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Zelenskyy (finally) takes on China

Zelenskyy (finally) Takes On China
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Jun 02, 2024 View in browser

By Suzanne Lynch

WELCOME to the final Global Playbook of the Shangri-La Dialogue, coming to you for the last time from Singapore, where the region’s premier defense conference has wrapped up for another year.

The Shangri-La Hotel was returning to some semblance of normality last night as the camera crews packed up and dignitaries braved the tropical rain and high-tailed it to Changi Airport. Many were headed for France, where D-Day commemorations take place this week. (Russia has been quietly uninvited.)

For all the talk about cooperation and the power of communication and diplomacy running through the three-day conference, the summit, hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, ended with a bang.


ZELENSKYY LOSES PATIENCE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his appearance at the closing session of the conference on Sunday to urge Asia-Pacific countries to “show their commitment to peace” and attend the Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland in two weeks’ time.

‘I urge your leaders to join,’ he said, addressing delegates in English. “By uniting against one war, we create for the world the real experience of overcoming any war, and of diplomacy that does work.” He said Russia — as well as “certain states” — were working to undermine attendance at the Swiss summit.

Unleashing on Beijing: By the time he faced journalists during a press conference a few hours later, Zelenskyy was ready to name names: China.

Jaw-dropper: “Russia, using Chinese influence on the region, using Chinese diplomats also, does everything to disrupt the peace summit,” he said. “We do not expect military support from China … But we do not expect China to provide defense support to Russia.”

Promises broken: In revealing comments, Zelenskyy said China’s President Xi Jinping had promised him during a phone call a year ago that he would stand aside and not support Russia with weapons. “Today, there is intelligence that somehow, some way, some things come to Russia’s markets via China … elements of Russia’s weaponry come from China.”

Not alone in that assessment: The United States in particular has been sounding the alarm bells about the scale of China’s involvement in the war. “What we’ve seen from China to Russia is not a one-off or a couple of rogue firms involved in supporting Russia,” Kurt Campbell, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said last week.

Campbell added: “This is a sustained, comprehensive effort that is backed up by the leadership in China that is designed to give Russia every support behind the scenes, that will allow them to reconstitute elements of their military force, their long-range missiles, their UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones], some of their capacities to track movements on the battlefield, long-range artillery and the like.”

Don’t look at me: But Chinese Defense Secretary Dong Jun denied Beijing was helping Russia in his own speech earlier on Sunday. “China … has not provided weapons to either side, and has strict control over exports of dual-use goods,” Dong said. “We stand firmly on the side of peace and dialogue.”

Dialogue? What dialogue? During his press conference, Zelenskyy accused Beijing’s officials of refusing to meet with him. “Many times we have wanted to meet Chinese representatives,” including Xi, he said. “Unfortunately Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it.”

Snubbed: Ukraine has been trying to meet Chinese officials for ages — including at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, as POLITICO reported — and has been repeatedly rebuffed. Yet again, here at Shangri-La, no meeting took place between Zelenskyy and Dong, the senior Chinese representative here.

KYIV TO WASHINGTON: UNSHACKLE US. Zelenskyy also had a message for allies like the United States. While he welcomed the Biden administration’s decision to allow Ukraine to hit targets just across the Russian border with weapons it supplied, he said Kyiv needs more leeway. Russia is “constantly firing” at Ukraine from its well-stocked air bases, without needing to move its artillery out of the way, because they’re “confident that Ukraine can’t fire back,” he said.

READ MORE: Here's our full wrap-up of Zelenskyy's Shangri-La firestorm.


TAIWAN WARNING: In his own keynote earlier on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Dong also didn’t pull any punches, thundering that Taiwan is at “the core” of China’s interests and Beijing would take “resolute actions” to curb its independence, if it needed to.

Be afraid, be very afraid … Accusing separatists of making “fanatical statements” about Taiwanese independence, Dong said “they will be nailed to the pillars of shame in history.”

“Anybody who dares to separate Taiwan from China will only end up in self destruction,” he intoned.

Taking control: Dong brushed off valiant efforts by moderator Bastian Giegerich to get him to answer questions on other topics like the Middle East and Ukraine. “This was a 10-minute answer to one of the questions,” Giegerich said at one point, asking Dong to answer the other questions posed by the audience — only for the minister to launch back into a tirade on Taiwan.

Singapore trolling: Singapore’s soft-spoken Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen took a gentle jibe at Dong in the following session, quipping that the minister “would have gone on for half an hour if you had let him” on his pet subject. But Singapore made it clear where it stands on Taiwan, dismissing parallels between the Russia-Ukraine war and China-Taiwan. “It’s tempting but misplaced to conflate that with Taiwan and China,” he said of the Russia-Ukraine war. “Taiwan is not Ukraine and neither is China Russia.”

