Thursday, March 28, 2013

Boris for PM? It could happen

There are many similarities between the political landscapes of Australia and the United Kingdom these days.

Unpopular governments, propped up by independents and minor parties, stumbling their way to inevitable election defeat; prime ministers unable to command full support even within their own parties; senior Ministers plotting and speculating.

But there the similarity ends. No one seems to have any idea how Australian Labor will rebuild itself in opposition after the September poll or even who will lead it. In Britain the next election is at least a year away, but already Conservative Party backbenchers and grandees alike are accepting the battle is lost, that David Cameron will be disposed of as party leader and a replacement will be found.

And that man is Boris Johnson, the current Lord Mayor of London.

Almost anywhere else in the world Johnson would be an improbable, even impossible choice. Dishevelled, hair all over the place, ‘bumbling’ is the most often used description of him. As an example, when asked point blank in a television interview whether he would like to be Prime Minister, his answer went along the lines of:

“Well…dash it…all things being equal, I’d really quite fancy it….it’s not going to happen of course, but… if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum…well, I’d have a crack at it.” 

It’s really not what Johnson says, it’s the way he says it, endearing to the point where people are ready to forgive his regular gaffs and colourful private life. After one tryst was revealed during his time as editor of the right-wing magazine The Spectator, a tabloid headline blazed ‘Bonking Boris made me pregnant’.   

But behind this shambling and occasionally outrageous exterior is a calculating, ambitious and above all highly popular, politician. He is about the only current leader in British politics who is universally known by his first name, and as an article in Foreign Policy magazine recently pointed out:

“Part vaudeville-shaman, part P.G. Wodehouse character, the Mayor of London is the antithesis of the identikit, on-message politician.”

The fact he is not even a Member of Parliament appears to be no obstacle. A veteran Conservative MP in a safe seat has already said he would be happy to vacate to give Johnson a free ride into Westminster, while another has already described him as an “excellent leader of the opposition and perhaps a credible prime minister.”

So what are the odds? The Conservatives – once the party of privilege and the landed gentry, should probably have faded into oblivion a century ago, and has been written off more than once since. But it has survived because there were always people within the ranks who could judge and adjust to the political winds.

The trimming to a new course is in progress again. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats gave the Conservatives a taste of power after 14 years in the wilderness, but now it is clearly time to move on and it is the Lib Dems who will suffer the greatest damage at the next poll.

A good dose of Bonking Boris may be just the antidote dispirited Tories need as they face up to another dose of Labour under Ed Miliband. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Marines’ return eases tension

The decision by the Italian Government to return the marines charged over the deaths of two Indian fishermen is the right one, and indeed the only one that can bring about a resolution to what was becoming a serious stand-off between the two governments.

As I wrote in my blog of March 19: “The best, and perhaps the only way out of this impasse, would be for Italy to relent and return the two marines, perhaps after a behind-the-scenes deal that they would be charged with a lesser offence, such as negligently causing death, and let off with a light sentence. This would leave the way clear for an agreement on compensation to be paid to the families of the fishermen”. 

So far only the return of the marines has followed this course, but it can probably be taken that the “ample assurances” on the treatment of the marines and the “defence of their fundamental rights”, contains an assurance that they will not face the most serious murder charge.

Before the marines had been allowed to return to Italy to vote in that country’s general election, they had been held in jail. Now they will live at the Italian Embassy in New Delhi and be required to report to police just once a week. I would expect the sentences eventually handed down by the court will also be light enough to be acceptable to Rome.

After which, a final compensation pay-out to the families of the two fishermen can speedily follow.

The diplomatic tensions between the two countries have already eased, with the new Indian Ambassador to Rome expected to leave for his posting over the weekend, while restrictions on the movements of the Italian envoy to New Delhi, Daniele Mancini, have been lifted.


‘Not British’ blunder puts strain on marriage

There have been plenty of stories in the media about refugees’ claims to settle in Australia being rejected by immigration authorities, but one from the United Kingdom surely trumps the lot.

