Bei­jing clean­ing its house for leader’s show­piece

Aus­tralians could be swept up in a war we did not choose

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - ROWAN CALLICK

No liq­uids or pow­ders — in­clud­ing in­fant for­mula — can be re­ceived by post or on­line or­ders. No ope­nair mar­kets can be held. No sports such as bad­minton in gyms.

No singing in pub­lic — “go home”, a soul­ful teenager was in­structed by po­lice. No travel per­mit­ted by Uighurs or Ti­betans. No pe­ti­tions — thou­sands of pe­ti­tion­ers have been ar­rested and sent home.

Bei­jing is in fa­mil­iar lock­down as the count­down be­gins to the 19th na­tional five-yearly Com­mu­nist Party con­gress, open­ing in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple on Wed­nes­day.

The city’s re­cently ap­pointed party sec­re­tary, Cai Qi, a pro­tege of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, says the con­gress is “our top pri­or­ity, ev­ery nec­es­sary mea­sure will be taken to safe­guard it”.

In the spirit, he said, of “not a sin­gle drop of water be­ing al­lowed to leak”, Bei­jing is “res­o­lutely crack­ing down on po­lit­i­cal ru­mours and harm­ful news”. Re­cently, in­ter­net gi­ants Ten­cent, Baidu and Weibo have been fined heav­ily for fail­ing to cen­sor on­line con­tent.

A much-an­tic­i­pated new film, Youth, by di­rec­tor Feng Xiao­gang, had its open­ing can­celled by the au­thor­i­ties with just a few days’ no­tice, ap­par­ently be­cause it touched on the sen­si­tive topic of the grim 1979 war with Viet­nam — for which dis­abled sol­diers fre­quently com­plain they have not been ad­e­quately com­pen­sated.

All po­lice leave in Bei­jing has nat­u­rally been can­celled, with thou­sands of re­in­force­ments de­ployed to the cap­i­tal from else­where in China.

The main mar­ket for build­ing ma­te­ri­als has been re­lo­cated in He­bei prov­ince, since it was per­ceived to at­tract too many mi­grant work­ers who may not be fully vouched for.

Mas­sive ban­ners along road­sides, on build­ings and at sub­way sta­tions pro­claim: “Unite tightly around Xi Jin­ping as the core of the party, el­e­vate Chi­nese so­cial­ism to fresh heights!”. Ma­jor boule­vards are fes­tooned with knot­ted red rib­bons to sym­bol­ise party unity. But no pub­lic event even loosely as­so­ci­ated with the con­gress is be­ing staged, since the party is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally anx­ious about large gath­er­ings of peo­ple.

Thus dim echoes are aroused of dy­nas­tic days, when as em­per­ors con­ducted ritual sac­ri­fices around the city, Bei­jingers were told to avert their gaze and re­main silent as the divine pres­ence was car­ried past. A Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army navy song-and-dance spec­tac­u­lar this week to cel­e­brate the con­gress was ti­tled Sail­ing un­der the eyes of the Leader — us­ing a term for Xi, Lingxiu, not heard since the days of Mao Ze­dong.

Xi is the fo­cus of TV se­ries be­ing run at prime time, with re­plays on video screens at train sta­tions, air­ports and other pub­lic venues. A com­mon theme is of for­eign def­er­ence: “African friends will not for­get what Xi said … Amer­i­can friends will not … Euro­pean, Asian friends.”

The se­ries claims that “Pres­i­dent Xi has trav­elled a mil­lion miles to spread his con­cept of com­mon destiny with peo­ple all over the world”.

The Dan­ish Cul­tural Cen­tre has en­tered fully into the spirit of the oc­ca­sion, with a new ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled A Mod­ern Royal House­hold con­tain­ing half a mil­lion Lego pieces to cre­ate a model of the For­bid­den City, the an­cient im­pe­rial palace at the heart of Bei­jing.

State-owned funds have in­ter­vened in the stock mar­kets this week to pre­vent volatil­ity in the run-up to the con­gress — Xi ap­pears to view the share col­lapse two years ago as the dark­est event of his first five years in of­fice.

