Show of unity in Pacific Islands. ‘Pogrom’ accusations in West Bank rampage. Murdoch admits to enabling ‘crazy’ election lies. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US accuses China of  ‘veneer of neutrality’ regarding Russia

A soldier stands in salute, facing two men in suits. The men are standing on a raised platform and, behind them, many other men in suits watch the affair with masks on.
Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a welcoming ceremony for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Beijing on Wednesday.
Credit: Zhai Jianlan / Xinhua via AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: The United States this week said China was “clearly” siding with Russia in the war in Ukraine as Xi Jinping hosted a visit from the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who is a staunch ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Dismissing China’s “veneer of neutrality”, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday that Beijing had provided Moscow with diplomatic, political and economic support, and had echoed Russian propaganda.

“Despite [China’s] protests to the contrary, we have seen them very clearly take a side in this war,” he said.

Washington has warned that Beijing may be preparing to provide military support to Moscow, saying such a move would lead to US sanctions on China.

On Tuesday, President Lukashenko, who allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory during the invasion of Ukraine, arrived in China for a three-day state visit.

In Ukraine, Russian forces continued to edge towards Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region that Russia has been trying to capture for six months. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that defending the city was difficult because Russia was “destroying everything that can be used to protect our positions”. 

The neighbourhood

Fiji: The Pacific Islands Forum displayed a united front last weekend as it secured the return of Kiribati as a member and appointed former Nauru president Baron Waqa – a strident critic of Beijing – as its next secretary general.

Waqa, who will take up the position in 2024, is a controversial figure who has been accused of accepting bribes and who oversaw crackdowns on the judiciary, the opposition in Nauru and the media, including a ban on Facebook.

But his appointment came amid efforts to unite the forum following anger among Kiribati, Nauru and other Micronesian countries over the election in 2021 of the current secretary general, Henry Puna, who is from Cook Islands in Polynesia. Micronesian countries believed there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate the leadership across Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. The decision to appoint Waqa helped to address these concerns. Kiribati withdrew from the forum last year but has now formally rejoined.

Before the forum meeting, Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister, Penny Wong, visited Kiribati and offered a range of support, including assistance with upgrading a port and rebuilding a wharf.

The show of unity by the 18-member forum, which includes Australia and New Zealand, may set back efforts by China to form its own Pacific blocs. Beijing tried last year to sign a wide-ranging deal with the 10 Pacific countries that recognise China but the offer was rejected.

Waqa has accused China of trying to dominate the Pacific and famously clashed with a Chinese diplomat at a forum meeting in Nauru in 2018. Nauru is one of only four Pacific nations that recognise Taiwan.

Democracy in retreat

Israel: Following the shooting of two Israelis, hundreds of settlers went on a rampage in a Palestinian town in the West Bank, leaving one person dead in scenes that an Israeli general this week described as a “pogrom”.

The settler attacks, in the small town of Huwara, came amid escalating violence in the West Bank, including a recent raid by Israeli forces in Nablus that led to a gun battle that left 11 Palestinians dead.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the violence, the third such meeting since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – the most right-wing in the country’s history – took office two months ago.

The settlers descended on Huwara last Sunday, hours after a Palestinian killed two Israeli brothers who were driving through the town. Following calls for a march to “seek revenge”, an estimated 400 settlers, some armed with knives and guns, spent about five hours in the town, setting houses and cars alight. On Monday, Palestinian gunmen shot and killed an Israeli American on a highway near Jericho in the West Bank.

Israeli Major-General Yehuda Fuchs admitted this week that the Israeli military had not been prepared for the settler attacks in Huwara and had failed to anticipate the number of people or the level of violence.

“What happened in Huwara was a pogrom carried out by law-breakers,” he told Israel’s Channel 12.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the settler violence as “terrorist acts”, saying the Israeli government was “fully responsible”.

The violence in the West Bank this year has been the bloodiest in decades and threatens to further divide Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ultra-religious and far-right parties.

Netanyahu condemned the settler attacks in Huwara, saying: “I ask that when blood is boiling and the spirit is hot, don’t take the law into your hands.”

Major-General Fuchs said: “This is not a case of ‘taking the law into their own hands’ because law-abiding people do not spread terror among a population.”

Spotlight: Murdoch admits enabling ‘crazy’ election lies

United States: In November 2019, Rupert Murdoch was watching television as Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani declared at a press conference – as sweaty lines of hair dye bled down his cheeks – there had been “mass cheating” in the election.

“Really crazy stuff,” Murdoch emailed News Corp head Robert Thomson.

Fox initially distanced itself from Trump’s claims but its stance was believed to be causing viewers to switch to smaller far-right networks. So, Fox began giving wide – often supportive – coverage of the election fraud proponents, even though, as Fox anchor Sean Hannity has admitted, “I did not believe it for one second”.    

In an extraordinary court filing that emerged this week, Murdoch acknowledged under oath that when several Fox commentators – including Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo – endorsed the stolen election claims, he chose not to intervene.

In a deposition lodged as part of a $US1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox, Murdoch said: “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it, in hindsight.”

Asked whether he could have prevented Giuliani and Sidney Powell, another Trump lawyer, from appearing on air, he replied: “I could have. But I didn’t.”

Fox is being sued by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company, that says its reputation was damaged by the airing of accusations the broadcaster knew were false. In the US, unlike in Australia, those suing for defamation must demonstrate that the publisher acted with malice.

Fox has argued it was entitled to report on Trump’s claims but that its executives did not endorse the lies being spread about the election.

Norm Eisen, CNN’s legal analyst, said in a tweet on Tuesday that the deposition was “absolutely devastating to Fox … Stunning proof of libel.”

In his deposition, Murdoch, when asked whether Fox endorsed the claims, said: “Not Fox. But maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria as commentators.”

Murdoch said he contacted Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott several times a week with “suggestions” about the broadcaster’s hosts, topics, guests and messaging.

“I’m a journalist at heart,” he said. “I like to be involved in these things.”

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "US accuses China of  ‘veneer of neutrality’ regarding Russia".

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

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription