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Syria and Lebanon: Energy Challenges and Chances Remain High

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Syria’s energy landscape is slowly taking form after eight years into the conflict. Despite the fact that the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization has lost control of almost all territory that it once held, Syrian, non-Syrian actors and foreign powers are not ready to discuss creating a political deal. Instead, they continue to compete for control over energy infrastructure and trade in order to gain political leverage.

Oil middlemen facilitate fuel trade between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In light of the American declared position to withdraw military forces from northeastern Syria, the SDF and local interest groups in the oil producing areas have allegedly reached an understanding with the Assad government that allows reinstitution of regime control over oil and gas fields in exchange of security guarantees and a revenue-sharing arrangement that is beneficial for both sides.

It is estimated that the American-supported SDF produces approximately 50-70 thousand barrels of oil per day. From this, 40 thousand barrels are destined for the local market, and the rest are funneled to the Syrian regime.  The lack of investment however in the rehabilitation of energy infrastructure in northeast Syria impedes the increase of oil production. The absence of American investment in the U.S-controlled areas in northeast Syria is attributed to Washington’s reluctance to actively engage in nation-building and long-term construction. This reality has prompted China to dynamically pursue its Belt and Road Initiative throughout Syria and diversify Chinese foreign asset holdings in the context of new geopolitics of global infrastructure development countering American influence at regional and international levels.  In fact, Chinese investors have returned to Syria and inspect gas installations they held before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, while the China National Petroleum Corporation has stakes in the largest Syrian oil companies namely the Syrian Petroleum Company and Al Furat Petroleum.

In general, foreign production sharing contractors go back to Syria to inspect either oil facilities that are under the control of the SDF or gas facilities that are mostly under the control of the Syrian government. French Total and Royal Dutch Shell are two major oil production sharing agreement holders in facilities under the complete control of the American-supported SDF.

The U.S. leverage over Syria’s oil and gas fields through the American-supported SDF is important. This situation provides Washington a golden opportunity for strong bargaining power in negotiations with the Assad regime for Syria’s political future. Equally important, the energy industry—from equipment and sales to crude transportation—is heavily sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. U.S. sanctions on Syria’s energy industry predate the crisis, but their renewal has sent the signal to state and non-state actors that revenue generation from the black-market oil and gas trade will not be tolerated. European sanctions imposed in 2011 prohibit trade on equipment and technology for the oil and gas sectors including exploration and production, refining and gas liquefaction.      

In this complex setting, the Russian factor cannot be ignored. Russian companies like Gazprom contribute to the restoration of destroyed infrastructure and have upgraded the Banias refinery located in western Syria. Russian companies seem to lead investment in revitalizing Syria’s oil and gas sector. However, due to sanctions, it will be difficult for Damascus to find partners to buy its crude exports. 

Under the circumstances, it is estimated that the U.S. should implement its advanced technology to rehabilitate critical energy facilities in northeast Syria as a means to solidify control over vital infrastructure; this will grant Washington a major foothold in Syria and provide a bargaining power in future political negotiations with the Assad regime. Also, the U.S. in coordination with the EU should set up a governing body to ensure that the potential international safe zone in northern Syria does not exceed 10 km in depth. This would allow oil and gas facilities in northeast Syria to continue production without interruption and not deter investors from participating in the rehabilitation of the Syrian oil industry.

Coming to neighboring Lebanon, the Lebanese government launched the second international licensing round for geopolitically diverse blocks 1, 2, 5, 8 and 10. The country’s energy sector and regulatory framework have advanced with the adoption of the Petroleum Tax Law and the model Exploration and Production Agreement (EPA), as well as the 2017 decree that divided the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into ten blocks.

Notably, the Lebanese regulatory framework is still underdeveloped despite the fact that the first licensing round was unexpectedly transparent. For this reason, a sovereign wealth fund law and onshore exploration law should be enacted to ensure transparency and confidence in the Lebanese petroleum investment framework.  Transparency can be built on the standards set by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative that is a global standard promoting accountability in managing oil and gas revenues, and reforms for greater transparency. The recently enacted Law 84 is a step towards the right direction in that it aims to enhance transparency and fight corruption in the Lebanese oil and gas sector.

Overlapping maritime claims between Israel and Lebanon over an 854-square kilometer (km) maritime boundary continue to be a major challenge due to the high risk of escalation if exploration of block 9 were to proceed in the disputed area. American mediation led by then US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and now ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield after years of failed initiatives to help resolve the Israeli-Lebanese maritime dispute has been critical. According to leaked information, Lebanon has sought to ensure that Hezbollah’s arms are not linked to the maritime boundary demarcation negotiations and has rejected Israel’s proposal for a 6-month timeframe of talks.

