CCP Stealth War 146; Feature: Parsing China’s Agenda for Ukraine Peace Talks

(source: DayFREEuro)

This Week: 

* Feature: Parsing China’s Agenda for Ukraine Peace Talks

* Chinese Defense Minster Visits Russia and Belarus to Align Priorities

* China’s National Natural Science Foundation Calls For General AI Research in Efforts to Secure “First-Mover Advantage”

* Unusual Implications for China’s Typhoon-Buffeted Agricultural Sector

Feature: Parsing China’s Agenda for Ukraine Peace Talks

In June, senior officials from several nations met in Copenhagen to discuss the prospects of peace in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Notably, China was altogether absent from the forum despite receiving a direct invitation. However, in late July China decided to join the latest rounds of peace talks taking place in Jeddah by sending their veteran diplomat to the former USSR, Li Hui. Further analysis is needed to make sense of Beijing’s change in approach, especially considering its “no limits partnership” with Russia that appears to remain intact.

The first important factor to consider is Beijing’s desire to mitigate its waning image among Western countries. China is aware of the reputational costs it incurred for its position on the Ukraine war, especially as an actor whose central foreign policy doctrine is intrinsically tied to respecting the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” Beijing may be looking to stabilize its poor image among Western countries as its faltering economy still relies heavily on investment from Europe and the US. By finally participating in a peace forum, Beijing likely aims to silence mounting criticism and meet Western countries in the middle—even if the PRC’s position still comes short of explicitly condemning Russian aggression. Indeed, Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the US State Department, said that the US welcomed Beijing playing a more “productive” role.

Second, China saw the meeting as a significant opportunity to strengthen its ties with the “Global South.” Saudi Arabia—the host of the forum—occupies an especially important position in Chinese foreign policy. Following China’s major diplomatic breakthrough in the Saudi-Iran deal, Beijing seeks to maintain its regional influence in the Middle East. Furthermore, numerous delegates from Africa and South America were present at the meeting, regions where China enjoys close ties. Actors in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by the war in Ukraine, as Russia’s obstruction of grain exports through the Black Sea have resulted in mounting food prices. To maintain good relations with the Global South, the PRC may want to prove that it is not willing to prioritize support for Putin at the expense of letting its allies go hungry.

A third consideration is that China believes it can achieve these policy objectives while still preserving close ties with Moscow. Following the Jeddah summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached out to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to let Russia know that China will remain a “objective and rational voice,” in spite of attending an international meeting that deliberately left out Moscow. Ultimately, Beijing’s robust strategic partnership with Moscow is still going strong, as seen by the joint naval exercise between China and Russia carried out near Alaska.

In short, the PRC’s participation in the Jeddah peace talks does not reflect a fundamental shift in Beijing’s strategic ties with Russia, or a genuine interest in proposing a viable solution to the ongoing Ukraine conflict. Rather, it demonstrates that Beijing wishes to present itself as responsible stakeholder to the West and Global South, all while retaining the same benefits of its “no limits partnership” with Russia.


Chinese Defense Minster Visits Russia and Belarus to Align Priorities

 Chinese Minister of Defense Li Shangfu is on a diplomatic tour to meet with Russian and Belarusian defense leaders, with the goal of shoring up their alliance structure to combat the Western-led liberal order. Shangfu’s tour will last six days, during which he is slated to deliver remarks at the Moscow Conference on International Security. Beijing and Moscow are seeking to shore up their shaky alliance in the face of Western efforts to isolate the two nations, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though China has pledged not to supply either side of the Ukraine conflict with lethal aid, China has been a reliable Russian partner in the diplomatic and economic arena; this is all the more important, as Russia has had to pivot towards Asia to try and salvage its destroyed economy. Shangfu’s visit to Belarus—whose acceptance of troops from Russia’s Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) is increasing tensions with neighboring Poland—shows China’s clear intentions of at the very least providing the appearance of a united front against the current liberal order.

China’s National Natural Science Foundation Calls For General AI Research in Efforts to Secure “First-Mover Advantage”

Since the 2017 release of the “New Generation AI Development Plan,” China has made no great effort to conceal its efforts to invest in generalizable AI, particularly in “dual-use” and “enabling” technologies, which translate scientific advances to military and surveillance applications. One of the basic principles of the plan outlines an “all-element, multi-domain, highly efficient new pattern of civil-military integration.” Given this stated objective, Chinese civil scientific research must be taken into account when evaluating the interests and efforts of the Chinese government in advancing artificial intelligence.

Scientists are in a race to build artificial intelligence models that closely replicate the intellectual capabilities of the human brain. In the pursuit of generalizable AI, several theories are being explored. One theory is “Brain-inspired AI” (类脑人工智能) which is sometimes used as a synonym, and sometimes as a precondition, for generalizable or general purpose AI (通用人工智能, “AGI”).

“通用,” translated as “general” describes the vast majority of AI projects, which seek to replicate or expand on functions of human intelligence. Such models are often transferred to different applications than they were designed for. OpenAI’s famous large language model GPT4 contains mathematical approximations of patterns and meaning that can generalize across applications. But AI models can be transferred across tasks. Though GPT4 is trained on language, neuroscientists have used it to intuit people’s thoughts. They do so by collecting brain data of someone listening to a podcast using an fMRI machine, and running this data through GPT’s model.

