Your Monday Briefing: A Testy Exchange Between the U.S. and China

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Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said that the U.S. believes that China was considering giving Russia weapons and other lethal aid. He warned China that doing so “would cause a serious problem” for its already-strained relations with the U.S.

The comments came a day after he had a testy exchange with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, at an annual security conference in Munich. It was the first high-level diplomatic exchange between the two sides since a Chinese spy balloon was found flying over the U.S.

Hours before the meeting, Wang called the U.S. decision to shoot the balloon down “absurd and hysterical.” He doubled down on China’s claim that the balloon had been a “civilian” research craft that was blown off course. In the meeting, the U.S. said, Blinken said that the flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the U.S. “must never happen again.” After, he said that there had been “no apology” from Wang.

Analysis: Blinken’s comments underscored concerns that Russia was increasingly turning to China, Iran and North Korea for military supplies.

What’s next: After the balloon flight, Blinken canceled a visit to China, which would have been the first in years by a secretary of state. Neither country said anything about a new date for the trip.

The competition for “near space”: The U.S. and China are testing new high-altitude defense systems that sit below orbiting satellites. American officials worry that China is farther along. 

Friday will mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the past year, the military has suffered setback after setback. But President Vladimir Putin has used the war to become even more dominant at home.

From the beginning, Putin cast the invasion as an almost holy war for Russia’s identity. He has continually compared it to the fight against the Nazis — one exhibit at a museum in Moscow is titled “NATOzism” — and has repeatedly said Russia is fighting the West’s efforts to force it to accept homosexuality.

The mind-set has seeped into daily life. Schoolchildren learn that Russia has always liberated humanity from “aggressors who seek world domination,” and collect cans to make candles for soldiers. Museums and theaters, once islands of artistic freedom, have lost that status. “Liberalism in Russia is dead forever, thank God,” said Konstantin Malofeyev, an ultraconservative business tycoon whom the Kremlin once kept at arm’s length.  

But life has otherwise carried on for most Russians. The economy has suffered much less under sanctions than analysts predicted. “One of the scariest observations, I think, is that for the most part, nothing has changed for people,” an educator said. “This tragedy gets pushed to the periphery.” 

The West: Leaders pledged to support Ukraine for “as long as necessary.”

One fighter: A teacher left her classroom to defend Ukraine. Follow her year in photographs.

Motoko Rich, our Tokyo bureau chief, spoke with The Morning about the demographic crisis looming in South Korea, China and especially Japan, where almost a third of the population is over 65. (For comparison, in the U.S. that number is about 17 percent.)

She spoke about the underlying reasons, the possible solutions and the isolation that older people face when their children move away to cities. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

I understand why an aging population poses challenges within a country. What does it mean for people living elsewhere?

It’s coming for you. Population growth in the U.S. is at extremely low levels. Italy’s population is aging at the fastest rate in the West. Other countries will look toward Asia and learn from it. They’ll see what to do or what not to do.

You can compare the issue to how people used to view climate change: It was happening for many years, but we weren’t paying attention. Societies need to plan for aging, and they’re not well set up to do so. It’s not an in-your-face crisis — it’s a slow-rolling crisis.

Many countries on Europe’s formerly communist eastern fringe have wrestled with what to do with massive structures left over from a past most people would like to forget.

In Albania’s capital, a “scary” concrete and glass pyramid was built in the 1980s as a shrine to Enver Hoxha, a dead tyrant, and then fell into disrepair. Now, it’s being turned into “a celebration of capitalism, jobs and the future,” the city’s mayor said.

Heat and drought forced cotton farmers in Texas to abandon 74 percent of their planted crops last year. The loss, one of the biggest on record, has pushed up the price of everyday items, from tampons (13 percent) to cloth diapers (21 percent). To compare: The overall U.S. inflation rate was 6.5 percent.

Halfway across the world in Pakistan, the world’s sixth-largest producer of upland cotton, severe flooding worsened by climate change destroyed half of its cotton crop.

The crop failures are examples of how global warming is a “secret driver of inflation,” one market researcher said: Climate change exacerbates extreme weather, which can impact production. Shortages can reshape daily costs in ways that consumers may not realize.

Cotton is a good “bellwether crop,” an expert in supply chain logistics said, because it responds immediately to weather. And disruptions will only get worse. By 2040, half of the regions where cotton is grown will face a “high or very high climate risk” from extreme weather, a nonprofit group said.

That’s it for today’s briefing. See you next time. — Amelia

P.S. Listen to the trailer for Serial Productions’ latest Times podcast, “The Coldest Case in Laramie.”

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