Axios World

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August 04, 2022

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight’s edition (1,991 words, 7.5 minutes) starts in the South Pacific, swings through the Taiwan Strait, and features a conversation with a senior U.S. official on a tricky transition in Colombia.
  • Thanks for reading.

1 big thing: U.S.-China competition heats up in the South Pacific

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hosts Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in 2019. Photo: Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via Getty Images

While global attention is fixed on a potential crisis between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, another tug of war between the superpowers is unfolding 3,500 miles to the southeast.

Zoom in: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy will travel this weekend to the Solomon Islands, a small South Pacific archipelago that's become a hotspot for U.S.-China competition.

  • Given their population of under 700,000, the islands have seen a remarkable level of engagement from Washington, including a high-level delegation in April.
  • The attention was due to a planned security pact between the Solomon Islands and China, which the Biden administration feared could allow Beijing to dispatch security forces there or even establish a naval base.
  • Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed the agreement over U.S. objections but insisted last month that there would be no Chinese base.
  • Furthermore, he said Australia — where news of the pact prompted frantic debates about regional influence and security — will remain the "security partner of choice," with China only called in "if there is a gap."

Driving the news: Sherman and Kennedy are officially making the trip to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was fought on the largest island in the Solomons.

  • Both of their fathers were wounded in the Solomon Islands during World War II.
  • Many of the same factors that made control of the islands pivotal during the war — their importance for maritime supply lines and proximity to U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand — are still relevant today.

Between the lines: Still, with the security pact already signed, it might seem strange to dispatch another delegation so soon.

  • But the U.S. and Australia are quietly working to limit the scope of the agreement in practice and to compete with China's growing clout in the region to avoid similar outcomes elsewhere.
  • Sherman will arrive after stops in Samoa and Tonga, the latter of which is set to host a new U.S. embassy (as are Kiribati and the Solomon Islands).
  • Earlier this year, Tony Blinken became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Fiji in 40 years.

What they're saying: In a virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) last month, Vice President Kamala Harris promised additional funding for economic development and environmental protections, and announced the U.S. would appoint an envoy to the region for the first time.

  • "We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve.  So today I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that," Harris said.

That growing sense of urgency comes as the U.S. and Australia play "whack-a-mole" to prevent other agreements that could expand Chinese influence — such as outbidding Huawei to build vital undersea cables, says Charles Edel, Australia chair at CSIS.

  • "The Chinese have been trying everywhere and [in the Solomon Islands] they found a partner willing to dance with them," Edel says.
  • Yes, but: When China proposed a sweeping multilateral agreement to 10 Pacific island countries in May, it reportedly found no takers. Leaders from the region often note that they need climate solidarity more than any geopolitical alliance.

What to watch: The Solomon Islands never published the terms of its deal with Beijing, but a leaked draft noted that Chinese forces could help restore order on the islands.

  • Sogavare, whose pro-China policies have been enormously contentious on the islands, wants to delay elections that are scheduled to take place next year.
  • Given the country's recent history of political violence, a worst-case scenario for the U.S. and Australia would be a delayed or disputed election, after which Sogavare turns to China to keep the peace.

2. China surrounds Taiwan with unprecedented live-fire exercises

Data: Xinhua News Agency, Flanders Marine Institute (2019). Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The Chinese military on Thursday began live ammunition drills near Taiwan in a days-long show of force after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the self-governing island.

The latest: Taiwan's Ministry of Defense said it activated its defense systems after China's military launched 11 ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan's northern, southern and eastern coasts. "We condemn such irrational action that has jeopardized regional peace," the ministry said.

  • The Chinese military warned boats and planes to avoid the areas from Thursday through Sunday for the drills, which the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense said may amount "to a blockade of Taiwan’s air and sea space."
  • If Chinese naval forces enter Taiwan's territorial waters, that would constitute an invasion, Taiwanese Parliament member Wang Ting-yu told Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Between the lines: Experts have noted that China could effectively use the crisis to hold a dress rehearsal for subduing Taiwan.

Go deeper.

3. What they're saying: China's exercises offer geopolitical snapshot

Putin and Xi in 2019. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The foreign ministers of the G7, the club of democratic powers, collectively ​​called out Beijing’s “escalatory response.”

What they're saying: “There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally,” they wrote.

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued a blistering retort, arguing that it was “inexplicable” to blame China for the escalation. “Today’s China is no longer the China of the 19th century,” he warned.
  • Japan, which is a member of the G7, protested separately to Beijing that five Chinese ballistic missiles landed in its exclusive economic zone for the first time ever.

Russia, as expected, backed Beijing’s “sovereign right” to conduct the exercises and blamed the tensions on the U.S.

  • "It was an absolutely unnecessary visit and an unnecessary provocation,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Most other countries steered clear of calling out either Pelosi’s visit or China’s exercises.

  • Australia’s foreign minister called for “all parties” to show restraint.
  • Meanwhile, South Korea was the next stop on Pelosi’s tour, but President Yoon Suk-yeol declined to meet her… because he was on vacation… at his home in Seoul.
  • They spoke by phone instead. Meanwhile, Yoon’s spokesperson fended off questions about whether the new president — who campaigned on close ties with the U.S. — was seeking to placate China.

Bonus: Where in the World?

