Unholy conflict; China warning shot; Ahok judgement; Euro loses currency By Hamish McDonald.

Peace more polarised as terror takes reins

America’s next ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, at left, with Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump.
America’s next ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, at left, with Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump.
Credit: Bloomberg
This being the season of heavenly peace, it seemed a good time to get a readout on the state of peace in the world, so this week World headed to the Sydney suburb of St Leonards, named for the Catholic saint invoked by political prisoners, prisoners of war and women in labour.

There we met the IT entrepreneur Steve Killelea at his Institute for Economics and Peace, which recently put out its 10th annual Global Peace Index. With terrorism at a very high level, record refugee numbers, and battlefield deaths from conflict the highest for 25 years, the results for 2016 are not the sunniest, Killelea admits.

Only if you took out the Middle East would this year’s peace index be higher than it was 10 years ago, he says. Then there’s also a polarisation of peace, with the 10 most peaceful countries (mostly in Europe) more peaceful than they were, and the 10 least peaceful, including Afghanistan and Iraq, even worse.

The institute’s Global Terrorism Index is in great demand by the world’s intelligence agencies and is a salutary check on commonly held beliefs. For example, the 2015 terrorism index told us: “Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks, with 80 per cent of deaths in the West from lone wolf attacks being attributed to a mixture of right-wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism.”

This year’s index found terrorism deaths down 10 per cent in 2015 from the year before, thanks to disruption of Daesh in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria, but casualties more dispersed as these terror groups mounted operations elsewhere. How will next year’s index review 2016? The year has seen more dreadful atrocities, the latest the Berlin repeat this week of the truck-as-weapon first seen in Nice in July. The Nice attack killed 86, Berlin’s at least 12.

1 . Unholy conflict

We came back down the highway from St Leonards wondering how the new year will unfold. Since it’s Christmas we’ll start in the Holy Land.

Donald Trump’s election, confirmed in the electoral college vote on Monday, is manna for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s political right wing. Trump has promised to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, ahead of any agreement about the ancient city as part of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump has also nominated David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has helped in casino matters but has no diplomatic experience, as his new ambassador to Israel. Friedman is on the hard Zionist right of American Jewry, refusing even to speak to the liberal group J Street, whose members, he says, are “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

Friedman’s stated views question the need for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, endorse continued Israeli settlement of the occupied territories, and support annexation of some of that territory. As the 50th anniversary approaches in June of the Six-Day War, which gave Israel control of the West Bank, the two-state solution looks increasingly a lost cause.

The US ambassador-designate is also against the agreement to cap Iran’s nuclear weapons capability negotiated by the Obama administration alongside five other major powers. Netanyahu, who’s accepted a huge boost to US military assistance from Obama in apparent compensation once the Iran deal was settled, now says he’ll go to Trump to try to have it unwound.

Further out in the Middle East, the fall of Aleppo to Syria’s Assad regime is not the end of the civil war, but the start of new multisided conflict for northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Turkey is effectively in civil war, thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reopening of hostilities with his Kurdish minority and turn against Sunni Islamists in Syria. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara this week by a Turkish police officer marks a further step by Vladimir Putin into the quagmire.

2 . China warning shot

Peace under heaven is an old Chinese concept too, as long as everyone understands it means being obedient and co-operative neighbours paying tribute to the celestial kingdom.

China’s navy tested US resolve on December 15 when one of its ships grabbed an undersea drone being operated by an American oceanographic vessel, the Bowditch, off the coast of the Philippines “to prevent it from harming navigational and personnel safety of passing ships.”

The Bowditch is unarmed, operated by a civilian crew, and just measuring salinity, temperature and seabed terrain. The seized drone, a kind of remote-controlled underwater glider, is not secret and can be ordered online. But the operations are part of US preparations for any submarine warfare in the South China Sea, mapping the channels and “thermoclines” (layers of sharp change in water temperature) that can hide submarines.

The Chinese have harassed US surveillance operations close to its big submarine base on Hainan island, usually by swarms of fishing boats, but this snatch on the high seas by a naval ship, outside even China’s own “nine-dash line” of territorial claims, was bolder. Point made, the Chinese handed back the drone on Monday. It can be seen as a warning shot, following Trump’s phone call from Taiwan’s president and declared willingness to confront Beijing on currency, trade and maritime claims.

3 . Ahok judgement

Marty Natalegawa, the former Indonesian foreign minister, has meanwhile pointed to the risk of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) falling apart, with China getting Cambodia, Laos and to some extent Thailand to veto any clear policy on the South China Sea, democratic “regression” in Thailand and the Philippines, and protective economic trends in Indonesia.

The mention of ASEAN can be eye-glazing, as the 10-nation grouping rarely seems to solve any issue or take a firm stand, but it has (mostly) stopped its members fighting each other and has the potential to become a big single market. It’s also a strategic buffer for Australia. So its disappearance would be a huge blow to our foreign policy.

It could be added that Indonesia’s own unity is threatened by the kind of political bullying shown by the thuggish Islamic Defenders Front in Jakarta over the past month, in demonstrations calling for vengeance against the city’s Christian and ethnic Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, over a remark about misuse of the Koran by his opponents in upcoming elections.

President Joko Widodo, who used to be Ahok’s boss at city hall, has appeared alongside the thugs and effectively thrown him to the wolves. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is using the pressure against Ahok to get his underqualified son, an army major, elected as governor as the prelude to dynastic succession in the presidency. Ahok is now on trial for blasphemy, and it’s hard to see the corrupt and pliant judiciary exonerating him.

It’s shameful capitulation to extremists, putting question marks over Indonesia’s reputation for “moderate” Islam, and if taken further to imposition of sharia law and the “Arabisation” of the country, the prelude to new secession attempts by the Christian outer islands, maybe even by Bali.

4 . Euro loses currency

Finally, will the European Union be there this time next year? Election wins by Marine Le Pen in France and by Beppe Grillo in Italy would almost certainly see the end of the single-currency experiment.

Maybe it will be Joseph Stiglitz’s idea of a split euro, a soft one for the Mediterranean countries and a hard one for northern Europe. Maybe it will be back to francs and lira. Theresa May has promised to trigger Brexit by the end of March, though she doesn’t seem to have any clear idea about the terms.

Then there’s the “deal” Trump seems to have in mind with Vladimir Putin, calling off sanctions to allow the big oil projects negotiated by his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, to go ahead. With his economic squeeze off, and recognition that Crimea always was Russian anyway, Trump may hope to get non-aggression guarantees from Putin. Always a risky bet with tyrants.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 24, 2016 as "Peace more polarised as terror takes reins".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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