How France became the target of Azerbaijan’s smear campaign

What do the absence of French observers at Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, a group denouncing “French colonialism” and an online campaign targeting the 2024 Paris Olympics have in common? They are three facets of a new offensive strategy adopted by Azerbaijani diplomacy towards France. FRANCE 24 investigated this shift with the Forbidden Stories consortium and other media outlets as part of “The Baku Connection” project.

Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, which handed President Ilham Aliyev an unsurprising and unopposed victory with 92% of the vote and a fifth term in office, provided the backdrop for the latest illustration of deteriorating Franco-Azerbaijani relations.

For the first time in at least a decade, there were no French elected representatives or independent observers on the team of international observers monitoring the vote. As Aliyev tightens his grip on power and the country’s electoral system, there were fewer West European nationals on the international monitoring team. But a few German, Austrian, Spanish and Italian nationals did make it on the observer mission.

Abzas media’s fearless journalists ended up in jail for delving into stories that challenged Azerbaijan’s regime.

Following their arrest, 15 media, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, joined forces to carry on their investigations. © Forbidden Stories

Escalating tensions

The absence of a French presence on the observer team is the result of a disaccord between France and Azerbaijan. French parliamentarians who have visited the former Soviet republic in the past as election observers no longer want to hear about it. “When you have a president who systematically gets elected with over 80% of the vote, I wouldn’t call that free and fair elections,” said Claude Kern, senator from France’s eastern Bas-Rhin region, who was part of the French delegation for the 2018 presidential election.

Even the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan at the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, has experienced an exodus of almost all its members in recent months.

Azerbaijan also appears to have closed the door on the few independent French nationals wishing to observe the presidential election on the ground. This was the case with journalist Jean-Michel Brun, who contributes to the websites, “Musulmans de France” and “Gazette du Caucase”, two portals with a very pro-Azerbaijani slant.

His candidacy was rejected by Azerbaijani authorities, without explanation, a few days before the election. “Relations with Azerbaijan are so rotten at the moment that they may have decided not to invite any French people,” said Brun. When contacted by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, Azerbaijani authorities did not respond to the reasons for the absence of French observers.

The election observer issue is part of a wider context of escalating bilateral tensions. The month of December was marked by a particularly sharp deterioration: a Frenchman was arrested in Baku and accused of espionage, Azerbaijan then expelled two French diplomats, Paris promptly responded, declaring two Azerbaijani embassy officials persona non grata. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was accompanied by acerbic statements from both sides.

For French nationals in Azerbaijan, the message was clear. “French authorities made us understand that we had to be careful because we could be expelled overnight,” confided a Frenchman living in Azerbaijan who did not wish to be named. Despite the strained ties between Paris and Baku, the Frenchman said he was quite satisfied with living conditions in Azerbaijan. When contacted, the French embassy in Azerbaijan did not respond to FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

The rapid and overt diplomatic deterioration between Azerbaijan and France is a new low, according to experts. “It’s the first time we see this kind of development against a European country, a Western country,” said Altay Goyushov, a political scientist at the Baku Research Institute, an independent Azerbaijani research center. “This is a completely new development, when a French citizen is arrested on spying charges, it’s never happened before,” he noted, adding that Azerbaijani authorities have mostly used “these kind of tactics” against the domestic opposition and the media in the past.

A song against Macron

Historically, it hasn’t always been this way. France, like other European countries, has long been the target of what has come to be called “caviar diplomacy”. It’s a term employed by experts and journalists for over a decade to describe oil-rich Azerbaijan’s particularly lavish and distinctive lobbying strategy, which includes costly official trips for foreign politicians and influencers, and providing expensive gifts and funds for projects such as the renovation of churches. The payback, documented in several news reports, includes soft-power wins for Azerbaijan by securing its influence in Europe’s political and media worlds.

In the past, France held a special place for Baku’s political elites. France is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which also includes the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Paris has attempted to play a key role, within the Minsk Group, to try to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

France was therefore considered an important European power in Baku, one worth wooing and trying to keep on side. For Azerbaijan, this is particularly important since Baku has long believed the Armenian community in France to be very influential in French power circles, a position echoed by several pro-Azerbaijan figures interviewed by FRANCE 24 and the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming a third of the disputed enclave, marked the beginning of the bilateral break. Two years later, in an interview with France 2 TV station, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France “will never abandon the Armenians”.

The French president’s avowal was viewed as a diplomatic slap by Baku. “It was very frustrating for Ilham Aliyev, who wants to be able to impose his demands on a weak Armenia, which is not the case if Yerevan thinks it can count on French support,” noted Goyushov.

This French support began to take shape after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s October 2023 visit to Armenia when she announced that “France has given its agreement to the conclusion of future contracts with Armenia which will enable the delivery of military equipment to Armenia so that it can ensure its defence”. The announcement sparked disapproval from Aliyev, who accused France of “preparing the ground [for] new wars”.

Azerbaijan then began a diplomatic shift that increasingly resembled a 180-degree turn.

The tone was first set by a song performed on public television and soberly titled, “Emmanuel”. Broadcast a week after Macron’s France 2 interview, the lyrics featured criticisms levelled at the French president – accusing him of “betraying his promises”, for instance – while children punctuated each verse, singing “Emmanuel” in chorus.

It was a very public display of Azerbaijan’s new disaffection for France. Official accusations – such as the one frequently adopted by  Elchin Amirbayov, the Azerbaijani president’s special representative for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, accusing France of “undermining the peace efforts” with Armenia – represent just the tip of the iceberg of Baku’s new diplomatic turn. The submerged component includes a number of initiatives aimed at denigrating France.

Outrage over ‘French colonialism’ by the Azerbaijani state

In November 2023, a video highly critical of the organisation of the 2024 Paris Olympics emerged, sparking a media stir in France. According to VIGINUM, the French government agency for the defence against foreign digital interference, it was an influence campaign linked to “an actor close to Azerbaijan”.

In its technical report, seen by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, VIGINUM concluded that the operation, amplified by fake sites and accounts on social media, is “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”.

On another, parallel track, Azerbaijan is promoting the claims of a new structure called the “Baku Initiative Group”. Its members, independence fighters from French overseas territories and regions such as French Guiana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe, have been denouncing France’s “colonisation” and “neocolonialism”, and have been calling for “decolonisation”.

Watch moreThe Baku Connection in Azerbaijan: ‘They won’t stop our investigations by arresting us’

“At the last Non-Aligned Movement conference [chaired by Azerbaijan] in July 2023 in Baku, we wanted to take stock of the situation in the territories still under French domination, and decided to form the Baku Initiative Group,” explained Jean-Jacob Bicep, president of the People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, a far-left political party in the French overseas region. “The aim is to make the world aware of France’s colonial policy,” added another representative who asked to remain anonymous.

These pro-independence activists have already been able to make their case against what they call “French colonialism” before the UN on two occasions: first at a conference in September at the UN’s New York headquarters, then at its Geneva office in December. Both events were organised by the Baku Initiative Group.

What does this have to do with Azerbaijan? It’s not just a coincidence that Azerbaijan held the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Group at just the right time. The executive director of these “anti-French colonialism” gatherings is Azerbaijani Abbas Abbassov, who has long worked for Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund. 

In addition, a July 2023 roundtable in Baku titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism” was organised by the AIR Center, one of Azerbaijan’s leading think tanks, whose chairman, Farid Shafiyev, is Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

The Baku roundtable ended with an agreement on the establishment of “the Baku Initiative Group against French colonialism”, according to an AIR Center statement. When contacted, the think tank did not respond to questions from FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

Denouncing the ‘Macron Dictatorship’

The group of French nationals who have attended the Baku Initiative Group meetings includes well-known figures in the pro-Azerbaijani camp, such as journalist Yannick Urrien. “It was Hikmet Hajiyev who asked me to come to a conference of the group in Baku in October 2023,” explained Urrien.

Hikmet Hajiyev is a well-known figure in Azerbaijan power circles: he is the foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president and a close associate of President Aliyev. “He is the mastermind behind the smear campaigns against other countries, including France,” explained Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) and a former advisor to Azerbaijan for around six years.

Aliyev himself used a speech at a decolonisation conference in Baku in November to deliver a scathing broadside against France. In his address, the Azerbaijani president referred to France more than 20 times, accusing Paris of “inflicting conflict” in the Caucasus and committing “most of the bloody crimes in the colonial history of humanity”.

Some of the French participants in Baku’s decolonisation conferences deny being instrumentalised or prefer to ignore the issue. “It’s none of my business. We seize every opportunity to achieve our goal, and all France has to do is settle its own problems with Azerbaijan,” said Bicep, the leader of the far-left People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe.

Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the creation of the Baku Initiative Group came at the best possible time for Azerbaijan, which “doesn’t really have any chemistry with France at the moment”. It’s probably a way of asking the French government “to put its own house in order before criticising what others are doing [in Nagorno-Karabakh]”, he added.

