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Amor, Amorgos: a love letter to a Greek island 

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Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of coronavirus. For the latest updates, read the FT’s coverage of the outbreak

In Athens, swathed in the oppressive heat of an August evening, I’m drinking with a few ill-starred Greeks stuck in town for the holidays. Shops and restaurants are shut and most of the capital has fled to the sea. Breathing in the acrid city fumes, lukewarm beers in hand, my friends speak longingly of their favourite islands, exhaling the names like incantations; Samothraki, Donousa, Gavdos, Anafi. The Athenian night weighs heavier as they conjure images of the bluest waters, highest rocks and strongest winds, not to mention the best roasted goat. I sit and listen, praying for the slightest breeze, recalling my own week by the sea.

For centuries, the Greek islands have been a beautiful blue-and-white canvas on which to project the human desire to escape. From the 17th-century Grand Tourists to the architectural-ruin enthusiasts of the early 20th, travellers found on the islands a release from the pressures of urban living, and the promise of a simpler existence. Above all, they revelled in their geographic remoteness. Nowadays, foreigners can catch direct flights to at least a dozen of them, a development that somewhat erodes their unique selling point. Tellingly, the common thread uniting my friends’ most treasured islands is their inaccessibility: a nine-hour ferry ride is a small price to pay for paradise, or at least an island unmarred by mass tourism.

The Aegean seen from the mountainside above Chora, the capital of Amorgos, with Astypalaia island in the distance
The Aegean seen from the mountainside above Chora, the capital of Amorgos, with Astypalaia island in the distance © Robbie Lawrence
A fisherman mending nets at Xilokeratidi harbour
A fisherman mending nets at Xilokeratidi harbour © Robbie Lawrence

My own paradise is the easternmost island of the Cyclades, the mountainous Amorgos. After a windy night on the hard floor of the deck, the ferry draws slowly into the island’s natural southern port of Katapola. Ahead the mountains loom, their peaks obscured by a thin mist. Amorgos resembles a giant dragon in repose, its spine 32km in length, ranging from the southern tip of Kalotaritissa to the 820m-high summit of Krokolos in the north. The western stretch is made up of low inlets and bays, while the east is one vertiginous, wind-battered cliff.

Katapola and its northern counterpart Aegiali are the two largest settlements. Breaking up a harsh expanse of hills and ridges between them are a few smatterings of villages that, on mistier days, when the sky dissolves into the rocks, appear suspended by the winds. The largest is Chora, the island’s capital. In the Hellenic and Roman eras, island towns were built closer to sea level. But with the dark ages came pirates and invaders, and settlements moved into the hills.

Sunrise at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa
Sunrise at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa © Robbie Lawrence

An early-morning shot of local flora in Chora
An early-morning shot of local flora in Chora © Robbie Lawrence

Aimilios Sarapoglou, a performing artist/dancer who holidays on Amorgos every year
Aimilios Sarapoglou, a performing artist/dancer who holidays on Amorgos every year © Robbie Lawrence

Feet on dry land at last, I stumble a few hundred metres along the port to the Pension Amorgos, old Kyria Maria’s place. My top-floor room, with its alcove bed and pistachio- and violet-painted shutters, is modestly sized, but has an enormous, whitewashed terrace looking out over the water. I wake to the tap of mast wires from the sailboats that have moored overnight, and the laughter of children as they cycle up and down the port.

Katapola is full of family-run guest houses, surviving thanks to the scarcity of luxury hotel developments. Amorgos offers its own singular brand of luxury in the form of Vorina Ktismata, a boutique hotel that crouches low in the hills on the edge of Chora. Its elemental architecture is indistinguishable from the rest of the medieval village, but its interiors are cutting-edge, with large windows looking out over the expanse of rock and sea. Airbnb hasn’t caught on here with the same voracity as on other islands, but a number of houses are available to rent, replete with antique furniture, lace curtains and complimentary psimeni raki, the sickly-sweet local liquor.

