Sep 30, 2019

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. We've got a global assortment of 1,374 words (5 minutes) for your reading pleasure.

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1 big thing: 70 years of communist China

Xi Jinping (R) awards the Medal of the Republic to Li Yannian for combat bravery. Photo: Sheng Jiapeng/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Ceremonies will begin shortly in Beijing (7am local time, 8pm EST) to mark the 70th anniversary of communist China — a showcase intended to underline the power of the country, the party and President Xi Jinping.

  • But it will be a split-screen affair, with much of the world’s attention focused on protests in Hong Kong that are expected to be among the largest and most dramatic to date.

What to watch: The stage-managed parade will involve some 300,000 participants and an exhibition of military might, including 15,000 soldiers, 160 aircraft, and weapons that have never before been displayed publicly.

  • Those weapons likely include a new ICBM, "Dongfeng-41," that could reach the U.S., along with two new types of drone, a new lightweight tank, and an updated long-range bomber, per the Washington Post's Anna Fifield.
  • This year's ceremony will carry extra significance, Fifield notes: the Soviet Union collapsed a year before its 70th birthday.

Flashback: “National Day commemorates Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao appeared on the same balcony on the Gate of Heavenly Peace that Mr. Xi will on Tuesday and proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China,” per the NYT.

  • China was far weaker then and Communist control less secure. Xi, who has returned party ideology to the heart of Chinese politics and education, will surely evoke 1949 while emphasizing China’s development since.
  • But the protests come as the trade war with the U.S. bites and growth prospects dim. The West is growing more wary of China, and the roar from Hong Kong is growing louder.

Police in the semi-autonomous city say they’re bracing for a “violent attack,” per Reuters.

  • Protests over the weekend included dozens of arrests, tear gas, fires and signs and graffiti comparing Chinese leadership to Nazis.
  • Authorities in Hong Kong are desperate to avoid scenes on Tuesday that will overshadow the celebrations in Beijing. But Hong Kongers have a public holiday, just like mainlanders, and are expected to gather in massive numbers.
  • Zoom out: We have yet to see a direct crackdown from China in Hong Kong, but according to a Reuters investigation the number of Chinese military personnel in the city has more than doubled since the protests began 3 months ago.

The big picture: Over the past 70 years, China has progressed from a weak and impoverished nation to one that has seen millions rise from poverty and rivals the U.S. for global influence. Under Xi, it has risen while pioneering new modes of control and repression.

  • Views of the carefully orchestrated ceremonies will, therefore, vary widely depending on where one sits.
2. Trump's calls part I: The Ukraine precedent

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump’s decision to release a partial transcript of the July call in which he asked Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden has set a precedent his administration may find difficult to contain, and future presidents will be forced to reckon with.

Why it matters: Before Trump’s unusual step, top U.S. officials insisted releasing the transcript would harm future presidential communications. That concern isn’t limited to Trump’s lieutenants.

Driving the news:

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that in addition to Trump’s call with Zelensky, his conversations with the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia were hidden on a secret national security system "which is now central to the impeachment probe.”
  • House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff says he'll push for memos from Trump's calls with other world leaders, including Putin. The Kremlin has warned against that.
  • Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, tweeted: “This is a big mistake — terrible precedent, as no foreign leaders in future will speak candidly with the president on any future calls."

The big picture: Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, says every administration attempts to keep calls with foreign leaders confidential because “you want to preserve the ability to work with these people and you don’t want to embarrass them.”

  • "Other world leaders are going to be extremely cautious in their conversations with him," Burns adds. "You'll never know if you’re going to find those conversations on the front page of the New York Times, or on Axios."

Just in: Trump asked Australian PM to help investigate origins of Mueller probe.

3. Trump's calls part II: How to handle Trump

Trump and the gang at the 2017 G7 summit. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Gérard Araud, who served as the French ambassador to the U.S. until April, says seasoned world leaders were already far more cautious in their phone calls with Trump than Zelensky, who embarrassingly saw his criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and flattery of Trump exposed in the transcript.

  • Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron’s conversations with Trump, Araud says he’d hardly use the word “conversation” because Trump has a tendency to repeat the same idea or demand while “hardly listening to his interlocutors.”
  • “When Macron was talking, he was talking about a precise topic. I have never had a paper where he was criticizing another head of state. He was not playing this game. Even if Trump was trying to, he was not."
  • “It’s a small club,” Araud says, noting that world leaders must worry not only about leaks but about what their foreign counterparts will pass on to one another.
  • While Macron and Merkel have developed the trust needed to speak frankly, Araud says, neither "would really trust Trump."
  • "And poor Zelensky, he was a stand-up comic a few months ago.” (Zelensky played a president on TV before becoming the actual president in May).

