Sep 16, 2021

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight's edition (1,828 words, a 7-minute read) starts with submarines, covers world leaders under investigation, and ends with a megastar who disappeared.

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1 big thing: Biden's new alliance on China blindsides Europe

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Biden is constructing and deepening new alliances to strengthen the U.S. position in its showdown with China, but he risks alienating longstanding allies in the process, Zach Basu and I write.

Why it matters: Biden heralded a new agreement to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines as part of a trilateral security pact with the U.K. and the U.S. as an "historic step" to update U.S. alliances to face new challenges.

  • The message from French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was quite different: "Allies don't do this to each other," he said, comparing Biden's announcement to "what Mr. Trump used to do."
  • Australia is scrapping a $90 billion submarine deal with France — described as "the contract of the century" when signed in 2016 — to enter the new "AUKUS" partnership.
  • Le Drian called it "a stab in the back," and the French defense minister said she didn't learn the news until Biden announced it last night — just the latest key decision on which Biden has blindsided his European allies.

To make matters worse, the announcement came just one day before the EU was set to present its own much-anticipated strategy for the Indo-Pacific, embarrassing the Europeans just as they sought to flex their own geopolitical muscle.

  • "I suppose that a deal like that wasn’t cooked the day before yesterday," the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell said at a press conference to unveil the strategy, which was consumed by questions about AUKUS. "Despite that, we weren’t informed."
  • A senior Biden administration official told Axios the timing of the announcement had "no connection" to the EU's plans, and said U.S. officials had "been in touch with their French counterparts to discuss AUKUS, including before the announcement."

The big picture: Biden's stated China strategy has long been to bring like-minded allies together to push back on Beijing.

  • Europe was to be at the heart of that approach, and France in particular since it is a leading military power and the only EU country with overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific
  • Successive U.S. administrations have encouraged European allies to "step up their presence in the Indo-Pacific," notes Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council's Europe Center. "And so a strategic dimension, I think, was overlooked by the American administration."

EU countries knew "Europe was not the focus" when Biden took office, a European diplomat told Axios this week.

  • Still, they were heartened by Biden's symbolic steps to shore up the relationship after Trump left office, including a visit to Brussels for his first overseas trip and his pledges to coordinate with Europe on key issues, the diplomat said.
  • But they have been bitterly disappointed at times with the lack of communication and flexibility in practice, including the one-sided ban on vaccinated European travelers.
  • The chaotic withdrawal of NATO allies from Afghanistan led to another round of soul-searching about whether Europe could or should base its security so heavily on the U.S. alliance.

What's next: Biden will host U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson next week to celebrate the AUKUS partnership, and he'll also host the first in-person "Quad" summit with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan.

  • French officials were set to host a gala tonight in Washington to celebrate the U.S. alliance and mark 240 years since a crucial shared victory in the U.S. Revolutionary War. That event has now been canceled.
2. Biden's two-pronged China strategy collides with reality

President Biden looks at Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joins them in announcement of a trilateral nuclear submarine agreement. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Beijing reacted furiously to the AUKUS announcement, warning it revealed an "obsolete cold war mentality" that would only end up hurting the countries involved.

Why it matters: Biden came into office contending that he would be able to position the U.S. for a prolonged competition with China, while simultaneously cooperating with Beijing on key issues. China has thus far been unwilling to separate the two.

  • A lack of cooperation between the world's two leading powers (and biggest emitters) appears likely to doom the upcoming COP26 climate summit to failure, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.
  • Climate envoy John Kerry failed to even secure an in-person meeting with senior Chinese officials during a trip to China earlier this month. Instead, they used video calls to tell Kerry that Biden could forget his proposal to deal with climate as a freestanding issue.

And as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula, with both North and South Korea testing missiles this week, the U.S. could use China's help to push Pyongyang toward diplomacy.

  • Instead, China is moving closer to North Korea. China is currently refusing to cooperate in a UN report on North Korea's nuclear activities and evasion of sanctions, the WSJ reports.

Then there's AUKUS and the upcoming summit of the Quad, which Beijing condemns as an anti-China bloc.

  • "If our president is telling President Xi we want guardrails and we want safety mechanisms around the military activities, but then we amp up the pressure on military, that's probably going to put an end to any such discussions pretty quickly," Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Zach.

Go deeper: Biden's muddled China policy

3. Global elections roundup
Expand chart
Data: Forsa. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

1. Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) maintain a narrow lead in the polls with ten days to go before the election.

2. The polls are even tighter in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals lead by less than 1%, per a CBC tracker.

  • Conservative leader Erin O'Toole has moved to the left on issues like abortion and climate ahead of Monday's vote. He also said today that he would try to bring Canada into AUKUS.
  • Trudeau, meanwhile, got an endorsement from Barack Obama.

3. In Russia, there is little suspense ahead of Friday's parliamentary elections, but the Kremlin has nonetheless taken pre-election repression to new heights with its campaign against independent activist groups and media outlets.

