World

Just 3.5 per cent vote for independence from France in New Caledonia poll. Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai jailed after Tiananmen Square vigil. Boris Johnson’s popularity plummets over Downing Street Christmas parties under lockdown. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Blinken doubles down on US push against China in SE Asia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Jakarta this week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Jakarta this week.
Credit: Olivier Douliery / Pool / AFP

Great power rivalry

Indonesia: During his first visit to South-East Asia since becoming United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken made no attempt to conceal the motivation behind the White House’s recent flurry of high-level visits to the region.

In a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, he urged countries in South-East Asia to work with Washington to combat “Beijing’s aggressive actions”, citing China’s maritime claims on open seas and its use of economic coercion.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change – we do too,” he said.

Blinken’s visit follows trips to South-East Asia in the past six months by senior American figures, including the vice-president, Kamala Harris, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In October, the president, Joe Biden, joined a virtual summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after four years of non-attendance by Donald Trump.

China’s activities and reach across the region are extensive. Its trade with ASEAN is more than double that of the US, and it is building crucial rail, ports and other infrastructure throughout the region. Its Covid-19 vaccines are widely used in South-East Asia, including in Indonesia, which has bought more than 250 million doses of Chinese vaccines.

But South-East Asian countries have typically been wary of taking sides in the growing rivalry between the US and China.

In August, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he believed – contrary to popular views in Beijing and Washington, respectively – that the US is not in terminal decline and that China, unlike the Soviet Union, is “not going to disappear”.

“I don’t know whether Americans realise what a formidable adversary they would be taking on if they decide that China is an enemy,” he told the Aspen Security Forum.

“The reality is, neither side can put the other one down.”

The neighbourhood

New Caledonia: At a third and final referendum to decide the future of New Caledonia, just 3.5 per cent of those who voted supported independence from France and 96.5 per cent voted against.

But the referendum, which was boycotted by pro-independence groups, is unlikely to resolve the territory’s status. Instead, it risks stirring long-running ethnic tensions between loyalists and separatists.

The referendum was the third to be held as part of a 1998 peace accord. In 2018, 57 per cent opposed independence; in 2020, 53 per cent opposed independence. But the voter turnout at the latest referendum was just 44 per cent, compared with turnouts of more than 80 per cent at the previous two.

The Indigenous Kanak community, which makes up about 39 per cent of the territory’s 240,000 residents, wanted France to delay the vote until next year to allow for a 12-month mourning period for Covid-19 deaths. In some Kanak villages, no one voted.

Following the referendum, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a video message: “Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it.”

But pro-independence groups are demanding another vote be held in 2022.

The FLNKS, a pro-independence party, said the decision to hold the referendum was “a declaration of war”.

Democracy in retreat

Hong Kong: Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon, has been sentenced to 13 months in jail for supporting a vigil in 2020 – possibly the city’s last – to mark China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The vigil, which had been held at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for decades, was banned in 2020 by authorities, who cited concerns about the spread of Covid-19. Tens of thousands of people defied the order, including Lai, whose popular Apple Daily newspaper closed in June after being repeatedly raided by authorities.

A court found Lai guilty of inciting others to participate in the vigil – a charge he denied. In a handwritten letter composed in prison and presented to the court, he said he lit candles in a personal capacity to “remind the world to remember”.

“If commemorating those who died because of injustice is a crime, then inflict on me that crime and let me suffer the punishment,” he wrote.

Lai, who is 74 years old, faces multiple charges, along with other prominent activists who have been targeted following a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. Seven other people were sentenced over the vigil.

The judge, Amanda Woodcock, said the defendants had “ignored and belittled a genuine public health crisis”. The defendants claimed authorities had used the pandemic as an excuse to ban the vigil.

In 2021, authorities again banned the vigil, sealing off Victoria Park. Organisers cancelled the event. Small groups – and some lone protesters – attended, holding candles along the outskirts of the park.

Spotlight: Boris Johnson in trouble

Britain: Last Christmas was a grim time for most Britons. The nation was under a strict lockdown as it struggled to cope with soaring Covid-19 cases and deaths. Parties and family visits were banned.

But a leaked video has revealed that the festivities continued in Downing Street. The footage showed a senior aide, Allegra Stratton, giving a mock press conference, at which she joked about an illicit staff Christmas party allegedly held days earlier at 10 Downing Street. “This fictional party … was not socially distanced,” she said.

The emergence of the video, which appeared on ITV News, followed repeated denials by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the party had occurred. He has since ordered an inquiry, saying he was “sickened” by the footage. Stratton resigned.

But allegations have surfaced of at least two other unlawful government gatherings. Johnson is also under pressure over whether he knew about the source of funds that were used to refurbish his flat on Downing Street.

Meanwhile, the government is struggling to combat a surging outbreak of Covid-19 involving the Omicron strain. Johnson’s move to impose new curbs on the unvaccinated, such as barring them from nightclubs and sports stadiums, sparked a revolt in his party and was rejected by 99 Conservative MPs.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who supported the new measures, told reporters: “He [Johnson] is too weak to discharge the basic functions of government.”

An Opinium poll on December 10 showed 41 per cent of voters supported Labour and 32 per cent supported the Conservatives, marking Labour’s biggest lead since 2014. Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed disapproved of Johnson’s performance, and 24 per cent approved, his worst ratings since becoming prime minister in 2019.

Johnson now faces mounting speculation – including from staunch supporters of his party – that his leadership will be challenged. The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Paul Goodman, a former Conservative MP, wrote that the ousting of Johnson was “suddenly more likely than not”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Blinken doubles down on US push against China in SE Asia".

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

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