Russia takes war to ‘different stage’ and other developments

Russia takes war to ‘different stage’ – EU official

Moscow has ratcheted up its invasion of Ukraine by making indiscriminate attacks on civilians and framing the conflict as a struggle against the West, according to a senior EU official.

Stefano Sannino, Secretary General of the European Union’s European External Action Service, said on Friday Russia has taken the war to “a different stage”, while defending Germany and the US’s decision to send tanks to Kyiv.

He criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin for waging a war on NATO and the West, saying this had triggered this week’s move to supply Ukraine with heavy battle tanks.

Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, Sannino said Putin had “moved from a concept of special operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West.”

The EU foreign policy official said German and US tanks are meant to help Ukrainians defend themselves, rather than attack Moscow.

“I think that this latest development in terms of armed supply is just an evolution of the situation and of the way Russia started moving the war into a different stage,” Sannino said.

The EU is not moving the war into a different stage but is “just giving the possibility of saving lives and allowing the Ukrainians to defend [themselves] from these barbaric attacks,” he added.

Germany and the US announced on Wednesday they will send advanced battle tanks to Ukraine, offering what one expert called an “armoured punching force” to help Kyiv break a stalemate on the battlefield.

Washington will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks, while Berlin has agreed to give 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks from its own stocks.

Wagner mercenaries shot for fleeing, says ex-commander

A former commander of Russia’s Wagner group, who fled to Norway, witnessed comrades being shot as they tried to flee the frontline in Ukraine, according to his Norwegian lawyer.

Andrei Medvedev, who escaped Russia over the Russian-Norwegian border in January, said he fears for his life after witnessing the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners taken to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.

Speaking to Euronews in January, experts made similar accusations that Chechen troops have been used to execute deserting Russian soldiers.

Medvedev is living in a secret location in the Oslo area after he was released from detention on Wednesday following a “disagreement” with police about measures taken to ensure his safety.

His lawyer Brynjulf Risnes said he had seen some “incredibly horrible” situations while fighting last autumn and was “slowly coming to terms with what’s happening” in Ukraine.

“His life has been chaotic and dangerous and very stressful for a very long time,” Risnes said, “particularly, of course, during the autumn when he was in Ukraine with the Wagner group.”

“But of course, his life hasn’t been easy before that either.”

Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, millions uprooted and cities reduced to rubble since Russian forces invaded Ukraine 11 months ago.

Kripos, Norway’s national criminal police service, which has responsibility for investigating war crimes, has begun questioning him about his experiences and wants to carry on, Risnes said.

Kripos is part of a project to investigate war crimes in Ukraine conducted by the International Criminal Court.

US lawmakers call for China to be sanctioned over Ukraine

US lawmakers on Thursday urged the Biden administration to take a tougher stance on China, accusing Chinese organisations of providing support to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“We need to be much more robust” against China, said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, citing “evidence that Chinese companies are providing dual-use technology including semi-conductors”, which can be used to guide missiles.

“It seems to me that we shouldn’t give up the potential for sanctions against China if they provide crucial assistance and they shouldn’t be able to hide behind companies,” he said.

His Republican colleague James Risch felt China was acting “with impunity” and that the US needed to “strengthen the sanctions” on the country.

US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken is due to visit China next month.

In parallel, Washington announced on Thursday more sanctions against Wagner and its supporters, which included a Chinese company accused of helping them in Ukraine.

A Chinese space research institute, the Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute are among the organisations the US Treasury Department believes provided Wagner with satellite images in Ukraine.

China, an ally of Russia, says it is neutral towards the conflict in Ukraine, while strengthening ties with Russia, particularly in the energy field, on the side.

But US officials are increasingly concerned about the support provided to Russia through Chinese companies in the field of high technology in particular.

Ukraine grain harvest will nosedive – prediction

Ukrainian production of grain and other essential foodstuffs is expected to fall even further next year, according to new estimates.

Sown areas of grain and oilseed harvest are expected to drop to “53 million tonnes” in 2023, half of what they were in 2021, according to estimates by the Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA).

“We are at war,” said Nikolay Gorbachov, UGA President, on Thursday. “We continue to produce grain but the harvests will drop. For farmers, it is no longer profitable to produce grain.”

