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Beijing huddles with friends, seeks to fracture U.S.-led ‘clique’

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By Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is shoring up ties with autocratic partners like Russia and Iran, as well as economically dependent regional countries, while using sanctions and threats to try to fracture the alliances the United States is building against it.

Worryingly for Beijing, diplomats and analysts say, the Biden administration has got other democracies to toughen up to a rising, more globally assertive China on human rights and regional security issues like the disputed South China Sea.

“China has always resolutely opposed the U.S. side engaging in bloc politics along ideological lines, and ganging up to form anti-China cliques,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters.

“We hope relevant countries see clearly their own interests…and are not reduced to being anti-China tools of the U.S.”

After last month’s stormy talks between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Beijing also appeared to engage more urgently with countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are also on the wrong end of U.S.-led sanctions.

COLD COMFORT

“China is very worried about U.S. alliance diplomacy,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, pointing to what he calls attempts to “huddle for warmth” with governments shunned by the West.

Days after the Alaska meeting, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, received Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who called for Moscow and Beijing to push back against what he called the West’s ideological agenda.

A week later, Wang flew to Iran and signed a 25-year economic pact, which Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong said “effectively exposes every Chinese company participating to direct or indirect U.S. sanctions.”

President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, exchanged messages with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling for a deeper partnership with another country whose ambitions for nuclear arms has drawn sanctions.

China is also wooing its economically dependent neighbours. Wang hosted foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea in China’s southeastern Fujian province in recent weeks.

Li said Beijing will be holding out promises to help these countries revive their economies after the COVID-19 pandemic, making them think twice about siding with the United States.

After Philippines diplomats and generals accused China of sending militia-manned vessels into their waters, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was not going to let territorial disputes in the South China Sea get in the way of working with China on vaccines and economic recovery.

BUILDING BLOCS

Biden has continued to pressure Beijing on many of the same issues the Trump administration did, but with a more alliance-focused strategy.

At a meeting between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday, the two countries presented a united front against China’s assertiveness, on issues ranging from the disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, to rights issues in China’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang region.

Last month, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions over reports of forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang region, while over a dozen countries jointly accused China of withholding information from an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and France all recently joined the United States in sending warships through the disputed South China Sea, or announced plans to do so.

Washington also said it wants a “coordinated approach” with allies on whether to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid concerns over human rights violations, particularly related to the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

BREAKING THE ‘CLIQUE’

China has responded angrily to shows of unity by Washington’s allies, with its diplomats dubbing Japan a “vassal” and Canada‘s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog” of the United States.

China’s strategy to weaken this unity revolves around encouraging U.S. allies to engage independently with Beijing, and put the economic benefits first, while punishing them if they engage in joint-action against China.

Beijing responded to the EU’s sanctions of Chinese officials over Xinjiang with disproportionately harsh counter-sanctions, analysts said, potentially torpedoing a long-awaited investment agreement.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Beijing is prepared to sacrifice economic benefits for core interests if they are threatened by the U.S.-EU alliance.

Xi drove home the message in a recent phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, telling her that he hoped “the EU will make a correct judgment on its independence”.

But China still needs European technology and investment, said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.

“They still talk to us, despite the sanctions, business keeps going, and that’s very reassuring.”

Beijing has not given up persuading Washington that cooperation is better than competition, as demonstrated last week when it assured U.S. climate envoy John Kerry of support for Biden’s virtual climate summit this week.

“China hopes Washington can appreciate that it is in U.S. interests to have China as a friend rather than as a foe,” said Wang Wen, a professor at the Chongyang Institute of the Renmin University of China.

 

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Belarusian President signs decree to amend emergency transfer of power

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a decree allowing the transfer of presidential power to the security council if he is murdered or otherwise unable to perform his duties, state Belta news agency reported on Saturday.

Lukashenko said in April he was planning to change the way power in Belarus is set up.

Previously, if the president’s position became vacant, or he was unable to fulfil his duties, power would be transferred to the prime minister until a new president took oath.

