Jul 2, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back! We've got a 1,727-word (6.5-minute) global tour for you tonight before you head into what I hope will be a wonderful weekend.

  • Please keep the tips and feedback coming, and tell a friend about Axios World. New arrivals can hop on here.
  • Tonight's edition begins with a map that, I would contend, can tell us a whole lot about the state of geopolitics in 2020.
1 big thing: Where the world draws the line on China
Note: The U.S. has been highly critical of China over the law, but withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Dueling statements at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva shed light on geopolitical currents far beyond the walls of that institution.

Driving the news: China's Foreign Ministry and state media declared victory after 53 countries backed Beijing's new national security law for Hong Kong. Just 27 criticized the law, which imposes harsh penalties for vaguely defined political crimes and is widely viewed as the death knell for Hong Kong's autonomy.

In the room: The two statements were read back to back in Tuesday's session, with Cuba supporting China and the U.K. representing the critics. China's other allies weren't named publicly until Axios obtained the list this morning.

The big picture: This is one of the clearest indications to date of which countries are challenging a rising superpower, at least on human rights, and which are lining up behind it.

Breaking it down: China's critics are concentrated in Europe and also include major democracies like Australia, Canada and Japan. All 27 are considered "free" in Freedom House's global ratings.

  • China is backed by an assortment of "not free" and "partially free" countries, including many of the world's most brutal dictatorships — North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria. See the full lists.
  • Three small “free” countries did back Beijing: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Suriname (combined pop. ~700,000). 
  • All three, and at least 40 of the other signatories, have signed onto China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project.
  • Many of the African signatories, meanwhile, are trying to renegotiate debt payments to China amid sharp COVID-related downturns.
  • Our thought bubble: China's massive investments are bearing fruit, notes Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: "Beijing has effectively leveraged the UN Human Rights Council to endorse the very activities it was created to oppose."

The flipside: The U.S. has been sharply critical of China over the law, but it withdrew from the Human Rights Council in 2018.

Behind the scenes: Ambassador Keith Harper, who served as America's representative to the council from 2014 to 2017, says America's absence is one major reason why the balance tipped so dramatically in China's favor.

  • Statements like this often play out as "battles between China and the United States," Harper says, with China putting "unbelievable pressure" on countries to back it.
  • While some countries on the list "are always going to back China," he says, others joined because "they will get better deals if they are in the good graces of China" and "there’s no detriment there because the U.S. isn’t at the table."
  • "Since we have pulled away from nearly all international organizations, China has stepped up big time," Harper says. "They really want to take over for the United States, and this is why.”

What to watch: Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, says China is attempting not only to silence critics of its record on human rights, but "to change the norms and the protocols of these institutions so that no state really can be held accountable."

2. The price of challenging China

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"One interesting question to ask is, ‘Who’s not on that list who has been on China’s team in the past, and why?'" says Richardson.

  • As a series of similar disputes have played out at various international forums, she says, China's support "has sort of plateaued," while more countries are willing to offer criticisms.
  • India didn't join the U.K. statement, for example, but did offer a more mild statement "expressing concern," in a signal of its growing willingness to confront China.

There's a price to pay for challenging China, even for major players on the international stage.

  • After pushing for an independent probe into China's initial response to the coronavirus, Australia found itself in a costly trade dispute with its largest trading partner.
  • Two Canadian citizens are still being held in China, meanwhile, after Canada arrested Huawei's CFO on behalf of the U.S.

The U.K. is the latest country to risk China's ire.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused China of a "serious breach" of the terms under which Britain turned over control of Hong Kong in 1997, and he said the U.K. would offer residency and a path to citizenship to eligible Hong Kongers.
  • The new scheme could apply to up to 3 million Hong Kong residents and their dependents (details here).
  • A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry issued an angry retort today, saying the U.K. would "bear the consequences that will arise from this.”
3. Interview: Tom Tugendhat on U.K.-China relations

Tugendhat. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the U.K.'s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, acknowledged in an interview with Axios that China was likely to hit back, though he said that would be "unnecessary and counterproductive."

  • Tugendhat applauded Johnson's initial steps but said the U.K. should be looking for opportunities to "support everybody in Hong Kong," not just U.K. nationals.
  • "I think that we shouldn’t be looking for a way out for some people while abandoning others," he told Bethany and me.

Still, Tugendhat conceded that the ability of the U.K. to shape China's behavior regarding Hong Kong was limited.

  • "The reality is that the Chinese government is sovereign in Hong Kong, and we’re not going to send gunboats over or make military threats."
  • "The leverage that we have is on supporting the Hong Kong people and the trade implications that follow from that, and that’s where we should be focused.”

The big picture: Tugendhat, who also chairs a group that is reviewing U.K. policy on China, said the U.K.'s overarching goal should be a "more equally balanced" relationship.

  • That requires "deepening our partnerships with other countries in the region including Japan and India, Indonesia and South Korea," he said.

