Chinese officials in altercation over Taiwan celebration in Fiji. Protesters killed in anti-police protests in Lagos. Memorial held in Paris for murdered teacher. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden’s plan to make America’s influence great again

US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives at The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday to film a TV interview.
US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden arrives at The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday to film a TV interview.
Credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images via AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: As part of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden wrote a 4500-word essay on foreign policy that denounced Donald Trump’s world view and presented a plan to restore American global leadership.

In the essay, published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden promised to “reclaim our credibility” and to work with allies to address challenges such as climate change, pandemics and rising authoritarianism.

“We have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again – not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example,” he wrote.

At a town hall meeting last week, Biden returned to this theme, declaring: “ ‘America First’ has made America alone.”

Yet foreign policy has received noticeably little attention in this campaign.

This is largely because the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the US, causing more than 220,000 deaths and spiralling unemployment. Both major party candidates have been focused on the domestic.

However, there’s another reason foreign policy has been given relatively little attention – Biden and Trump, despite their wildly opposing rhetoric and their different attitudes to allies and multilateralism, share similar approaches to some of America’s most pressing challenges.

A Biden administration would continue to view China as a rival power and wind back US military commitments abroad. And while the Democrat is less likely than Trump to launch trade wars, he does share some of the current president’s reservations about free trade. And Trump, it should be remembered, tends to swerve wildly on foreign affairs. It was Trump, for instance, who told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 that “ ‘America First’ does not mean America alone”, undercutting his own “America First” slogan.

If Biden does win, one of the most noticeable consequences may be the restoration of consistency and predictability to American foreign policy.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: On October 8, Taiwan’s trade office in Fiji hosted a national day celebration at the Grand Pacific Hotel, a century-old waterfront hotel in Suva. Similar events are regularly held in Canberra and capitals around the world. But the event in Fiji made global headlines this week after Taiwan accused China of conducting surveillance at the celebration and assaulting one of its officials.

According to Taiwan’s government, two Chinese officials turned up at the hotel and began to photograph the event and those attending. It’s alleged the officials tried to force their way in, resulting in a confrontation that left a Taiwanese diplomat in hospital with concussion.

Taiwan’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Harry Ho-jen Tseng, said the altercation occurred after Taiwanese staff asked the Chinese officials to leave. “Not only did the Chinese officials refuse to listen, they also beat our personnel, and were finally taken away from the scene by the Fijian police,” he told Taiwan’s parliament.

According to China’s embassy in Fiji, Taiwanese officials provoked Chinese staff who were “carrying out their official duties in the public area outside the function venue”. The embassy has complained to Fiji’s police.    

For decades, China and Taiwan have used aid and support to try to win the diplomatic support of small Pacific states. Fiji has close ties to China and, in 1975, became the first Pacific island nation to recognise the People’s Republic of China.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson, said Fiji had promised to “abide by the one-China principle and properly handle the matter”. Zhao also criticised the appearance of a Taiwanese flag on a cake inside the hotel. “A false national flag was openly displayed at the scene,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Nigeria: Earlier this month, graphic footage emerged in Nigeria of a man being brutally beaten – possibly to death – by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit that stands accused of torture and extrajudicial killings. The footage prompted nationwide protests against police brutality in Nigeria, referred to on social media by the hashtag #ENDSARS.

Eventually, the Nigerian government announced the disbanding of the unit and that it would investigate any alleged misconduct. But the promise, which followed years of pledges to reform the squad, did not placate the demonstrators, who widened their demands to include calls for an end to government corruption and economic mismanagement.

The protests have continued for weeks and have led to deadly clashes between armed gangs and security forces. On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters effectively shut down Lagos, the country’s largest city, after blocking major roads and chanting, “We want change”.

It’s been alleged security forces in Lagos opened fire on hundreds of unarmed protesters who had gathered at a tollgate at Lekki-Ikoyi bridge, a well-known landmark, on Tuesday evening. A witness, Akinbosola Ogunsanya, said the lights at the tollgate were shut off and the shooting began shortly afterwards. “Members of the Nigerian army pulled up on us and they started firing,” he told CNN. “They were firing straight, directly at us.”

Amnesty International said 12 protesters had been killed at two locations in Lagos. Some reports said as many as 20 people were killed. The state government said it will investigate.

Nigeria’s unemployment rate is 27 per cent, up from 12 per cent in 2016.

Spotlight: ‘Je suis Samuel’

France: During a class on free speech in early October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography teacher in France, showed his students two cartoons of Muhammad from the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted by Islamist gunmen in an attack in 2015 that killed 12 people. Aware that depictions of the prophet could cause offence, Paty reportedly invited Muslim students to leave the classroom. The incident prompted an angry response from some members of the school’s community.

Last week, after leaving the school, Paty was attacked and decapitated by Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Russian-born refugee from a Chechen family. Anzorov, who had not attended the school and lived 100 kilometres away, was killed after shooting at police.

Since the attack, 15 people have been arrested, including the father of a girl at the school who reportedly had called for Paty’s resignation and has been described in media reports as a radical Islamist. Members of Anzorov’s family have also been arrested.

Paty’s killing has prompted a series of rallies in support of free speech and teachers. Crowds have held signs saying “Je suis Samuel”, echoing similar messages after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, met with Paty’s family on Monday and addressed a national tribute at the Sorbonne on Wednesday. Muslim leaders in France have defended Paty and denounced his murder.

The incident has led to a broad crackdown on Muslim groups as authorities launched investigations into 80 preachers accused of spreading hate and about 50 community organisations. Police said 231 foreigners suspected of holding extremist beliefs would be deported. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said further police operations were planned. The raids, he said, were intended to show that “enemies of the republic cannot expect a minute’s respite”.

On its next front page, Charlie Hebdo will reportedly feature the headline “The decapitated Republic”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Biden’s plan to make America’s influence great again".

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

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