4 killed in building collapse in eastern China, state media say

TAIPEI, Taiwan — At least four people have been reported dead in a building collapse in the eastern province of Anhui, Chinese state media reported.

The western side of the five-story building collapsed about 1:40 p.m. Monday, the district government confirmed. And a section of the 10-unit apartment block in the city of Tongling, located in Datong township in the Jiaoqu district, fell onto its occupants.

That led to an hourslong search for survivors. A 12-year-old girl was found alive and was undergoing emergency treatment, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Cranes and backhoes were brought in to stabilize the parts of the building left standing.

There was no immediate word on the cause of the collapse, although the city has recently seen days of heavy rains that have inundated underground structures, CCTV said.

Poor construction quality and illegally built additions and modifications are becoming increasingly apparent as buildings erected quickly during the economic boom years of the 1980s and 1990s begin to age.

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South Korea, China, Japan vow to ramp up cooperation in rare summit

Seoul, South Korea — Top leaders from South Korea, China and Japan discussed regional stability in their first meeting in five years on Monday, as they vowed to ramp up three-way cooperation.

The summit brought together South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul for the countries’ first trilateral talks in nearly five years, partly due to the pandemic, but also once-sour ties.

While North Korea was not officially on the agenda for the talks, Kishida said after the meeting that the three countries confirmed that its denuclearization would be in their “common interest.”

Hours before the talks, North Korea announced that it planned to put another spy satellite into orbit imminently, which would violate rafts of U.N. sanctions barring it from tests using ballistic technology.

Yoon and Kishida urged Pyongyang to call off the launch, with the South Korean leader saying it would “undermine regional and global peace and stability.”

He also called for a “decisive” international response if Kim goes ahead with his fourth such launch — aided by what Seoul claims is Russian assistance in exchange for sending arms for use in Ukraine.

“We once again confirmed that North Korea’s denuclearization and stability on the Korean Peninsula are in the common interest of our three countries,” Kishida said after the meeting, with Yoon adding that the issue was a “shared responsibility and interest” for the trio.

Analysts say there is a significant technological overlap between space launch capabilities and the development of ballistic missiles.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and a key diplomatic ally, and it has long resisted condemning Pyongyang for its weapons tests, instead criticizing joint U.S.-South Korea drills for raising tension.

Chinese Premier Li said in his opening remarks that the three countries were willing “to seek mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation,” Xinhua reported.

“Li called for opposing turning economic and trade issues into political games or security matters, and rejecting protectionism as well as decoupling or the severing of supply chains,” the news agency said.

Yoon added that the three countries had “decided to create a transparent and predictable environment for trade and investment, and to establish a safe supply chain.”

Tilted diplomacy?

After their talks, Yoon, Li and Kishida joined a business summit aimed at boosting trade between the countries, which was also attended by top industry leaders.

Experts have warned that, due to the three countries’ starkly divergent positions on key issues including Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and growing ties with Russia, it is tricky for them to form a consensus on sensitive geopolitical issues.

Yoon, who took office in 2022, has sought to bury the historical hatchet with former colonial power Japan in the face of rising threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

South Korea and Japan are key regional security allies of China’s arch-rival the United States but are eager to improve trade and ease tensions with Beijing, experts say.

After their talks, the three leaders said they had decided to ramp up three-way cooperation, including holding summits more regularly.

“The trilateral cooperation system should be strengthened. We have decided to hold trilateral summits on a regular basis,” Yoon said.

President Xi Jinping is China’s top leader, with Li serving under him as premier.

Nuclear-armed North Korea successfully launched its first reconnaissance satellite last November in a move that drew international condemnation, with the United States calling it a “brazen violation” of UN sanctions.

Seoul said on Friday that South Korean and US intelligence authorities were “closely monitoring and tracking” presumed preparations for the launch of another military reconnaissance satellite — which could come as early as Monday, according to the launch window Pyongyang gave to Tokyo.

“North Korea, China, and Russia have effectively claimed that launching reconnaissance satellites does not breach U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on Pyongyang,” Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.

“However, considering China’s involvement, it appears the North will likely hold off on any launches during the trilateral meeting, convened after a significant break, in deference to Beijing’s stance.” 

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U.S. lawmakers vow to help Taiwan strengthen defense against growing Chinese aggression

Taipei, Taiwan — A bipartisan congressional delegation from the United States met Taiwan’s new president in Taipei Monday, and reiterated Washington’s strong support for the democratic island. 

During the meeting with the U.S. delegation Lai Ching-te, who took office on May 20, promised to keep pushing for defense reform in Taiwan and show the world that “Taiwanese people are determined to defend their homeland.” 

He hopes that “the U.S. Congress will continue to help strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities and increase exchanges and cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. through a variety of legislative actions.” 

At a news briefing following the meeting with Lai, Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. remains committed to supporting Taiwan’s efforts to strengthen its defense capabilities as China increases military pressure on the island. 

“We will support you, and we will get the weapons you purchased to you as soon as possible,” he told dozens of journalists, adding that strength and deterrence are key to ensuring the Taiwan Strait remains peaceful and prosperous. 

The visit comes three days after the Chinese military staged a two-day, large-scale military exercise encircling Taiwan. Describing the Chinese war game around Taiwan as “an intimidation tactic to punish democracy,” McCaul said there is more urgency to ensure Taiwan receives the weapons that it has bought from the United States. 

“We are moving forward on [the delivery] of these weapons systems, but I’d like to see it faster,” he said during the news conference, noting that the $95 billion foreign aid package that the U.S. passed last month, which includes a $8 billion package for the Indo-Pacific region and Taiwan, is a sign of Washington’s support for Taiwan. 

While he promises to help accelerate the pace of weapons delivery to Taiwan, McCaul admitted that the backlog of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which is about $19 billion, is partially caused by the limited military industrial capacity in the U.S. 

“We have to wait a period of two to five years for the weapons to go into the country and that is way too long,” he said, vowing to push U.S. defense contractors and the Biden administration to address the issue. 

