model of Airbus helicopter that was involved in the crash, but that “nothing relevant to the interest of the investigation was found.”
The White House is launching a partnership with India on Tuesday that President Joe Biden hopes will help the countries compete against China on military equipment, semiconductors and artificial intelligence.
Washington wants to deploy more Western mobile phone networks in the subcontinent to counter China’s Huawei Technologies, to welcome more Indian computer chip specialists to the United States and to encourage companies from both countries to collaborate on military equipment like artillery systems.
The White House faces an uphill battle on each front, including U.S. restrictions on military technology transfer and visas for immigrant workers, along with India’s longstanding dependence on Moscow for military hardware.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, are meeting Tuesday with senior officials from both countries at the White House to launch the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies.
“The larger challenge posed by China — its economic practices, its aggressive military moves, its efforts to dominate the industries of the future and to control the supply chains of the future — have had a profound impact on the thinking in Delhi,” said Sullivan.
New Delhi has frustrated Washington by participating in military exercises with Russia and increasing purchases of the country’s crude oil, a key source of funding for Russia’s war in Ukraine. But Washington has held its tongue, nudging the country on Russia, while condoning India’s more hawkish stance on China.
On Monday, Sullivan and Doval participated in a Chamber of Commerce event with corporate leaders from Lockheed Martin, Adani Enterprises and Applied Materials.
While India is part of the Biden administration’s signature Asian engagement project Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), it has opted against joining the IPEF trade pillar negotiations. The initiative also includes a joint effort on space and high-performance quantum computing.
General Electric, meanwhile, is asking the U.S. government for permission to produce jet engines with India that would power aircraft operated and produced by India, according to the White House, which says a review is underway.
President Vladimir Putin evoked the spirit of the Soviet army that defeated Nazi German forces at Stalingrad 80 years ago to declare on Thursday that Russia would defeat a Ukraine supposedly in the grip of a new incarnation of Nazism.
In a fiery speech in Volgograd, known as Stalingrad until 1961, Putin lambasted Germany for helping to arm Ukraine and said, not for the first time, that he was ready to draw on Russia’s entire arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons.
“Unfortunately, we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin told an audience of army officers and members of local patriotic and youth groups. “Again and again, we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: We are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”
Russian officials have been drawing parallels with the struggle against the Nazis ever since Russian forces entered Ukraine almost a year ago. Ukraine — which was part of the Soviet Union and itself suffered devastation at the hands of Hitler’s forces — rejects those parallels as spurious pretexts for a war of imperial conquest.
Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle of World War II, when the Soviet Red Army, at a cost of over 1 million casualties, broke the back of German invasion forces in 1942-43. Putin evoked what he said was the spirit of the defenders of Stalingrad to explain why he thought Russia would prevail in Ukraine, saying the World War II battle had become a symbol of “the indestructible nature of our people.”
“Those who draw European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia, and expect to win a victory over Russia on the battlefield, apparently don’t understand that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them,” he added. “We don’t send our tanks to their borders, but we have the means to respond, and it won’t end with the use of armored vehicles. Everyone must understand that.”
◆ Victory Parade
As Putin finished speaking, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Putin had earlier laid flowers at the grave of the Soviet marshal who oversaw the defense of Stalingrad and visited the city’s main memorial complex, where he held a minute’s silence in honor of those who died during the battle.
Thousands of people lined Volgograd’s streets to watch a victory parade as planes flew overhead and modern and World War II-era tanks and armored vehicles rolled past. Some of the modern vehicles had the letter “V” painted on them, a symbol used by Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
Irina Zolotoreva, 61, who said her relatives had fought at Stalingrad, saw a parallel with Ukraine. “Our country is fighting for justice, for freedom,” she said. “We got victory in 1942, and that’s an example for today’s generation. I think we’ll win again now, whatever happens.”
The focal point for the commemorations was the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex, on a hill overlooking the River Volga dominated by a hulking statue called The Motherland Calls — of a woman brandishing a giant sword.
The five-month-long battle reduced the city that bore Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s name to rubble, while claiming an estimated 2 million dead and wounded on both sides. A new bust of Stalin was erected in Volgograd on Wednesday along with two others — of Soviet Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilyevsky.
Despite Stalin’s record of presiding over a famine that killed millions and political repression that killed hundreds of thousands, Russian politicians and school textbooks have in recent years stressed his role as a successful wartime leader who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower.