Wednesday, August 10, 2022



Keeping cool as U.S.-China tensions simmer

Geopolitical rivals need to make sure the new low in relations does not become the new norm


  • History is full of tragic misunderstandings and inadvertent wars
    Vigilance and restraint are called for in ensuring constructive U.S.-China relations. | REUTERS

There’s no denying that U.S.-China relations have hit a new low, but that’s only part of the picture because the relationship has long been a dynamic one subject to abrupt swings of the pendulum.

What’s more critical is that the new low doesn’t become the new normal. The balance of pros and cons to a cooperative U.S.-China relationship level out in favor of continued engagement, not just in economic terms but in the face of shared civilizational burdens in the face of climate change, pandemics and disruptions of trade.

What goes up, goes down, goes left, goes right; the relationship is a dialectic, always in motion, always seeking a new equilibrium. Call it love-hate, call it temperamental; U.S.-China relations, like any relationship, need constant work, fine-tuning and residual goodwill.

History is full of tragic misunderstandings and inadvertent wars, so both vigilance and restraint are called for. Patience, persistence and recognition of mutual benefit, and maybe even a bit of mutual respect can go a long way to getting things back on course again.

Taiwan is at the crux of the current crisis. The early Portuguese explorers to the area evocatively called it “Ilha Formosa,” the beautiful island, which was home to aboriginal peoples, Chinese traders and fishermen, descendants of whom still live there. It was incorporated, if not in full, at least in part by various dynastic claimants in late imperial China, the Qing being the most recent high-water mark of mainland control, but also the dynasty that lost it in a war with Japan. From 1895-1945 Taiwan was annexed into the Japanese Imperial Empire. After Japan’s defeat, Taiwan was claimed as Chinese territory by opposing sides in China’s civil war.

The Kuomintang got there first, and they have held on to it tight, even after losing nearly every other foothold they ever had on the Chinese mainland. Since 1949, it has remained in legal limbo. Neither the KMT nor the Chinese Communist Party was party to the San Francisco Peace talks in 1951 that were supposed to settle the sovereignty of former possessions of Japan, so that Taiwan’s disposition was left unresolved.

Claimants from both sides of China’s civil war have long agreed that Taiwan is an integral part of China, but they view it in mutually complimentary ways. The KMT wrested practical control of the former Japanese colony while maintaining a wholly imaginary control of the mainland. Conversely, the CPC wrested practical control of the mainland, but has held Taiwan only in theory, not practice.

The “One-China” policy has been a surprisingly sturdy concept, both because of, and despite its built-in ambiguities.

The crisis of 2022 is the fourth triangular crisis involving Taiwan, the U.S. and the mainland. As in earlier cycles of threats and hostilities, it engenders strong feelings on all sides.

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1954-55, also known as the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, involved military clashes on small islands close off the coast of China between troops loyal to Mao Zedong on the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, positioned in the Taiwan Strait, initially served to maintain the status quo, which prevented aggressive Nationalist attempts to invade the mainland. When this blockade was lifted at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek’s supporters in Congress, the KMT started a major troop buildup in Quemoy and Matsu which was eventually answered with military bombardment from the mainland.

On May 1, 1955, the People’s Liberation Army abided by a cease-fire, but both sides dug in and continued to strengthen their positions. A new crisis boiled over in the same area just a few years later.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, 1958-59, saw clashes between Nationalist and Communist troops on Dongding Island after an amphibious assault from the mainland. The U.S. Navy, no longer pretending to keep the two sides apart, began to escort KMT vessels to within three miles of the mainland and the U.S. Air Force engaged in numerous overflights. The Americans supplied Sidewinder missiles to KMT forces that helped bring down 31 Russian vintage MIG jets flown by People’s Republic of China pilots. U.S. forces did not see action but were dispatched from Japan to colonial era airfields in Pingtung and other parts of Taiwan in a show of support.

Although the first two periods of crisis in the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle were limited in geographic scope and did not seriously impinge on either the main island of Taiwan or the mainland proper, both flare-ups had their white-knuckle moments, none more frightening than the repeated U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons if Mao’s forces did not back down.

Mao, for his part, ignored advice from Moscow and pressure from the U.S. with an idiosyncratic, half-hearted offensive in which Quemoy and Matsu were bombarded with propaganda leaflets every other day. This allowed Beijing to maintain pressure without increasing tensions and the other side to resupply and avoid injury — an anomalous practice that continued to simmer on a low boil for the next 20 years.

The third crisis broke out in 1995-96, starting unexpectedly on the beautiful rural campus of Cornell University in upstate New York. Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui, who received a Ph.D. at Cornell in 1968, received special permission from the U.S. Congress to attend class reunion activities on campus and a huge diplomatic flare up followed. The kinetic reaction from Beijing, echoes of which can be seen in the current crisis, involved missile tests and troop mobilization in Fujian province.

