The Guardian view on UK-US relations: rebuilding with Biden
EditorialAmerica and Britain are each emerging from disruptive internal periods. The alliance between them must be rooted in realism about the present, not fantasy about the pastBoris Johnson watching Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street
In British politics, everyone now loves President Joe Biden. That the UK opposition parties are foundation members of the Biden appreciation club is not surprising. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all identify most naturally with the Democrats and thus with the new administration in Washington. But the changing of the guard at the White House this week has won strikingly broad support across the entire political spectrum too.
Many Conservatives now take an enthusiastic view of Mr Biden as well. In some cases this is hard to believe – or forgive. Not long ago, many of the same Tory politicians who now enthuse about Mr Biden tried to bet the house on Donald Trump. Theresa May rushed to Washington to court him. Michael Gove conducted a gushing interview. Boris Johnson said he should get the Nobel peace prize. A US trade deal was obsessively talked up. Today, these same politicians are all friends of Joe and behave as if they barely knew Mr Trump.
Even so, the resetting of the dial with America is welcome. But if it is not to be merely opportunistic, it must be accompanied by more honesty, humility and clarity. Mr Trump was never the ally that the last two prime ministers imagined. He was never going to agree a good trade deal. He was always an embarrassment. And he was always a threat to the democratic and liberal values that Britain and the United States once stood for and which went absent without leave after 2016.
Over decades, British leaders have often tended to exaggerate Britain’s importance to the US. Mr Johnson, an inveterate truth stretcher, is the same. The necessary modesty about what is realistically possible in the post-Trump era will not come naturally to him. The security relationship undoubtedly remains strong and important. But the new starting point should be the recognition that, in different ways, Britain and America are emerging from unprecedentedly difficult eras internally and in their international relations, for which they themselves bear responsibility.
In any event, there can and should be no instant return to some of the US-UK relationships of the recent past. The two countries are not cold war allies, because there is no cold war. They are not military interventionist allies either, because there is no appetite in either country for such projects after Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither Mr Biden nor Mr Johnson is proposing some new grand strategic project.
This ought to be a phase of rebuilding in US-UK relations. After the past four years, neither country is in a position to preach to others about democratic institutions and values. The US has just survived a potential coup, supported by a significant proportion of its citizens, to overthrow an election result. Britain has just backed down from a threat to get its way in relations with Europe by breaking international law. It has needlessly damaged relations with Ireland, our nearest neighbour, from which Mr Biden proudly traces his origins. It has now started a petulant row over the EU’s diplomatic status.
This is not the way to win friends and influence people. Britain needs allies in the wake of Brexit and amid the rise of Asia and the waning of American global hegemony. Values and interests such as democracy and the rule of law matter in those alliances. To that end, Britain must make more and better use of soft power assets like the BBC, its universities and the aid budget. Mr Biden’s arrival in office opens up new international possibilities on issues like Covid, climate and internet freedom. But we need to be realistic. Britain must treat partnership seriously, not pick fights we do not deserve to win or make claims we can never hope to fulfil without allies.
China conducts unusual military flights in Taiwanese airspace
It’s not unusual for China to conduct military flights between the southern part of Taiwan — which it claims as its territory — and the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea, Reuters reports. In fact, the flights have occurred on a daily basis in recent months. But what happened Saturday does appear out of the ordinary.
Eight nuclear-capable Chinese bombers and four fighter jets entered the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s air defense identifications zone, Taiwan’s defense ministry said. Normally, China deploys just one or two reconnaissance aircraft at a time, so Saturday’s event was somewhat startling. Taiwan’s air force was able to warn the aircraft away and deployed missiles to monitor them.
While there’s been no word from Beijing yet, the seemingly aggressive move comes at a time when tensions between China and the United States are rising, with Washington’s strengthening support for Taiwan playing a significant role. The Trump administration, which left office last week, was particularly committed to a closer relationship with Taiwan, and the Biden administration doesn’t appear likely to reverse course on the issue, at least not drastically. Read more at Reuters.
The protests were one of the largest displays of popular opposition to the rule of president Vladimir Putin in years, taking place in almost every large city across Russia and attracting unusually big crowds. The protesters were met by a harsh response from authorities, with heavily armored riot police moving to disperse them, detaining hundreds.
By early evening, police had detained over 2,600 people, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests.
In Moscow, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalny, was detained at the protest, where lines of riot police later dispersed the crowd with batons. She was later released.
Navalny had called for the nationwide protests on Saturday after authorities sent him to prison, setting up a test of the strength of Navalny’s support in the country, following his poisoning and return to Russia.
Protests were held in almost every large city, beginning first in Russia’s far east which is seven hours ahead of Moscow and then continuing throughout the day, spreading across Siberia until reaching cities on the border of Europe. Videos posted online showed crowds– ranging from several hundred to a few thousand– gathering in groups or marching in long processions, chanting slogans including, “Putin is a thief.”
In Moscow, part of the city center was flooded with thousands of people. It was difficult to judge the size of the crowd, which numbered at least many thousands and was one of the largest the city had seen in recent years. Reuters estimated it at 40,000. Moscow’s police, who commonly undercount crowd size, said it was just 4,000.
The protests, although not huge outside of Moscow, were still remarkable for their size and geographic spread, stretching into regions normally indifferent to Navalny.
Navalny has traditionally had little pull beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg and his previous calls for nationwide protests have usually only seen small crowds of a few hundred in most regional cities.
