Friday, October 6, 2017

Article: What is Australia up to? (The World Today)

Cleo Paskal outlines the West’s fears as a key ally develops closer links with China
Something is going on Down Under. In the past few months, a constant stream of serious Washington players have passed through Australia, including Vice-President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator John McCain, former CIA Director David Petraeus and former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

This many high-level visits in such a short period of time is highly unusual. The reason was summed up by the oft-repeated message: watch out for China and don’t forget who your real friends are.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: ‘The challenge is that as China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully ... the real question is whether Australia and America are better off  dealing with China’s strategic and economic challenges together, or by ourselves.’

Petraeus said the US understood the Australian position was complex because its main trading partner, China, was also its main security concern. However, Australia should still participate in ‘hugely important’ freedom of navigation exercises in the region.

Clapper, who took up a post with the Australian National University’s National Security College, raised questions about Chinese money in Australian politics.

This overlapped with growing Australian concerns about Chinese influence. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media published an in-depth investigation into Chinese state-linked interference in Australia. Using data from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, or ASIO, they highlighted cases of ‘naked in uence-buying’.

ASIO’s director-general told the Aus- tralian parliament that the scale of foreign interference in Australia was ‘unprecedented’ and had ‘the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests’. Australia’s Attorney General travelled to Washington where he received intelligence briefings on the degree of Chinese state-linked interference in Australia’s political, business and academic sectors before returning to Australia and announcing he would propose major changes to the laws on foreign influence buying.

Members of the defence and intelligence communities do not like making public statements. They must have felt the situ- ation was so dire they needed to go public. It seems as if there is a civil war at the heart of the Australian policy community and it all boils down to one core question: strategically, what is Australia?

For at least a decade there has been growing concern in the strategic community inside Australia, and among its allies, that Australia’s economic ties to China could affect it national security and strategic positioning. However, with some exceptions, the Australian political, business and academic communities continue to deepen engagement, seemingly fuelled by the assumption that the West is in decline and China’s economy will grow indefinitely.

‘Others in Australia don’t have a problem with the country trying to play a balancing role between Beijing and Washington’

An event that captured this tension involved the commercially and strategically important northern Australian city of Darwin. There had been substantial political resistance in Australia to a request to allow US Marines to train and be stationed in Darwin. Eventually, in 2011, Canberra agreed to let 2,500 American Marines rotate through. However, four years later, the Northern Territory government suddenly announced that the lease to the critically important port of Darwin itself was going to a Chinese military-linked company, Landbridge, for 99 years. US officials were reportedly ‘stunned’.

It didn’t help matters that the former Australian trade minister, Andrew Robb, a key player in the Australia-China free trade agreement, soon joined Landbridge as a consultant, on a reported salary of £43,000 a month, plus expenses.

While many in the Australian intelligence and defence communities are deeply concerned by such things, others in Australia don’t have a problem with the country trying to play a ‘balancing’ role between Beijing and Washington. One of the best-known books on the topic is The China Choice: Why we should share power, by Hugh White, a former Australian defence official.

In it, he calls for a ‘concert of Asia’ in which China and the US work together in the region. How countries such as Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and others would feel about this ‘sharing’ isn’t greatly explained. This wasn’t a marginal book. It was launched by the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating who said: ‘I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non- Asian power – especially by the application of US military force.’ By using the term Asia instead of Pacific, Keating implies the US is external to the region.

Which points to another increasingly discussed aspect of the ‘what is Australia’ question. Is Australia a western outpost in Asia, or an Asian country that has a lot of people with genetic roots from Europe?

Strategically and structurally, the answer is clear. Australia is part of the core western Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, along with the US, the UK, New Zealand and Canada. The five countries collaborate closely on intelligence issues, which is why an Australian ‘drift’ is of such concern to Washington and London.

Under Five Eyes, different countries effectively lead in different geographic areas. Australia, and to a degree New Zealand, are considered the strategic leaders within Five Eyes for much of the vast area of Oceania.

Oceania, consisting of more than a dozen Pacific island countries, covers close to a sixth of the planet’s surface, and is the front line between Asia and the Americas. Many Pacific island countries don’t have a US embassy, but they have an Australian and a New Zealand one, and Canberra and Wellington are heavily consulted during US diplomatic and military visits to the region.

In this context, it is worth noting that many of the concerns about Chinese influence in Australian politics are replicated in New Zealand, as was made clear in Anne-Marie Brady’s study Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping. One recent example revealed that Jian Yang, a sitting New Zealand MP and former member of the select committee for foreign affairs, defence and trade, used to teach in China at an elite Chinese intelligence-training institution. When asked about it, he replied: ‘If you define those cadets or students as spies, yes, then I was teaching spies. I don’t think so. I just think they are collecting information through communication in China.’ New Zealand is also overtly collaborating with China on development projects in Oceania.