Athlete Nektaria Ntasiou at the Amorgos Diving Centre
Athlete Nektaria Ntasiou at the Amorgos Diving Centre © Robbie Lawrence

The 4th-century BC tower of Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity), named after a nearby Byzantine church
The 4th-century BC tower of Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity), named after a nearby Byzantine church © Robbie Lawrence

A bather at Agia Anna, a rocky inlet that is a popular swimming spot
A bather at Agia Anna, a rocky inlet that is a popular swimming spot © Robbie Lawrence

Thanks to Instagram, we all have a notion of the quintessential Cycladic village: white sugar-cube houses, royal-blue domes and lashings of hot-pink bougainvillea. Strip this down, remove the frills, and you have the Chora of Amorgos. After the 10-minute drive from Katapola, and the same number of hairpin bends, I struggle not to stall my rented Fiat Panda as I park on a steep slope beside the town hall. Outside, groups of young Greeks in identikit bandanas and Birkenstocks wait for the lumbering bus that ferries them along the island’s three roads. Behind them the mountains fade into one another, disappearing in a sherbet haze.

Girls fix their windswept hair in the pharmacy window before disappearing past the church into the village, where the main drag, less than 2m in diameter, snakes up, forking left and right along narrow stairwells, packed tight with spindly tables. As the sun goes down, the walls seem to close in, and the warmth of the day emanates from buildings and bodies. I head out of the narrow streets – where social distancing is near impossible – to Arbaroriza, a restaurant in a small square on the edge of the village. Above, a line of squat, wind-battered windmills stud a dramatic ridge that extends north, overlooking the seething waves far below.

One of the derelict windmills above Chora
One of the derelict windmills above Chora © Robbie Lawrence

Local resident Frank, a German artist
Local resident Frank, a German artist © Robbie Lawrence

Chora at sunset
Chora at sunset © Robbie Lawrence

To this day, there has not been a single case of coronavirus reported on Amorgos. Curfew and gathering restrictions imposed on islands such as Mykonos when cases spiked in August seem unimaginable here. But that’s not to say locals were oblivious to risks. Earlier that day I overheard a group of older islanders tut-tutting during their morning swim about the crowds of young people in Chora. Tourists on Amorgos are chiefly French or Italian, with the odd German here and there. This year they are scarce but, despite the pandemic, the island is full of young Greeks on university break or annual leave. 

“I like the outsiders; they are more calm,” says Iliana, who runs Arbaroriza. “Greeks are loud,” she laughs. Born in northern Greece, Iliana first visited Amorgos when her elder sister was working in a restaurant for the summer season. She began working summers herself, and fell in love with her now husband, Markos, the son of a local farmer. Iliana cooks with local products, but embellishes with a little more spice, a nod to her grandmother’s Turkish heritage. The dishes are simple: baked feta and homemade peach jam; grilled pork and unreasonably crisp potatoes; and the ambiguous “chickpeas in the oven”, a local staple that melts in your mouth and hums with the flavours of a hundred unidentifiable herbs.

Katerina, the owner of Moonbar in Xilokeratidi
Katerina, the owner of Moonbar in Xilokeratidi © Robbie Lawrence
The mountainside above Chora at sunset
The mountainside above Chora at sunset © Robbie Lawrence

The lack of development on Amorgos coupled with its hostile climate make for an abundance of uniquely potent herbs that grow on the mountainsides. A few businesses harvest wild sage, mint, oregano and thyme, creating packaged teas and essential oils to sell across Greece. Just off the port-front of Katapola, through a low archway, is the Amorgos Botanical Park and bar, set up by two young locals on the site of an old junkyard. Under the shade of plum and orange trees, Marios waters his tomatoes as he points out the herb varieties labelled and planted around the edge of the garden. His friend Rosa makes me a Gin Basil Smash with wild mint. In the evenings, Marios and his partner organise live music nights and film screenings under the trees.