Azerbaijan has also proved to be creative in increasing the resonance of these pro-independence demands on social media. On Twitter, they are relayed by anonymous Azerbaijanis and influential personalities, such as AIR Center director Farid Shafiyev.

Since October, the Azerbaijani parliament has even hosted a support group for the people of Corsica, the French Mediterranean island which has had a tumultuous relationship with mainland France since it became French in the 18th century. A communiqué published in early February by the people of Corsica support group set up by Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced “the Macron Dictatorship”. ().

In December, Azerbaijan was accused of sending journalists “known for their proximity to Azerbaijani intelligence services” to cover French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s trip to New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the Pacific. Their mission was to write articles “with an anti-France angle”, said radio station Europe 1, which broke the story.

A leaf from the Russian playbook

The creation of the Baku Initiative Group and the media hype surrounding the issue of anti-colonialism are “a monumental mistake”, according to Dupuy. The former advisor to Azerbaijan asserted that this strategy has “no chance” of moving France one iota on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, while scuttling relations between the two countries. It’s an opinion he says he shares with his contacts in Azerbaijan.

But it’s not surprising that Baku is resorting to this kind of tactic, explained Goyushov of the Baku Research Institute. With its internet disinformation operations and anti-West rhetoric harking back to the colonial era, Azerbaijan is taking a leaf out of the Kremlin playbook for winning friends and gaining influence in Africa.

“You have to take into account one thing: Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union,” said Goyushov. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president for a decade before his son took over the office, was a former KGB official – like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course they are still almost the same,” added the political scientist. “They are copying each other in many ways. Their rhetoric against the West uses the same methods against their opponents, employs the same tactics on social media.”

But Goyushov doesn’t expect the Azerbaijani offensive to succeed. Firstly, because Azerbaijan does not have the same resources as Russia to deploy large-scale operations, such as Russia’s Doppelgänger disinformation campaign, which has been spreading false information in several European countries since 2022.

Secondly, Azerbaijan “is much more economically dependent on Western countries than Russia”, noted Goyushov. Aliyev, he believes, does not have the luxury of getting permanently upset with a power like France.

“It’s quite similar to what happened in 2013 with Germany,” explained Goyushov. Back then, Germany criticised the infringements of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, a country with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to a presidential election in Azerbaijan, “there were numerous attacks on Germany for about two years”, noted Goyushov.

But then the anti-German attacks abruptly stopped. The reason, according to Goyushov, is that these smear campaigns serve mainly internal political purposes. “In an authoritarian regime, you sometimes need to find a common enemy that allows the country to unite around the leader,” he explained. Perhaps COP 29, the 2024 climate conference to be held in Azerbaijan in November, will be an opportunity for the authorities to redress the diplomatic balance with the West, and France in particular.

Eloïse Layan from Forbidden Stories contributed to this report.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The ‘Philadelphi Corridor’: A goal for Netanyahu, a red line for Egypt

A narrow buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the “Philadelphia Corridor” has come under increasing scrutiny as Israel plans a full-scale military offensive on Rafah, Gaza’s crammed, southernmost city near the border. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to take control of the strategic sliver of land. That has Egypt worried amid fears of a breakdown of the decades-old Egypt-Israel peace accords.

Truce talks in Cairo this week have focused attention on the pressure Egypt is facing during the Israel-Hamas war and a little-known sliver of land rather inaccurately called “the Philadelphi Corridor”, sometimes translated as the Philadelphia Corridor.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to control this narrow buffer zone along the Egypt-Gaza border since the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched its war against Hamas following the October 7 attacks.

With Israel now threatening a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah – despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in a city crammed with around 1.5 million forcibly displaced Gazans – Egypt is warily eyeing its northeastern border with Israel.

A day before the CIA and Mossad chiefs held talks in Cairo this week with regional negotiators desperate for a ceasefire, Netanyahu was rattling Egyptian nerves again.  

In an interview with US TV channel ABC News, Netanyahu said Israel would provide “safe passage for the civilian population to leave” Rafah, which he described as Hamas’s “last stronghold”.

The Israeli prime minister did not say exactly where the desperate, already displaced Gazans could take refuge. Netanyahu did however mention areas north of Rafah that could be used as safe zones for civilians.

The UN though is not convinced of Israel’s plans for Gaza’s civilians. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Tuesday that the UN “will not be party to the forced displacement of people” since “there is no place currently safe” in Gaza.

That increased the spotlight on the Philadelphi Corridor, a route that runs along Gaza’s southern frontier with Egypt, from the Mediterranean coast to the Kerem Shalom crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip meet.

The Philadephi Corridor © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Fearing a massive influx of refugees and its possible consequences, Egypt has deployed around 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers in northeastern Sinai over the past few weeks. This deployment is part of a series of measures aimed at reinforcing security on the border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters.

Through the corridors of power

Named “Philadelphi” after a randomly chosen Israeli military code name for what is also called the “Saladin Axis”, the strategic corridor is a 14 kilometre-long and 100 metre-wide buffer zone. It was set up in accordance with the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

The aim of the Philadelphi Corridor is to prevent armed incursions, control the movement of Palestinians in both directions, and prevent smuggling and arms trafficking between the Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Marked by barbed wire fences and concrete blocks, the Philadelphi Corridor was under Israeli control until the IDF’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The 2005 Philadelphi Accord between Egypt and Israel authorised Cairo to deploy a contingent of 750 Egyptian border guards along the Egyptian side of the buffer zone. These border guards were the first Egyptian soldiers to patrol the zone since the 1967 war, when the Gaza Strip was conquered by Israel along with the Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned to Egypt under the Camp David Accords.

The 2005 Egypt-Israel agreement very precisely defined the Egyptian military equipment deployment in this buffer zone: eight helicopters, 30 light armored vehicles and four coastal patrol ships.

Their mission was to guard the corridor on the Egyptian side – the only Gaza border outside the direct control of the Israeli army – to combat terrorism and prevent smuggling and infiltrations.

On the other side of the corridor, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces took over from the Israelis. But just two years later, the PA lost control of the corridor when it was pushed out of Gaza following the 2007 conflict between its Fatah and rival Hamas fighters.

In response, Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade, as well as an embargo on the Palestinian enclave now under Hamas control. These restrictions encouraged the development of a system of smuggling tunnels, passing under the no-man’s-land between Gaza and Egypt, enabling goods and people to cross the border, which was documented by Israel as early as 1983.

Since then, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah terminal, through which people, goods and humanitarian aid transit, has only been opened intermittently. Israel sees this zone as a vital supply area for Hamas.


A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet.
A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

In December 2007, Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni criticised Egypt for doing a “poor” job of stopping arms smuggling through the Philadelphi Corridor.

As far back as 2008-2009 Gaza war, also known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military plans called for the occupation of the Philadelphi Corridor in order to destroy the underground smuggling tunnels. This would have de facto encircled the Gaza Strip.

Following the 2013 military coup which ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo became hostile to Hamas, which it saw as a Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood.

The Egyptian army set about destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with the Gaza Strip. This was in retaliation against Hamas, which Cairo accused of destabilising the Sinai while the Egyptian military waged a counterterrorism operation against a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group. To destroy this underground system, Egypt deliberately flooded the border area in 2015.

The land that ‘must be in our hands’

After the October 7 attacks on Israeli soil, which was unprecedented in scale and human toll, attention in Israel once again turned to the Philadelphi Corridor, which was perceived more than ever as a strategic area for Hamas.

As the year ended – and the Gaza war headed to its third month – Netanyahu unambiguously stated Israel’s strategic intentions at a news conference on December 30.  

“The Philadelphi Corridor – or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek,” he said.

Netanyahu has frequently repeated this threat, compelling Cairo to take the Israeli leader’s rhetoric very seriously.

The risk of desperate Gazans fleeing into Egypt due to the Israeli assault is of great concern to Egyptian authorities, according to Salah Gomaa, deputy editor of Egyptian state-owned radio station Al-Sharq Al Awsat.

Since the start of the latest Gaza war, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who acts as mediator between Hamas and the Israeli government, has opposed the idea of allowing Gazans fleeing the war and crowded together at the Egyptian border to enter his territory. In a November address, Sisi reiterated his country’s rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans to Egypt, calling it a “red line”.

“Any bombardment or attack at Rafah now will certainly lead the refugees to flee to Sinai,” said Gomaa. “If Egypt allows this to happen, it will mean that it accepts the liquidation of the Palestinian issue while hardline Israeli ministers openly advocate the resettlement of Gaza and the ‘transfer‘ of Gazans to neighbouring Egypt.”

A diplomatic crisis looms

In addition to a likely humanitarian catastrophe, Netanyahu also runs the risk of triggering an open diplomatic crisis with Egypt if he orders an Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor.

