Headaches ahead over B-1 bombers; IS and Ramadi mirror Mad Max; Hong Kong press freedom and judicial threats; ABC Tokyo bureau closure untimely; Hello Kitty’s 40th. By Hamish McDonald.

Trouble looms between US, China in Shangri-La talks

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth arrives in Singapore.
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth arrives in Singapore.
Credit: US NAVY

The tranquil setting of Singapore’s Orange Grove Road, set back from the shopping frenzy of the main tourist boulevards, will see much sturm und drang this weekend, as rival teams of military heavies from China and the United States face off in the annual ritual known quaintly as the “Shangri-La Dialogue”.

Hosted at the Shangri-La Hotel by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, the dialogue has become the go-to place for military wonks to hear Americans upbraid the Chinese for lack of transparency in defence policy and “assertiveness” on the high seas, and the Chinese to tell the Americans they won’t be top dog in the Asian order much longer.

This year the Chinese delegation is a powerful one, headed by Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, who is a rank higher than previous delegation leaders. He brings about 30 PLA officers, including two rear-admirals and three major-generals, plus seven senior colonels. US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter will bring an equally heavy array of brass.

And what a build-up there’s been in the past few months. First, a bout of dredging by the Chinese to build what one US admiral called the “great wall of sand” in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.

With Washington policy circles seething with sentiment that the Chinese can’t be allowed to get away with this, Carter authorised some gestures to tweak their noses. USS Fort Worth, the first of four so-called littoral combat ships to be deployed to Singapore, did a cruise-by of the Spratlys, showing off its shallow-draft, high-speed (45 knots) and heavy-armament capabilities. On May 20, a Poseidon patrol aircraft made a sweep directly over the main Chinese reclamation, with a CNN team aboard to record Chinese radio messages to clear off. 

Upping the ante, Beijing’s Global Times, the tabloid in the Communist Party media, warned that China might have to “accept” the possibility of conflict with the US. “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US–China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” it said. A new Chinese defence white paper issued this week noted “provocative” moves by other claimants in the South China Sea, and said the PLA’s navy and air force would have to shift from “offshore waters defence” to “open seas protection” and “maritime military struggle”. 

Expect more of this when Admiral Sun gives his speech on Sunday at the dialogue. And the question is what could happen if the US makes its cruise-bys a regular fixture, if US warships pass closer than the usual 12-nautical-mile limit, and if the Japanese navy, which is also stepping up its joint activity with the Philippines, joins in?

1 . Headaches ahead over B-1 bombers

The curious case of the US B-1 bombers that were first being “placed” in northern Australia, then not, then actually coming and going but not actually based here, has some way to run, it seems.

It’s all a delicate semantic game. The bombers and other big long-range aircraft will be using the Australian bases at Tindal and Learmonth once the runways are extended and a wrangle over who pays is sorted. But like the six-month “rotation” of a US Marine Corps battle group in Darwin, it won’t be “basing”.

The game will get even more contorted if the B-1 bombers fly out of Tindal for a show of force over the Chinese installations in the South China Sea, or make unannounced flights through any future air defence identification zone China might declare in the region, as it has done over islands disputed with Japan.

As Iain Henry, a strategic studies scholar at the Australian National University, notes for the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, it will be hard for Canberra to say it neither knows nor approves. The former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith revealed that the “force posture agreement” for the rotations included a “full knowledge and concurrence” policy for Australia.

Smith said this was “an expression of sovereignty, of Australia’s fundamental right to know what activities foreign governments conduct in, through or from Australian territory.” He added that “Concurrence means Australia approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia in support of its mutually agreed goals. Concurrence does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken.”

Until recently the US facilities in Australia, such as Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape, have been just for watching for missile launches, downloading spy-satellite data and communicating with submarines. “Now that this policy is being used to cover not just intelligence gathering but military operations that might be launched from Australian territory, this careful definition of ‘concurrence’ will become problematic,” Henry points out.

“It will be impossible to claim that Canberra’s concurrence to a US operation does not constitute approval. In the future, if B-1 bombers are stationed in Australia, and if they conduct freedom of navigation exercises over the South China Sea, then this will occur only because Australia has concurred in US forces using Australian bases for that purpose. It could be said, just as accurately, that the operation occurred only because Australia chose to not veto it. In such circumstances, it will be harder to say that the alliance is ‘not directed at any one country’.”