I planned to return for a concert by a jazz trio, but got caught up at the Moonbar Katerina in Xilokeratidi, the village on the opposite side of the bay from Katapola. Beneath the old Almiriki tree, with its spindly branches and salt-caked leaves, sit the tanned hordes, fresh from the sea. Picking at dakos salads and sipping from brown bottles of Mamos beer, they watch the boats sway off the shore and fishermen detangle nets all afternoon long. The loudest table is that of Katerina, the landlady, who first sailed to Amorgos in 1991, looking to start a new life far from the land-locked village where she grew up. Surrounded by her young patrons, she recounts the bar’s origin story, her brown elbows flapping, long sand-coloured hair flying about her shoulders.

A stray cat at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa
A stray cat at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa © Robbie Lawrence
An Athens musician who tours the island during the summer
An Athens musician who tours the island during the summer © Robbie Lawrence

When Katerina arrived on the island at the age of 24, she was viewed as an outsider, and a threat to the status quo. For weeks she sat alone in her bar with no custom, until Captain Michalis, a formidable old fisherman and pillar of the community, wandered in. Her voice cracks with emotion as she recalls how the captain used to knock on her window to wake her up in the morning to make his coffee. He came every morning for seven years, and the day he didn’t, she knew he’d died.

Despite that frosty reception, Katerina respected the unwritten rules that govern the island. She explains that customs here are rooted in tradition, in the land, the sea and the church, not in politics or ideology. As the sun sets, its red reach smouldering on the horizon, Katerina beckons me inside and pours us each an unidentified concoction, covers the glasses and slams them against the bar. We toast, and she promises me more stories on my return. I ask what we just drank, and she replies, “You’ll feel it in an hour.”

Rosa, a bartender at Amorgos Botanical Park
Rosa, a bartender at Amorgos Botanical Park © Robbie Lawrence
Chora seen from the site of an ancient Minoan settlement
Chora seen from the site of an ancient Minoan settlement © Robbie Lawrence

Above Katapola looms a hill on whose summit once sat an ancient Minoan settlement, believed to be King Minos’s summer palace in the days when Amorgos was under Cretan rule. A single track snakes up the hill, from the top of which you see the western coast unfurl, its southern point faint in the distance. Apart from some rusting fences and a trestle table laden with pottery fragments, there is nothing to indicate the historical significance of the site. The crumbling walls, once a mighty complex of baths, temples and halls, are abandoned to the elements. To one side of the structure lie two enormous marble steps, leading up to a statue of Apollo. Only the sweeping robes of the sun god’s lower half remain. But as the sun beats down it’s easy to picture the steps gleaming white and new again, pillars and roof restored to shelter the lonely figure.

Over an eye-wateringly sweet confection of nuts, honey and pastry, I ask Popi Despotidi, the island’s deputy mayor for culture and tourism, about preservation of the ancient sites. She explains that among locals there’s a laissez-faire attitude towards remains of civilisations past. Those who do care are powerless to take action. Greece’s antiquities are managed by regional Ephorates, which are in turn overseen by a central office in Athens. Despotidi and her colleagues have had multiple meetings in the capital, but the pandemic scuttled any plans for archaeological surveyance.

The best preserved historical site on the island is the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, an architectural feat built into the cliff face 300m above the sea. Constructed in 1017 by a Byzantine emperor, the bright white structure is only visible from the sea, suspended between the water and sky like some surrealist dream. After 320 steps, I reach the entrance, where a local volunteer leads me further up a narrow tunnel-staircase into an antechamber whose walls are obscured by icons of Greek orthodox saints. Up another flight is the chapel itself, an Aladdin’s cave of gilt and gold. One display case is full of Casio watches. I look inquiringly at my guide. “Offerings,” he says simply. A small door leads to a tiny terrace, the view from which is sun-bleached; stepping out, I’m blinded by the high white walls and dazzle of the Aegean. The blue is endless, its aspect always shifting as though a wall of water were thundering towards me.