In mid-January, Israel informed Egypt of its intention to carry out a military operation along the Gaza side of the border, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing Israeli and Egyptian sources.

Days later, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Egypt’s official public relations office, the State Information Service (SIS), issued a stern warning that any “occupation” of the Philadelphi Corridor by Israeli forces would be a violation of the 1978 peace treaty between the two neighbouring nations.

“Many Israeli politicians have stated that the very purpose of taking control of the corridor is to enable the Palestinians, under the pressure of bombardment, to migrate towards Sinai, and this is the crux of the problem with the announcement of an imminent assault on Rafah,” explained Gomaa, “This is why the SIS chief issued a firm warning and this is why Egypt considers the reoccupation of this axis to be a red line.”

Egypt, an ally of the US, has used Washington to underscore the importance of its message, according to Gomaa. “Egypt has informed Israel through diplomatic channels and has informed Israel through the United States that this option will never be allowed by Egypt.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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China’s Pacific charm offensive pays off as Nauru drops Taipei for Beijing

The island nation of Nauru’s shock announcement that it was severing ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing has brought China’s charm offensive across the Pacific into sharp relief – and highlighted the limited options available to micro-states desperate for a way out of economic dead-ends.

Where most countries send congratulations to those who win presidential elections, the Pacific Island nation of Nauru sent an altogether different message to Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te. After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s win in the presidential election over the weekend, Nauru notified Taiwan on Monday that it would no longer be recognising the island as an independent nation. Instead, Nauru’s 12,000-odd inhabitants would from now on consider Taiwan “an inalienable part of China’s territory”.

The loss of Nauru’s support is just the latest blow to Taiwan’s dwindling group of diplomatic allies, a motley collection of developing nations across Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific that continue to recognise Taiwan – under its formal name of the Republic of China – as the sole legitimate representative of China on the international stage. This binary choice – neither Beijing nor Taipei will allow countries to recognise both claimants – is a holdover from the years following the Chinese Civil War, when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Kuomintang continued to represent China at the UN from its outpost on Taiwan.

Since DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 election to Taiwan’s presidency ushered in the end of an eight-year “diplomatic truce” between Taipei and Beijing, the People’s Republic of China has poached nine of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies through promises of economic aid and development. By shrinking the circle of countries that continue to recognise Taipei internationally, Beijing seems bent on further isolating Taiwan, incensed by what it characterises as the DPP’s dangerous separatist tendencies. Nauru makes ten.

‘Chequebook diplomacy’

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London and co-author of a new book, “The Political Thought of Xi Jinping”, said that Taiwan’s unwillingness to reach deeper into its pockets was making it increasingly difficult to convince its remaining diplomatic allies – now numbering just 12 – to stay by its side.

“The first thing to bear in mind is that Nauru is a country of just less than 13,000 people, so the provision of economic or development incentives that can persuade it to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing can be quite small,” he said. “The issue here is that Taiwan’s government has, for a few years now, decided not to go head to head with the Chinese government in chequebook diplomacy, so it will lose some of its ‘allies’ to Beijing if Beijing is determined enough to outbid Taiwan.”

Despite President Tsai Ing-wen’s declaration in 2016 that Taipei would no longer buy support through “chequebook diplomacy”, Taiwan has continued to provide humanitarian aid and concessional loans to the handful of countries that recognise it. Nauru has hosted a Taiwanese technical mission involved in agriculture, energy, scholarships and training since 2006, and has been a consistent recipient of grants and below-market-rate loans from Taipei. Alongside Australia and New Zealand, Taiwan continues to pay into Nauru’s Intergenerational Trust Fund, set up in 2015 to help replace the nation’s vanishing phosphate revenues.

Apparently, it hasn’t been enough. Nauru is now the latest Pacific Island nation to make the switch to Beijing. In 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both declared for China, with Taiwanese media alleging that the latter had been convinced to abandon Taipei in exchange for some $500 million in financial aid – a claim that has never been confirmed.

But it’s no secret that China has been stepping up its economic and diplomatic engagement with nations across the Pacific, with Beijing believed to have spent $3.9 billion in aid in the region between 2008 and 2021 to Taiwan’s $395 million over the same period. And while Taiwan’s engagement with countries with smaller populations has effectively meant that it has spent twice as much as Beijing per capita, China is also steadily abandoning the large-scale, big-budget infrastructure projects characteristic of the early years of its Belt and Road Initiative for more targeted projects in health and agriculture.

Keeping its head above water

Dr Asha Sundaramurthy, an expert on the Oceania region, said that the results of China’s charm offensive were clear.

“China’s volume of aid and increased engagement in the region has played a significant role in shifting the recognition of Taiwan in the last decade, with Kiribati and Solomon Islands reversing in 2019,” she said. “Now, only the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Palau remain as three Pacific Islands recognising Taiwan.”

This is not the first time that Nauru has seemingly sold its diplomatic recognition to the highest bidder. Nauru chose to recognise China in July 2002 after more than two decades of diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taiwan’s foreign ministry accused China at the time of buying Nauru’s loyalty with $137 million in grants and debt repayments. The government reversed its decision in May 2005, recognising Taipei once again as the rightful China. The following year, the Taiwanese government funded Nauru’s purchase of a Boeing 737 jet to replace an earlier aircraft – the nation’s only one – that had been repossessed by American financiers the year before.

A few scant years later, Nauru would also become one of the only countries in the world to officially recognise the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Even Russia’s close ally Belarus baulked at acknowledging the renegade provinces, but Nauru – alongside Nicaragua and Venezuela – established relations with both self-proclaimed states. According to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, the Kremlin rewarded the island nation for its support with some $50 million in humanitarian aid.

Although this transactional approach to international relations may seem mercenary, Nauru’s modern history makes it clear that the country has been left with few other ways to, quite literally, keep its head above water. A remote Pacific Island nation covering just 21 square kilometres, Nauru’s relationship with the vast world beyond its shores changed drastically following the discovery of high-grade phosphate reserves there on the eve of the 20th century. Built up over untold thousands of years by the fossilised droppings of the seabirds that roosted on the tiny island’s central plateau, these phosphate reserves would prove an invaluable source of fertiliser for the British Empire once the island nation was wrested from German hands after World War I.

Under the stewardship of the British Phosphate Commissioners – representatives of Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain who were given a mandate by the League of Nations to mine the nation’s phosphate to sell to the Empire’s farmers at below-market rates – more than 35 million metric tonnes of the fertiliser were stripped from the island by the time the nation won independence in 1968. By then, more than a third of the island had been strip-mined, leaving the central plateau a wasteland of sun-bleached limestone towers and shattered coral.

Nauru’s primary phosphate reserves are now all but exhausted. With little left to fall back on aside from selling off fishing rights, Nauru has become one of the countries most reliant on foreign aid to survive – and one of the low-lying island nations most vulnerable to climate crisis.

Stripped of arable land and frantic for new sources of revenue, the government has become deeply dependent on a deal with Australia to operate an offshore processing centre for asylum-seekers hoping to reach Australia by boat. The processing centre was estimated as being likely to generate more than $100 million for Nauru in 2024, on top of the $31 million given directly by Australia in development assistance in 2023. According to the US-based Migration Policy Institute, Australian payments to Nauru through the deal accounted for about two-thirds of the island’s total revenue in 2021-2022. More than 15 percent of the island’s population was employed at the centre in 2021, with many more finding work in the secondary service industries that sprung up around the operation. But with the number of detainees currently held there believed to have dwindled to a bare dozen and Australia winding down its financing of the scheme, it’s a deal that seems unlikely to keep delivering.

Beijing’s ‘punishment’ against Taiwan

Speaking to Taiwan’s semi-official news agency CNA, an unnamed Taiwanese diplomat alleged that Nauru had asked Taipei for roughly $83.23 million to help fill a financial shortfall caused by the processing centre’s temporary shutdown. The Taiwanese official told CNA that Beijing had likely offered to step in and make up the shortfall. An unnamed Australian official in Taiwan told the Australian Financial Review that the report was accurate, although the official said that the processing centre remained open despite only holding a handful of people inside. Neither Nauru nor China have publicly commented on any financial incentives for the switch in affiliation.

Tsang said that the timing of Nauru’s announcement – so soon after the DPP won a renewed mandate – was no coincidence. 

“The timing will suggest that Beijing has worked on the government of Nauru well before the Taiwanese elections, and this is one of the options Beijing has as a ‘punishment’ against Taiwan and its people for choosing a presidential candidate Beijing has said they should not support,” he said. “But among the range of options Beijing has to show its displeasure, this is one that does relatively little damage to Taiwan.”

Although losing the friendship of a tiny island nation halfway around the world may ultimately mean little to Taipei, Nauru may well be counting on China’s continued largesse to give it a way out of its economic dead-end.

“For the islands’ perspective, they seek to partake in the economic growth of the emerging Asian Century – which is spearheaded by China,” Sundaramurthy said. “The island countries are also playing a delicate game of balance between security and development while ensuring the region avoids becoming a site of power contestation.”

Despite Taipei’s shock at Nauru’s announcement, Tsang said, Taipei’s increasing diplomatic isolation – on paper, at least – may end up having unexpected benefits as Taiwan continues to re-imagine its own identity.

“When no country formally recognises Taiwan by its formal name, the Republic of China, it will just be known as Taiwan,” he said. “So it will get to a point when it will be against Beijing’s interest to reduce further small states that recognise Taiwan by its official name.”

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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.

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Retrospective: The top 12 news stories that defined 2023

From a devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey to a march on Moscow and the war against Hamas in Gaza, 2023 was full of dramatic moments, from the heartfelt to the heartbreaking. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at 12 key events that defined the year in news. 

Lula takes office in Brazil, Amazon destruction slows

On January 1 of this year, Brazil’s leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned to office after narrowly beating his right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. During his first two terms from 2003 to 2010 he presided over strong economic growth and channelled funding into social programmes, with his signature Bolsa Família financial aid policy lifting millions out of poverty and inspiring similar programmes in almost 20 countries. A one-time union leader from a poor family, Lula was imprisoned in 2018 on corruption and money laundering charges handed down by a controversial judge, serving more than a year and a half in prison before a Supreme Court ruled his imprisonment unlawful while appeals were ongoing.

In the year since Lula returned to the presidency the destruction of the Amazon has slowed dramatically, an Amazon Conservation forest monitoring programme found, dropping more than 55 percent from the same period in 2022. Deforestation hit a six-year low in July, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. 

Read moreIbama: Brazil’s environmental police are back on the job

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attends a breakfast with journalists at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on April 6, 2023. Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters

Turkey-Syria earthquake

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey near the Syrian border in the early hours of February 6, followed several hours later by another quake measuring 7.5. More than 55,000 people were killed, according to the latest figures from the British Red Cross, and more than 100,000 were injured, with tens of thousands more left homeless. Compounding the tragedy, the first quake’s epicentre in south-central Turkey struck an area where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees had taken shelter since 2011 from the Syrian civil war. The disaster prompted a massive international relief effort to rescue and shelter survivors, but anger grew in subsequent months over the Turkish government’s failures in its response as well as its history of ignoring blatant violations of building safety codes. Turkish officials responded by issuing more than 100 arrest warrants and launching a series of investigations into the construction sector. In a situation assessment issued in mid-October, the British Red Cross said more than 17 million people had been affected by the quakes and warned of the continuing risk of cholera in affected areas.

Read more‘I have no words’: One funeral after another in Turkey’s quake-stricken Gaziantep

A man walks through the rubble of destroyed buildings in Antakya, southern Turkey, on February 8, 2023.
A man walks through the rubble of destroyed buildings in Antakya, southern Turkey, on February 8, 2023. Khalil Hamra, AP

Saudi-Iran rapprochement and a Mideast diplomatic revamp 

The Middle East seemed on the verge of key diplomatic breakthroughs in 2023 that could have rewritten alliances across the region. Regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations on March 10 under a China-sponsored initiative after years of hostility and the formal suspension of ties in 2016. Riyadh and Tehran have been on opposite sides of several conflicts, notably Syria and Yemen, where a proxy war between Iran-backed Houthis rebels and the Saudi-backed regime has been raging since 2015. The agreement not only eased tensions between two bitter rivals but earned China a certain credibility as a global power broker, part of a larger Chinese initiative to present itself as a viable alternative to the United States in world affairs. 

Read moreWatch: A new order in the Middle East? The ripple effects of Saudi-Iran rapprochement

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (right) shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban (left) joined by China's Wang Yi (center).
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (right) shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban (left) joined by Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat (center) during a meeting in Beijing on March 11, 2023 Luo Xiaoguang, Xinhua News Agency, AP


India surpasses China as most populous nation  

India took over the dubious title of the world’s most populous nation in April this year when it surpassed 1.429 billion people, outstripping China’s 1.426. India’s population will almost certainly keep growing for the next several decades, according to the UN, with it expected to peak around 2064 before beginning a gradual decline.

Both nations introduced policies to slow the birth rate in the latter half of the 20th century, but India’s federal structure saw vastly different results across its various states. Where state governments emphasised “socio-economic development and women’s empowerment, fertility declined earlier and at a more rapid pace”, a UN policy analysis found. “Those states that invested less in human capital, especially for girls and women, experienced slower reductions in fertility, despite controversial mass sterilisation campaigns,” the UN observed.

Read moreSpotlight on family planning as India surpasses China as world’s most populous country


French pension reform signed into law despite months of protest 

French President Emmanuel Macron signed his unpopular and vehemently protested pension reform into law in April after a final attempt to get the draft law branded unconstitutional failed just a day before.

The reform, which notably raised the standard retirement age from 62 to 64, now requires most French citizens to work for some 43 years to be eligible for a full pension. Many argue that such stringent requirements place an unfair burden on women (who are more likely to take time off from work to care for children) or any worker who does not work for a year (to attend higher education, for example). Macron’s government argued repeatedly that the reform was needed to make the pension system sustainable in the long term.

Read moreMacron’s pension reform: Necessary changes to an unsustainable system?


Britain crowns Charles III, its first new monarch in 70 years

Charles III was crowned king of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth nations in a May 6 ceremony replete with religious and historical symbolism. It was Britain’s first coronation in 70 years and followed the death in 2022 of Queen Elizabeth II, the nation’s longest-serving monarch.

Charles was coronated with St Edward’s Crown, an ancient symbol of the monarchy, before an audience of some 2,300 people including foreign royalty, political leaders and cultural figures. It was Great Britain’s first coronation since 1953 and the first coronation of a British king since 1937. It was only the second of Britain’s coronations ever to be televised and the first to be both broadcast in colour and streamed online. 

Camilla was crowned in a smaller ceremony the same day and was the first Queen Consort to be crowned since the Queen Mother alongside King George VI in 1937.

Read moreCharles III’s ‘slimmed down’ coronation still aims to capture royal magic


Newly crowned King Charles III and Queen Camilla wave from the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their coronation ceremony in London on May 6, 2023.
Newly crowned King Charles III and Queen Camilla wave from the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their coronation ceremony in London on May 6, 2023. Matthew Childs, Reuters


Erdogan re-elected in Turkey 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a third decade in power after narrowly beating centre-left civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a presidential run-off in May. Admirers laud the devout Erdogan for loosening restrictions on practicing Islam in officially secular Turkey and launching ambitious – but controversial – infrastructure projects. Critics have accused him of sweeping authoritarianism for a brutal crackdown following a failed 2016 coup that saw hundreds jailed including teachers, civil servants, human rights activists and others deemed critical of his regime. Erdogan’s detractors also argue that he has pursued misguided policies that contravene conventional economics; inflation in Turkey remains stubbornly high, at almost 62 percent in November after peaking at more than 85 percent in October 2022.

Read moreTempest in a teashop: Turks bitterly divided in Erdogan stronghold ahead of presidential vote

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at the presidential palace in Ankara on May 28, 2023.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at the presidential palace in Ankara on May 28, 2023. Ali Unal, AP

Ukraine launches counteroffensive as the war drags on 

A much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian forces was launched in early June after Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries claimed to have taken control of Bakhmut after months of fighting. The June 6 collapse of the massive Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River complicated Ukrainian efforts, forcing thousands to flee flooding, threatening the supply of water used to cool the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and causing more than €1 billion in damage. Experts have said the aftereffects from the dam’s collapse will be seen in the environment for decades to come. 

It remains difficult to ascertain the number of military casualties as neither side publicizes its losses. A Ukrainian civic group said in November that it estimates Ukraine’s military losses at more than 30,000 troops. An August report by the New York Times citing US officials estimated that some 70,000 Ukrainian and more than 120,000 Russian soldiers had so far died since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Read moreThe Dnipro River, a new key front line for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia

President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a rare press conference on February 24, 2023.
President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a rare press conference on February 24, 2023. Gleb Garanich, Reuters

March on Moscow and the death of mercenary chief Prigozhin  

Mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin stunned the world in late June amid reports that his long-beleaguered Wagner Group had begun marching toward Moscow in what appeared to be a direct challenge to the regime of President Vladimir Putin. But just hours later the crisis appeared to be over, with Prigozhin agreeing to call off his “March for Justice” and go into exile in Belarus instead of risking an all-out confrontation with the Russian army. In exchange, the Kremlin declined to press charges against him and offered Wagner fighters immunity from prosecution.  

The unusual détente was not to last, however, as Prigozhin’s days were numbered. Progozhin was on board a small plane that crashed in Russia on August 23, two months to the day after his aborted mutiny. Given the dire fates often met by those who challenge Putin’s authority, speculation has been rife that the plane may have been downed on the Kremlin’s orders, allegations it has vehemently denied.