What to watch: The U.K. initially said it would allow Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, to build out parts of its 5G network. Now, Johnson is reportedly considering a reversal.

  • “I hope that’s what’s coming," Tugendhat said. "It’s very difficult to imagine that the existing policy would pass through the House of Commons.”
Bonus: Cold War coming?

Tugendhat said he hopes to avoid a "new Cold War" between China and the West, but contended it was China that bringing that closer to reality.

  • “The reason the relationship has changed between the U.K. and Beijing is because the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the people has changed."
  • Tugendhat cited China's "concentration camps" and forced sterilizations in Xinjiang, repression of Christians, and crackdown in Hong Kong as indications "we’re seeing a very different China.”
4. The global stakes in Hong Kong

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Axios' Bryan Walsh, who was previously based in Hong Kong, writes that the security law is the latest blow to a globalist vision of the free movement of people, ideas and capital:

Why it matters: The law all but eliminates the civil rights that people in Hong Kong have exercised for years. But it also points the way to a more dangerous and divided world that will be increasingly defined by borders and nationality.

If globalization could be said to have a capital, it would have been Hong Kong — or more precisely, its gleaming international airport, used by 71.5 million passengers from around the world last year.

  • The city's freewheeling capitalism, and its location geographically inside but politically outside of China, made Hong Kong rich, with its per capita GDP rising from $429 in 1960 to nearly $50,000 in 2018.
  • More than that, Hong Kong was a place where East and West could mingle, home to a pungent press, and overseen by an independent judiciary and civil service that was internationally respected for its adherence to the rule of law.
  • The hope of many in the West was that China would become more like Hong Kong and that the influence of global capitalism would lead Beijing to become politically more liberal over time.

The big picture: That free Hong Kong seems near death, as does the broader globalist vision the city represented.

Go deeper

5. World news roundup: Decisions, decisions

Hagia Sophia. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

1. 78% of Russians approved constitutional changes that could allow Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, according to the official tally.

  • The surprise is not the result but how hard the Kremlin had to work to engineer it — through propaganda, vote-buying and even fraud, argues Mark Galeotti in the Spectator.

What to watch: "Enthusiasm is giving way to reluctant endurance," among elites and ordinary Russians alike, Galeotti writes.

2. The Israeli government's July 1 deadline to move ahead on annexations in the West Bank has come and gone.

  • International pressure has continued to pile up, and the government has been internally divided and preoccupied with rising COVID-19 cases.

The big picture: Regardless of its decision on annexation, Israel has already shifted the debate. It's no longer under pressure for enforcing a contentious status quo, but for moving beyond it.

3. Turkey has delayed a decision on whether to convert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

  • The domed behemoth was constructed beginning in 532, and it served as the home of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for nine centuries before becoming a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

What to watch: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a secular nationalist, had it converted into a museum. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says that was a mistake, but there's steep opposition (including from the U.S.) to reversing it.

4. At least 88 people have died in clashes in Ethiopia following the murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular musician from the Oromo ethnic group.

  • “Haacaaluu represented the [Oromo] struggle over recent years and there’s been a huge outpouring of emotion,” Ahmed Soliman, an east Africa analyst at Chatham House, told the Guardian.
  • The security forces have cracked down violently, and the government initiated an internet blackout.

What to watch: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Prize for brokering peace with Eritrea, but tensions at home are only increasing. Elections scheduled for August have been postponed, but are expected to be contentious.

6. What I'm reading: An alliance of semi-states

Streets of Somaliland. Photo: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty

In a case of quasi-countries standing together, Taiwan is setting up a diplomatic outpost in Somaliland, which will send a diplomat to Taiwan in return.

The big picture: Both self-governing territories are geopolitically important but have little international recognition. Taiwan is allied with the U.S. but claimed by China, while Somaliland is located on the Horn of Africa in an area where the world's biggest powers are competing for access and influence.

  • They plan to treat one another as sovereign nations, even if very few others will. China won't be happy, the FT notes.

What I'm reading: This episode would slot nicely into a book I'm reading currently: Invisible Countries by Joshua Keating, about anomalies like Somaliland on our otherwise static and well-defined map.

  • It's a compelling read for the geographically curious.
7. Stories we're watching

Dinner on the Charles Bridge, in Prague. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

  1. How German fintech Wirecard slipped through the cracks
  2. EU extends ban on U.S. travelers
  3. U.S. seizes human hair products shipment from Xinjiang
  4. China's commercial space industry charges ahead
  5. FCC bars Huawei and ZTE from subsidies
  6. China's influence operations getting harder to hide
  7. Pentagon: Russia working with Taliban to expedite U.S. withdrawal


"If we're not willing to stand up and call out those who are trying to murder our troops, then frankly we do need to rethink our foreign policy."
— Tugendhat on the "lack of reaction" from the Trump administration and others to apparent Russian bounties on coalition troops in Afghanistan. Tugendhat served for four years there.
Dave Lawler

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