In 2021, 106 million tonnes of grain were harvested, a historic record, this fell to around 65 million tonnes for 2022, while “53 million tonnes” is predicted for 2023, he outlined.

Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the world’s fourth largest corn exporter and the country was on the way to becoming the third largest wheat exporter.

Fighting in 2022 hampered the ability of farmers to sow crops, which was compounded by a lack of fuel and the destruction of agricultural machinery and storage infrastructure.

Gorbachov expressed concern about exports in the next season: “For Ukrainian national food security, it will be fine. But if Ukraine cannot export these 40 or 50 million [tonnes of grain]? Prices will increase. Europe can allow it, but not developing countries,” he said.

Disruptions to food exports from Ukraine have pushed many developing countries to the brink of starvation by sending prices into orbit.

Experts have warned the food crisis is causing increasing numbers of migrants to come to the European Union.

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China wants to reduce India’s influence in Indian Ocean region, say papers submitted at DGPs’ meet

Chinese activities and influence in India’s extended neighbourhood have grown increasingly with the sole purpose of keeping New Delhi constrained and occupied in facing the resultant challenges, according to papers submitted at a key security meeting in New Delhi.

The papers presented by Indian Police Service (IPS) officers at the just concluded conference of DGPs and IGPs submit that by providing huge amounts of money in the name of loans for developmental works in Southeast and South Asia, China wants to reduce India’s influence in the Indian Ocean region and force resolution of bilateral issues on Beijing’s terms.

Explained | China’s moves in the Indian Ocean

The three-day annual conference was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and about 350 top police officers of the country.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), infrastructure related investments in India’s neighbouring countries through easy loans, hot borders and Line of Actual Control (LAC) are some of the tools Beijing has been using effectively, the papers say.

The last two-and-a-half decades have seen Chinese economic and military growth at a massive scale and Chinese activities and influence in India’s extended neighbourhood have grown proportionately, they find.

“All this is being done with the aim to keep India constrained and occupied in facing the resultant challenges, force resolution of bilateral issues on its own terms, modulate India’s growth story, leaving it [China] free to achieve its aim of becoming not only Asia’s pre-eminent power, but a global superpower,” according to the papers.

The papers on the subject “Chinese influence in the neighbourhood and implications for India” were written by some top IPS officers of the country.

China has become far more attentive to its South Asian periphery, moving beyond commercial and development engagements to more far-reaching political and security ones, according to one of the papers.

China is investing huge amounts of money in the neighbouring countries of India mainly Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in the name of infrastructure development and other financial assistance, it said.

Without exception, India’s neighbouring countries have described China as a crucial development partner, either as a funder or in providing technological and logistical support. Additionally, it is the biggest trading partner in goods for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and the second-largest for Nepal and the Maldives, it said.

“However, the economic element is increasingly intertwined with political, government, and people-to-people aspects of these relationships,” it said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for China to work directly with these countries in new ways such as the provision of medical equipment, biomedical expertise, and capital for coronavirus-related needs, it said.

These developments demonstrate that China’s presence in Southeast and South Asia is no longer predominantly economic but involves a greater, multidimensional effort to enhance its posture and further its long-term strategic interests in the region, the paper said.

“China is highly ambitious about achieving its regional power status in the Indian Ocean region. To do so Beijing wants to contain India which is the only threat before China in this region,” according to an analyst.

Radicalisation of Muslim youth a major challenge for national security

Radicalisation, particularly of the Muslim youth, is one of the key challenges for national security and it is important to take moderate Muslim leaders and clerics into confidence to counter radical organisations, according to papers submitted at the security meeting.

The papers noted that the rise in religious fundamentalism in India is primarily due to high level of indoctrination, easy availability of modern means of communication, including encrypted form, cross-border terrorism and Pakistan concentrating on encouraging these radical groups.

“Radicalisation, particularly of the Muslim youth, is one of the important challenges for national security of our country. Several radical Muslim organisations are active in India, which indulge in organised radicalisation of the Muslim youth. They have inherent tendency to corrupt minds of Muslim community, push them on the violent path and work against composite culture,” the papers noted.

In view of this, tackling radical organisations become imperative and priority in the interests of social harmony and national security.

These organisations are engaged in radical interpretation of Islamic scriptures and concepts.

