US Navy makes point to China; Turkey's presidential election; China's Confucius Peace Prize By Hamish McDonald.

Clinton connections come back to haunt

Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before the house select committee on Benghazi.
Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before the house select committee on Benghazi.
Credit: Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

With the first primary or internal party vote due in Iowa on February 1, ahead of the United States presidential election now just a year away, the Democrat field has cleared with Vice-President Joe Biden ruling himself out of the running. Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favourite against maverick Democrat leftist Bernie Sanders, still has to shuck off questions and dubious connections from her past, however.

From her time as Barack Obama’s first-term secretary of state, she took an 11-hour grilling from a hostile senate committee last Saturday about why she ignored pleas for more security at the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, overrun by Islamists with the loss of four American lives. The theatrical and at times comical hearing produced no new damaging evidence but, if she becomes president, Clinton faces what still looks like being a Republican-controlled congress and some of its members are vowing to launch impeachment proceedings on her first day in office, over use of her private email service while secretary instead of the more secure State Department system.

From her time as Bill Clinton’s first lady comes more embarrassment about friends and donors. Among their guests in the White House was Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng. On September 19 the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Ng for allegedly bringing $US4.5 million in cash into the US in suitcases, and later charged him with paying at least $US500,000 in bribes to the former United Nations General Assembly president John Ashe, a Caribbean diplomat, in return for help with UN and other contracts.

While Bill Clinton was president, Ng turned up about 10 times at the White House and was identified as the source of more than $US1 million paid into Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. His intermediary went to jail over that, but the self-made tycoon Ng continued as a wheeler-dealer in the former Portuguese colony. His Fortuna casino-hotel is a favoured haunt of Chinese military and intelligence officials, and some years back boasted in its brochure of a nightclub where “attractive and attentive hostesses from China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, together with erotic girls from Europe and Russia, certainly offer you an exciting and unforgettable evening with friends or business associates”.

Not exactly the kind of past connection wanted by the first female candidate and claimed author of the Obama pivot/rebalancing to push back against China. But the Republicans continue in disarray, with a lack of political experience perversely the main drawcard for party voters. Frontrunner now, according to new opinion polling, is the deeply conservative retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who moved ahead of Donald Trump as most preferred among the many candidates.

1 . US Navy makes point to China

On Tuesday, the US Navy made its belated gesture of defiance towards China’s artificial island fortresses constructed on reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. A destroyer sailed close by, within what would be the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit if the new islands were recognised as sovereign territory.

An aircraft-carrier battle group was loitering over the horizon, in case the Chinese decided on a forceful response. But in the end, Beijing simply warned against “provocative” actions. It’s still unclear if Beijing does insist the new islands are now part of its territory, rather than uninhabitable rocks that don’t merit a 12-mile zone around them under the Law of the Sea.

Content with the new status quo they have created, the Chinese may tolerate continuing “freedom of navigation” exercises by the Americans. In August they made a point by sailing a naval flotilla through the Bering Strait into Arctic waters close to Alaska during a visit by Obama to the state. The point seemed to be that naval passages don’t change what’s on the dry land.

The US and Chinese militaries have at least reached agreement on avoiding the kind of midair collisions that forced a US patrol plane into an emergency landing in 2001. A memo signed during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington last month set protocols for keeping aircraft a safe distance apart. In addition, pilots are banned from making rude comments over radio to the other guys or giving them the finger. “Military aircrew should refrain from the use of uncivil language or unfriendly physical gestures,” the memo states.

2 . Talking Turkey in run-up to election

Sunday’s election in Turkey is the next big development in the Middle East tangle.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is giving voters another chance to give him the powers to transform his largely ceremonial office into a truly executive presidency, after they failed to give his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, a parliamentary majority in June.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will do no better, perhaps forcing Erdoğan to form a coalition government this time. But it’s possible Erdoğan has affronted even more voters by his refusal to accept the previous election result, and by the failure of the government security services to prevent the October 10 bombing at a peaceful protest in Ankara, the capital.

He will be hoping that his deliberate rekindling of the civil war with the Kurdish minority, at the cost of weakening the effective Kurdish resistance across the border in Syria, has created a fear factor among voters that will play in the AKP’s favour. Erdoğan is also astutely milking the European Union for billions of euros in financial assistance and renewed EU membership negotiations, in return for holding back the westward flow of refugees.

3 . Disturbing the peace prize

Back to China on the soft-power front: patriots stung by the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo by those pesky Norwegians in 2010 set up their own prize to “promote world peace from an Eastern perspective”. They named it the Confucius Peace Prize.

The Chinese Communist Party and government authorities disowned it, and the organisers moved it to Hong Kong. A wise move, as the inaugural prize in 2011 went to Vladimir Putin. The following year it went less controversially to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, in 2013 to Buddhist figure Yi Cheng before shifting back to another old red, Fidel Castro, in 2014.

This year, the committee chose Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, the 91-year-old despot who has ruined what was previously one of Africa’s most prosperous countries, for “working tirelessly to build the political and economic stability of his country, bringing peace to the people of Zimbabwe, strongly supporting pan-Africanism and African independence, and making unparalleled contributions for the renaissance of African civilisation”.

Mugabe has now refused it. So will the organisers go back to other nominees, who include current UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft chief Bill Gates, and various senior politicians and religious leaders around Asia? If so, would anyone accept a second-hand peace prize from Mugabe?


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "Clinton connections come back to haunt".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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