Australia perhaps more than any other nation has adopted a China policy closest to that of the United States, leading many to conclude that Canberra is playing the role of Washington’s lackey in a new cold war with Beijing.
The Australian foreign and defense ministers’ trip to Washington for the 2020 AUSMIN meeting (the annual meeting between the Australian foreign and defense ministers and their US counterparts) — as opposed to holding the talks virtually due to the coronavirus — has only served to reinforce this conclusion. The Australian government meanwhile maintains it is pursuing an independent policy in line with Australian national interests.
Meanwhile, Chinese-Australian ties have sharply deteriorated throughout the past few months. Back in May, the Aussie government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus, in a move that was largely perceived as taking aim at China. Beijing then proceeded to impose restrictions and high tariffs on Australian beef and barley exports, which was widely perceived as a response to the Australian push for the international probe.
The Morrison government has also enhanced ties with countries known to be traditional rivals of China, like India and Japan. Morrison held virtual summits with his Indian and Japanese counterparts in June, and maritime and defense cooperation were among the topics discussed.
The downward spiral in ties between Canberra and Beijing continued with Morrison recently announcing that Australia was being subject to large scale cyberattacks by “a sophisticated state based cyber actor”. Despite not mentioning China by name, it was clear that the Australian prime minister was referring to Beijing, and according to Aussie media outlets “senior sources” confirmed that China was the culprit.
Australia also moved to formally declare China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as illegal. In a letter to the United Nations, Canberra accused Beijing of pursuing a policy there that had no legal foundation.
"There is no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or 'island groups' in the South China Sea, including around the 'Four Sha' or 'continental' or 'outlying' archipelagos,” the letter read.
The Australian stance on the South China Sea came just days before the AUSMIN talks in Washington on July 28, and some experts point to this as a testimony that Australia was coordinating its China policy with the United States.
“Australia’s declaration regarding the South China Sea came on the eve of the AUSMIN talks and hence it was clearly aimed at shoring up the U.S. position” said Allan Behm, head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute.
Others however dispute the argument that Canberra is acting as Washington’s subordinate when it comes to China policy. According to Allan Dupont, founder and CEO of the “Cognoscenti Group” Australia is pursuing an independent China policy, with the ban issued by the Australian government on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei back in 2018 being a case in point.
“Australia was actually ahead of the US in imposing a ban on Huawei,” said Dupont.
Furthermore, Dupont refers to Australia being in the process of putting together a new strategy focusing on enhanced cooperation with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to counter a rising Chinese threat, as the U.S. may not currently be a reliable partner.
“With the U.S. becoming less predictable and China becoming more and more of an adversary, Australia is recrafting a new policy strategy that includes enhanced cooperation with regional countries,” he added.
But regardless of whether or not Australia is pursuing an independent China policy or acting as a subordinate to the United States, the deterioration of ties between Canberra and Beijing carries with it grave potential risks for the Australian economy. With 30 percent of Australia’s exports going to China, Beijing is Canberra’s biggest trading partner.
At the same time Australia’s economy, like that of most other countries, has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Australian treasurer Josh Frydenbeg recently warned that the country suffered its worst budget deficit this last financial year since the end of World War II, with the deficit almost reaching $86 billion.
According to Behm the Australian government is pursuing a dangerous policy of focusing on its security ties with the United States at the expense of its economic ties with China.
“Australia is focusing only on the security dimension and not the trade dimension, but without a strong economy you can’t have security,” he emphasized.
However, the economic factor may have weighed in at the AUSMIN talks. In the press conference following the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne refrained from adopting the fiery anti-Chinese rhetoric of her U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo, and even appeared to strike a balanced approach in her remarks.
"The relationship that we have with China is important and we have no intention of injuring it. But nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests," she said.
And in another sign that Australia may not be fully on board in a new cold war against China, Canberra declined Washington’s request to participate in “freedom of navigation exercises” near the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
In mid-December, the Israeli army discovered the bodies of three of the hostages kidnapped from southern Israel to the Gaza Strip on October 7: the soldiers Ron Sherman and Nik Beizer, and the civilian Elia Toledano. Their families were initially informed that the three men had been killed in Hamas captivity, but Maayan, the mother of Sherman, soon declared otherwise.
“Ron was indeed murdered,” she wrote on her Facebook page on Jan. 16, but “not by Hamas.” Instead, she asserted, her son was killed by “bombings with poisonous gasses.”
Maayan made her claim after reading the inconclusive findings of a pathology report, presented to her by a delegation from the Israeli army’s casualties department and the 551st brigade, whose soldiers recovered Sherman’s body from Gaza. “The delegation told us that they don’t rule out gas poisoning as a result of IDF bombings, but they’re not certain,” she told +972 Magazine and Local Call.