Flashback: Araud says that ahead of the 2017 G7 summit in Italy — the first after Trump’s election — members of the U.S. team arrived with tips for foreign governments on "how to handle Trump."

“They were telling us, ‘don’t be patronizing. Don’t look as though you are explaining things to him. Don’t forget to flatter him.’”
4. Data du jour: The military drone bonanza
Expand chart
Data: The Drone Databook; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

About half of the world's militaries are now flying drones, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports based on a sweeping new study on the swift spread of a critical technology that until recently was too expensive or sophisticated for most countries.

Why it matters: The increasingly robot-crowded skies mean that clashes involving drones — like the recent attack on a Saudi oil facility that the U.S. has blamed on Iran — are likely to become commonplace.

  • They are already changing the way countries project power over adversaries. Chinese drones are flying over the South and East China seas, Russian drones are over Ukraine, and Iranian drones allegedly operate in Yemen and Syria.

What to watch: Despite the explosion of new players, the U.S., China and Israel still have the most sophisticated drone operations, study author Dan Gettinger tells Axios. But new leaders, like Turkey and Russia, are emerging.

Go deeper

5. World news roundup: MBS, Bolton and Kurz

John Bolton in Singapore in 2018 for the Trump-Kim summit. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

1. The 1st anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi's assassination arrives Wednesday in the midst of a PR offensive from Saudi Arabia.

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) denied ordering the "heinous" murder in a "60 Minutes" interview broadcast Sunday. The U.S. government has never accused or absolved him.
  • Senior executives from major Wall St. firms will return in a few weeks to the Saudi-hosted "Davos in the Desert," along with Jared Kushner, the Washington Post reports.
  • Meanwhile, the Saudi government announced Friday that it will soon introduce tourist visas as part of MBS' plan to diversify the economy.

2. John Bolton made clear Monday how deeply he disagrees with Trump's North Korea policy — just 20 days after he was ousted as national security adviser.

  • True to form, Bolton raised a military option, regime change and the "Libya model" of denuclearization.
  • The backdrop: Per NBC News, "there are growing fears among people close to Trump that Bolton and his allies are poised to inflict the most damage on the president given his unceremonious exit from the White House and how much he knows from his 17 months there."

3. Sebastian Kurz's center-right Austrian People’s Party won a big mandate in Sunday's election, putting him on course to regain power just months after his government collapsed.

  • That collapse was due to a scandal that badly damaged his far-right coalition partners. This time, he's likely to partner with the Greens.
  • Such an alliance, the FT writes, would "confirm the 33-year-old as a politician of tactical resourcefulness."
6. Africa: Used car dictatorship

For sale: 2015 Ferrari, lightly laundered. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Our condolences to Teodorin Nguema Obiang, Equatorial Guinea's vice president and heir apparent to his long-ruling father, on having to forfeit 25 of his favorite cars (along with a yacht) to resolve a Swiss investigation into misuse of public funds.

  • The cars (7 Ferraris, 5 Bentleys, 3 Lamborghinis, etc.) fetched around $27 million yesterday at an auction outside Geneva, per the BBC.
  • The case has magnified concerns over corruption in the small, oil-rich West African state.
  • Despite a GDP-per-capita on par with Spain, "life expectancy and infant mortality are below the sub-Saharan African average" and "roughly half the population lacks access to potable water," according to Human Rights Watch.
  • Now, the country has 25 fewer luxury cars as well.
7. Stories we're watching

A ceremony in Addis Ababa to mark Meskel, a holiday for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Photo: Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images

  1. Afghanistan elections: Turnout low despite few Taliban attacks
  2. U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker resigns
  3. Expert Voices: After Trump scandal, Ukraine pressed to reset with West
  4. U.S. ban on Chinese investments would take trade war to a new level
  5. Boris Johnson denies wrongdoing in corruption review
  6. U.S. could hit crude oil export milestone after Saudi attacks
  7. Pompeo announces new sanctions over 2016 Russia meddling


"We have been clear: We will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections."
— Mike Pompeo today, in a statement that comes after President Trump reportedly excused Russia's meddling in private and asked Ukraine to investigate his likely in 2020 rival.
Dave Lawler