An abandoned car on the road between Katapola and Chora
An abandoned car on the road between Katapola and Chora © Robbie Lawrence
The line of old windmills above Chora
The line of old windmills above Chora © Robbie Lawrence

I leave as quickly as is polite and drive the steep descent to Agia Anna, a rocky inlet beneath the monastery, and a popular swimming spot among locals and nudists. From above I see the tanned bodies sprawled across the rocks, arms and feet protruding here and there from caves and boltholes offering precious centimetres of shade. A group of girls swim to an islet a few hundred metres out, climb to its highest point and issue siren calls to the boys perched above the rocky beach.

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This is what we all longed for, back in the suffocating heat and fumes of the Athens night: hours slinking lizard-like from sea to rock and back until the sun disappeared behind the cliffs and the island’s eastern shore was thrown into shade. As long as you can stare uninterrupted into the blue with the sun warm on your back, which island you choose is academic. Paradise is in the depth of the sea, the height of the rocks, the strength of the winds, and how far you are from home. 

Ferries travel to Katapola from Piraeus on the mainland and Mykonos (directferries.com). Pension Amorgos, one of many family-run rooms in Katapola, has double rooms at €80 a night (pension-amorgos.com). Vorina Ktismata in Chora has similar rooms and suites with kitchens for €210-310 (vorinaktismata.com). Larger properties, such as Tsalikas in Chora, are available to rent through Airbnb.



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Emerging Markets

Ukraine accuses Russia of blocking talks to ease military tensions

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Kyiv has accused Moscow of blocking attempts to begin talks aimed at calming military tensions sparked by the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has not received a response to his request for a telephone call with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, his spokesperson said, amid concerns from the US and other European powers that an escalation in military deployments could result in full-blown conflict.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 in fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s army for control of Donbas, a region in the east of the country bordering Russia. The fighting first erupted after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

“The request has been forwarded from the office of the president of Ukraine to the office of Vladimir Putin to have a conversation, a telephone talk. And we have not received an answer yet,” Zelensky’s spokesperson Iuliia Mendel said on Monday.

“The office of the president of Ukraine hopes that it doesn’t mean that Vladimir Putin refuses to have a dialogue with Ukraine,” she said, adding that the request was made on March 26.

Separately, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Russia had refused to engage “in consultations aimed at reducing security tensions” and boycotted an OSCE meeting on Saturday where the troop build-up was scheduled to be discussed.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky (above) made a request for a telephone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 26 © Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s spokesperson responded by saying that he was not aware of any recent requests for talks from Zelensky.

“In recent days, I have not seen any requests. I am not aware that there have been any requests in recent days,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“In terms of defusing tensions and preventing a potential war, Vladimir Putin always has something to say,” he added, when asked whether Putin had anything to say to his Ukrainian counterpart. “We hope that political wisdom will prevail in Kyiv, and the matter will not take a serious turn.”

Mendel said Russia had stationed more than 40,000 troops on the eastern border area and sent another 9,000 to Crimea, in addition to the 33,000 troops already there.

That build-up, supplemented by tanks and other armed vehicles, has led to accusations that Moscow plans some form of military intervention. The Kremlin said it is permitted to station its soldiers wherever it likes, and that they are no threat to any other country.

Both Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas accused the other side of sporadic violations of a ceasefire agreement over the weekend.

Kyiv says 28 of its troops have been killed so far this year, more than half the number who died over the whole of 2020.

Russian officials have dramatically increased their belligerent rhetoric towards Ukraine in recent weeks. Putin has warned that the situation could provoke a repeat of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, while his deputy chief of staff said any escalation by Kyiv would be “the beginning of the end” for the country and provoke from Russia “not a shot in the leg, but in the face”.

Ukraine has responded by calling on Nato to speed up its membership application, while US president Joe Biden has pledged his support to the country.

In addition to the US and European powers, concerns over the military build-up have drawn in regional power Turkey, which lies across the Black Sea from Crimea. The Nato member has deepened ties with Russia in recent years but opposes Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and in 2019 sold military drones to Kyiv.

