PLA's march south; India fretting over Pakistani power; Fiji's Commodore hits the hustings; O Abbott, where art thou? By Hamish McDonald.

Everyone’s sights on missile defence plans

Julie Bishop speaks to US Secretary of State, John Kerry, with Chuck Hagel (left) and David Johnston, at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney this week.
Julie Bishop speaks to US Secretary of State, John Kerry, with Chuck Hagel (left) and David Johnston, at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney this week.
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed
Nuclear warfare has always been a northern hemisphere sort of thing, with some possibility, depending on how heavy it gets, that life down under might be spared the worst. 

But now our defence and foreign affairs establishment are working hard to bring it to a hemisphere near you. The yearly AUSMIN talks, held in Sydney this week, saw Defence Minister David Johnston and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop anxious to lock the Australian and American militaries even more closely into a single network.

In particular, the new Air Warfare Destroyers joining the Australian Navy over the next few years will be available for an evolving anti-missile defence system covering North-East Asia. The ships are fitted with the Aegis radars, and capable of launching the required Standard Missile-3s that will be needed. So, too, are the large destroyers of the Japanese navy, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new constitutional reinterpretation allows to be used to protect allies, as well as Japan itself.

Should the dastardly North Koreans fuel up and fire one of their multistage Taepodong missiles in anger, the array of US, Japanese and Australian ships plus land-based units in Japan would give it their best shot, with the launch decision taken out of the hands of the individual ship commander and placed with a central command. The joint US-Australian ground stations at Pine Gap and Geraldton and the three Jindalee radar stations in Australia would be the eyes of the network. 

All perfectly reasonable and a fair way in the future. But it’s no doubt creating concern in China’s Second Artillery force, the fourth arm of the People’s Liberation Army charged with strategic nuclear capability. Missile defence has long raised the possibility of the US achieving first-strike capability, the ability to take out an opponent’s nuclear force without it being able to make a retaliatory strike. Some analysts think the US already has that capability against China. Even the Russians have been worried. The evolving sea-based anti-missile network will increase those worries. Perhaps we can expect a blinding shot at bases in Australia to be factored into Chinese planning.  

1 . PLA’s march south

Exercises planned for October near Darwin will bring the PLA to the Top End for a look around. 

Trilateral war games with American and Australian units are aimed at taking the sting out of the growing rotational deployment of a US Marine force in the Northern Territory for the six months of the dry season each year. The American numbers are building up to a full 2500-strong Air-Sea Battle group, along with its associated air support and amphibious flotilla.

In addition, more US aircraft will use Australian bases and bombing ranges. Johnston and Bishop signed new “force posture” agreements to cover all this, including who will pay. With US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel coping with massive budget cuts, Canberra will no doubt foot the bill. 

Another question left unspoken is about the freedom of Washington to deploy its forces directly out of Australia, and the level of consultation required with Canberra. The distinction between training and basing is blurring.

2 . India fretting over Pakistani power

India was Chuck Hagel’s earlier stop on his Asian swing, and nuclear anxieties are rising there. 

China is about to turn on a very large (one gigawatt) nuclear power station in Karachi, with up to five more either under construction or planned in Pakistan. 

Each yields enough waste to produce 40 nuclear bombs a year if reprocessed. The Chinese insist the waste will be safeguarded to International Atomic Energy Agency standards (Pakistan, like India and Israel, is not a Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, and is outside the IAEA ambit), but that hardly reassures the Indians given that China once helped Pakistan with its bomb design. 

India’s strategists are now fretting about the possibility of Pakistan going for a first-strike capability against Delhi’s very limited deterrence. The anxiety is bound to put more stress into the issue of uranium exports from here.

3 . Fiji’s Commodore hits the hustings

Robin Williams had his first major film role as Popeye.

 In the 1980 movie of the same name − largely forgotten despite wonderful cameo roles and script by cartoonist Jules Feiffer and music by Harry Nilsson − Popeye returns from the sea to liberate the town of Sweethaven from the bullying rule of “the Commodore”. It has often strayed into thought in the context of Fiji, run by Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the military since the 2006 coup. 

Now Bainimarama, promoted to rear-admiral before handing over the military command in March, is moving to civilianise Fiji’s politics in general elections on September 17. He will be standing at the head of the new FijiFirst party which has all the advantages of incumbency to be expected where military rulers try a soft landing into democracy. 

Bainimarama seems confident of a win, especially with two previous prime ministers, Laisenia Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry, barred from running and Fiji’s increasingly urbanised population less influenced by traditional chiefs and the Methodist church, whose critical voices Bainimarama has muzzled anyway. 

But two other figures could be strong in the new 50-seat, non-racial parliament: Ro Teimumu Kepa as successor to Qarase in a party appealing to ethnic-Fijians, and the economist Biman Prasad at the head of the old ethnic-Indian group the National Federation Party. 

This will be a test of Bainimarama’s claim that his “revolution” has meant “Fijian” includes all. So he’s confident but not taking a win for granted. With American PR advice on controlling his irascibility, he’s been out on the hustings, and travelling to Australia and New Zealand to win over expatriate voters now that John Key and Tony Abbott have lifted sanctions. Last Sunday he was in Auckland and took some protest flak calmly. Next weekend he’s in Sydney’s Liverpool district, to talk to a rally of some of the 65,000 Fiji-origin settlers in Australia, about 4000 of whom are registered to vote.

4 . O Abbott, where art thou?

How the Canberra press gallery and Europe-based correspondents kept a straight face reporting Tony Abbott’s entirely unnecessary flight to the Netherlands to express thanks for leading the retrieval of remains from MH17 is beyond me. 

Sympathy for the families of the victims was undoubtedly the constraint. Now the rescue of the Yazidis in northern Iraq has given Abbott another diversion from the budget mess back home. It’s shameless, but it always seems to work.

While we’re at shamelessness, let’s see The Australian’s media section treat last Saturday’s distortion of former lieutenant-general Peter Leahy’s remarks about terrorism with the same gravitas applied to former Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton. 

The front-page headline had Leahy warning that a fight “against Islam” would rage for 100 years. He actually said “radical Islam”, as Brendan Nicholson’s story reported. A small correction on Tuesday was not enough to avoid ASIO chief David Irvine castigating the Oz at the Australian Institute of International Affairs on Tuesday night, a detail the paper did not include in its report of his speech.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 16, 2014 as "Everyone’s sights on missile defence plans".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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