World

Donald Trump cancels Taliban summit at Camp David. New Zealand TV’s plans to broadcast into Pacific. Boris Johnson’s options ahead of Brexit deadline. India’s attempted lunar landing. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Boris grabs Brexit bull by the horns

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a farm near Aberdeen, Scotland, last week.
Credit: Andrew Milligan / PA Wire

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Afghanistan: On the eve of a summit between American and Taliban leaders to finally end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, Donald Trump suddenly revealed its existence and then cancelled it. But the reasons for the move remain unclear.

The United States president said he called off the talks, due to be held at Camp David, after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed 12 people, including an American soldier. But there have been numerous deadly Taliban attacks since the talks began more than a year ago. So far, 16 American soldiers have died this year. Nor has the US ceased attacks. In the year to June, 1366 civilians were killed, including 717 by US-led and pro-Kabul forces.

Trump may have called off the meeting to avoid hosting Taliban leaders, just three days before September 11, at Camp David, which was used by George W. Bush to plan the Afghanistan war in the days after the 2001 attacks.

Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman, said in a tweet: “No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever.”

Trump may also have been persuaded by critics of the deal within the White House. These were led by John Bolton, who insisted the Taliban could not be trusted. On Tuesday, Bolton was ousted as national security adviser, yet his views prevailed. A day earlier, Trump already declared the peace talks were “dead”.

In Afghanistan, many welcomed the news that negotiations had failed and urged the US not to proceed with its proposed withdrawal of its 14,000 troops within 16 months. President Ashraf Ghani said further negotiations should not proceed until the violence ends and the Taliban agrees to include the government.

Authorities in Afghanistan are now preparing for an increase of violence ahead of a national election on September 28. A Taliban spokesperson said it had been ready for peace but would now resume its “jihad”.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: In recent years, Australia has significantly reduced its radio and television broadcasting services across the South Pacific, including cutting funding to the ABC’s Australia Network television service and ending its shortwave radio services. Many of the shortwave frequencies were later taken over by China’s broadcaster.

But New Zealand is also moving to address the media void. Earlier this month, it announced plans for a dedicated television channel that will broadcast New Zealand content, including news and current affairs, across at least 13 Pacific nations. It is also supporting island broadcasters to produce local content.

The development comes as both Australia and New Zealand try to improve Pacific ties following concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.

Last year, Scott Morrison announced plans to encourage commercial Australian networks to provide content across the Pacific. He said he wanted to support “our Pacific family switching on to the same stories, news, drama and sports we are watching at home”.

But Pacific observers said the plan was paternalistic, as it would largely involve Australians deciding which programs islanders would watch.

This year, Australia is providing a record $A1.4 billion in aid across the South Pacific. New Zealand’s new television service, which has been widely welcomed across the region, will cost $NZ10 million over the next three years.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Britain: So, here are Boris Johnson’s choices ahead of Britain’s October 31 deadline for leaving the European Union: resign, go to jail, or, seemingly even less likely, negotiate a new deal that wins the approval of both Brussels and his party. There is a fourth option – to ask for yet another extension. But, as the British prime minister wrote to his party members last week: “This is something I will never do.”

These are not good options. Some hardline Brexit supporters are genuinely urging Johnson to defy a recent ban on a no-deal Brexit – a move that could result in him being jailed for contempt of court.

Johnson’s initial plan was to call an early election that would result in a more favourable parliament and allow him to negotiate with Brussels while threatening to leave without a deal. This plan has backfired.

On Monday, MPs in the house of commons again blocked his motion for an early election. About 2am on Tuesday morning, parliament was prorogued, or suspended, for five weeks, following chaotic scenes in which MPs held up signs saying “silenced”. Johnson insisted on this suspension, which critics say is illegal, but it is no longer clear that it will enable him to ignore the demands of parliament. Before being sent home, MPs voted to compel Johnson to delay Brexit until next January unless they otherwise approve his Brexit plan by October 19.

On Tuesday, Johnson visited a primary school in London. He said: “There is a way of getting a deal … but we must be prepared to come out without a deal.” He has so far proposed no alternatives to the existing deal, which MPs have repeatedly rejected.

Johnson told the school students that Britain is definitely leaving the EU in October. He also advised them to “not get drunk” at university.

SPOTLIGHT: Moon landings

India: In July, a spacecraft, the Chandrayaan-2, lifted off from an island off India’s south coast and headed for the moon. Last Saturday, the vessel, after travelling for 48 days across 400,000 kilometres, released its lander, which slowly began to descend and was just 2100 metres from the surface when communications were lost.

On Tuesday, India’s space agency reported that the Chandrayaan-2, which remained in orbit above the moon, had spotted the crashed lander and expressed hope it may have survived with its equipment intact. “All possible efforts are being made to establish communication with lander,” the agency said in a tweet that quickly received 150,000 likes.

India was hoping to become just the fourth country to achieve a controlled lunar landing, after the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. The mission has not yet been declared a failure and, either way, will likely pave the way for a future landing.

India’s space project, which aimed to study craters that may contain water deposits, is part of a growing push by countries and the private sector to explore the moon. In April, SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organisation seeking to become the first private entity to achieve a moon landing, sent a craft that orbited the moon but failed to land.

Unlike the Cold War space race, the latest effort is focused on investigating the moon’s resources and possibly exploring the potential for human settlement or for using the moon as a base for further voyages. China plans to have a permanent research base on the moon by 2036. Japan, Russia and India are all working on prospecting missions. The US intends to again land astronauts on the moon by 2024. In June, Trump appeared to disagree with this plan, saying in a tweet that NASA should focus on “much bigger things”, possibly a Mars and moon mission. “Defense and Science!” he tweeted.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Boris grabs Brexit bull by the horns". Subscribe here.

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