Negotiations are currently stalled but it is with no doubt that they have so far been complex and difficult due to implications on the national security of both Israel and Lebanon. It is estimated that negotiations will likely start again in the coming months as Lebanon considers the process to be viable according to a statement made by the Lebanese prime minister during his August 15th official visit to Washington DC.

On another note, the newly founded East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which aims to create a regional gas market, facilitate the use of existing ones, and construct new infrastructure is a significant development. Interestingly, the exclusion of Lebanon from EMGF has prompted the country to not seek alternative membership in any new Russian or Iranian supported like-minded energy Forum. Instead, Lebanon advocates for the speedy development of three Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRUs) to secure swift access to new gas supplies and at relatively low cost. 

In terms of policies to be pursued, the US should continue to act as mediator and facilitator in the discussions to demarcate the disputed maritime area between Lebanon and Israel, allowing the two neighbors to embark on trans-boundary gas sharing initiatives on exploration and production. The resolution of the maritime boundary dispute will be immensely beneficial to Lebanon and the broader region.  Also, a sovereign wealth fund law and onshore exploration law should be enacted to ensure transparency, efficient management of gas revenues, and confidence in the Lebanese petroleum investment framework so that international energy companies are attracted to the country’s oil and gas sector.  

Evidently, Syria and Lebanon are players in a high-stakes energy game unfolding in the East Mediterranean. The way that both countries address challenges and explore chances will determine their engagement or exclusion from broad energy cooperation that increasingly defines the region and the policy agendas. In this respect, time is of the essense.

Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles

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Oil and the new world order: China, Iran and Eurasia

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The world oil market will undergo a fundamental change in the future. Choosing petrodollars or oil wars is no longer a question that can be answered. With the Strategic Agreement on the Comprehensive Economic and Security Partnership between China and Iran officially signed by the Foreign Ministers of both countries in Tehran on March 27, 2021, the petrodollar theorem is broken and the empire built by the US dollar is cracked.

This is because the petrodollar has not brought substantial economic development to the oil-producing countries in the Middle East during over half a century of linkage to the US dollar.

The Middle East countries generally have not their own industrial systems. The national economies are heavily dependent on oil exports and imports of cereals and industrial products. The national finances are driven by the US dollar and the financial system that follows it.

If the Middle East countries wanted to escape the control of the dollar, they should face the threat of war from the United States and its allies – things we have seen over and over again. Just think of Saddam Hussein being supported when he was fighting Iran and later being Public Enemy No. 1 when he started trading oil in euros.

The West has always wanted the Middle East to be an oil ‘sacred cow’ and has not enabled it to develop its own modern industrial system: the lack of progress in the Middle East was intended as long-term blackmail.

In the Western system of civilisation based on exchange of views and competition, the West is concerned that Iran and the entire Middle East may once again restore the former glory and hegemony of the Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires.

China is facing the exploitation of the global oil market and the threat of its supply disruption. Relying on industrial, financial, and military strength, Europe and the United States control the oil production capital, trade markets, dollar settlements, and global waterways that make up the entire petrodollar world order, differentiating China and the Middle East and dividing the world on the basis of the well-known considerations. You either choose the dollar or you choose war – and the dollar has long been suffering.

Just as in ancient times nomadic tribes blocked the Silk Road and monopolised trade between East and West, Europe and the United States are holding back and halting cooperation and development of the whole of Asia and the rest of the planet. Centuries ago, it was a prairie cavalry, bows, arrows and scimitars: today it is a navy ship and a financial system denominated in dollars.

Therefore, China and Iran, as well as the entire Middle East, are currently looking for ways to avoid middlemen and intermediaries and make the difference. If there is another strong power that can provide military security and at the same time offer sufficient funds and industrial products, the whole Middle East oil can be freed from the dominance of the dollar and can trade directly to meet demand, and even introduce new modern industrial systems.

Keeping oil away from the US dollar and wars and using oil for cooperation, mutual assistance and common development is the inner voice of the entire Middle East and developing countries: a power that together cannot be ignored in the world.

The former Soviet Union had hoped to use that power and strength to improve its system. However, it overemphasised its own geostrategic and paracolonial interests – turning itself into a social-imperialist superpower competing with the White House. Moreover, the USSR lacked a cooperative and shared mechanism to strengthen its alliances, and eventually its own cronies began to rebel as early as the 1960s.

