US creates a five-nation group to strengthen ties with Pacific Islands. Sri Lanka’s economic crisis deepens. Impact of the overturning of Roe v Wade. By Jonathan Pearlman.

NATO places 260,000 more troops on high alert

US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen attend a dinner hosted by Spain’s King Felipe VI as part of the NATO summit in Madrid this week.
US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen attend a dinner hosted by Spain’s King Felipe VI as part of the NATO summit in Madrid this week.
Credit: Burak Akbulut / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization this week decided to increase the number of troops it has on high alert from 40,000 to about 300,000 as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the biggest overhaul of the 30-nation Western alliance since the end of the Cold War.

At a meeting in Madrid, NATO agreed to a new strategy for defending eastern Europe that enables the swift deployment of arms and troops – a plan aimed at protecting Baltic states such as Estonia and Lithuania from Russia. The Europe-based alliance is set to expand to include Finland and Sweden after Turkey on Tuesday dropped its opposition to their joining. Both states, which have traditionally been neutral or non-aligned, pushed to join NATO after Russia’s invasion. In February, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, launched the war to try to counter the alliance’s expansion.

Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who attended the summit as a guest, told the NATO leaders he supported their stance against Russia’s invasion, linking their efforts to the need to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in Asia. Without naming China, he said: “By supporting peace and sovereignty in Europe, we are underscoring our ironclad commitment to these norms in our own region, the Indo-Pacific.”

The NATO summit followed a meeting in Germany of the G7 – a group of seven advanced economies – that announced on Tuesday it would try to cap prices of oil and gas imports to prevent Russia profiting from the war. Russia is a major exporter of oil and gas and has benefited from soaring prices since it invaded Ukraine.

As these global summits were occurring, Russia intensified its attacks on Ukraine, including a missile strike on a shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk that killed at least 20 people. 

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said the mall had at least 1000 people in it and was hit by a “calculated Russian strike”. Russia admitted to the missile strike, but said it was targeting Western arms depots and that these stored munitions caused the explosion in the mall. Ukraine’s interior minister, Denys Monastyrskiy, told reporters: “There is no military object in a five-kilometre radius.”

The neighbourhood 

Fiji: The United States and China have launched separate initiatives to try to boost ties with Pacific nations ahead of a meeting of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Fiji on July 14.

The Biden administration last week announced a new five-nation group – along with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Britain – that will aim to strengthen relations with Pacific states and support their efforts to combat climate change and illegal fishing. A US official told the Financial Times that Washington’s renewed engagement with the Pacific had an “undeniable security component” and would include more ship visits.

“There may be even something a little bit more permanent,” the official said. 

The creation of the group – called Partners in the Blue Pacific – follows growing concerns in Washington and Canberra about China’s influence in the Pacific, especially after Beijing signed a security deal with Solomon Islands earlier this year. 

China’s foreign affairs minister, Wang Yi, last month visited the region and invited the 10 Pacific Island states that recognise China to sign a region-wide economic and security deal – an offer they rejected.

But Wang has now reportedly proposed holding a further meeting with foreign affairs ministers from the 10 states on July 14, the same day the Pacific Island Forum leaders will meet. Australia and New Zealand belong to the forum but China and the US do not. 

Anna Powles, from New Zealand’s Massey University, told ABC News this week that China appeared to be trying to “disrupt existing regional mechanisms which China is not a part of”. She added: “Attempting to sideline the PIF is unlikely to be received well in the Pacific.”

Democracy in retreat 

Sri Lanka: Authorities in Sri Lanka this week barred sales of petrol and diesel for two weeks and urged residents to stay home as its economic crisis deepened.

The country, which has 23 million residents, is battling soaring inflation and a lack of foreign currency reserves. 

The crisis has led to daily power blackouts and shortages of medicines, food and essential supplies. To preserve its dwindling fuel supply, the government has shut schools until July 10 and this week extended a closure of public sector offices, except for skeleton staff. 

Protests have erupted across the country, urging the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign.

The government has already defaulted on its $US51 billion foreign debt. Foreign fuel suppliers have been reluctant to provide new shipments because they fear they will not be paid. Authorities are trying to secure oil from Russia, which has been seeking new buyers as Western nations reduce purchases due to the invasion of Ukraine. 

The United Nations said earlier this month 70 per cent of Sri Lankan households had lowered their food intake due to the crisis.

Spotlight: Roe v Wade overturned

United States: Last August Brooke Alexander, an 18-year-old in Texas, found out she was pregnant two days before the state introduced the strictest abortion laws in the US. She and her 17-year-old boyfriend, Billy High, could not get an appointment at nearby abortion clinics, which had no availability as patients rushed to have procedures before the law came into effect. In the end, the couple, who had been together for three months, had twins. She quit her real estate studies. He joined the air force. 

“I can’t just really be free,” she told The Washington Post, which documented their story to give a sense of life in America without Roe v Wade.

The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling, which provided a constitutional right to abortion, has caused a national reckoning and raised questions about the court’s legitimacy. The decision was made by five of the court’s nine justices, including the three appointed by Donald Trump. Two of these justices – Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – had indicated during their confirmation proceedings they would not overturn the case.

Since the decision, more than 20 states have banned or started banning abortions. Texas, which had banned procedures from about six weeks of pregnancy, will now ban all abortions. Abortion remains legal in 20 states. 

Some Democratic lawmakers have called for federal funding for women who need to travel interstate for abortions. Many companies, including Microsoft and Goldman Sachs, said they would cover employee travel expenses for abortions. 

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week found 56 per cent of Americans opposed the court’s decision and 40 per cent supported it.

Besides the US, only three countries – El Salvador, Nicaragua and Poland – have withdrawn abortion rights in the past 30 years.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "NATO places 260,000 more troops on high alert".

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

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