The delegation of strategic ‘management’ of Oceania to Canberra and Wellington by Washington may make sense to the defence and intelligence communities if one assumes that Australian and New Zealand interests in the region dove-tail with American ones. But that is open to question, even by Australians themselves. As Mathew Davies, the head of the international relations department at the Australian National University put it: ‘What is Australia’s role in the Asia Pacific? Should we continue to see ourselves as a close ally of the US or should we look at what Australia wants?’

As a result, the concerns about Chinese in uence over domestic a airs in Australia and New Zealand are seeping into the way Washington and others are looking at the advice they are getting from Canberra and Wellington on Oceania. There have been several cases in which it seems Australia and New Zealand were doing what they want, even if it might not help regional stability or greater western interests.

For example, it has been reported that Australia pressured Nauru to transfer recognition from Taiwan to China. Also, the advice out of Canberra and Wellington on how to deal with Fiji after its coup was sup- posed to force Fiji into democratic concessions. Instead, Fiji turned to China, with which it has since developed close ties.

Which is not to say the outcomes favourable to China are desired. Often Australia and New Zealand’s action in Oceania seems to be driven by domestic economic factors. But, even then, given how entrenched China is becoming, what looks like trade actually has larger strategic implications.

The current example is the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus, or PACER Plus, a trade deal involving Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island countries. 

Canberra and Wellington have been pushing for PACER Plus for more than a decade. It is designed to have the island countries drop tariffs on most goods coming from Australia and New Zealand, have them rewrite their regulations, get rid of policies that protect domestic innovation, make it easier to pressure the islands into privatizing state-owned enterprises, and undermine the islands’ ability to sign bilateral trade deals with countries outside the zone. A particular concern of Australia and New Zealand was a potential UK or European Union trade deal with the islands.

‘Concern is spreading as more realize how weakness in one part of the West’s

interlinked system can cascade exponentially’

As most of the Pacific island countries enjoy duty-free and quota-free access for exports to Australia and New Zealand, and many national budgets rely on import tariffs that will disappear with PACER Plus, it is hard to see the advantage for the islands.

However, Australia and New Zealand had large dedicated teams, including members from their own business sectors, negotiating PACER Plus, while most of the island countries have few trade negotiators. As a result Canberra and Welling- ton funded an organization to negotiate on behalf of the island countries, with a team led by an Australian-educated Ghanaian with little knowledge of the complexities of the island economies. This combined with intense lobbying from Australia and New Zealand that was described as ‘bullying and cheque-book diplomacy’ and resulted in recalcitrant civil servants in at least one island country being red.

In June, Australia, the Cook Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu signed PACER Plus. The deal, which Australia and New Zealand were touting as promoting regional economic integration, is already creating fractures in the region.

One of the largest island economies, Papua New Guinea, failed to sign saying the deal was completely in Australia and New Zealand’s favour. Neither did Fiji, because of the ‘very restrictive’ third party most-favoured-nation clause. The King of Tonga dissolved his parliament and called a new election in part because of the lack of consultation on PACER Plus. 

It seems as if Washington wasn’t thrilled with the deal either. The three island countries in Free Association with the US, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, somehow managed to miss the signing because of ‘transportation issues’. The possibility of them joining later, as Vanuatu has, has not been mentioned.

On the face of it, PACER Plus is also problematic for regional security on strictly economic grounds. It is likely to increase food insecurity as pressure is put on island countries to privatize customary land currently being used as family allotments. It is likely to bring cheaper, lower quality food into the islands, increasing obesity and diabetes, already a serious issue in the region, and making domestic food production less pro table. It will also deprive already struggling governments of critical tariff  income − forcing them to look for more Chinese loans. All this can combine to create internal dislocation and increasing urbanization and poverty and all for very minimal benefit to a very narrow range of Australian and New Zealand businesses.

The projections get even more serious when one overlays the ‘China factor’. For example, one of the priorities for Australia and New Zealand is the privatization of state-owned enterprises in the islands. This means ports, airports, telecoms and other pieces of critical infrastructure.

Chinese-linked companies have been trying to gain access to these for years given the critical strategic positioning of the island countries. It is not a great leap to think it possible that Australian or New Zealand companies, backed by Chinese government-linked money, will wait for Canberra and Wellington to force the privatization of, say, ports in the island countries, and then come in with the best bids, as they did in Darwin.

Many in the Australian defence and intelligence communities are worried about the way things are going. And that concern is spreading, as more realize how weakness in one part of the West’s interlinked systems can cascade exponentially. It’s not just Washington that wants to know the answer to the question ‘what is Australia?’.

Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow of the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at Chatham House, and a Trudeau Visiting Fellow and Director of The Oceania Project at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal

| the world today | october & november 2017 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Article: World is watching the Doklam stand-off (Sunday Guardian)

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj holds bilateral meeting with Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji amid the Doklam stand-off, in Kathmandu, on Thursday. IANS 
Doklam has global implications. Not because China is doing anything new, but because India is.
While much of the Western media is blaring North Korea, many key commentators and analysts are closely tracking the situation in Doklam. They have realised that, embedded in the stand-off, are many of the today’s key strategic questions. 
Will China’s expansion continue unchecked? Will India become a net security provider not only for itself, but for its allies? Will China put an aggressive PLA agenda above domestic economic growth? And more. 
The answers resonate far beyond Doklam, and are being examined in capitals around the world. 
In terms of China’s expansion, Western media largely sees the Doklam road in the context of Beijing’s other status quo disturbing infrastructure projects, such as the militarising of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. CNN’s recent article on the situation highlights that China’s moves “come amid increasing Chinese military activity throughout Asia”. 
The road also casts a new light on the “benignness” of the One Belt One Road initiative. While some commentators reference China’s attempts to make historical claims in Doklam, most also imply that there is no economic or social reason for the road. It only makes sense in the context of weakening Bhutan and threatening India. 
There is a strong sense that China will just keep pushing, as it is doing in the South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere. In that context, there is a lot of sympathy for the Indian position, with, for example, Gordon Chang writing in Forbes: “China has made a friend an adversary and is now making that adversary an enemy.” 
There is also a very careful observation of what China will do, now that it is actually being challenged on the ground. Does it have the ability to de-escalate? If not, what does that mean for all the other expansionist flashpoints created by Beijing?
Another question being asked is, will India hold its ground? There is a contentious and important debate in many Western capitals around India’s role in global affairs. Especially since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi has tried to position itself as a regional (and potentially Indo-Pacific) net security provider. Those in doubt point to, for example, the 2012 “coup” in the Maldives, during which India was notably impotent. Those backing India say that was the last administration. Things have changed. 
This is one reason why what is happening in Doklam is so important. So far, “new India” is doing what it said it would—defending an ally, and itself, against potentially destabilising expansion. Not only will Washington, London and others be watching to see if India continues to hold its ground, so will some of India’s newer allies, such as Vietnam, Japan and others.
So far, “new India” is doing what it said it would—defending an ally, and itself, against potentially destabilising expansion. Not only will Washington, London and others be watching to see if India continues to hold its ground, so will some of India’s newer allies, such as Vietnam, Japan and others.
Another key question raised by Doklam, and being increasingly discussed in the West, is what is the relationship between China and Pakistan (and/or Pakistan-based terrorist organisations)? The Daily Mail ran a feature about Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Amir Hamza releasing a video in which he says, “If India will send its army in Bhutan to counter China, then along with Pakistan, Chinese troops will enter Srinagar.” The Daily Mail noted, “This video is the first such proof of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s direct involvement in the Northeast and their strategy to work along with China.”
This combined with the widely reported quote from Long Xingchun, director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University that “under India’s logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country’s army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan, including India-controlled Kashmir”. Especially taken together, the two approaches make it clear that, at the very least, elements within Pakistan and China consider themselves aligned against India.
Given the China-Pakistan links are in large part driven by their militaries and that, in any conflict with India, China’s exports to this very large (and growing) market are sure to suffer, it begs the question will Beijing put an aggressive PLA agenda above domestic economic growth? If so, China’s much repeated line “our expansion is just about economics” doesn’t seem very convincing, necessitating a whole different set of responses. Overall, the risks to India and Bhutan of letting the Doklam road continue are clear. India decided to defend against that change in the status quo, largely garnering support, and showing that, as it stands, it may really be a net security provider. 
Meanwhile, the benefits to China of pushing on are much less clear. The road doesn’t make it more secure. On the contrary, it is making an enemy of a major trading partner, pushing it even closer towards the United States. It looks like it is trying to bully a smaller nation (Bhutan). It casts a new and disconcerting light on its flagship Belt and Road Initiative. It is potentially opening up a second front at a time when it is already having problems along its maritime periphery. It is calling attention to its alignment of interests with terrorist elements within Pakistan. 
Doklam has global implications. Not because China is doing anything new, but because India is. And in so doing, it is calling China’s bluff. The world is watching what happens next very carefully indeed.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Article: Grenfell fire tragedy leads to battle for narrative (Sunday Guardian)

