Australian forces in South Korea. China’s HK warnings. US spooks. By Hamish McDonald.

Australian defence exercises with South Korea and US

South Korean Marine Corps amphibious vehicles throw smoke bombs as they come ashore during joint drills with US and Australian forces.
South Korean Marine Corps amphibious vehicles throw smoke bombs as they come ashore during joint drills with US and Australian forces.
Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

As Sarajevo’s centenary passed last Saturday, more evidence comes in of rival camps hardening in Asia.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe formally announced a reinterpretation of the post-1945 “peace constitution” to allow military assistance to allies (and is visiting Australia next week), and India’s new Narendra Modi government is warming to the previously shelved idea of “quadrilateral” military co-operation with the United States, Japan and Australia. Indonesia’s position of formal non-alignment seems unlikely to change, but if former general Prabowo Subianto gets elected president this Wednesday, who knows?

Meanwhile, Australia’s defence establishment is showing willingness to do its bit on far-flung beaches. It sent 130 soldiers to take part in amphibious landing exercises three months ago on the coast of South Korea, alongside US and South Korean marines, in Operation Ssangyong (Double Dragon).

This is practice for the conversion of at least one Australian infantry battalion into a de facto marine force when the navy gets its two giant landing ships soon. A lot of Canberra strategists always wondered why the Howard government ordered two such big vessels, when a larger number of smaller ones would have been more useful in the near neighbourhood for contingencies short of the big one in Korea. Now we know. Australia will be there, as the 1915 song said.

Perhaps it was the World War I thing, but the Defence Department’s giant PR team has played this one down. Helpfully, defence buffs are filling the void with YouTube clips showing the joint US–Australian amphibious landing exercise at Dogue Beach on April 1. For its part, Pyongyang saw it as practice by the “warmongers” for an attack, involving 7500 US marines of the “imperialist aggression forces” and 2000 “South Korean puppet marines”. It mentioned the 130 Australian soldiers, but has not yet worked out an epithet for us.

1 . Chinese democracy

China has been a gift that keeps on giving for strategic hardliners in the quadrilateral camp, throwing its weight around with its smaller south-east Asian neighbours.

Its recent actions regarding two elements of Greater China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are a study in contrasts. With Taiwan, protected by the US Navy, it is pursuing a softly-softly approach. With Hong Kong, already part of China as a Special Administrative Region and its autonomy protected by no one but the People’s Liberation Army, the iron fist is showing through the glove.

Zhang Zhijun, the head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, made the first official visit from the People’s Republic to the island since 1949 last month, and was in conciliatory mode. He didn’t storm home when protests disrupted his schedule and he met leaders of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which has long worried Beijing with talk of independence from the mainland.

Sitting down with Chen Chu, mayor of the big port city of Kaohsiung and a DPP founder, Zhang listened to her lecture on the island’s long struggle to emerge from the former Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) dictatorship. “Taiwan’s democracy didn’t fall from the heavens,” she said. “Rather it was something the people of Taiwan fought for.” Zhang was all understanding. “We know that the people of Taiwan truly cherish their own social system and way of life, and the mainland respects the people of Taiwan’s own choices in their social system, values and way of life.”

With Hong Kong, by contrast, China last month bluntly warned its people in a new policy paper that their promised half-century of a “high degree of autonomy” after the British handover in 1997 was entirely at Beijing’s pleasure. All officials, including judges, would have to meet the requirement of “loving the country” (that is, China) and it was made clear that the promise of universal suffrage to elect the territory’s chief executive in 2017 was premised on Beijing being able to vet the candidates for their “patriotism”.

The issue has added to a rising political temperature in a population once seen as focused only on business, gambling, food and shopping. A record number turned out to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, and some 800,000, or a quarter of the Hong Kong electorate, have just voted in an unofficial referendum in favour of unfettered elections in 2017. Last month, hundreds of lawyers marched in protest at the threat to judicial independence, a key element of business confidence. On Tuesday, several hundred thousand people took to the streets to back truly free elections.

It was all peaceful, though some marchers provocatively waved the old colonial blue ensign, rebutting warnings that the PLA garrison might have to turn out if chaos erupted.

Much egg was on the face of the local business nabobs heading the “big four” accountancy firms − Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers − who had taken out paid ads in Hong Kong newspapers last week warning Tuesday’s protest would bring “instability and chaos” to the markets, and that international corporations and investors might move their businesses out of the city. These guys will do anything for a deal, it seems, not to mention signing off on accounts that brought us the GFC and a touch of “instability and chaos” at the time. A lot of their staff took out a counter-ad in the Apple Daily to dissociate themselves.

2 . Facespook

Squeaky Dolphin is the codename for a program at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency to monitor YouTube video views, URLs “liked” on Facebook and blogger visits.

But what are Optic Nerve, Royal Concierge, Egotistical Goat, Nosey Smurf and Second Date? These are some of the wonderful operational codenames in the world of electronic intelligence, as revealed by the former US National Security Agency whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden.

The American online journal ProPublica has compiled a chart of what’s been going on. The spooks have been busy infiltrating every digital thought, looking for sexual peccadilloes, breaking into encrypted messaging sites, switching on microphones and tracking devices inside smartphones, and making sure Predator drones can pinpoint SIM-card locations. All to track the bad guys, of course.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "Meaning behind Double Dragon manoeuvres".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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