They also create a sense of victimhood in Muslim psyche. In pursuit of puritanical Islam, their preaching go against modern values such as democracy and secularism.

In India, the papers revealed, the recently banned Popular Front of India (PFI), another banned group SIMI, Wahdat-e-Islami, Islamic Youth Federation, Hizb-ut Tahreer and Al-Ummah are some Muslim organisations, which fit in this category.

“Among these Muslim organisations, the PFI was the most potent radical organisation. It evolved as a national-level organisation since formation in 2006 by merging of three South India based outfits,” the papers noted.

Rise in religious fundamentalism is due to history and attending continuous religious programmes such as Dars-eQuran, Ahle-Hadith etc., high level of indoctrination, modern means of communication viz. internet, mail in coded and encrypted form, the papers said.

The cross-border terrorism and its post effects, Pakistan concentrating on encouraging these radical organisations, Muslim boys going to the Gulf countries and coming back with money and radical ideologies are some other reasons for the rise of radicalisation, according to the papers said.

The writers noted that terrorist radicalisation is a dynamic process whereby an individual comes to accept terrorist violence as a possible, perhaps even legitimate, course of action and each case of terrorist radicalisation results from the unique intersection of an enabling environment and the personal trajectory and psychology of a given individual.

Suggesting remedies, the papers noted that to tackle radical Organisations, multi-pronged approach is required, including monitoring of covert activities, creation of detailed databases on leaders and other entities of interests.

“Security agencies and state police need to be sensitised about threat to national security from radical organisations and in order to counter radical organisations, it is equally important to take moderate Muslim leaders and clerics into confidence.

“Emphasis should be given to identify and monitoring the hotspots of radicalisation and prior analysis must be done about the potentiality of a radical organisation in spreading extremism and involvement of its cadres in violent action and accordingly the plan of action should be initiated,” the papers noted.

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Oil expected to stay volatile in 2023, but the price could depend on China reopening

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China’s emergency rooms ‘overwhelmed’ as COVID-19 wave sweeps country

As China grapples with its first-ever national COVID-19 wave, emergency wards in small cities and towns southwest of Beijing are stunned as they attempt to reel with the massive influx of critical cases.

Emergency rooms are turning away ambulances, relatives of sick people are searching for open beds, and patients are slumped on benches in hospital corridors and lying on floors for lack of beds.

In more than three decades of emergency medicine, Beijing-based doctor Howard Bernstein said, he has never seen anything like this.

Patients are arriving at his hospital in ever-increasing numbers; almost all are elderly, and many are very unwell with COVID and pneumonia symptoms, he said.

Bernstein’s account reflects similar testimony from medical staff across China who are scrambling to cope after China’s abrupt U-turn on its previously strict COVID policies this month was followed by a nationwide wave of infections.

It is by far the country’s biggest outbreak since the pandemic began in the central city of Wuhan three years ago.

Beijing government hospitals and crematoriums also have been struggling this month amid heavy demand.

“The hospital is just overwhelmed from top to bottom,” Bernstein told Reuters at the end of a “stressful” shift at the privately owned Beijing United Family Hospital in the east of the capital.

“The ICU is full,” as are the emergency department, the fever clinic and other wards, he said.

“A lot of them got admitted to the hospital. They’re not getting better in a day or two, so there’s no flow, and therefore people keep coming to the ER, but they can’t go upstairs into hospital rooms,” he said. “They’re stuck in the ER for days.”

In the past month, Bernstein went from never having treated a COVID patient to seeing dozens a day.

“The biggest challenge, honestly, is I think we were just unprepared for this,” he said.

Furnaces at crematoriums ‘burning overtime’

At the Zhuozhou crematorium in the Hebei province bordering Beijing to the north, furnaces are burning overtime as workers struggle to cope with a spike in deaths in the past week, according to one employee.

A funeral shop worker estimated it is burning 20 to 30 bodies a day, up from three to four before COVID-19 measures were loosened.

“There’s been so many people dying,” said Zhao Yongsheng, a worker at a funeral goods shop near a local hospital. “They work day and night, but they can’t burn them all.”

At a crematorium in Gaobeidian, about 20 kilometres south of Zhuozhou, the body of one 82-year-old woman was brought from Beijing, a two-hour drive, because funeral homes in China’s capital were packed, according to the woman’s grandson, Liang.

