Unmade seabeds in Timor-Leste; Egypt stays quiet on student’s death; China has a case of the Ips. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump, Wilders drop bombshells after Brussels blasts

A woman and a young girl embrace as people gather to leave tributes at the Place de la Bourse following this week’s bombings in Brussels.

With election year in full swing in the United States, and various votes coming up in Europe, right-wing political aspirants are acting exactly the way the jihadist extremists want them to, in reaction to Tuesday’s suicide bombings in Brussels.

Donald Trump, leading the Republican Party presidential race, said the US should “close up our borders until we figure out what’s going on” by suspending its visa-waiver scheme involving 38 countries (including Australia), and that “I would bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”. Torture got the truth out of people, he said. Trump also suggested pulling back from NATO contributions to defend Europe. His closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, didn’t agree about NATO, but supports waterboarding and limiting entry of Muslims, including a halt to the Syrian refugee intake. 

In the Netherlands, Freedom party leader Geert Wilders called for an end to the Schengen agreement that opens borders inside the European Union, and more. “The cause of all this bloodshed is Islam,” he said. “We need to de-Islamise the West. That is the only way to safeguard our lives and protect our freedom.”

Wilders, who is facing trial under anti-discrimination laws for calling Moroccans “scum”, has recently been leading opinion polls ahead of elections due in March next year. He wants to withdraw the Netherlands from Europe. Across the North Sea, the Brussels terror may boost support for a British exit from the EU in the referendum on June 23. We await distant echoes here in the divided Liberal party.

It remains to be seen whether the Brussels attacks were a prelude to a further wave of carefully planned attacks by a well-dispersed and hidden Daesh network, or a desperate last strike by Daesh members thinking the capture four days earlier of network logistics chief Salah Abdeslam, and his reported willingness to talk, meant the game might be up. Will it bring out the best or worst in Europe? Either way, we’ll see a more edgy Europe under tighter security controls and intelligence surveillance. 

A leak of a 55-page report by the French anti-terrorism police, piecing together evidence from the November attacks in Paris, shows a network making full use of the internal openness of Europe, the reception of refugees from Syria, and its easy access to technology in the form of throwaway mobile phones and encrypted internet. Its bombs are made from chemicals found in hair bleach and nail-polish remover.

1 . Unmade seabeds 

The wave of protests this column foreshadowed two weeks ago against Canberra’s stance on the seabed boundary with Timor-Leste got into full swing this week. 

Timorese independence legend Xanana Gusmão has marshalled thousands outside the Australian embassy in Dili, with the sisters of the sainted Mary MacKillop’s Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart helping with supporting demos around Australia.

Gusmão’s new website revealed that as well as scrapping the present joint development zone with Australia in the Timor Sea, and fixing a permanent maritime boundary along the median line between the two shorelines, his government hopes to swing the eastern lateral boundary of the zone to the south-east to bring all of the Greater Sunrise gas field within Timor-Leste’s resources zone.

As we wondered, this would require some accommodation from Indonesia, which would lose a bit of seabed and perhaps the chance to refix the border it agreed with Australia in 1972 and thereby grab the present 80 per cent share of the gas field for itself. Had Gusmão got a deal with Jakarta, we asked. We are now told Gusmão did indeed get a promise some years back from former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that Jakarta would co-operate on the lateral boundary so that Dili got its way.

So far the Coalition government is standing firm on the present 50-year temporary border agreed in 2006, pointing to the benefits for Timor in its 50-50 split of revenues from Greater Sunrise. Dili is saying the deal is invalid, because of spying by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service during negotiations. Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek announced last month a Labor government would re-open negotiations, and if amicable agreement could not be reached, would return Australia to international adjudication (which the Howard government exited in March 2002 on maritime border issues, just ahead of Timor-Leste’s independence).

It still seems a long shot for Gusmão. Should he get Australia to arbitration, lawyers will be arguing complex geometry, with precedents in far-off places such as the Scilly Isles. Indonesia has used arbitration to settle offshore boundary disputes with Malaysia. But would a secret handshake by SBY carry any weight with his successors? Then what would be the entitlements of the existing Greater Sunrise developers, led by Woodside Petroleum? And why would they, or their replacement, drop their reluctance to build a risky pipeline across the 3000-metre-deep Timor Trench to Gusmão’s grandiose Tasi Mane industrial scheme?

2 . Egypt stays quiet on student’s death

Egypt’s military-installed government under hastily civilianised president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is dodging under the spotlight over the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni, who had been researching trade unions in Egypt for his doctorate at Cambridge University. 

A week after he disappeared in late January, the 28-year-old’s body was found dumped on the outskirts of Cairo. The autopsy suggested a week of torture, involving pulled fingernails, electrocution and mutilation. Reuters said it had been told by sources in the Egyptian prosecutor’s office that the pattern of the wounds suggest “that whoever is accused of killing him was interrogating him for information”. 

Giuseppe Pignatone, Italy’s chief prosecutor, has been in Egypt this month to investigate, but hasn’t been getting much co-operation − no doubt because the Egyptian secret police are the main suspects. For his part, President Sisi tried a familiar diversionary tactic in an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, in which he equated Regeni’s death with the disappearance of an Egyptian chef in Italy last October, even though there is no evidence the chef might have been abducted, tortured and murdered. Australia has intelligence co-operation with these people, in the fight against terrorism.

3 . A case of the Ips

China’s National People’s Congress, its ostensible state parliament, has been holding its annual session in Beijing with more than the usual suppression of debate by the Communist Party leadership. 

But top leader Xi Jinping’s aura has been disturbed by an impudent online letter attributed to “loyal Communist Party members” calling on him to resign for failures of leadership, to avoid a party power struggle and protect his own safety. The letter got uploaded to an official propaganda website and widely circulated, before being noticed and taken down.

Among domestic economic crises and a personal leadership cult, these failures include a clumsy foreign policy that has allowed North Korea to build nuclear weapons, shaken confidence in Hong Kong, and, by abandoning late supremo Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of taking a low profile while building strength, allowed the “successful return of the United States to Asia”. Genuine or not, the letter suggests rats remain in party ranks.

The latest kung-fu movie from Hong Kong’s Wilson Yip, however, picks up the theme of Chinese skill outwitting the musclebound Americans. Ip Man 3, based very loosely on the character of a martial arts master of that name who taught Bruce Lee his skills, depicts the hero living a quiet life in the southern China of the late 1950s. Then a group of land-grabbers, somewhat improbably with former US heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson at the fore, try to take over his son’s school. Reluctantly drawn into the conflict, and supported by the local villagers, Donnie Yen as Ip Man takes on Frank, the character played by Tyson. Impressed by Ip Man’s skill, Frank backs off. 

No doubt, Xi would see it as metaphor for a patient China trying to make the US quietly cede ground in Asia.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Right-wingers drop their own bombshells".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.