Arabs paying price for US bungling; Hamas changes policy; Britain begins exit from European Union. By Hamish McDonald.

Malcolm Turnbull pulls China treaty ratification

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the premier of China, Li Keqiang, in Sydney last week.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the premier of China, Li Keqiang, in Sydney last week.

The glow didn’t last long. Malcolm Turnbull put an enormous effort into the visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang, meeting him on seven occasions over his four days in Australia, and hearing him offer conciliatory words: asking Australia not to “take sides” and avoid lining up in a new cold war.

Then came news that Feng Chongyi, a popular and respected Chinese academic teaching at the University of Technology Sydney and other institutions for some two decades, had been prevented from leaving China after his latest research trip, after state security officials in his home town, Tianjin, found his contacts with critics of the current leadership threatened the nation.

As Feng has only Australian permanent residency and uses a Chinese passport, Canberra could not take up his case in a formal way under the bilateral consular agreement. But it made questioning noises anyway. The dilemma in such instances is that if you don’t show much indignation, the Chinese will think you don’t care, but on the other hand if you show too much, they will lose face if they don’t proceed with arrest and trial. Feng was still at large in the southern city of Guangzhou, talking to lawyers and colleagues. Security officials told him to stop talking to the media.

Then on Monday night came a revolt against Turnbull’s follow-up to Premier Li’s visit, bringing out a bilateral extradition treaty that had been signed in 2007 and triggering a two-week countdown for parliament to object or it gets ratified automatically. Cory Bernardi, Tony Abbott and various other members of the far right suddenly felt uneasy about throwing fugitives back to the Chinese legal system. No matter that they’d done worse to sundry asylum seekers, or that the treaty was signed under their patriarch John Howard. Labor and the senate crossbenchers joined in. Turnbull pulled the treaty back.

It was a slap in the face for Beijing, which had looked on the ratification as a mark of respectability from a significant middle power, just like Canberra’s early recognition of China as a “market economy”. No matter that the motivation was more about making life difficult for Turnbull than hostility to China, as diplomats would have been hastily explaining to the Chinese government. Turnbull is understood to have signalled he’ll try again in a few months, after getting the message out to MPs that under the treaty terms, no one gets sent back for execution or for political crimes. Meanwhile, some kind of payback is to be respected.

After this, the Chinese leadership will be wondering if Donald Trump will deliver some kind of humiliation or insult to their supremo, president and communist party chief Xi Jinping, who is taking the political risk of making the first overture to Trump by visiting him at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in coming days. It could be read as “America First”, and a slight like Trump’s refusal to shake hands with Angela Merkel would rub that in. 

Arabs pay price for Trump bungling

Trump is stewing over the failure of house of representatives speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican majority to pass the ill-considered replacement for Obamacare. He’s been rebuked by his own intelligence chiefs over his wild accusations about bugging. He’s got close allies such as Britain, Germany and Australia irked and puzzled about his mental grip.

So the Arabs cop it. Trump’s promise to reveal a master plan to beat Daesh in his first month in office has been forgotten. That is, unless it’s a free hand for more indiscriminate bombing. Up to 200 Iraqi civilians were killed in air strikes on the Daesh-held area of Mosul. Some days earlier more than 30 Syrian civilians died when United States aircraft hit a school near al-Raqqa where they’d taken shelter. That followed the bombing of a mosque near Aleppo, also with mass casualties.

The administration is also looking at a step up in support for the two-year campaign by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms against the Houthi movement in Yemen, both to show more support for the Saudis and increase pressure on Iran, which is supporting the Houthis, fellow Shiites. The US had provided intelligence and air-refuelling for the Saudi and Gulf campaigns, but Barack Obama had placed restrictions on this assistance after the United Nations reported widespread civilian casualties. In a meeting with a Saudi delegation, US officials said these would be eased. 

Hamas blinks first

Amid the stalemate of Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations, with accusations of creeping annexation on one hand and fanatical intransigence on the other, some unexpected movement towards Israel is coming from the unlikely quarter of Hamas, the fiercely Islamist movement controlling Gaza. Thirty years after its foundation, Hamas is sharply moderating its charter that has called for the obliteration of Israel. 

The draft charter says Hamas would now agree on a Palestine based on the 1967 borders, implicitly acknowledging there would be a foreign state on the other side. It would back a peace agreement with Israel, if approved by a referendum of Palestinians. While it still considered armed struggle legitimate, it would focus on nonviolent resistance. The anti-Semitic language is gone, and religious minorities would be accepted in a Palestinian state. The only struggle would be against Jews settling in the occupied territories. Formal alliance with Egypt’s underground Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafi extremists would end.

Björn Brenner, a Swedish scholar who has closely followed the development, wrote that the draft had been circulated among units in Gaza, the West Bank, the Israeli prisons, and the Palestinian diaspora. It’s a radical switch, and still only on paper, Brenner wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “But, importantly – no matter what Hamas’s potentially ignoble intentions behind changing its charter may be – these changes are now a fait accompli, inked into its key ideological document and left there for the next generation of Hamsawis to deal with,” Brenner said.

“This shows that Hamas is indeed capable of change – and has realised that there will never be a Palestinian state spanning all the way ‘between the river [Jordan] and the sea’. While this might not lead to any palpable results for Israelis immediately, eventually it will. For now, let us nevertheless recognise what has just happened. For the first time ever, the enemy just blinked.”

Brexit blues begin

Channelling Thatcher and Churchill as best she could, Theresa May triggered Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday, starting two years of negotiation before Brexit takes effect. There was “no turning back”, she declared to her cheering Tories. 

May was immediately informed it would not be all win-win as she expected. Germany’s Angela Merkel said negotiations on a post-Brexit trade arrangement could not take place parallel with exit terms, but would have to wait. France’s François Hollande, with an eye to the French presidential election starting April 23, said the exit would be “painful for the British”. EU officials are talking of a €60 billion ($A84 billion) bill for London.

British bureaucrats and politicians will be tied up for two years drafting and passing new laws to replace EU regulations. May will have to settle the status of the three million EU citizens settled in Britain. She says it’s a British-first policy. The one million Brits on the continent are anxious whether they can stay in Ibiza, “Chiantishire” and the Dordogne and still get benefits. 

There was regret across Europe. “There is no need to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels nor in London,” said Donald Tusk, the European Council president when he received May’s letter. “After all most Europeans, including almost half the British voters, wish that we would stay together, not drift apart.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2017 as "Turnbull’s China polish loses its gloss".

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