World

China denies testing a hypersonic missile at low orbit. International tourists are set to return to Fiji. Sebastian Kurz out again as Austria’s leader over embezzlement allegations. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Myanmar releases political detainees after ASEAN stand

A family member embraces released Myanmar political detainee, Soe Htet Oo, a former student union member.
Credit: Santosh Krl / SOPA Images / Lightrocket via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

China: Some time during the recent northern summer, the Chinese military – if reports are to be believed – launched a new missile that entered space, circled the globe at low orbit, and then glided towards its target, missing it by about 40 kilometres.

This hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, if it exists, would significantly advance China’s military technology and would be faster and more difficult to detect than intercontinental ballistic weapons, which tend to fly along much more predictable trajectories.

The launch was reported by the Financial Times, which cited five American intelligence sources. One source reportedly said: “We have no idea how they did this.”

On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry denied China had tested a hypersonic missile, saying it had been conducting a routine test of a space vehicle. “This was not a missile, this was a spacecraft,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson. “This is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use.”

Although China’s alleged missile missed its target, two recent tests of hypersonic missiles by the United States Air Force – in April and July – also both failed. Russia, North Korea and several other countries are also developing hypersonic missiles.

The US disarmament ambassador, Robert Wood, told reporters in Geneva this week: “We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology. Neither does China, neither does Russia.”

China’s alleged launch comes as tensions increase between the US and China, particularly over the future of Taiwan. The US does not have a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons, and China is not subject to nuclear arms control deals.

Some countries have developed sophisticated systems to defend against ballistic nuclear missiles but these may not be able to prevent attacks by hypersonic weapons. Currently, according to most analysts, the main line of defence against such weapons for states such as the US and China is their reliance on nuclear deterrence, backed by their large, varied nuclear stockpiles.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: International visitors will be allowed to enter Fiji without quarantining from December as the government tries to reboot the tourism sector, which is the nation’s largest source of revenue and jobs.

Fiji will admit vaccinated travellers from a range of countries including Australia, New Zealand, the US, Britain and most Pacific nations, though tourists will have to remain in their hotel, or only venture out with approved tour operators, for 48 hours after arrival.

The change will deliver a boost to Fiji’s economy, which experienced a 16 per cent drop in gross domestic product last year and a rise in unemployment from about 6 per to 35 per cent. Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for 39 per cent of Fiji’s GDP and 36 per cent of employment.

The government has overseen an aggressive vaccination push, including a “no jab, no job” policy that allows workplaces to dismiss unvaccinated staff. More than 84 per cent of eligible Fijians have been fully vaccinated. A Covid-19 outbreak has been easing since July, when Fiji had one of the world’s highest daily case numbers per capita. On Monday, Fiji, which has about 940,000 residents, recorded 22 new cases, from peaks of more than 1300 in July.

But other tourist-dependent Pacific nations are reluctant to reopen their borders. Vanuatu, where the growing tourism sector accounted for an estimated 45 per cent of GDP before the pandemic, remains one of the few countries that has not recorded a local case of Covid-19 transmission. But fewer than 20 per cent of its eligible population of 303,000 residents have been fully vaccinated.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: The military regime in Myanmar began a mass release of political prisoners this week in an apparent attempt to placate its regional neighbours, who have revealed plans to diplomatically isolate it.

On Tuesday, hundreds of prisoners were released, including Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. The regime said it plans to release 5600 prisoners.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the civilian government until the coup in February, remains in detention. She is being held in an undisclosed location and has been charged with multiple offences, including corruption and breaching Covid-19 rules.

Her NLD party won a resounding victory in an election last year, but the military refused to acknowledge the result and claimed – without evidence – there had been voter fraud.

The prisoner release followed a decision last weekend by the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations to exclude the coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, from its yearly leaders’ summit in Brunei next week.

The move was surprising, as ASEAN is notorious for its timidity. Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said in a tweet the decision was necessary to “uphold ASEAN’s credibility”.

On Monday, Min Aung Hlaing, wearing civilian clothes, delivered a televised speech and blamed the nation’s unrest on the opposition National Unity Government and armed ethnic groups. “More violence happened due to provocations of terrorist groups,” he said.

The United Nations said this week the coup had exacerbated a lack of availability of food, water and sanitation and that the humanitarian impact was deeply concerning. It said three million of Myanmar’s 57 million residents were in need of support, up from one million before the coup.

Spotlight: The fall of Sebastian Kurz

In 2017, Sebastian Kurz, a suave media-obsessed 31-year-old populist, led the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) to a stunning election success in Austria, which enabled him to form a coalition with a far-right party and become the youngest chancellor in history.

The result marked a surprising turnaround for ÖVP and led to Kurz being credited with reviving the fortunes of Austrian conservatism. Two years later, he lost his position due to a political scandal, but soon bounced back and led his party to even greater success at an election in September 2019.

But, earlier this month, Kurz fell again. He resigned on October 9 after a spectacular corruption inquiry that is investigating an alleged plot to orchestrate his rise to party leader and his subsequent political success. Starting in 2016, he and a team of sycophantic operatives allegedly used public money to pay for sham opinion polls and to arrange supportive coverage in a friendly tabloid newspaper. The plotters allegedly disguised their bribes to the newspaper by buying classified advertisements. They called their plan “Operation Ballhausplatz”, a reference to the address in Vienna of the chancellery.

The evidence of the plot includes 300,000 text messages found on the phone of Thomas Schmid, a close friend of Kurz who worked at the finance ministry. In one message, after securing favourable coverage, Schmid wrote: “Brilliant investment … If you pay, things get done. I love it.”

Kurz has denied any wrongdoing. Authorities have raided his party’s offices and are reportedly investigating him for bribery and embezzlement.

Kurz proposed Alexander Schallenberg, a loyalist, as his replacement as chancellor. He remains an MP, is still leader of the ÖVP and is widely believed to be preparing another comeback. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "ASEAN stand sees Myanmar political detainees released".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.