Sunday 18 June – Sunday 25 June:
It has been a particularly memorable week…
After arriving on Sunday in Beijing in the first trip by a U.S. official since 2018, and the highest-level engagement between the United States and China since presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden met in Bali last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued his meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Qin Gang – and a 35-minute meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People on Monday. The meeting with Xi was not on the agenda and was only formally announced less than an hour before it happened. The trip was recognised by both sides as candid, in-depth and constructive – signalling that the U.S. was seeking to build lines of communication rather than securing breakthroughs. The two sides discussed increasing the number of flights between the countries (currently at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels), educational exchanges and combating fentanyl production. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been killed in fentanyl overdoses – and much of it comes from China.
Blinken invited Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to visit the U.S., and said the he expects more visits by senior officials in both directions in the coming months. Blinken on Monday said that the United States and China had made “progress” toward steering relations back on track as both sides agreed on the need to “stabilize” the bilateral relationship between the two superpowers. After his meeting with Blinken, the Chinese Communist Party’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was reported as having said “a choice needs to be made between confrontation, cooperation or conflict.” Blinken’s trip – and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s May trip to China – are speculated to have laid the groundwork for Xi and Biden to meet first on the sidelines of the G20 summit in September, and then at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in San Francisco in November.
Days later, President Biden roiled Beijing when he called Xi a “dictator” during remarks about the balloon saga, which he said was a great embarrassment for the Chinese leader.
Also on Sunday, the Titan, a submersible operated by an American undersea tourism company OceanGate imploded during its descent in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 370 nautical miles (690 km) off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. All five passengers – including the CEO of OceanGate Richard Stockton Rush III (known as Stockton Rush) – were killed instantly when the Titan imploded near the wreck of the Titanic. The dive operation began at 09:30 local time and the vessel was in regular contact until communication was lost 1 hour and 45 minutes into its dive to the wreck site, and the U.S. Coast Guard were alerted when it failed to resurface at the scheduled time (16:30) later that day. It would be revealed later in the week that the U.S. Navy had detected an acoustic signature consistent with an implosion. The late reveal of this information led some in the media to speculate that the Biden Administration had delayed the release of the information so as not to interrupt the news cycle with news of the president’s wayward son Hunter Biden and his signing of a plea deal in which he will admit to failing to pay taxes. After a search lasting almost 80 hours, a debris field from the Titan was found on Thursday by a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) 500 metres from the bow (front part) of the Titanic wreck. The Titan was an unseaworthy vessel constructed from carbon fibre rather than steel – an ill-advised choice and there had been years of safety concerns.
On Thursday, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro appeared in a Brasilia court for the start of trial in which he is accused of spreading distrust in the country’s electoral process. Bolsonaro and his supporters have characterised the trail as politically motivated – much as Donald Trump has done with his own court cases. If found guilty, Bolsonaro could be barred from holding public office for up to eight years. In comments on his YouTube channel on Thursday, Bolsonaro said he wanted to remain “100-percent active” in politics and called the trial “an affront”.
On Friday, the leader of the Wagner Group private military company (PMC) Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an armed rebellion against the Russian state after claiming that the Ministry of Defence – led by his arch-enemy Sergei Shoigu (a notoriously corrupt and ineffective leader) – killed Wagner forces in an airstrike at one of the groups training camps. In response, Wagner forces (who were already mostly withdrawn from the frontline in Ukraine), seized the city of Rostov-on-Don inside Russia. The city is notable as it is the headquarters of the Russian military’s Southern Military District – one of five military districts in the country, and the district with command of Russian forces in Ukraine. A convoy of Wagner forces, reportedly led by Dmitry Utkin – a former GRU special forces officer whose call-sign “Wagner” is the origin of the PMC’s name – marched on Moscow. Edward Luttwak, author of Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, described this as less of a coup attempt and more of “trade union protest” to demand more money and weapons for Wagner. These have been withheld from Wagner due to infighting in the defence establishment and personal animosity between Progozhin on the one hand, and Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov on the other hand (Wagner vs. top Russian military brass). Though exact reasons for the events in Russia are not clear, it is perhaps due to Ministry of Defence attempts to rein in the group as an independent entity. Prigozhin and Putin reportedly had a meeting the weekend before the rebellion. On Friday, Prigozhin released a video in which he railed against the government and Shoigu for “trying to deceive society and the president and tell us how there was crazy aggression from Ukraine and that they were planning to attack us with the whole of NATO.” Putin released a video statement in which he called Prigozhin’s actions treason and called on all Russian citizens to resist Wagner. The FSB (security services) filed criminal charges against Prigozhin and ordered his arrest. National Guard troops were deployed and began constructing defences around Moscow in anticipation of Wagner’s arrival. With Wagner forces hours away, the rebellion was abruptly halted on Saturday night after a deal between Putin and Prigozhin was brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko – not someone known his diplomatic skills. According to the agreement, Prigozhin is to leave Russia for Belarus, the criminal case against him will be dropped, and no legal action will be taken against his troops. Wagner fighters will sign contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry. Wagner, it seems, will cease to exist in its current form.
The situation remains highly fluid – Wagner still exists and has not been disarmed, the criminal case against Prigozhin remains active while Prigozhin’s whereabouts are unknown. Sergei Shoigu has not been seen since Friday, but has released old video of himself inspecting troops.