“They said we’d have to wait for 10 days,” Liang said, giving only his surname because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Liang’s grandmother had been unvaccinated, he added, when she came down with coronavirus symptoms and had spent her final days hooked to a respirator in a Beijing ICU.

Over two hours at the Gaobeidian crematorium on Thursday, AP journalists observed three ambulances and two vans unload bodies.

A hundred or so people huddled in groups, some in traditional white Chinese mourning attire. They burned funeral paper and set off fireworks.

“There’s been a lot!” a worker said when asked about the number of COVID-19 deaths before funeral director Ma Xiaowei stepped in and brought the journalists to meet a local government official.

As the official listened in, Ma confirmed there were more cremations but said he did not know if COVID-19 was involved. He blamed the extra deaths on the arrival of winter.

“Every year during this season, there’s more,” Ma said. “The pandemic hasn’t really shown up” in the death toll, he said, as the official listened and nodded.

Medical staff forced to work even with COVID symptoms

Sonia Jutard-Bourreau, 48, chief medical officer at the private Raffles Hospital in Beijing, said patient numbers are five to six times their normal levels, and patients’ average age has shot up by about 40 years to over 70 in the space of a week.

“It’s always the same profile,” she said. “That is most of the patients have not been vaccinated.”

The patients and their relatives visit Raffles because local hospitals are “overwhelmed”, she said, and because they wish to buy Paxlovid, the Pfizer-made COVID treatment, which many places, including Raffles, are running low on.

“They want the medicine like a replacement of the vaccine, but the medicine does not replace the vaccine,” Jutard-Bourreau said, adding that there are strict criteria for when her team can prescribe it.

Jutard-Bourreau, who, like Bernstein, has been working in China for around a decade, fears that the worst of this wave in Beijing has not arrived yet.

Elsewhere in China, medical staff told Reuters that resources are already stretched to the breaking point in some cases, as COVID and sickness levels amongst staff have been particularly high.

One nurse based in the western city of Xian said 45 of 51 nurses in her department and all staff in the emergency department had caught the virus in recent weeks.

“There are so many positive cases among my colleagues,” said the 22-year-old nurse, surnamed Wang. “Almost all the doctors are down with it.”

Wang and nurses at other hospitals said they had been told to report for duty even if they tested positive and had a mild fever.

Jiang, a 29-year-old nurse on a psychiatric ward at a hospital in Hubei province, said staff attendance has been down more than 50% on her ward, which has stopped accepting new patients.

She said she is working shifts of more than 16 hours with insufficient support.

“I worry that if the patient appears to be agitated, you have to restrain them, but you cannot easily do it alone,” she said. “It’s not a great situation to be in.”

COVID death toll numbers ‘political’

The doctors who spoke to Reuters said they were most worried about the elderly, tens of thousands of whom may die, according to estimates from experts.

More than 5,000 people are probably dying each day from COVID-19 in China, Britain-based health data firm Airfinity estimated, offering a dramatic contrast to official data from Beijing on the country’s current outbreak.

The Chinese government has reported only seven COVID-19 deaths since restrictions were loosened dramatically on 7 December, bringing the country’s total toll to 5,241.

There were no COVID deaths on the mainland for the six days through Sunday, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday, even as crematories faced surging demand.

Last Tuesday, a Chinese health official said that China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll — a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to the virus in other places.

Experts have forecast between a million and 2 million deaths in China through the end of next year, and a top World Health Organisation official warned that Beijing’s way of counting would “underestimate the true death toll”.

“It’s not medicine, it’s politics,” said Jutard-Bourreau. “If they’re dying now with COVID, it’s because of COVID. The mortality rate now it’s political numbers, not medical.”

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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”

Apparatchik

Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year.

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.



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One Of These Seven People Is Likely To Win Taiwan’s High-Stakes Presidential Vote In 2024, Gallup Pollster Says

Gallup Market Research Taiwan pollster Tim Ting had a smile on his face and newspaper clippings spread across a conference room table next to his Taipei polling operation of 30 people on Friday. He predicted the Taipei mayor elections on Nov. 26 correctly; a rival Liberty Times poll was wrong on a number of counts, and the news reports prove it.