Press photographer Craig Colville has been told he has to leave Britain even though he has a Welsh mother and an English father; was born there; has worked overseas on a UK/EU passport and has a twin brother who is accepted as British.

The problem appears to be his Canadian wife, Crystal Levy, who he met when they were both working on a cruise ship. She moved to the United Kingdom on a special youth visa in October 2010 and they married last year. She then applied to stay in the country as the wife of a UK citizen.

But the application, to Home Secretary Theresa May, was refused on the ground Colville “does not hold settled status, is not a British citizen and is not a person with refugee or humanitarian protection”.

Colville said he read this with utter disbelief. His attempts to contact the Home Office by phone met with a refusal to speak to him.

His case has been taken up in the UK media and his local MP has approached the Home Office. There is now a grudging admission that there “might have been a mistake”.

However, Ms Levy’s case remains unresolved. Her visa is running out and so far she has not been accepted as the legitimate spouse of a British national.

Ironically, she could qualify to live in Britain under the grandparent rule – she has both English and Scottish grandparents– but that would require her returning to Canada and making an application there, a process that could take up to a year.

A leading immigration lawyer suggests the couple have fallen foul of over-zealous Home Office attempts to restrict the number of people coming into the country.

“I believe the bureaucrats are under instruction to take a really tough line on applications to live in Britain,” he said.

“In this case someone has stepped over the line.”    

Monday, March 18, 2013

Travel ban on envoy remains

The confrontation between India and Italy over Italy’s refusal to send back two marines accused of killing Indian fishermen has taken another turn following a hearing in the Indian Supreme Court.

The court had earlier ordered that the Italian Ambassador, Daniele Mancini, must stay in the country at least until this latest hearing. However, the Government in Rome challenged the restriction, saying it was a violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

The Supreme Court rejected the claim, and its stand was later backed by the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi. “We have conveyed to Italy that while we are conscious of the Vienna Convention, we are bound by the directions of the Supreme Court,” Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

The dispute arose after the marines, guarding an Italian oil tanker off the coast of India, opened fire on the fishermen in the mistaken belief they were pirates. The marines were detained by the Indian coastguard and spent some time behind bars, but were allowed to travel to Italy to vote in the country’s general election after Mancini gave a sworn undertaking to the Supreme Court that they would return.

After the Italian Foreign Ministry said the marines would not be returned, the Supreme Court ruled that by breaking his undertaking, Mancini had forfeited his right to diplomatic immunity.

The court extended its restriction order on Mancini and it now seems likely that if the Ambassador does try to leave the country, he will be arrested.

Indian-Italian relations were already fraught after a deal for India to buy 12 helicopters from AugustaWestland, a British-based subsidiary of the Italian firm Finmeccanica, foundered when police investigations revealed that bribes had been paid to high officials to secure the deal.   

A further complication – and possibly the reason behind the hard-line stance in New Delhi - is that the president of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, is Italian born.

The Government would certainly not want to leave itself open to suggestions by the Opposition that it is being soft on the country of origin of one of its most powerful and influential politicians.

The best, and perhaps the only way out of this impasse, would be for Italy to relent and return the two marines, perhaps after a behind-the-scenes deal that they would be charged with a lesser offence, such as negligently causing death, and let off with a light sentence. This would leave the way clear for an agreement on compensation to be paid to the families of the fishermen.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Still more tests for Burma to pass

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr says that Burma has passed “a crucial test” that will enable his country to lift sanctions.

Presumably the test is that National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest coupled with some movement towards a freer, more democratic society.

Burmese president Thein Sein is currently visiting Australia so it is to be expected that the best possible face will be put on the current situation in his country. However, nice words cannot disguise that while Burma may be passing Senator Carr’s test for legitimacy, there are a number of other tests in which it is quite obviously still failing.

The Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) remains at war with the Kachin independence forces in the north of the country; there is still no resolution to the plight of minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine Province who the United Nations says continue to face torture, neglect and repression, and while some political prisoners have been released others continue to languish in jail.

