Tense times over nuclear deterrence; Hong Kong closing ranks on financial transparency; Kalashnikov to have a clothing line. By Hamish McDonald.

Rodrigo Duterte election amid South China Sea volatility

Ferdinand Marcos jnr is showered in confetti at a political rally in Manila last week.

Maybe we should be thankful the Philippines has hardly any air and naval striking power. What a time for its government to fall into the hands of a political boss prone, on his record, to vigilante justice, and who knows what in foreign policy.

Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president in Monday’s elections comes as the South China Sea is boiling again as a point of confrontation between China, the United States and its surrounding South-East Asian states, including the Philippines.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to give its ruling within weeks on Manila’s case against China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the sea under its so-called “nine-dash line” claim, and specifically against its claim over reefs near the Philippines.

As if to defy what it expects to be an unfavourable ruling from a panel whose jurisdiction it does not acknowledge, Beijing is hinting it will soon start dredging to build up an artificial island on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is about 230 kilometres off the Philippine coast and thus within a normal 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone for the littoral state. This came out in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which quoted unnamed Chinese military and maritime sources as saying an airstrip could be built there to extend China’s air power.

The US Navy, meanwhile, sent a destroyer this week on another “freedom-of-navigation” transit within the territorial limit claimed by China around one of its new islands in the disputed Spratly group. Ahead of his attendance at the Group of Seven summit in Japan this month, President Barack Obama will be going to Vietnam, another maritime claimant against China, where he may announce a lifting of the US arms export embargo. 

Duterte has said if the Chinese get up to anything on the Scarborough Shoal, he’ll ride out on a jet-ski to confront them. Analysts of Philippine politics are now watching the vice-presidential vote count to see if Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the late dictator, can overcome the early lead of Leni Robredo, the Liberal Party candidate pushed by outgoing President Benigno Aquino III (son of the opposition leader Marcos snr had assassinated at Manila airport). Should Duterte succumb to people power, impeachment or too much Viagra, the vice-president would take over. Even as vice-president, Marcos might end the last hopes of retrieving the billions that were stolen during his father’s rule. 

Tense times over nuclear deterrence

While in Japan, Obama will go to the atom-bomb memorial in Hiroshima, the first visit by a sitting US president and one certain to raise what is perhaps the biggest unfinished business on his political agenda, nuclear arms reduction and eventual abolition.

Obama has made some progress, with nuclear arms limitations agreed with Russia and the Iranian nuclear deal. But both the US and Russia are engaged in replacing and updating their stock of warheads, each with enough power to destroy any adversary several times over, North Korea is rapidly developing an arsenal, and a nuclear arms race is on in South Asia, with Pakistan refusing to rule out first-use against India.

The entire morality of mutually assured destruction is also getting some belated debate, especially after Donald Trump declared, “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me”, and his spokeswoman elaborated, “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”

As Jeffrey Lewis wrote in Foreign Policy, Trump had stumbled on the US military’s biggest secret: “It has no idea what it’s doing with its nuclear arsenal.” Lewis pointed to the fiction of targeting, exemplified by then US defence secretary Dick Cheney’s discovery in 1989 that 69 warheads were targeted on a single radar base in Moscow, to avoid the truth that mass killing of civilians, on a scale vastly bigger than Hiroshima, was the real aim. 

Military planners, and their lawyers, increasingly reject terror bombing as a lawful strategy, Lewis wrote. “The Law of Armed Conflict restricts nuclear targets to those with a military rationale – and over time, the definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target has narrowed. The fear of a nuclear apocalypse may do the work of deterrence, but the military won’t design plans to that end. As a result, US nuclear war planning represents a series of compromises designed to have our cake and eat it too. The military satisfies the lawyers by targeting the radar at Pushkino, but you and I know the Kremlin is deterred not by the loss of the radar, but by the 69 nuclear weapons landing in the suburbs of Moscow.”

Down at Australian defence HQ they are more sanguine. As nuclear arms scholar Crispin Rovere noted on the Lowy Institute’s website, The Interpreter, its new White Paper dropped previous references to Australia’s reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence “so long as these weapons exist”.

“That’s now over,” Rovere noted. “Paragraph 5.20 reads ‘only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the US can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia.’ Further, Paragraph 2.104 notes that Australia has ‘historically’ been a prominent supporter of the non-proliferation treaty – a telling use of tense.”

HK closing ranks

Travellers through Hong Kong’s airport have got used to the face of Chinese supremo Xi Jinping adorning the Chinese-language bestsellers pushed at the front of its 16 bookshops, most of them spicy and speculative works about Communist Party intrigues and all aimed at visitors from the mainland.

Now 11 of those bookshops have closed, replaced by clothing shops and branches of a Chinese state-owned bookseller. The usual excuses about “commercial” pressures, readers switching to tablets and so on. But it fits the pattern of growing pressure on free expression in Hong Kong, sharpened by the recent abduction to the mainland of one critical publisher.

 Authorities now seem at risk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs in Hong Kong’s world of business. Though beset by periodic scandals and insider dealings, Hong Kong’s success is founded on a large measure of financial transparency. Now it’s been ruled that those looking for details of directors and other corporate information online from the Companies Registry must declare a reason for their search, with a legal penalty if found to be using the information for another purpose. The Wall Street Journal reports that news reporting and research aren’t listed as acceptable options. The Hong Kong Journalists Association is unallayed by official assurances their work won’t be affected.

Hong Kong’s market regulator, the Securities and Futures Commission, is also showing zeal in chasing the watchdogs doing what should be its own work. It recently prosecuted rating agency Moody’s over a 2011 report on locally listed mainland companies for some minor mathematical inaccuracies, and got it fined $HK11 million ($A1.93 million). Out of the companies “red-flagged” by Moody’s, several have since defaulted on borrowings.

Fashion shoots

Western sanctions on Russia over its Crimea annexation have severely impacted the business of small-arms manufacturer Kalashnikov, famous for its AK-47 assault rifle. 

The firm’s marketing director, Vladimir Dmitriyev, told the Izvestia news agency up to 70 per cent of its hunting and sporting weapons had previously gone to Europe and the US.

To make up for lost business, Kalashnikov is now launching a range of “military style” casual clothes and accessories, opening 60 shops across Russia for a start. A marketing consultant, Nikolai Grigoryev, said on Russian channel Life TV the fashion line could tap into the “rapid growth of patriotism in Russia related to the theme of war”. Can’t be long before a Kalashnikov store opens in your local Westfield.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Duterte deeds heighten South China Sea stress". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.