Media in the Asian Century: crises galore but screens are filled with Boris’ antics

Feb 26, 2021

Australia takes a safety-in-numbers approach to Myanmar, but shows no such restraint in dealings with China. And speaking of China, there was a meeting of minds in The Australian, both left and right. 

Burmese days

The New Light of Myanmar, the former Working People’s Daily still published by Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, told us on Tuesday of Australia’s latest démarche to the generals whose army took power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration on February 1. Or at least the power they did not already hold under the constitution their predecessors wrote a decade back.

Australia’s deputy defence forces chief, Vice-Admiral David Johnston, spoke by phone on Monday to his counterpart, deputy commander-in-chief Vice-Senior General Soe. As the New Light put it, they were on the same wavelength. Soe Win explained that everything being done was constitutional and that Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (military) was “democratic” like the Australian armed forces and intent on using minimum force against protesters. Johnson had mentioned Australia was a development partner and assisting in  containing Covid-19.

The ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic worked the Canberra end to find out more. As he and others following up in the newspapers reported, the Defence Department said Johnston had “expressed Australia’s deep concern at the situation in Myanmar and reiterated Australia’s call for the immediate release of Professor Sean Turnell”, the Macquarie University economist advising Suu Kyi who was arrested early this month. Johnston called “the use of lethal force or violence against peaceful protestors” unacceptable, and “urged Myanmar authorities to refrain from violence against civilians, restore democracy as soon as possible, and immediately release all civilian leaders that have been detained since 1 February.”

As Dziedzic reported, the stern talking as brothers-in-arms approach is contentious but fits a long pattern of dealing with military regimes by Canberra. There was Indonesia in Suharto’s time. Last November, Morrison’s government quietly elevated military-ruled Thailand to a “strategic partnership” as thousands of young people risked their lives in a street protest against the military-royalist grip on politics. This was a pay-off, it seems, for getting Bangkok to release some Iranian terrorists in a swap for the jailed Australian academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

The Australian ambassador in Yangon was not listed in a recent joint statement by ambassadors from the US, Canada, Japan and European Union countries condemning the coup. We did join the US, Japan and India in calling for a return to democracy at a hook-up of “Quad” foreign ministers last Friday, a safety-in-numbers approach not taken with China where far bigger Australian interests are at stake.

The cycle of Burmese politics is; military coup, followed by stagnation and corruption, increasingly senility of the top general, popular uprising, democratic experiment, a new coup by younger generals.  Maybe some of the Tatmadaw officer corps can be detached from their power-hungry commander, Min Aung Hlaing, and break the cycle, but don’t bet on it. The Tatmadaw soldiery has been willing to massacre in the past, though this time the civilian population is far more broadly aroused than in 1988 or 2007.

London calling

Reporters like the ABC’s Dziedzic and The Australian’s Amanda Hodge are doing their best from this distance, but the public is woefully lacking in information and analysis about this and other developments in our region.

Amid talk of “democracy in retreat” there is a little-remarked turn in Indonesia, notably, with Joko Widodo’s government finally cracking down on Islamist vigilantism and upholding the right of schoolgirls on whether or not to wear the hijab. The Indonesian fight against Covid and climate change, the turmoil in Papua, are so important.

The Indonesians are also trying co-ordinate and stiffen the ASEAN response to the Myanmar coup, with foreign minister Retno Marsudi in Bangkok on Wednesday, the same day the Tatmadaw sent its new foreign minister across for an airport chat with Thai prime minister, ex-general Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The Myanmar minister was not expecting his encounter with his Indonesian counterpart as well, and would not have welcomed her message that “the wishes of the Myanmar people must be heard”.

China denies support for the coup – and why would it trust the Tatmadaw, which turned on it in 2011 by halting a big dam project – but in ASPI’s The Strategist, ANU doctoral candidate Susan Hutchinson tells us about a nightly flurry of flights between Yangon and Kunming with their position-reporting transponders turned off.

Meanwhile, our screens are filled with Boris Johnson’s stuff-ups and antics as the main foreign coverage.

Triple agent

As we’ve noted, the hawkish Andrew Shearer moved from Scott Morrison’s cabinet secretary to head of the Office of National Intelligence in December. But what of his predecessor at ONI and earlier chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) Nick Warner, who had reached the age of 70 when officials, judges and the like retire?

Age is not holding Warner back from continuing an active life in the corridors of power, as the ABC defence reporter Andrew Greene told us. Warner has moved into three new roles already.

First was to join the lobbying outfit Dragoman, which claims to be able to “shape favourable policy outcomes” by “providing insight into key players and ensuring clients maintain a practical understanding of the political and policy imperatives of key decision-makers and influencers”.

Several other retired bureaucratic and political heavies are also counsellors at Dragoman, including multiple department head Glenys Beauchamp, ex-diplomats Bill Farmer and John McCarthy, and ex-defence minister Robert Hill. Warner’s expertise on global intelligence, security matters and the region would be “invaluable” to its clients, Dragoman said.