While most commentators believe Thein Sein is sincere in seeking to move Burma out of its previous isolation, there are doubts that he is completely in charge, especially when it comes to control over senior generals of the Tatmadaw some of whom believe they should still be running the country.

One other major cause for concern which seems to have been papered over for the visit is Burma’s continued friendly relations with North Korea.

The regime in Pyongyang has been supplying the Tatmadaw with weapons for decades and there are no signs that the supply route has been stopped or even reduced. As recently as last August Japanese officials seized a weapons cache on a ship in the Port of Tokyo bound for Burma that was believed to have originated in North Korea.

The fact that this is going on and that both countries are apparently trying to conceal it should be of concern to the Australian Government.

Senator Carr believes a proposed doubling of Australia’s aid budget to Burma over the next three years will give his country an “authentic voice of influence” over the current and future governments there.

It can only be hoped it can use this influence effectively     

Thursday, March 14, 2013

India-Italy in stand-off over marines’ flight

A diplomatic row between India and Italy is threatening to turn into full-scale confrontation with the new Indian Ambassador to Rome ordered not to take up his post and the Supreme Court ruling his counterpart in New Delhi cannot leave the country.
The row goes back more than a year when two Italian marines, guarding an Italian oil tanker off the coast of the Indian state of Kerala, fired on and killed two Indian fishermen in the mistaken belief they were pirates.
The Indian coastguard intercepted the vessel and arrested the marines. After spending four months in custody they were released on bail and allowed to return to Italy to vote in the recent elections there. Assurances were given by the Italian Ambassador, Daniele Mancini, that they would be available to answer charges when the case eventually came to court.
However, the Italian Foreign Ministry has now said the marines will not be returned to India, requesting New Delhi settle the matter through diplomatic channels.
The reaction has been fast and furious. The Indian Supreme Court ruled that as Mancini had given assurances the marines would return, he was personally liable and must not leave the country at least until the court’s next hearing on the matter later this month.
At the same time India’s new Ambassador to Rome, Basant Gupta, who was virtually boarding the plane for Europe, was ordered to delay his departure.  
The Indian Foreign Ministry said it was “reviewing” its ties with Italy.
“As far as we are concerned, we want Italy to accept that the commitment given before the Supreme Court ought to be respected,” Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
“All other things are secondary”.
The ‘secondary’ matter he mentioned is the continuing controversy over allegations the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer, AugustaWestland, paid bribes to Indian officials to secure the contract for 12 helicopters for the Indian air force.
In the latest development, the Central Bureau of Investigation named 13 people it accuses of criminal conspiracy, cheating and violation of the Prevention of Corruption Act, including retired air force chief Shashindra Pal Tyagi, three of his cousins and the brother of a former Cabinet Minister.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Desk-bound spies the new threat

Remember those old James Bond movies with all the gadgets designed to thwart the operatives of whatever evil organisation the British super spy was up against; hang-gliding on to roofs, crawling down walls, unlocking safes and escaping with the vital secrets in the state-of-the-art Aston Martin usually just ahead of a blaze of gunfire from frustrated defenders?
Those were the days.
Modern spies never leave the office. They don’t have to. The enemy secrets are online and there for the taking providing you have world-class computer skills linked to a devious and ruthless mind.
The digital age means that companies, agencies and governments conduct their affairs online. Of course the things they don’t want made public are hidden behind firewalls, encryptions and multi-faceted passwords, but unlike the physical barriers that can effectively bar secure buildings, there is always a way through in cyberspace.
There is no shortage of stories about hackers, often teenage ‘nerds’ with time on their hands, breaking into the most secure websites of multinational companies or government departments. Often these attacks are simply criminal, seeking to profit from the ‘liberated’ information.
How much more effective are these activities likely to be if they are supported and sustained by national governments?
Cyber spying is on the increase and, says an American National Intelligence Assessment, China is the county most aggressively seeking to penetrate computer systems.
This supports a US Congressional report last year that named China as “the most threatening actor in cyberspace”.
As expected, Beijing rejects these accusations, but a recent investigation by the New York Times suggests that a shadowy unit of the People’s Liberation Army, variously known as the Comment Crew or the Shanghai Group, is committed to hacking into some of the most secure websites of the US Government and major corporations.
The fear is that this is not just a campaign to steal commercial secrets (although that is certainly going on) but may be the start of all-out cyber warfare where hackers shut down power grids of major cities or disable military equipment such as rocket launchers.
Even if this proved to be impossible, cyber attackers could disrupt targets by flooding its websites with junk emails until its system collapsed.  
While many countries, including the US, are certainly involved in these activities, American military sources are certain that China is a clear leader in the field, and they expect attacks to increase in sophistication and intensity.
As the Chairman of the Congressional Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, points out: “Right now there is no incentive for the Chinese to stop doing this. If we don’t create a high price, it’s only going to keep accelerating.”  