Since China focused on simulating a maritime blockade around Taiwan through its latest military exercise, McCaul said Taipei and Washington should focus on helping the island acquire more maritime assets to deal with a potential Chinese attack. 

“What they did the last couple of days was essentially a preview of what a blockade would look like [and] by looking at what type of military assets would likely help deter Beijing from [imposing] a blockade around Taiwan, my view is that maritime assets are key here,” he told journalists. 

Bipartisan support for Taiwan 

Some analysts say the U.S. Congressional delegation’s visit shows that the support for Taiwan in Washington is consistent and bipartisan. “There have been many U.S. congressional delegations in Taiwan over the last few years and one feature to highlight is that all these delegations are bipartisan,” Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan, told VOA by phone. 

Despite the stern warning from Beijing, other experts say the visit shows both Taipei and Beijing that the U.S. is committed to deepening ties with Taiwan. “The delegation sends a message that the United States is not afraid of angering China by maintaining its engagement with Taiwan,” said Li Da-Jung, director of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Taiwan’s Tamkang University. 

Since the delegation will spend four days in Taiwan, Li thinks it could give U.S. lawmakers more opportunities to meet more Taiwanese officials and visit specific places of their interests. “I believe the delegation will meet Taiwanese officials in charge of national security and cross-strait relations,” he told VOA by phone. 

In addition to military sales and weapons delivery, Chen said the U.S. delegation will likely discuss topics related to bilateral trade relations and Taiwan’s divided legislature. 

“I believe the U.S. lawmakers will try to talk about the ongoing trade negotiation between Taipei and Washington and the potential impact of Taiwan’s divided legislature on Taiwan’s defense and foreign policies when they meet Lai and other Taiwanese officials,” he told VOA. 

Earlier this month, Taiwan and the U.S. held a new round of trade negotiations focusing on potential cooperation in areas such as labor, environmental protection, and agriculture. Taiwan’s deputy trade representative Yang Jen-ni said Taipei hopes to increase the volume of Taiwanese agricultural exports to the U.S. through the trade talks. 

As Taiwan’s new government looks to deepen ties with the U.S., the Chinese government has repeatedly warned Washington not to use the democratic island, which Beijing views as its territory, to contain China. 

“China firmly opposes official interaction in any form between Taiwan and the United States and opposes U.S. interference in Taiwan affairs in any form or under any pretext,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during the daily news conference on May 21. 

Since relations between Taiwan and China are unlikely to improve in the short term, Li at Tamkang University said the Lai administration may try to double down on Taipei’s relations with like-minded democracies around the world, especially the U.S. 

“At a time when there is very little room to improve cross-strait relations, Lai may consider putting the focus of his foreign policy agenda on the U.S. and rely more on Washington’s support for Taipei,” he told VOA. 

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Taiwan president extends goodwill after China drills, US lawmakers arrive

Taipei, Taiwan — Taiwan President Lai Ching-te extended goodwill toward and offered cooperation with China on Sunday following two days of Chinese war games near the island, as a group of U.S. lawmakers arrived in Taipei.

China, which claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, carried out the military drills Thursday and Friday, calling them “punishment” after Lai’s inauguration speech on Monday which Beijing called another push for the island’s formal independence.

China has repeatedly lambasted Lai as a “separatist.” Lai rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claims and says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future. He has repeatedly offered talks but been rebuffed.

Speaking at a meeting of his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the southern city of Tainan, Lai called on China to “share the heavy responsibility of regional stability with Taiwan,” according to comments provided by his party.

Lai, who won election in January, said he also “looked forward to enhancing mutual understanding and reconciliation with China via exchanges and cooperation, creating mutual benefit and moving towards a position of peace and common prosperity.”

He thanked the United States and other countries for their expressions of concern about the Chinese exercises.

“The international community will not accept any country creating waves in the Taiwan Strait and affecting regional stability,” Lai added.

The first group of U.S. lawmakers to visit Taiwan since Lai took office arrived on the island Sunday for a four-day visit, led by Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

McCaul, joined by a bipartisan group of five other lawmakers, will meet Lai on Monday morning to “exchange views on peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Taiwan’s presidential office said.

“Taiwan is a thriving democracy. The U.S. will continue to stand by our steadfast partner and work to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” McCaul said in a statement.

Taiwan’s government has condemned China’s war games.

Over the past four years, China has staged regular military activities around Taiwan as it seeks to pressure the island’s government.

On Sunday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said the garrison on Erdan islet, part of the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands that sit next to China’s Xiamen and Quanzhou cities, had discovered a “crude” cardboard box containing paper with political slogans on it, written in the simplified Chinese characters used in China.

The ministry said the box was suspected of being dropped by a drone outside the line of sight, adding, “It is a typical cognitive operation trick.”

In 2022, Taiwan shot down a drone off Kinmen after complaining of days of harassment.

China’s defense ministry did not answer calls outside of office hours.

China’s military has kept up a barrage of propaganda videos and animations directed at Taiwan since the exercises began.

Its Eastern Theater Command, which ran the drills, showed a video Sunday of rockets firing in what it referred to in English as “cross-strait lethality.”

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Ex-CIA officer accused of spying for China pleads guilty

HONOLULU, HAWAII — A former CIA officer and contract linguist for the FBI accused of spying for China for at least a decade pleaded guilty Friday in a federal courtroom in Honolulu.

Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 72, has been in custody since his arrest in August 2020. The U.S. Justice Department said in a court filing it amassed “a war chest of damning evidence” against him, including an hourlong video of Ma and an older relative — also a former CIA officer — providing classified information to intelligence officers with China’s Ministry of State Security in 2001.

The video shows Ma counting the $50,000 received from the Chinese agents for his service, prosecutors said.

During a sting operation, he accepted thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for past espionage activities, and he told an undercover FBI agent posing as a Chinese intelligence officer that he wanted to see the “motherland” succeed, prosecutors said.

The secrets he was accused of providing included information about CIA sources and assets, international operations, secure communication practices and operational tradecraft, the charging documents said.

