This week around Asia

High-seas snafu, Whitelash and Spy Games

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. Exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition, his blog will be uploaded on Saturday mornings.

War has given generations much grief but also added some delightful words to the vocabulary.

World War II gave us a handy pair: snafu, short for "situation normal all f... up", and fubar which stands for "f.... up beyond all recognition". Ask me for the sitrep (situation report) on the USS Carl Vinson supercarrier’s progress towards the Korean Peninsula and I’d unhesitatingly say it has been one hell of a snafu.

How else to describe a situation where US President Donald Trump, his Vice-President, the White House spokesman and the Pacific Command all deliberately participated in a ruse to suggest this huge nuclear-armed floating menace had been diverted towards Korea to tame the dictator in Pyongyang only for it to be revealed later that the carrier group had actually been sent the other way to exercise with the Australians?

It’s the sort of silly diversion that makes you want to exclaim ‘What the fact!” 

Worse, it makes you wonder whether this US administration had gone a bit weak in the knees, or simply does not care about the damage to its credibility that would doubtless ensue when the truth surfaced, as it eventually had to.

Not surprisingly, the alternate fact briefings have been poorly received in South Korea, the nation that would be first in the line of North Korean fire in a crisis. 

The South was already smarting under President Donald Trump’s history-resetting remark that the Korean Peninsula “used to be a part of China”. Now, this. 

Are you surprised that Mr Hong Joon Pyo, a leading candidate in next month’s South Korean presidential election, went public about the damage the US image has suffered in Korean eyes.

 
 

As Mr Hong puts it: “What Mr Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”

The pity’s that the high-seas snafu grabbed the headlines in a week that the United States, under Mr Trump, signalled its firmest commitment to maintaining the Barack Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.

Vice-President Mike Pence made two important speeches that should ease Asian worries about the US imminently abandoning the region to the mercy of Beijing’s overlordship.

The first was on Wednesday when he stood on the deck of the supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan and warned that “enemies” of the US-Japan alliance “would do well not to test the resolve of this President - or the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the United States of America and our allies.”

The next day, in Jakarta, he travelled to the Asean Secretariat to say that the Trump administration saw Asean as a strategic partner and "will redouble our cooperation with ASEAN on issues of regional security”.

To underscore that commitment, Mr Pence announced what Asean had been waiting to hear since Mr Trump’s shock election victory: That the US President would travel down to attend three key Asia-related meetings this year - the Apec summit in Vietnam, as well as the Asean-US meeting and East Asia Summit in the Philippines.

To announce his participation so early - the summits are only in November - was clearly sending a signal that will not be missed. Too bad the Carl Vinson contretemps diverted attention.

When he touches down in Asia, Mr Trump can be assured of a rousing welcome not just in Vietnam but in the Philippines too. And that’s not just because he hasn’t been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights record, unlike the Obama crowd. 

The Filipinos are the most Americanised Asian nation. Even at the height of its anti-American nationalism, the joke used to be: “Get out of our country, America. But please take me with you.”

Whitelash Continues

Britain may have lost, or surrendered its colonies decades ago, but do not discount the influence of the erstwhile empire. After the June 23 referendum, which had clear anti-immigrant overtones, revealed a vote favouring Britain to exit the European Union, the ripples continue to be felt far away. 

First, the United States turned to Mr Trump, the man who’d vowed to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US and to ban visitors from a host of Muslim countries.

Now, Australia, followed by its trans-Tasman Sea partner, New Zealand, is cracking down on immigration. 

As he prepared to receive US Vice-President Pence, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced key changes to the immigration policy.

 
 

Like the US, Canberra will now tweak the so-called "457 Visa Programme" to have an “Australia first” policy. Under the new rules, the citizenship examination will require a higher standard of English from potential immigrants. Everyone knows who that targets, and it isn’t Americans or British folk.
But here’s the thing: Less than 1 per cent of the Australian work force comprised people who arrived on this category of skilled foreign worker. Most of Aussie immigration is via the student route - kids who come to study, find work and stay on.

According to Reuters, in the six months to December, Canberra granted more than 156,000 student visas whereas less than 13,000 were approved under the 457 programme in the year to September 2016. Drowning men, it is said, will clutch at straws. Politicians, especially if you climbed the greasy pole by shafting your predecessor, will turn to populist measures such as anti-immigration policies and in worse cases, plain xenophobia.

Small wonder that Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten immediately labelled the announcement a ‘con job’. Not for nothing is Mr Turnbull known in his country as the Silver Fox. 

The day after Mr Turnbull’s announcement, New Zealand pressed the same button with a "New Zealand First" policy. 

The two countries are tied by ethnicity and their economies married by the Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. 

But, hey, next time Aussies apply for jobs in Asia they should be prepared for quizzical looks. Ever since it shed its "White Australia" policy in the 1970s, Canberra’s foreign policy has been one that’s sought to steer the continent closer to Asia with proclamations such as “More Jakarta, less Geneva”. To be part of the Anglo-American "Whitelash" could put things back significantly, be warned.

Raw and the Cooked Up

Pakistan said last week that it will hang a former Indian naval officer who it arrested inside its restive province of Balochistan a little more than a year ago. 


Indian school children holding photographs of Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav and placards in Hindi reading 'Release Kulbhushan Jadhava' as they participate in prayers in support of Jadhav at a school in Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, India, on April 12, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Kulbhushan Jadhav, who retired mid-career in the rank of Commander in the Indian Navy, is said to have been an operative of the Indian spy agency, Research & Analyses Wing, better known by its acronym, RAW. 

Jadhav apparently has admitted that he was tasked to infiltrate Pakistan and foment trouble in Balochistan, which borders Iran. The Indians, who have been denied consular access to Jadhav, say the Pakistanis are cooking it up. They deny any official connection with the man, who was said to have been operating a business in Iran under an assumed Muslim name. 

Jadhav is a prize catch for his hosts. Pakistan has been complaining for a while that India is behind some of the terror strikes in Balochistan, whose strategic significance has increased ever since China took over the deep sea port of Gwadar, facing the Arabian Sea.

 
 

New Delhi, of course, denies all this. Jadhav, they say, was operating a legitimate cargo business in Bandar Abbas and Chabahar. Also, the Indians say, if he, indeed, had been picked up while infiltrating Pakistan, there was no reason for him to carry two passports on his person, each with different names - a sure giveaway. This raises the probability that he’d actually been abducted from his home and spirited across the undemarcated Iran-Pakistan border.

Spy operatives are mere pawns at the end of the day. The convenient way to save your agent’s skin is to do a spy-swap. Since spies undertake very risky missions, it is incumbent on their parent nations to do the utmost to save their skins. Hence the suspicion that India may know more than it lets on about the whereabouts of a missing Pakistani veteran, Muhammad Habib Zuhair.

Retired Lt Col Zuhair, who is of equivalent rank as Commander Jadhav, disappeared earlier this month from the town of Lumbini along the Nepal-India border. The Pakistani Foreign Office said it is in touch with Nepal to help trace Lt Col Zuhair, a retired artillery officer who, it said, was in Nepal for a “job interview”. 

That’s one more issue that could get messy if the back channels do not sort it out soon.

Until next week, then...