Steel mills and other heavy in­dus­tries have been or­dered to wind back out­put in or­der to en­sure blue skies dur­ing the con­gress rather than the more com­mon Bei­jing smog.

Flights in and out of Bei­jing may be ex­pected to suf­fer from de­lays even longer than usual, as ex­tra pre­cau­tions are taken. China’s air travel is al­ready among the most fre­quently de­layed in the world, with traf­fic con­trolled by the PLA air force whose pri­or­ity is not com­mer­cial flights.

The rip­ples from the con­gress have reached ev­ery cor­ner of the coun­try. For in­stance, the “golden week” hol­i­day last week fol­low­ing Na­tional Day was sud­denly scrapped for pub­lic ser­vants, state en­ter­prise work­ers, teach­ers, stu­dents and many oth­ers in the vast Xin­jiang re­gion in the north­west so they could “pre­pare” for the great event in Bei­jing.

A ho­tel in Shen­zhen, which bor­ders Hong Kong, has just been fined $3000 for ac­com­mo­dat­ing a Uighur guest. Mem­bers of this eth­nic group — mostly Mus­lim — and Ti­betans are viewed as po­ten­tial trou­ble­mak­ers so are barred from travel at this “sen­si­tive” time.

All 89 mil­lion party mem­bers, not just the 2273 del­e­gates par­tic­i­pat­ing in the con­gress, are be­ing re­quired to de­vote con­sid­er­able time to study­ing the works of Xi in th­ese days be­fore the event. And uni­ver­si­ties through­out China are hold­ing manda­tory ide­ol­ogy classes for stu­dents.

The year in North Korea al­ways be­gins with the Supreme Leader. Kim Jong-un stands at a wooden lectern, flanked by the em­blem of the Work­ers Party of Korea, which sym­bol­ises unity between work­ers (a ham­mer), farm­ers (a sickle) and in­tel­lec­tu­als (a brush). He sings the praises of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­com­plish­ment for the year just ended and lays out pri­or­i­ties for the year ahead. Tele­vi­sion sets across the coun­try will run the new year’s ad­dress on a loop, so that no one can miss the Re­spected Leader’s mes­sage, although the con­tent is fairly pre­dictable.

This year, how­ever, Kim ended with a star­tling con­fes­sion: “As I am stand­ing here to pro­claim the be­gin­ning of an­other year, I feel a surge of anx­i­ety about what I should do to hold our peo­ple in greater rev­er­ence …

“My de­sires were burn­ing all the time, but I spent the past year feel­ing anx­ious and re­morse­ful for the lack of my abil­ity. I am hard­en­ing my re­solve to seek more tasks for the sake of the peo­ple this year and make re­dou­bled, de­voted ef­forts to this end.”

It was a re­veal­ing mo­ment in which Kim showed his pop­ulist sen­ti­men­tal­ism, his will­ing­ness to ad­mit short­com­ings and his drive for suc­cess. But the lament re­ceived scant at­ten­tion out­side North Korea. In­stead, the world heard just a sin­gle sen­tence from the long speech, the one in which Kim noted that his mil­i­tary “en­tered the fi­nal stage of prepa­ra­tion for the test launch of (an) in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile”.

US pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump fired back a tweet: “North Korea just stated that it is in the fi­nal stages of de­vel­op­ing a nu­clear weapon ca­pa­ble of reach­ing parts of the US. It won’t hap­pen!” The stage was set for a year of cri­sis that would keep North Korea near or at the top of Trump’s for­eign pol­icy agenda.

It is tempt­ing, in look­ing back at this year of cri­sis between North Korea and the United States, to see it all as one big act. Trump and Kim are like pro­fes­sional wrestlers who go round af­ter round, with plenty of trash talk and mus­cle flex­ing and cheers and boos from the crowd, but never re­ally come to blows.

