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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


COVID-19

  • Pres. Trump is reportedly considering inviting G7 leaders to Camp David for a scheduled summit this summer as a sign of “normalization” post-COVID. A virtual meeting was scheduled for June 10-12; it’s not clear whether an in-person meeting would take place on the same dates.

  • Global coronavirus cases passed five million, with more cases reported yesterday than on any one day in the past.

China

  • The NYT had an excellent piece on how Pres. Xi is capitalizing on the coronavirus pandemic—and even on international backlash against China for it—to rally Chinese citizens behind his rule. See below.

  • In perhaps one example of how Xi will use his strengthened power, a top Chinese official said China plans to tighten the system that gave Hong Kong some degree of autonomy over the last 23 years. It’s not clear how drastic the change(s) will be, but the Post speculates China’s talking about taking “full control” of Hong Kong. Currency markets are also reading the news as significant: the Hong Kong dollar weakened substantially against the U.S. dollar on the story.

  • Separately, analysts say U.S.-China tensions are probably going to worsen until at least the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, since American candidates’ criticism of China is at least partly politically motivated. That’s probably true.

U.S.

  • Two dams in Michigan were breached following heavy rains, and one of them failed. Parts of Midland (where Dow Chemical Company is based; 85 miles / 140 km NW of Detroit) are flooded with nine feet of water.

  • At least three people were wounded in a shooting at a shopping center in Glendale, AZ. Police arrested the suspect, but haven’t identified him yet.

Venezuela

  • Venezuela said its military will escort the five Iranian tankers importing much-needed gasoline imports once they enter Venezuela’s exclusive economic zone, in order to protect them from possible seizure by the U.S. Navy. Someone should tell Venezuela’s boats not to try to ram armored U.S. ships this time. [The Economist’s hilarious article about the time a Venezuelan navy ship sank itself by ramming an unarmed pleasure craft is pasted below for your amusement.]

Terrorism

  • There were reports that Iraqi forces had captured top Islamic State commander Abu Ibrahim al Qurashi, but the Iraqi military person later clarified that the person in custody was actually Abdel Nasser Qirdash—a lesser IS leader who was once rumored to be in the running to lead the group (but never did).

  • The only person ever convicted on charges related to 9/11, Zacarias Moussaoui, kinda-sorta denounced terrorism—but also bizarrely called Bin Laden “a useful idiot of the CIA/Saudi”—in a handwritten letter to court last month. Moussaoui is requesting permission to testify in a civil trial related to 9/11, and wants either Rudy Giuliani or Alan Dershowitz to represent him…I imagine both men have better things to do.

Middle East

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Palestinian Authority will end all of its commitments to the U.S. and Israel, in response to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Libya

  • The head of Khalifa Haftar’s LNA air force warned that the LNA was about to commence “the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history,” adding that “all Turkish positions and interests in all cities are legitimate targets.” Turkey says it’s well prepared to defend its assets, and warned it would retaliate.

  • The Turkish-backed GNA also said it was targeting retreating LNA forces as they pull back from Tripoli (apparently the LNA actually is withdrawing a few miles from its front lines, as the GNA had reported, and the WSJ says Turkey’s grand entrance into the war has forced the LNA to slow its offensive).

Afghanistan

  • U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad shuttled between meetings with the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban in Doha to try to revive the unraveling peace process.

  • A suicide bomber targeted the district governor of Chaparhar, Nangarhar, wounding the governor and his son. No group has claimed the attack yet, but both the Taliban and Islamic State operate in Nangarhar (Islamic State is more active there, but the Taliban is probably more likely to specifically target government officials anywhere in the country).

Other News

  • Cyclone Amphan killed several people in India and Bangladesh, but apparently did far less damage than feared.

Venezuela’s navy battles a cruise ship, and loses (The Economist)

The sailors had guns, but the unarmed pleasure boat had a thick hull

It was, on the face of it, a mismatched contest. The anbv Naiguatá, a Venezuelan patrol vessel, was armed with a 76mm naval gun, a German-built anti-aircraft system that sprays a cloud of tungsten bullets and a pair of deck-mounted machine guns, among other weaponry. The rcgs Resolute, a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship with an 80-seat theatre, had the top speed of an oil tanker. But in the early hours of March 30th it was Venezuela’s Bolivarian navy whose ship ended up on the seabed—in the first decisive naval skirmish in the Caribbean for 75 years.

The Resolute, en route to Curaçao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, had been drifting for a day in international waters near La Tortuga, a Venezuelan island, as it tinkered with its starboard engine. At midnight it was approached by the Naiguatá and ordered to come into port. As the Resolute contacted its head office for instructions, the Naiguatá opened fire—a video released by the Venezuelan navy shows a sailor firing an ak-47 in the howling wind and darkness with Rambo-like enthusiasm—and rammed the cruise ship, according to its parent company.

