Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong on 20th anniversary. Brandis and Dutton push 'Five Eyes' on encryption. Australian Defence secretary candidates. By Hamish McDonald.

Saudi ultimatum for Qatar has echoes of war

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani (left) with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before a meeting in Washington, DC, this week.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani (left) with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before a meeting in Washington, DC, this week.
Credit: WIN McNAMEE / Getty Images

If there’s a curiously pre-World War I atmosphere to international politics, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state friends only added to it on Friday last week with their 13-point ultimatum to Qatar to come abjectly to heel or else.

It used to be that great powers issued an ultimatum as a formality before launching a punishing war. The Austro-Hungarian delegation that delivered one on Serbia after the assassination of their archduke in Sarajevo, 113 years ago this week, was already on the train back to Vienna before the deadline expired. The last thing they wanted to hear was Serbia’s acceptance of its terms.

So we have the Saudi-led group demanding that Qatar close down its Al Jazeera television network, abandon its working relationship with Iran, kick out a small Turkish military presence, extradite Arab dissidents to their home countries, implicitly admit to having been a sponsor of the underground Muslim Brotherhood and various terrorist groups, and pay an amount of compensation yet to be specified. Qatar has until Monday.

Rather than war, however, the punishment seems to be a continuation of the travel and trade blockade and diplomatic isolation imposed on June 5. So far, Qatar is not bending, declaring the demands “unreasonable and unfeasible”. If there is room to bend, it’s on the Arabic language arm of Al Jazeera, which certainly does take a modern Islamist tone, unlike the English-language service, a BBC-clone.

Though small, with only 300,000 citizens (plus two million guest workers), Qatar has powerful friends. The US State Department says it is “mystified” by the Saudi sanctions and finds the reasons unconvincing. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, is ignoring Donald Trump’s support for the sanctions, after the president tweeted Qatar was “a funder of terrorism at a very high level”. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the demands showed “disrespect” to Turkey, so he’s sent more troops and tanks to Qatar. As the world’s biggest natural gas exporter, Qatar has plenty of money to splash around at times like this. It announced it wanted to buy $US12 billion worth of F-15 fighters. Iran is sympathetic. Other nations are rushing to sell the supplies once coming through Saudi Arabia.

The ultimatum came two days after King Salman announced his 31-year-old son and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman as the new heir apparent, and has the hallmark of the prince’s impetuosity that has got his country mired in a two-year, still inconclusive war in Yemen. The young Salman is probably counting on his even less experienced counterpart in Washington, Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser Jared Kushner, 36, for support.

The immediate blowback might be a US embargo on all arms transfers to the Gulf region until the Qatar dispute is sorted, as key senators are threatening. But then, we might be sleepwalking into a big war, as with earlier ultimatums.

Xi in Honkers

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in Hong Kong to celebrate 20 years of “One country, two systems” since the British pulled out in 1997, and he’ll be helping swear in the latest quasi-governor, officially known as the chief executive, “democratically elected” by a panel carefully screened by Beijing.

The Chinese navy’s newish aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, will be in port and open to the public, to instil “patriotism” rather than fear, of course, after a voyage through the Taiwan Strait to show the Taiwanese separatists what they face.

It’s Xi’s first visit to Hong Kong since he took top power more than four years ago. In that time, local faith in the 1997 modus vivendi has plummeted and Xi has to take the blame. Not quite two years ago, two missing Hong Kong publishers and sellers of exposés of Beijing politics turned up in the mainland, confessing their subversive deeds on television. Chinese security agents had abducted one, a British citizen, from Hong Kong, and the other, holding a Swedish passport, from Thailand. Earlier this year, Chinese agents seized an outspoken Chinese billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, from his luxury hotel suite in Hong Kong and spirited him away to China.

This anniversary also marks the failed delivery of a promise in the 1997 pact to move to universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive after 20 years. Now with the promised 50 years of autonomy set to expire in 30 years, the term of a typical mortgage, many Hong Kongers are wondering whether all their guarantees of rule of law, freedom of expression and property might be swept away in a generation. The new chief executive is Carrie Lam, an experienced local bureaucrat. She told interviewers this week: “It would not be appropriate for us to go into the mainland or challenge what happens on the mainland.”

Ahead of Xi’s arrival, young activists Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and 24 others were arrested after climbing a China-donated monument to call for universal suffrage and the full release of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo,  who is out of prison for treatment of advanced liver cancer after earlier signs were ignored by authorities. Xi will be shielded from any expression of Hong Kong’s deep unease, it seems.

Brandis v encryption

Australia was represented in the Canadian capital this week by George Brandis and Peter Dutton, backed by a bevy of intelligence officials from the Australian Signals Directorate, to insist on being given a “back door” into any encrypted messages we might be getting on our phones and computers.

It was a conference of the “Five Eyes” powers, the inner circle of the Anglophone electronic intelligence pact that grew out of the World War II code-breaking operations. Despite the vast arrays of supercomputer power now applied to the task, the code-breakers can’t keep up with the encryption systems available to all, including terrorists.

Moreover, companies such as Apple and WhatsApp can’t often comply with official court orders to unlock the devices and applications they sell, as they come with end-to-end encryption with no master key. The companies argue that building back doors into their systems would leave all kinds of commercial and other transactions vulnerable to hacking, as well as opening the way for less scrupulous governments to target dissidents.

Still, our George Brandis is not alone in declaring that existing laws “don’t go far enough” to restrict encryption in popular message systems. British home secretary Amber Rudd said end-to-end encryption on services such as WhatsApp was “completely unacceptable” and “there should be no place for terrorists to hide”. But officials in Washington and London have wrestled with this problem without finding easy answers. It’s unlikely the Brandis–Dutton combo will add to the Ottawa gathering’s persuasiveness.

Defence hiring

Back in Canberra, after the retirement of Dennis Richardson, the form book is building on the officials jockeying for the secretaryship of the Defence Department, the pre-eminent position for the setting of foreign policy due to the slow strangulation of foreign affairs and trade.

Peter Jennings, the head of Canberra’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that is financed by defence and the big military system suppliers, has been steadily showing his steel with hawkish pronouncements. He is said to be firming in the betting. Also showing promise is the current health secretary, Martin Bowles, previously a deputy secretary in defence. Kathryn Campbell, currently head of the troubled human services stable, has done track work in defence, and is a brigadier in the Army Reserve. She even won a gong for commanding the unruly troops of the Sydney University Regiment.

Not to be discounted is Michael Pezzullo, head of immigration and border protection, whose career has woven between defence and ministerial offices and who came up with the magical figure of 12 submarines in the 2009 Defence white paper. He’ll be showing his form in a talk to ASPI on July 11 titled “Strategy, Conjecture and Evidence”. If he or Bowles, his predecessor in border protection, gets the job it will suggest the way to get ahead in defence is to show your stuff running Operation Sovereign Borders against the boat people invasion.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2017 as "Saudi ultimatum for Qatar has echoes of war".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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