Don’t expect anything historic at Trump-Kim summit


As I was typing this last night, news was breaking of Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Singapore for a historic summit with President Donald Trump of the United States.

So much rides on what will happen in Singapore on Tuesday. So much depends on how the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim goes. But New Zealand, like the rest of the world need to be realistic about the prospects. We also need to harbour a healthy doubt until verified by neutral sources that Kim has indeed kept his promises made in the last few months.

I certainly have my doubts. Mr Trump is reactionary. Mr Kim is calculating. Mr Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but needs to be mindful of South Korea, whose capital Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean guns. Mr Kim’s military might be short on equipment, poorly trained and led, but it has the vast power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prop it up.

Not I believe war is going to break out. I don’t, but much as I would like to see the Korean peninsula become a nuclear free zone I do not believe that this is going to happen.

How do we know that Mr Trump’s presidential body guards and Kim’s guards will not have a fight? How do we know that one or the other will simply not turn up on the day and leave Singapore looking really embarrassed at having this fall over flat for no fault of their own?

I do not believe that the purported closure of Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility actually went ahead. How do we know that the explosions caught on video were actually at the Punggye-ri site? And if they were? How do we know that these buildings – some of which looked more like domestic tool sheds or something one might have done pottery in – were actually used for nuclear weapons purposes? We do not.

My view is that Punggye-ri is very much still functioning. The site might be closed for repairs following the large nuclear test last year, which generated an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, but I doubt very much that it is closed for good.

It is well known if you believe the media, that Mr Trump has not done very much preparation. Given that this is a one in a life time opportunity to end one of the worlds longest running wars, make more stable the last active front line in Cold War geopolitics and potentially denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, these are very concerning claims make. And yet, given Mr Trump’s impulsive, child like attitude towards global diplomacy and world leaders, not actually dreadfully surprising.

Mr Trump left the G.7. early to get away from an international meeting that showed America at its least trustful, divisive worst. But he is now heading into another one where a wrong move by either side could have long lasting complications for global security long after Mr Trump leaves office and possibly cost Mr Kim a chance at solidifying himself as the next “Dear Leader”. He is heading into a meeting where the hand of China is the real power behind Mr Kim – China can crush Kim virtually overnight if it wants to, except that Mr Kim and his North Korean regime serve a useful purpose for Beijing by preventing a democratic Korean Peninsula existing all the way to the Yalu River.

So, I wait, like many others, with interest to see what will happen on 12 June 2018. Will a ray of sunlight break through the dark clouds lurking in international geopolitics, or we see a distant flash of lightning?

Chinese plan for a military base in Vanuatu dangerous for region


On Stuff yesterday, there was a report about China reportedly seeking to build or otherwise have a military installation in the Republic of Vanuatu. The purported move comes as concern grows about the militarisation of the Pacific by various nations.

To be fair Britain, France, the United States have all had military testing grounds for nuclear weapons in the Pacific. France and Britain, whilst no longer testing nuclear weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, have a number of non-nuclear military installations around the world. The United States operates a large number of military bases around the world – thought to be 900 in all. China has military bases outside of its sovereign territory, including the naval air station built on a man-made island in the South Pacific.

However this is a first for China, or any other military power to be establishing a military base in a south Pacific nation other than New Zealand or Australia. The location suggests a desire to expand its influence around the world. China, in much the same way America did when a neo-conservative think tank called “Project for a New American Century” formed in 1997, has a road map for global influence. The P.N.A.C. has a road map for achieving total global domination, and largely through military strength and using it as a force of influence.

Politicians in both National and Labour are expressing concern about the militarization of the Pacific. So is New Zealand First, whose leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters has acknowledged that the news is creating strategic unease. It will be interesting to see what happens because New Zealand needs to tread carefully between the interests of America, but also the growing influence and reach of China.