This did not raise any perception of possible conflict in the minds of Morrison’s people when they hired Warner as a consultant to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet starting on January 25. In a commendable bit of ferreting, Shannon Jenkins of The Mandarin website found on AusTender that PM&C is paying Nick Warner and Associates Pty Ltd $220,000 in a one-year contract for “strategic advice and review services”. Guess Shearer’s advice is not enough yet.

Then this week, iron ore magnate Andrew Forrest announced that Warner would become a special advisor on international affairs to his new Fortescue Future Industries offshoot, chaired by Malcolm Turnbull, into which Forrest will pour up to 10 per cent of his profits to turn Fortescue into a renewable energy giant, through green power projects in countries including Papua New Guinea, where Warner was once high commissioner. “Mr Warner’s expertise on global intelligence is incomparable, and his knowledge will be critical as we continue to engage foreign governments to explore green hydrogen opportunities,” Forrest said.

It may all require a lot of compartmentalised thinking. As ASIS chief he was employed in secret diplomacy as well as overseeing espionage, for example in contact with Fiji’s coup leader Frank Bainimarama when many formal links were frozen. But now who will know who he is representing? Labor MP Julian Hill doubts it can be managed. “As the saying goes: you can’t serve two masters,” he told the ABC’s Greene. But not to worry: deputy prime minister Michael McCormack has set our hearts at ease. He told reporters that Warner was a “great Australian” and the government “always make sure that those conflicts of interest have been declared”.

China watch

China’s Ministry of Education says Australian universities are delivering “low-quality teaching at their campuses in China”, suggesting this sector could be a punishment target too, say Tim Dodd and Heidi Han in The Australian.

The Quad foreign minister’s dialogue would be risking an economic backlash if it targeted a specific country like China, Beijing’s state media warned, reported Michael Smith and Andrew Tillett in the Australian Financial Review. It didn’t, at least in so many words.

The Australian columnist Jennifer Oriel declared:

“The World Health Organisation’s refusal to hold the Chinese government accountable for the Covid pandemic all but ensures history will repeat.”

Jusst as well that, as the paper’s Ben Packham reported:

“Australia has joined the US and Britain in demanding China provide the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 investigation team with ‘full access’ to all the information it needs to establish the pandemic’s origin.”

The team found the co-operation not bad.

Before he switched from education to the trade portfolio, Dan Tehan knocked back on ASIO advice late last year five applications for Australian Research Council grants, reported Ben Packham in The Australian.

The departing chief of mining giant Glencore, Ivan Glasenberg, told Nick Evans of The Australian he saw no end in sight to China’s bans on Australian coal. The ban made little financial sense but he saw no sign Chinese authorities would relent.

China bought just 1 per cent of Australian red wine exports in January, down from a 50 per cent share before our largest economic partner implemented import tariffs in late November, reported The Australian’s Patrick Commins. But his colleague Glenda Korporaal reported one Treasury Wine Estate label was still getting through: Lot 518, a mix of red wine and the Chinese spirit baijiu.

Woodside Petroleum has been forced to postpone talks to sell LNG to China, the world’s biggest gas buyer, blaming trade tensions between Canberra and Beijing that have forced Australia’s largest LNG producer to find alternative markets, reports The Australian’s Perry Williams.

Left and right minds were meeting in The Australian.

Bob Brown opined that “We must never be afraid to speak up on China” as he had done in 1990 on Tiananmen and Tibet accompanying Gough Whitlam on a visit to Xiamen by the Australia-China Friendship Society.

“If ever there were a time for our political class to shake off the nuclear taboo it is now,” declared former opinion editor Nick Cater, now running the Menzies Research Centre at Liberal Party HQ.

“The imperative to strengthen Australia’s underwater naval capability is stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The benefits of switching from diesel-electric to nuclear submarines deserve to be debated.”

Former state minister in Victoria and onetime Labor leftwing stalwart Theo Theophanous was in agreement with Cater. Anthony Albanese should abandon Labor’s anti-nuclear shibboleth. “A recent book, An Australian Nuclear Industry, published by the Submarine Institute of Australia, presents a compelling case from 11 contributors for such an industry, including for nuclear submarines,” he wrote.

Greg Sheridan lamented the shrinking oil refining and storage capacity in Australia, and its small merchant shipping fleet. “Australia is ludicrously, irresponsibly, culpably, madly unprepared for any serious external national security emergency where the Americans don’t ride to our ­rescue,” he wrote.

Michael Smith in the AFR and Will Glasgow in The Australian started the warm-up for the annual session of China’s National Peoples’ Congress, starting next Friday. Further crackdowns on Hong Kong are expected, with Chinese patriotism tests for all political representatives.

Kevin Rudd denied that he had to be restrained from punching a Chinese delegate to the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, as alleged by former British prime minister Gordon Brown. He did admit that he’d said the Chinese delegation had “rat-f**ked” the conference.

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