In response, an armada of powerful U.S. naval ships passed through the Taiwan Strait, upping the stakes. Again with an echo of the current crisis, Premier Li Peng went to Moscow to seek support for advanced weaponry. The PLA was widely expected to attack some offshore islands but in the Jiang Zemin administration, cooler heads prevailed. The third crisis involved virtually no armed conflict, but it provoked Beijing to double-down on its military spending, modernization and deployment in the Eastern Command region facing Taiwan.

Tensions are undeniably high this time around, arguably more so than in 1995-96, so it can only be hoped that responsible politicians in all parties put their egotistical tempers aside and work to calm things down, to restore normalcy of trade and peaceful coexistence for the common good.

History suggests that swings of the pendulum must be taken seriously, but they must also be taken in perspective. What swings one way, can swing back the other way, too. The last crisis (and the unrelated but grave crisis provoked by the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade) were both followed by high-minded diplomacy and renewed bouts of close U.S. and China cooperation.

Philip J. Cunningham is a writer on East Asian politics, and author of “Tiananmen Moon”

Monday, July 18, 2022



Citizen journalist Wang Zhi'an reports from Kiev


CCTV's best reporter on the "Ukraine Situation" is actually an ex-employee. The now-independent reporter Wang Zhi'an is currently in Ukraine without state support. His editorial independence makes it possible for him to shed more light on the situation there in 18 minutes with a crew of 5 than CCTV has done in 18 weeks with tons of cash, over a hundred bureaus around the world and thousands and thousands of well-trained staff.
Speaking from a room in Kiev during nightly curfew, he introduces his report by detailing the 70-hour journey from Japan to Ukraine with stops in Turkey and Moldova. It's not easy to enter war-torn Ukraine and in addition to a visa it requires extensive paperwork and permissions, especially since he wants accreditation as a member of the working press. 
He begins his journey not in China, where the logistics would be difficult if not impossible, but at the embassy of Ukraine in Japan.

Inside the Ukraine Embassy

He flies from Tokyo to Istanbul and then on to Moldova, which he explains is one of the two land borders permitting entry into Ukraine, Poland being the other.


He sets up a makeshift studio during the long dark night in Kiev and introduces his reason for breaking with CCTV and going it alone.


"We're just a group of five but we want to know the truth of the war between Russia and Ukraine."


He says they will call on some of the many Chinese who fled Ukraine and returned and some of those who never left to get a view not available in either China or the Western media. He arranges to hire a car and driver and gets press passes and stickers for his car and crew.


In his introductory broadcast, available on YouTube, he said he got tired of hearing people in China say it's impossible to determine truth from fact between Russia and Ukraine. He says China’s state media has zero people in Ukraine and it is censored, so the editorial standpoint is distorted. “Chinese media have plenty of money but they are basically just repeating Russian coverage.”


What you see in China's state media "is all second-hand reports and shows no balance. It's from perspective of the perpetrator."


He brings a startling frankness to his report by stating plain truths never once heard on state-controlled CCTV:


"Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine is the victim, Russia is victimizer."


He concludes with discussion of his plans to go to Sumy, the site of earlier fighting near the Russian border, the next morning for his first report in the field.


His second report shows the journey from Kiev to Sumy. Still jet-lagged he falls asleep on the slow drive to Sumy. There are numerous roadblocks and security checks along the way. It's not the scene of fighting at the moment, but the region was badly damaged in Russia's February invasion.

Entering Sumy Oblast in northeast Ukraine

Months after Moscow's takeover attempt, the ground remains littered with displaced objects

Going to Sumy gives a crew unfamiliar with Ukraine a chance  to get a feel for what it's like outside Kiev and to talk to people. He's not reporting on a battle, although it's not without danger and fairly close to the Russian border. Even after the battling in Sumy has subsided, there is evidence of destruction, bomb craters, here, crushed automobiles, abandoned stuffed animals and toys.



In trying to get a better idea what local people think about the war, he walks around town seeking interviews, and while he is out and about he was sought out by a woman who saw the camera and foreign reporter. She told him about the bombardment and the fear she had for her children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.


Through an interpreter who speaks Chinese and Ukrainian, Wang, who has no background or training in the language and culture of the region, converses with this woman. She tells him she is still traumatized by the attempted takeover by Russian forces. It's an off-the-cuff conversation with an unexpected punch at the end.


“Can I say this?” she asks. “I need to say this…I hope Putin dies soon.”




Wang walks around the town surveying damage from the failed Russian takeover attempt and talking to various civilians along the way. He expresses surprise at how people have resumed the normal rhythms of life in the town as he surveys damage from the failed Russian takeover attempt. 

