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Union jacked and going south

Britain has toned down its angry outbursts against Ecuador for granting asylum to Julian Assange. This change of heart is quite easily explained, writes Shobhan Saxena.

One day after a bunch of unidentified gunmen killed the American ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staff in a rocket attack at the US consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of September 11, whistle-blowing group Wikileaks blamed Washington for the incident. "By the US accepting the UK siege on Ecuadorian embassy in London, it gave tacit approval for attacks on embassies around the world, " the @wikileaks account tweeted. As the comment provoked negative reactions, the tweet dropped the word "tacit" and rephrased its message. But Wikileaks had made its point: the "siege" on the Ecuadorian embassy in London contributed to the attack on the US embassy in Libya.

After all, just a few weeks ago, the British government had threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy in London and arrest Julian Assange, the group's founder who has been living there since June. In August, after Ecuador decided to give political asylum to Assange, the UK government warned that it could enter the embassy and arrest him under the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act. A few days later, soon after Assange addressed a gathering from the balcony of the small, red-coloured building and asked the US to stop its "witch-hunt" of the group, an AP photographer caught a Scotland Yard cop carrying a document that revealed police had been told to detain Assange "under all circumstances" if he stepped out of or attempted to leave the embassy in a diplomatic bag or vehicle.

While Ecuador saw these gestures as a violation of its diplomatic immunity, the British claimed that they were well within their rights to take action against a fugitive. But, interestingly, the UK has done several flip-flops on the issue and softened its position. A couple of weeks ago, England's foreign secretary, William Hague, said Assange could only be sent to the US if both Britain and Sweden believe human rights would not be threatened. But then on Wednesday, Hague told his Ecuadorean counterpart Ricardo Patino in New York that Britain was under an obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces questioning over serious sex crimes allegations. But in his meeting with Patino, Hague did not repeat his warning that Britain could storm the embassy and arrest Assange.

With its own embassies in the crosshairs of mobs, it makes sense for Britain to pipe down its angry outbursts against the small South American nation. But today if London is talking to Quito and trying to resolve this complicated diplomatic spat through negotiation it is because Britain has realised that in the Assange Affair it's not pitted just against Ecuador but the entire South American continent.
Last month, after the British government threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy, ambassadors from several South American countries went to the premises to show their solidarity with Ecuador. Then, a meeting of the group of South American nations, UNASUR, in Quito put its weight behind the Ecuadorean government. And a week later, 34 members of the Organisation of American States met in Washington and passed a motion backing the "inviolability of diplomatic missions".

No wonder the British foreign office was singing a very different tune this week. "The foreign secretary said he wanted to see close and productive bilateral relations between the UK and Ecuador, including in the areas of trade and investment, higher education, and counter-narcotics co-operation, " the office said in a statement after Hague met with Patino on Wednesday.

There was a time South America was considered an afterthought in international politics. Former US President Richard Nixon once famously told a young aide that "people don't give one damn about Latin America now. " With the rise of China on global stage and the election of leftist leaders in South America, the game has changed completely. Already a big trading partner with South America, China plans to double its trade with the region to $400 billion over the next five years. Beijing is also offering a freetrade proposal to Mercosur, the South American trade bloc that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. In June, Brazil and China agreed on a $30 billion currency swap, pushing the yuan further on the track to becoming an international currency. South America is no longer America's backyard.

In the past few years, even as the economies of Europe and North America were ravaged by economic turmoil, South America grew at an average of 5 per cent. With a total GDP of $4. 2 trillion and 350 million people, South America today is a force to reckon with. And this resurgent, confident region doesn't have very fond memories of Britain. The 1982 Falklands War is still fresh in memory. The whole of South America is now firmly behind Buenos Aires on this 'Malvinas' issue. Argentina has convinced other Latin American countries to ban ships bearing the Falkland Islands flag from their ports. And Britain's economic interests in the region are also being adversely impacted.

In London, if things stay the same, Julian Assange may yet have to spend a very long time - perhaps years even - inside the Ecuadorean embassy. But no one is going to storm the building to snatch him away.

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