World

Boris Johnson aligns with Trump over leaks. Tribal killings in PNG. Staying shtum on China abuses. India aborts moon mission. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Boris Johnson feels bite of Brexit trade unease

Conservative MP and leadership contender Boris Johnson tastes an ice-cream while campaigning in south Wales.
Credit: Frank Augstein / AFP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Britain: During a state visit to London last month, Donald Trump described the ties between the United States and Britain as “the greatest alliance the world has ever known”. But the relationship is under growing strain, due to Trump’s interference in British politics as well as Britain’s refusal to back Trump’s positions on issues such as trade and the Iran nuclear deal.

In the past two weeks, ties have deteriorated further following a murky affair involving the leaking of cables written by Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, a 65-year-old career diplomat.

One cable from 2017 described Trump’s White House as “dysfunctional” and “inept”. The comments prompted a Twitter outburst from Trump, who called Darroch “a very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool” and said the administration would no longer deal with him. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, backed Darroch, saying diplomats should be free to give frank advice. But Darroch resigned, saying he could no longer carry out his job.

As with so much in present-day Britain, the leak appears to have been tied up in the divisive debate over Brexit and the country’s future.

Boris Johnson, an ardent Brexit supporter and the frontrunner to replace May later this week, was widely criticised after he initially refused to back Darroch. Johnson has been trying to keep Trump onside because he is urgently trying to clinch a free trade deal with Washington before October 31, when Britain is due to leave the European Union. This, he believes, will show the world that a post-Brexit Britain is open to trade. The leaks forced Johnson to choose between Trump and his country’s public servants.

Adding to the intrigue, the cables were leaked to Isabel Oakeshott, a pro-Brexit political journalist who is in a relationship with Richard Tice, the chairman of the Brexit Party. Police reportedly have identified the leaker but are yet to release a name.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: Earlier this month, reports emerged of a series of brutal massacres in Hela province in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The worst apparently occurred about 6am on July 8 in the small village of Karida, where 15 or 16 women and children were shot and stabbed and then dismembered.

Papua New Guinea’s police minister, Bryan Kramer, travelled to the region to investigate. He shared his observations last Sunday on Facebook, describing the violence as “the worst pay back killing in our country’s history”. In all, he said, the “horrific” killings left 32 people dead, including 23 women, two of whom were pregnant, and nine children.

Kramer noted the violence stemmed from a local tribal fight that has continued for almost two decades and that such conflicts in the highlands “have been going on since the beginning of time”. But, he added, the killing of innocent women and children had always been considered off limits.

“Last week’s merciless killings [have] changed everything,” he wrote. “The immediate concern is that it will become the new trend.”

The deployment of security forces appears to have stemmed the violence. Drones and satellites are being used to try to find the killers, who are on the run.

But broader questions remain about the causes. Guns have become more prevalent in recent years, making historical rivalries more deadly. Rates of unemployment and substance abuse are high. And, according to PNG’s new prime minister, James Marape, Hela province has 400,000 people but just 60 police officers.

Kramer is due to return to the province next week. He wrote in his report: “It is important that for the long term that we find a different way of resolving conflict that rejects revenge but encourages resolution through dialogue.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: The rise of China has been matched by a noticeable decline in the willingness of other countries to voice concerns about its abuses of human rights.

This has been particularly evident in the tepid responses by foreign leaders to the mass internment of more than a million Uygurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang region – believed to be the largest arbitrary detention since World War II. China’s oppressive measures in the region, including large-scale surveillance and DNA collection, have gradually worsened since deadly ethnic riots in 2009.

Earlier this month, a group of 22 countries decided to speak out. In a letter to the United Nations’ top human rights officials, the countries, including Japan, Germany, Britain and Australia, called on China to end its “disturbing” detentions and widespread surveillance and restrictions across Xinjiang.

In response, a group of 37 countries wrote a letter to defend China, saying it had made “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. The letter said China had set up “vocational education and training centres” to respond to the threats of terrorism and extremism. The signatories included Russia, North Korea, Syria, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

There were two noticeable absences from the list of countries that criticised China. No Muslim-majority countries were signatories, though several signed the letter defending China, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, did not sign either letter.

Another absentee was the US. This was because Trump last year withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, claiming it was biased and protected human rights abusers. At the time, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the council was “an exercise in shameless hypocrisy”.

SPOTLIGHT: India in space

India: On Monday, with just 56 minutes and 24 seconds to go before liftoff, India aborted its long-awaited mission to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation said a “technical snag” was detected in the 14-storey launch system for the ship, the Chandrayaan-2, which means “moon craft” in Sanskrit. A new launch date is yet to be announced.

The mission was designed to send a small six-wheeled rover for two weeks to explore possible deposits of ice inside several craters. This could potentially lead to discoveries that would allow humans to survive on the moon.

But the mission also had a broader purpose. India’s nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been promoting India’s space program as part of his efforts to stoke national pride and to adopt a more assertive role in international affairs. A moon landing would place India among a small group of global powers – the US, Russia and China – that have successfully carried out moon landings.

The venture is ambitious, especially for a country in which almost 200 million people are undernourished. But India’s space program is known for keeping its costs low. The Chandrayaan-2 mission plans to rely on the moon’s gravity to pull the craft into lunar orbit, helping to conserve fuel and to keep costs to about $US140 million. The total cost of the US’s Apollo program, including the moon landing, has been estimated at $US288 billion, adjusted for inflation. Trump says he wants to send astronauts back to the moon within five years.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Boris feels bite of Brexit trade unease". Subscribe here.

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