AI models prepared for language manipulation can be applied to brain science research, but transfer goes both ways. A report prepared by CSET used open-source methods to track China’s Cognitive AI research, and found an overwhelmingly large volume of papers focused on “pattern recognition learning,” including the recognition of faces, gait, behavior, and emotion, as well as sentiment analysis. Advancements in pattern recognition learning would apply directly to the state’s ability to conduct surveillance. In a 2021 report, the Hoover Institution highlighted the ethical risks of research collaboration with China, emphasizing the CCP’s deployment of AI algorithms to support their regime’s mass surveillance of the population, and in particular the PRC’s repression of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Recently proposed regulation seeks to restrict the PRC government’s use of facial recognition, though it remains to be seen if this legislation will be performative and easily circumvented by claims of “national security.”

The National Natural Science Foundation of China’s (国家自然科学基金委员会) “Guide to the 2023 Annual Projects for the Major Research Program on Explainable and Generalizable Next-Generation Artificial Intelligence Methods” was recently translated by CSET.

One specified research direction in the guide is “Brain Science-Inspired New Generation AI Methods” (脑科学启发的新一代人工智能方法). Recurrent and recursive neural networks became the state-of-the-art in language modeling in the mid-2010s. Their advancement to the field was disruptive, and was enabled by a model of information processing more closely inspired by neuroscience. Among the focus for this 2023 call for projects are mathematical models which closely resemble the dendritic structure of neurons structure; another key area includes image recognition. These models would enhance the already impressive results produced by neural networks such as the GPT4 language model.

Given the human and civil rights concerns raised by the dual-use potential of brain-inspired AI research, the policy community should take care to pay attention to these renewed efforts to improve the already powerful traditional neural networks.

Unusual Implications for China’s Typhoon-Buffeted Agricultural Sector

While parts of China have been suffering under severe droughts over the last few years, the recent one-two punch of Typhoons Doksuri in late July and Khanun in early August have caused significant damage to the agricultural sector of some of China’s most productive regions. In particular, the northern provinces of the “Golden Corn Belt” (Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Outer Mongolia) are expected to produce millions of tons less of corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice than they normally do. This, combined with several international factors, may cause a rise in food prices in China and in the global markets more broadly—which may paradoxically benefit the CCP domestically, as it struggles to fight deflationary pressures.

While Xi Jinping has argued for China’s eventual independence in the area of foodstuffs (elevating it as a key goal for the PRC in the medium run, alongside the protection and expansion of agriculturally productive land), China is still a long ways off from being self-sufficient. Up until recently, Chinese imports of rice, particularly from India, were rising by more than 50 percent each year. In the first three quarters of 2022, 40.4 percent of China’s rice imports came from India—mostly in the form of “broken rice,” which is generally used as a cheap feed for livestock. To overcome domestic shortages, however, India banned the export of broken rice in September 2022; in July 2023, New Delhi went even further, banning the export of all non-basmati rice. This reduced Indian rice exports by half, which—given that India was the largest global exporter of rice until then—is expected to have a major knock-on effect on global rice prices.

Much of China’s domestic and imported agricultural products are used to feed its burgeoning livestock population, particularly its pork industry; pork accounts for some 60 percent of all meat consumed in China. As prices have shifted, so too has the production of China’s various feeds, which is generally the most expensive part of raising pigs. Corn overtook rice production in raw tonnage in 2013, but corn growing is still much less productive as an industry than its American counterpart is, due largely to the latter’s use of genetically modified organisms (GMO). This lack of productivity, combined with the aforementioned droughts in China’s best areas for corn growing has raised prices, which pushed Chinese farmers to focus on the growing of grains instead, namely wheat. Grain production in China suffers from many of the same issues that the corn sector does. While wheat harvests have grown over the last few years, their increase year-over-year has been lackluster, owing among other things to unfavorable weather conditions.

As a result of the three main kinds of feed becoming harder and/or more expensive to produce domestically, one would expect that the price of livestock (again, namely pork) would have skyrocketed as a result. Instead, at the start of 2023 the price crashed by some 25 percent. This may be explained in part by three main factors: a) a growing reliance on imports; b) the opening of strategic reserves set aside by the PRC to stabilize prices; and c) a collapse in overall demand.

While the import of most agricultural goods has increased on the whole, the price of importing rice, corn, and grains have all been elevated due to international issues: India’s ban on rice exports, the ongoing war against Ukraine and the collapse of the “Grain Deal” between Russia and Ukraine, etc. This has been offset somewhat by the PRC’s efforts to broaden the list of countries it imports from, to include Brazil and South Africa. China—albeit reluctantly—continues to rely on the US for the import of many foodstuffs, even as it regards this fact as a geopolitical risk.

While Beijing may have released parts of its foodstuff reserves, any such efforts are likely to have been in the form of food aid to provinces affected by the recent natural disasters, rather than a broader stabilization of the feed market.

More relevant to the situation is the general decline in Chinese demand for meat, which follows the logic of a population cutting back on luxuries as the state of the Chinese economy becomes more negative. In 2023, the PRC entered its first period of deflation since the COVID-19 outbreak. This was driven in no small part by the aforementioned 25 percent decrease in the price of pork, which composes the largest individual share of any item in China’s consumer price index (CPI), at roughly 3 percent.

One may gather that the CCP is seriously concerned about inflation, given that it has restricted the nation’s economists from even mentioning the concept when discussing the current economic situation. While the various international pressures regarding global agricultural prices suggest a destabilizing increase for much of the third world, this may be welcomed by some in Beijing as a way of restoring healthy inflation—and fending off suggestions that the PRC may be entering a Japan-like era of economic stagnation.