World

Australian MP alleges FBI suspect. Italy prepares for far-right/far-left coalition government. Najib Razak investigated. By Hamish McDonald.

Hastie drops bombshell on China relations

Former prime minister Najib Razak appears at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission office this week.
Credit: CrowdSpark / Aizat Ady Ikram Abdull Ropha

As they say in his old regiment, the SAS: Who dares wins. So in the political equivalent of a special forces night-time strike, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie rose in parliament on Tuesday evening to deliver a blow to the cordiality two senior ministers of his own government had just been at pains trying to restore with China.

Hastie said it was “his duty” to disclose that businessman Chau Chak Wing, donor to both sides of politics and benefactor of the University of Technology Sydney, was the unindicted “co-conspirator 3” in the United States bribery case involving the late Antiguan diplomat John Ashe while he was president of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. Another tycoon from southern China, Ng Lap Seng, was sentenced to a four-year jail term on May 11 and two other intermediaries received lesser terms.

Chau has already been named as “CC-3” in Fairfax and ABC reports, along with accusations of working with Chinese Communist Party “United Front” operations, over which he has launched defamation actions due to be heard on June 12. “My concern is that defamation cases can have a chilling effect on our free press,” Hastie said. “Any attempt to silence our media from telling the truth – provided it is the truth – through a defamation claim cannot stand.”

The MP said he’d had all this confirmed while visiting Washington as chairman of parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, presumably from the FBI, which pursued the bribery case. Why it had to come out now was not explained. Nor was Hastie ready to say why Chau has not been charged. Chau has earlier denied allegations.

The intervention came without warning to Malcolm Turnbull, whose ministers had broken a little way through a freeze in ministerial contact with Beijing caused precisely by media, academic and intelligence warnings about United Front activity. These resulted in the government announcing new legislation against foreign political interference and espionage, which China has correctly assumed to be mostly about itself. Hastie is a keen proponent of these laws, and not factionally warm with Turnbull.

Last week Trade Minister Steve Ciobo used a demonstration Australian Rules game in Shanghai to give a conciliatory speech praising China’s Xi Jinping. On Monday, Julie Bishop met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Buenos Aires. While Bishop said it was “warm, candid and constructive”, Wang indicated more effort was needed.    

“If Australia is genuinely hopeful for getting the bilateral relationship back on the right track, Australia should discard its traditional thinking and take off its tinted glasses to take a proactive approach towards China’s development,” he said on his ministry’s website.

Conte job

The world had almost forgotten that Italy held elections on March 4, but in recent days has woken up to the fact that the two populist parties that emerged with the biggest votes are moving to form a government, even though they are at opposing ends of the political spectrum.

The far-right League’s Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio couldn’t agree on which one should be prime minister, so they’ve proposed a suave and well-connected law professor, Giuseppe Conte, for the job. Coming from a low-income family in the south, Conte is an example of social mobility, achieved with the help of powerful Vatican patrons and some padding of his résumé.

Some things the League and Five-Star can agree on. One is a crackdown on immigration, with plans announced for more detention centres to speed up deportation of some 500,000 unauthorised arrivals, and to review the Italian navy’s rescue operations for crowded migrant boats. Another is an end to the fiscal austerity enforced as a condition of European Central Bank assistance. Whether they will withdraw from the European common currency and reinstate the lire is unclear, but the European monetary project is looking shaky.

At least the global economic system won’t face the threat of two simultaneous disruptions, after Donald Trump suspended his threat to impose 25 per cent tariffs on a wide range of imports from China and called off sanctions on the Chinese mobile-phone manufacturer ZTE. This followed a Chinese offer to buy an extra $US200 billion worth of US goods, though precisely what hasn’t been worked out. Beijing’s Global Times, which voices the gut feeling of party comrades, suggested diverting beef, wine and other food imports from Australia to the US, killing two birds with one stone.

Trump’s travails

Trump’s home-front legal battles intensified this week, as he tried to turn the tables on investigators of his election campaign’s ties with Russia by putting them under investigation for allegedly inserting spies into the campaign.

After tweeting a call for the Justice Department to investigate the FBI’s watch on his campaign, he called in senior Justice and FBI officials on Monday to demand they hand over classified material to a congressional committee.

His new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tried verballing the special counsel Robert Mueller into limits on his investigation of the Russian linkage. He claimed it was agreed no interview of Trump by prosecutors could last more than two hours, that Mueller had no power to indict a sitting president, and that Mueller hoped to complete the obstruction of justice aspect of his probe by September 1.

More and more is emerging about suspicious foreign contacts ahead of the 2016 election. As well as a meeting with Russians offering hacked Hillary Clinton emails, Donald Trump jnr and private army chief Erik Prince met United Arab Emirates envoys offering campaign funds. More recently it seems son-in-law Jared Kushner has been dangled a loan to bail out his family’s indebted Fifth Avenue building by Qatar, which wants a Saudi–Emirates embargo lifted.

Razak racket

It’s been a torrid week for the former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. After being banned from leaving the country and having police raid his homes and take masses of his wife’s handbags, jewellery and cash – a trove that put the Imelda Marcos shoe collection in the shade, according to newly released opponent Anwar Ibrahim – he’s spent long hours being interrogated at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission about diverted public money. 

After more than four hours of grilling on Tuesday, he was due back on Thursday to explain how $US10.6 million from a subsidiary of state development fund 1MDB ended up in his personal account. Newly recycled Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad thinks a total of $US6 billion might have been embezzled.

More details emerged about how investigations were suppressed while Najib was in office. The reinstated chief of the anti-corruption body, Mohammad Shukri Abdull, said he received death threats and witnesses went missing during his probe into the diverted $US10.6 million. As officials prepared to serve Najib with a charge sheet of criminal misappropriation in July 2015, the then attorney-general, Abdul Gani Patail, was sacked a few hours before. The new attorney-general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, withheld the charges and cleared Najib in January 2016.

The editor of the widely respected Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle Brown, said she was now “reliably informed” that the source of a 2015 leak to her of the charge sheet against Najib was senior deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais. Morais was kidnapped in September 2015 and his strangled body was found two weeks later in a concrete-filled drum not far from Kuala Lumpur. The official explanation so far is that he was killed over a completely separate case, for which an army colonel and six others are standing trial.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Hastie drops bombshell on China relations". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.  

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