  • What to watch: Allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny have organized a "smart voting" campaign to elect candidates from any party other than the ruling United Russia. Voters can download an app, enter their address, and be told which party to vote for.
  • The government ordered Google and Apple to remove the app, but they haven't done so, per the NYT. That led the Kremlin to accuse the U.S. of election interference.

4. Japanese vaccine minister Taro Kono has been racking up key endorsements and appears to be the frontrunner to become leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 29, and thus to be Japan's next prime minister.

Bonus: Where in the World?

Screenshot via Apple Maps

Today we're visiting the landmark shown above (red pin). Dignitaries from around the world will be stopping by next week.

Scroll to bottom for answer.

4. Haiti PM fires officials seeking murder charge against him

Ariel Henry (seated) at a memorial ceremony for the late president. Photo: Alerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty

Haiti’s political crisis was complex enough before the prime minister was accused of murdering the president. Now the government may be falling apart.

Driving the news: Prime minister Ariel Henry fired a top prosecutor on Monday who wanted to question him in connection with the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, and then today fired the justice minister who had supported the prosecutor.

  • The latest crisis began when the prosecutor, Bed-Ford Claude, requested an interview with Henry to discuss a phone call he allegedly had with a key suspect just hours after the assassination. As Henry was moving to fire him, Claude sought charges against the prime minister.
  • Next to go was the Secretary-General of Haiti’s Council of Ministers, Renald Luberice, who resigned on Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t work under someone who had been accused of murder and wouldn't cooperate.
  • Between the lines: The case remains incredibly murky, and no known evidence ties Henry to the murder beyond the supposed phone records. He hasn’t spoken publicly on the matter this week.

The backstory: Henry was appointed by Moise days before the assassination, but hadn’t yet been sworn in. That led to a power struggle between Henry and the outgoing prime minister, with the U.S. and a number of other countries publicly backing Henry’s claim.

  • The power struggle continues, but it now overlaps with the investigation into Moise’s assassination.

Meanwhile, half of the victims of Haiti’s Aug. 14 earthquake still haven’t received the initial aid they need, according to the UN.

5. As Duterte plans political future, ICC announces probe

Rodrigo (L) and Sara Duterte. Photo: AFP via Getty

The International Criminal Court has authorized an investigation into the deadly drug war waged by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who says he’ll “die first” before facing the court.

Why it matters: Thousands of people have died in the drug war, many of them in extrajudicial killings. Duterte, 76, withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2019, but the court says it still has jurisdiction to investigate the killings that took place before then.

Driving the news: Duterte’s term ends in June and he’s ineligible to run for re-election in May, but his party recently nominated him for vice president.

  • It’s unclear if he’ll follow through with the bid. His critics fear that if he does, he’ll either be the power behind the throne or even resume the presidency if an ally wins and then steps aside.
  • It’s unclear if he’d retain legal immunity from the ICC trial as vice president.

But another Duterte currently leads the presidential opinion polls: The president’s daughter and successor as mayor of Davao City, Sara Duterte. She has been coy about a potential run.

  • The elder Duterte’s hand-picked successor, Sen. Bong Go, rejected his party’s presidential nomination. That leaves an opening for a Duterte-Duterte ticket, but experts say that's unlikely.
  • Still, because presidents and vice presidents are elected separately, there’s still a chance they could run on separate tickets and both win.

What’s next: It’ll all be a bit clearer by Oct. 8, the deadline for candidates to declare.

6. What I'm reading: Chinese megastar disappears online

Zhao Wei in 2016. Photo: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Zhao Wei is one of the biggest stars in China, but on the Chinese internet, it's as though the actress and singer doesn't exist.

  • She's no longer listed in film credits and doesn't surface in internet searches. The show that made her name, "My Fair Princess," is no longer available.
  • "Ms. Zhao’s online disappearance on Aug. 26 came at the onset of a broader clampdown on the country’s entertainment industry as the Communist Party attempts to halt what it sees as a rise in unhealthy celebrity culture," the WSJ reports.
  • "The Chinese government hasn’t publicly stated what prompted this sudden change to her status, raising questions among fans and observers about how far it is willing to go against her and other celebrities, and why," the WSJ adds.

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7. Stories we're watching

Maintanance on the Taj Mahal. Photo: Pawan Sharma/AFP via Getty

  1. Mark Milley's China crisis
  2. The danger of "sole authority" on nuclear weapons
  3. France suspends 3,000 unvaccinated health workers
  4. ISIS leader in Sahel killed, France says
  5. Covid in Putin's inner-circle
  6. Iran's nuclear negotiator replaced by hardliner
  7. Ex-U.S. intel officials hacked for UAE


"Was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?"
— Sen. Rand Paul to Secretary of State Tony Blinken on the target of a U.S. drone strike in Kabul that reportedly killed 10 civilians
"I don't know."
— Blinken

Answer: The United Nations HQ in New York.