“I would quit if I had been that wrong,” the 68-year-old who has tracked Taiwan elections for three decades said in an interview. In closely watched local elections in one of the world’s top geopolitical hot spots and tech hubs, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won only five mayoral or county magistrate seats, compared with the previous seven, due to weak candidates and the wrong strategy, Ting said. The main opposition Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), by contrast won 13 of 21 races.

Next up: Presidential elections in January 2024. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who ranked No. 17 on the latest Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women unveiled this month, can’t run again due to rules that limit her to two four-year terms.

What will likely be the big issues? China — though the differences among the candidates could be more perceived than real, Ting said. The DPP will play up its willingness to stand up against maland bullying; its economic policies would create more business distance between the two sides, Ting said. The KMT, though founded on the mainland in 1919, isn’t likely to promote a change in the status quo in the self-governing democracy of 24 million that Beijing claims sovereignty over. The KMT is strong in northern Taiwan, where many mainland families settled in the late 1940s after then KMT leader Chiang Kai-Shek lost a civil war to the Communist Party’s Mao Zedong and moved its capital to Taipei.

Taiwan has come a long way since, becoming the world’s No. 22 economy and a vital source of semiconductors. Local chip industry leader TSMC just last week said it would boost investment in Arizona to $40 billion — one of the largest outlays by a foreign company in U.S. history — in a ceremony attended by U.S. President Joe Biden. Politically, Taiwan has become a spirited democracy with a free press that contrasts starkly with the mainland. Biden has said the U.S. will aid Taiwan if Beijing attacks; Washington allies have also spoken up for Taipei since Beijing launched military exercises around the island after a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August.

Who’s in the mix of possible presidential candidates in 2024? It’s a far-flung group that includes one of Asia’s richest billionaires, two physicians, a popular talk show host, a long-time law enforcer, a former teacher at City University of New York, and a former human rights lawyer for Taiwan’s political opposition during the martial law era that ended in 1987. Here are seven likely contenders (in alphabetical order) named by Ting.

Eric Chu: Long-time KMT politician holds a PhD in accounting from New York University. Once taught at City University of New York, before returning to Taiwan to teach at National Taiwan University; later entered politics. Ran for president against Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and didn’t come close. Chu is currently the KMT’s chairman, a good launching pad for a presidential run.

Terry Gou: Rags-to-riches, 72-year-old electronics billionaire worth $6.3 billion on the Forbes Real-Time Rich List ran for president in 2019, citing a message from sea goddess Matsu. Lost in the KMT primary. Image as a business success has recently been damaged by labor woes at his flagship Hon Hai Precision’s huge iPhone factory in China.

Hou You-yi: Top vote-getter on Nov. 26 triumphed as the KMT candidate in race for mayor of New Taipei City. Long career in law enforcement has bought success in high-profile cases. “I just always happened to be in the right place at the right time and did what I was supposed to do,” 65-year-old Hou has been quoted as saying. “That is all.” Pollster Ting, who holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan, says the downside of Hou’s background could be a negative association with police that dates back to the days of Japanese colonial rule in 1895-1945.

Jaw Shao-kong: Popular talk show host at age 72 and former legislator with a graduate degree from Clemson University in mechanical engineering switched from KMT to China-friendly New Party in the 1990s; now with the KMT again. Could win party’s presidential primary with 30% to 40% of the votes if the rest of the field is divided, Ting said. He once led Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Ko Wen-je: Holder of a PhD in clinical medicine from Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University worked as a researcher in the surgery department at the University of Minnesota early in his career. Elected Taipei mayor in 2014 and 2018, has hit his term limits and couldn’t seek reelection last month. He formed and currently chairs the new Taiwan People’s Party, but it won only 1.5% of the city and county council seats up for grabs on Nov. 26. Media suggests he’s aligned with Gou.

Lai Ching-te: Lai, Taiwan’s current vice president, “has the best chance to win” the presidential election, Ting said. The son of a coal miner turned physician holds a master’s in public health from Harvard. Lai was premier before he joined the winning presidential ticket with incumbent Tsai in 2019, and is likely able to mobilize the DPP grassroots for a presidential run, Ting said. Lai announced his candidacy for DPP chairmanship on Dec. 8 after Tsai said she’d resign from that post to take responsibility for the party’s Nov. 26 election loss.