Unfortunately for the Naiguatá, the Resolute’s placid appearance belies the fact that its strengthened hull, built for polar cruising, can smash through metre-thick ice—and, it turns out, puny patrol boats. The Resolute brushed off the collision with “minor damages”, whereas the Naiguatá rapidly took on water and sank, leaving 44 sheepish sailors to be rescued.

Venezuela disputes this account. Its armed forces accused the Resolute of “cowardly and criminal behaviour” by initiating the collision in Venezuela’s national waters. The Bolivarian navy insisted that its gallant sailors put in an “impeccable performance” against the unarmed cruise ship, presumably by sinking with particular panache. The navy darkly added that the Resolute, which boasts a jacuzzi and sauna, might have been carrying mercenary commandos to attack Venezuelan bases. As evidence, it pointed to nefarious inflatable boats on its deck.

Venezuela’s thuggish regime may be especially touchy now. In January the uss Detroit, an American warship, conducted “freedom-of-navigation” operations close to Venezuela’s coastline. On March 26th the United States indicted Nicolás Maduro, the dictator, and his inner circle for drug-running and “narco-terrorism”.

On April 1st Donald Trump announced that the United States was launching an “enhanced counter-narcotics operation” in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean, involving an impressive array of warships and spy planes. The operation would “choke off the funds that go to that corrupt regime”, said Robert O’Brien, Mr Trump’s national security adviser. The Bolivarian navy will be ready to repel any invaders—just as soon as its sailors dry off.■

In China’s Crisis, Xi Sees a Crucible to Strengthen His Rule (NYT)

China’s leader is using the country’s success — and the criticism against it — to urge the party and the people to weather tough days ahead.

Before an adulatory crowd of university professors and students, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, offered a strikingly bold message about the global coronavirus pandemic. Summoning images of sacrifice from Communist Party lore, he told them that the calamity was ripe with possibility for China.

“Great historical progress always happens after major disasters,” Mr. Xi said during a recent visit to Xi’an Jiaotong University. “Our nation was steeled and grew up through hardship and suffering.”

Mr. Xi, shaped by his years of adversity as a young man, has seized on the pandemic as an opportunity in disguise — a chance to redeem the party after early mistakes let infections slip out of control, and to rally national pride in the face of international ire over those mistakes. And the state propaganda machine is aggressively backing him up, touting his leadership in fighting the pandemic.

Now, Mr. Xi needs to turn his exhortations of resolute unity into action — a theme likely to underpin the National People’s Congress, the annual legislative meeting that opens on Friday after a monthslong delay.

He is pushing to restore the pre-pandemic agenda, including his signature pledge to eradicate extreme poverty by this year, while cautioning against complacency that could let a second wave of infections spread.

He must do all this while the country faces a diplomatic and economic climate as daunting as any since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

“If you position yourself as a great helmsman uniquely capable of leading your country, that has a lot of domestic political risk if you fail to handle the job appropriately,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University. “That’s a risk for Xi going forward.”

So far, Mr. Xi has largely succeeded in rewriting the narrative in China.

The disarray in other countries, especially the United States, has given him a reprieve from domestic political pressure by allowing officials to highlight China’s lower death toll, despite questions about the accuracy of the numbers.

The Trump administration’s withholding of funds from the World Health Organization handed Mr. Xi a chance to appear munificent when he pledged $2 billion in assistance and promised to make any vaccine widely available.

Mr. Xi has cast himself as the indispensable leader, at the ramparts to defend China against intractable threats. The shift has provoked the party cadre — and by all appearances much of the public — to coalesce around his leadership, whatever misgivings they may have about the bungling of the outbreak.

“If we had frozen time at Feb. 1, this would be very bad for the Chinese leadership,” said Jude Blanchette, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

China’s leaders in the past have often invoked the theme of triumph over adversity, but for Mr. Xi, who turns 67 next month, the idea threads through his own biography.

His father, a famous revolutionary leader, was purged and held in solitary confinement under Mao Zedong. The younger Xi was hounded as a child after his father’s disgrace and later, during the Cultural Revolution, ritually denounced by his own mother and exiled from Beijing to labor in a village for seven years.

Joseph Torigian, the author of a forthcoming biography on the father, said Mr. Xi’s personal hardships did not erode his loyalty to the party — at least outwardly. He emerged instead steeled, a word his father, Xi Zhongxun, used to describe his time in prison and that the son used when speaking at the university. “This moment of challenge is what makes leaders in China great,” Mr. Torigian said of Mr. Xi’s worldview.

