World

Emmanuel Macron plays mediator over Iran at G7. Indonesia’s capital to move from Jakarta. Australian citizen Yang Hengjun charged with espionage. The Amazon in flames. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Macron’s G7 bid to ease US, Iran tensions

United States president Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron during the closing press conference of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.
Credit: Michael Kappeler / picture alliance via Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

France: Emmanuel Macron invited various guests, including Scott Morrison and India’s Narendra Modi, to last weekend’s meeting of leaders of the world’s seven largest advanced economies. But one guest came as a surprise: Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran.

The inclusion of Zarif was a typically brazen move by Macron, who is pushing for the United States and Iran to end their nuclear standoff. Donald Trump last year withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, leading to heightened tensions that resulted in Iran obstructing ships carrying oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump did not meet with Zarif but was apparently forewarned of the visit. After meeting Zarif, Macron immediately briefed Trump, who appeared unfussed.

Speaking to reporters, Trump said he was not seeking regime change in Iran and was willing to meet Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. “We’re looking to make Iran rich again,” he said.

Rouhani initially agreed to a meeting but, facing pressure from hardliners, changed tack on Tuesday and insisted Washington first end sanctions.

Morrison announced last week he would send Australian forces to join a US-led operation to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. On Wednesday, an Iranian official, Kamal Dehghani Firouzabadi, criticised Australia’s involvement, suggesting it was an endorsement of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Morrison said he supported the nuclear deal, albeit reluctantly, and insisted the deployment was unrelated to the nuclear tensions.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: Aside from its appalling traffic, poor air quality and unreliable supply of clean water and electricity, Jakarta’s problem is that it is sinking. Parts of the city are dropping at a rate of up to 25 centimetres a year, causing buildings to disappear and leaving coastal neighbourhoods subject to regular flooding. Rising sea levels are increasing the threat, as is a fast-growing population, which is set to make greater Jakarta the world’s biggest city by 2030.

Earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo approved a proposal to move the capital. On Monday, he confirmed that a site had been found on the island of Borneo. He said the chosen site, about 1300 kilometres from Jakarta, had the advantage that, unlike much of Indonesia’s territory, it was not prone to “floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, volcanoes or mudslides”.

The proposal also fits well with Widodo’s commitment to invest in infrastructure to boost jobs and ease congestion and pollution in big cities.

But large-scale projects do not always end up as planned in Indonesia, where they can become entangled in domestic political disputes and corruption and funding issues.

Construction of the $US33 billion project is due to start in 2021. The country’s 1.5 million government workers will start moving to the new capital in 2024 – the year in which Widodo’s presidency ends.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: Seven months ago, Yang Hengjun, a novelist and former Chinese diplomat whose online political writings saw him labelled as a “democracy peddler”, was arrested by security agents at Guangzhou airport after arriving from New York. On Tuesday, Yang, who has been an Australian citizen since 2002, was charged with espionage.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said Yang was not an Australian spy and there was no evidence he had spied for any other country. In a strongly worded statement, she said the government was “very concerned and disappointed”, adding that Yang had been held in “harsh conditions” and had not been allowed family visits or access to his lawyer.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry hit back, saying it “deplores” the comments from Payne. A spokesperson, Geng Shuang, said Yang was in good physical condition and urged Australia not to interfere.

Yang, who is 54, moved to Australia with his family in 1999 and wrote three spy novels before completing a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney, which examined the tensions between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese online reporters and bloggers. He later became active as an online journalist and attracted a strong following for his writing supporting Chinese democratisation.

According to an account in The Conversation by Yang’s PhD supervisor Feng Chongyi, Yang was briefly detained in China in 2011 and later repackaged his advocacy as promoting “socialist core values”. Bans on several of his blogs were then lifted, which made him think he could safely keep travelling to China.

Feng and other analysts believe Yang’s fate now depends on the amount of pressure Australia and the rest of the international community can exert on Beijing. Australia has raised concern about Yang’s treatment, with increasing force, for seven months. In China, the offence of espionage carries the death penalty.

SPOTLIGHT: Amazon in flames

Brazil: In recent decades, large swaths of the Amazon have been lost due to farmers and landowners setting fires in the rainforest to clear land for growing crops or raising beef, or to increase the value of their property. But the number of fires this year has soared.

The outbreak gained national and then international attention after smoke caused a sudden daytime blackout in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city.

Brazil’s space research agency said there have been more than 74,000 fires in Brazil since January 1, 2019, about 80 per cent more than during the same period last year. Fires are also devastating parts of the Amazon in Bolivia.

The fires have coincided with the first year in office of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist who has promised to promote development of the Amazon and wind back environmental protections. Some of the fires were reportedly started on August 10, which was deemed “fire day” by pro-development demonstrators in some towns in northern Brazil, where Bolsonaro has strong support.

When news of the fires broke, Bolsonaro initially blamed non-government organisations, which he said were trying to smear him. Ricardo Salles, the minister for the environment, suggested laws restricting development of the rainforest were at fault because they forced people to undertake illegal land-clearing. Bolsonaro and Salles also claim the space research agency has inflated the deforestation figures. Separate monitoring by the Global Fire Emissions Database, which is supported by NASA, found the number of fires was slightly higher than the Brazilian agency’s figures.

Facing criticism, Bolsonaro eventually declared his love for the Amazon and pledged to prosecute those who start illegal fires. He said he would deploy 44,000 troops to fight the fires but rejected an aid package from G7 countries, saying Brazil was being treated “as if we were a colony or a no-man’s-land”.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and slows the rate of global warming. Scientists say it will take about 20 to 40 years for burnt parts of the rainforest to regenerate, as long as it is left alone.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Macron bid to ease US, Iran tensions". Subscribe here.

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