World

Huawei caught in US–China fight. West Papua petition presented in Geneva. Venezuela’s leadership crisis. Taliban deal in Afghanistan. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Hunger for change in Venezuela

Venezuela’s interim leader Juan Guaidó speaks at a rally against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas last week.
Credit: Federico Parra / AFP / Getty

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Shenzhen: At the cafeteria at the Chinese company that is the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications equipment, the coffee cups feature a picture of a lighthouse shining a beam at the horizon, with the slogan: “The lighthouse is waiting for Meng Wanzhou’s early return.”

It is likely to be a long wait.

The United States Department of Justice this week released details of the charges against Meng, a senior executive at Huawei who is under strict bail conditions in Vancouver after the US asked Canada to arrest and extradite her.

The US alleges that Meng stole mobile phone commercial secrets and helped the company to evade sanctions against Iran.

But the case is part of a much larger battle between the US and China. The US believes Huawei’s technology could be used for intelligence purposes and has been urging countries to ban the company from involvement in rolling out high-speed 5G wireless networks. Australia and New Zealand have excluded Huawei; others, such as Germany and Britain, may follow.

Huawei strongly denies the charges against Meng. Her father, Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder, recently gave a rare public interview in which he pledged support for the Communist Party but insisted Huawei would not be used by Chinese security agencies.

“We are like a small sesame seed, stuck in the middle of conflict between two great powers,” he said.

In China, Meng has been painted as a scapegoat, and the battle against Huawei is seen as a hypocritical attempt to thwart China’s rise, especially following Edward Snowden’s revelations about Washington’s efforts to involve US telecommunications companies in intelligence operations.

But the US believes China’s growth is largely being achieved by “stealing information from our companies”, as the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, told a senate committee this week. And it believes the Communist Party can – and does – coerce companies such as Huawei to conduct espionage and cyber attacks.

Two national narratives, with no middle ground. In Vancouver, a Canadian judge said Meng’s extradition proceedings could take months, or years. The wider conflict is likely to last much, much longer.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Geneva: Armed with a 40-kilogram stack of papers that he described as “the biggest book in the world”, West Papua’s exiled separatist leader Benny Wenda travelled to Geneva to present a petition demanding a referendum on the fate of the troubled Indonesian province. The petition was signed by more than 1.8 million people, more than half of West Papua’s estimated population.

After attending a meeting between Vanuatu officials and the United Nations human rights high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, Wenda declared: “I handed over what I call the bones of the people of West Papua, because so many people have been killed.”

The move follows renewed violence in the isolated, resource-rich province. Thousands of people have reportedly been displaced – and several killed – since Indonesian forces began a crackdown in response to a deadly attack by West Papuan guerillas in December. Indonesia’s operations included the use of internationally banned white phosphorus, as reported in The Saturday Paper – a claim Jakarta has denied.

Indonesia’s violence and abuse of human rights in West Papua has continued despite Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s plans to develop the province. Widodo has made regular visits and increased funding, but his efforts have not dampened local support for independence.

For decades, West Papuans have been trying to gain international sympathy. But countries such as Australia, fearful of angering Jakarta, tend to show a stark lack of interest in the province’s plight. As Indonesia rises, the silence is unlikely to be broken.

Wenda first attempted to present the petition to a UN committee on decolonisation in 2017, to little effect. Responding to the latest petition, Indonesia’s defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told parliament: “[They’re] not allowed independence. Full stop.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Caracas: In Venezuela, where official data tends to be either inaccurate or non-existent, a group of researchers from three universities have found a useful, and tragic, way to chart the nation’s decline: they ask Venezuelans about their weight.

Their most recent study found the average weight loss during 2017 among the more than 6000 people surveyed was 11 kilograms. This was slightly higher than the average eight-kilogram loss during 2016.

This phenomenon, which reflects the widespread starvation and malnutrition caused by food shortages and soaring prices, has become known as the “Maduro diet”, named after the nation’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who viciously joked that the diet “makes you tough”.

Maduro took over from Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013, and continued Chávez’s reign of corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and despotism. But Chávez died just as oil prices started to drop and escaped many of the consequences of his misrule. The country has the world’s largest oil reserves but is now one of the worst-performing economies, with an inflation rate of more than one million per cent causing prices of goods to double every three weeks.

After a sham election, Maduro was inaugurated on January 10 but is facing heavy domestic and international pressure to hold a fresh ballot.

Chávez and Maduro jailed, banned and exiled any significant opposition figures. The latest to oppose Maduro is Juan Guaidó, 35, the little-known leader of the national assembly, who has declared himself interim president until new elections are held.

Guaidó has been backed by Donald Trump and much of the international community, though Russia and China have sided with Maduro. For Trump, this was a notable departure from his usual support for authoritarians. But he had motivations other than concern over Venezuelan liberty: Maduro is a socialist, and the exodus of Venezuelans – more than three million have fled – could add to the flow of asylum seekers heading for the US. Plus, there’s the oil.

Yet Trump’s early intervention worked and sparked a global demand for new elections. Hopefully, he will not push for military action, a possibility he first considered in 2017 – it could be disastrous. The nation is already in a state of disrepair and will take decades to recover, even without the strife unleashed by the intervention of foreign troops.

SPOTLIGHT: Afghanistan

Kabul: Eighteen years after George W. Bush announced the start of a US-led offensive in Afghanistan, the war may finally be ending. The US and the Taliban have reached a deal in which foreign forces will leave in return for a Taliban pledge that Afghan territory will not be used as a haven for terrorists.

This has been the US’s longest war and has led to tens of thousands of deaths. Like other recent protracted US wars, such as those in Vietnam and Iraq, it will not be recorded as a victory.

In October 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks, Bush signalled a limited mission to remove al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban’s military capability. This was quickly achieved but the war’s aims were expanded. By April 2002, Bush was promising to turn the country into a place “that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live”. In the years since, US troop numbers fluctuated as Washington wavered between a limited security goal and a grander attempt at nation-building.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, which has been fighting on and off since an insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, is reportedly ready for a deal. A final resolution will still depend on the Taliban reaching an agreement on power sharing with the Afghan government. The other problem is that the Taliban’s growing clout will mark a backward step for women and human rights.

An Afghanistan-based researcher who has investigated conditions in Taliban-controlled areas, Ashley Jackson, said the Taliban does not allow girls to attend school past puberty and excludes women from participating in local decision-making. In addition, smartphones and Facebook are banned, and men are forced to attend prayers.

“Even in conservative areas, the Taliban strictures are seen by local communities as excessive,” she told The Saturday Paper.

Jackson said she supported the peace talks but believed the international community was “rushing to the exit” and should press the Taliban on women’s rights and civil liberties as part of negotiations.

“I am excited about the progress. It is long overdue,” she said. “The thing that is missing from the talks is: what do the Afghan people want? The discussions about the future of Afghanistan will continue long after a peace deal is signed.”

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Hunger for change". Subscribe here.

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