Position’s on international influence in the South Pacific vary and can be split into several groups:

  1. The first is staunchly pro-American/A.N.Z.U.S. and perhaps harks for the bygone era of a three nation A.N.Z.U.S. alliance – the people in this group generally have no problem with the U.S. nuclear umbrella, are reluctant to criticize American foreign policy mistakes and support increased defence spending.
  2. The second group is more likely to be Labour/Green supporters who find much wrong – and there is – with American foreign policy, but don’t always acknowledge the mistakes of others. They are not supporters of A.N.Z.U.S., do not believe in the need for more defence spending.
  3. The pro-China lobby. This no doubt exists somewhere. Mainly in political circles and trade – it might or might not be directed by Beijing or it could be Chinese New Zealanders who believe they are acting in Beijing’s interests. They oppose American influence for different reasons, but would be reluctant to criticize Beijing, despite the latter having scant regard for international law, committing appalling human rights abuses and suppressing its own citizenry.
  4. The third way – I think this group is a bit bigger than a figment of my imagination. It has little time for foreign power geopolitics, and believes most of New Zealand’s foreign policy and aid effort should be focussed on the South Pacific. Their view is that New Zealand Defence Force should be built around an understanding it might need to deploy in the South Pacific on its own with no back up from Australia, either to protect these nations from a foreign power or to stop local conflicts from spilling over.

I think I identify best with the fourth stance. Australia appears to not be thinking much about the influence of China around the world. More and more it has disassociated itself from South Pacific affairs. In the past it would have lead international efforts at disaster relief in the region. Their response to disasters in Tonga, Papua New Guinea and other places; denial of the humanitarian situation on Nauru and Manus Islands suggest a lack of empathy.

Will brave little New Zealand make a stand like we did on Rainbow Warrior, or will, like Australia, we meekly roll over?

Keeping super power influence in check in South Pacific


Yesterday on the Q+A programme Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters raised the issue that Chinese influence in the South Pacific is going to be a significant concern of this Government’s foreign policy. The remarks, which come at the start of a week long tour of the South Pacific where Mr Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. will meet Pacific leaders, come against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in a year where Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on becoming a 21st Century emperor.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. Right now neither nation is doing a particularly good job of this – following the Papua New Guinea earthquake last week, Australia has so far only just begun to move relief supplies in; New Zealand to the best of my knowledge has not yet done anything at all.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. Mr Trump, who is unlikely to be received by South Pacific island leaders strongly denies climate change, which many cite as a key problem for them. Instead, Mr Trump seems more in the sphere of influence that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promotes. Mr Turnbull’s Government has shown open skepticism of climate change, and both view China as a common problem. In “making America great again” by promoting policies that put America first Mr Trump seems to be putting America on a collision course with China.

Thus far the South Pacific island nations have not featured strongly on Mr Trump’s agenda. How long that is the case remains to be seen. Should Mr Trump become fixated on these little nations, the other question is context.

Questions raised about Chinese tradies building Auckland hotel


It has come to my attention that a Chinese company wants nearly 200 visas for short term tradespeople to come to New Zealand and finish a hotel project in Auckland.

Questions should be asked nevertheless. Anyone handling such a major construction project should know that it will have substantial and complex labour requirements.

I have concerns about this. Will Chinese labourers and the company they work for:

  1. Adhere to New Zealand labour law
  2. Not take dangerous short cuts in building the hotel that might compromise the physical structure
  3. Pay them New Zealand wages instead of whatever they might get in China

My concerns stem from a complex set of interacting issues that have arisen in New Zealand’s building sector over the last few years. They include shoddy earthquake repairs in Christchurch and Kaikoura, overworking of labourers by some companies, the importation of questionable steel from China and comments by a few non-New Zealand employers suggesting that they do not care or respect New Zealand laws and the custom of this country.

That is not okay. And New Zealand criminal law should reflect this in its sentencing regime.

New Zealand immigration need to be careful handling this. 175 individual visas need to be processed, but I also assume at some point the eventual holders of those visas will be screened to determine their suitability for the job. How will we know the credibility of the applicant in terms of whether they have a criminal record, their qualifications? Will they have some sort of insurance cover in case of an accident at work, elsewhere, ill health or being a victim of crime?

I accept that it might not be possible to find that many trades people in New Zealand to do the work without slowing down other projects, such as those related to the earthquake recovery in Christchurch.

I expect that somehow the trades people that come will have to demonstrate knowledge of New Zealand building practices, occupational safety and health before they can start work on the site. I expect that this will be done in New Zealand under the supervision of Department of Labour staff and the expectations made clear. In making this expectation, it is appropriate that New Zealand Immigration, Department of Labour and appropriate agencies have oversight of such a large application for visas.

