Fiji seeks to vaccinate 12 to to 17 year olds to quell Covid-19 outbreak. The Taliban capture more regions of Afghanistan as US troops leave. Lebanon’s economic collapse leads to fuel shortages, power cuts and soaring food costs. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Abbott’s India trip sends signal to China

Former prime minister Tony Abbott on a trade mission to India in 2019.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott on a trade mission to India in 2019.
Credit: Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Tony Abbott was dispatched to India by the Australian government last week as a special trade envoy, but the former prime minister – not typically renowned for his diplomatic subtlety – was quick to expand on his mission’s broader purpose.

After returning to Australia, Abbott confirmed that the aim of his five-day visit was not merely to develop commercial ties with India and push for a long-awaited trade deal. It was also intended to send a message from the West to China.

In an opinion piece in The Australian, Abbott said a trade deal with India would show that the democratic world was looking to “tilt away from China”. Signalling that he now regretted his decision, as prime minister, to sign a free trade deal with Beijing, he warned China was “becoming more belligerent almost by the day”.

“The answer to almost every question about China is India,” he wrote.

India’s commercial ties with Australia are growing but remain patchy. Despite a decade of talks, the two sides have been unable to reach a free trade deal.

But Australia has not been the only country seeking to strengthen ties with India to try to counter China’s increasing influence. The United States, Japan, Australia and India have revived and strengthened their four-way security partnership – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – which is due to hold its first in-person leaders’ summit later this year. Narendra Modi, India’s staunchly nationalist prime minister, has been increasingly receptive to such moves, particularly as India’s border skirmishes with China have escalated.

India revealed last week that it will send four warships into the South China Sea to hold exercises with its three Quad partners, and will also hold exercises with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. China, meanwhile, sent naval ships to the South China Sea this week, apparently to conduct anti-ship ballistic missile exercises.

In 2014, Abbott hosted Modi during the first visit by an Indian prime minister in almost 30 years. They signed a defence co-operation deal but did not, at least in public, mention China.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: Authorities are looking to extend Covid-19 vaccinations in Fiji to those aged 12 to 17 years old as the country grapples with one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

Since the current outbreak began in April, 38,344 people – or 4 per cent of the nation’s 940,000 residents – have been infected. As of Wednesday, 340 deaths had been recorded, including 338 since April.

Fiji has been quickly rolling out vaccines as part of a plan to fully vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by October 31. The government has introduced schemes that force workers to be vaccinated and that effectively cut welfare benefits to those who are unvaccinated. As of Wednesday, about 90 per cent of eligible adults had received a first dose, and 35 per cent were fully vaccinated.

The health ministry said this week it wanted to try to secure Pfizer supplies to potentially start vaccinating children. Adults have been receiving the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.

Dr Rachel Devi, the head of Fiji’s vaccination taskforce, said two children – a 15-year-old and an 11-month-old – have died in the current outbreak.

Democracy in retreat

Afghanistan: The Taliban has swept through Afghanistan and taken control of about two-thirds of the country as America’s last remaining 650 troops prepare to complete their withdrawal by the end of August.

Since the US began leaving in May, the Taliban has captured a series of district capitals, including at least nine this week. In May and June, 2400 civilians were killed or injured – the worst toll in more than a decade. In captured regions, the Taliban has destroyed schools and imposed severe restrictions on women. According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban has also been executing those deemed to have colluded with the Afghan government, including police.

US President Joe Biden has signalled that the US will not step in to support Afghan troops, which have struggled to hold territory without the support of American air power.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday: “It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle.”

The US is pushing for a negotiated deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, warning that a Taliban-led nation will be viewed as an international pariah.

In northern Afghanistan, a 22-year-old female journalist told The Guardian this week she had gone into hiding after the Taliban seized her village because she was concerned about being forced by the Taliban to marry one of its fighters. “All I can do is keep running and hope that a route out of the province opens up soon,” she wrote. “Please pray for me.”

Spotlight: Lebanon after the blast

In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of the explosion in the port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and flattened several neighbourhoods, Sarah Dadouch, a Beirut-based journalist, contacted a prominent local activist. The activist told her: “If you want to interview me because you want me to talk about how we’ll rebuild and how we still have hope after the blast and all that shit, don’t.”

Lebanon’s economy is currently in tatters, and public anger and anxieties are rising.

Describing the encounter with the activist in a tweet, Dadouch added: “Hope is now a luxury. Haven’t seen it recently.”

In recent months, fuel shortages have led to rolling blackouts and left much of the country in darkness. The national power company has limited electricity to an hour a day for homes and businesses. Motorists queue for hours for fuel, and several deadly fights have broken out over scarce petrol supplies. Food prices are soaring, the currency has lost 90 per cent of its value, and annual inflation last year was 85 per cent. According to the World Bank, the nation’s economic collapse is one of the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

The port explosion last year has exacerbated the crisis as well as the public discontent. Authorities have not yet provided an explanation as to why 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were left unattended for years, or of how it ignited. Investigations have stalled. No one has been held responsible. The explosion prompted the prime minister to resign and the country remains leaderless as its political powerbrokers have been unable to form a stable government.

Last week, protesters marched through damaged neighbourhoods near the port to mark the anniversary of the explosion. “Revenge, revenge, until the regime falls,” they chanted. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 14, 2021 as "Abbott’s trade trip to India sends signal to China".

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

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