World

Court orders Joko Widodo to improve quality of Indonesia’s air. A hero of Rwandan genocide is convicted of terrorism. Chinese property development company Evergrande collapses. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden pledges switch from war to ‘relentless diplomacy’

United States President Joe Biden (centre), on his way to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.
Credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten

Great power rivalry

United States: In his first speech as United States president at the United Nations General Assembly, Joe Biden this week declared he was not seeking a cold war after a series of recent steps aimed at countering China’s rising power.

Attempting to address international concerns about American credibility following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden said that the US was switching from an era of war to “relentless diplomacy”.

“For the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war,” he said. “We’ve turned the page.”

The White House has been winding down commitments in the Middle East and Afghanistan but has signalled it will instead focus on addressing China’s growing reach and aggression. Biden last week joined with the leaders of Australia and Britain to form a three-way security pact, AUKUS, and this week was due to hold the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which includes the US, Australia, India and Japan.

Biden did not mention China in his UN speech, but pledged to defend partners against authoritarianism and economic coercion. “We are not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said.

In response, Chinese president Xi Jinping warned against armed intervention and urged countries not to use their militaries to promote democracy.

“One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure,” he said in a prerecorded speech.

The Quad meeting, due to be held on September 24 in Washington, was expected to consider new vaccine and climate change initiatives. The group’s status has been rising as its members have grown more anxious about China. India has traditionally committed to a policy of non-alignment but has been more supportive of a stronger role for the Quad following clashes with China along the two countries’ Himalayan border. Ahead of the Quad meeting, Harsh Shringla, India’s foreign minister, voiced support for the group but pointed out that – unlike AUKUS – it was not a security alliance. 

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: In Jakarta, which typically sits under a blanket of thick smog caused mainly by car exhaust and coal-fired power plants,

air pollution kills an estimated 7000 people a year and reduces average life expectancy by 5.5 years.

In 2019, during a heavy bout of pollution, a group of activists and affected residents such as motorcycle-taxi drivers launched legal action against the government over the lack of clean air.

Last Thursday, Jakarta’s central district court delivered a landmark decision, ruling that President Joko Widodo, three governors, and three cabinet ministers were guilty of neglecting the city’s air quality.

The presiding judge, Saifuddin Zuhri, stated: “Defendant 1 [Jokowi] is ordered to improve national ambient air-quality standards sufficient to protect human health, the environment and ecosystems.”

Jakarta’s governor was ordered to crack down on polluters and to conduct emission tests on older cars. The ministers were ordered to supervise the measures.

According to IQAir, which monitors global air quality, the world’s most polluted city last year was Hotan in China, followed by Ghaziabad in India. Jakarta, which has about 10 million residents, was ranked the world’s 202nd most-polluted city.

Democracy in retreat

Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism during the Rwandan genocide was depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda, was imprisoned for 25 years for terrorism-related offences on Monday following a widely criticised trial.

The 67-year-old, a prominent critic of Rwanda’s long-serving president, Paul Kagame, was found guilty of forming and supporting the National Liberation Front, which has been blamed for deadly attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.

In court, he admitted backing the group but claimed he did not support its terrorist attacks. “My role was diplomacy,” he said.

The former hotel manager, who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, was living in Texas until last year, when he was lured onto a chartered plane in Dubai and flown to Rwanda. He believed he was flying to Burundi to give speeches as part of an operation that Kagame described as “flawless”.

Earlier this year, Rusesabagina withdrew from the trial, saying he had not received a fair hearing.

Following the delivery of the sentence this week, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who was monitoring the trial for the Clooney Foundation for Justice, said: “This was a show trial, rather than a fair judicial inquiry.”

The trial was also criticised by the US and Belgium, where Rusesabagina had worked as a taxi driver until the Oscar-nominated film brought him global fame. The movie depicted his efforts to protect 1268 people in a hotel in Kigali during the genocide that killed as many as one million people. But Rusesabagina’s open criticism of the state’s human rights abuses and his calls for regime change infuriated Kagame.

The Rwandan court this week convicted 20 codefendants of terrorism and other offences. Rusesabagina received the longest sentence.

Spotlight: China property crisis

In 1996, Hui Ka-yan, a former steelworker from rural China, started a property development company, Evergrande. It quickly grew as Hui borrowed heavily to fund construction and sales of low-priced homes. Today, the company has at least 120,000 employees and has built properties owned by 12 million people in more than 280 cities, and has ventured into electric cars, football teams and theme parks. But it also has debt worth more than $US300 billion, which it may not be able to service.

The collapse of Evergrande would cause heavy losses for thousands of employees, investors, suppliers and buyers of an estimated 1.4 million off-the-plan residences that might never be completed. It would trigger a shock across the Chinese economy and could slow the country’s massive construction sector, crimping demand for foreign resources, including Australian iron ore. Analysts believe China is not facing a Lehman Brothers-style collapse that could trigger a serious financial crisis, mainly because Evergrande is not a financial institution, and the government would step in to assist any banks endangered by the firm’s defaults.

China’s booming property market accounts for about 28 per cent of its gross domestic product but is slowing down, partly due to government measures aimed at dampening speculation. Limits on mortgage and investor lending have led to large falls in new home and land sales.

Evergrande and other developers have been offloading properties at discounts to stay afloat, leading to further losses and price declines.

Beijing may yet find a way to save Evergrande and ensure its creditors are largely repaid, without engaging in a full bailout. But the government has signalled it does not want the sector to be used to prop up the economy. Hui, who was China’s richest person in 2017, was invited by the Communist Party’s ruling elite to its 100th-anniversary celebrations in July. A consulting firm, Cercius Group, which watches China’s elite politics, noted: “He is on Xi Jinping’s radar, which is usually not a good thing.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Biden pledges switch from war to ‘relentless diplomacy’".

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