But then we re­mem­ber that th­ese two char­ac­ters are com­man­ders-in-chief of real armies — the most pow­er­ful in the world in terms of sheer might ver­sus one of the most so­phis­ti­cated in terms of asym­met­ri­cal threats. Ei­ther leader could go down in his­tory as the first to or­der com­bat use of nu­clear weapons since the oblit­er­a­tion of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki in 1945. Both can be seen as highly the­atri­cal fig­ures who revel in an­tag­o­nism, pur­sue high-risk/high- re­ward gam­bits, and think well of them­selves as strate­gists. Nei­ther man is crazy but both are of­ten la­belled as such and may er­ro­neously think it of one an­other. Their most se­nior ad­vis­ers are smart men and women, but they have never vis­ited one an­other’s coun­tries or in­ter­acted with their re­spec­tive coun­ter­parts. Nei­ther speaks the other’s lan­guage or has an in­tu­itive sense of his pro­foundly dif­fer­ent cul­ture. Their gov­ern­ments have never of­fi­cially recog­nised one an­other’s ex­is­tence and see each other as en­e­mies — bru­tal to­tal­i­tar­i­ans ver­sus bul­ly­ing im­pe­ri­al­ists.

In th­ese con­di­tions of mu­tual hos­til­ity and ig­no­rance, things could go wrong, fast.

This year’s on­go­ing provo­ca­tion cy­cle, with the un­der­ly­ing risk of con­flict, will con­tinue so long as the root cause of the prob­lem is mis­un­der­stood or ig­nored. The rea­son for the North Korea cri­sis is not the ca­pa­bil­i­ties on ei­ther side but, rather, the hos­tile in­tent that comes with them. In other words, the key is­sue is the po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships among the prin­ci­pal ac­tors: North Korea, South Korea and the US. But Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, top mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and the Amer­i­can pub­lic are fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on North Korea’s weapons ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is with the prospect of an op­er­a­ble nu­cle­artipped ICBM — some­thing Amer­i­cans con­sider “in­tol­er­a­ble” and “unimag­in­able”. But North Korea’s nu­clear-mis­sile pro­gram, like the US’s ex­tended nu­clear de­ter­rence and joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea, is symp­to­matic of an un­der­ly­ing dis­ease: the hos­tile re­la­tion­ship. And the treat­ment re­quires a longterm strat­egy of trans­form­ing the na­ture of US-North Korea and in­ter-Korean re­la­tions.

The the­ory of vic­tory should be de­fined in terms of ter­mi­nat­ing the en­mity between the North on one side, and the South and the US on the other. A grad­ual process of de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion can be a mea­sure and out­growth of that trans­for­ma­tion, but not its pre­con­di­tion.

Ter­mi­nat­ing hos­til­ity is a longterm strat­egy that should be pur­sued doggedly by lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton and Seoul. It needs to start im­me­di­ately, by ne­go­ti­at­ing some ver­sion of the much-dis­cussed “dual freeze” idea.

The orig­i­nal “dual sus­pen­sion” pro­posal ac­tu­ally came from the North Kore­ans in Jan­uary 2015. Through the UN chan­nel in New York, they of­fered to sus­pend nu­clear test­ing in re­turn for a US prom­ise to sus­pend joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion shot down the pro­posal out of hand, with­out even ex­plor­ing it. Re­cently, the Chi­nese for­eign min­istry pro­posed a new ver­sion of the “dual freeze”, hop­ing Py­ongyang would im­pose a mora- to­rium on nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing in re­turn for the US sus­pend­ing joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises.

Bei­jing fur­ther pro­poses that, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the low­ered ten­sion and pos­i­tive at­mos­phere gen­er­ated by a dual freeze, de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion talks could be re­sumed in par­al­lel with a new track of “peace talks”.

Con­cep­tu­ally speak­ing, the Chi­nese pro­posal is use­ful. The prob­lem is that it’s a Chi­nese pro­posal, not a North Korean one. Pres­i­dent Xi can­not speak for Kim. We do not know what Py­ongyang wants and where it is will­ing to com­pro­mise, beyond the gen­eral prin­ci­ple that the nu­clear de­ter­rent can be put on the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble only if and when the US ends its “hos­tile pol­icy and nu­clear threat”.