In the far eastern city Vladivostok, a crowd marched estimated by local media to be over 3,000. Videos posted on social media showed police charging protesters with batons.
In some cities, demonstrators pelted helmeted riot police with snowballs and in some places tussled in knee-deep snow.
Ahead of the protests, authorities launched a wave of arrests, detaining activists at their homes, including several of Navalny’s top lieutenants. The prosecutor general’s office issued a warning that anyone attending the protests risked arrest, and opened a broad criminal case on charges relating to unauthorized public events. Navalny’s support is strong among students, so universities and schools warned against attending, threatening expulsion.
Navalny is Russia’s best-known opposition leader and is viewed as president Vladimir Putin’s most troublesome political opponent. He has built a grassroots movement, galvanized by his investigations into alleged acts of corruption among powerful officials and businessmen close to Putin.
Though Navalny has been jailed before over his activism, he has never been imprisoned for longer, something most observers believe is because the Kremlin has never wanted to risk the political fallout. But his poisoning suggests that calculus has changed, while his survival and decision to return has raised his stature both in Russia and internationally.
At the Moscow protest some demonstrators told ABC News they had come despite any misgiving they might have about Navalny himself, but for what he represents.
“You can trust Alexey Navalny or not. But the things that happened to him are absolutely awful,” said Ksenia, 30, who did want to give her second name for fear of reprisal. “And I really worry about the future for me, for my family. So that’s the main reason to be here.”
The U.S. State Department on Saturday issued a statement condemning the crackdown on the protesters and demanding the release of those detained as well as Navalny. It said the targeting of the protests and Navalny’s arrest were “troubling indications” of a wider curtailing of rights in the country and called on Russia to cooperate in the investigation of Navalny’s poisoning.
Navalny was detained at the airport almost immediately upon his arrival in Moscow last Sunday from Germany, where he had been recovering from the nerve agent poisoning that nearly killed him. He was then ordered to stay behind bars for at least 30 days by a makeshift court set up inside a police station, and could be sentenced to years in prison at a parole hearing later this month, on Jan. 29.
Police detained Navalny for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014, when he was found guilty of embezzlement in a trial that the European Court of Human Rights later ruled was unjust. Russia’s prison service has requested that his three and a half-year sentence be converted into real prison time.
Navalny on Friday released a statement from jail via his lawyers in which he said he was feeling well and if anything were to suddenly happen to him while in jail, it should be treated as foul play.
“Just in case, I declare: My plans don’t include hanging myself on a prison’s window bars, or open my veins or cut my throat with a sharpened spoon,” Navalny said in the statement posted on Instagram. “I’m being very careful walking downstairs. My blood pressure is measured every day, and it’s like a cosmonaut’s, so a heart attack is excluded.”
If one asks Beijing why more than a million Uyghurs have been forced into “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, the answer would likely call attention to the alleged “terrorist” threat posed by Uyghurs and the need to purge the community of extremism. As Sean R. Roberts, an associate professor of the practice of international affairs and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, explores in his new book, China’s leaders have seized upon the language of the Global War on Terror to frame their policies in Xinjiang.
But “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority” goes deeper, examining the history of settler colonialism in Xinjiang, the shaping of a “terrorism” narrative around the Uyghurs, and the devastating consequences, which amount to nothing short of cultural genocide. In an interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, Roberts explains the “war” on Uyghurs, how China has packaged and implement its policies, and what it would take for the global community to change China’s calculus on its Xinjiang policy.
Your book is titled “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority.” When did this “war” start, who are the opposing sides, and what’s its root cause?
First, this is not a war in the traditional sense with two opposing sides. The title of the book is a play on words evocative of the “war on terror,” itself a very non-traditional one-sided “war” which has helped facilitate the fate of the Uyghurs in China. However, one could say that what is happening to Uyghurs inside China today is akin to Michel Foucault’s articulation of a modern “biopolitical” war, where the state (the Chinese Communist Party) is essentially waging a war against a portion of its own population (the Uyghur people), not as an “enemy,” but as a “threat” to society at large. That war between the Chinese state and Uyghurs most visibly began in 2017 when the state began arbitrarily and extrajudicially interning large swaths of the Uyghur population under the pretense of combatting alleged “terrorism” and “extremism.”
While this mass internment appeared to happen suddenly, one of the arguments of my book is that it was the outcome of tension that had been building for some time between the state and the Uyghur people over the question of self-determination in a region that Uyghurs consider their homeland. This tension has long existed to different degrees between Uyghurs and modern Chinese states since at least the late 19th century when the region first became a province of the Qing Dynasty, but it has been particularly pronounced and has escalated since the 1990s when the PRC began earnestly trying to integrate the Uyghurs and their homeland more solidly into a consolidating and more powerful Chinese polity. These attempts at “integration” since the 1990s have involved progressively violent suppression of any indications of Uyghur disloyalty to the state, but it was only in 2017 that these efforts began targeting all Uyghurs as embodying a threat to the PRC, or at least to its colonial aims in the Uyghur homeland.
What is happening to the Uyghurs, therefore, has little to do with an alleged “terrorist threat” and is much more like other historical examples of indigenous people being decimated, marginalized, and displaced by a settler colonial power when they resist complete capitulation and assimilation. In this sense, the “war on the Uyghurs” is not really a war in the traditional sense, but a process of conquest, occupation, and ultimately displacement and ethnically profiled marginalization.