Su Tseng-chang: Party co-founder and former DPP chairman was a lawyer for opposition activists in Taiwan’s martial law era. Currently premier, 75-year-old Su offered to resign after the DPP’s defeat on Nov. 26. Safe though aging as a possible DPP presidential flag-bearer, Su hasn’t announced plans to run for president.

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Defying forecasts, crude oil prices have wiped out most of this year’s gains and could head lower

Tom Kaye of Plymouth, Pennsylvania tops off his neighbor’s gas tank for them on at a gas station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 19, 2022.

Aimee Dilger | Reuters

Oil prices are defying expectations and are barely higher on the year, as the outlook for oil demand continues to deteriorate for now.

West Texas Intermediate crude futures for January settled higher Monday at $77.24 per barrel, following a drop to $73.60 per barrel, the lowest price since last December. WTI was up 2.2% for the year, after briefly turning negative earlier Monday.

Gasoline prices at the pump have also been falling dramatically and could be cheaper than last year for many Americans by Christmas, according to an outlook from the Oil Price Information Service. On Monday, the national average was $3.546 per gallon of regular unleaded fuel, down from $3.662 a week ago but still higher than the $3.394 a year ago, according to AAA.

‘Macro headwinds rather than tailwinds’

China’s lockdowns and the rare protests against Beijing this weekend have raised more doubt about the outlook for the country’s already weakened economy.

“We think the recessionary [forces] around the world, particularly in the three largest economies, are dominating the macro environment for the year as a whole, and we think that the issues we’ve been identifying as relatively bumpy in the period ahead are going to remain,” said Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup. “Right now, we are looking at macro headwinds rather than tailwinds.”

Morse was one of the more bearish strategists on Wall Street in 2022, but he said the latest market developments and the hit to major economies made even his forecast too bullish. He had revised his outlook higher at the end of the third quarter, based on the shift by OPEC+ to focus on prices and the pending ban of Russian crude by Europe.

The oil market has been focused on those two potential catalysts for higher prices, but the impact on demand from the slowdown in China and new lockdowns has outweighed concerns about supply for now. The European Union’s ban on purchases of seaborne Russian oil takes place Dec. 5. The EU is also expected to announce price caps for Russian crude.

OPEC+ is also a factor. The group includes OPEC, plus other producers, including Russia. The group surprised the market in October when it approved a production cut of 2 million barrels a day.

“We’re waiting to see if they signal even deeper cuts. There were rumors in the market about that happening,” said John Kilduff, partner with Again Capital. After dipping to the day’s lows, oil rebounded on Monday as speculation circulated about new OPEC+ cuts, he said.

Brent futures, the international benchmark, was lower Monday afternoon at $83.19 per barrel, recovering from $80.61 per barrel, the lowest price since January.

“Right now the target is below $60 [for WTI]. That’s what the chart is indicating… this is a new low for the move because previously the low for the year was late September and now we’ve broken that,” said Kilduff. “It all depends on what happens in China. China is as important on the demand side, as OPEC+ is on the supply side.”

weather pattern has also affected prices, with warmer weather in North America. He and other analysts say it could continue to impact the market.

“We keep getting cold outlooks, and then it falters. This is La Niña. You will get cold days, but then you get balmy stretches,” Kilduff said. He said concerns about winter heating fuel supplies have abated with a build in supplies in Europe.

The result for consumers could be a windfall at the pump during the holiday season. OPIS expects prices to keep falling into January before turning higher again.

“If you combine the Chinese demonstrations with the warm weather in the northern hemisphere, that’s kind of a double-barreled assault on the energy price at the moment,” said Tom Kloza, global energy analyst at OPIS. He said he expects gasoline to average between $3 and $3.25 per gallon at its low, but it will be below $3 in many parts of the country.

Kloza said by Christmas, the U.S. national average should be slightly below the $3.28 level it was at last year.

Diesel prices have also been falling. According to AAA, diesel averaged $5.215 per gallon nationally Monday, off by about 8 cents per gallon from a week ago.

“We’ve been counter-seasonally building distillate fuel supply so that’s been easing things. If the weather stays relatively benign here, we’re going to lose that upside catalyst and grind lower still,” said Again’s Kilduff.

–Michael Bloom contributed to this story.

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