 

 

Hawaii missile warning a reminder of the times


Yesterday’s ballistic missile scare in Hawaii had haunting echoes of a time I had hoped had long since past. It only lasted about 40 minutes before officials announced it was a false alarm, but in that time, Hawaii had a terrifying taste of what to expect in the minutes before an actual missile strike. And more than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons test, it is a reminder of what a volatile world we live in and what we are bringing our children and grandchildren up in.

But let us have a brief look back in the time line of war scares and see how we compare today with earlier times. In 1947, a bunch of concerned scientists called themselves Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and instituted the Doomsday Clock.

The doomsday clock is no ordinary clock. Whereas an ordinary clock continually goes forward, except when the hour hand is wound backwards for the end of daylight savings, this one goes forward and back. It is designed to show how close the world is to nuclear midnight, a time at which if – heaven forbid – we ever get there, the world, or part of it, will be understood to be in the midst of some sort of thermo/nuclear conflagration.

Timeline of the nuclear doomsday clock (Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).

The timeline shows how the clock has moved backwards and forwards over the years, depending on the level of international tension. It started life in 1947 at 23:53PM and kept slipping progressively forward as tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. increased. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis should probably be the lowest point (closest point to nuclear midnight)as during the 13 days of this crisis the United States was actively preparing to invade Cuba to destroy medium range missile sites installed by the U.S.S.R., aimed at the U.S., not away that short range sites also existed and could be aimed at the invasion beaches. At this stage, though not shown due to the short duration of the crisis it was probably 23:59. It improved after that, through the 1970’s, but started to deteriorate again to reach 23:58 in 1984 as a result of major wars between Iraq and Iran, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

When the Cold War ended at the end of 1991 it was 23:47, with major cuts happening in military forces across the world. The threat of nuclear war had receded. The major proxy conflicts between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. with their client states had ended.

A bigger problem was who or what would fill the void left by the collapsed U.S.S.R. Initially that was unanswered. Later in 1994-95 Russia began trying to reassert its influence by destroying a separatist movement in Chechnya. In 2000, current Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected for the first time. Nationalism began to infiltrate Russian politics and defence spending began to increase once more.

In China another rival of the U.S., the Chinese economy and military spending were both growing in near double digit figures. Their large, Soviet inspired military of the Cold War began a massive transformation into the second most powerful military machine in the world today, slimmed down in size but with weapons, tactics and training fit for the 21st century. With a roaring economy came a roaring demand for raw material – coal, oil, gas, wood, steel. And most recently a Chinese agenda for a century of the Dragon.

Decades of interference by the C.I.A. in other countries affairs bit America on 11 September 2001. Whilst the world and the U.S. were rightfully horrified at the huge loss of life, such interference was always going to eventually boomerang on them. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may have been looking into a crystal ball when he said that the war might last 15-20 years and involve multiple invasions. Whatever the case, that has happened. But with a lack of obvious outcomes apparent, many have tired of the constant American emphasis on terrorism, especially when some of their actions have undermined the cause.

And all this time, the Kim dynasty of North Korea has quietly gone on its way observing events world wide and learning from American actions. With unfathomable brutality he and his daddy and grand daddy have made North Korea a vast prison camp with nuclear deterrence. With China (reluctantly and most likely more interested in their own one party state) acting as an insurance policy against American invasion, Kim Jong Un probably felt quite safe until Donald Trump assumed the Presidency.

We should not take anything for granted here in New Zealand. We should consider how we can mitigate the consequences of a war on the Korean peninsula – assuming in the first instance it is a conventional war with no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons involved. The political and economic fallout will be huge with huge loss in just about all sectors of the economy, and in particular the flow of international tourists to and from N.Z, but also various trading sectors.

Obviously I sincerely hope that the tensions de-escalate on the Korean Peninsula. However the level of fear and panic that was caused by the false ballistic missile warning in Hawaii, shows what would happen in the event of an actual attack, irrespective of whether it was in Japan where several warnings from actual missile over flights, or somewhere further afield.

These are fascinating times without doubt, but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I am the only one who really wants a de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, whilst being acutely aware it could get much, much worse.