According to two Israeli security sources who spoke to +972 and Local Call on the condition of anonymity, this wouldn’t be the first time that Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas’ network of underground tunnels in Gaza have killed people in this way. The army, they say, is well aware that bombs exploding in tunnels can disperse toxic gasses such as carbon monoxide.
In May 2021, for example, amid its broader assault named “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” the Israeli army launched a specific attack on Hamas’ tunnel network which it called “Operation Lightning Strike.” Gadi Eizenkot, who was the IDF Chief of Staff when the operation was planned and is now a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said later that the operation was intended to “turn the tunnels into a death trap” and kill hundreds of Hamas members.
During those attacks, which ultimately killed only a few dozen Hamas members, those hiding in tunnels were killed “not only from a bomb that hit them, but also from the fact that the bombings release gasses inside the tunnels,” a source told +972 and Local Call.
The source explained that the army did not use a chemical or biological warhead, but rather discovered that certain bombs penetrating the tunnels could, as a byproduct, spread toxic gas “over a long distance” in a closed compound. A second source confirmed this, adding that tests have been conducted in the military on the subject which have shown that inhaling these gasses in confined spaces is lethal.
+972 and Local Call could not confirm whether suffocation by toxic gas was a deliberate tactic used by the Israeli army in the current war to kill Hamas members hiding in tunnels.
In response to these allegations, the IDF Spokesperson told +972 and Local Call that the army “uses legal means of warfare only, in accordance with international law. The IDF did not in the past, and does not currently, use byproducts of bombings to harm its targets.”
‘Israelis and Palestinians were equal — both lives were disregarded’
The Israeli army announced earlier this month that the bodies of Ron Sherman and the other two hostages were found near the site of an underground tunnel in which the commander of Hamas’ northern Gaza brigade, Ahmed Ghandour, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike in mid-November. Maayan accuses the Israeli military of knowingly killing her son in the strike to assassinate Ghandour.
An Israeli security source privy to information about the attack told +972 and Local Call that they did not know if the army suspected that there were Israeli hostages being held near Ghandour. But in order to kill the Hamas commander, the source said, the army bombed a building full of Palestinian civilians, knowingly killing dozens of them.
“Ghandour was under a very large building,” the source said. “We bombed knowing that the entire building would collapse. Many civilians were killed. But Ghandour wasn’t there. They missed. It took a second strike to kill him, also with a lot of collateral damage.”
IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari asserted that “the IDF did not know about the presence of hostages in the area.” He made similar remarks again after Hamas released a video in which the hostage Noa Argamani states that two of the hostages with whom she was being held were killed in an airstrike: “We [the army] do not attack places where we know there may be hostages,” Hagari said.
However, Hagari’s statements are inconsistent with the testimony of a senior security source, which is revealed here for the first time. The source told +972 and Local Call that during the first weeks of the war, the Israeli army systematically targeted Palestinians defined as “kidnappers” — those who abducted Israelis during the Hamas-led October 7 attack — with its bombings, despite a concern that there were hostages being held next to them. According to the source, Israeli abductees were “certainly hit” in these bombings; only later did this policy change.
“We bombed Palestinians suspected of being kidnappers,” the source said. “We found such suspects and we bombed them. And it was surreal, because you see in the identification of the person you are bombing that he is a ‘suspected kidnapper’ of Israelis, meaning that there is a chance there are hostages next to him. In retrospect, we know that many Israelis were held underground. But for sure, mistakes happened and we bombed hostages.”
The decision to bomb kidnappers, the source suspected, was not made at the military level. “This is the political echelon, in my opinion,” they explained. “We bombed a lot of kidnappers. More than a few dozen, and less than a hundred. Absurdly, Israeli and Palestinian civilians were equal there — both of their lives were disregarded.”
Only later in the war did the army’s prisoner of war and missing persons department inform them of the areas that they should not strike, due to fear that hostages would be harmed. “At the start of the war, this didn’t happen,” the source said. “There was no protocol about the hostages. They weren’t taken into account.
“I remember leaving the army base for the first time two or three weeks [into the war], and realizing that there were demonstrations about the hostages and that everyone here was talking about this issue,” the source continued. “And it was surreal for me, because it wasn’t until I went home that I really found out their names and how many people were kidnapped.”
The source explained that the Palestinians who were targeted because they were suspected kidnappers were not necessarily holding Israelis in their homes, but that this was likely; no checks were conducted before striking them. “We weren’t dealing with that at all at the start of the war,” they said. “The atmosphere was very painful and vengeful. We would bomb any Palestinian kidnapper.”
The source’s testimony is relevant only to the initial stages of Israel’s Gaza onslaught. In an investigation last month by +972 and Local Call, three intelligence sources confirmed that bombings were not carried out by the army if they would knowingly kill hostages, but in many cases the intelligence picture was incomplete.