Illustration of the earth wearing an explorer hat and goggles
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Today’s quiz is for oenophiles. I name the wine region, you tell me the country. They might get harder as you go:

1. Bordeaux

2. La Rioja

3. Mendoza

4. Western Cape

5. Piedmont

6. Douro Valley

7. Marlborough

8. Maipo Valley

9. Galilee

10. Kakheti

11. Istria

12. Bekaa Valley

Scroll to bottom for answers

4. Latin America: Colombia transition tests U.S. influence

Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro (right) greets U.S. deputy national security adviser Jon Finer in Bogotá on July 22. Photo: Raúl Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

The inauguration on Sunday of Gustavo Petro as Colombia's president represents a major test for U.S. influence in Latin America as a leftist tide sweeps through the region.

Why it matters: Petro, an ex-guerrilla fighter and former mayor of Bogotá, will be the first left-wing president of a country that had moved in lockstep with the U.S. in recent years on Venezuela, the drug trade, and other regional challenges.

  • Colombia has the fourth-biggest economy in Latin America, and has arguably been the closest U.S. security partner in the region.

Petro outright rejects the status quo of a relationship that had been largely defined by the War on Drugs.

  • He promises to roll back policies such as crop eradication and express extraditions, and to reduce dependence on security forces that receive U.S. training and have bloody human rights records.
  • And while his unabashedly pro-U.S. predecessor, Iván Duque played a central role in the hawkish U.S. approach to Venezuela, Petro has already made moves to reset ties with Caracas.

The other side: A senior Biden administration official acknowledged to Axios that both could become areas of friction.

  • But the official said it would be "premature" to conclude the U.S. and Colombia can't cooperate on counter-narcotics, in part because the Biden administration has recognized that U.S. drug policy needs to "evolve."

Behind the scenes: The U.S. is wary of China's growing influence in Latin America, and the senior official acknowledged that the U.S. had already raised China with Petro's team.

  • "We've underscored that we are not asking them to choose between the United States and their economic relationship with other countries," the official said.
  • But when it comes to Colombia's relationships with "external actors" that are working against U.S. interests, "we would see certain actions by them as a choice on their part," the official said, without specifying which sort of actions.
  • The official added that there are clear opportunities for the relationship given the overlaps between Biden and Petro's climate and economic policies.

The big picture: There are very few leaders left in Latin America who instinctively align themselves with Washington — as was already on display at the Summit of the Americas in June.

  • The U.S. official said that was due to a global anti-incumbent trend, and argued that the ideology doesn't necessarily matter. "Ultimately, they will have to deliver, and if we can find areas of overlap in our national interest, they'll find it's in their interest to work with us."

The bottom line: "We walked away from the engagements with the incoming Petro government with an understanding that they saw value in cooperation with the United States," the official said. "But they are elected on a platform of change."

  • The test, the official continued, will be "to navigate that change while continuing to be diplomatically competitive."

5. Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian penal colony

Brittney Griner is escorted by police before a hearing during her trial in Khimki, outside Moscow on Aug. 2. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday was found guilty on drug charges by a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in prison, Axios' Ivana Saric writes.

What they're saying: "I made an honest mistake, and I hope in your ruling it does not end my life,” Griner said Thursday in her final remarks to the court, per AP.

  • "Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney," President Biden said in a statement.
  • "Americans don't fully understand of what Brittney Griner's reality in a Russian penal colony will look like: She is very tall, Black and American. She really sticks out. And she doesn't speak Russian, making it that much harder to navigate the complex rules and hierarchies," journalist Julia Ioffe notes.

What to watch: The end of Griner's trial might open the door to diplomacy to bring her home. The U.S. has reportedly offered to swap notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and American businessman Paul Whelan.

6. One to watch: A nuclear debate in Tehran

Illustration of a question mark with a nuclear symbol as the dot on the bottom.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Several senior Iranian officials and politicians have opened the door over the last two weeks to the possibility of producing nuclear weapons — despite the fact that Iran has long maintained it will never do so, Axios’ Barak Ravid reports.

Driving the news: Iran says Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa — a legal Islamic ruling — against nuclear weapons. But in an unusual statement on Tuesday, Iranian MP Mohammad-Reza Sabbaghian Bafghi warned that Parliament could ask Khamenei to revise his fatwa if Iran's "enemies...continue their threats."

  • That followed a string of statements from other political figures saying Iran could produce a nuclear weapon if it so chose.

Between the lines: Raz Zimmt, a top Israeli expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University, said the statements may be a response to Israel's threats of a potential military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Go deeper.

7. Stories we're watching

Families of those killed in the 2020 blast march in Beirut. Photo: Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images
  1. Beirut port silos collapse as Lebanon marks 2nd anniversary of blast
  2. Guatemalan police arrest newspaper president
  3. Iran nuclear talks resume
  4. White House vows to protect activist from Iran threats
  5. Australia passes landmark climate bill
  6. Mexico chases stolen artifacts — by asking nicely
  7. Senate votes to ratify NATO membership for Finland and Sweden

Quoted:

"It's about American security, protecting American workers, defending American jobs, securing American prosperity. I fear some in this town have lost sight of that.”
— Excerpt of Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) speech explaining why he was the lone “no” vote on NATO membership for Finland and Sweden
“It would be strange indeed for any senator who voted to allow Montenegro or North Macedonia into NATO to turn around and deny membership to Finland and Sweden. I would love to hear the defense of such a curious vote.”
— Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) mocking retort.

Answers: 1. France; 2. Spain; 3. Argentina; 4. South Africa; 5. Italy; 6. Portugal; 7. New Zealand; 8. Chile; 9. Israel; 10. Georgia; 11. Croatia; 12. Lebanon.

Clues: 1. Bordeaux; 2. La Rioja; 3. Mendoza; 4. Western Cape; 5. Piedmont; 6. Douro Valley; 7. Marlborough; 8. Maipo Valley; 9. Galilee; 10. Kakheti; 11. Istria; 12. Bekaa Valley.