A police officer squares off with a demonstrator during a protest, billed by organisers as a “Day of Rage”, to protest against the Grenfell Tower fire and Conservative Party’s austerity policies, in Parliament Square in central London,on Wednesday.REUTERS
Different groups have been vying to use the Grenfell Tower tragedy as proof of their own positions. 
This isn’t about London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, the horrific inferno that killed approximately 79 people, and likely more. It’s about how that tragedy is being used by a range of groups who are claiming it as part of their own pre-existing narratives. And what that shows about the state of public debate and the media in the United Kingdom.
First the facts, as we currently know them. Just after midnight on 14 June, a fire started on the fourth floor of the 24-storey building. Grenfell Tower was built around 50 years ago as “council flats” (government-owned, low rent apartments for those with low or no income). It is in one of the wealthiest areas of London.
During the time of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, council tenants were offered the right to buy their flats under certain conditions. Some did. At the time of the fire, Grenfell Tower had some private owners, some renters, and some sub-letters, but there was still a high proportion of apartments that were “council flats”. There is a very long waiting list for these sorts of apartments.
The building landlord is the local government, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In that Borough alone, around 2,700 families are on the waiting list for council flats.
Last year, as part of a £10m refurbishment to the building paid for by the Borough, new external cladding was installed. Following the renovations, the residents’ organisation repeatedly voiced safety concerns in the time leading up to the fire. It now seems as though that cladding may have contributed to undermining the fire safety of the building and the fire’s rapid spread. 
And people died. Many, many people died. 
Volunteers immediately came in large numbers from all over to provide clothes, food, money, emotional support and more to the survivors. That’s some of what we know about the fire itself. What happened next gets more complicated. It was the battle for the narrative—different groups vying to use the tragedy as proof of their own positions.
Soon after the fire, businessman and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn-supporting political activist Mustafa Mansour, called for a demonstration in front of Kensington Town Hall. Mansour doesn’t live in the area, though he said he had a family-friend who died in the fire. Once the list of the missing and dead started to be compiled, it became clear that a large proportion of the victims were Muslims. The first announced death was a Syrian refugee. Mansour’s family friend was an Egyptian national. An entire family from Bangladesh is missing. Mansour used to be spokesman for the Finsbury Park Mosque. While the Mosque now condemns its former extremism, it is the former home of Imam Abu Hamza, currently serving life in prison in the United States for terrorism. A decade ago, Mansour himself had been arrested, and released, on suspicion of terrorism offences. His choice to be the one to call a demonstration served to tie the fire to other, much larger debates. And he would have known that.
Two days after the fire, hundreds of demonstrators answered Mansour’s call and showed up at Town Hall. He presented a list of demands, including fire victims being rehoused in the same area. The demonstrators became violent. Town Hall was stormed. One man, who had volunteered to help the survivors, was mistaken for a council worker and beaten.
Then the Movement For Justice By Any Means Necessary (MFJ) organised a “Day of Rage” march of around 500 people carrying signs reading like “this is class war” and “defy Tory rule”. However, an organisation working closely with some of the victims stated: “We cannot emphasise enough how against this many of the affected residents we’ve spoken to are and they do not want their grief hijacked for any violent or destructive means.”
In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn was also advancing the narrative that the fire was the fault of the Conservatives and the “rich”. He called for the vacant homes of overseas investors to be “requisitioned” to rehouse those left homeless by the fire.
On the left, among the loudest voices, there was a clear conflation of poverty, race, religion and politics. 
Which began to spark a pushback. When an article appeared in the Independent reporting that the true number of victims may never be known, because those in the Grenfell Tower who were illegal immigrants or refugees may not come forward for fear of deportation, the comment section of the normally middle of the road newspaper lit up with those railing at why recently arrived and illegal immigrants seemed to be getting housing when many others were not. Those were the polite comments.
And on 19 June, a mentally disturbed Caucasian British homeless man drove from Wales to London to ram his rented van into people standing near the Finsbury Park Mosque.  After the attack, former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson tweeted that “The mosque where the attack happened tonight has a long history of creating terrorists & radical jihadists & promoting hate & segregation.” And “I’m not justifying it, I’ve said many times if government or police don’t sort these centres of hate they will create monsters as seen tonight.” He was widely attacked in the mainstream press. At the same time, his 2015 autobiography suddenly became a bestseller.
Frankly, the situation is a mess. The Grenfell fire disaster and how it was used brings to the fore many complex issues that need addressing, or at least discussing. But it is unclear how that will happen. So, the situation is likely to continue, feeding division and hardening positions, until the next disaster notches it up one more level.
As for the fire victims, millions of pounds have been raised for them, Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the disaster, and there are possible manslaughter charges being investigated against some of those involved in the renovations. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that the government will permanently rehouse many former Grenfell Tower residents in 68 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in the luxury £2 billion Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent for North America.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Article: Constant media attacks cause Trump’s support to Harden (Sunday Guardian)

Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, media attacks, warfare of China, North Korea, Middle East
United States President Donald Trump gestures as Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) stands next to him during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday. Photo: Reuters
As Ann Coulter wrote, ‘Every time I try to be mad at Trump, the media reel me back in by launching some ridiculous, unprovoked attack.’ 
OK, so we know what the Western mainstream media think of US President Donald Trump. Look at CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post or, for that matter, the BBC, the Canadian media, the French media, the Australian media, and so on. The negative adjectives, invectives and allegations fly fast and furious—and if distilled would probably sound something like “lock him up”. But they never liked him. And they certainly weren’t the ones who voted for him.
So the question is, what does Trump’s base think? From a legislative point of view, that’s the key question at the moment. The Republicans hold both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Any vote for impeachment, etc., would have to pass the Houses. While there are certainly many Republican Congress members who would happily vote against Trump, if they think he still has enough support in their home ridings to affect their re-elections, they’ll think twice. The midterm elections are in 2018.
So what does his base think? The majority of Trump’s base has a completely different set of parameters from the mainstream media by which they judge his performance.
The first one, on which he wins every time, is that he is not Hilary Clinton. As long as the memory of her campaign lingers, it reinvigorates his support. Which is why, if the Democrats are serious about winning over some of his voters, they need to be a lot more “Sanders” (Remember him? The mainstream media and the Democratic Party don’t seem to.) and a lot less Clinton.
Other priorities depend on the sub-group of supporters.
So far, to those who supported him based on getting a conservative a seat on the Supreme Court, he can say he delivered the perfect Justice. For those with concerns about terrorism, he can say that he’s trying, but is being stymied by the courts. For those who backed him on his anti-Obamacare platform, he can say he is trying, but is being slowed down by Congress. For those who want the wall—physical metaphor for secure borders—he can say the design competition has begun.
But after that, it gets complicated. And his current trip to the Middle East may muddy the waters even more.
Meanwhile, many supported him based on the perceived economic warfare of China. Conveniently for China, North Korea flared up, and Trump seems to be holding back on all he promised about China (declaring it a trade manipulator, imposing tariffs, etc.) in the hope that China will rein in the monster it helped create. If there continues to be no action by the time of the midterms, he may lose a lot of the people who voted for him the first time, because their factories had closed and moved to China, killing their towns and breaking their families. Some of them were potential Sanders voters.
The mainstream media in the US have already locked down the anti-Trump vote. If they really want to beat him, they need to win over some of his supporters. But the constant attacks just rally his troops even more. 
Other supporters prioritised getting the US out of the Middle East in general (while supporting Israel) and Syria in particular. Which was why Trump’s strike on Syria over the alleged chemical attack shook so many of his supporters. It was exactly the sort of thing he said he wouldn’t do, and which set him apart from other candidates. It didn’t help Trump with his base that the mainstream media lauded his strike, with even CNN calling the action “Presidential”.
Luckily for Trump’s poll numbers, the mainstream media was soon attacking him again. Which is something those against him have yet to understand. And which is really the key to understanding his near term prospects. The mainstream media in the US have already locked down the anti-Trump vote. If they really want to beat him, they need to win over some of his supporters. But the constant attacks just rally his troops even more.
One of Trump’s most vocal supporters during the campaign was Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! She was among those who began to be concerned he was straying from his campaign promises. However, as she wrote in Breitbart: “Every time I try to be mad at Trump, the media reel me back in by launching some ridiculous, unprovoked attack.”
Similarly, AP reported that New York State Assemblyman Ron Castorina, who represents a district in “Trump Country”, blames Trump’s problems on mainstream media coverage that’s “damaging the country as a whole. Not only have I not heard of anyone turning their backs, I’ve seen people become more in solidarity with the president because they feel he’s getting a raw deal.”
The media attacks also seem to be hardening general Republican Party member support for Trump’s policy moves. In one recent Politico poll, 62% of Republicans said Trump was right to remove FBI director James Comey, compared with 16% of Democrats.
As it looks now, it seems the louder the Western mainstream media voices are against Trump, the better it is for his numbers. Another side-product of the onslaught is that many in the middle are simply starting to tune out.
On a very small scale I personally saw that phenomenon in action. Yesterday, I got into a taxi. The news was on the radio. The first item was a broadside, more editorial than news, about Trump and Russia. The driver changed to a music station. I asked him:
“Are you sick of Trump?”
He said, “No, it’s just always one-sided. These are complicated things. They aren’t really telling me anything…”
And for the rest of the drive he kept the radio on the music station.
Currently, it seems the constant media attacks are causing Trump’s support to harden, even though there are reasons for his base to be concerned by its own parameters. At the same time, the vitriol seems to be causing many on the fence to put the news on mute. So, if you hear endless anti-Trump pieces coming out of the US, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is losing support. At the moment, it could mean just the opposite.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Article: Aus, NZ trying to corner India in Oceania (Sunday Guardian)