Read morePrigozhin’s death: Show of strength or admission of weakness for Putin?

Yevgeni Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary group, speaks from Bakhmut, Ukraine, May 25, 2023.
Yevgeni Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary group, speaks from Bakhmut, Ukraine, May 25, 2023. AFP

Coups in Niger and Gabon 

The year 2023 saw more coups in Africa, notably Niger in July and Gabon the following month.

A military junta detained Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum in July, prompting both France and the European Union to suspend security cooperation and financial aid to the landlocked Sahel country while the African Union revoked its membership. The head of Niger’s influential presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tiani, was declared the country’s new leader. The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) gave Tiani a week to reinstate Bazoum and threatened the use of force if the demand was not met; it was a threat that ultimately did not materialize.

A coup in the West African nation of Gabon in August saw the downfall of the country’s dynastic family with the ouster of Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had ruled Gabon since his father’s death in 2009; Omar Bongo had ruled Gabon for more than 40 years. Coup leaders proclaimed General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite republican guard, the country’s new head shortly after Bongo won re-election in a disputed vote that observers said was marked by irregularities. It was the eighth coup since 2020 in west-central Africa, a region that is becoming known as a “coup belt” as persistent insecurity and corruption give rise to political frustration, paving the way for military takeovers.

Read moreBeginning of the end for 56 years of Bongo family rule

General Brice Oligui Nguema at his inauguration as interim president of Gabon in Libreville on September 4, 2023.
General Brice Oligui Nguema at his inauguration as interim president of Gabon in Libreville on September 4, 2023. AFP

Trump’s 91 indictments 

Former US president Donald Trump in March became the first US president to be charged with criminal activity when a New York grand jury voted to indict him for falsifying business records linked to hush-money payments made to an adult film star. Trump was indicted with 40 criminal counts in Florida in June for his mishandling of sensitive or classified government records after leaving office.

The former president also faces four criminal counts in Washington, DC, where he was charged in August on charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith related to subverting US democracy. Trump was indicted on similar charges that same month in Georgia, where he was charged along with 18 others for attempting to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. He is charged with 13 criminal counts, including in relation to pressuring an elected official to “find” enough votes for him to win.

In total, Trump is facing a total of 91 felony counts in four jurisdictions as he seeks re-election. 

In May, a jury also found Trump liable for sexually abusing columnist E. Jean Carroll in a civil case dating from 1996, awarding her $5 million in damages. 

Donald Trump is questioned by Judge Arthur F. Engoron during his civil trial in New York on October 25, 2023.
Donald Trump is questioned by Judge Arthur F. Engoron during his civil trial in New York on October 25, 2023. Jane Rosenberg, Reuters

October 7 attack and war in Gaza  

Members of Hamas’s military wing launched a multi-pronged attack on several communities in southern Israel on Saturday, October 7, with fighters infiltrating the fortified border by air, land and sea. The offensive caught authorities off guard in a significant failure for the Israeli intelligence services, with more than 1,000 people killed and around 240 taken hostage; victims ranged from less than one year old to people in their 80s.  

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded by launching a war on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, warning civilians to move south as the north was bombarded before also targeting southern areas. A weeklong pause in hostilities allowed hundreds of aid trucks into Gaza as well as the release of more than 100 hostages and some 240 Palestinian prisoners before Israel’s offensive resumed on December 1. The United Nations and other international agencies have called for Israel to do everything it can to protect civilians while demanding that Hamas and its armed allied groups release all remaining hostages unconditionally.

Read moreHamas surprise attack a ‘historic failure’ for Israeli intelligence services




Palestinians near a destroyed Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip east of Khan Yunis on October 7, 2023.
Palestinians near a destroyed Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip east of Khan Yunis on October 7, 2023. Hassan Eslaiah, AP


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Prognosis for Russia’s economy is ‘not good,’ says EU sanctions envoy

Euronews speaks to David O’Sullivan, the EU’s sanctions envoy, about loopholes, circumvention, Russia’s economy and criticism over the EU’s response to war in the Middle East.

As the West continues to sanction Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine, some foreign companies have stepped into the fray and are supplying the Russian military with critical technologies prohibited by the EU, US and UK.

The EU’s special envoy for sanctions, David O’Sullivan, has been travelling to third countries with the aim of limiting sanctions circumvention. 

Listen to this episode of the Global Conversation by clicking the video player above, or read the full interview below.

‘There’s always going to be a degree of circumvention’

Shona Murray, Euronews: So your job is sanctions envoy, but I suppose really what you’re trying to do is ensure that sanctions potential is maximised so that other countries around the world or private entities are not undercutting the sanctions deployed by the US, the EU and the UK. Tell us a little bit about your role.

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Well, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We have an unprecedented range of sanctions against Russia, more than we’ve ever sanctioned any other country. We have 60% of our imports, previous imports from Russia are under sanction, 55% of our exports. And obviously, ensuring effective implementation is very important. One part of that, which is my responsibility, is to reach out to countries that have not aligned with our sanctions.

Shona Murray, Euronews: So what would you say then would be a successful use of your time and this time next year, would you hope to see that these critical goods, this critical infrastructure, isn’t found on the battlefield in Ukraine?

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Well, we are already seeing that it’s getting more difficult for Russia to acquire these things. I think we have to be realistic. There’s always going to be a degree of circumvention. There’s money to be made. A lot of these products have previously been sold to other countries and are kind of out there on the free market. So if somebody wants to try and buy them, they are still available. But I think our main objective – and in this, I think we are succeeding – is to make it harder, to make it slower and to make it more expensive for Russia to access these products.

Russia increasingly relying on ‘substitute products’ from China

Shona Murray, Euronews: Do you worry, though, that Russia will just re-orient its economy completely and be able to take all of these exports from huge countries like China?

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Well, the thing to remember is that the point about these products and most of them – maybe for your viewers, we should explain – I mean, they are typically semiconductors, integrated circuits and fibre optical readers, flash memory cards. They’re things that have a perfectly innocent civilian application in normal circumstances. But they are largely made with US or EU technology. They are not easily replicated in other countries. So it’s hard for Russia to get them as we cease to export them and as we persuade countries, intermediary countries, to no longer re-export them to Russia. And I think, yes, we do see some evidence that it’s getting much more difficult. And they are using substitute products sometimes of Chinese origin, but which are of inferior quality. So this is giving the Ukrainian military a certain technological advantage on the battlefield.

War in Ukraine ‘a different situation’ for Europeans than the Israel-Hamas war

Shona Murray, Euronews: Have things changed for you or maybe become more difficult since the heinous terrorist attack by Hamas on 7 October? Because we saw criticisms from the likes of King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, who was concerned that the EU position when it came to international humanitarian law protecting civilians in Palestine wasn’t the same or wasn’t the same concern when it comes to civilians in Ukraine.

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: I think they understand that for the Europeans, this is a different situation. I mean, Russia has attacked Ukraine without any provocation. Ukraine posed absolutely no threat to Russia. So this is an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of a sovereign country. And I think people understand why for us in Europe, we have to push back very strongly. And Mr Putin’s ambitions of re-establishing Russian hegemony in the immediate neighbourhood of Russia is something we cannot accept. So I think people do understand it’s different. And that is why, as Europeans, we have a particular obligation in this situation. Of course, I would argue we have also taken a firm position in relation to what’s happening in the Middle East. But I don’t sense that people see this as a sort of binary choice. I often explain we can manage more than one crisis at a time.

Russia is ‘cannibalising the economy’

Shona Murray, Euronews: But we hear from some member states that say that these [sanctions] are pointless and they’re just impacting the European economy. So citizens are suffering at a time when there’s a cost of living crisis. And yet the Russian economy is growing, albeit much slower, 1.1%, I think the IMF said. So what do you say to that response that this is pointless and Europeans are just suffering?

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Well, it does come at some cost to us, let’s be honest, because we traditionally have traded a lot with Russia. It’s still not a major part of our trading pattern. And I think companies have been able to find alternate markets. In terms of the effectiveness, I mean, honestly, we had three objectives. One was to deprive Russia, the Russian military, of the technology. The second was to deprive the Russian government of the revenue. And the third was to impose a high cost on the military-industrial complex. Across all three of those objectives, I think we have had quite a lot of success.

We are seeing Russia struggling to get hold of the technology it needs and is now turning to Iran or North Korea. And we do see evidence that the Russians are having to roll out older weapons, older tanks, in order to keep their military equipped. On the revenue side, we estimate that the Russians probably have about €400 billion less to spend. The Russian government traditionally had a surplus in their public expenditure. They’re now running a deficit of 2 to 3%. And yes, the Russian economy is growing a bit. But you need to look closely at why that’s the case. It’s because they’re massively investing in their military. 30% of Russian public expenditure is now on the military, nearly 10% of GDP. If you put your economy on a war footing, of course, you can bend everything to the interest of the military, but you’re cannibalising the economy. There’s no investment going into social welfare, education, health, into research. So the prognosis for the Russian economy, and that’s the third objective of reducing their industrial capacity, the prognosis is not good.