As part of an agreement with prosecutors, Ma pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to gather or deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The deal calls for a 10-year sentence, but a judge will have the final say at Ma’s sentencing, which is scheduled for September 11. Without the deal, he faced life in prison.

Ma was born in Hong Kong, moved to Honolulu in 1968 and became a U.S. citizen in 1975. He joined the CIA in 1982, was assigned overseas the following year and resigned in 1989. He held a top-secret security clearance, according to court documents.

Ma lived and worked in Shanghai, China, before returning to Hawaii in 2001. He was hired as a contract linguist in the FBI’s Honolulu field office in 2004, and prosecutors say that over the following six years, he regularly copied, photographed and stole classified documents. He often took them on trips to China, returning with thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, such as a new set of golf clubs, prosecutors said.

In court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson revealed that Ma’s hiring as a part-time contract linguist was a “ruse” to monitor his contact with Chinese intelligence officers.

The FBI had been aware of Ma’s ties with the intelligence officers and “made the determination to notionally hire the defendant to work at an FBI off-site location in Honolulu,” the plea agreement said.

In 2006, while Ma was living in Hawaii, Chinese intelligence officers sent him photos of people they were interested in, Sorenson said, and Ma contacted the co-conspirator relative and persuaded him to reveal at least two of the identities.

Ma, in pleading guilty, said everything Sorenson described is true. Ma said he had signed nondisclosure agreements that he knew would be in effect even after leaving the CIA and that he knew the information he was providing to the Chinese intelligence officials could harm the United States or help a foreign nation.

In 2021, Ma’s former defense attorney told a judge Ma believed he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was having trouble remembering things.

A defense motion noted that Ma’s older brother developed Alzheimer’s 10 years prior and was completely disabled by the disease. The brother is referred to as the co-conspirator in the indictment against Ma, but prosecutors didn’t charge him because of his incompetency due to Alzheimer’s, the motion said.

The co-conspirator is now dead, Sorenson said in court Friday.

Last year a judge found Ma competent and to not be suffering from a major mental disease, disorder or defect.

Ma’s plea agreement with prosecutors also says he will “provide more detailed facts relating to this case during debriefings with Government representatives,” and submit to polygraph examinations.

“The defendant understands and agrees that his cooperation obligation represents a lifetime commitment by the defendant to the United States to cooperate as described in this agreement,” the court document said.

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China ends military drills around Taiwan

Beijing — China has ended two days of military drills around Taiwan that saw jets loaded with live munitions and warships practice seizing and isolating the self-ruled island.

The exercises simulated strikes targeting Taiwan’s leaders as well as its ports and airports to “cut off the island’s ‘blood vessels,'” Chinese military analysts told state media.

Beijing considers the democratic island part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring it under its control.

The war games kicked off Thursday morning, as aircraft and naval vessels surrounded Taiwan to conduct mock attacks against “important targets,” state broadcaster CCTV said.

Codenamed “Joint Sword-2024A,” the exercises were launched three days after Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te took office and made an inauguration speech that China denounced as a “confession of independence.”

Beijing’s defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said Friday that Lai was pushing Taiwan “into a perilous situation of war and danger.”

“Every time ‘Taiwan independence’ provokes us, we will push our countermeasures one step further, until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved,” he said.

Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, when nationalists fled to the island following their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war on the mainland.

The drills are part of an escalating campaign of intimidation by China that has seen it carry out a series of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in recent years.

Beijing has also amped up its rhetoric, with its foreign ministry Thursday using language more typical of China’s propaganda outlets.

“Taiwan independence forces will be left with their heads broken and blood flowing after colliding against the great… trend of China achieving complete unification,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters.

On Saturday, Taiwan’s presidency said the public could be assured it had “a full grasp of the situation and appropriate responses to ensure national security.”

“China’s recent unilateral provocation not only undermines the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait but it is also a blatant provocation to the international order,” Presidential Office spokesperson Karen Kuo said.

‘Closer than ever’

A total of 111 Chinese aircraft and dozens of naval vessels took part in the drills over two days, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.

On Friday evening, China’s army published images of the drills’ “highlights,” featuring missile-launching trucks ready to fire, fighter jets taking off and naval officers looking through binoculars at Taiwanese ships.

Meng Xiangqing, a professor from Beijing-based National Defense University, told state news agency Xinhua that People’s Liberation Army vessels “were getting closer to the island than ever before.”

Beijing launched similar exercises in August and April last year after Taiwanese leaders visited the United States.

China also launched major military exercises in 2022 after Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taiwan.

The scale of the most recent drills was “significant, but is nowhere near as big, it seems, as last August’s,” Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told AFP.

Sung and other analysts told AFP that the geographic scope of the exercises had increased, with a new focus on isolating Taiwan’s outlying islands.

The drills took place in the Taiwan Strait and to the north, south and east of the island, as well as areas around the Taipei-administered islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin.

Tong Zhen, an expert from the Academy of Military Sciences, told Xinhua the drills “mainly targeted the ringleaders and political center of ‘Taiwan independence,’ and involved simulated precision strikes on key political and military targets.”

Calls for restraint

The dispute has long made the Taiwan Strait one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.

The United Nations called for all sides to avoid escalation.

The United States, Taiwan’s strongest partner and military backer, on Thursday “strongly” urged China to act with restraint.

The Pentagon announced Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would meet his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun at the end of the month at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense officials from around the world.

“Beijing is trying to use this very high-profile show of force to not only show displeasure against Taiwan, but also… to deter and dissuade other countries and partners from contemplating further cooperation or engagement of Taiwan,” said the Atlantic Council’s Sung.

“That furthers isolation of Taiwan, which allows Beijing to negotiate with Taiwan going forward from a position of strength.”

Chinese military analyst Meng noted that the drills to the east — considered by the PLA the most likely direction from which external intervention could come — was designed to reinforce that message.

“’Taiwan independence’ separatists have long considered the island’s eastern direction to be their backyard and ‘shelter,’ but the drills have shown that we can control that eastern area,” Meng told Xinhua.

