World

Top Russian nuclear scientists killed; Scott Morrison at Pacific Islands Forum summit in Tuvalu; Hong Kong protests continue as Chinese media gets involved; conspiracy theories surround death of well-connected sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China claims HK protests are ‘terrorism’

A woman surrounded by pro-democracy protesters passes her luggage to security guards at Hong Kong’s international airport this week.
Credit: Philip Fong / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Russia: In the “secret” city of Sarov, which hosts Russia’s main nuclear research program and is closed to foreigners, funerals were held on Monday for five of the country’s top scientists. The group died, possibly with two or more others, in a mysterious explosion at a missile testing site on August 8.

Shortly after the blast, a nearby city, Severodvinsk, reported a spike in radiation that lasted 40 minutes. Locals rushed to buy iodine, which can prevent damage from radiation, though the contamination was later deemed to be within safe limits.

At the funeral for the scientists, Alexei Likhachev, the head of Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, said they died “while testing a new special device”. The agency said the device included liquid propellant and a “nuclear isotope power source”. This prompted speculation that it may be linked to a new nuclear-powered cruise missile, known by NATO as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. Such missiles were contemplated by Washington during the Cold War but rejected as far too dangerous. However, Vladimir Putin last year said in his State of the Union speech that Russia had begun testing the “invincible” missile, which would have unlimited range and render American defence shields useless. An animation during the speech showed the missiles hitting the west coast of the United States.

Putin has repeatedly condemned NATO’s placement of defence systems in eastern Europe, leading to heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington. Two weeks ago, the US formally withdrew from a Cold War-era treaty banning intermediate-range missiles, citing Russian violations. Russia withdrew the following day. There are growing concerns about a fresh arms race.

On Monday, Donald Trump said in a tweet that the US was learning from the failed Russian “Skyfall” missile test. He claimed the US has “similar, though more advanced, technology”.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Tuvalu: This week, leaders from across the Pacific met for a Pacific Islands Forum summit in Tuvalu, where they were greeted by children sitting in a pool of water, singing “Save Tuvalu, save the world”.

Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,000, is not just one of the world’s tiniest nations but also one of the lowest-lying – its highest point is 4.5 metres above sea level. The rising seas threaten at least two of its nine populated islands, and it has been at the forefront of demands for global action on climate change.

Scott Morrison arrived in Tuvalu on Wednesday and was greeted by the partly submerged children. Australian leaders have a poor record of attending these meetings. Morrison missed last year’s meeting in Nauru, which occurred shortly after he became leader.

But he is determined to improve relations with Australia’s island neighbours through his so-called Pacific step-up, his signature foreign policy, which is intended to combat China’s growing influence in the region. His show of interest has been well received. But the difficulty is that Morrison, who once brought a lump of coal to question time, is unwilling to meet the principal demand from Pacific nations – that Australia make substantial cuts to its carbon emissions. Instead, Morrison this week offered $500 million over five years to assist Pacific nations to build resilience and adapt to climate change.

Enele Sopoaga, Tuvalu’s prime minister, led a chorus of criticism by Pacific leaders. “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing,” he said.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: When the pro-democracy protests started in Hong Kong in June, Chinese media provided little coverage, aside from attributing the demonstrations to foreign meddling. But, after the initial outbreaks of violence, including confrontations involving members of organised crime syndicates who may have been instructed by Beijing, the media has been featuring the tensions prominently and presenting the protests as the work of a small violent band of foreign-paid thugs.

On Monday, thousands of protesters flooded Hong Kong’s international airport and shut it down. China described the protesters as “terrorists” and deployed armoured personnel carriers to the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

The Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, reported: “No country can accept terrorist acts … ‘End violence and restore order’ is the most important, urgent and overriding task of Hong Kong at present.”

The protests were initially held to oppose a proposed extradition law but have gradually extended to demanding the resignation of the city’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, to denouncing the police, and to calling for “Democracy now” and “Free Hong Kong”.

On Tuesday, the last British governor of the former colony, Chris Patten, told BBC News that Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong would be a “catastrophe”. “What’s clearly needed is a process of reconciliation,” he said.

But such an outcome appears increasingly unlikely.

At a press conference this week, Lam backed the police, saying dialogue would only start after calm was restored. “Could we bear to push [our city] into an abyss where everything will perish?” she said.

On Chinese social media, people shared images of the violence and urged Beijing to act.

“Just send a few tanks over to clean them up,” said a commenter on Weibo on Tuesday.

SPOTLIGHT: Jeffrey Epstein

United States: Jeffrey Epstein is typically described as a financier, though nobody seems to know exactly how he amassed his enormous wealth. Yet a wide circle of people were apparently aware of his crimes. His arrest on charges of running a sex-trafficking scheme involving underage girls – and his suicide in a jail cell last weekend – have left a trail of inquiries that are set to shed light on his dealings and his offences, as well as his wealthy and powerful associates.

His arrest in July has already led to the resignation of Donald Trump’s labour secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, who, as an attorney, agreed to a disturbing plea deal in 2007 in which Epstein served just 13 months in jail on two prostitution charges.

Trump, too, was a former associate of Epstein’s, and, in 2002, gave an interview via speakerphone to a journalist for New York magazine that seemed to hint at knowledge of Epstein’s proclivities.

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years,” Trump said. “Terrific guy … It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” After the arrest, Trump said they had fallen out long ago.

Other notable associates of Epstein include Britain’s Prince Andrew, who allegedly had sex with a teenager who was forced into it by Epstein. Bill Clinton travelled four times on one of Epstein’s jets in 2002 and 2003 but said they only met twice and he was not aware of Epstein’s “terrible crimes”. Other associates included a former state governor and a former senator, and a team of assistants who allegedly enabled his sex trafficking.

And then there is the question of how Epstein, 66, was left alone in a high-security jail, or why guards did not regularly check on him as required. At least two investigations are under way, by the FBI and the Department of Justice. Remarkably, Trump shared a tweet implying the Clintons may have been involved in Epstein’s death, possibly trying to deflect attention from his own links to Epstein.

The US Attorney is continuing to investigate Epstein’s alleged offences, and a trove of fresh documents is due to be released, possibly within weeks.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "China claims HK protests ‘terrorism’". Subscribe here.

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