World

Kiribati wants commercial fishing to return in World Heritage-listed marine reserve. Gangs are stopping fuel supplies in Haiti to pressure caretaker PM to resign. Portugal enacts laws to support staff working from home. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden, Xi tackle tensions, but Taiwan a sticking point

From the White House, US President Joe Biden speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual meeting this week.
Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

On Monday night, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met online for three-and-a-half hours at a summit that aimed to ensure that the growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies does not, as the United States president put it, “veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended”.

The pair, meeting for the first time as leaders, did not make any breakthroughs, or release a joint statement, or make any future commitments. But the discussions, which covered Covid-19, climate change, trade, Taiwan, nuclear weapons, Iran and Afghanistan, allowed both sides to air grievances and to provide assurances that they want tensions to ease.

Xi described Biden as “my old friend” and called for the two nations to face challenges “together”. Biden told Xi: “We never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking.”

Despite the cordial tone, there were sharp disagreements on the main areas of dispute: Taiwan, trade and human rights.

Biden urged Xi not to take military action against Taiwan, which is seen by China as a breakaway province. Xi promised to pursue “peaceful reunification” with the island but warned that any moves by the US to support Taiwanese independence would be extremely dangerous. “Whoever plays with fire will get burned,” he said.

The White House initiated the talks and had wanted an in-person summit, but Xi has not left China since the start of the pandemic.

The pair did not discuss the coming Beijing Winter Olympics, presumably because both were mindful of calls for an American boycott to protest China’s mass detention of Uygurs and its repressive conduct in Hong Kong and Tibet. Hours after the summit, The Washington Post reported that the US plans to stage a diplomatic boycott, which would allow American athletes to compete but would ban politicians or official representatives from attending.

The neighbourhood

Kiribati:The Pacific nation of Kiribati has one of the world’s smallest landmasses – about 800 square kilometres – but it has a maritime economic zone that spans more than 3.5 million square kilometres, larger than the size of India.

In 2006, Kiribati created the world’s biggest protected marine reserve – the Phoenix Islands Protected Area – which covers 408,250 square kilometres and includes a coral archipelago, as well as underwater volcanoes and rare tropical marine life. Commercial fishing in the reserve was phased out and eventually banned in 2015. In 2010, UNESCO recognised the reserve as a World Heritage site, saying the vast expanse of oceanic wilderness was “a superlative natural phenomenon of global importance”.

But the government of Kiribati this week revealed plans to again allow commercial fishing in the area, saying the ban was damaging the economy. Kiribati is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of tuna.

In a statement on Monday, Kiribati’s government said the ban was being overturned to try to “put the livelihoods of our people at the fore”.

The move has caused a backlash, including from Kiribati’s environment minister, Ruateki Tekaiara, who reportedly warned that changing the reserve’s rules and potentially overturning the World Heritage status would risk “poisoning” ties with the nation’s international partners.

According to New Zealand’s 1 News, Kiribati’s government may have been motivated by a desire to foster closer ties with China. In 2019, Kiribati cut ties with Taiwan and switched its diplomatic recognition to China. China apparently wants to upgrade a runway and other infrastructure on an island in the reserve. Analysts said the island could be used by China as a base for large-scale fishing but could also potentially have military uses.

The Kiribati government said its decision to resume commercial fishing was not due to influence from China or other countries, a claim it said was based on “neocolonial precepts”.

Democracy in retreat

Haiti: Gangs have been blockading fuel supplies in Haiti as the nation’s instability worsens following the assassination of the president in July.

In recent weeks, an alliance of gangs led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier has prevented trucks from entering fuel terminals, causing power shortages that have forced hospitals, banks and schools to close or limit operations.

Chérizier, a suit-wearing crime boss and former police officer who presents himself as a saviour of the streets, ordered a temporary end to the blockade this week to enable celebrations for a national holiday. But he has warned that the gang will enforce the blockade and other unspecified measures until the prime minister, Ariel Henry, resigns. Henry has led a caretaker government since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse, who was killed at his residence on July 7, allegedly by a group of mercenaries. The motivation and identity of the plot’s leaders are still being investigated.

A month after the assassination, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 2100 people and leaving thousands without homes. As the nation’s political and social crisis worsened, a gang kidnapped 17 missionaries – 16 Americans and one Canadian – in October and imposed a $US17 million ransom. According to the United Nations, 455 people were kidnapped in Haiti during the first eight months of the year.

The location of the kidnapped missionaries is reportedly known, but authorities have been unable to enter because the area, like many neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, the capital, is controlled by gangs.

Spotlight: Work–life balance

Portugal: Businesses in Portugal will be barred from contacting employees outside work hours and will have to pay for their staff’s home electricity costs as part of a growing push by countries to adapt to – and embrace – the work-from-home labour force.     

Portugal’s new law, introduced by the country’s Socialist-led government, aims to improve conditions for workers affected by the pandemic and to encourage those from across Europe who can work remotely to move to Portugal.     

The law imposes fines on companies that contact staff outside contracted hours – except for emergencies. Companies must also ensure staff visit the workplace at least every two months to prevent excessive isolation. And parents whose children are aged up to eight years old will be entitled to work from home, as long as their job suits remote work. The law also requires employers to pay additional power and communications expenses incurred by those who work from home.

Some countries and companies began accommodating the needs of remote workers before the pandemic, including introducing limits on the number of emails to be sent to staff outside work hours. But the pandemic has led to a broader push to support staff at home, including moves in several countries to ensure workers have uninterrupted break periods.

Portugal, which has 10 million residents, has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. More than 86 per cent of the entire population has been fully vaccinated. The government recently began lifting Covid-19 restrictions, though case numbers have since started to rise. On Tuesday, the country recorded 1693 new cases. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Biden, Xi tackle tensions, but Taiwan a sticking point".

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