It is a dramatic turnaround from only months ago, when Mr. Xi faced a shaken and skeptical public. The party apparatus seemed to shudder as outrage over silencing warnings about the virus and other early mistakes spilled beyond the censors.

“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” a prominent real estate tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, wrote publicly in March, prompting his arrest.

Mr. Xi made his first public appearance in the crisis only two days after ordering Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began, to be locked down in late January. He presided over an unusual televised session of the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee. By then, thousands of people had been infected and scores had died.

According to a lengthy account of the emergency that appeared in People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, he somberly told the committee that he had difficulty sleeping the night before — the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Mr. Xi also seemed to shrink, temporarily, from his usual monopoly on center stage. He put the country’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, in charge of the government’s emergency response, possibly to position himself to deflect blame if the crisis worsened.

As China got the outbreak under control, the party’s propaganda pivoted again toward Mr. Xi, pushing the premier into the background. Mr. Li will deliver the keynote report to the National People’s Congress on Friday, but it will be Mr. Xi who dominates the acclamatory media coverage, likely dispensing advice to provincial leaders and delegates, and repeating policy priorities.

The People’s Daily account of the outbreak cited Mr. Li just once, taking orders from Mr. Xi to visit Wuhan. It mentioned Mr. Xi’s name 83 times. The piece garlanded him in tributes, describing the decision to close Wuhan as a brave personal act.

“Making this decision demands massive political courage,” Mr. Xi said the night of Jan. 22, hours before the lockdown, according to the account. “But when it’s time to act, you must act. Hesitation will only lead to chaos.”

There are few signs that Mr. Xi has been chastened by the failures in the beginning of the country’s fight against the disease — nor by the international criticism.

“All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” he told the World Health Assembly on Monday.

Mr. Xi, though, has warned that China faces an increasingly uncertain world. He has often leavened his promises of a bright future with warnings against a possible economic meltdown, foreign crisis or political decay. Last month, he sounded unusually ominous.

“Confronted with a grim and complicated international epidemic and global economic developments, we must keep in mind how things could bottom out,” he told a Politburo Standing Committee. “Be mentally and practically prepared to deal with long-lasting changes in external conditions.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge involves the economy, which contracted for the first time since China began its remarkable transformation more than four decades ago. The rising prosperity of millions of Chinese has been a pillar of the Communist Party’s legitimacy ever since.

In recent weeks during visits to three provinces, Mr. Xi has sought to return the focus to the policy agenda that predated the coronavirus. He went to coastal Zhejiang and two inland provinces, Shanxi and Shaanxi.

Wearing his trademark dark blue windbreaker and, when indoors, a mask, Mr. Xi has visited factories, ports, government offices and scenic spots trying to return to life while enforcing new safeguards against infection. In poorer inland villages, he has lingered over crops of wood ear fungus and chrysanthemum — the kinds of commercial farming crucial to his antipoverty drive.

“Your wood ear fungus here is famous,” he told a clapping crowd of villagers in Shaanxi, Chinese television news showed. “This is your way out of poverty and into prosperity.”

But even the Communist Party’s polished propaganda stagecraft showing China overcoming the epidemic can reveal how life remains far from normal. Footage of his visit to Xi’an Jiaotong University indicated that the crowd of cheering students and professors waiting for Mr. Xi was arranged while the university remained largely closed.

“School hasn’t restarted yet, but here you all are,” Mr. Xi deadpanned, drawing scattered laughter from the crowd.

Throughout his efforts to revive the economy, Mr. Xi has exhorted officials to keep a tight lid on coronavirus cases as they move to restart business. “The risks of a rebound in domestic infections are ever-present,” he said this month from the Communist Party’s compound in Beijing.

For local officials, finding the right balance between reopening and averting outbreaks can be dangerously fraught. The party chief and other officials of Shulan, a city in northeast China, were dismissed after roughly 20 new cases were reported. The new cases prompted a lockdown and restrictions in surrounding areas.

“The deeper implications of Covid for China is still very much unclear at this point, but potentially monumental in hindsight,” said Adam Ni, the director of the China Policy Center, a research organization in Canberra.

If Mr. Xi can survive this year unscathed, he has mapped out a triumphant march to a Communist Party congress in 2022, when he could press for another five years as China’s top leader. Next year will bring the grandiose centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party; and in the following year China will host the Winter Olympics.

“I’ve actually thought Xi Jinping had a fairly good run for another five years well before Covid-19,” Mr. Blanchette said. “That being said, Covid-19 is icing on the cake here.”

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