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China’s defence minister, not seen in weeks, skipped Vietnam meet



(Last Updated On: September 15, 2023)

Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu abruptly pulled out of a meeting with Vietnamese defence leaders last week, three officials with direct knowledge of the matter said, amid questions about his more than two-weeks-long absence from public view, Reuters reported.

Li, 65, was due to attend an annual gathering on defence cooperation hosted by Vietnam on its border with China on Sept. 7-8 but the meeting was postponed after Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that the minister had a “health condition,” two Vietnamese officials said.

The sudden postponement of the meeting and the reasons cited by China are being reported by Reuters for the first time.

China’s State Council Information Office, as well as its defence and foreign ministries did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Vietnam event. The Vietnamese embassy in Beijing couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday evening.

The abrupt cancellation of Li’s trip follows China’s unexplained replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July after a prolonged absence from public view and a shake-up of the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army’s elite Rocket Force in recent months, moves that have raised questions about the Chinese leadership’s decision-making.

Qin’s meteoric ascent through the ranks of the Communist Party was partly attributed to his closeness to President Xi Jinping, making his removal after just seven months on the job even more unexpected. Chinese officials initially said Qin’s absence from public view was due to health reasons.

Li was appointed to his post in March. He is watched closely by diplomats and other observers because, like Qin, he is also one of China’s five State Councillors, a cabinet position that ranks higher than a regular minister.

A U.S. official, on condition of anonymity, said Washington was aware of Li’s cancelled meetings with the Vietnamese. U.S. President Joe Biden visited Hanoi last week, where the two sides inked a historic upgrade of their partnership.

Li’s prolonged absence from public view has drawn some comment. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Sept. 8: “First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks. Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet?”

Asked about Emanuel’s post this week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters she was “not aware of the situation.”

Li was last seen in Beijing on Aug. 29 delivering a key-note address at a security forum with African nations. Before that he held high-level meetings during a trip to Russia and Belarus.

China’s defence minister is mainly responsible for defence diplomacy and does not command combat forces. He has a less public profile than the foreign minister, who frequently appears in state media, Reuters reported.

“Li’s disappearance, following so shortly after Qin, speaks to how mysterious Chinese elite politics can be to the outside world,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“China under Xi simply does not feel a need to explain itself to the world.”

Li was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for buying weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.

Chinese officials have repeatedly said they want those sanctions dropped to facilitate better discussions between the two sides’ militaries. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attempted talks with Li during a defence conference in Singapore in June, but did not get beyond a handshake.

In 2016, Li was named deputy commander of the military’s then-new Strategic Support Force – an elite body tasked with accelerating the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. He then headed the military’s procurement unit from 2017 until he became defence minister.

In a rare notice in July, the unit said it was looking to “clean-up” its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to 2017. There has been no update on possible findings.


Senior US, China diplomats meet in Washington in latest effort to maintain dialogue



(Last Updated On: September 29, 2023)

Two senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats met in Washington and held what the U.S. side described as “candid, in-depth, and constructive consultation,” the latest in a series of recent talks to keep lines of communication open between the world’s two largest economies, Reuters reported.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister for Asia Sun Weidong, the State Department said in a statement on Thursday.

According to Reuters the meeting followed other high-level engagements between the two countries in recent months that have seen visits from high profile U.S. officials to China like Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in July and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in August.

More recently, Blinken met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng in New York and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Malta.

“The two sides held a candid, in-depth, and constructive consultation on regional issues as part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication,” the State Department said.

Kritenbrink “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the State Department said on Thursday, adding the two sides also discussed other regional issues, including Myanmar, North Korea, and maritime matters.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies have been strained in recent years due to a number of issues including Taiwan, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, allegations of spying and trade tariffs, among others.

High-level talks between the two sides could help set the stage for a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping later this year, read the report.

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More than 100 dead, 150 injured in Iraq wedding inferno



(Last Updated On: September 27, 2023)

More than 100 people were killed and 150 injured in a fire at a wedding party in Hamdaniya district in Iraq’s Nineveh province that left civil defence searching the charred skeleton of a building for survivors into the early hours of Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Nineveh Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaq told Reuters that 113 people had been confirmed dead, with state media putting the death toll at at least 100, with 150 people injured.

The fire ripped through a large events hall in the north-eastern region after fireworks were lit during the celebration, local civil defence said, according to state media.

“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck. Even those who made their way out were broken,” said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.

Video from a Reuters correspondent at the site showed firefighters clambering over the charred wreckage of the building, shining lights over smouldering ruins.

Preliminary information indicated that the building was made of highly flammable construction materials, contributing to its rapid collapse, state media said.

Ambulances and medical crews were dispatched to the site by federal Iraqi authorities and Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, according to official statements.

Eyewitnesses at the site said the building caught fire at around 10:45 p.m. local time (1945 GMT) and that hundreds of people were in attendance at the time of the incident.

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Gunmen kill 14, kidnap 60 in attacks in northern Nigeria



(Last Updated On: September 25, 2023)

Gunmen in Nigeria killed eight people on Sunday and abducted at least 60 others in two communities of northwest Zamfara state, residents and a local traditional leader said, two days after armed men kidnapped dozens from a university in the state.

Elsewhere, in the northeast of the country suspected Islamist insurgents ambushed a convoy of vehicles under military escort, killing two soldiers and four civilians, said a police source and a motorist who witnessed the attack, Reuters reported.

The attackers set fire to five vehicles and drove off with one truck, the witness said.

President Bola Tinubu is yet to spell out how he will tackle widespread insecurity. His economic reforms, including the removal of a costly fuel subsidy and freeing the naira currency, have increased the cost of leaving, angering citizens.

Residents said gunmen early on Sunday tried to attack a forward army base in a rural Magami community of Zamfara, but were repelled. Zamfara is one of the states worst affected by kidnappings for ransom by armed gangs known locally as bandits.

The gunmen in three groups attacked the army base and the communities of Magami and Kabasa, said a traditional leader who declined to be named for security reasons, read the report.

He said 60 people, mostly women and children, were kidnapped.

“The bandits rode many motorcycles with guns and other weapons (and) were shooting sporadically,” Shuaibu Haruna, a resident of Magami, told Reuters by telephone.

Four people were killed during the attack, said Haruna, who attended their burial.

Isa Mohd from Kabasa community said four people were also killed and dozens of others kidnapped.

Police and army did not respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.

Attacks in the northwest are part of widespread insecurity in Nigeria. Islamist fighters still carry out deadly attacks in the northeast, gangs and separatists attack security forces and government buildings in the southeast, and clashes involving farmers and herders continue to claim lives.

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