Addressing the loophole in Russian oil sanctions

Shona Murray, Euronews: India is buying a lot of Russian oil, refining and sending it back to the West. That seems kind of counterproductive. What is your position on that and how much of a loophole that seems to be?

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Well, we decided at the very beginning that we would not do an embargo on the export of Russian oil in the way that we did, for example, with Iran. The reason for that was because many parts of the global South were dependent on continuing to allow Russian oil to flow. And we took the position that we would allow those flows to continue. So it is perfectly legal for other countries. We’re no longer buying Russian oil, but it’s perfectly legal for other countries to buy it.

Shona Murray, Euronews: And sell it back to the West…

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: We have kept the price at which it can normally be purchased in a way that still undermines the revenue that Russia gets. Our estimate is that in the first half of this year (2023), revenue from oil went down by 50% in Russia. But yes, they are still able to export it. And yes, in some cases like India, they refine it and send it back to us. The Indian argument would be that they’re the ones making the profit, not the Russians. I think the main objective for us is to make sure that the Russian revenue is severely impacted by the oil price cap. And I think we see a lot of evidence that that is the case.

Shona Murray, Euronews: Okay. David O’Sullivan, EU sanctions envoy, thank you very much for joining us on Global Conversation.

David O’Sullivan, EU Sanctions Envoy: Thank you.

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Kamala Harris at climate summit: World must ‘fight’ those stalling action

DUBAI — The vast, global efforts to arrest rising temperatures are imperiled and must accelerate, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told the world climate summit on Saturday. 

“We must do more,” she implored an audience of world leaders at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. And the headwinds are only growing, she warned.

“Continued progress will not be possible without a fight,” she told the gathering, which has drawn more than 100,000 people to this Gulf oil metropolis. “Around the world, there are those who seek to slow or stop our progress. Leaders who deny climate science, delay climate action and spread misinformation. Corporations that greenwash their climate inaction and lobby for billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Her remarks — less than a year before an election that could return Donald Trump to the White House — challenged leaders to cooperate and spend more to keep the goal of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach. So far, the planet has warmed about 1.3 degrees since preindustrial times.

“Our action collectively, or worse, our inaction will impact billions of people for decades to come,” Harris said.

The vice president, who frequently warns about climate change threats in speeches and interviews, is the highest-ranking face of the Biden White House at the Dubai negotiations.

She used her conference platform to push that image, announcing several new U.S. climate initiatives, including a record-setting $3 billion pledge for the so-called Green Climate Fund, which aims to help countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. The commitment echoes an identical pledge Barack Obama made in 2014 — of which only $1 billion was delivered. The U.S. Treasury Department later specified that the updated commitment was “subject to the availability of funds.”

Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Biden administration strategically timed the release of new rules to crack down on planet-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector — a significant milestone in its plan to prevent climate catastrophe.

The trip allows Harris to bolster her credentials on a policy issue critical to the young voters key to President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — and potentially to a future Harris White House run. 

“Given her knowledge base with the issue, her passion for the issue, it strikes me as a smart move for her to broaden that message out to the international audience,” said Roger Salazar, a California political strategist and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, a lifetime climate campaigner. 

Yet sending Harris also presents political peril. 

Biden has taken flak from critics for not attending the talks himself after representing the United States at the last two U.N. climate summits since taking office. And climate advocates have questioned the Biden administration’s embrace of the summit’s leader, Sultan al-Jaber, given he also runs the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil giant. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has argued the partnership can help bring fossil fuel megaliths to the table.

Harris has been on a climate policy roadshow in recent months, discussing the issue during a series of interviews at universities and other venues packed with young people and environmental advocates. The administration said it views Harris — a former California senator and attorney general — as an effective spokesperson on climate. 

“The vice president’s leadership on climate goes back to when she was the district attorney of San Francisco, as she established one of the first environmental justice units in the nation,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing her trip. 

Joining Harris in Dubai are Kerry, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, who’s leading the White House effort to implement Biden’s signature climate law. 

Biden officials are leaning on that climate law — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — to prove the U.S. is doing its part to slash global emissions. Yet climate activists remain skeptical, chiding Biden for separately approving a series of fossil fuel projects, including an oil drilling initiative in Alaska and an Appalachian natural gas pipeline.

Similarly, the Biden administration’s opening COP28 pledge of $17.5 million for a new international climate aid fund frustrated advocates for developing nations combating climate threats. The figure lagged well behind other allies, several of whom committed $100 million or more.

Nonetheless, Harris called for aggressive action in her speech, which was followed by a session with other officials on renewable energy. The vice president committed the U.S. to doubling its energy efficiency and tripling its renewable energy capacity by 2030, joining a growing list of countries. The U.S. also said Saturday it was joining a global alliance dedicated to divorcing the world from coal-based energy. 

Like other world leaders, Harris also used her trip to conduct a whirlwind of diplomacy over the war between Israel and Hamas, which has flared back up after a brief truce.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Harris would be meeting with “regional leaders” to discuss “our desire to see this pause restored, our desire to see aid getting back in, our desire to see hostages get out.”

The war has intruded into the proceedings at the climate summit, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas both skipping their scheduled speaking slots on Friday. Iran’s delegation also walked out of the summit, objecting to Israel’s presence.

Kirby said Harris will convey “that we believe the Palestinian people need a vote and a voice in their future, and then they need governance in Gaza that will look after their aspirations and their needs.”

Although Biden won’t be going to Dubai, the administration said these climate talks are “especially” vital, given countries will decide how to respond to a U.N. assessment that found the world’s climate efforts are falling short. 

“This is why the president has made climate a keystone of his administration’s foreign policy agenda,” the senior administration official said.

Robin Bravender reported from Washington, D.C. Zia Weise and Charlie Cooper reported from Dubai. 

Sara Schonhardt contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

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Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dies at 100

Kissinger exerted uncommon influence on global affairs under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, earning both vilification and the Nobel Peace Prize.


Henry Kissinger, the diplomat with thick glasses and gravelly voice who dominated foreign policy as the United States pulled out of Vietnam and broke down barriers with China, died on Wednesday, his consulting firm said. 

He was 100.

Tributes from around the world have poured in. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the world had lost a “great diplomat”, while Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Kissinger as a “wise and visionary statesman”.

With his gruff yet commanding presence and behind-the-scenes manipulation of power, Kissinger exerted uncommon influence on global affairs under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, earning both vilification and the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Decades later, his name still provoked impassioned debate over foreign policy landmarks long past.

Kissinger’s power grew during the turmoil of Watergate when the politically attuned diplomat assumed a role akin to co-president to the weakened Nixon.

“No doubt my vanity was piqued,” Kissinger later wrote of his expanding influence. “But the dominant emotion was a premonition of catastrophe.”

A Jew who fled Nazi Germany with his family in his teens, Kissinger in his later years cultivated the reputation of a respected statesman, giving speeches, offering advice to Republicans and Democrats alike and managing a global consulting business. He turned up in President Donald Trump’s White House on multiple occasions. 

But Nixon-era documents and tapes, as they trickled out over the years, brought revelations — many in Kissinger’s own words — that sometimes cast him in a harsh light.

‘Shuttle diplomacy’

Never without his detractors, Kissinger after he left government was dogged by critics who argued that he should be called to account for his policies on Southeast Asia and support of repressive regimes in Latin America.

For eight restless years — first as national security adviser, later as secretary of state, and for a time in the middle holding both titles — Kissinger ranged across the breadth of major foreign policy issues. He conducted the first “shuttle diplomacy” in the quest for Middle East peace. He used secret channels to pursue ties between the United States and China, ending decades of isolation and mutual hostility.

He initiated the Paris negotiations that ultimately provided a face-saving means — a “decent interval,” he called it — to get the United States out of a costly war in Vietnam. Two years later, Saigon fell to the communists.

And he pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union that led to arms control agreements and raised the possibility that the tensions of the Cold War and its nuclear threat did not have to last forever.

At age 99, he was still out on tour for his book on leadership. Asked in a July 2022 interview with ABC whether he wished he could take back any of his decisions, Kissinger demurred, saying: “I’ve been thinking about these problems all my life. It’s my hobby as well as my occupation. And so the recommendations I made were the best of which I was then capable.”

Even then, he had mixed thoughts on Nixon’s record, saying “his foreign policy has held up and he was quite effective in domestic policy” while allowing that the disgraced president had “permitted himself to be involved in a number of steps that were inappropriate for a president.”

As Kissinger turned 100 in May 2023, his son David wrote in The Washington Post that his father’s centenary “might have an air of inevitability for anyone familiar with his force of character and love of historical symbolism. Not only has he outlived most of his peers, eminent detractors and students, but he has also remained indefatigably active throughout his 90s.”

