In China, quarter 1 GDP growth has been higher than expected at 4.5% beating the estimates of 4% growth from a Reuters poll of economists. Chinese consumers went on a spending “spree” as three years of strict pandemic restrictions were ended. Retail sales jumped 10.6% in March from a year earlier, the highest level of growth since June 2021. In the months from January to March, retail sales grew 5.8% thanks to a surge in revenue in the catering industry. Industrial production was also up 3.9% in March. This beats the 2.4% increase in the the January to February period, which China combines to account for the Lunar New Year holiday. This is welcome news for the Chinese economy, as last year’s GDP growth of 3% was far off the 5.5% target set by the Chinese government.
Last year, GDP expanded by just 3%, badly missing the official growth target of “around 5.5%,” as Beijing’s approach to stamping out the coronavirus wreaked havoc on supply chains and hammered consumer spending. China’s exports unexpectedly surged in March, but analysts cautioned the improvement partly reflects suppliers catching up with unfulfilled orders after the COVID-19 disruptions. China’s second-quarter growth could pick up sharply due to the year-ago low base effect, Fu said. On a quarter-on-quarter basis, GDP grew 2.2% in January-March, meeting analyst expectations and up from a revised 0.6% rise in the previous quarter. Analysts polled by Reuters expect China’s growth in 2023 to speed up to 5.4%, from 3.0% last year. The government has set a modest GDP growth target of around 5% for this year, after badly missing the 2022 goal. China’s infrastructure investment rose 8.8% in January-March year-on-year – outpacing a 5.1 rise in overall fixed-asset investment, while property investment fell 5.8%. There remain problems, however. China’s nationwide survey-based jobless rate fell to 5.3% in March from 5.6% in February, but the jobless rate for those aged 16 to 24 rebounded to 19.6% last month from 18.1% in February. It is expected that second quarter GDP growth will be around 8 percent.
Mere minutes before SpaceX’s Starship was to launch on Monday, a problem with a frozen valve scrapped the launch. The next available launch window on Thursday saw a successful takeoff of the largest rocket ever assembled. However, after 4 minutes and 39 kilometres (24 miles) up when it was time for the separation of Starship from the Super Heavy booster rocket, some of the engines were lost and the whole rocket began to tumble – at which point the flight termination system triggered an explosion. A piece of debris landed on a parked car. No one was injured. Despite the explosion, the test flight has been hailed as a success by CEO Elon Musk as it completed a number of the objectives set by the company before exploding. The official SpaceX account tweeted: “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary”.
In Ukraine, both president Vladimir Putin of Russia and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made visits to the front lines. On Tuesday Putin (in his second public trip to Russia’s new conquered territories) visited Russian military headquarters in the Kherson and Luhansk regions (the south and east, respectively) of Ukraine and heard reports and had discussions with senior military leaders in the theatre. The Kremlin released footage on the visit showing Putin taking a helicopter ride to Luhansk, where he was filmed speaking in a control room, sat between Col Gen Makarevich and the head of Russia’s airborne forces, Col Gen Mikhail Teplinsky. Col Gen Teplinsky has returned to the front line after reportedly being removed in January, according to both American and British military and intelligence reports. The head of the Wagner Group PMC Yevgeny Prigozhin has called Teplinskly “honest, competent … uncompromising and fearless”. Teplinksy is apparently one of the only senior Russian generals that is respected by the average Russian solider – it is therefore of propaganda value for Putin to be pictured beside him.
In the Kherson region, Putin met with Col Gen Alexander Lapin, the Chief of Staff of Russia’s ground forces. This marks the first visit by Putin to the Kherson and Luhansk regions – last time Putin visited the occupied territories was on March 19, when he was the port city of Mariupol. As part of this recent trip, Putin visited the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he held a meeting and heard reports from military commanders at the headquarters of the “special military operation”. The weekend before, Putin met with Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday visited the frontline town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, where he was seen on video handing award to soldiers who have been defending the town against Russian attacks for months. An advisor to Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, tweeted that Putin was in Ukraine to “enjoy the crimes of his minions for the last time”. Ukraine has long been expected to launch a counter-attack which will break the land bridge to Crimea and wrestle control of Crimea away from Russia.
In a clear signal of the poor quality of Russian military training, a Russian jet accidentally dropped a bomb on the Russian city of Belgorod, close to the Ukrainian border at 22:15 on Thursday night, leaving a 20 metre (60 ft) wide crater close to the city centre. The explosion was so large it blew a car on to the roof of a nearby shop. Several houses were damaged and two people injured when an Su-34 twin-engine fighter-bomber dropped an unnamed munition over the city of 400,000. However, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) has begun employing 500 kg guided bombs called K029E (UPAB-1500B-E). Commonly referred to as “glide bombs” they are inertial (they have no engines) bombs that can be launched from jets flying over Russian controlled airspace – where Russian aircraft remain safe from Ukrainian air defence – and land in Ukraine. The bombs, which have a range of 30 – 50km (18-30 miles) have been increasingly used in the conflict to destroy Ukrainian targets as stores of other weapons have been used up. Belgorod is 40 kilometres north of the Ukrainian border – Ukrainian targets are within range of the bombs when launched from Belgorod.
Since Thursday more than 3,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in Belgorod after a second undetonated explosive was found – likely another glide bomb that failed to glide and simply fell in the city. It is currently unknown if the bomb was also dropped by the same Su-34, though the bomb was found in the same area as the one that did explode. The bomb has reportedly been removed and people are returning to their homes.
The fighting in Bakhmut has intensified over the past week, as Russia and Ukraine each sent reinforcements into the city and are suffering more casualties. Both sides have deployed elite units to Bakhmut at various points.
In France, President Macron toured southern France on Thursday, where he was faced by protestors against the raising of the retirement age and calls to resign. Macron told crowds that he would not be resigning. At the same time in Paris, hundreds of protestors held a demonstration at the famous Gare de Lyon train station. The crowd later headed to the La Defence business district (which is west of the capital) and stormed the Euronext stock exchange, lighting flares inside the building. Several unions joined a strike at the national railway company SNCF, slightly disrupting train traffic Thursday. Some regional lines and Paris suburban trains were affected, while high-speed trains were running almost as normal, the SNCF said. The protests have lost some of their energy, and the retirement age was raised to 64.
On Wednesday, North Korean state-media KCNA announced that Kim Jong Un had ordered his officials to prepare the launch of the Hermit Kingdom’s first military reconnaissance satellites. The previous day, Kim visited the National Aerospace Development Administration – where the satellites are manufactured – with his daughter Ju Ae who has been recently pictured quite often with her father – in a possible sign that he favours her as his successor. In December of last year, the North claimed it had completed the final stage testing of the spy satellite and that by the end of April this year the preparations would be completed for launch. Contradicting these claims are recent satellite images of the space launch centre which show no signs of any imminent launches – however, it is possible that the launch may be via a mobile launch platform, i.e. a truck.
In the week ahead:
President Biden could kick off his 2024 reelection campaign as soon as Tuesday, according to multiple news reports.