He arranges a sit-down interview to talk to a member of the Ukrainian resistance. He asks about why they fight and why they fight against such great odds.


The interview subject, a muscular man in a T shirt who describes himself as a former commander, tells the wide-eyed interviewer about the spirit of resistance against great odds.



“Some people even try to block tanks with their bare hands, simply standing in front of them as they try to pass through.”


The crew calls it a wrap and they head back to Kiev in a rainstorm, anxious to reach the city before curfew goes into effect.



Wang Zhi'an's maverick attempt to report from Ukraine has gotten off to a promising start.

It's a first small step, far from comprehensive and not entirely neutral, but a necessary step for the Chinese-language media to break from the strait-jacket of state TV coverage. In taking a chance to see Ukraine for himself he offers his Chinese audience something fresh, original and close to the heart of things.


For those who doubt the ability of the many smart men and women working in China's state media, Wang Zhi’an offers a glimpse of the kind of reports that can be produced if one's hands are not tied and one is not obliged to toe the party line.


Wang Zhi'an has a channel on YouTube and is active on Twitter. For the time being it is unlikely any of his reports will be aired China, but net-savvy citizens with access to VPN's and other work-arounds will find a way to view his work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022



June 23, 2022

Philip J. Cunningham

Why China’s ambitions in space should not be underestimated

  • While China was excluded from the International Space Station, it is building its own, has constructed the world’s largest radio telescope and expects to launch a powerful space telescope next year
  • Its accomplishments will benefit science in general and remind the US not to be complacent

Philip J. Cunningham

Published: 12:30am, 23 Jun, 2022



Chinese astronauts Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang wave before a send-off ceremony for the Shenzhou-14 crewed space mission, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern China

China’s space programme may lag behind the US in accomplishments to date, but it is not to be underestimated. For example, the US-led International Space Station is bigger and has been in orbit much longer, but it is getting creaky and harder to maintain.

Then, there is the political fallout, since the project has from the start depended on close US-Russia cooperation.


For a decade, the US has relied on Russia to ferry its astronauts back and forth from space. The US module depends on the Russian wing to make necessary course corrections. In 2020, the oxygen-supply system in the Russian module failed, but it was supported by oxygen generation from the US side.


China was famously excluded from the International Space Station in 2011 due to narrow-minded political concerns in the US Congress, codified as the Wolf Amendment, but it has done a remarkable job of dealing with the political necessity of going it alone.


Chinese scientists conducted yet another successful manned space launch on June 5, using a powerful Long March 2F rocket to carry three astronauts in the Shenzhou 14 capsule from a launch centre in the Gobi Desert to the Tiangong space station in near-Earth space. This is the third crewed space mission to the station in the past year.


The crew, all in their mid-40s, include two veterans of early flights. Chen Dong was in the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016 and Liu Yang, China’s first woman in space, made her inaugural journey on Shenzhou 9 in 2012. Pilot Cai Xuzhe joined China’s space programme in 2010 but has never been to space before.


In addition to spacewalks and other scientific activities, the astronauts will oversee two important additions to the 16.5-metre-long core Tianhe cylinder, which currently houses the crew. By the end of the year, the space station will be built out to assume a T-shape with two new modules, one of which is an additional crew chamber. When finished, the enlarged habitable platform will be about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station.


In December, the Shenzhou 15, similarly staffed with a crew of three, is expected to lift off for its journey to the space station. If all goes well, the Tiangong space station will be home to six astronauts as the departing crew will remain on board to welcome the new arrivals.

The Shenzhou 15 and the Long March 2F rocket are already on standby, in case of an emergency on the current mission.

China’s Shenzhou 14 mission begins mission to finish the Tiangong space station

What’s amazing is not just China’s ability to match US accomplishments in space station technology, but that it has simultaneously taken on extremely complex and ambitious projects aiming at the moon and Mars.


China’s perseverance in catching up with US accomplishments extends beyond manned space flight, which understandably gets the most media attention, to various remote missions and telescope projects.

China now possesses the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope in the form of the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope built in a natural basin in Guizhou in southwest China.


Arecibo, the groundbreaking US radio telescope built in Puerto Rico, collapsed in December 2020, but the scope and size of China’s FAST project eclipses the old standard bearer by many margins. FAST is already bringing in hard-to-obtain data about pulsars and interstellar molecules.


World’s largest radio telescope detects mystery flashes 3 billion light years away from Earth

China expects to launch the Xuntian space telescope into the Earth’s orbit at the end of next year, matching the size and acuity of the legendary Hubble Space Telescope launched by Nasa 32 years ago. The new optical telescope will be able to take in about 300 times as much sky as Hubble and to survey about 40 per cent of the sky with its 2.5 billion pixel camera.


