Donald Trump pushes on with troop withdrawals. PNG parliament adjourned until April. Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy fears over global availability. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Pro-democracy opposition quits in protest in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy lawmakers join hands during a press conference at the legislative council building in Hong Kong last week.
Pro-democracy lawmakers join hands during a press conference at the legislative council building in Hong Kong last week.
Credit: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

United States: As Covid-19 cases surge in the United States, Joe Biden this week abandoned his show of relative indifference towards Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election. Instead, Biden, the president-elect, attacked Trump over the failure to co-operate on the response to the pandemic, saying it meant that “more people may die”.

“It’s about saving lives, for real,” he said. “This is not hyperbole.”

On Monday, the US recorded 166,226 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total number of cases to 11.34 million. More than 250,000 people have died.

Biden has been pressing ahead with his plans to move into the White House, appointing staff and receiving briefings from former officials. But the usual transition procedures are on hold as Trump continues to dispute the election result, claiming voter fraud.

Trump has largely avoided public commitments since the election but, in his final days in office, appears willing to make far-reaching changes. On Tuesday, his administration pushed ahead with plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. The announcement followed Trump’s recent firing of his former defence secretary Mark Esper, who had warned that troop reductions could endanger the lives of remaining soldiers and undermine current negotiations with the Taliban.

American troop numbers will be cut from about 4500 to 2500 in Afghanistan and from about 3000 to 2500 in Iraq. The reductions are due to occur by January 15, five days before the inauguration.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: Last year, James Marape became prime minister of Papua New Guinea after receiving the overwhelming support of MPs to replace Peter O’Neill, who had resigned following concerns about his business dealings and handling of a large gas project.

Marape, a former ally of O’Neill’s, promised to end corruption and to try to renegotiate resources projects to secure more revenue for the government.

But Marape is now facing a political revolt after about 50 MPs backed an opposition move to depose him as he was preparing to deliver the national budget. The plot came just weeks before the end of an 18-month grace period, during which Marape was protected from a no-confidence vote. Last week, the rebel MPs, whose leaders reportedly include O’Neill, supported a move to adjourn parliament until December 1, when a no-confidence vote can be held.

Marape’s critics accuse him of economic mismanagement and failing to attract investment or to consult landowners over resources projects. But Marape has pledged to defeat the plotters, writing on Facebook: “I would rather die in battle for the values I stand for than succumbing to the call of a political scumbag.”

On Tuesday, Marape’s forces struck back, rejecting the adjournment of parliament and instead holding a session at which the budget was passed. Many of the opposition MPs had left the capital to prepare for the no-confidence vote. Marape and his supporters also used the session to adjourn parliament until April.

The crisis prompted Scott Morrison to delay this week’s planned trip to Papua New Guinea. The country’s uncertain political future is also set to affect negotiations over Bougainville’s moves towards independence and could delay development of further resources projects.

Democracy in retreat

Hong Kong: The parliament of Hong Kong no longer has a pro-democracy opposition.

Following a series of moves by Hong Kong authorities against the pro-democracy camp, its remaining 15 members in the legislative council resigned last week. The final spark for the resignations was the dismissal of four pro-democracy legislators who were ousted after Beijing allowed for the disqualification of lawmakers on grounds such as supporting independence or threatening national security.

Dennis Kwok, a barrister and one of the four legislators who were disqualified, described the group as “the most moderate of moderates”, pointing out that the four all wore suits and comprised two lawyers, a doctor and an accountant.

Despite the pro-democracy camp’s electoral popularity, it does not have a majority in the legislative council, in which not all members are directly elected. But the parliament has long provided a platform for democrats to voice opposition to Beijing’s moves to erode the territory’s autonomy.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, said the mass resignation of the pro-democracy legislators was “nothing to be ashamed of” and would allow the parliament to pass laws more efficiently.

“We need to have a political body which is composed of patriots,” she said.

Spotlight: Vaccine diplomacy

United States: A new set of promising results emerged from a Covid-19 vaccine trial this week as the American firm Moderna revealed its treatment had been effective in protecting 94 per cent of people. Similar results were recorded last week by the American firm Pfizer, which found its vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective.

But the growing optimism about the possibility of vaccines being available next year has raised concerns about which countries will be able to access them. No vaccine has yet been approved for general use, but nations around the world have already bought or reserved about 9.6 billion doses from developers in the hope that some or all will prove effective.

Pfizer plans to produce 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021 but has already agreed to sell 1.1 billion of these to the US, European Union, Canada, Japan and Britain, according to the Axios website. Moderna will produce 20 million doses this year, all of which will go to the US.

Analysis by Duke University found there will not be enough vaccines for the global population until 2024 and that wealthy countries have been securing the highest number of doses. According to the university’s Global Health Innovation Center, this will cause “deep inequities in terms of global allocation”.

Many poorer countries will be dependent on Covax, an international initiative to support equitable distribution of a vaccine. Covax aims to provide member states with enough vaccines for at least 20 per cent of their populations. Wealthier nations such as Australia have joined, partly to ensure they have access to vaccines if those they have already secured prove ineffective.

The disparity of availability has led to concerns about countries exercising so-called “vaccine diplomacy” and using their medicinal clout to exercise influence over other countries.

The US already holds about a billion doses through its various deals with vaccine developers and is set to control a large share of the global supply. It is one of few countries that has not joined Covax, though Joe Biden may join.

Separately, some countries have been turning to China and Russia, where state-run developers have been producing vaccines. Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, said recently he would prioritise vaccines from China and Russia, saying they – unlike Western drug-makers – had not asked for payments to reserve supplies.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 21, 2020 as "Hong Kong pro-democracy opposition quits in protest ".

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

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