Great power rivalry
Ukraine: The United States this week announced a boost in military support for Ukraine, including rockets, helicopters and anti-tank weapons to assist Ukrainian forces to block Russia’s gradual advance.
Announcing the move in an opinion piece in The New York Times, US president Joe Biden said he supported diplomacy and insisted he was not aiming to oust Russian president Vladimir Putin. But he said further military aid for Ukraine was needed because talks have stalled.
“They are stalled because Russia continues to wage a war to take control of as much of Ukraine as it can,” Biden wrote.
In eastern Ukraine, Russia has seized more territory, including urban areas that were captured after Russian forces first launched relentless artillery attacks. Russia has gained control of much of the city of Sievierodonetsk, where about 13,000 civilians remain, compared with a pre-war population of 100,000. “The city is essentially being destroyed ruthlessly block by block,” the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Striuk, told Associated Press.
The European Union this week banned about 75 per cent of oil imports from Russia, though it will still allow purchases of oil that travels along a pipeline into Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The exemption was designed to placate the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who has resisted stronger sanctions.
Russia’s invasion has led to soaring oil and gas prices, which has delivered it a windfall, as long as it can find buyers. Before the latest sanctions, European oil and gas purchases from Russia were worth about €1 billion a day.
Fiji: Pacific island leaders this week rejected a wide-ranging trade and security deal with China after splits emerged over whether to be drawn more closely into “Beijing’s orbit”.
During a 10-day visit to the region, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, presented the five-year deal to counterparts from the 10 Pacific Islands nations that recognise China. Four Pacific states still recognise Taiwan.
But Pacific leaders said they could not reach a consensus on whether to sign the deal and so agreed to reject it. The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, had warned in a letter to other Pacific states that the deal could lead to a new cold war between the US and China. He said agreeing to China’s proposal would move Pacific states “very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them”.
In April, China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands, which Australia fears could lead to the establishment of a Chinese naval base off its north-east coast. Beijing and Honiara insisted there were no plans to build a base.
Before Wang arrived in Fiji, Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister, Penny Wong, travelled to Suva to send a message that the new Labor government was committed to improving Pacific ties and to addressing climate change. Pacific states, which are vulnerable to global warming, have been infuriated by Canberra’s recent lack of climate ambition.
Wang Yi’s visit achieved some diplomatic gains for China, including a new commercial deal with Samoa and support from several states for economic co-operation as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
After a warm meeting with Wang, Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said he had encouraged greater Chinese action on climate change and illegal fishing. “The Pacific needs genuine partners, not superpowers that are super-focused on power,” Bainimarama said in a tweet.
Democracy in retreat
China: The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, visited the Xinjiang region in China but faced criticism this week for failing to condemn China’s detention of more than one million Muslim Uygurs and other minorities.
Bachelet’s office requested the visit four years ago after reports emerged about the mass incarceration and indoctrination of the region’s ethnic groups. China has reportedly tortured and sterilised detainees, banned religious practices and conducted intensive surveillance as part of a systematic crackdown that has been widely labelled as genocide. China says it has conducted counterterrorism measures, dismissing the genocide allegations as the “lie of the century”.
Bachelet’s trip, which ended last weekend, included two days in Xinjiang and a discussion with Chinese president Xi Jinping. It was the first visit to China by a UN high commissioner for human rights since 2005.
At the end of her trip, Bachelet said she had raised concerns about the treatment of the Uygurs but was “unable to assess the full scale of the [education centres]”.
“Official visits by a high commissioner are by their nature high profile and simply not conducive to the kind of detailed, methodical, discreet work of an investigative nature,” she said in a statement.
But human rights groups criticised Bachelet for treating China lightly and for praising its alleviation of poverty – an achievement that Chinese propagandists use to counter criticisms of the country’s dismal human rights record.
The head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said on Twitter that he was outraged by Bachelet’s “soft-pedalling”, adding: “More endless quiet dialogue is not the appropriate response.”
Chinese officials and state media described the trip as a success that had enabled Bachelet to see the “real Xinjiang”.
Spotlight: America and guns
Canada announced this week that it will introduce tighter firearm laws and ban people from owning handguns, days after a mass shooting at a school in the US. But there was no change to laws in the US, despite a horrific massacre on May 24 in the Texan town of Uvalde, where an 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers using two semiautomatic rifles that he bought days earlier. It was America’s 213th mass shooting – in which four or more people were shot or killed – since the beginning of this year.
Last weekend, the US president, Joe Biden, attended a church service in Uvalde and was greeted by a crowd chanting: “Do something.”
He responded: “We will.”
But there is little sign that Republicans, whose support in congress is needed to achieve meaningful gun law reform, will budge. “We don’t want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens,” said John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming. Some Republicans called for improved school security and mental health counselling.
On Monday, Biden, a Democrat, said “rational Republicans” realised that the nation “can’t continue like this”. But he also noted that presidential powers were limited. “I can’t outlaw a weapon,” he said. “I can’t, you know, change the background checks.”
Announcing the new laws in Canada, Bill Blair, the minister for emergency preparedness, said gun ownership was “a privilege, not a right”.
“This is a principle that differentiates ourselves from … our colleagues and friends to the south,” he said.
In 2019, the US recorded 3.96 deaths per 100,000 people from gun violence, the highest of any developed country. Cyprus, which was second on the list, had 0.63 deaths; Australia had 0.19.
On Wednesday, a gunman killed at least four people at a hospital in Oklahoma. It was the 16th mass shooting in the US since the massacre in Uvalde.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Biden vows to send more military support to Ukraine ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription