World

Kanak leaders call for the latest independence vote to be postponed in New Caledonia. Aung San Suu Kyi is sentenced to detention again. Ukraine appears in Vladimir Putin’s sights.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

US diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 escalates friction

White House press secretary Jen Psaki announcing on Monday that US diplomats won’t be attending the Winter Olympics.
Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

China: Australia joined the United States this week in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, as the chilly ties between the West and China continued to deteriorate.

Other countries are set to join the Olympics boycott, which is intended to protest against China’s mass detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang, as well as its crackdown on Hong Kong democracy activists and its domestic human rights abuses. Washington and Canberra will allow athletes to compete at the Games but will not send diplomats, politicians or official representatives.

Confirming the decision on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said defending human rights was “in the DNA of Americans”.

On Wednesday, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced that Australia will join the boycott. He noted that China had been conducting its own diplomatic freeze towards Australia, which had prevented Canberra from raising matters of dispute directly with Beijing.

“We have been … very happy to talk to the Chinese government,” he told reporters. “But the Chinese government has consistently not accepted those opportunities for us to meet.”

China has warned it will take “firm countermeasures” against countries that boycott the Games.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian described the US claims about a genocide in Xinjiang as “the biggest lie of the century”.

“The Winter Olympics is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation,” he told reporters.

The diplomatic boycott of the “genocide Olympics” – as human rights groups have branded it – recalled the moves by Western and Communist blocs to shun each other’s Games during the Cold War. More recently, several countries took symbolic steps at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 to protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws. Some leaders refused to attend, and the US pointedly included two openly gay former Olympians in its official delegation.

As Washington and Beijing sparred over the boycotts this week, US President Joe Biden was due to host about 110 world leaders and representatives at a two-day Summit for Democracy. Participants included Taiwan and Pakistan, but not China, Russia, Hungary, Turkey, or close US friends such as Singapore.

Ahead of the summit, China’s government released a paper that argued the Communist Party-led political system was, indeed, democratic. “There is no fixed model of democracy,” said the paper, which was titled “China: Democracy That Works”.

The neighbourhood

New Caledonia: On Sunday, the people of New Caledonia are due to vote on whether to become independent despite pro-independence groups refusing to take part and demanding that France – the colonial power – delay the referendum due to the pandemic.

The ballot will mark the third and final independence referendum as part of the 1998 Noumea accord – a deal that aimed to resolve decades of tensions between loyalists and separatists.

But leaders of the indigenous Kanak community have called for the vote to be postponed until the completion in September of a 12-month mourning period for those who died in the pandemic. About 280 people have died in New Caledonia due to Covid-19, most of whom were Kanaks. The Kanaks make up about 39 per cent of the territory’s 294,000 residents.

Pro-independence groups say they will not recognise the results of the referendum, raising concerns that a vote will lead to instability and potential violence.

Loyalist groups, which include much of the local French population, want the referendum to go ahead. Many loyalists want the territory’s status to be definitively resolved, and some fear the pro-independence vote is steadily increasing. At the first referendum in 2018, 43 per cent supported independence and 57 per cent were opposed; in 2020, 47 per cent supported independence and 53 per cent were opposed.

France has deployed about 1750 additional soldiers and police to secure the territory during the vote.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent almost 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar before her triumphant release in 2010, is set to face at least two more years – and possibly the rest of her life – in detention.

On Monday, a court sentenced Suu Kyi to four years in detention on charges of inciting dissent and of waving to supporters while wearing a mask – an act deemed a breach of Covid-19 restrictions. Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief, later reduced the sentence to two years. Human rights groups described the closed trial as a sham.

Suu Kyi was arrested in February during a military coup that was staged three months after her National League for Democracy party won a landslide election victory. She faces nine further charges – including illegal possession of walkie-talkies – and could be jailed for life.

Since the coup, more than 10,600 people have been arrested and at least 1303 have been killed during demonstrations against the regime.

Suu Kyi remains popular in Myanmar despite a dramatic fall in her international standing after she defended the military’s brutal campaign in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslim minority, which prompted about 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

A group of Rohingya refugees this week sued Facebook for more than $US150 billion, alleging the platform enabled incitement and amplified hate speech against the Rohingya people. An action lodged in a Californian court accused Facebook of being “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration”.

Spotlight: Putin eyes Ukraine

In July, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an essay on the “historical unity” between Russia and Ukraine, in which he described the two states as “a single whole”.

The essay argues that Russia and Ukraine, which became independent in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, are historically, economically and “spiritually” a single nation, and that the division between them is artificial.

Following the publication of the essay, Anne Applebaum, a historian and commentator, described it as “essentially a call to arms, laying the groundwork for a Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

In recent weeks, Putin, who seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has supported separatist forces in the country’s east, has reportedly amassed almost 100,000 Russian troops along the border. Officials in Washington believe he may be preparing for an invasion as early as January.

Putin has accused Ukraine of breaching a 2015 agreement, in which Ukraine agreed to grant greater autonomy to separatist-held eastern regions. He is also strongly opposed to Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO. Ukraine, whose large territory borders Poland and Hungary, is often seen as a strategic buffer between Russia and the West.

On Tuesday, President Biden held a two-hour online meeting with Putin to discuss the standoff.

According to the White House, Biden warned that an invasion would lead to much more severe consequences than the sanctions that followed the occupation of Crimea.

The Kremlin claimed Putin demanded NATO stay away from Russia’s borders and called for “guarantees excluding the expansion of NATO in the eastern direction”.

Though neither leader made concessions, they agreed to ask teams of officials to follow up on the discussions.

At the conclusion of his 5000-word essay, Putin declares that Russia is not and never has been “anti-Ukraine”.

“Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful,” he writes. “What Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 11, 2021 as "US diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 escalates friction".

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