World

Jacinda Ardern abandons Covid-zero strategy. Singapore’s foreign interference law labelled Kafkaesque. Pandora Papers reveal Czech PM’s chateau and the property portfolios of wealthy world leaders.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

China sends dozens of jets into Taiwan’s defence zone

A Taiwan honour guard performs during a national day rehearsal this week in Taipei.
Credit: Reuters / Ann Wang

Great power rivalry

Taiwan: To mark its national day last week, China sent a record 38 fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone. In the days that followed, as China’s celebrations continued, further records were set: 39 flights last Saturday and 56 on Monday.

The United States said the flights were provocative, Australia dubbed them threatening, and Taiwan warned of a looming war.

China’s Communist Party has been conducting almost daily interventions into Taiwan’s defence zone this year. The sudden increase in flights in the past week may have been part of a Chinese military training schedule, or a response to a recent naval exercise by US and British warships in the region, or part of a symbolic display in the lead-up to Taiwan’s national day on Sunday.

Xi Jinping has committed to “reunifying” Taiwan with China, which views the island as a breakaway province. The US, under Donald Trump and Joe Biden, has been strengthening its support for Taiwan, though its official stance remains “strategic ambiguity”, or a refusal to commit to defending the island if it is attacked. On Monday, the White House promised to ensure Taiwan had a “sufficient self-defence capability”. China’s foreign ministry said the comments were irresponsible.

As tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations increase, the US trade representative, Katherine Tai, signalled this week that Washington will persist with tariffs and other measures aimed at forcing China to change its trade practices, which the US views as unfair.

“We continue to have serious concerns with China’s state-centred and non-market trade practices,” she said during an address in Washington.

A survey in Taiwan last year found just 1 per cent of the population supports immediate unification with China, though only 6 per cent support immediate independence. A majority supports independence if it can be peacefully achieved; if not, a majority supports the status quo.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, this week ended the nation’s effort to eliminate Covid-19 after a seven-week lockdown failed to overcome an outbreak in Auckland.    

Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has imposed strict border closures and swift lockdowns that have largely allowed the nation to live without restrictions. The economy is strong, unemployment is low and, until recently, there had been relatively few local cases or deaths.

But Ardern said the Delta strain was making a return to zero cases “extremely difficult”. As of Wednesday, authorities had recorded 1420 cases in the current outbreak.

“We’re transitioning from our current strategy into a new way of doing things,” Ardern told reporters on Monday.

The government this week began easing restrictions in Auckland, including allowing 10-person outdoor gatherings and opening preschools. Strict lockdowns will be lifted when 90 per cent of residents aged 12 and over have been vaccinated. As of Wednesday, 51 per cent of eligible residents were fully vaccinated and 80 per cent had received one dose.

Democracy in retreat

Singapore: On Monday, Singapore introduced a controversial foreign interference law following growing concerns that China is seeking to meddle in the city-state, where 74 per cent of the 5.9 million residents are ethnic Chinese.

The new law, which did not specifically mention China, will allow authorities to force internet, social media platforms and website operators to block users, remove content and provide user information. It will also require politicians and political parties to declare any foreign affiliation.

The law follows growing concerns that Beijing has been seeking to influence affairs and spread propaganda in Singapore by targeting community and business groups and media outlets. About 30 per cent of Singaporeans speak Mandarin at home.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which holds 83 of the 93 elected seats in parliament, says fake and misleading information campaigns by hostile foreign actors threaten to undermine cohesion among the state’s mix of ethnic, religious and language groups.

But the law has faced heavy criticism from opposition parties, rights groups, social media platforms and legal experts over concerns it is excessive and could suppress legitimate debate.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the law was vague, arbitrary and Kafkaesque, and will enable the persecution of any entity that “does not toe the line set by the government”.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index for 2021 ranked Singapore 160th out of 180 countries, saying the state’s approach to media freedom “does not fall short of China”.

Spotlight: Pandora Papers

In 2011, Andrej Babiš, a Czech billionaire whose vast business empire includes agriculture, chemical and media operations, entered politics after creating a populist party that pledged to tackle the country’s rampant corruption. Six years later, he became prime minister and retains a strong support base despite facing various scandals, including fraud allegations.

Last Sunday, in the lead-up to parliamentary elections this weekend, it emerged that in 2009 he had purchased a $US22 million hilltop mansion near Cannes, Chateau Bigaud, using shell companies that concealed his identity. He has never disclosed his interest in the property. As Czech authorities launched an investigation, Babiš claimed the revelations were orchestrated by his opponents to influence the election.

“I paid all the taxes,” he told Czech television. “This is completely absurd.”

The revelation about the secret chateau emerged from the Pandora Papers, an investigation into 11.9 million files that were leaked to the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The documents have exposed the use of offshore companies and trusts by wealthy individuals around the world to hide and shift assets and avoid or minimise tax. Many of the accounts were based in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Panama, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Belize.

The documents revealed the hidden assets of 35 current and former world leaders and their inner circles, including a $US100 million property portfolio owned by Jordan’s King Abdullah as well as assets belonging to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and close associates of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan.

Tax authorities in several countries, including Australia, said they would investigate the documents, which revealed details about 29,000 offshore companies. The White House said it would “crack down on the unfair schemes that give big corporations a leg up”.

Babiš has remained unrepentant since the leak. Before becoming prime minister, he promised to run the Czech Republic like a business. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "China sends dozens of jets into Taiwan’s defence zone".

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