Bishop's UN move an adroit gambit; Hanoi ponders oil rig removal tactics; North Korea airs China frustration. By Hamish McDonald.

Yudhoyono flexes muscles one last time

South Korean president Park Geun-hye with Xi Jinping on the Chinese president’s July visit.
South Korean president Park Geun-hye with Xi Jinping on the Chinese president’s July visit.
Credit: Getty Images
SBY’s era is almost ended in Indonesia, and the last task for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be to carry through the transition to his newly elected replacement as president, Joko Widodo, in October.

In 2004, Yudhoyono became the first directly elected president and his two terms have been widely seen as cementing the country’s democracy. Now he has to face down a final challenge from the authoritarian past, or his legacy is in tatters.

A day before the official election result was announced on Tuesday night, Yudhoyono sacked the chief of the Indonesian army, General Budiman, apparently for showing partisanship towards the losing candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former army general himself. During the campaign, many reports emerged of the army’s vestigial network of village-level monitors known as babinsa, originally set up to guard against a resurgence of the slaughtered Communist Party, working quietly on behalf of Prabowo. With Prabowo badmouthing the electoral commission and at one point calling supporters onto the streets, it looked like a replay of the old game of creating disorder to justify military intervention. Budiman’s dismissal was a pre-emptive move.

Let’s see how far Prabowo now takes it. His coalition has already started to fall apart, with running mate Hatta Rajasa failing to appear at his side at one point and figures in Hatta’s Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party) saying the game is up. In addition, the Golkar and Democrat parties are also indicating they will align with the winner. Prabowo’s chief adviser, former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud, has quit. The option of a legal challenge to the result seemed at one point to have been removed by Prabowo’s impetuous “withdrawal” from the election a few hours before the result was announced. But he later said this was just withdrawal from the count and a court case will be mounted.

Mahfud’s place has been taken by one of Prabowo’s former Kopassus (Special Forces) colleagues, retired general Yunus Yosfiah, who has been living quietly since the NSW inquest into the 1975 Balibo killings referred him to federal investigators for an apparent war crime. Yunus is a much cooler character than Prabowo and may well restrain his former junior officer. If not, the Abbott government has the perfect mechanism to help out SBY by gearing up the Australian Federal Police in their so far token inquiries, now into a seventh year since the inquest. 

1 . Bishop’s UN move an adroit gambit

Julie Bishop’s leap into the United Nations Security Council debate on the awful downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight over eastern Ukraine has won wide praise for diplomatic deftness, while Tony Abbott’s pronouncements and reports on his phone call to Russia’s Vladimir Putin have also gained worldwide attention. 

Good thing after all that Kevin Rudd went all out for a seat on the council for Bishop to show her stuff, and full marks to her delegation for crafting a resolution that even Russia could sign. There is Buckley’s chance, however, of the pro-Russian rebels who seem to have shot down the Boeing 777 being “brought to justice”, as Abbott and Bishop keep insisting. 

For the time being at least, talk preceding the looming G20 summit in Brisbane in November will centre on whether Putin should be allowed to attend, rather than whether climate change should be put on the agenda as United States president Barack Obama is urging.

Abbott has been resisting Obama’s call, preferring to make it a business-friendly gathering aimed at gearing up global economic growth. But as the MH17 tragedy recedes, Abbott may find the world focusing again on Australia becoming “the first country in the world to repeal a measure to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions”, as The Economist put it. In addition, Abbott may find some frostiness from India about the return of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, who have set off from southern India. 

2 . Hanoi ponders oil rig removal tactics

All quiet on the south-east Asian front, meanwhile, after China withdrew its massive oil rig from waters contested with Vietnam two weeks ago, ostensibly because of an approaching typhoon.

All kinds of theories are bouncing around about the “real” reason. One suggests the original oil-drilling exercise was part of the power play in Beijing, to embarrass Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and divert him from a purge closing in on the “Shanghai faction” entourage of former leader Jiang Zemin. 

About the withdrawal, Canberra analyst Carl Thayer sees it having the effect of strengthening the hand of pro-China elements in Hanoi over more nationalist factions leaning towards the US and use of international law. “China’s gambit is a gift to those who believe relations with Vietnam’s neighbour to the north can be managed best through party-to-party ties,” Thayer writes in the online journal, The Diplomat. It will also take the heat off China at next month’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum where maritime disputes are sure to be aired. 

“Vietnamese leaders now face some tough decisions,” Thayer says. “If they drop their legal case against China and hold back on stepping up defence and security co-operation with the United States, what assurance will they have that Chinese oil exploration ships and platforms will not return in the future? If Vietnam decides to go ahead with its legal case, what sanctions can they expect China to impose in return?”

3 . North Korea airs China frustration

Pyongyang is meanwhile irked at its big socialist ally. 

It seems the Chinese have reduced or turned off the flow in their oil pipelines into North Korea for five months this year, while Xi Jinping made Seoul and his recent cosy meeting with South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, his first step into the peninsula since taking power at the end of 2012. 

Then last week China approved a UN Security Council resolution condemning the North for its latest round of missile tests. South Korean reports say Pyongyang is cracking down on trade with China, and trying to stop use of the Chinese yuan in its unofficial markets. 

Hardly a well-thought move since that trade is about the only thing putting life into the North Korean economy, but Pyongyang’s frustration was evident in a statement from the National Defence Commission, the power base of supreme leader Kim Jong-un, on Monday: “Some spineless countries are blindly following the stinking bottom of the US, also struggling to embrace Park Geun-hye, who came to a pathetic state of being.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 26, 2014 as "Yudhoyono flexes muscles one last time".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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