Threat to reporters rings alarm bells; Asian Islamic nations shut out IS; Australian tutting over HK protesters. By Hamish McDonald.

Our free trade agenda unlikely to excite G20

Indonesia’s president-elect Joko Widodo (centre) at a Jakarta swearing-in ceremony of local legislators, ahead of his own inauguration.
Indonesia’s president-elect Joko Widodo (centre) at a Jakarta swearing-in ceremony of local legislators, ahead of his own inauguration.

Tony Abbott has picked up on our reminder and will be in Jakarta on Monday for the inauguration of Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo. His principal task, it seems, will be persuading “Jokowi” to attend the Group of 20 summit meeting in Brisbane in mid-November, at which Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey hope to press home their vision of lifting global economic growth by opening up trade barriers. 

Hints to the Jakarta press suggest this is an expendable item on the presidential calendar for the first month, which also includes the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing and a meeting with fellow Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital.

Jokowi’s absence will make the G20 meeting more of a flop than it’s already shaping up to be. Canberra can’t even sell its Asian friends on the free-trade agenda. Japan’s Shinzo Abe has put the brakes on negotiations with the United States about reducing farm protection, which in turn has halted progress on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership scheme of 13 nations (including Australia). Just as Trade Minister Andrew Robb has been hoping to clinch the long-running Free Trade Agreement talks with China, Beijing has just slapped a new tariff on imports of coal, which will put some Australian coalminers out of business. Indian officials said this week that Delhi might apply “safeguard duties” on Chinese imports, which are running at $US51 billion against the $US15 billion that India sells to China. With Indonesia, analysts are watching to see if Jokowi’s strong economic nationalism during his election campaign was just rhetoric.

Hockey will find some support, meanwhile, for his domestic strategy of fiscal tightening from the Germans and British. Most of the other G20 members will laugh at his concern about Australia’s comparatively low national debt. The Europeans have hit the panic buttons on their recession, with the European Central Bank pumping out money to revive growth. The French budget for 2015 has just pushed back the target date for reducing the deficit to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by two years, to 2017. President François Hollande will be urging everyone in Brisbane to “reject austerity”.  

But even Angela Merkel and David Cameron will wonder at a government patting itself on the back for repealing a world-leading carbon price. Others will be shaking their heads at Australia’s obsession with a few thousand boat people when, as an excellent ABC Foreign Correspondent program this week showed us, Italy’s navy has put us to shame by picking up 130,000 Africans from the sea and landing them, with great kindness. Fortunately Mr Punch has primed us for an entertaining diversion, should Russia’s Vladimir Putin come to Brisbane.   

1 . Threat to reporters rings alarm bells

Ten years’ jail for reporters who reveal a “special intelligence operation”, even a botched one? That’s highly unlikely to ensnare any responsible journalist working for our professional media, Attorney-General George Brandis assures us about our new national security laws.

But if an American example is any guide − and for our intelligence and security community it often is − we should be worried. US prosecutors are now going after a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times, James Risen, for publishing information eight years ago about a CIA operation to divert Iran’s nuclear weapons project down a blind alley.  

Operation Merlin was an attempt during Bill Clinton’s presidency to supply Iran with fake plans of a nuclear trigger. It failed, as Risen revealed in his 2006 book State of War, and may have actually helped the Iranians zero in on the correct mechanism. The prosecutors are still trying to nail Risen’s suspected informant, former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling, and have obtained a Federal Court order for him to testify. Having had an application to appeal refused by the Supreme Court, Risen is now ready to go to jail rather than reveal his source.

Risen was also one of the reporters who in 2005 exposed the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless phone and data tapping operations − a sign of the vast illegality that US spooks thought they could get away with in the name of national security. When even Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, comes out against the Brandis legislation, as he commendably did on Q&A this week, we should be more than alert – alarmed!

2 . Asian Islamic nations shut out IS 

Islamic State efforts to expand to far-flung parts of the Islamic community are coming up against much tougher attitudes than even al-Qaeda met. 

As noted by Sidney Jones, the long-time Jakarta-based analyst of conflict and terrorism in South-East Asia, IS recruits in Indonesia now face charges of “rebellion”, which draw much heavier sentences than mere terrorism. Up to now rebellion charges bringing jail terms of up to 20 years have been thrown at Papuans, Ambonese and others often just for raising a separatist flag, such is the worry in Jakarta about the Balkanisation of the nation. While terrorists who actually carry out atrocities get the death penalty, those who aid and abet get just a few years’ jail, as their objective is to transform society within the Indonesian state. IS, however, wants to dissolve Indonesia into a worldwide caliphate, so it’s more serious. The six leaders of the Pakistani Taliban who’ve just pledged their allegiance to IS may suddenly find any remaining tolerance by the Pakistan military and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency also withdrawn. 

3 . Australian tutting over HK protesters 

As the brave Hong Kong student protest against Beijing’s welshing on its promise of free elections in 2017 winds down, let’s not overlook some other champions of the British heritage in the Chinese special territory. How can we forget the fearless statement of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Macau (AustCham) on September 29 at the height of the confrontation in the streets? 

Here is a representative part of it: “The present situation is damaging to Hong Kong’s international reputation, may harm Hong Kong’s international competitiveness, and is creating an uncertain environment that may be detrimental to investment, to job creation and to Hong Kong’s prosperity into the future. The Chamber believes that respect for rule of law and order and social stability is vital to maintaining Hong Kong’s hard-won position as an international business centre and to creating a sustainable peace and prosperity that enables a platform for meaningful and constructive dialogue on key issues.”

The People’s Daily could not have put it better. Full marks to AustCham chairman Richard Petty, a professor at Macquarie University’s management school who sits on sundry Australian and Chinese boards, and his fellow directors Melanie Nutbeam, Tom Corkhill, Andrew Macintosh, Clement Chan, Mike Beckingham, Darren Bowdern, Simon Clarke, Randall Hall, Alan Johnson, George Lam, Brooke Patterson, Paul Scroggie, Leigh Stewart and Dan Tebbutt.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Our free trade agenda unlikely to excite G20".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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