World

US post in Chengdu shut in retaliation for Houston closure. Port Moresby enters 14-day lockdown over Covid-19 cases. Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak found guilty of corruption. Far right infiltrating security forces in Germany. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Consulates close as US–China tensions rise

A worker removes the plaque at the US consulate in Chengdu this week.
Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter

Great power rivalry

China: At 6.18am on Monday, the American flag was lowered in front of the 35-year-old United States consulate in the Chinese city
of Chengdu.

Beijing ordered the closure of the consulate – one of only five American consulates in mainland China – after the US last week ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston. Washington claimed the Houston consulate was being used for widespread espionage.

The closures come amid rising tensions between the US and China, but the decision to single out the Houston consulate prompted much speculation. Most diplomatic posts around the world – especially Chinese posts in the US – are presumed to be used to assist the foreign country’s intelligence agencies.

A former US intelligence official said the Houston consulate was selected because its closure would be less provocative than shutting bigger consulates in cities that have large Chinese–American populations.

“The Houston consulate is definitely involved in spy stuff, but it’s small potatoes compared to the others,” the former official told news site Axios. “San Francisco is the real gem, but the US won’t close it.”

China’s action against the US’s Chengdu consulate was seen as a direct retaliation. The Chengdu consulate, like that in Houston, is less important than other posts in cities such as Shanghai.

The consulate closures follow a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic and trade measures taken by the US and China, including action against each other’s media outlets. These measures have been escalating, as has the rhetoric from both sides.

Last week, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, delivered a stern speech that reflected the White House’s increasingly confrontational approach. Urging democracies to unite against Beijing, Pompeo declared: “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying accused Pompeo of trying to launch a crusade against China, describing him as “an ant trying to shake a tree”.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: On Tuesday, Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, began a two-week lockdown following a worsening outbreak of Covid-19. As of Monday, the country had recorded 62 cases, but 49 of these had been detected in the capital during the previous 10 days. James Marape, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, said the actual number of cases was likely to be “much higher”.

The new restrictions include the closure of schools and a ban on public transport. A nightly curfew from 10pm to 5am has been imposed, and masks must be worn in designated public places.

The World Health Organization has warned that Pacific nations such as Papua New Guinea face a serious risk from Covid-19 due to a lack of health services, equipment and medical personnel.

The governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, said this week that the capital does not have enough hospital beds or staff to deal with a widespread outbreak. Australia plans to send a team of health workers in the coming days to assist.

Local media in PNG this week reported that many Covid-19 cases had been detected outside Port Moresby. The Business Council of PNG believes a nationwide shutdown could result in the closure of 68 per cent of the country’s businesses.

Democracy in retreat

Malaysia: Najib Razak, who served as Malaysia’s prime minister from 2009 to 2018, was sentenced this week to 12 years in prison on corruption charges involving illegal payments worth $A13.8 million, marking the country’s first conviction of a former leader.

But the trial is just the start of a series of cases involving an elaborate international fraud that resulted in the alleged theft of about $A4.9 billion by Najib and his associates from a state fund known as 1MDB, which was set up to promote development.

The scandal led to the downfall of Najib’s UMNO party, which ruled Malaysia for 61 years from independence until it was defeated at the 2018 election.

Najib, whose father and uncle were also prime ministers, has denied wrongdoing. He says he was misled by a financial adviser, Jho Low, a globetrotting dealmaker who is now on the run.

The investment bank Goldman Sachs last week agreed to a $A5.5 billion settlement with the Malaysian government over the scandal. The bank had raised billions of dollars for 1MDB – and received $A840 million in fees, according to US authorities – but it denies wrongdoing and claims it was misled by the Malaysian government about the intended use of the funds.

The conviction of Najib, who remains an MP and still has political clout, has raised doubts about the future of the current prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. The coalition led by Muhyiddin depends on Najib’s UMNO party for support.

Najib says he intends to appeal the verdict. Convictions of politicians in Malaysia have often been overturned, though Najib still faces further charges and at least two additional trials.

Spotlight: German far right

For the past two years, politicians and other public figures across Germany – many of them former immigrants – have received threatening letters, faxes and emails that purport to be from a group called “NSU 2.0”. The name is a reference to the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground group, which committed multiple murders, mostly of immigrants, during the 2000s.

Authorities said last week that at least 27 people have been targeted by “NSU 2.0”, including three whose personal details were accessed from a police database.

The case – and the possible involvement of police in the threats – has added to concerns that official arms of the state are increasingly being infiltrated by far-right and anti-immigrant extremists.

The threat of far-right extremism raises particular sensitivities in Germany due to the genocidal atrocities conducted by the Nazis during World War II, but this is especially so when the extremists belong to armed forces such as the police and military.

In late June, Germany’s Defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, partially disbanded the military’s elite KSK commando unit after investigations found it had a toxic culture and that dozens of members were suspected of being far-right extremists.

On Monday, prosecutors confirmed they were investigating a former police officer and his wife suspected of sending racist, threatening emails to public figures. It was not clear whether the couple were behind the “NSU 2.0” campaign.

Thomas Feltes, a prominent German criminologist, said this week that he believed 15 to 20 per cent of Germans have far-right sympathies. He said the country was finally confronting the problem – also faced by many other nations – of far-right infiltration of its security forces.

“We are surprised by the fact that we might not be better than others,” he told the Financial Times.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Consulates close as US–China tensions rise".

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