As readers are doubtless aware, an unknown militant is currently holding a number of hostages at a Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney, and forcing them to display a jihadist flag in the store's window. There is much online controversy about exactly which faction's flag it is. The Sydney Morning Herald identifies it as the banner of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and contrasts it with those flown by ISIS and the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. The report says Somalia's Shabab is also now flying the ISIS flag, which may mark another affiliate for the "Islamic State"—which would make four by our count. We have noted that protesters are on trial in Lebanon for having burned the ISIS flag, ostensibly because it includes the Arabic text of the Shahada or declaration of Muslim faith. These are all variations on the "Tawhid flag" that has been adopted by Islamists throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Given the franchise model of the jihadist networks, it really doesn't make that much difference which faction the Sydney militant is associated with, or if he is just a freelancer.
In a move being openly portrayed as part of a race with the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, China has set up a working group to study the feasibility of a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). The proposal comes ahead of a meeting in May of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which China will host. Wang Shouwen, an assistant commerce minister, assured: "We think there will be no conflict between the FTAAP and the region's other FTAs under discussion." But reports note that the news comes just as progress of the TPP has snagged over Japanese insistence on protecting its agricultural and automotive sectors. Chinese President Xi Jinping in October said at the APEC business forum in Indonesia that Beijing will "commit itself to building a trans-Pacific regional cooperation framework that benefits all parties"—an obvious veiled criticism of the TPP. (Tax News, May 5; AFP, April 30)
As record-breaking scorching temperatures persist across Australia, the country's Bureau of Meteorology notoriously added a new color to its weather forecasting map,—extending the range to 54ºC, or 129ºF, from the previous cap of 50ºC, or 122ºF. The new deep purple "dome of heat" swirls above South Australia. (WP, Jan. 8) Fire crews are battling hundreds of wildfires, with New South Wales hardest hit. (Reuters, Jan. 9) Authorities fear a reprise of the devastating brush fires of 2009. One fire broke out at the the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) research facility in Sydney's south, sparking fears of a radiation release before it was extinguished. (TVNZ, Jan. 8) If this had happened, it would have been a nice convergence of the climate crisis and the nuclear threat, as we noted two summers ago when the flooded Missouri River threatened to overwhelm the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska.
Negotiators at the UN Doha Climate Change Conference managed to win an 11th-hour pact that kept the Kyoto Protocol alive but put off anything more. Naderev Saño, the Philippines’ chief negotiator, broke down in tears, beseeching action as his homeland was being devastated by a Typhoon Bopha: "I appeal to leaders from all over the world to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face." Typhoon Bopha, classified as a Category 5 supertyphoon, is believed to have left nearly 1,000 dead as it tore through the southern island of Mindanao—making it more than five times as catastrophic than Hurricane Sandy. Floods and landslides caused major damage in nearly 2,000 villages on Dec. 4, and more than 300 fishermen are still believed to be lost at sea. (FT, Dec. 12; PTI, Dec. 9) On Dec. 16, Cyclone Evan caused widespread damage in Samoa, with 4,500 left homeless, plantations destroyed and at least four dead. (Australia Network News, Dec. 16) Evacuations are now underway in Fiji, the next island nation in the storm's path. (AP, Dec. 15)
Well, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has moved on from Japan to New Zealand, where has has secured an agreement to reinstate naval cooperation with the Kiwis. This was broken off in 1985, when New Zealand banned nuclear weapons from its territory, thus closing its ports to nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered US warships. The US shortly retaliated by suspending its defense pact with New Zealand, and barring the Pacific nation's warships from US ports or bases. Now Panetta in Auckland just announced that the ban has been lifted, and military cooperation will be restored. Although New Zealand remains officially a nuclear-free zone, which means nuclear-armed US ships will continue to be barred, that looks like it could be next to go. "While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas, today we have affirmed that we are embarking on a new course in our relationship that will not let those differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues,’" Panetta said. (VOA, Sept. 21; NYT, Sept. 20)
This Australia Day—Jan. 26, marking the 1788 establishment of the British colony of New South Wales, and derided by Aborigines as "Invasion Day"—saw the establishment of a "Tent Embassy" encampment outside the Old Parliament House (also known as the Museum of Democracy) in Canberra, with hundreds of indigenous protesters and their supporters converging from around the country. The encampment marks the 40th anniversary of the historic first Tent Embassy, established to protest the refusal of then-Prime Minister Billy McMahon to recognize Aboriginal land rights. The new campaign is being led by Michael Anderson, 60, the only survivor among the four Aboriginal leaders who launched the 1971 Tent Embassy. The new protesters vow to wage an international campaign against Australia's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council if the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Labor) does not meet their demands for indigenous sovereignty.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Oct. 25 reinstated a lawsuit by Papua New Guinea citizens against mining company Rio Tinto on claims of genocide and war crimes. Allowing the suit under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), the court ruled that it may proceed due to the Australian mining company's substantial operations in the US. Rejecting several attempts by the company to block the suit, it also ruled that a corporation can be held liable for genocide:
Oil from a cargo stuck on a reef started to wash up at New Zealand's popular Mount Maunganui beach on Oct. 10. The Liberia-flagged MV Rena struck the Astrolabe Reef about 14 miles off Tauranga Harbour early Oct. 5. Teams from the Maritime New Zealand agency are racing to pump oil from the leaking ship, ahead of forecast gale-force winds and swells. Some 30 tons of oil have already leaked, with fears that 1,700 tons could be released. Prime Minister John Key is demanding answers, telling reporters in Tauranga that the Rena had "ploughed into" the reef at 17 knots in calm conditions "for no particular reason," despite being a "major ship" owned by a "significant international shipping company." The reef is in the wildlife-rich Bay of Plenty, and at least eight oil-fouled seabirds have been rescued from the slick. (AP, AlJazeera, Dominion Post, Wellington, Fairfax Media, New Zealand, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 9)