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

China’s westward march

The announcement that China is increasing its defence spending by nearly 11 per cent to around $115 billion has been met with more than passing interest in capitals around the world - not least because the figure is almost certainly an underestimate.

China rarely gives out accurate information on anything to the rest of the world and is known to be embarking on an all-out expansion and modernisation of its armed forces. Everything from tanks to submarines to aircraft carriers and the most modern and lethal aircraft to fly from them are on the must-have list.

Why this rapid surge in defence spending? Beijing would have us believe it is a selfless contribution to global harmony. In one of those deadpan statements that would do credit to a stand-up comedian if only there was a punch line, a spokesman said the world will be safer knowing China can defend itself.

In fact this is part of what is possibly an historical re-think in where China sees its best interests to lie. For years it has been assumed the country wished to dominate its immediate neighbourhood, drawing into its orbit the countries of South-East Asia and, though our heavy trade dependence on it, Australia. However, this tactic assumed the United States, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and obsessed with its turbulent Middle Eastern ally Israel, would gradually relinquish its interest in the Asia-Pacific, leaving the territory clear for the new Asian superpower.

But that has not happened. The US is out of Iraq and soon to be out of Afghanistan; Israeli-Palestinian issues will continue to engage diplomats, but not American military resources. President Barack Obama has instead declared the 21st Century to be the ‘Pacific Century’, the American version of the Asian Century and a clear indication the US intends to remain involved in the region.

That means continued strong support for Japan, its long-time partner in East Asia, and tacit backing for the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which have territorial disputes with China. These countries, along with Taiwan (obviously), Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia, have made it quite clear they want a continued US presence on their doorsteps. Obama himself has visited Burma and Cambodia, where China has enjoyed some influence in the past.

It now seems that for the time being at least China is putting East Asia and the Pacific in the too hard basket and switching its interest westwards to central and South Asia, the Middle East – and to strengthening further its already heavy trade involvement in Africa.

From China’s view this makes sense. It has always been happier dealing with authoritarian governments rather than unpredictable democracies and there is plenty of the former in its new hunting ground. Moreover, Beijing figures the US might actually be happy with China expending its energies in the Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian quagmires.

Much will depend on the new administration currently taking over the reins of power in Beijing, but since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s successive governments have rarely deviated from established paths.

There is one other problem with this strategy – India.

New Delhi believes that South Asia should be its sphere of influence, but so far has not been very effective in establishing it. Its intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War was a disaster; it remains at loggerheads with Pakistan, and there is an unresolved border dispute with China itself, left over from a short war between the countries half a century ago. The fact that China is establishing port facilities along major shipping lanes between its own mainland and Port Sudan – the so-called String of Pearls – has added to Indian fears that this is part of an overall plan to isolate it.

India’s own defence budget of $37 billion compares unfavourably with its Asian rival and is likely to be a significant issue in next year’s federal election campaign. How all this plays out could well be the focus for global strategists over the next decade.