 

(Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Scottish nationalists vow independence vote after election win

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By Russell Cheyne

GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) -Pro-independence parties won a majority in Scotland’s parliament on Saturday, paving the way to a high-stakes political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the result meant she would push ahead with plans for a second independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic was over, adding that it would be absurd and outrageous if Johnson were to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.

“There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson, or indeed for anyone else, seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future,” Sturgeon said.

“It is the will of the country,” she added after her Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned for a fourth consecutive term in office.

The British government argues Johnson must give approval for any referendum and he has repeatedly made clear he would refuse. He has said it would be irresponsible to hold one now, pointing out that Scots had backed staying in the United Kingdom in a “once in a generation” poll in 2014.

The election outcome is likely to be a bitter clash between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson’s United Kingdom-wide administration in London, with Scotland’s 314-year union with England and Wales at stake.

The nationalists argue that they have democratic authority on their side; the British government say the law is with them. It is likely the final decision on a referendum will be settled in the courts.

‘IRRESPONSIBLE AND RECKLESS’

“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Johnson told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Alister Jack, the UK government’s Scotland minister, said dealing with the coronavirus crisis and the vaccine rollout should be the priority.

“We must not allow ourselves to be distracted – COVID recovery must be the sole priority of Scotland’s two governments,” he said.

The SNP had been hopeful of winning an outright majority which would have strengthened their call for a secession vote but they looked set to fall one seat short of the 65 required in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, partly because of an electoral system that helps smaller parties.

Pro-union supporters argue that the SNP’s failure to get a majority has made it easier for Johnson to rebut their argument that they have a mandate for a referendum.

However, the Scottish Greens, who have promised to support a referendum, picked up eight seats, meaning overall there will be a comfortable pro-independence majority in the Scottish assembly.

Scottish politics has been diverging from other parts of the United Kingdom for some time, but Scots remain divided over holding another independence plebiscite.

However, Britain’s exit from the European Union – opposed by a majority of Scots – as well as a perception that Sturgeon’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis well, along with antipathy to Johnson’s Conservative government in London, have all bolstered support for the independence movement.

Scots voted by 55%-45% in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, and polls suggest a second referendum would be too close to call.

Sturgeon said her first task was dealing with the pandemic and the SNP has indicated that a referendum is unlikely until 2023. But she said any legal challenge by Johnson’s government to a vote would show a total disregard for Scottish democracy.

“The absurdity and outrageous nature of a Westminster government potentially going to court to overturn Scottish democracy, I can’t think of a more colourful argument for Scottish independence than that myself,” she said.

(Writing by Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill;Editing by Gareth Jones, Helen Popper, Christina Fincher and Giles Elgood)

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Canada promises two Arctic icebreakers in pre-election job boost

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Canada on Thursday promised to build two Arctic ice breakers and create hundreds of jobs in two politically influential provinces that will help decide an election considered likely this year.

The Liberal government, citing the need to increase Canada‘s footprint in the resource-rich Arctic as global warming opens up the region, said at least one ship would be ready by 2030.

“(This) will give Canada a year-round presence in the Arctic to help … safeguard our marine environments, ensure the safe and efficient movement of ships, and protect our borders,” Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a statement.

Ottawa said each ship will generate 300 jobs and create another 2,500 positions in various supply chains. One vessel will be built in Quebec’s Davie shipyard and the other by Seaspan in British Columbia.

The two provinces together account for 120 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and are crucial to the fortunes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who aides say is likely to call an election by end-2021.

Yves-Francois Blanchet, leader of the opposition Bloc Quebecois, dismissed the announcement as electoral politics, saying polls suggested some senior Quebec Liberals could lose their seats.

The ice breaker project has been hit by several delays since the previous Conservative government first announced it in 2008.

Officials declined to say how much each vessel would cost but said it would exceed the most recent estimate of C$1.3 billion ($1.1 billion), which was made in 2012.

The 150-meter (490 feet) ships will weigh 23,700 tonnes and – unlke Canada‘s sole existing ice breaker – are designed to operate year-round throughout the Arctic.

Russia and the United States are the other major Arctic players while China says the region is of strategic interest.

($1 = 1.2193 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio)

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