More importantly – although the Soviet Union at the time could provide military security guarantees for allied countries – it was difficult for it to provide economic guarantees and markets, although the Soviet Union itself was a major oil exporter. The natural competitive relationship between the Soviet Union and the Middle East, as well as the Soviet Union’s weak industrial capacity, eventually led to the disintegration of the whole system, starting with the defection of Sadat’s Egypt in 1972. Hence the world reverted to the unipolarised dollar governance once the Soviet katekon collapsed nineteen years later.

With the development and rise of its economy, however, now China has also begun to enter the world scene and needs to establish its own new world order, after being treated as a trading post by Britain in the 19th century, later divided into zones of influence by the West and Japan, and then quarantined by the United States after the Second World War.

Unlike the US and Soviet world order, China’s proposal is not a paracolonial project based on its own national interests, nor is it an old-fashioned “African globalisation” plan based on multinationals, and it is certainly not an ideological export.

For years, there has been talk of Socialism with Chinese characteristics and certainly not of attempts to impose China’s Marxism on the rest of the world, as was the case with Russia. China, instead, wishes to have a new international economic order characterised by cooperation, mutual assistance and common development.

Unlike the Western civilisation based on rivalry and competition, the Eastern civilisation, which pays more attention to harmony without differences and to coordinated development, is trying to establish a new world economic order with a completely different model from those that wrote history in blood.

Reverting to the previous treaty, between the US dollar and the war, China has offered Iran and even the world a third choice. China seems increasingly willing to exist as a service provider. This seems to be more useful for China, first of all to solve its own problems and not to get involved in endless international disputes.

It can thus be more accepted by all countries around the world and unite more States to break the joint encirclement of the “democratic” and liberal imperialism of Europe and the United States.

Consequently, China and Iran – whose origins date back almost to the same period – met at a critical moment in history. According to the Strategic Agreement on Comprehensive Economic and Security Partnership between China and Iran, China will invest up to 400 billion dollars in dozens of oil fields in Iran over the next 25 years, as well as in banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, healthcare, 5G networks, GPS, etc.

China will help Iran build the entire modern industrial system. At the same time, it will receive a heavily discounted and long-term stable supply of Iranian oil. The Sino-Iranian partnership will lay the foundations for a proposed new world order, with great respect for Eastern values, not based on some failed, decadent and increasingly radicalising principles.

Faced with the value restraint and the pressure of sanctions from the United States and Europe, China is seeking to unite the European third Rome, Indo-European Iran, the second Rome and the five Central Asian countries to create a powerful geoeconomic counterpart in the hinterland of Eurasia.

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The stages and choices of energy production from hydrogen

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There are three main ways to use hydrogen energy:

1) internal combustion;

2) conversion to electricity using a fuel cell;

3) nuclear fusion.

The basic principle of a hydrogen internal combustion engine is the same as that of a gasoline or diesel internal combustion engine. The hydrogen internal combustion engine is a slightly modified version of the traditional gasoline internal combustion engine. Hydrogen internal combustion burns hydrogen directly without using other fuels or producing exhaust water vapour.

Hydrogen internal combustion engines do not require any expensive special environment or catalysts to fully do the job – hence there are no problems of excessive costs. Many successfully developed hydrogen internal combustion engines are hybrid, meaning they can use liquid hydrogen or gasoline as fuel.

The hydrogen internal combustion engine thus becomes a good transition product. For example, if you cannot reach your destination after refuelling, but you find a hydrogen refuelling station, you can use hydrogen as fuel. Or you can use liquid hydrogen first and then a regular refuelling station. Therefore, people will not be afraid of using hydrogen-powered vehicles when hydrogen refuelling stations are not yet widespread.

The hydrogen internal combustion engine has a small ignition energy; it is easy to achieve combustion – hence better fuel saving can be achieved under wider working conditions.

The application of hydrogen energy is mainly achieved through fuel cells. The safest and most efficient way to use it is to convert hydrogen energy into electricity through such cells.

The basic principle of hydrogen fuel cell power generation is the reverse reaction of electrolysis of water, hydrogen and oxygen supplied to the cathode and anode, respectively. The hydrogen spreading – after the electrolyte reaction – makes the emitted electrons reach the anode through the cathode by means of an external load.

The main difference between the hydrogen fuel cell and the ordinary battery is that the latter is an energy storage device that stores electrical energy and releases it when needed, while the hydrogen fuel cell is strictly a power generation device, like a power plant.

The same as an electrochemical power generation device that directly converts chemical energy into electrical energy. The use of hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity, directly converts the combustion chemical energy into electrical energy without combustion.

The energy conversion rate can reach 60% to 80% and has a low pollution rate. The device can be large or small, and it is very flexible. Basically, hydrogen combustion batteries work differently from internal combustion engines: hydrogen combustion batteries generate electricity through chemical reactions to propel cars, while internal combustion engines use heat to drive cars.

