US unclear on nuclear first strike; deadlier weapons heading to Aleppo; The Hague orders Australia into mediation with Timor-Leste over maritime boundary. By Hamish McDonald.

Russia and The Australian’s Greg Sheridan call win for Trump

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands after this week’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands after this week’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York.

Sharemarkets rallied across Asia. The United States liberal commentariat breathed a sigh of relief. The Donald had been put in his place by Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate this week.

Thank heavens we here in Australia had Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of Rupert Murdoch’s local flagship, to hose things down. He called the debate “a draw with the edge to Trump”. The torrent of tweets out of Russia also called it for Trump. So, maybe it’s Trump who is grounded in reality and the other side living in a different universe, to turn Clinton’s barb.

Of course it’s still a long way to the vote on November 8 and there are still two more debates. Trump says he’d been holding back, but the restraints could now be off. “I may hit her harder in certain ways,” Trump told Murdoch’s Fox TV. It had been a hard struggle this week when Clinton went at him for his attitudes to women. “I was going to hit her with her husband’s women,” he said. “And I decided I shouldn’t do it because her daughter was in the room.” What a gentleman!

But if Trump doesn’t get down in the gutter, as Clinton’s well-researched taunts must have been trying to provoke, he might be looking at the points in the debate where Clinton looked the weakest. 

She had little comeback to his attack on the North American Free Trade Agreement signed with Mexico and Canada during her husband’s presidency. She was quite weak on why as secretary of state she had called the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of trade agreements and then, under attack from Trump and Bernie Sanders, she decided the negotiated TPP pact needed substantial amendment. She hesitated and shifted to other things when Trump invited her to criticise Barack Obama for seeking to get the present TPP text ratified before he leaves office in January.

Trump looked pretty wild on many other issues. His “law and order” prescription is to free up police to resume “stop and frisk” patrols that a court has ruled unconstitutional. He attacks US allies as freeloaders on US defence spending. He gives Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt on state-sponsored hacking. He brings out the old charge of currency manipulation against China. 

1 . US unclear on ‘no first use’ nukes

Strangely, Trump reversed an earlier announcement on “no first use” of nuclear weapons. This has been a contentious matter with allies when administration staff floated it some weeks back as a step towards Obama’s nuclear disarmament goals. The Germans, Japanese and South Koreans were reported to have argued against it.

Canberra probably did as well, though the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not saying. “We are following these discussions with interest, but note any possible change to US nuclear declaratory policy remains conjecture at this stage,” a spokesperson said. “As close allies, Australia and the United States will continue to consult closely on a wide range of security and disarmament issues.”

When the debate moderator put the question to both candidates, Clinton didn’t answer but Trump said: “I would certainly not do first strike.” Then he walked back from this reversal of a US strategic doctrine dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War. “I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over,” he said. “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.” 

Obama is reported to have backed away from declaring “no first use”. On Monday, Defence Secretary Ash Carter reaffirmed plans to spend up to $US450 billion over the next 10 years modernising the “triad” of nuclear weapons delivered by land-based missiles, bombers and submarine-launched missiles. He argued the US was not leading a new arms race, but responding to upgrades by other powers. Among them, China “conducts itself professionally in the nuclear arena” but Russia had gone in for “recent nuclear sabre-rattling” that “raises serious questions”. 

The recent call by a group of former US state and defence chiefs, among them William Perry and George Shultz, for Washington to lead the way into a post-nuclear weapons age now seems to have hit a brick wall. As well as the large retaliatory weapons, the Pentagon is also developing two new smaller and more precise nuclear weapons, a guided bomb called the B61-12 and the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile launched from aircraft. Critics worry these lower the threshold for use of nuclear strikes. With President Trump perhaps in the offing, “no first use” would be reassuring.

2 . Deadlier weapons heading to Aleppo

While the world’s attention turned to US politics, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad pursued his goal of recapturing all of the northern city of Aleppo this week, applying the heaviest bombing since the start of the civil war five years ago. Russian aircraft have been notably involved, dropping incendiary and cluster bombs, as well as a big new “bunker-busting” bomb that collapses large buildings.   

With several hundred civilians killed, we can expect a new outflow of refugees when Assad’s ground forces move in. The civil war is predicted to get nastier, with the more moderate Sunni rebel groups drawing closer to the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra now styles itself. The Gulf states may now supply this Sunni opposition with more potent weapons, including portable anti-aircraft missiles. 

The US has so far managed to block such transfers, as the weapons have frightening use against civilian airliners in the hands of terrorists.

3 . Hague rules Australia must deal

Canberra, meanwhile, took a hit below the waterline on Monday at the Peace Palace in The Hague, where a special panel of the Permanent Court of Arbitration tossed out Australia’s arguments that it did not have jurisdiction to conduct a compulsory conciliation process on Timor-Leste’s maritime boundary claims.

Lawyers for Australia had spent three days, no doubt racking up massive per diems, in an attempt to keep international judges out of the picture. It will be recalled that in March 2002, two months before the new state of Timor-Leste was launched by the United Nations, the Howard government nobly withdrew Australia from the jurisdiction of international courts in respect of compulsory arbitration and judicial settlement of sea boundaries.

The five judges on the panel ruled that they do have the mandate to call Australia into closed-door conciliation hearings with Timor-Leste over the next year. The result will not be mandatory, but what a sorry spectacle, as Canberra continues to insist its natural boundary is much closer to the coasts of Timor and Indonesia’s eastern islands than the median line. In stiffing its impoverished neighbours it is in company with China in more ways than just trying to ignore or avoid international courts. In its dispute with Japan over the boundary in the East China Sea, China also pushes a contentious continental shelf argument, while Japan is going for the median line. 

Timor-Leste’s chief negotiator, former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmão, is jubilant about pushing back the Australian oppressors. “Just as we fought so hard and suffered so much for our independence,” he said, “Timor-Leste will not rest until we have our sovereign rights over both land and sea.” Gusmão is yet to explain how this will get more oil money flowing into Dili’s sovereign wealth fund, now being rapidly run down by a bloated bureaucracy and grandiose projects.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016 as "Russia and Sheridan call win for Trump".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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