2 . IS, Ramadi mirror Mad Max dystopia

George Miller filmed his latest special effect opus Mad Max: Fury Road in the deserts of Namibia in 2012/2013, predating the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria by more than a year. However, his dystopic movie struck your world editor as a striking parody of IS: the swarms of young men brainwashed with dreams of Valhalla, the hooning around in heavily armed convoys, the capture of oasis towns and their local oil and gas wells.

So far, they have not met their Max. Recriminations continue over the IS capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi. In what may rank with the Vietnam War statement by a US officer that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”, the US top military chief General Martin Dempsey declared the Iraqi army “was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.” 

By contrast, his civilian boss, Defence Secretary Carter, said the Iraqi security forces in Ramadi “vastly outnumbered the opposing force. And yet they failed to fight … That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis.” Iraqi deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, pointed out the fleeing city defenders included the army’s much-vaunted “Golden Division” of American-trained special operations forces.

The Iraqi army and Iran-backed Shia militias are now surrounding Ramadi to expel IS. The US and other air attack forces, which include Australia, have meanwhile been occupied in destroying the dozens of American-supplied tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces left behind by the fleeing Iraqi troops.

3 . HK’s press freedom and judicial threats

The struggle by Hong Kong’s establishment to quell the democracy movement continues, even after the 80-day occupation of the central business district ended in a standoff last year. 

The main English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post, has just laid off four of its most critical columnists, and a legal adviser to the Beijing government is querying the presence of foreign judges on the local bench.

The four columnists – Philip Bowring, Steve Vines, Kevin Rafferty and Frank Ching – have been told their regular gigs are up but they are free to offer opinion pieces on an ad hoc basis. This means that instead of the virtually guaranteed right to say what they want, they will have to argue the case every time. This follows an early exodus of authoritative and critical writers on China such as Willy Lam and Jasper Becker. The newspaper is owned by the Kuok family’s Kerry Media group, which has extensive business interests in the mainland.

Currently there are 10 foreign judges who serve on the Court of Final Appeal, helping preserve the judicial independence said to be essential to business confidence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, promised autonomy under the “one country-two systems” rule applied for 50 years from the 1997 handover from British rule. The Beijing adviser said they “don’t understand” the Basic Law for this transition period.

The former colony seems headed for another bout of protest when the government soon puts a bill to the HK Legislative Council for a new system for electing Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017. Despite widespread expectations of a move to universal franchise by then, the government is expected to allow citizens only a choice between a range of candidates vetted for their “patriotic” attitudes. The Legislative Council may well reject the government bill and students are likely to return to the streets.

4 . ABC Tokyo bureau closure untimely 

Tony Abbott’s military links with Australia’s “best friend in Asia”, that is, Japan, get even closer, with qualms about the Shinzō Abe government’s intimidation of liberal media and active revisionism of history to deny the wartime “comfort women” record not figuring on Canberra’s radar.

This month Abe’s cabinet approved the transfer of performance data on its Sōryū-class submarines to Australia to help the bid by the Japanese builders to win the order for the Australian navy’s new submarine fleet, against German and French competition.

In July, 40 Japanese soldiers will join the massive two-yearly US–Australian amphibious landing exercise in Queensland known as Talisman Sabre. This will be the first such exercise by Japanese ground troops in Australia, so although a minor participation (the whole exercise involves 27,000 personnel), it is a milestone. 

With this tightening of strategic links, shrinking media space, rising tensions in North-East Asia, the success of “Abenomics” in the balance and Japan supposedly being opened up by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, what a time for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to shut its Tokyo bureau, as it plans to do at the end of the year. The bureau, with its local staff, cameraman and extensive video archive, will go. A correspondent will work out of his or her apartment, without an interpreter, and presumably whip around in front of their own mini-camera to record stand-ups. Zannen (what a pity).

5 . Hello Kitty’s 40th

Now a note about soft power, surely the softest of all. It is 40 years since the first appearance of Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon cat that went from a decoration on purses and school bags for little girls into a worldwide brand with its own dedicated stores. 

The anniversary is being celebrated with a global Hello Kitty “Hug-a-thon”, a Hello Kitty Convention, and a museum exhibition in Los Angeles that promises a “product-based historical and sociological examination” of the pop icon. There’s another lesson here about the power of culture that Japan exemplifies in its informal world of anime, manga, food, games and video, yet constantly cuts across with its history wars. As Hello Kitty insists: “You can never have too many friends.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Trouble looms in Shangri-La talks".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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