Because the fuel cell vehicle does not entail combustion in the process, there is no mechanical loss or corrosion. The electricity generated by the hydrogen combustion battery can be used directly to drive the four wheels of the vehicle, thus leaving out the mechanical transmission device.

The countries that are developing research are aware that the hydrogen combustion engine battery will put an end to pollution. Technology research and development have already successfully produced hydrogen cell vehicles: the cutting-edge car-prucing industries include GM, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other major international companies.

In the case of nuclear fusion, the combination of hydrogen nuclei (deuterium and tritium) into heavier nuclei (helium) releases huge amounts of energy.

Thermonuclear reactions, or radical changes in atomic nuclei, are currently very promising new energy sources. The hydrogen nuclei involved in the nuclear reaction, such as hydrogen, deuterium, fluorine, lithium, iridium (obtained particularly from meteorites fallen on our planet), etc., obtain the necessary kinetic energy from thermal motion and cause the fusion reaction.

The thermonuclear reaction itself behind the hydrogen bomb explosion, which can produce a large amount of heat in an instant, cannot yet be used for peaceful purposes. Under specific conditions, however, the thermonuclear reaction can achieve a controlled thermonuclear reaction. This is an important aspect for experimental research. The controlled thermonuclear reaction is based on the fusion reactor. Once a fusion reactor is successful, it can provide mankind with the cleanest and most inexhaustible source of energy.

The feasibility of a larger controlled nuclear fusion reactor is tokamak. Tokamak is a toroidal-shaped device that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma. Tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion energy. As of 2021, it is the leading candidate for a fusion reactor.

The name tokamak comes from Russian (toroidal’naja kamera s magnitnymi katuškami: toroidal chamber with magnetic coils). Its magnetic configuration is the result of research conducted in 1950 by Soviet scientists Andrei Dmitrievič Sakharov (1921-1989) and Igor’ Evgen’evič Tamm (1895-1971), although the name dates back more precisely to 1957.

At the centre of tokamak there is a ring-shaped vacuum chamber with coils wound outside. When energized, a huge spiral magnetic field is generated inside the tokamak, which heats the plasma inside to a very high temperature, which achieves the purpose of nuclear fusion.

Energy, resources and environmental problems urgently need hydrogen energy to solve the environmental crisis, but the preparation of hydrogen energy is not yet mature, and most of the research on hydrogen storage materials is still in the exploratory laboratory stage. Hydrogen energy production should also focus on the “biological” production of hydrogen.

Other methods of hydrogen production are unsustainable and do not meet scientific development requirements. Within biological production, microbial production requires an organic combination of genetic engineering and chemical engineering so that existing technology can be fully used to develop hydrogen-producing organisms that meet requirements as soon as possible. Hydrogen production from biomass requires continuous improvement and a vigorous promotion of technology. It is a difficult process.

Hydrogen storage focused on the discovery of new aspects of materials or their preparation is not yet at large-scale industrial level. Considering different hydrogen storage mechanisms, and the material to be used, also needs further study.

Furthermore, each hydrogen storage material has its own advantages and disadvantages, and most storage material properties have the characteristics that relate to adductivity and properties of a single, more commonly known material.

It is therefore believed that efforts should be focused on the development of a composite hydrogen storage material, which integrates the storage advantages of multiple individual materials, along the lines of greater future efforts.

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The advantages of hydrogen and Israel’s warnings

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Hydrogen is the most common element in nature. It is estimated to make up 75% of the mass of the universe. Except for that contained in air, it is primarily stored in water in the form of a compound, and water is the most widely distributed substance on earth.

Hydrogen has the best thermal conductivity of all gases – i.e. ten times higher than most of them – and it is therefore an excellent heat transfer carrier in the energy industry.

Hydrogen has good combustion performance, rapid ignition, and has a wide fuel range when mixed with air. It has a high ignition point and rapid combustion rate.

Except for nuclear fuels, the calorific value of hydrogen is the highest among all fossil and chemical fuels, as well as biofuels, reaching 142.35 kJ/kg. The calorie per kilogram of hydrogen burned is about three times that of gasoline and 3.9 times that of alcohol, as well as 4.5 times that of coke.

Hydrogen has the lightest weight of all elements. It can appear as gas, liquid, or solid metal hydride, which can adapt to different storage and transport needs and to various application environments.

Burning hydrogen is cleaner than other fuels –  besides generating small amounts of water – and does not produce hydrogen azide as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (harmful to the environment), hydrocarbons, lead compounds and dust particles, etc. A small amount of hydrogen nitride will not pollute the environment after proper treatment, and the water produced by combustion can continue to produce hydrogen and be reused repeatedly.