Asked during a CBS interview in the leadup to his 100th birthday about those who view his conduct of foreign policy over the years as a kind of “criminality,” Kissinger was nothing but dismissive.

“That’s a reflection of their ignorance,” Kissinger said. “It wasn’t conceived that way. It wasn’t conducted that way.”


Kissinger continued his involvement in global affairs even in his last months. He met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in July, as bilateral relations were at a low point. And 50 years after his shuttle diplomacy helped end the 1973 Mideast war, when Israel fended off a surprise attack from Egypt and Syria, Kissinger warned of the risks of that conflict repeating itself after Israel faced a surprise assault by Hamas on October 7.

Tributes for Kissinger from prominent US officials poured in immediately upon word of his death. Former President George W. Bush said the US “lost one of the most dependable and distinctive voices on foreign affairs” and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Kissinger was “endlessly generous with the wisdom gained over the course of an extraordinary life.”

Kissinger’s consulting firm said he died at his home in Connecticut.


Kissinger was a practitioner of realpolitik — using diplomacy to achieve practical objectives rather than advance lofty ideals. Supporters said his pragmatic bent served US interests; critics saw a Machiavellian approach that ran counter to democratic ideals.

He was castigated for authorizing telephone wiretaps of reporters and his own National Security Council staff to plug news leaks in Nixon’s White House. He was denounced on college campuses for the bombing and allied invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, intended to destroy North Vietnamese supply lines to communist forces in South Vietnam.


That “incursion,” as Nixon and Kissinger called it, was blamed by some for contributing to Cambodia’s fall into the hands of Khmer Rouge insurgents who later slaughtered some 2 million Cambodians.

Kissinger, for his part, made it his mission to debunk what he referred to in 2007 as a “prevalent myth” — that he and Nixon had settled in 1972 for peace terms that had been available in 1969 and thus had needlessly prolonged the Vietnam War at the cost of tens of thousands of American lives.

He insisted that the only way to speed up the withdrawal would have been to agree to Hanoi’s demands that the US overthrow the South Vietnamese government and replace it with communist-dominated leadership.


Pudgy and messy, Kissinger incongruously acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man in the staid Nixon administration. Kissinger, who had divorced his first wife in 1964, called women “a diversion, a hobby.” Jill St. John was a frequent companion. But it turned out his real love interest was Nancy Maginnes, a researcher for Nelson Rockefeller whom he married in 1974.

In a 1972 poll of Playboy Club Bunnies, the man dubbed “Super-K” by Newsweek finished first as “the man I would most like to go out on a date with.”


Kissinger’s explanation: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Yet Kissinger was reviled by many Americans for his conduct of wartime diplomacy. He was still a lightning rod decades later: In 2015, an appearance by the 91-year-old Kissinger before the Senate Armed Services Committee was disrupted by protesters demanding his arrest for war crimes and calling out his actions in Southeast Asia, Chile and beyond.

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in the Bavarian city of Fuerth on May 27, 1923, the son of a schoolteacher. His family left Nazi Germany in 1938 and settled in Manhattan, where Heinz changed his name to Henry.

Kissinger had two children, Elizabeth and David, from his first marriage.

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Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dies at 100

Henry Kissinger, a controversial Nobel Peace Prize winner and diplomatic powerhouse whose service under two presidents left an indelible mark on US foreign policy, died on Wednesday at age 100, Kissinger Associates Inc said in a statement. He died at his home in Connecticut.

Kissinger had been active past his centenary, attending meetings in the White House, publishing a book on leadership styles, and testifying before a Senate committee about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. In July 2023 he made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In the 1970s, he had a hand in many of the epoch-changing global events of the decade while serving as secretary of state under Republican President Richard Nixon. The German-born Jewish refugee’s efforts led to the diplomatic opening of China, landmark US-Soviet arms control talks, expanded ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam.

Kissinger’s reign as the prime architect of US foreign policy waned with Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Still, he continued to be a diplomatic force under President Gerald Ford and to offer strong opinions throughout the rest of his life.

While many hailed Kissinger for his brilliance and broad experience, others branded him a war criminal for his support for anti-communist dictatorships, especially in Latin America. In his latter years, his travels were circumscribed by efforts by other nations to arrest or question him about past US foreign policy.

His 1973 Peace Prize – awarded jointly to North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, who would decline it – was one of the most controversial ever. Two members of the Nobel committee resigned over the selection and questions arose about the US secret bombing of Cambodia.

Ford called Kissinger a “super secretary of state” but also noted his prickliness and self assurance, which critics were more likely to call paranoia and egotism. Even Ford said, “Henry in his mind never made a mistake.”

“He had the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew,” Ford said in an interview shortly before his death in 2006.

With his dour expression and gravelly, German-accented voice, Kissinger was hardly a rock star but had an image as a ladies’ man, squiring starlets around Washington and New York in his bachelor days. Power, he said, was the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Voluble on policy, Kissinger was reticent on personal matters, although he once told a journalist he saw himself as a cowboy hero, riding off alone.

Harvard faculty

Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Furth, Germany, on May 27, 1923, and moved to the United States with his family in 1938 before the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews.

Anglicising his name to Henry, Kissinger became a naturalised US citizen in 1943, served in the Army in Europe in World War Two, and went to Harvard University on scholarship, earning a master’s degree in 1952 and a doctorate in 1954. He was on Harvard’s faculty for the next 17 years.

During much of that time, Kissinger served as a consultant to government agencies, including in 1967 when he acted as an intermediary for the State Department in Vietnam. He used his connections with President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to pass on information about peace negotiations to the Nixon camp.

When Nixon’s pledge to end the Vietnam War won him the 1968 presidential election, he brought Kissinger to the White House as national security adviser.

But the process of “Vietnamization” – shifting the burden of the war from the half-million US forces to the South Vietnamese – was long and bloody, punctuated by massive US bombing of North Vietnam, the mining of the North’s harbors, and the bombing of Cambodia.

Kissinger declared in 1972 that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam but the Paris Peace Accords reached in January 1973 were little more than a prelude to the final Communist takeover of the South two years later.

In 1973, in addition to his role as national security adviser, Kissinger was named secretary of state – giving him unchallenged authority in foreign affairs.

An intensifying Arab-Israeli conflict launched Kissinger on his first so-called “shuttle” mission, a brand of highly personal, high-pressure diplomacy for which he became famous.

Thirty-two days spent shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus helped Kissinger forge a long-lasting disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In an effort to diminish Soviet influence, Kissinger reached out to its chief communist rival, China, and made two trips there, including a secret one to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai. The result was Nixon’s historic summit in Beijing with Chairman Mao Zedong and the eventual formalisation of relations between the two countries.

Strategic arms accord 

The Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign barely grazed Kissinger, who was not connected to the cover-up and continued as secretary of state when Ford took office in the summer of 1974. But Ford did replace him as national security adviser in an effort to hear more voices on foreign policy.

Later that year Kissinger went with Ford to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union, where the president met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and agreed to a basic framework for a strategic arms pact. The agreement capped Kissinger’s pioneering efforts at detente that led to a relaxing of US-Soviet tensions.

But Kissinger’s diplomatic skills had their limits. In 1975, he was faulted for failing to persuade Israel and Egypt to agree to a second-stage disengagement in the Sinai.

And in the India-Pakistan War of 1971, Nixon and Kissinger were heavily criticized for tilting toward Pakistan. Kissinger was heard calling the Indians “bastards” – a remark he later said he regretted.

Like Nixon, he feared the spread of left-wing ideas in the Western hemisphere, and his actions in response were to cause deep suspicion of Washington from many Latin Americans for years to come.

In 1970 he plotted with the CIA on how best to destabilize and overthrow the Marxist but democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, while he said in a memo in the wake of Argentina’s bloody coup in 1976 that the military dictators should be encouraged.

When Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, in 1976, Kissinger’s days in the suites of government power were largely over. The next Republican in the White House, Ronald Reagan, distanced himself from Kissinger, who he viewed as out of step with his conservative constituency.

After leaving government, Kissinger set up a high-priced, high-powered consulting firm in New York, which offered advice to the world’s corporate elite. He served on company boards and various foreign policy and security forums, wrote books, and became a regular media commentator on international affairs.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush picked Kissinger to head an investigative committee. But outcry from Democrats who saw a conflict of interest with many of his consulting firm’s clients forced Kissinger to step down from the post.

Divorced from his first wife, Ann Fleischer, in 1964, he married Nancy Maginnes, an aide to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in 1974. He had two children by his first wife.


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Israel-Hamas war: How is China juggling Israeli economic ties with its pro-Palestine stance

The story so far: Commenting on Beijing’s stance on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on October 24, stated that Tel Aviv had a right to self-defence against Hamas. In a telephone call with his counterpart Eli Cohen, Mr. Wang re-affirmed that every country has a right to self-defence but should abide by international humanitarian law and protect civilians, according to a Bloomberg report.