It will collect information in visible and ultraviolet light and is capable of star mapping, studying black holes and detecting distant exoplanets and fast-moving near-Earth objects such as wayward comets and asteroids. It is designed to co-orbit Earth and dock with the Tiangong space station.


China is having another stellar year in space, which is good news for the march of science everywhere, and a not-so-subtle reminder to reigning space champ, the US, that it can’t take being No 1 for granted, but it must invest and strive to stay ahead.


Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher

Friday, May 6, 2022



Domestic news is primarily about the long May 1 holiday, mostly trains, planes and automobiles. it is followed by  CCTV's daily "Ukraine Situation" with a sober shift in gloomy greenscreen background and matching editorial stance. 


The only newsy thing about CCTV news today is its own treatment of Zelensky as a politician deserving of diplomatic respect, instead of a scoundrel who gets no face time or chance to talk, in paraphrase, or chyron quotes. 

Zelensky gets at least half a dozen cameos in the May 3 news cycle. 

But first, the situation at the Azovstal Steel Plant where evacuations proceed erratically. Over two days, 126 civilians were able to leave the underground redoubt.



Both sides accused the other of hampering evacuation and breaking the ceasefire, though CCTV, embedded in Russia-controlled Mariupol, only tells one side of that story. (hint: not the Ukrainian side)

Thus it comes as something of a surprise to actually get some news from the Ukrainian point of view, here taken from a briefing by the Ukrainian defense ministry. 



"Ukrainian troops are on the attack in the east"

Also taken from Ukrainian sources is this footage from Odessa. A Russian missile struck the building, killing one, "though this news cannot be confirmed" as CCTV goes on to say, in a rare display of journalistic skepticism, or maybe it's just a pro- Moscow hedge.

There is also footage of two Russian gunboats being obliterated by drone:



In another editorial shift, CCTV introduces Chinese military expert Cao Weidong to offer original commentary on the Azovstal siege.


Chen says it's important to Russia to get the civilians out of the way and close the humanitarian corridor "so they can unleash real heavy bombing." 

Using CCTV's all-but-patented "Ukraine Situation" (TM) borderless map of Ukraine, Cao explains Russia's strategy in terms of geography, command and control and wiping out the enemy's leadership, position and personnel.

I guess they don't call the mild-mannered Cao an expert for nothing

When Donetsk is under wraps and Azovstal extinguished, Mr. Cao says it's time to head west to take control of Mikolaiv...And, then, of course, Odessa.

By connecting the dots, Russia consolidates its holdings in a line and will control the entire coast of Azov and the Black Sea

Cao Weidong's analysis is illustrated with Russian Defense Ministry footage, mostly Z's in action. 



Mr. Cao talks rather favorably of Russia's war effort, in his mind, things are about to change, explaining that Azovstal is the real ace in the hole.

Without a presence there, Ukraine has lost its best negotiating chips.

In other news, the US is supplying Ukraine with M777 mobile howitzers. 

And this rather harsh segment segues into a gentle series of stories from Kiev, using what appears to be pool footage of various press conferences and meetings. 

It's almost neutral. Don't usually see much of this on CCTV.

For it's not every day the Chinese TV viewer gets treated with pleasant scenes of controversial Kiev instead of the usual postcards from best friend Moscow.


And who's this?

 It's Zelensky!

The Ukraine President is next shown meeting Antony Blinken.


And a medley of photos show Zelensky in conference with US delegation members Blinken and Austin to talk strategy.

In a lengthy segment on Europe, Zelensky is also shown meeting with EU commission head Ursula von der Leyen.

Well, wouldn't you know. Yet another shot of the man whose face was kept from the Chinese public for so long.

Zelensky again, as recorded during his May 1 meet with Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv.



But CCTV hasn't gone soft on NATO, they still view it with the utmost suspicion.

Why all the weapons? They ask. Why the howitzers? Resident military expert Mr. Cao says they're giving Ukraine planes and tanks and "everything but nuclear weapons."



Why the large-scale NATO exercises? 

The Baltic countries in highlighted in yellow, including NATO applicant Finland, helped hosted war games in March.


So did Greece and Macedonia.


CCTV co-anchors Wang Yinqi and Shang Liang express their disapproval.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov does, too. He is quoted as saying that NATO is extending the war .

Duma chairman VyacheslavVolodin chimes in with chilling words:

"leaders who supply weapons to Ukraine should be considered war criminals." 

In sum, May 3 saw a unprecedented willingness to countenance Zelensky who has gotten short shrift on Chinese TV up until now.

As for the US and NATO? Well, still in the doghouse, and likely to remain there.

If your "everlasting" friendship with Russia makes it awkward to criticize Putin for his brutal and gratuitous war of invasion, you gotta blame someone.