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China’s Digital Silk Road exports internet technology, controls

washington — China promotes its help to Southeast Asian countries in modernizing their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its “Digital Silk Road.” But rights groups say Beijing is also exporting its model of authoritarian governance of the internet through censorship, surveillance and controls.

China’s state media this week announced Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom and tech giant Huawei.

The 208,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. Cambodia’s Khmer Times said the objective is to “expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community.”

But parallel to China’s state media-promoted technology investments, rights groups say Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call “digital authoritarian governance.”

Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China’s technology industry. The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region’s standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own.

VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for a response but did not receive one by the time of publication.

Model of digital governance

Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China’s model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba.

Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, “China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People’s Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance, and digital sovereignty away from universal norms.”

The group says in Thailand, home to the world’s largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China bolstered internet controls imposed after Thailand’s 2014 coup, and it notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content.

In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India.

The group says Malaysia’s approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China’s model, citing Kuala Lumpur’s cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China.

Most significantly, Article 19 says China is involved at “all levels” of Cambodia’s digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia.

While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws.

Internet gateway

Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China’s Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people’s access to Western media and social networking sites.

“That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China’s influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence,” Caster said.

The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations.

Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with rights group Freedom House, told VOA, “The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic.”

Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government-controlled internet.

“Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country’s internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It’s expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts.”

Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector.

“These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations,” he said.

Article 19’s Caster says countries concerned about China’s authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide.

“This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles,” he said, “to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services – and often by extension its authoritarian model – as the most accessible option.”

China will hold its annual internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China’s Xinhua news agency reports this year’s conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security and international cooperation.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Sellers of Arctic land unconcerned by potential Chinese buyers

Private land in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is being auctioned off by its owner, with strong interest from Chinese buyers, according to a lawyer responsible for the auction. Such a sale would likely cause geopolitical headaches for Norway and NATO because of Svalbard’s strategic location in the Arctic Ocean. Henry Wilkins has more.
Camera: Henry Wilkins

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Taiwan residents offer views on China, defense, US

As a new president takes office in Taiwan, the island’s residents have mixed views on how well the new administration will handle Taipei’s relationship with Beijing. VOA’s William Yang reports from Taipei. Camera: William Yang.

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Behind Putin and Xi’s embrace, Russia is junior partner, analysts say

LONDON — Chinese President Xi Jinping is not known for public displays of affection.

So Xi’s double embrace of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week — broadcast by Chinese and Russian state television — was widely seen as a calculated signal to the world of a blossoming personal and geopolitical relationship.

Putin’s visit to China underlined burgeoning economic ties between Moscow and Beijing as the two countries signed a series of agreements aimed at forging closer cooperation, even as the West tries to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

Personal warmth

The show of personal warmth was matched by a series of lavish state ceremonies, ostensibly marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

“It is a shared strategic choice of both countries to deepen strategic cooperation, expand mutually beneficial cooperation and follow the general historical trend of multipolarity in the world and economic globalization,” Xi told Putin during the talks in Beijing on May 16.

Putin praised increased bilateral trade between Russia and China, which had, he said, reached an annual $240 billion — and touted his ambitions to sell more oil and gas to Beijing.

“Russia is ready and capable of uninterruptedly and reliably supplying the Chinese economy, enterprises, cities, towns with environmentally friendly, affordable energy, light and heat,” Putin said following a visit to the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

Deepened cooperation

The Russian leader’s visit to China achieved its aims, according to Liana Fix of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“(Coming) shortly after Putin’s inauguration, it had a legitimizing effect for his fifth term as president on the international stage, demonstrating that even if the West does not accept his elections as free and fair, China sees him as the legitimate leader.

“Second, it served the purpose of deepening defense cooperation between these two countries, especially by circumventing U.S. sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for financing Russia‘s war effort, and by facilitating further Chinese deliveries to Russia‘s war machine,” Fix told VOA in an email.

European snub

Putin’s visit to China came days after Xi traveled to Europe, where EU leaders tried to persuade him to end support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s clear they failed, said analyst Velina Tchakarova, founder of the FACE geopolitical consultancy.

“China provides the main lifeline for Russia. But China also practically set the stage for Russia to not get internationally isolated. Russia officially has announced that it’s going in the direction of a long war that it wants to win, and here we see clearly that China is taking the side of Russia,” Tchakarova told VOA.

That alliance — what Tchakarova calls the “DragonBear” — has ramifications beyond Ukraine.

“These kind of wars, as the one being waged right now in Europe [in Ukraine], and similarly the one in the Middle East [between Israel and Hamas], and obviously also the military tensions in the Indo-Pacific — these are hotspots, military conflicts and wars that are to be seen in this context of emerging ‘Cold War 2.0’ between the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia, or the ‘DragonBear’ on the other,” Tchakarova told VOA.

Democratic threat

Xi and Putin are united by geopolitical aims, and their autocratic ideals threaten democratic societies, according to author Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine.

“What they have in common is their dislike of the democratic world, their dislike of democratic language, and the ideals of freedom and justice and rule of law and transparency,” Applebaum said. “And they are willing to join together to fight against them. It’s a full-on central challenge from the autocratic world to them, and it’s attacking both their citizens and their allies around the world, and we need to face it.”

Unbalanced relations

The relationship is tilted heavily in China’s favor, Applebaum said.

“They may have an interest in weakening Russia. A weaker Russia has to sell them oil and gas at lower prices. A weaker Russia is a more pliable ally, is a weaker player on the stage. And maybe they’re hoping for that. It’s pretty clear already that Russia is the junior partner in this alliance, which isn’t something that we would have thought possible a couple of decades ago,” she told VOA.

Putin is due to host Xi at the October BRICS summit in Russia, as both countries seek to galvanize global support for their vision of Beijing and Moscow as major players in a new, multipolar world.

VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

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Behind Putin and Xi’s embrace, Russia is junior partner, analysts say

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last week underlined the burgeoning economic and geopolitical ties between Moscow and Beijing, amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. But as Henry Ridgwell reports, analysts say China could seek to exploit its relationship with a weakened and isolated Russia.