Extensive use practices show that hydrogen has a record of safe use. There were 145 hydrogen-related accidents in the United States between 1967 and 1977, all of which occurred in petroleum refining, the chlor-alkali industry, or nuclear power plants, and did not really involve energy applications.

Experience in the use of hydrogen shows that common hydrogen accidents can be summarized as follows: undetected leaks; safety valve failure; emptying system failure; broken pipes, tubes or containers; property damage; poor replacement; air or oxygen and other impurities left in the system; too high hydrogen discharge rate; possible damage of pipe and tube joints or bellows; accidents or tipping possibly occurring during the hydrogen transmission process.

These accidents require two additional conditions to cause a fire: one is the source of the fire and the other is the fact that the mixture of hydrogen and air or oxygen must be within the limits of the possibility of fires or violent earthquakes in the local area.

Under these two conditions, an accident cannot be caused if proper safety measures are established. In fact, with rigorous management and careful implementation of operating procedures, most accidents do not theoretically occur.

The development of hydrogen energy is triggering a profound energy revolution and could become the main source of energy in the 21st century.

The United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries have formulated long-term hydrogen energy development strategies from the perspective of national sustainable development and security strategies.

Israel, however, makes warning and calls for caution.

While the use of hydrogen allows for the widespread penetration of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind energy – which, due to storage difficulties, are less available than demand – Israeli experts say that, despite its many advantages, there are also disadvantages and barriers to integrating green hydrogen into industry, including high production costs and high upfront investment in infrastructure.

According to the Samuel Neaman Institute’s Energy Forum report (April 11, 2021; authors Professors Gershon Grossman and Naama Shapira), Israel is 7-10 years behind the world in producing energy from clean hydrogen.

Prof. Gideon Friedman, actingchief scientist and Director of Research and Development at the Ministry of Energy, explains why: “Israel has a small industry that is responsible for only 10% of greenhouse gas emissions – unlike the world where they are usually 20% – and therefore the problems of emissions in industry are a little less acute in the country.”

At a forum held prior to the report’s presentation, senior officials and energy experts highlighted the problematic nature of integrating clean hydrogen into industry in Israel.

Dr. Yossi Shavit, Head of the cyber unit in industry at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, outlined the risks inherent in hydrogen production, maintenance and transportation, including the fact that it is a colourless and odourless gas that makes it difficult to detect a leak. According to Dr. Shavit, hydrogen is a hazardous substance that has even been defined as such in a new regulation on cyber issues published in 2020.

Dr. Shlomo Wald, former chief scientist at the Ministry of Infrastructure, argued that in the future hydrogen would be used mainly for transportation, along with electricity.

Prof. Lior Elbaz of Bar-Ilan University said that one of the most important things is the lack of laws: “There is no specific regulation for hydrogen in Israel, but it is considered a dangerous substance. In order for hydrogen to be used for storage and transportation, there needs to be a serious set of laws that constitute a bottleneck in our learning curve.” “Israel has something to offer in innovation in the field, but government support will still be needed in this regard – as done in all countries – and approximately a trillion dollars in the field of hydrogen is expected to be invested in the next decade.”

Although the discussion was mainly about Israel’s delay in integrating clean hydrogen into the industry, it has emerged that Sonol (Israel’s fuel supplier ranking third in the country’s gas station chain) is leading a project, together with the Ministry of Transport, to establish Israel’s first hydrogen refuelling station. “We believe there will be hydrogen transportation in Israel for trucks and buses,” said Dr. Amichai Baram, Vice President of operations at Sonol. “Hydrogen-powered vehicles for the country – albeit not really cheap in the initial phase – and regulations promoted in the field, both for gas stations and vehicles.”

Renewables account for only 6% of Israel’s energy sources and, according to the latest plans published by the Ministry of Energy and adopted by the government, the target for 2030 is 30%.

This is an ambitious goal compared to reality, and also far from the goal of the rest of the countries in the world that aim at energy reset by 2050.

The authors of the aforementioned report emphasize that fully using the clean hydrogen potential is key to achieving a higher growth target for Israel.

According to recommendations, the State should critically examine the issue in accordance with Israel’s unique conditions and formulate a strategy for the optimal integration of hydrogen into the energy economy.

Furthermore, it must support implementation, both through appropriate regulations and through the promotion of cooperation with other countries and global companies, as well as through investment in infrastructure, and in research and development, industry and in collaboration with the academic world.

There are countries in Europe or the Middle East that have already started green energy production projects, and finally it was recommended to work to develop Israeli innovations in the field, in collaboration with the Innovation Authority and the Ministry of Energy.

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