That is a gen­eral frame­work for — and in­vi­ta­tion to — ne­go­ti­a­tion. The de­tails can be probed, bartered and even­tu­ally set only in the process of di­a­logue and ne­go­ti­a­tion. Un­til se­nior US of­fi­cials sit down across the ta­ble from their North Korean coun­ter­parts, the process can­not even be­gin.

If a diplo­matic process is not ini­ti­ated, the sit­u­a­tion looks likely to con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate. If it were to reach the point of mil­i­tary con­flict between North Korea and the US, Aus­tralians would have much to lose. Aus­tralia sent 17,000 troops to fight in the Korean war and re­mains an ac­tive and en­gaged “send­ing state” to the UN Com­mand, the mil­i­tary struc­ture un­der which US and al­lied troops main­tain a pres­ence in South Korea — par­tic­i­pat­ing, for ex­am­ple, in the joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises.

Malcolm Turn­bull re­cently re­minded the pub­lic, “If there’s an at­tack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be in­voked and Aus­tralia would come to the aid of the United States, as Amer­ica would come to our aid if we were at­tacked.” Even if Trump ini­ti­ated a con­flict, it would be dif­fi­cult mil­i­tar­ily and ag­o­nis­ing diplo­mat­i­cally to break ranks with the Amer­i­cans. In other words, Aus­tralians would be swept up in a war they did not choose.

Fight­ing in a con­flict started by the US could put se­vere strains on the re­la­tion­ship with China, which has a for­mal de­fence treaty with North Korea and adamantly op­poses mil­i­tary op­tions. Like China, South Korea and Ja­pan, Aus­tralia’s econ­omy could suf­fer in­tensely from the toll of a war that US De­fence Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis ex­pects to be “tragic on an un­be­liev­able scale.”

Aus­tralia there­fore should do what it can, in con­cert with South Korea and other con­cerned na­tions, to en­cour­age the US and North Korea to pur­sue the path of di­a­logue, ne­go­ti­a­tion and set­tle­ment.

There is a nat­u­ral temp­ta­tion, es­pe­cially when a prob­lem seems far away and the ad­ver­sary in­scrutable, to stick to the script of a loyal ally. But the con­se­quences of get­ting North Korea wrong are dire, and they di­rectly af­fect Aus­tralia’s se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests.

Sim­ply declar­ing loy­alty to Wash­ing­ton or echo­ing calls on Bei­jing to ap­ply more pres­sure does not move us closer to progress, even when judged by the met­ric of Amer­ica’s own longterm na­tional in­ter­est. A small­minded ally says “yes” even when it is think­ing “no”, whereas a true ally voices its dis­agree­ment with­out com­pro­mis­ing its fi­delity.

Aus­tralia has a stake in Korea, but also en­joys enough dis­tance to see the big­ger pic­ture. Can­berra can re­sist get­ting sucked into the the­atri­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal mael­strom of the “main event” between Kim and Trump.

To start the shift from per­pet­ual cri­sis to last­ing set­tle­ment, Trump and Kim will need all the help they can get. John Delury is a se­nior fel­low of the New York-based Cen­tre on US-China Re­la­tions and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional stud­ies at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul. He has taught Chi­nese his­tory and pol­i­tics at Columbia, Brown and Pek­ing uni­ver­si­ties, and re­ceived a PhD in Chi­nese his­tory at Yale.


Three’s a crowd ... rid­ing past a bill­board for the Com­mu­nist Party na­tional con­gress this week


Liu Xia as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, top, and su­per­im­posed on Freda Kahlo’s self-por­trait

Kim Jong-un with some of his younger sub­jects; US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

This is an edited ex­tract from the launch is­sue of Aus­tralian For­eign Af­fairs: The Big Pic­ture, To­wards an In­de­pen­dent For­eign Pol­icy (Black Inc Books, $22.99), out on Wed­nes­day.

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