Narendra Modi, Oceania , Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, PACER Plus, Pacific Network
One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most insightful, if low key, foreign policy initiatives was to work to deepen relations with more than a dozen island nations of Oceania. 
One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most insightful, if low key, foreign policy initiatives was to work to deepen relations with more than a dozen island nations of Oceania. He met with regional leaders in Fiji soon after he was elected, and invited regional leaders to India the following year.
There are many reasons for the engagement. Oceania has age-old ties to India, covers about 1/6th of the planet’s surface, is increasingly strategic, has a lot of votes in international platform, substantial resources, a largely educated population, and is culturally and economically compatible with India. However, ever since the colonial period, Australia and New Zealand have considered much of the region to be “theirs”. Even India has bowed to their lead. During the most recent coup in Fiji, they told India to stay out of it, and India did. It was like India taking Spain’s advice on how to deal with South America.
China, of course, followed its own path. As a result, it has become highly influential in the region, including in Australia and New Zealand themselves. As others, including India, started to realise that perhaps Australia and New Zealand were advancing their own agenda, they started to try to develop direct relations with the region. Modi was a leader in this area.
In turn, as Australia and New Zealand saw their primary position threatened, they began to tighten their grip. The most prominent form that has emerged is the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus) trade agreement. Australia and New Zealand have been pushing for PACER Plus for over a decade. There was little appetite for it in the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Most already have duty free and quota free access to Australia and New Zealand for their goods, and the only labour mobility they are likely to get (and have already anyway) is to work seasonally for low wages, in difficult conditions, on Australian and New Zealand farms.
The PICs on the other hand will have to open up their fragile economies to Australia and New Zealand, dropping tariffs, rewriting their regulations, getting rid of policies that protect domestic innovation, and potentially undermining their possibilities of creating new bilateral relationships with, for example, India. PACER Plus, for example, might make it very difficult for the PICs to buy much needed, low cost Indian pharmaceuticals. What the PICs get in exchange for opening themselves up to what amounts to economic regime change is very unclear.
So why did the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Kiribati, Niue, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, agree to sign PACER Plus in June? One reason is that, while Australia and New Zealand have large dedicated teams (including from their own business sectors) to negotiate PACER Plus, most PICs have very few trade negotiators. To “resolve” that problem, Australia, New Zealand, and a few others funded an organisation to negotiate on behalf of Pacific Island Countries. The organisation’s Chief Trade Advisor, the man supposed to be advising Pacific Island countries, is not from the Pacific. He is from Ghana. Pacific Island Countries are socially and economically complex. It is difficult to know how someone who hasn’t lived the intricate social capital constructs of the region can, even with the best of intension, design a trade system that will protect food security, social stability and healthy family life in Oceania.  The Australians were clear about their goals from the start. In 2002 an Australian official said: “A practical or economic interest of ours was to ensure that, whatever trade liberalisation occurred between the island countries, if it were extended to other states such as the United States, Japan or the EU, it did not disadvantage our trading position.”
Since then, Australia and New Zealand have used what Pacific Network on Globalisation has called “bullying and cheque-book diplomacy” to push through what is essentially an old style neo-liberal agreement they probably think will enhance their own position in the region, but is more likely to open the door to Chinese companies registered in Australia and New Zealand.  The process of the negotiations has been problematic. Qualified, honest senior civil servants in at least one PIC were moved out of their jobs at the insistence of the larger countries due to their objections to the deal. While Australia and New Zealand regularly extol the virtues of accountability and transparency in the region, they have negotiated the agreement in secret and even now, a month before the signing, are not releasing the official text.
The two countries in the region self-confident enough to stand up to Canberra and Wellington are not signing. Papua New Guinea pulled out early on, saying the deal was completely in Australia and New Zealand’s favour. And Fiji claims it was excluded from the final meeting in part because of its objections over the “very restrictive” third party most favoured nation clause (MFN), a clause that seriously risks affecting Indian engagement in the region.
New Zealand Member of Parliament Barry Coates says of PACER Plus: “Typically trade rules have been preferential for developing countries but in this case Australia and New Zealand, as developed countries are requiring treatment at least as favourable. The MFN clause also sits uncomfortably with the “look North” approach adopted by PNG and Fiji. This will restrict the scope for future trade agreements with India and others.”
Now is the time for Indian trade negotiators to take a close look at PACER Plus not only to see what it might mean for India but also, in conjunction with their colleagues in the PICs, to help make sure this agreement will actually help the region to become stronger, not weaker, in the difficult times ahead.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s Special Correspondent.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Article: A French Pivot to Asia? (The Diplomat)

A French Pivot to Asia?
Image Credit: dany13, Flickr

A French Pivot to Asia?

“France is everywhere in the world. And when we say we are going to the ends of the earth, I say ‘no, we are going to the ends of France.’ Vive la Polynésie française! Vive la République et vive la France!”
– President François Hollande, French Polynesia, February 22, 2016
France is a lot bigger than most people think. There are pieces of France in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, North America, and the Pacific. Many of those French islands are in critical locations convenient for monitoring and strategic positioning. Also, each of its scattered island territories is allocated up to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). As a result, France has the second largest EEZ in the world. Its approximate 11 million square kilometers are second only to the slightly larger EEZ of the United States.
Since the end of the Cold War, and with attempts at forging a European foreign policy, Paris has kept the profile of “overseas France” fairly low. However, major changes over the last year in France’s two main territories in the Pacific, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, may shake up the whole region, and beyond. The new engagements even raise questions about the development of a possible “fourth island chain” that could fundamentally alter the strategic map of the Pacific.
For full article, click here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Article: Are There Chinese Hitmen in the Kingdom of Tonga? (The Diplomat)

Remarks from Tonga’s prime minister make public an open secret about crime in the Chinese community. 

Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga ‘Akilisi Pohiva has publicly said he’s concerned some members of Tonga’s Chinese community might be hiring hitmen to target rivals within their own community. In so doing, Pohiva has said out loud what is an open secret in many parts of Oceania, and beyond.
In a range of countries, some of the recently arrived Chinese immigrants are bringing with them the norms of the business sector in mainland China. Many parts of China are a wild west. There are entire “gangsterized” villages and endless examples of the impunity (and immunity) with which powerful people can act. The recent case of Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing who became enmeshed in a murder case, shone a bit of light into the depth of the rot.
Many of the Chinese who come and work in shops in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and elsewhere in Oceania didn’t have much money to begin with. In Tonga’s case, many immigrants are recruited from rural areas of China by one of the handful of major Chinese business people operating in the Kingdom. Often they have to borrow either from friends, family, or illicit sources to get the money for the flights, passports, visas, and set-ups costs. All too often they end up passing through criminal emigration operations. That means some were enmeshed with corrupt, and possibly criminal, activity before even landing in Oceania. And now those organizations know where they live.
Additionally, in Tonga, newly arrived Chinese have taken over about 80 percent of the retail sector in around the last decade. Many of the Chinese who run shops are still linked back into Chinese systems through supply chains and family.
While there are notable exceptions, including intermarriage, many of the newly arrived Chinese take local citizenship if they can, but they tend to see countries like Tonga as either a place to make money before returning to China, or as a stepping stone to other countries, including New Zealand and Australia – if not for them, then for their children. Many don’t intend to set down permanent roots, and so tend not to value integration into local society.
Tonga, like much of the rest of the region, is community-based and church is important. There are regular fundraisers, sharing of crops, and food to be made for communal events. Most of the Chinese community stays outside this network of obligations.
If a Tongan owned a shop, they would be expected to contribute to the community. The Chinese don’t, lowering their operating costs (in addition to being able to source directly from contacts in China). No matter how hard a Tongan worked, it would be very difficult to compete with a Chinese shop. It is not a level playing field. This can result in resentment from the Tongan population, exacerbating insularity in the Chinese community. It is one of the reasons why Chinese shops were targeted during the Tongan riots of 2006, and why a village in Samoa has decided to ban any new Chinese shops from customary land.
The insularity of some in the Chinese community has contributed to the perpetuation of more unsavory mainland business practices. In Tonga recently arrived Chinese have been involved in human traffickingprostitutionkidnapping and ransom, smuggling, corruption, bribery, gambling, arson, and murder. Then there is the visa fraud, fraudulent passport use, attempts to bribe customs, fencing of stolen property, etc. All in a country with a total population of around 100,000, where the Chinese population is only around 3 percent.
There isn’t much crime in Tonga, and official numbers put Chinese community-related crime at about 3 percent of total crime. But that percentage is misleading because the majority of crime within the Chinese community is never reported – it tends to be the most extreme cases, or cases involving Tongans, that find their way into the police statistics. Most adult Tongans in the capital, Nuku’alofa, can tell you where the Chinese brothels were, or are, and some of the gambling locations. They rarely get busted.
More troubling is that Tongans are sometimes enlisted as enforcers or proxies. There are multiple cases of Chinese businesspeople trying to enlist Tongans to burn down competitors’ shops, smuggle drugs, or assaultrivals within the community. This spreading of criminality into the general population is socially corrosive in the tight knit communities of Oceania. If, for example, the same China-produced fentanyl that is doing such damage in North America is brought into Oceania’s societies, it may take a very long time to recover. There are already signs meth might be making it in to Tonga.
Obviously, not all Chinese in Tonga are involved in illegal activity. In fact, some of the biggest victims of the criminality are other members of the Chinese community.  Also, there are at least three distinct (though sometimes overlapping) types of crime:
  • Transnational crime that passes through Tonga incidentally (for example using Tonga as a transshipment point when smuggling drugs between South America and Australia).
  • Crime in Tonga with direct links back to China (possibly via organized crime groups)
  • Crime within the Chinese community in Tonga
It’s unclear how much, if any, of this is linked to people in the Chinese “system,” either officially or unofficially. So, the question is how to tackle this before it gets worse?
For transnational crime, regional coordination and intelligence sharing is key. Australia and New Zealand are coordinating with other regional governments, including France, and are doing some good work in that area.
But, when it comes to domestic crime in Tonga, unfortunately New Zealand has other priorities that have seriously hampered crime prevention efforts.