‘The state sacrificed them twice’
After the Israeli army initially claimed that the three hostages were killed by Hamas, pathology reports on Ron Sherman and Nik Beizer’s bodies found no external signs of injury, such as bullet marks or bone fractures. Hagari himself stated that “at this stage it is not possible to rule out or confirm that they were killed as a result of suffocation, strangulation, poisoning, or the consequences of an IDF attack, or a Hamas operation.”
Maayan, Sherman’s mother, received a detailed report from the army after the examination of her son’s body, which also included a CT scan. “There are no fractures, no gunshot wounds, no dry blows,” she explained. According to Maayan, the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate told the family on Jan. 19 that “the matter is closed” and the army would not be conducting any further investigations.
Daniel Solomon, a doctor who has treated trauma patients who suffocated from gas or smoke, said that due to the fact that so much time had elapsed between the time of death and the recovery of the bodies, it could prove difficult to identify post-mortem signs of suffocation from carbon monoxide — such as edema in the vocal cords, burns in the airways, or tissue damage.
Katia, Beizer’s mother, told +972 and Local Call that the army informed them that the three men were being held in the same tunnel that Ghandour was hiding in when the army carried out its attack. “The [military] intelligence told us that [their deaths] could have been the result of the bomb that killed Ghandour, from the gasses and the blast, but that they don’t know.
“I demand that they continue the investigation,” Katia went on. “I told them I wouldn’t let them stop. After all, we were constantly told, in meetings with military and government officials, that they suspected there were hostages [being held] near senior Hamas figures. So if you know and suspect that there are hostages around, even if you don’t know who exactly, how can it be that you bombed?”
Maayan said that three weeks after her son was abducted, intelligence officials informed the family that “there are indications that he is alive and that they know where he is.” During the shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual) held after Sherman’s body was recovered in December, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian — the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — told her that he and Nitzan Alon, who is in charge of prisoners of war and missing persons, “knew at any given moment where Ron and Nik were,” and so was surprised to hear about their deaths.
That’s why Maayan accuses the military of killing her son for the sake of killing Ghandour. “Somebody is lying here,” she said. “It is clear to me that my son was sacrificed. I ask myself how they would act if it was Bibi [Netanyahu]’s son there, and not Ron. We underwent months of torture.”
“My only question is my son’s cause of death,” Katia said. “I want to know how it happened and when it happened. We don’t even know the dates. The state sacrificed them not once, but twice: first when they were abducted from their military base, which is supposed to be safe, and I called everyone possible and nobody saved them. And second when they were in captivity, and the army didn’t bring them back alive.”
In response to the allegations raised in this article, the IDF Spokesman stated: “The IDF shares the families’ grief for the difficult loss, and will continue to support them. IDF representatives have given the families all the verified information that the IDF has, and will continue to do so.
“The lives of the abductees are a leading value in considerations of the decision-makers and therefore the IDF does not attack areas where there are indications or estimates that hostages are present. It should be emphasized that the IDF did not have information about the presence of hostages in the tunnel of Hamas’ northern brigade commander at the time of the attack.
“The attack in which the commander of the northern brigade was eliminated was approved in accordance with the relevant operational procedures. It should be emphasized that the scope of the estimated harm to civilians as part of the attack mentioned in your request is completely unfounded. The claims regarding the attacks on kidnappers’ houses are also false.”
This article has been republished with permission from +972 Magazine in conjunction with Local Call.
Next Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to step foot in a NATO country for the first time since his military invaded Ukraine in 2022.
The Russian leader is headed to Turkey, where he will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss a potential new deal to facilitate the export of Ukrainian grains through the Black Sea.
“The previous grain deal worked within a certain mechanism,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan earlier this week. “Now it has been seen that there is a possibility of going with a different mechanism, and now there are efforts to concretize this possibility.” This new mechanism would build on Ukraine’s jury-rigged approach to Black Sea exports in which Ukrainian ships closely hug the coasts of NATO countries in order to evade the Russian blockade.
The news comes as a hopeful sign amid a difficult period for Ukraine. After months of talks, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. Congress will fail to pass a new package of military aid for Kyiv, leaving Ukraine in a difficult position as the primary fighting season nears again.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is reportedly considering major shake-ups in his administration, and his forces in the east appear poised to lose Avdiivka, a town the Kyiv has fought hard to defend from Russian forces.
Reviving the grain deal would bring a measure of certainty amid this sea of challenges. Perhaps most importantly, it would help lower tensions between Ukraine and the rest of Europe, where farmers have loudly complained that increased imports of Ukrainian foodstuffs are flooding local markets and undermining their business.
Cheap imports of Ukrainian grain have been a particularly problematic issue for Ukraine’s relations with Poland, one of its most vocal allies. In recent months, Polish farmers have blocked border crossings to protest relaxed European Union rules on Ukrainian imports, and some agricultural leaders are now organizing a more comprehensive blockade of the Ukrainian border, coupled with a general strike.
