World

United Nations secretary-general warns of world’s dangerous direction. Climate change effects on maritime boundaries concerning Pacific nations. Republicans plan to quickly fill US Supreme Court vacancy. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China–US relationship cools even further

President Xi Jinping at a symposium on China’s education, culture, health and sports sectors in Beijing on Tuesday.
Credit: Ju Peng / Xinhua via AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: At the 75th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly this week, which was largely held virtually, António Guterres, the secretary-general, warned that the post-pandemic world was facing a “great fracture”. Divisions between the two most powerful countries, he said, were creating competing worlds with their own trade rules, technology and geopolitical agendas.

“Today, we face our own 1945 moment,” he said, referring to the era that marked the formation of the UN.

“We are moving in a very dangerous direction … We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War.”

But the addresses by Donald Trump and Xi Jinping gave little indication that the rivalry between the United States and China was abating.

In a speech that lasted less than seven minutes, Trump urged the international community to hold Beijing responsible for spreading Covid-19, which he called the “China virus”.

“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China,” Trump said.

As the US president affirmed his commitment to an “America first” policy, President Xi tried to present himself as a global champion of multilateralism. China, Xi said, has “no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country”. But, in separate remarks, he also appeared to directly attack the US, saying: “No country has the right to dominate global affairs.” He also used his speech to announce plans to cut China’s carbon dioxide emissions to nearly zero by 2060.

Speaking after both leaders, French president Emmanuel Macron rebuked the pair for failing to co-operate to address the pandemic and climate change. The US and China, Macron said, had “preferred a display of their rivalry to collective efficiency”.

The neighbourhood

Tuvalu: Pacific island nations are calling for changes to the rules that determine maritime boundaries amid concerns rising sea levels are shrinking their coastlines and affecting their ocean borders.

The push has been led by Tuvalu, which depends on fishing for about 45 per cent of its gross domestic product. The country, which has a total land mass of 26 square kilometres, plans to introduce legislation to ensure its maritime zones are set according to fixed coastlines, or baselines.

Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, said countries forming diplomatic ties with the nation will need to recognise that its baselines are permanent.

“If baselines shift … there will be a lot of uncertainties around whether we can maintain those revenues from [fishing],” Kofe told ABC News. “So, it’s fisheries, it’s minerals, there’s a lot of value in that for us.”

Other Pacific states have made similar moves.     

The Pacific Islands Forum, an 18-member regional body, this month held a conference on maritime zones, during which changes to international law that could improve maritime security for island nations were discussed. Dame Meg Taylor, the forum’s secretary-general, told the conference: “The securing of maritime boundaries in the face of challenges such as climate change is integral to our future and that of our future generations.”

Democracy in retreat

Kenya: On Monday, Kenya’s chief justice called for the nation’s male-dominated parliament to be dissolved, saying legislators had failed to comply with a requirement that a third of MPs should be women.

The quota was included in Kenya’s new constitution in 2010, which stipulated that no more than two-thirds of any elected body should be of the same gender. Currently, women hold 22 per cent of seats in the country’s lower house. In the smaller upper house, 31 per cent of senators are women.

In 2012, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled parliament should legislate to implement the quota by 2015. But repeated attempts to pass a bill have failed.

Criticising the “lackadaisical attitude” of MPs, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, David Maraga, advised Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta parliament must be dissolved, even though it will cause hardship, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. “There is no gain without pain,” Maraga wrote.

Kenyatta, who has been president since 2013, has not commented. He may choose not to act on the advice until the country’s next election in 2022.

According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union last year on representation of women in parliaments, Kenya was ranked 90 out of 192 countries. The top-ranked country was Rwanda, where 61 per cent of lower house MPs were women. Cuba and Bolivia were the only two other countries with a majority of women MPs. Australia, where 30 per cent of lower house MPs were women, was ranked equal 48th.

Spotlight: After RBG

United States: Before the last American election, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, controversially – but with typical candour – expressed her views on the Republican contender, Donald Trump.

“He is a faker,” she said. “… He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.”

Trump urged the justice to resign, tweeting: “Her mind is shot”. Ginsburg apologised, but her frank comments prompted speculation she could step down after the election, then expected to be a victory for Hillary Clinton. But Trump won, and Ginsburg did not resign, apparently hoping to stay on the bench until a Democratic president could choose someone to replace her.

Last week, just 46 days before the November US election, Ginsburg, aged 87, died from pancreatic cancer. She had been on the court since 1993 and was known for her judgements – often dissenting – in favour of gender equality and ending discrimination. Her sharpness, wit, independence and playful mix of shyness and assertiveness won admirers far beyond legal and political circles. In recent years, she has spawned “RBG” figurines, coasters, children’s books and Covid-19 face masks.

Shortly before her death, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter, declaring: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

But within 90 minutes of the announcement of her passing, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, declared plans to replace her. In 2016, McConnell led a move to block Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, saying a judge should not be appointed in an election year.

Trump, too, said he would quickly nominate a replacement. This would create a 6-3 conservative majority, which could reshape abortion rights, access to healthcare, gun control, voting laws and environmental and consumer protections. Trump suggested this week that Ginsburg’s declaration to her granddaughter was not the judge’s but had instead been crafted by the Democrats.

The Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the senate, which must confirm any new justice’s nomination. Two Republicans – Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins – have said the appointment should be made after the election. Unless two others follow though, a conservative will replace Ginsburg. No Supreme Court judge has ever been confirmed so close to an election. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "China–US relationship cools even further ".

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