Zelensky on Saturday held talks with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, who called for dialogue and for a peaceful resolution
in line with Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”. Those talks came a day after a telephone call between Erdogan and Putin, in which the Russian leader accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions”.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Ankara



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Technology will save emerging markets from sluggish growth

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The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’

Emerging economies struggled to grow through the 2010s and pessimism shrouds them now. People wonder how they will pay debts rung up during the pandemic and how they can grow rapidly as they did in the past — by exporting their way to prosperity — in an era of deglobalisation.

The freshest of many answers to this riddle is the fast-spreading digital revolution. Emerging nations are adopting cutting-edge technology at a lower and lower cost, which is allowing them to fuel domestic demand and overcome traditional obstacles to growth. Over the past decade, the number of smartphone owners has skyrocketed from 150m to 4bn worldwide. More than half the world’s population now carry the power of a supercomputer in their pockets.

The world’s largest emerging market has already demonstrated the transformative effects of digital technology. As China’s old rustbelt industries slowed sharply over the past decade, and ran up debts that threatened to explode in crisis only a few years ago, the booming tech sector saved the economy.

Now, often by adopting rather than innovating, China’s emerging market peers are getting a push from the same digital engines. Since 2014, more than 10,000 tech firms have been launched in emerging markets — nearly half of them outside China. From Bangladesh to Egypt, it is easy to find entrepreneurs who worked for Google, Facebook or other US giants before coming home to start their own companies.

As well as the so-called Amazon of China, there are Amazons of Russia, Poland, Latin America and south-east Asia. Local firms dominate the market for search in Russia, ride-hailing in Indonesia and digital payments in Kenya. 

By one key metric, the digital revolution is already as advanced in emerging economies as developed ones. Among the top 30 nations by revenue from digital services as a share of gross domestic product, 16 are in the emerging world. Indonesia, for example, is further advanced by this measure than France or Canada. And since 2017, digital revenue has been growing in emerging countries at an average annual pace of 26 per cent, compared with 11 per cent in the developed ones.

How can it be that poorer nations are adopting common digital technologies faster than the rich? One explanation is habit and its absence. In societies saturated with bricks-and-mortar stores and services, customers are often comfortable with and slow to abandon the providers they have. In countries where people have difficulty even finding a bank or a doctor, they will jump at the first digital option that comes along. 

Outsiders have a hard time grasping the impact digital services can have on underserved populations. Nations lacking in schools, hospitals and banks can quickly if not completely redress these gaps by establishing online services. Though only 5 per cent of Kenyans carry credit cards, more than 70 per cent have access to digital banking. 

The “digital divide” is narrowing in many places. Most of the big countries where internet bandwidth and mobile broadband subscriptions are growing fastest are in the emerging world. Last decade, the number of internet users doubled in the G20 nations, but the biggest gains came in emerging nations such as Brazil and India.

The digital impact on productivity, the key to sustained economic growth, is visible on the ground. Many governments are moving services online to make them more transparent and less vulnerable to corruption, perhaps the most feared obstacle to doing business in the emerging world.

Since 2010, the cost of starting a business has held steady in developed countries while falling sharply in emerging countries, from 66 per cent to just 27 per cent of the average annual income. Entrepreneurs can now launch businesses affordably, organising much of what they need on a smartphone. Lagos and Nairobi are rising as local fintech hubs, where leading executives vow to raise Africa’s “digital GDP” by widening access to internet financing.

It’s early days, too. As economist Carlota Perez has shown, tech revolutions last a long time. Innovations like the car and the steam engine were still transforming economies half a century later. Now, the fading era of globalisation will limit the number of emerging economies that can prosper on exports alone, but the era of rapid digitisation has only just begun. This offers many developing economies a revolutionary new path to catching up with the living standards of the developed world. 



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China’s wolf warriors refuse to back down

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Late last month the EU, acting in concert with the US, UK and Canada, imposed sanctions on four obscure Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been systematically detained over recent years.