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China promises ‘friendship, cooperation’ as 2 Chinese warships dock in Cambodia

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia — Two Chinese warships docked Sunday at a commercial port in Cambodia, in preparation for joint naval exercises between the two countries.

The Jingangshan amphibious warfare ship and the Qi Jiguang training ship sailed into the Sihanoukville Port as onlookers waved Cambodian and Chinese flags from the piers.

The port is north of the Ream Naval Base, where China has funded a broad expansion project that has been carefully watched by the United States and others over concerns it could become a new outpost for the Chinese navy on the Gulf of Thailand.

The Gulf is adjacent to the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, and would give easy access to the Malacca Strait, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

Wang Wentian, China’s ambassador to Cambodia, dismissed concerns about Ream, telling reporters at Sihanoukville that wherever the Chinese navy sails “we bring friendship, we bring cooperation” and nothing else.

“The cooperation between the two armies, between China and Cambodia, is conducive to the security of both countries and the security of the region,” he said, standing on the pier.

The Jingangshan and the Qi Jiguang are due to take part in naval exercises from the Ream base from May 24-27, along with two Chinese corvettes that have been docked at Ream’s new pier for more than five months.

The joint training is the naval component of the ongoing Golden Dragon exercises, which are regularly held between the two countries.

Controversy over Ream Naval Base initially arose in 2019 when The Wall Street Journal reported that an early draft of a reputed agreement seen by U.S. officials would allow China 30-year use of the base, where it would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.

Cambodia’s then-Prime Minister Hun Sen denied there was such an agreement. He pointed out that Cambodia’s constitution does not allow foreign military bases to be established on its soil but said visiting ships from all nations are welcome.

As the Golden Dragon exercises opened on May 16, Cambodian army Commander in Chief Gen. Vong Pisen thanked China for providing new equipment and helping to upgrade military facilities, including the Ream Naval Base.

At the same time, he underscored Cambodia’s official position, saying the country would “not allow any foreign military base on our territory.”

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Pakistani minister: Islamabad would like Beijing to talk to Kabul on terrorism

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s minister for planning and development, Ahsan Iqbal, says his country is not opposed to Afghanistan’s inclusion in a Chinese-funded mega-development project, but would like Beijing to persuade Kabul to crack down on terrorist groups operating on its soil against Islamabad.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s new government, which took office in March, is anxious to revive the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC – a roughly $62 billion flagship project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative – which has suffered a slump in recent years due to political, economic, and security problems in Pakistan.

Iqbal recently met officials in China to prepare for Sharif’s upcoming visit aimed at quickening the pace and broadening the scope of CPEC.

Securing CPEC

Threats against Chinese nationals have emerged as a major impediment to CPEC’s progress in recent years. Since 2021, at least 17 Chinese nationals have died in targeted attacks in Pakistan.

In late March, five Chinese workers and their Pakistani driver were killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into their bus. Pakistani authorities identified the attacker as an Afghan national and claimed the attack was planned in Afghanistan.

“I think this is a cause for concern,” Iqbal said about the alleged use of Afghan territory for attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan.

Speaking exclusively to VOA, Iqbal said his government would like Beijing to use its influence to push Kabul to take action against cross-border terrorists.

“We also hope that China would also persuade Afghanistan because Afghanis [Afghans] also listen to the Chinese government in the region,” he said.

The Afghan Taliban deny giving space to terrorists, but research suggests terrorist groups have a presence there.

When asked if Islamabad had formally requested Beijing to push the Afghan Taliban to curb anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, Iqbal referred VOA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The minister rejected the idea that attacks on Chinese nationals were a failure on Pakistan’s part, where a special military unit as well as local law enforcement are tasked with ensuring their safety.

“When you’re fighting a war against terrorism, terrorists always find a way,” Iqbal said, adding that major powers like the United States and Russia were also victims.

Chinese officials are pressing Pakistan publicly to ensure better safety of their workers and to hold those responsible for the killings accountable.

Iqbal said Beijing was right to demand better security for its nationals and that it knows Pakistan is doing more.

“But the Chinese government has said it very clearly that such cowardly incidents will not deter them from pursuing CPEC,” he added.

Washington vs. Beijing

Chinese funding, while welcome, comes largely in the form of expensive loans. According to research by AidData, a research organization based at the College of William and Mary in the U.S. state of Virginia, between 2000 to 2021, Pakistan’s cumulative debt to China stood at $67.2 billion.

Iqbal dismissed Washington’s concerns about Pakistan’s mounting Chinese debt. The United States also accuses China of predatory lending practices, an allegation Beijing denies.

“I think China has shown [a] great amount of understanding,” he said. “I wish just as China understands Pakistan’s difficulties, [the] IMF [International Monetary Fund] and other friends also would give Pakistan that margin of understanding.”

When CPEC was starting in 2013, Iqbal said he told officials in Washington that “right now China is giving us $46 billion of hard investment in infrastructure and I doubt very much that you can even get $4 million approved from Congress for Pakistan.”

Despite being allies in the 20-year U.S.-led Afghan war, Washington and Islamabad share a long history of mistrust.

Walking a tightrope between Washington and Beijing while the two battle for geopolitical influence, Iqbal said Islamabad would like to harness the “soft power” of the U.S and send Pakistani scholars and researchers there to earn doctorate degrees.

“So, if China is helping us build our infrastructure or hardware, we look forward to the U.S., that it should help us build our software that will run that hardware,” Iqbal said. “I think that way Pakistan can really benefit from both its friends, United States and China.”

CPEC Phase-2

Launched in 2013, CPEC has given nearly 2,000 kilometers of roads to Pakistan, added 8,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid, and created close to 200,000 jobs, according to Pakistani and Chinese officials.

In the much-delayed and much-talked-about Phase 2 of CPEC, Pakistan hopes some of the pending projects from the first phase will be completed. Moving away from government-to-government initiatives, Pakistan wants private Chinese businesses to collaborate with companies in Pakistan in the second phase. It is also eyeing jobs leaving China due to increasing labor costs to come to Pakistan, where manpower is abundant and cheap.