Wellington has been focused on achieving a certain sort of regime change in Tonga. For at least a century various political leaders in New Zealand have been sporadically trying to break and bring to heel the complex political, economic, and social structures in Tonga. This is in part because New Zealand wants Tongan customary land, currently administered by the heads of the extended families (aka the “Nobles”), to be privatized. Some of Wellington’s recent efforts involved backing and funding, in at least one case via an NGO, the “democratic” group that was involved in the 2006 riot. During that riot, to avoid bloodshed and valuing lives over property, the Tongan police did not heavily intervene, eventually stepping aside to let the Tongan military secure the situation, which they did.
With Tonga in shock, New Zealand (and Australia) used the opening to propose a tripartite tied-aid policing agreement that would put a New Zealand police officer in place as Tonga’s Police Commissioner. Since then, three New Zealanders have filled the post. None spoke Tongan, let alone Mandarin, or had spent much time in Tonga before the posting. All have had serious problems building trust with the police force, and have forced officers to enact policies that are breaking down trust between officers and their communities, affecting information flows.
All also executed operations that raised questions about whom they were serving. One of those operations initiated a series of arrests of Nobles seemingly designed to discredit them as a group. Most of the charges were subsequently dismissed by the Supreme Court, with one Noble even successfully suing for back pay owed as a result of him losing his Parliamentary seat due to the false charges. Another operation involved seizing databases from the Tongan Immigration Ministry and sending them out of the country (presumably to New Zealand) for analyses. No convictions have resulted from the seizure.
The current Police Commissioner is focused on arresting people who are sitting by the road, or in their front yard, casually drinking on a Friday or Saturday night, even if they aren’t committing (other) crimes. He’s arrested hundreds of young men. Now that they have criminal records for doing something many New Zealanders do every weekend, they will have a much harder time getting a visa for further education, work, etc.
Meanwhile, the problems in the Chinese community go unaddressed — or worse, misaddressed. At the end of March, under the watchful eye of the current New Zealander Police Commissioner, the prime minister of Tonga was made to apologize to the ambassador of China for the crimes against Chinese in Tonga. The Chinese ambassador also complained that “the reasonable compensation claims by the victims were not earnestly responded [to] or implemented.”
It’s unclear why, as the man in charge of policing, the Commissioner himself wasn’t the one to take responsibility. Rather, the Commissioner had earlier “addressed” the problem by bringing an ethnic Chinese New Zealand police officer to Tonga to act as a community liaison. A liaison between which parties was unclear as he also didn’t speak Tongan.
The Chinese ambassador gave the liaison department a car, but has yet to substantially cooperate with the Tongan government on background checks for Chinese in Tonga.
Another interesting component of the whole event was that to the ambassador, ethnicity and not citizenship was the determining factor. The ambassador, as a representative of the state of China, claimed to speak for all ethnic Chinese, regardless of whether they are from Taiwan, Fiji, or Tonga. It gives no space for a Sino-Tongan community separate from Beijing to develop.
This link between the Chinese state and overseas communities occasionally pops into high relief. For example, in 2006, there were riots in the Solomon Islands that targeted the ethnic Chinese community. Locals were incensed at what appeared to be corruption and favoritism linking Solomon Island decision-makers and some newly arrived Chinese. China evacuated hundreds of Chinese to China. Interestingly, the Solomon Islands didn’t even have official diplomatic relations with China, as it recognized Taiwan. But the perception was that the Chinese state, via its overseas community, was creating a back channel into the decision-making structure.
All this doesn’t help dispel the feeling that a large part of the Chinese community is in, but apart from, Tonga. And that, as long as China stays China, overseas communities are vulnerable, through family or business ties, to the whims of someone back on the mainland. It also inhibits ethnic Chinese from becoming more integrated into local society.
Less than two weeks later the Tongan prime minister, who seems to have better information sources than the Commissioner, couldn’t hold it in any longer and out came the comments about the hitmen.
The Tongans know what is going on, but policing directives out of Wellington are making it increasingly difficult to build the trust necessary to have the information networks required to actually do something about it. It is emblematic of an approach to the region in which some of Wellington’s “stabilizing” operations can actually create more problems for all concerned because, fundamentally, New Zealand don’t seem to trust regional allies to be able to understand and resolve their own problems. Not only does it make more difficult for the countries concerned, it can actually drive them away from wanting to cooperate in the future.
The countries of Tonga and China are working together in a range of areas. For example, soon after the apology, China announced it would be funding and building a $25 million sports complex for Tonga’s upcoming hosting of the Pacific Games.
That engagement will continue with or without the spread of crime in and around the Chinese community. It would be better for all concerned, including China, if it were without. For that to happen, New Zealand (and China) needs to get out of the way and let the Tongans assess and solve their own domestic problems, for the good of all involved.
Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow, Chatham House (U.K.); Visiting Trudeau Fellow, CÉRIUM (Canada); and Adjunct Faculty, Manipal University (India).