World

Australia’s joint war games. Vanuatu deports Chinese citizens. Greek election results. Ebola rages in Democratic Republic of the Congo. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Violence compounds DRC Ebola outbreak

Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepare to escort health workers attached to Ebola response programs in Butembo, a city in the country’s north-east.
Credit: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Australia: Every two years, American and Australian forces hold a joint training exercise, which involves tens of thousands of soldiers conducting large-scale war simulations, typically in central Queensland. But the allies now appear to have a new unwanted partner – China.

In the lead-up to this year’s exercise, which started on Thursday, a Chinese spy ship made its way to international waters north of Australia to monitor the activities. Two years ago, at the previous exercise, the same model of Chinese reconnaissance ship also arrived off Australia.

Yet, United States and Australian officials remained decidedly relaxed.

Australian Lieutenant-General Greg Bilton told reporters last weekend: “It is in international waters. They have the right to sail there.”

China’s undisguised interest in the war games reflects its growing rivalry with the US for dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. The region’s two great powers are locked in a worrying contest that could easily spill over into conflict. Beijing wants to show the US, Australia and their other chosen participants at this year’s exercises – notably Japan – that China’s reach and interests are extending.

The US has conducted similar spying operations on rivals for years. And Australia has sent warships to patrol the South China Sea, most of which China claims. China tends to respond aggressively to such activities, shadowing ships or, recently, reportedly pointing lasers at Australian Navy helicopter pilots. This may also explain the calm Australian response: it wants to send a message that surveillance and patrols, as long as they comply with the law of the sea, are best tolerated as necessary features of global competition. The hope is that China, a fast-rising power, will soon learn and abide by the rules of the game.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Vanuatu: On July 5, six Chinese citizens living in Vanuatu were marched onto a tarmac in Port Vila and escorted by plain-clothes Chinese officials and local police onto a waiting private jet, which deported them back to China.

According to Vanuatu Daily Post reporter Dan McGarry, Chinese authorities had told Vanuatu the five men and a woman were wanted over a pyramid scheme they were running from a building in Port Vila. The six had been detained in the building for about a week by Vanuatu police, who apparently remained outside with 11 Chinese officials inside. The six were not charged by Vanuatuan police or allowed access to lawyers.

“It appears Chinese authorities have succeeded in placing Chinese law and legal standards above those of Vanuatu,” McGarry wrote. “This is sure to be a worrying development for political or religious dissidents, or indeed anyone who raises the ire of authorities in Beijing.”

On Tuesday, Vanuatu’s internal affairs minister, Andrew Napuat, denied Vanuatu’s sovereignty had been violated. He said officials oversaw the arrests and insisted on the use of a charter jet to enable a direct flight to China.

But the incident has added to concerns about China’s growing influence in the South Pacific and about the willingness of small island states to ignore local law and procedure to accommodate Beijing.

Two years ago, 77 Chinese nationals were deported from Fiji and were shown on Chinese media wearing hoods and handcuffs and flanked by hundreds of uniformed officials on a plane. Fiji police had agreed to the deportation request from China, which accused the group of online and phone fraud. At the time, Vanuatu’s government said it would never allow such deportations.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Greece: Last Sunday, Alexis Tsipras, the 44-year-old head of the self-proclaimed radical left-wing Syriza party, lost an election to a figure who seems his opposite – Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a Harvard-educated former McKinsey consultant and head of the conservative New Democracy party.

Mitsotakis’s party won about 40 per cent of the vote and a small majority in the 300-seat parliament, compared with 32 per cent and 86 seats for Syriza. The fascist Golden Dawn party, which had 18 MPs after winning 7 per cent of the vote in 2015, fell just short of the 3 per cent of votes required to gain seats.

Mitsotakis’s victory was widely seen as heralding a turn from populism towards the mainstream. But, in many ways, this shift began four years ago, shortly after Tsipras took office.

In 2015, Greece was on the verge of collapse. Shops were running out of medicine and food, banks had almost no money and the government faced crippling debt. The Greek people, having endured years of recession, elected Tsipras, who pledged to resist the further austerity measures being demanded by other European leaders.

But Tsipras then performed a spectacular reversal. He abandoned his defiant rhetoric, signed on to harsh new austerity measures, cut welfare and pension payments and developed cosy ties with the wealthy oligarchs whom he had pledged to oppose.

Stability has returned, the bailouts have ended and tourists and some of the 500,000 people who fled during the crisis are returning. But poverty is widespread, and unemployment is still at 18 per cent, the highest in the European Union. Voters, angry at high taxes and the languishing economy and the broken promise, turned to Mitsotakis, the son of a former prime minister and a pro-business, EU-backing centrist.

“A painful cycle has closed,” Mitsotakis claimed after his victory.

SPOTLIGHT: Ebola

Democratic Republic of the Congo: For more than two decades, the lush, resource-rich eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been torn apart by war and ethnic violence, largely spurred on by the instability that set in after the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. In the past month alone, fighting between two rival ethnic groups in Ituri province has seen 300,000 people flee their homes. Villages have been razed in brutal massacres described by the DRC’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, earlier this month as “attempted genocide”.

But this region is now also facing a worsening threat from a year-long Ebola outbreak. This week, the World Health Organization said 2428 people have contracted the virus and 1641 have died. It has been one of the worst outbreaks of Ebola, which was discovered in 1976 and led to more than 11,000 deaths in West Africa from 2014 to 2016.

The virus has already crossed the border to Uganda. There are fears it could spread to the city of Goma, where a million people live. From there, it could reach the refugee camps in South Sudan.

The main obstacle to controlling the latest outbreak has been violence and lawlessness, including attacks on health centres. A lack of public attention has also made it harder to attract donor funding and ensure adequate provisions of vaccines and treatment centres.

Marie-Claire Kolie, a doctor running a WHO centre in eastern DRC, said the violence often forced health workers to “abandon our patients”. “You’re there, fighting to save someone you think you can save and all of a sudden they tell you the threat is too great, and you have to retreat,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “If it weren’t for [the conflict], I think with all the new technology we would be able to stop this outbreak quickly.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Violence compounds DRC Ebola outbreak". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.