“China considers Pakistan as a strategic friend and has confidence in Pakistan,” Iqbal said, when pressed why more Chinese companies would come to Pakistan while their counterparts are struggling to get their dues.

Pakistan owes almost $2 billion to Chinese power producers that set up shop under CPEC. It has an economy of roughly $350 billion but according to the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s central bank, Pakistan’s total debt and liabilities are hovering near $290 billion.

After escaping default last year, Islamabad is seeking a new bailout from the IMF, which expects Pakistan’s economy to grow 2% in 2024.

Iqbal said China invested in Pakistan when the country was having difficult times.

“When China decided to invest $25 billion in Pakistan, this is [in] 2013, when we had 18 hours of power shortages” and frequent suicide bombings, he said. “At that time they decided to come to Pakistan and support Pakistan,” the minister said. “That shows they have trust and confidence in Pakistan.”

Iqbal said the recent bullish performance of the country’s stock exchange showed, ” … local investors have full confidence in the direction the government is following and I think it is the same sense of confidence that Chinese investors and Chinese government has in this government.”

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China vows to punish critical Taiwanese commentators, families for ‘slander’

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s Taiwan Affairs Office this week vowed to punish five well-known Taiwanese media commentators and their families for “fabricating false, negative information” about China and “provoking [a] hostile cross-strait confrontation.”

The sharp rebuke was made at a news briefing Wednesday by TAO spokesperson Chen Binhua in response to a reporter’s question that China was looking at punitive measures for what it called “famous mouths,” or influencers, in Taiwan, who have been “spreading rumors and slander for a long time.”

The reporter from Cross-Strait Radio of the China Media Group who asked the question gave alleged examples of statements, such as “mainland people cannot afford tea-poached eggs” and “the mainland’s high-speed rail has no backrest.”

Chen responded that such commentators “ignored the facts of the development and progress of the mainland” and “hurt the feelings of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

He named five Taiwanese — Huang Shih-tsung, Yu Pei-chen, Lee-Zhenghao, Wang Yi-chuan and Liu Bao-jie — and vowed to punish them and their families “in accordance with the law.”

Huang is a financial pundit on Taiwanese TV programs. Yu is a retired army major general and current member of the Taoyuan City Council. Lee is a political commentator in Taipei. Wang is currently the executive director of the Policy Research and Coordinating Committee of the Democratic Progressive Party. Liu is a journalist and host of the TV political commentary program “Critical Moment.”

Chen did not specify what remarks the five pundits made, which Chinese laws they violated, or what punishment China would impose on them and their families.

The critics speak back

The accused Taiwanese critics responded to the threats in comments to VOA with a mix of ridicule and political analysis.

Lee called them “glorious sanctions” that were likely “fake moves” by the Chinese government to appease internal hawks ahead of the inauguration Monday of Taiwan’s president-elect, Lai Ching-te.

“Looking at the sanctions among major powers, no one is sanctioning media people,” Lee told VOA. “When the United States sanctioned China, it sanctioned then-Defense Minister Lee Shang-fu and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. China’s sanctions on Taiwan in the past were against [former Premier] Su Tseng-chang and [former Taiwan Ambassador to the United States] Hsiao Bi-khim. Real sanctions are against government officials and legislators, not civilians.”

Huang noted the threat also came after U.S. President Joe Biden imposed additional tariffs on Chinese goods, including electric vehicles and solar panels, worth about $18 billion.

“It is obviously putting great pressure on China,” Huang told VOA. “[China] has a very low cost of imposing sanctions on Taiwanese influencers.”

Yu told VOA China’s sanctions are a “belated glory” and vowed, “I will never bow to autocracy.”

Sarcastically imitating the TAO’s usual language, Wang said China’s Taiwan Affairs Office needs “deep self-reflection.”

In a written statement, Taiwan’s Presidential Office spokesperson, Olivia Lin, said Taiwan is a democratic country, the constitution guarantees the people’s freedom of speech, and China has no right to interfere. She said that in the face of personal threats from China’s TAO, the Taiwanese government will ensure the safety of its people and “will not let such threats succeed.”

What Chinese netizens think

Chinese netizens had mixed reactions to China’s plans to somehow punish the Taiwanese pundits and their families for the unspecified violations of unspecified Chinese laws.

Some Chinese netizens echoed China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. One posted on social media, “These scammers are let off the hook easily even if they were shot in the head.  They should be sent to the mainland’s labor camps.”

Others disagreed and said the threats would only elevate the pundits’ statures. One posted on social media, “Isn’t this just like conferring medals on them?”

Akio Yaita is a prominent Japanese journalist who was raised in China and now lives in Taiwan. In his regular commentary series produced for VOA, “Akio Yaita Has Something to Say,” he said the sanctions won’t have a huge effect on Taiwan but will hurt the Chinese government instead.

“The Chinese Communist Party used to say, ‘We place our hope in the people of Taiwan [for reunification].’ These people are popular in Taiwan. No one thinks their remarks are outrageous,” he said. “If China doesn’t allow them to speak because they criticize China a little bit, it shows the Communist Party has no confidence. The Communist Party’s control of speech will be intolerable to Taiwan and will push most Taiwanese people into opposition.”

Beijing considers the self-ruled island of Taiwan a breakaway province that must one day reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Joyce Huang contributed to this report.

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Bird flu found in western China as US combats cattle outbreak

BEIJING — Cases of bird flu have been confirmed among wild fowl in western China, the agriculture ministry said Saturday, as concerns grow over a U.S. outbreak infecting cattle. 

Two counties in Qinghai province confirmed 275 cases of H5 influenza among dead Pallas’s gull and other wild birds, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said in a notice on its website. 

The ministry received a report on the cases from the China Animal Disease Control Center, and the national Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory confirmed the finding, the notice said. 