A new grain deal wouldn’t completely solve these problems, but it would certainly help Ukraine at a crucial time.
Of course, all of this relies on the whims of Putin, who ripped up the original Black Sea agreement last year and accused the West of not holding up its side of the deal by allowing exports of Russian fertilizer components. While no Western country was a direct party to the deal, Russian officials argued that it could not be implemented without relaxing some Western sanctions.
The good news for Ukraine is that Putin seems to value his relationship with Erdogan, who has emerged as a key mediator between Russia and the West in the past few years. Next Monday’s meeting will put those ties to the test.
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrived in Kyiv Tuesday on a trip meant to highlight European support after the bloc passed a $54 billion aid package for Ukraine last week, according to Reuters. Borrell also reiterated the EU’s promise to dramatically ramp up its production of artillery shells to help supply Ukraine. Zelensky, for his part, asked the EU leader to prioritize arming Kyiv over building the stockpiles of European states. “Halting the export of artillery munitions to third EU countries is the only possible correct solution given the current security challenges,” he said.
— Sweden has ended its investigation into the 2022 attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline that previously carried natural gas from Russia to Germany, writes Kelley Vlahos of Responsible Statecraft. The decision came after prosecutors determined that “Swedish jurisdiction does not apply,” leaving Denmark and Germany as the only states that continue to investigate the incident. Theories abound about the potential attacker, but, as Vlahos notes, “All signs since the year anniversary of the blasts have been pointing — in bright neon — to Ukraine as the culprit.”
— Turkish drone company Baykar says it has broken ground on a factory in Ukraine to produce its signature Bayraktar drones, which became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the early days of the war, according to Reuters.
— Members of Hungary’s ruling party boycotted a vote Monday on whether to approve Sweden’s accession to NATO, blocking efforts to ratify Stockholm’s bid, according to Al Jazeera. An opposition lawmaker argued that Orban hopes to “make headlines in the international press while making a gesture to Russian President Vladimir Putin by undermining the unity of NATO and the EU.” The prime minister’s party, for its part, said in a statement that they would like to see Sweden’s bid proceed, “but we are expecting the Swedish prime minister to visit Hungary first” given the importance of the issue.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel expressed support for Turkish efforts to revive the Black Sea grain deal. “We continue to feel that it’s critical that Ukrainian grain get to the places that it needs to go,” Patel said. “If there is credible progress that can be made in that space, it certainly would be a welcome one.”
In a major reversal, Students Publishing Company (SPC) — the parent company of Northwestern University’s student newspaper — announced today that it will now help fight criminal charges against two Northwestern students over a pro-Palestinian parody attacking the university’s stances on the war in Gaza.
“As of yesterday, we have hired legal counsel to work on our behalf with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to pursue a resolution to this matter that results in nothing punitive or permanent,” SPC board chairman John Byrne wrote in a statement. The decision does not guarantee that prosecutors will drop the charges, but it does ratchet up the pressure to do so.
The news comes less than two days after RS and The Intercept reported a growing wave of backlash against the charges from students, faculty, and alumni of the school.
The charges were brought under a little-known law called theft of advertising services, which appears to only exist in California and Illinois and was originally passed to stop Ku Klux Klan members from inserting unauthorized advertisements into newspapers.
The students, both of whom are Black, allegedly wrapped the parody newspaper around several hundred copies of the Daily Northwestern itself, opening them up to prosecution under the statute. They now face up to a year in jail under the class A misdemeanor — the harshest level of criminal charge below a felony.
“It’s very clear that this is a discriminatory action,” a former Daily Northwestern editor and current student told RS/ The Intercept over the weekend. Another student worried the charges would have a “chilling effect on speech” related to Israel’s war in Gaza.
The board previously doubled down in its support of the charges despite backlash, saying in a statement Monday that “tampering with the distribution of a student newspaper is impermissible conduct.” The SPC is independent from the university, but its board includes prominent alumni as well as several current students and faculty members.
In the new statement, Byrne said SPC was unaware until recent days that the people charged were Black and Northwestern students. “Some may disagree, but these facts matter to us,” he wrote.
Byrne, an attorney who works as a marketing executive at a Chicago law firm, confirmed that SPC asked university police to investigate the incident and that the board had signed complaints against the accused students. The statement claims that SPC “didn’t understand how these complaints started a process that we could no longer control – and something we never intended,” adding that they were never formally informed that charges had been brought.
“We understand and recognize why we need to take action,” Byrne wrote. “We hope to heal the hurt and repair the relationships that have been damaged and frayed by our unintentional foray into the criminal justice system.”
It remains to be seen how the school’s community will respond to SPC’s decision. More than 70 student groups have pledged to boycott the Daily Northwestern by refusing to speak to its reporters until the charges are dropped, a decision that now lies solely in the hands of local prosecutors.