Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits Australia; Rex Tillerson in Asia; FBI denies wire-tapping Trump Tower. By Hamish McDonald.

The everyday tools of the modern terrorist

Emergency services workers tend to some of those injured in the London terror attack this week.

This week’s attack outside the British parliament showed us again that terrorism is not confined to bombs and guns but everyday tools such as cars and kitchen knives, and that despite the intense patrolling of cyberspace by outfits as professional as MI5, such attacks can still come.

While they looked for possible associates, British police were careful not to reveal the identity of the man who mowed down some 40 pedestrians, killing at least three, then fatally stabbed a policeman outside parliament before being shot dead. Their working assumption was inspiration by “international terrorism”. The police are also on the lookout for any hate-crime backlash, with counterterrorism chief Mark Rowley saying that “our Muslim communities will feel anxious at this time given the past behaviour of the extreme right wing”.

Coincidentally, British authorities followed the United States in barring laptops and tablets from flights originating in 10 airports in the Middle East. The movement is a long way from being beaten.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey is meanwhile threatening to slow the conquest of Daesh territory in Syria. Turkish army forces in northern Syria, along with local Sunni militias, are most concerned with pushing Kurdish fighters out of the region. As a result, the Syrian Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is warning it might have to divert from its attack on al-Raqqa, the capital of the Daesh caliphate, to fight off the Turks. 

The US regards the YPG as the most effective local opponent of Daesh and is heavily supporting it with air strikes, artillery and special forces. It rejects Erdoğan’s charge that the YPG is running terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

China’s muscle flex

Chinese premier Li Keqiang arrived on Wednesday at the head of a very large business delegation with a clear message: this is where the money comes from. As for democracy and human rights in China: don’t you worry about that.

It was left to a deputy foreign minister, Zheng Zeguang, to make these points explicitly before Li took off for Sydney. “In the future we would like our friends in Australia to discard … ideological prejudice and take the right approach to China,” Zheng said. Ideological differences were well known; we should focus on “practical co-operation” which would bring “concrete benefits to both sides”.

This was a slap down for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who’d used a platform in Singapore the previous week to say China could not lead the region because it wasn’t a democracy, and to call for an even greater US strategic role. But that out of the way, Li used The Australian’s op-ed page to list the ways the two countries could work together for mutual benefit. Perhaps out of respect for host sensibilities, he didn’t mention climate change, one area where Beijing could indeed seize leadership from Trump’s Washington.

The Chinese had already warmed mercantilist hearts with hints Li would announce greater access for Australian beef shipments, and the surprise dropping this week of e-commerce rules that had dampened the share prices of baby formula and vitamin producers such as Bellamy’s and Blackmores.

As the only trained economist in the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo standing committee in recent years, and the leader with direct charge of the economy, Li is being watched for clues about how long he can use the state banks to keep GDP growth above 6.5 per cent, with non-bank businesses now owing 170 per cent of GDP. During the past year, he’s fallen back on the old staples of credit for construction and infrastructure, regardless of demand, and that’s given Australian iron ore and coal shippers their current price lift. 

Chinese individuals with wealth are not convinced it can last: they are seeking ever more ingenious ways to get their money out around tightening foreign exchange controls. A lot of the demand for Australian iron and coal comes from commodity traders buying forward to beat expected further falls in the Chinese yuan.

Rex marks his spot 

Rex Tillerson is still making the transition from corporate chief to secretary of state, and is not used to the idea that his new job involves a bigger public profile and more accountability than the old one at ExxonMobil.

For his first big trip to Asia, Tillerson took only a journalist from the small conservative outlet Independent Journal Review instead of the usual crowd of diplomatic reporters, so his findings in Japan, South Korea and China were not explored as much as they could have been.

The trip was chiefly about hosing down alarm about Donald Trump’s campaign threats to cut support to the two allies and launch a trade war with China. Tillerson did, however, come back to one worrying Trump theme. Talking to his sole travelling reporter in what was his first interview in the job, Tillerson raised the possibility of both Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. If North Korea kept developing nuclear missiles, “circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that,” he said. He added “there’s a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that” and said the US goal remained “a denuclearised Korean peninsula”.

That was on the way home. On arrival in Asia, he’d declared that all options including pre-emptive military strikes were “on the table” for responses to Pyongyang’s latest round of missile tests. Numerous strategists pointed out this could mean destroying South Korea, or at least the large part of its population and economic activity under the North’s guns in Seoul, in order to save it.

Kim Jong-un, the North’s dynastic dictator, was not intimidated. A day after Tillerson departed the region, his scientists tested a more powerful rocket engine that takes the regime a step further towards a quickly deployable intercontinental nuclear missile. “The whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries,” Kim declared.

For its part, Beijing seemed reassured Trump was not going to do anything rash, and official media said Tillerson’s visit had been a “diplomatic victory” for China. Having already stopped North Korean coal shipments for this year, though not before stocking up on the annual quota, it remains to be seen what further squeeze on Pyongyang it has promised Tillerson.

Trump all-a-Twitter as claims debunked

Back in Washington, Trump twittered on through all the egg piling up on his face, having stiffed Angela Merkel’s offer of a handshake for the cameras last weekend, claimed Germany owed vast sums to the US for its defence, and refused to apologise for a new White House claim that the US electronic spy agency had got its British counterpart, the GCHQ, to tap phones at Trump Tower last year.

In the house of representatives intelligence committee on Monday, FBI director James Comey said there had been no wire-tapping of Trump by his agency or any such operation authorised by the Department of Justice. The National Security Agency chief, Admiral Michael Rogers, was asked if he or any other had asked the GCHQ to spy on Trump or his team. “No sir, nor would I,” Rogers said. His deputy, Rick Ledgett, told the BBC any suggestion of spying on Trump Tower is “epically stupid”.

Comey confirmed for the first time that since last July the FBI had been “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any co-ordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts”. The investigation would not be completed for some time, Comey said. 

Throughout the hearing, Trump ran interference on Twitter. “FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia,” went one tweet. When it was read out to him in the committee, Comey said: “It was not our intention to say that today.” No president has faced such public slap downs by his senior officials in recent times.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "The everyday tools of the modern terrorist". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.