World

Jacinda Ardern joins critics of the proposed film about Christchurch’s massacre. The International Criminal Court condemns Philippine state policy of attacking civilians in anti-drugs war. Naftali Bennett takes over as Israeli PM. By Jonathan Pearlman.

‘America is back’: Biden flexes muscles over China

United States President Joe Biden gestures as he arrives for the EU-US summit in Brussels this week.
Credit: Reuters / Yves Herman

Great power rivalry

Belgium: Since it was founded 72 years ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has focused on protecting Europe from threats that largely emerged from Moscow.

But on Monday the organisation, which now has 30 members, extended its area of concern to Asia as it declared – for the first time – that China is a security risk.

A communiqué released after the group met in Brussels cited China’s military expansion, use of disinformation, lack of transparency, and coercive state policies.

“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order,” it said.

NATO’s switch of focus came as Joe Biden travelled overseas for the first time as United States president. His visit to Europe was aimed at showing that, unlike Donald Trump, he is committed to supporting American alliances rather than isolationism. It was also aimed at rallying democracies
to co-operate in the global competition with China.

“Quite frankly, America is back,” Biden told reporters in Brussels.

The NATO summit followed a meeting in Cornwall of the leaders of the Group of Seven advanced economies, which also addressed concerns about China.

The G7 leaders, who were joined by the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, criticised China’s mass detentiosn of Uygurs and its crackdown against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, as well as calling for a new investigation into the origins of Covid-19. It also announced a new infrastructure fund to rival Xi Jinping’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.

On Tuesday, China criticised the NATO and G7 summits, accusing the US of trying to “create confrontation”.

“The era of one country or a bloc of countries dictating world affairs is over,” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters. 

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: A planned movie about Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019 has faced heavy criticism – including from Ardern – over its focus on
a “white saviour” narrative rather than the victims.

The New Zealand prime minister, who is set to be played by Rose Byrne, said it was “very soon and very raw” to proceed with a film about the attacks, in which an Australian-born white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslims at two mosques.

“There are plenty of stories from March 15 that could be told, but I don’t consider mine to be one of them,” she said.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie will present an “inspirational story about the young leader’s response to the tragic events”. Its slated title is They Are Us, which references a line from a speech by Ardern.

Mohamed Hassan, a New Zealand journalist and poet, said the proposed movie was “obscene and grotesque”.

“You do not get to turn this into a White Saviour narrative,” he said in a tweet. “This pain is still fresh and real.”

A petition to shut down the production attracted 60,000 signatures within days, and Christchurch’s mayor said crews working on the film would not be welcome in the city.

On Monday, Philippa Campbell, a producer on the project, announced she was resigning, saying the events were “too raw for film”.

Aya Al-Umari, whose brother was killed in the attack, said in a tweet: “I hold a lot of gratitude to Jacinda, but like she said it’s not the story that should be told.”

Democracy in retreat

Philippines: In December 2016, Christine de Juan, who was then 12 years old, was at home in Quezon City in the Philippines when five police officers burst into the house. They pushed her father, Constantino de Juan, into an armchair, face first, with his knees on the cushion as an officer pressed down on his neck. According to Christine, she held onto her father, who pleaded with the officers to arrest him rather than execute him. An officer tried to force her outside, but she was still in the room to see police shoot her father in the back of the head and the chest. In an incident report, police said de Juan was a drug pusher and that he had suddenly pulled a gun, leaving the officers “no other option but to retaliate”.

On Monday, the shooting of de Juan, who was 37 years old, was cited by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, who requested that the court launch an investigation into Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”.

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed,” Bensouda, whose term expired on Tuesday, said in a statement.

The court has completed a preliminary report into the mass killings by police and their associates from 2016 to 2019, during which time the estimated number of civilians killed was 12,000 to 30,000. The report found the killings were not “random incidents” but involved similar modus operandi, including shootings at close range of victims, who were often drug users or small-time dealers.

“The plethora of public statements made by Duterte and other Philippine government officials … indicate a State policy to attack civilians,” the report said.

Duterte’s government withdrew from the court in 2019, but the court has ruled it has jurisdiction over crimes committed before a state’s withdrawal.

Duterte’s spokesperson said on Tuesday that the president will “never co-operate” with the court.

Spotlight: New Israeli PM

Israel: Naftali Bennett, a former technology entrepreneur, was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister this week, ending the 12-year reign of his former political mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett, whose right-wing party won only seven seats in the 120-member Knesset, is due to serve for two years and then rotate the leadership with Yair Lapid, a former news anchor and centrist.

The unlikely coalition led by Bennett and Lapid includes eight parties that represent a wide range of political views. It includes an Islamist party, the first openly gay party leader, the first Ethiopian-born Israeli to have served as a minister, and Bennett, the first prime minister who is religiously observant. The new government was approved by a 60-59 vote in the Knesset, ending a stalemate in which neither Netanyahu nor his opponents were able to form a majority after three successive elections.

Bennett, who had previously offered to support Netanyahu if he could form a coalition, told the Knesset: “Don’t dance on the pain of others. We are not enemies; we are one people.”

On Wednesday, the three-day-old government ordered air strikes against Gaza after Hamas launched incendiary balloons that started fires in Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, had earlier threatened to retaliate against a march by far-right Jewish nationalists through Palestinian parts of Jerusalem. The attacks on Wednesday were the first since a truce ended an 11-day conflict last month that killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

The Bennett–Lapid coalition is widely expected to collapse before serving a full four-year term, but its fragility is also seen as a potential asset, as many of its members face political obscurity if it fails.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for a total of 15 years, continues to lead Likud, the largest party. “We’ll be back,” he told the Knesset. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "‘America is back’: Biden flexes muscles over China".

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