The H5N1 outbreak among dairy cattle in at least nine U.S. states since late March has raised questions over whether it could spread to humans. No such cases have been reported. 

The U.S. announced on May 11 that it would spend close to $200 million to fight the outbreak. 

News of the China bird flu cases came as the nation’s anti-graft watchdog announced a corruption probe of the agriculture minister Saturday. 

Tang Renjian, 61, is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline and law” by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and National Supervisory Commission, CCDI said on its website. 

The term is CCDI’s typical euphemism for corruption. 

The notice gave no further details. 

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US ambassador to Japan visits southern islands, focus of China tension

TOKYO — The U.S. ambassador to Japan stressed Friday the importance of increased deterrence and his country’s commitment to its key ally as he visited two southwestern Japanese islands at the forefront of Tokyo’s tension with Beijing.

Rahm Emanuel visited Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island just east of Taiwan, a self-governed island also claimed by China. He later visited another Japanese island, Ishigaki, home to Japan Coast Guard patrol boats defending the disputed East China Sea islands and Japanese fishermen from armed Chinese coast guard ships that routinely enter Japanese waters.

Japan has been making a southwest shift of its defense posture and is further accelerating its military buildup under a 2022 security strategy that focuses on counterstrike capability with long-range cruise missiles.

Emanuel was the first U.S. ambassador to visit Yonaguni. Escorted by Mayor Kenichi Itokazu, he looked toward Taiwan, only 110 kilometers (68 miles) away. He met with Japanese Self Defense Force servicemembers at a local base installed in 2016 and where a missile defense system is planned.

The ambassador said the main purpose of his visit was to show U.S. support for the local fishing community. He also met with a local fisherman who was among those affected by China’s increasingly assertive actions in the regional seas.

China fired five missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in 2022 after the visit to Taiwan of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Emanuel said the fisherman told him he could not sell his fish for about a week after the Chinese action.

“If they don’t have deterrence, that’s going to be worse,” Emanuel told The Associated Press from Ishigaki, the second island he visited Friday. “If you have a very robust deterrence, it ensures that there is peace, ensures that there is security, ensures economic prosperity. Without that, it’s more likely to be a green light to those that want to use economic coercion and confrontation as their only means of expression.”

Emanuel said Yonaguni fishers still catch fish for a living, supporting the local economy and helping reinforce Japanese territorial rights. “That’s what a real win looks like — economic security,” he said on social platform X.

In Ishigaki, Japan’s coast guard protects fishing boats in the disputed waters around the Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo calls Senkaku. Beijing also claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu, and its coast guard ships often face off with their Japanese counterparts.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed the ambassador’s trip to the islands, saying it was “meaningful” for the ambassador to improve his understanding of Tokyo’s efforts in reinforcing its security in the southwestern region, where additional military units and missile defense systems are being deployed.

While local officials back the reinforcement of Japanese troops on the islands, residents staged a small protest amid concerns they may be the first to be affected in a possible U.S.-China conflict.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki supports the Japan-U.S. security alliance but has called for a reduction in the number of American troops housed on the island. About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa.

Tamaki also criticized the use of Yonaguni’s commercial airport by a U.S. military aircraft used by the ambassador.

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China’s shrinking Arctic ambitions are seen as confined largely to Russia

HALIFAX. Canada — China’s effort to establish itself as a “near-Arctic power” have become increasingly confined to the territory of its close ally Russia as other nations lose interest in cooperating with Beijing, according to Canadian security experts. 

The degree in which China poses a serious geopolitical threat in the Arctic region is debatable among experts. 

Chinese efforts to establish research stations in up to half a dozen Arctic nations ground to a halt because of travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic. Mounting concerns over China’s human rights record and its aggressive actions elsewhere have made several of those countries reluctant to see operations resume, said experts. 

“In many ways our fear of China and the Arctic dates back to five or six years ago when China’s power and influence seemed very much to be on the uptick in the region,” said Adam Lajeunesse, a professor focusing on Arctic issues at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “Its political, economic and soft power influence in the Arctic outside of Russia has collapsed. 

“Our fears of China are still lagging events. A lot from pre-COVID era when there was a lot of fears that China was going to dominate Arctic infrastructure. … That didn’t happen,” Lajeunesse said.  

VOA reported in December 2022 that China had sent or announced plans to send several people to its two most important scientific outposts in Norway and Iceland after lengthy absences of Chinese scientists from both sites.

But there were no signs of China trying to renew two other scientific projects in Sweden and Finland, where national organizations told VOA that Chinese activity was set to end or had ended. 

An earlier plan to set up a research base in Denmark’s autonomous island of Greenland was shelved in the face of opposition in Copenhagen, according to Marc Lanteigne, a social studies professor at the Arctic University of Norway. 

That has left Beijing — which has no direct access to Arctic waters — to focus its Arctic ambitions on Russia, with which it established a “no limits” partnership days before Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

China’s interests in the region are believed to include fisheries, extraction of minerals and other resources, and a shorter sea route to Europe — all of which become more viable as the Arctic ice pack recedes in the face of climate change. 

“China respects the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction rights of Arctic countries,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA in an emailed statement. “Issues related to the Arctic not only affect Arctic countries but also have global significance.” 

“China will work with all parties in getting to know more about the Arctic, as well as in its protection, exploration and management, with the view of greater peace, stability and sustainable development in the region,” Liu added. 

Many experts are watching China’s arctic activities and national security professionals told VOA on the sidelines of an April 30 conference sponsored by the Canadian Military Intelligence Association there are still limits to how much cooperation China can expect from Russia. 

“There is little doubt among Western nations that China will continue to seek research, infrastructure, and increased military engagement through direct and indirect means in support of its Belt and Road Initiatives,” said Al Dillon, co-founder and CEO of Sapper Labs, a company that supports the intelligence and cyber defense needs of Canada and other English-speaking countries. 

“The collaboration with Russia is concerning in this regard, while Russia will surely want to retain its own sovereignty and independence in the Arctic. The extent of this collaboration remains to be seen; however, we can be assured it will occur.” 

