Modi gets tough; gas price pressure; Jokowi team casts shadowy figures; more than a few blips in search for MH370. By Hamish McDonald.

Unwelcome comic timing for Abbott trip

Former Indonesian armed forces chief Ryamizard Ryacudu.
Former Indonesian armed forces chief Ryamizard Ryacudu.
Tony Abbott’s first official visit to Washington as prime minister comes at an awkward moment for him, a week after Barack Obama announced his signature plan to reduce US  reliance on coal.

While Abbott will no doubt crow that Washington is matching his own Direct Action strategy in reducing carbon emissions, the Obama approach is broader than that, incorporating carbon trading.

Coincidentally, the Lowy Institute’s yearly opinion poll shows Australians feel a rising concern about climate change for the second year running, after concern fell during the previous five years. Climate change was a “serious and pressing problem” for 45 per cent of Australians, up 5 percentage points on 2013, though still a long way below the 2006 level of 68 per cent, which helped propel Kevin Rudd to power the following year.

A majority think Canberra should take the lead in policies to reduce emissions, though the method is not specified. The tide is turning against Abbott on this issue. Already being lampooned by American comics ahead of the visit, Abbott will be treated as a loyal but slightly embarrassing ally who wants to backtrack on a much-praised carbon-pricing initiative.

Waiting out Obama may not be the answer, as the Republicans as yet can’t present a plausible alternative to likely Democrat successor Hillary Clinton.

1 . Modi gets tough

India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has indicated a toughening of Delhi’s stance towards internal insurgencies and terrorist groups, and possibly a more robust approach to Pakistan with his choice of National Security Adviser.

This is retired police and intelligence officer Ajit Doval, 69, who has almost legendary status in India’s security circles from a career that mixes Rudyard Kipling’s Kim with John le Carré’s George Smiley.

Doval is famous for personally infiltrating a militant separatist group in the eastern state of Mizoram and splitting its leadership. In 1988, when Sikh extremists were holed up in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, he posed as an agent of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to enter the temple and reconnoitre its defences ahead of a raid by Indian commandos. 

In Kashmir he set up a rival Islamist group, the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, to fight groups seeking to separate the disputed state from India. He was also assigned to a role stationed in Pakistan, running agents, before ending his career as chief of the Intelligence Bureau, the domestic security agency. 

Doval replaces the urbane diplomat Shivshankar Menon, a former head of the Ministry of External Affairs and ambassador to China. While someone with such gung-ho spirit will be popular in Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, more liberal Indians will wonder if the Intelligence Bureau mindset is the right approach to internal security problems as diverse as Kashmir and the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency among tribal people in the eastern-central states. 

For foreign policy advice, Modi will rely on Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, currently the Indian ambassador in Washington. The new External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, is not greatly experienced outside India and is regarded as on probation in the role. 

2 . Gas price pressure

Modi has come into office promising to revive India’s economic growth, which has slipped back to a lacklustre 5 per cent or so in the desultory last years of the defeated congress-led government. 

One tycoon no doubt hoping for a break is Mukesh Ambani, of Reliance Industries, which together with partners BP and Canadian company Niko Resources, last month took the Indian government to arbitration over the permitted price they can ask for gas from their huge Krishna-Godavari field in the Bay of Bengal. An initial five-year price arrangement expired at the end of March, and the Reliance-led consortium has been pressing Delhi to go ahead with a doubling of the gas price that seemed to be agreed last year, only to be withheld during the recent election.

If the dispute does go to arbitration, it will be a steady earner for former Australian High Court justice Michael McHugh, who has been nominated to sit on the panel alongside two former Indian chief justices. 

Former NSW chief justice Jim Spigelman had seemed likely to get the gig, but was ruled out by the Supreme Court because his name had been on a list previously suggested by Reliance.

3 . Jokowi team casts shadowy figures 

Prabowo Subianto’s run for the Indonesian presidency is causing alarm enough among those worried by political regression. But the entourage of rival Joko Widodo or “Jokowi” is also causing some concern.

The matriarch of his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has foisted some sinister former army and intelligence figures onto his campaign team, who will no doubt get key government jobs if Jokowi wins.

These include the former armed forces chief Ryamizard Ryacudu, noted for praising as patriots the soldiers who murdered the Papuan leader Theys Eluay in 2001 and being sacked by current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono immediately on assuming office in 2004.

They also include the former chief of the National Intelligence Agency, retired general A. M. Hendropriyono, who was agency head when activist Munir Said Thalib was assassinated by agency-linked figures with arsenic-laced orange juice aboard a Garuda flight in 2004. “Hendro” was also the transmigration minister who orchestrated the forced transport of a large part of Timor-Leste’s population into Indonesia after the Timorese ungratefully voted for independence in 1999. 

Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, a civilian crony of the controversial Jakarta property and nightclub tycoon Tomy Winata, will also join the campaign steering committee.

4 . More than a few blips in search for MH370

The admission by the US Defence Department that the pings allegedly emanating from the disappeared Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 probably came from inside the search ships raises some intriguing questions.

Analysis of automatic communications between the aircraft and navigation satellites shows the flight tracking south from the top of Sumatra down to a presumed crash site north-west of Perth. This would seem to bring it within range of Australia’s much-trumpeted Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system, said to be able to detect aviation targets the size of a BAE Hawk 127 (much smaller than the Malaysian Boeing 777) out to 3000 kilometres, depending on atmospheric conditions.

Defence won’t say if anything was picked up. “Defence does not comment on the operational capability of surveillance systems,” a spokesperson said. Nor were the Australian Navy’s submarines, equipped with towed array passive sonars and handily based near Fremantle, deployed to listen for any pings. “The Collins class was not the most appropriate platform for the type of search undertaken in the Southern Indian Ocean,” the department says, while insisting it is an excellent submarine. Hmmm.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 7, 2014 as "Unwelcome comic timing for Abbott trip".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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