Same message, different day: In substance, Dong’s speech was not so different to the established Chinese position on Taiwan, with the minister setting out China’s red lines, cloaking his commentary in language about Beijing’s commitment to peace and non-alignment. But the warnings were stark given the recent investiture of a new leader in Taiwan.

Butt out, Washington: Dong also issued a barely veiled warning to the United States to stay out of the region, particularly when it comes to the Philippines. “We will not allow any country or any force to create conflict and chaos in our region,” he said, adding that the Philippines had been “emboldened by outside powers.”

Just keep talkin’: But as my colleague Stuart Lau reports, China’s military held a meeting with NATO on the margins of Shangri-La. Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng of China’s Central Military Commission, met NATO Military Committee Chair Rob Bauer. “We discussed various points of concern between NATO [and China],” Bauer said on X, adding that military-to-military dialogue is crucial to prevent misunderstandings, miscalculations and misconception.


MOSCOW’S WATCHING YOU: Russia may not have been represented at the Shangri-La Dialogue, but it seems it was keeping a close eye on it. Just hours after Indonesia’s President-elect Prabowo Subianto met with Zelenskyy for a bilat on the sidelines of the conference, the Russian foreign ministry delivered a friendly reminder that Sunday marked the 48th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the Philippines.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “ASEAN is like the Hobbit in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng told the audience, to a burst of laughter. “One ring to control them all because the others weren’t trusted … Hobbits also quarrel among themselves, but I’m quite proud to say on record that we’ve settled some of the disputes.”

SELFIE WATCH: New Zealand’s Defense Minister Judith Collins caught up with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins.


FORECAST: 31C/87F, showers.

BEST DRESSED: The outfits at the Shangri-La Dialogue are a little more interesting than the usual dark suits and ties you see around the global conference circuit. Playbook spotted some truly magnificent military garb (we have a particular penchant for aiguillettes). Honorable mention for the very-Australian formal short-sleeved shirts donned by members of the delegation from Down Under.

No competition: But best dressed goes to President of Timor-Leste José Ramos-Horta, who strutted into the Shangri-La Friday morning flanked by a police escort, rocking oversized aviators, tan boots and a spectacular jacket featuring a traditional Timorese pattern. On Saturday morning, Ramos-Horta hit the stage in his signature Windsor glasses and a glorious emerald-green jacket with intricate sleeves.

HAWKER STANDS WORTH TRAVELING FOR: If you’ve got an extra day to explore Singapore, ditch the tony end of town, grab a, erm, Grab, and eat like a local.

Playbook’s top food tips: Mee goreng at the Kassim Stall in the Telok Blangah Food Center (not your standard cuppa-soup fare) … The boneless braised duck at Chuan Kee at the 20 Ghim Moh Road Market and Food Center … Hor fun (silky, flat rice noodles) at Shi Hui Yuan at the Mei Ling Market and Food Center … Hainanese chicken rice at Min Kee at the Amoy Street Food Center.

SPILLING THE TEA: Having sampled an array of local teas in recent days, the POLITICO team can report that the osmanthus sencha brew in the Shangri-La is the standout. Close behind was White Ginger Lily and Pearl of the Orient — though the “Nymph of the Nile” was less exciting than it sounds.

IF YOU HAVE A COUPLE OF HOURS TO KILL: Check out the Botanic Gardens, a short drive from the Shangri-La hotel, to get away from it all. Don’t miss the National Orchid Garden, where thousands of orchid varieties are on display — in air-conditioned comfort.


SOUTH AFRICA: President Cyril Ramaphosa said he won’t resign despite the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, losing its majority for the first time in three decades. The ANC will now likely turn to a political rival for the support it needs to govern in coalition.

INDIA: The votes are cast; the counting will begin Tuesday. Some exit polls predict Narendra Modi is on course to win a third consecutive term, solidifying his power in the world’s largest democracy.

MEXICO: The country is likely to elect its first female president, with frontrunner Claudia Sheinbaum, endorsed by outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on track for victory. Here’s a POLITICO profile of Sheinbaum.

ICELAND: Former Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir may be regretting her decision to jump ship earlier this year and run for president. She lost out to businesswoman Halla Tómasdóttir in the presidential election this weekend. She’ll become only the second woman to hold the position.


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Suzanne Lynch @suzannelynch1


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Zelenskyy (finally) takes on China