Artur Wilczynski, a former Canadian ambassador to Norway and retired senior official in several intelligence-related agencies, told VOA that Russia “was originally skeptical with non-Arctic state involvement in the region.” 

“Given Western sanctions and the Russian need for investment, China may exert more pressure on Russia rather than other Arctic states,” Wilczynski said. “It may be easier for them to meet their Arctic interests through closer collaboration with Russia in the short term than try to address increasing Western skepticism of their engagement in either the North American or Western European Arctic.” 

Despite the focus on Russia, Samuel Jardine, head of research at London Politica, said Beijing is interested in acquiring access to the Canadian Arctic — a goal that may have led to a scandal over Chinese interference in the past two Canadian elections. 

“In effect Canada is a doorway for China to not being seen to be isolated merely in the ‘Russian Arctic’ and maintaining influence and access to the whole region,” Jardine told VOA in an email. “Something fundamental for a “Polar Great Power” which claims to be a “near-Arctic” state.” 

Michel Lipin contributed to this article.

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Report: China’s taste for ‘blood timber’ may be fueling Mozambique conflict

Johannesburg/Maputo —  Africa has long been known for its so-called “blood diamonds,” a term for mineral wealth that fuels violent conflict. In the Southern Africa country of Mozambique, a report finds “blood timber” largely fueled by market demand from China is financing an insurgency in northern Mozambique. But security analysts disagree on how much the militants are profiting from the wood sales.  

An Islamic State-linked militant group has been waging an insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province since 2017, with some militants fighting in the name of jihad but most driven by economic exclusion in an area rich in rubies and natural gas. 

A report this week by a U.K. and U.S.-based charity, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), says one of the region’s other natural riches, luxury hardwood prized in China, is further fueling the fighting. 

“The bleeding has to stop. Mozambique has had a log export ban since 2017, but we can see clearly that China — the importer of more than 90% of Mozambique’s wood — has continued massive volume of imports of logs,” the EIA’s Alex Bloom told VOA. 

Only some of that amount is wood coming from insurgency-wracked areas, the EIA says, estimating that about 30 percent of timber from Cabo Delgado is coming from insurgent-controlled forests. 

The agency says the timber is then brought to Chinese-owned sawmills in the town of Montepuez, where legal and conflict timber are processed together to disguise illegality before shipping.  

Throughout the process, Chinese businesses allegedly pay bribes to government officials to smooth the way for the wood to travel to port for export. Some of the wood going from Cabo Delgado to China is a rosewood known as “hongmu,” which is used to make luxury furniture.  

As a species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), rosewood is supposed to go through inspection by Mozambican officials to ensure that trade does not threaten its survival. However, due to corruption, this rarely happens, the EIA said. 

Corruption allegations 

“What we do is talk to the Chinese nicely so that we get our share of the bribe and they take the containers through the port,” one unnamed former official quoted in the report told the investigators.    

EIA’s Bloom told VOA that because of the bribes, some Mozambican officials might not feel much incentive to stop the illegal timber trade. 

“Many sources interviewed for this report described corruption at many levels through the timber trade, and some described a kind of symbiotic relationship between Mozambique officials, including the (governing) Frelimo party, and ‘China,’ referencing both the state and the Chinese business people in the trade sector in Cabo Delgado,” she said in an email. 

Mozambique has been a beneficiary of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure-building project the Belt and Road Initiative for years. 

“Sources said, for example, that the Frelimo party gains legitimacy from attracting both Chinese business and large infrastructure investments, and even campaign funds; and therefore is reluctant to criticize or crack down on wide-scale corrupt practices involving these players,” noted Bloom. 

The Chinese embassy in Washington and the Chinese mission to the African Union did not reply to emailed requests for comment from VOA.  

VOA also attempted to contact Mozambique’s minister of land and environment, Ivete Maibaze, but received no answer. Contacted for comment, police spokesperson Leonel Muchina referred reporters to the Mozambican attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office then referred VOA to a report it presented to parliament in April.  

In that report, authorities acknowledge that “Illicit trade in species of wild flora and fauna or parts thereof has reached alarming proportions.” 

It found there was illegal exploitation of forest resources in Cabo Delgado.  

“These crimes, in addition to causing damage to the common good, the environment, are closely related to the occurrence of other criminal phenomena, such as terrorist financing, money laundering and corruption,” it said. 

Resurgence of violence 

Cabo Delgado was back in the news this month, after the insurgents staged a major assault on the key town of Macomia on May 10.  

This, as French oil company TotalEnergies had been looking at resuming a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project in the province that it postponed due to the unrest.  

The renewed violence comes as regional forces — which have been stationed in the area since 2021 — begin to pull out.  

Jasmine Opperman, a security consultant based in South Africa, told VOA in a phone interview the withdrawal of South African troops is going to leave a vacuum.  

“The attack in Macomia should be a harsh wake-up call to the region, in terms of where we stand with the insurgency. Numbers is not a problem, weapons is not a problem, money is not a problem,” she said. 

While she noted the militants were not lacking in funds, she was skeptical they were getting money from the timber trade as the EIA suggests. 

“That report is but speculation. The Chinese are in control of the whole illegal trade in wood, and it’s a complex, complex network. … There is no evidence that insurgents are deriving any income from illegal wood trade,” Opperman said. 

“At level best where they could make money with this trade is if they’re being paid protection money by the Chinese. That is to say, to move into an area where there are insurgents, pay them to allow them access, cut the trees, [and] get the trees out with no one being attacked,” she added. 

Piers Pigou, at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, echoed the idea the militants could be making money that way. 

“Where they could be involved is extracting rents in some way or another. … I think there are some question marks about exactly what the nature of that connectivity to the insurgency would be.” 

Darren Olivier, director at African Defense Review, a conflict research consultancy, did not dismiss the idea either. 

“The insurgency is clearly getting funding from somewhere, as there’s no way they’d be able to sustain this level of activity without a fairly substantial source of income,” he said. 

VOA’s Portuguese Service contributed to this report.   

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