World

Russia–China gas pipeline opens. New Zealand bans foreign political donations. Britain goes to the polls. United Nations climate conference in Spain. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Gas pipeline between Russia and China opens

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Brasília last month.
Credit: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Russia: On Monday, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin gave the go-ahead to their respective control rooms in China and Russia to allow gas to start flowing between the countries through a new pipeline that will eventually span more than 8000 kilometres. Over the next 30 years, the pipeline is expected to deliver $US400 billion worth of natural gas to China. It will help Russia to boost its ailing economy and China to wean itself off coal.

But the deal also signals a new closeness between Beijing and Moscow, as both respond to their increasingly turbulent relations with Washington. Russia has been looking eastwards following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which prompted the United States and Europe to impose sanctions. China is always searching for new fuel suppliers, but is also expanding its commercial partnerships as its trade war with the US continues.

Separately, three days before the pipeline opened, Russia and China announced the completion of the first road bridge to connect the two countries. Due to open next year, the bridge links the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk with Heihe in China. The countries have also begun conducting joint military exercises, marking a significant rapprochement after years of tensions over ideological differences and border disputes.

Despite a shared determination to challenge the US’s global leadership, Russia remains wary of China, a large neighbour that threatens to overshadow it. Putin has a successful record of converting Russian resources into both financial and strategic gains and is pressing ahead with plans for a massive pipeline to Germany. The project has infuriated Washington. Earlier this year, US Vice-President Mike Pence warned that Germany will become “literally a captive of Russia”.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: In preparation for an election next year, New Zealand rushed this week to ban foreign political donations to try to ensure the poll is not subject to interference. The move came just a day after Scott Morrison announced plans for an $88 million ASIO-led taskforce to combat foreign interference in Australia.

The moves were unrelated, but reflect growing concerns in both countries about Chinese meddling in their domestic affairs. Like Australia, New Zealand has experienced an increasing number of alleged Chinese attempts to interfere in its politics, universities and local Chinese communities. These include a scandal last year in which the leader of the opposition National Party, Simon Bridges, was accused of hiding a $NZ100,000 donation from a Beijing-linked businessman. Bridges denied the claim.

New Zealand’s new law bans donations by foreigners of more than $NZ50 to political parties and candidates. Australia introduced a ban last year on foreign donations of more than $A100.

New Zealand’s law will also require those placing election advertisements on social media to state their name and address – a requirement that already applies to other media such as newspapers. New Zealand’s Justice minister, Andrew Little, said the law aimed to prevent “an avalanche of fake-news social media ads that contain no information about who is behind them”.

“We don’t want our elections to go the way of recent overseas examples where foreign interference appears to have been at play,” he said.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Britain: On Thursday, Britain votes in an election that – whoever wins – will set the nation on a radically different path.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has based his campaign on a pledge to quickly deliver Brexit. After three years of paralysis, Johnson is promising to take Britain out of the European Union by the end of January. His plan will shake up Britain’s trade and commercial ties and could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland, and possibly Northern Ireland, could eventually secede.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has campaigned on domestic issues. After years of the Conservatives’ austerity measures, he is promising free university education, free broadband and a minimum-wage increase, and has proposed to raise corporate taxes and to partially renationalise the railways and postal service.

In 2017, Corbyn did unexpectedly well, gaining seats and depriving Theresa May of a parliamentary majority. But, during this campaign, he has failed to reverse his standing as the most unpopular political leader in British polling history. He has struggled to adopt a clear position not only on Brexit but also on the scourge of anti-Semitism that has beset elements of his party. At least four Jewish MPs and peers have quit the party, citing anti-Semitic abuse, and were joined by several non-Jewish members. Last week, Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, made a rare intervention in an election, writing in The Times that a “poison sanctioned from the top” had taken root in Labour and that “the very soul of our nation is at stake”. Corbyn insisted he opposed racism but repeatedly refused to apologise to the Jewish community before at last doing so on Tuesday.

Despite Corbyn’s low approval ratings, Labour has reduced the Conservatives’ strong polling lead in the final days of the campaign.

Last weekend, a convicted terrorist, who had been released on parole, attacked pedestrians on London Bridge, killing two people. Johnson adopted a hardline position, accusing Labour of being soft on crime and proposing 14-year mandatory sentences for convicted terrorists. The father of one of the victims accused Johnson of politicising the attack and using it to “perpetuate an agenda of hate”.

And, on Monday night, Donald Trump, a staunch Johnson supporter, arrived in London for a NATO summit. Corbyn has warned that Johnson’s plans for a post-Brexit trade deal with the US could lead to a partial sale of the National Health Service. Asked to comment on the election, Trump, in an apparent favour to Johnson, remained relatively restrained, saying he could “work with anybody” and wants “nothing to do with it [the NHS]”.

SPOTLIGHT: COP25

Spain: Delegates from 200 countries met in Madrid this week for the 25th annual United Nations international conference to address climate change.

In the lead-up to the summit, data showed the planet is on track to record its second-hottest year on record in 2019, behind 2016. And a UN report found that global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1.5 per cent a year during the past decade – the opposite of the change required to prevent catastrophic warming.

But these statistics – and more tangible evidence, such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels and worsening natural disasters – have not yet jolted world leaders into action. These summits were designed to instil hope, but the prevailing tone in Madrid was despair.

In an opening address, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said the world could aim for carbon neutrality by 2050 or continue “sleepwalk[ing] past the point of no return”.

“Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand?” he asked.

The summit is aiming to develop new emissions targets to be agreed next year in Glasgow. These are supposed to be more aggressive than those agreed in Paris in 2015, which are failing to limit warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial times. Temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees, and the scientific consensus is that 1.5 degrees is the “safe” limit. Scientists say sticking with the Paris commitments will lead to a temperature increase of more than 3 degrees – yet several major emitters, including the US and Australia, are not even meeting these targets.

The summit ends on Friday.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Russia–China relations hit the gas". Subscribe here.

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