FOUR Corners - stories from the world as viewed by foreign editor David Pratt.


IT’S been a testy time on the international diplomatic front of late. Last week’s agreement announced by US President Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister of a new naval security pact has been getting backs up in the corridors of power from Paris and Brussels to Beijing.

Under the arrangement, dubbed AUKUS, the US and Britain will ­provide Australia with the technology and ­capability to deploy nuclear-powered ­submarines.

It just the latest phase in a strategy in which Washington and its allies are ­looking for ways to push back against ­China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military build-up, ­pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the ­contested South China Sea.

Not that China was mentioned by name in the joint announcement and neither were Biden administration officials that spoke to journalists willing to admit that it was aimed at countering Beijing.

Chinese officials however were ­having none of that obvious obfuscation and it was Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao ­Lijian that led the diplomatic charge ­insisting that the three countries were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear ­non-proliferation efforts”.

READ MORE: Aukus: France recalls envoys to US and Australia after deal with UK

“China always believes that any ­regional mechanism should conform to the trend of peace and development of the times and help enhance mutual trust and cooperation … It should not target any third party or undermine its interests,” Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing.

For their part UK Government ­politicians were keen to play down the seemingly adversarial nature of the ­agreement as far as China was concerned.

Johnson in typical style simply dodged the issue focusing instead on how it would reduce the costs of Britain’s next generation of nuclear submarines and open the way for a wider defence capacity.

“Now that we have created AUKUS we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems ­including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities,” Johnson told parliament.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace meanwhile was left to fend of allegations that it would lead to the risk of military confrontation with China.

Asked if he thought the pact was part of a new Cold War with ­China, Wallace said: “No I don’t, and I think to call it a Cold War is out of date … this is not about sending a message to China.”

Even before this pact, tensions ­between the US, UK, Australia and China were already simmering. Seen from the Biden ­perspective it also signals yet again ­Washington’s ­commitment to regional ­alliances to counter China. “Wolf ­Warrior diplomacy from Beijing has a price” is clearly the message Biden is sending out.

Not content with angering China over the pact, this week Biden will double down on his position of seeing the vast nation as the primary geopolitical threat to US interests when he hosts the Quad, often dubbed the Asian NATO, comprising India and Japan as well as the US and Australia.

But China is not the only country to take umbrage with the AUKUS deal. For very different reasons the naval pact has left the trio’s relationship with France in tatters given that Paris had already signed a $36.6billion deal with Australia for a fleet of conventional submarines.

That, to use an unfortunate pun, has now been submerged, leaving Paris as Politico magazine called it in “a swirl of enraged adjectives”.

Rarely have French officials “been so acerbic in their statements, toward an ally or a foe,” observed the magazine last week and French Foreign minister ­Jean-Yves Le Drian was no exception.

“This brutal, unilateral and ­unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Le Drian was quoted as saying, adding that, “this isn’t done between allies”.

Sensing the extent and potential ­damage of the bitter diplomatic fallout, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said France remained a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region.

But many warn that Washington would be wrong to underestimate the strength of feeling in Paris and Brussels right now over this affair. It could for example have direct consequences for US efforts to constrain Beijing and revive a shelved EU-China investment treaty that the Biden administration dislikes intensely. This is far from over yet.


The National:

IT’S election time in Russia this weekend. Yes, they do still hold elections in the country though given the predictability of the recent outcomes you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Voting in the Russian parliamentary elections began on Friday and ends today.

While the outcome may be a foregone conclusion with the ruling United Russia party expected to retain its constitutional majority in the 450-seat State Duma chamber, the party’s approval ratings are close to record lows.

According to the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, United Russia, currently stands at 29% public support still leaving President Vladimir Putin’s party far ahead of the second place Communist Party, at almost 17%.

The Communists, right-wing populist LDPR and left-wing nationalist A Just Russia party will most likely be re-elected into parliament as well.

That said, United Russia is expected to get a much lower share of the vote than in 2016, when it won 343 of the Duma’s seats.

On the face of it, Russians it seems are increasingly fed up with soaring food prices and sliding incomes, poor living standards, crumbling infrastructure, widespread corruption and and the government response to the coronavirus pandemic, making this election a key test of Russia’s increasingly authoritarian system before Putin’s current term expires in 2024.

Faced with such challenges stifling political opposition and independent media has again become the order of the day.

Opponents have been met with unprecedented persecution and intimidating rhetoric about the danger of foreigners meddling in domestic affairs. Meanwhile the Russian government has accused US tech companies of “interfering” by refusing to scrub a tactical voting app run by supporters of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny from the internet.

The Kremlin has threatened US social media firms with sizeable fines if they fail to delete content Moscow deems illegal.

