Ballot ignored regions’ agreement to rotate role. Chinese dam proposal in Tibet adds to India tension. Detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei alleged to have supplied state secrets overseas. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Micronesian states quit Pacific forum over new leader

Outgoing Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Dame Meg Taylor in Suva last week.
Outgoing Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Dame Meg Taylor in Suva last week.
Credit: Forum Media

Great power rivalry

China: Late last year, an executive at a Chinese state-owned power company revealed plans to build the world’s largest hydroelectric dam – a project that is due to generate three times as much power as the Three Gorges Dam, which led to the displacement of 1.4 million people.

The project is due to be built in a section of the Yarlung Tsangpo River that snakes through the Himalayas in Tibet. It has prompted criticism from Tibetans who say it will lead to forced relocations and from environmentalists, who say the dam could affect downstream water supplies and ecosystems.     

But the proposed 15-year project is also raising tensions with India, which fears the dam would disrupt its water supplies and cause flash floods or exacerbate droughts. The Yarlung Tsangpo flows through Tibet before turning south into India, where it is called the Brahmaputra River.

Tensions between China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, have increased in the past year following a series of clashes along their disputed border in the Himalayas. The latest skirmish occurred on January 20, prompting military-level talks.

Following China’s announcement of its proposed dam, India said it would build its own 10-gigawatt hydropower project to offset the impact of any Chinese facilities.

China claims the dam will help it to achieve its plans to become carbon neutral by 2060. But it also believes the project will improve China’s water security and strengthen its control of Tibet.

After winding through China and India, the Brahmaputra River flows through Bangladesh, which is one of the world’s poorest countries and could be severely affected by megaprojects upstream.

The neighbourhood

Palau: The 18-member Pacific Islands Forum – a body that has helped to promote regional co-operation for 50 years – was in chaos this week after five nations quit the group.

Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia announced they would leave over their anger at the election last week of a new secretary-general to replace Dame Meg Taylor.

A ballot to appoint the next secretary-general was won by the Polynesian candidate, former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna, who defeated Marshall Islands candidate Gerald Zackios by one vote. The Micronesian states said the ballot violated a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate the leadership across the three regions of the Pacific – Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

Palau was the first state to announce its withdrawal from the forum. Former Palau president Tommy Remengesau Jr told ABC News: “This is something bigger than just the … secretary-general position – it’s about respect, it’s about fairness.”

The crisis comes at a crucial time for the forum, which has been addressing issues such as climate change and the health and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia, the forum’s largest member, this week called for unity and expressed hope that the Micronesian nations would remain in the forum.

The process for the withdrawal of the Micronesian states will take about a year.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: Thousands of protesters marched in cities and towns across Myanmar this week, issuing three-finger pro-democracy salutes as they demanded an end to military rule and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Defying a ban on gatherings of five or more people, crowds continued to hold rallies as police fired at them with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and, in some cases, live ammunition.

On Monday, the military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, gave his first televised address since February 1, when the military declared a one-year state of emergency and began arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of her National League for Democracy party (NLD).

Min Aung Hlaing insisted the coup was necessary because of voter fraud at an election last November, which the NLD won in a landslide. He said new elections would be held and overseen by a revamped election commission, promising that Myanmar would have a “disciplined democracy” that would be different to its previous eras of military rule. The current election commission has dismissed the allegations of voter fraud.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, spent a total of 15 years under house arrest until finally being released in 2010 as the country transitioned towards democracy. She is reportedly being detained at her official residence in Naypyidaw.

The military has also arrested Sean Turnell, an Australian academic who has been working as an economics adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi. Turnell, an associate professor at Macquarie University, later sent a message to Reuters to say he was “fine and strong, and not guilty of anything”.

The Australian government called for Turnell’s immediate release and said it was reviewing its military co-operation with Myanmar.

Spotlight: Cheng Lei’s arrest

China: Until August 13 last year, Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian, was a well-known presenter on CGTN, China’s English-language television news service. A familiar face for millions of viewers, she had recently started presenting a cooking show when she was suddenly detained in Beijing.

For the past six months, Cheng, whose two children have been staying with their grandmother in Melbourne, has been held at an undisclosed location, without being charged or given access to a lawyer. Her videos and profile page have been removed from CGTN’s website.

On Monday, it emerged that Cheng had been formally arrested by Chinese authorities on February 5. The news was not delivered by the Chinese government, but by Marise Payne, Australia’s Foreign minister, who said Lei had been arrested on “suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas”.

The revelation did little to clarify the reasons for Cheng’s lengthy detention.

Her arrest may have been a response by Beijing to an ASIO operation in Sydney last June in which officers raided the homes of four Chinese state media journalists as part of an alleged foreign interference investigation. Others have been detained in China in similarly murky circumstances, including Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist working for Bloomberg in Beijing, who is a close friend of Lei’s and was detained in December.

The arrest of Cheng has led to a further deterioration in tensions between Australia and China, which has resulted in China curbing imports of Australian products and freezing high-level contacts.

Payne said Australian embassy officials had visited Cheng six times, most recently on January 27.

“We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met,” she said.

In 2014, Cheng appeared on ABC’s Q&A program and was asked whether her role at CGTN had forced her to compromise her integrity.

“It’s much easier to criticise and to hold very absolute standards on so-called integrity when you’re not here,” she said. “I think it is more meaningful for me to be within the system and to feel that I am effecting change [at] a steady pace.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Micronesian states quit Pacific forum over new leader".

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

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