China retaliated immediately, imposing counter-sanctions on 10 European individuals, including five EU parliamentarians from five different political parties.

In doing so President Xi Jinping’s administration threatened a contentious trade deal provisionally agreed on last year between the EU and China, despite US opposition. The sanctioned parliamentarians’ parties are now reluctant to start reviewing the deal unless Xi’s counter-sanctions are lifted.

Before Beijing imposed sanctions on the EU MPs, it was expected that the European parliament would eventually ratify Xi’s geopolitical coup, which had strong backing from France’s Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

But when Merkel and Xi spoke on Wednesday, China’s official account of the call did not mention the trade deal or Xinjiang.

“We had seven years of negotiations for the deal,” said Joerg Wuttke, head of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. “Now it looks like it will take another seven years.”

The Xinjiang sanctions exchange is just the latest diplomatic dispute that Xi’s pugnacious “wolf warrior” foreign ministry officials are embroiled in. Chinese diplomats are sparring with countries and organisations that Beijing enjoyed relatively good relations with during Donald Trump’s one-term presidency. But they are expressing no regrets.

Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef off the Philippines’ Palawan Island © Philippine Communications Operat/AFP

Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, set the tone for Beijing’s clashes with a long lecture to his US counterpart on March 18 in Alaska, where he told Antony Blinken that no country would ever again “speak to China from a position of strength”.

Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat who worked for Yang, said his former boss’s diatribe was “groundbreaking”. “Chinese leaders believe they have momentum and time is on their side,” he added. “Nothing can stop their rise.”

Chinese state media contrasted Yang’s comments with paintings of foreign colonial powers lording it over late Qing dynasty officials, who were repeatedly humbled in a series of conflicts with European, Japanese and American enemies.

The country’s “century of humiliation”, according to the Chinese Communist party, ended only after its revolutionary victory in 1949.

“China today is not the China of 1840,” Xu Guixiang, a senior party official in Xinjiang, said last week. “The days of Chinese people being bullied by the west have passed. We are not an easy target any more . . . We will fight tooth for tooth until the end.”

Many Chinese officials viewed Trump’s years in office as an unprecedented “strategic opportunity” to build bridges with Washington’s frustrated allies. But analysts said that, like Trump, those officials also believed that the Chinese Communist party could benefit domestically from diplomatic confrontations.

“Heated nationalism is good for strengthening the legitimacy and authority of the central government and [Xi],” said Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“It all comes back to [Xi’s] mentality and the course he has charted,” she added, especially as the CCP prepares to celebrate the centennial of its founding in July. “The party needs to demonstrate its strength and achievements. A soft approach is not going to work.”

Last week Beijing challenged comments by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general who had previously been criticised for his reluctance to confront Beijing. Tedros said that Chinese officials had withheld information from WHO experts investigating the origins of coronavirus.

“After coming under pressure from the Europeans, Canadians and Americans, Tedros didn’t want to give China a pass because that would have provoked a crisis with the west,” said a diplomat involved in the WHO’s deliberations.

“Meanwhile the Chinese had to stick to their rhetoric that ‘[Covid] is a bigger problem, we had it and we dealt with it, but now we have to look elsewhere [for its origin]. They have bats in Myanmar and Laos, too’,” the diplomat added.

“It also has to be seen in the context of what had just happened in Alaska where they said don’t lecture us and don’t talk down to us.”

Chinese diplomats have recently clashed with Manila, too, over an alleged incursion of Chinese fishing vessels in Philippine territorial waters, as well as Tokyo over Japan’s concerns about the Xi administration’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, warned his Japanese counterpart on Monday not to join US efforts targeting China.

“A certain superpower’s will does not represent the international community,” Wang said. “As a neighbour Japan needs to show at least a modicum of respect towards China’s internal affairs.”

Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, sees no end to such disputes. “Xi has said multiple times that Chinese officials and diplomats must unsheathe swords to defend the dignity of China,” he said. “The wolf warriors are just acting on Xi’s call to arms.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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