On Friday allies of Navalny, accused the tech giants Google and Apple of enabling political censorship after they bowed to Kremlin pressure and deleted the Smart Voting app that explained how to vote tactically against pro-Putin candidates.

“They caved into the Kremlin’s blackmail,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, was quoted as saying.

But United Russia has not stopped there in its efforts to regain control over the election.

In the words of Alexey Kovalev an investigative editor at the online newspaper Meduza it has “gone all out – and taken election shenanigans in Putin’s sham democracy to another level”.

To boost flagging turnout Putin has promised a $7billion cash handout to the party’s base. He has also made sure that is has strong support from voters in eastern Ukraine’s Russian-backed separatist republics.

Russian authorities say some 600,000 residents in these selfproclaimed republics have been granted Russian citizenship and are now able to cast their vote in person, or online.

Pensioners and “siloviki” - members of the armed services and intelligence agencies have also received one off cash payments which opposition figures have condemned as little more than an attempt to bribe potential voters.

Yes, all in all it seems it’s business as usual in Russia’s elections, even if a flicker of voter shift might just be beginning to appear.


The National:

AS a long-term Afghanistan watcher, the news last week that some within the ranks of the Taliban have had a political bust up gave me a perverse sense of pleasure.

As regular readers so this column will know not only have I been deeply critical of their takeover in Afghanistan and their setting it into a regressive trajectory, but also long predicted that the Islamist inspired group is far from one cohesive entity.

Much of the recent wrangling between what might be called the Taliban’s “pragmatists” and “hardliners” has taken place away from the public gaze but that did not stop rumours quickly spreading about a recent violent confrontation between the two camps at the presidential palace, including claims that the leader of the pragmatic faction, Abdul Ghani Baradar, right, was killed.

The rumours reached such intensity that an audio recording and handwritten statement with official stamp, both purportedly by Baradar himself, denied he had been killed.

What all this boils down to is what exactly those within the Taliban’s ranks define as an “inclusive government”.

On this single issue there are serious differences among the Taliban leadership, be it on the question of the role and position of women in society or the inclusion of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups like the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks in the political structure and process.

To date, major roles have been divided up between the Taliban’s old guard from their spiritual birthplace Kandahar – including Baradar – and the Haqqanis, a family-based grouping with ties to al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s powerful InterServices Intelligence spy agency.

Under the first Taliban regime in the 1990s, the Kandahar faction had been dominant – but many of the group’s recent military successes have been down to the Haqqanis.

Make no mistake, these are serious fault lines within the Taliban not least because the Haqqanis as a faction have been known in the past to collaborate with the Taliban’s arch-rivals, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) As long as the battle to defeat US-led foreign troops and a Kabul government widely reviled as corrupt was ongoing, these fissures with the Taliban were kept in check. But all that has changed now, as have the pressures on the Taliban leadership both from within and outside Afghanistan’s borders. There could well be more bust ups to come and they could yet prove to be even more serious.

Faroe Islands

The National:

IT’S known as the Grindadrap, or “Grind”, and has long been highly contentious abroad.

At home in the Faroe Islands however it’s part of a four-century old traditional drive of sea mammals into shallow water where they are killed for their meat and blubber.

But the release last week of gruesome video footage showing the slaughter of 1428 white-sided dolphins seem to have drawn a line in the sand for many regarding this traditional slaughter.

Such was the extent of the killings – much higher than in previous years – that it appeared participants had not been able to follow the regulations to minimise the creatures’ suffering. But irrespective of this say marine conservation activists the time has come to end this non-commercial and authorised hunt in the North Atlantic islands.

Fears by some Faeroese that the images from last week would revive the deeply contentious discussion about the sea mammal drives seems to have been borne out.

“We take this matter very seriously,”

Faroe Island Prime Minister Bardur a Steig Nielsen said in response.

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“Although these hunts are considered sustainable, we will be looking closely at the dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society.

“The government has decided to start an evaluation of the regulations on the catching of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.”

The marine conservation campaign group Sea Shepherd, has long called for an end to the hunts, and described last week’s dolphin slaughter “so brutal and badly mishandled that it is no surprise the hunt is being criticised in the Faroese media and even by many outspoken prowhalers and politicians”.

The Faroese public would seem to agree and an opinion poll by local television suggested that a majority of Faroese were against the dolphin hunts while about four-fifths continue to support the pilot whale killings which the government says is “an ancient and integral part of Faroese food culture.”

Negative headlines like those of last week will almost certainly also focus the minds of those with business and tourist interests on the islands.

While such “traditions” will always have their supporters, it looks increasingly likely that those recent horrendous scenes will be consigned to history sometime soon.

Personally speaking, I for one hope so.