Previously, Beijing had termed Israel’s actions as “beyond the scope of self-defence,” as Tel Aviv ordered one million residents of northern Gaza to evacuate within 24 hours ahead of its ground assault. Mr. Wang said, “Israel’s actions go beyond the scope of self-defence. It should heed the calls of the international community and avoid collective punishment of the people of Gaza,” in a phone call with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on October 14.

(FILES) US President Joe Biden (R) and China’s President Xi Jinping (L) meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 14, 2022.
| Photo Credit:

Beijing’s comment regarding Tel Aviv came before Mr. Wang’s Washington visit where he was set to discuss a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden. China, Israel’s largest Asian trading partner, has offered to mediate peace talks between Israel and Hamas as the war escalated. As of date, Israel has reportedly killed over 9700 people in Gaza via air and ground strikes since October 7 when Hamas killed over 1400 people in Israel and took 240 residents as hostage.

Through the years, Beijing’s relations with Israel has evolved from recognising it as an independent Jewish state to supporting the establishment of Palestine as part of a two-state solution.

 Historical ties – Military, then diplomatic

 Recognition & boost in arms sale

China was one of the first countries to recognise Israel as an independent sovereign nation following the formation of Israel in 1949. Similarly, Israel too recognised the Communist party-established People’s Republic of China in 1950, a year after the Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War.

Since then the ties between the two nations remained weak as China aligned with several Arab nations and even supported the Palestinian cause. At the Bandung Conference in 1955, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai pledged support for establishing Palestine as an independent nation. Later in the 1960s, members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) visited China where they were offered military training by Beijing.

Sino-Arab ties strengthened further in the 1970s when several Arab nations and Iran faced were facing armed revolutions and a change in administration to a more dictatorial and military leadership from a democratic western-backed political government. Throughout these revolutions, China supported most Arab military leaderships, both ideologically and by supplying arms.

As China entered the Deng Xiaoping era, Sino-Israeli ties revived in a pragmatic manner. Tapping into China’s ambition to expand its military, in the 1980s, Israel began exporting equipment such as missiles, radars, and navigation systems as well as transferring military technology. These military contracts were promoted by the United States in the last stages of the Cold War (late 1980s to 1991) in a bid to contain the Soviet Union (USSR) and break through Israel’s diplomatic isolation.

Notable military deals include technology transfer of Israel’s Python-3 air-to-air missiles which aided in the development of China’s PL-8 missiles (both ground-to-air and ship-to-air). China also imported the EL/j-7M-2032 planar array radar system which was integrated into its J-7 fighter jets – the Chinese version of the MiG-21.

Diplomacy strengthens, US hinders military ties

Military ties between China and Israel were subject to Western ire during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the PLA used military force to clear student protestors at the Square, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. The U.S. and many European nations condemned the PLA’s aggression, threatening to suspend military technical projects with Beijing, and subsequently banning arms sales to it.

Israeli embassy in Beijing

Israeli embassy in Beijing
| Photo Credit:
Ng Han Guan

By 1992, the military ties transformed into diplomatic ones, with each country formally opening embassies in Tel Aviv and Beijing respectively. As China sought to fill the vacuum created by the fall of USSR in a post-Cold War world, the U.S. viewed its growing global stature as competition to its own. Post-Tiananmen Square, Washington started expressing concerns over Sino-Israeli military pacts, accusing Tel Aviv of transferring sensitive American military technology to China. Throughout the 1990s, China and Israel kept their defence deals under wraps to avoid US scrutiny. However, arms exports from Israel to China remained $28-38 million on average each year, as per Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In 2000, the U.S. stalled the sale of Israel’s Phalcon airborne early warning and control systems (AEWC) to Beijing, fearing its potential use in an offensive against Taiwan. This soured Sino-Israeli military ties, with Tel Aviv agreeing to pay China $350 million in compensation and strengthening its ties with the U.S. Similarly, in 2005, Washington objected to the upgradation of China’s Harpy drones, bought from Israel, claiming that it contained U.S.-produced subsystems. The deal was eventually cancelled.

Sino-Israel defence deals have been stalled since then.

Sino-Israeli economic ties

Since the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992, Israel and China have robust economic trade relations. Bilateral trade was estimated to be $50 million in 1992 and has now rapidly expanded to $17.62 billion in 2022, according to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). With Benjamin Netanyahu coming to power in 2009 and Xi Jinping in 2013, the two nations strengthened their technological cooperation, pushing massive Chinese investment in Israel.

Israel-China trade 2013-22

Israel-China trade 2013-22

China launched its ambitious infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in 2013 and chose Israel as its biggest investment destination among the Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) nations. Between 2005 and 2018, China invested $12.19 billion in construction projects in Israel, according to AEI China Global Investment Tracker. This is despite Israel not formally joining the initiative.

Israeli exports to China

Israeli exports to China

Israeli trade deficit

Israeli trade deficit

China also imports Israeli computers, electronic and optic equipment, minerals and mining materials, chemicals, metals, food and beverages, plastic, rubber, wood and leather, agriculture, forestry and fishing goods. As per INSS, Israel’s exports to China has grown from $2.58 billion in 2013 to $4.5 billion in 2022.

Similarly, Israel too imports many Chinese goods, mainly cars, batteries, electronic equipment, machinery, and consumer products. Its imports from China have increased from $5.64 billion in 2013 to $13.12 billion in 2022, adding $8.62 billion in trade deficit to the Israeli economy. After the European Union ($49.19 billion), and the U.S. ($22.04 billion), China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner – dealing almost entirely in goods and commodities, not services.

China’s stance on Israel-Palestine dispute

Since 1950, Beijing has backed Palestine’s claim for independence, but never commented on Israeli settlements in West Bank. Most recently, at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing, Mr. Xi called for a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and expressed hope for implementing the two-state solution (establishing Israel and Palestine as independent nations as per UN-drawn borders).

Zhai Jun, left, special envoy of the Chinese government on the Middle East issue, meets with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023

Zhai Jun, left, special envoy of the Chinese government on the Middle East issue, meets with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023

In the aftermath of the October 7 attack by Hamas, most Western leaders condemned the militant group, with state heads visiting Israel. However, China has not condemned Hamas. It sent its Middle East envoy Zhai Jun to Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — but to neither Israel nor Palestine.

Both Russia and China vetoed the U.S.-led proposal at the UN Security Council calling for UN action in the Israel-Gaza war, asserting Tel Aviv’s right to defend itself and demanding Iran stop exporting arms to militant groups. Beijing vetoed the proposal claiming that it “did not reflect the world’s strongest calls for a ceasefire and help resolve the issue.”

However, China supported an Arab-backed UN proposal that called for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” in Gaza. While the motion passed, fourteen nations including Israel and the U.S. voted against it. China’s actions were severely condemned by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who called it a “despicable call for a ceasefire.”

China initially criticised Israel’s actions in Gaza, calling it “beyond the scope of self-defence,” and asserted that “justice has not been done to the Palestinian people.” However, following the Hamas attack, China reaffirmed Tel Aviv’s right to defend itself while highlighting civilian casualties in Gaza and omitting Israeli casualities.

In an interview to news network Al Jazeera, William Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, said that the Chinese playbook in the Middle East often followed the same pattern — an cautious initial stance, calls for peace, condemning violence against civilians and primarily focusing on Palestinian grievances. He added that China’s deep economic ties with oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran has prompted it to take a more pro-Palestine stance.

Uyghurs & the U.S. link to China’s pro-Palestine stance

China’s stance has also been linked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ support for China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The vast community’s forced detention in camps has been termed as ‘genocide’ by most Western nations, but this was denied by Mr. Abbas. Terming China’s action in Xinjiang as countering extremism and terrorism, Mr. Abbas condemned interference in Beijing’s internal affairs. Incidentally, the majority of Uyghur Muslims and Palestinian Muslims fall under the Sunni sect of Islam.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on June 14, 2023

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on June 14, 2023

Israel, on the other hand, signed a declaration at the UN Human Rights Council in 2022, expressing “grave concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” but did not term it a genocide.

Another factor fueling China’s stance against Israel is Washington’s steadfast support of Israel, extending to sending troops to counter Hamas. Openly condemning the U.S., China’s state-controlled daily Global Times has accused Washington of “adding fuel to the fire by blindly backing Israel in the ongoing conflict.” Pinning the increasing civilian casualties on the US, Global Times said that the US was “stained with the blood of innocent civilians.”

Beijing, which heads the UN Security Council this month, has called for a closed-door deliberations by its fifteen members next week on the Israel-Hamas war, focusing mainly on Gaza. While Beijing hopes for a ceasefire soon with its involvement in the negotiations, it seems unlikely in the face of Israel’s siege of Gaza.

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