When I was a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies of the previous century, life was good. But there was an ever-present background noise, like the rattle in an air conditioner on a hot day.
I’m talking about the Cold War. We all believed that nuclear war could well be just around the corner. Even as a twelve-year-old kid I felt the tension rise as the USSR shipped missiles equipped with nuclear war heads to Cuba, an event subsequently known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro intended to warn the US off any other invasion attempt, such as the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the USSR and the USA staring each other down, while John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev both had their fingers hovering over the button to start a new war. Nuclear bombs were tested in Australia and in the Pacific.
We all knew about the Iron Curtain that cut off Stalin’s USSR from Western Europe. We heard about the relief effort to support West Berlin, a city deep in Communist East Germany. Soviet attempts to blockade the city and starve it into submission were thwarted by the Berlin airlift. As late as 1968 Alexander Dubček’s attempts to wrest control of Czechoslovakia from the Soviets (the Prague Spring) ended when Red Army tanks rolled into Prague.
Closer to home, one of the fundamental reasons the Americans and their allies became involved in the Vietnam War was to prevent the spread of Communism further into Asia. And yes, we supported the Yanks in their efforts. After all, we were hardly in a position to defend ourselves.
Since the Berlin wall was torn down in 1989 and Eastern Europe regained its freedom, those of us who remember those days when the threat of nuclear war was real, breathed a sign of relief. We thought, as the eighties progressed into the nineties, that somebody had come in and fixed the rattle. Maybe that was true. But there’s something very familiar about the current rising background buzz.
Russia, under the guidance of Vladimir Putin, is morphing into a new Soviet Union like some sort of phantom rising from the crypt. Putin, who seems to be channeling Stalin, has already annexed Crimea and has his sights set on grabbing all of Ukraine. And attempts at breaking away from the Kremlin’s circle of control, as happened in Georgia and Tajikistan, are flattened with an iron fist.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Russians are fomenting political problems in the US and in Europe using social media. They’ve been a lot more hands-on, too. Who can forget the 2018 murders of an ex-Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, UK? And the many, many murders of journalists and anybody anti-Putin in Russia itself? Now Putin has changed the constitution to cement his power for another sixteen years!
But the thing about Russia is that we all found out after the Iron Curtain collapsed that the USSR was a bit like the Wizard of Oz, using smoke and mirrors to make itself look bigger and scarier than it actually was (except for those nuclear warheads – they were real). Besides, Russia is a very long way away from Australia.
But China… China is just up the road.
And China has a lot of financial muscle. Unlike the Soviets, who took advantage of WW2 to take over vast areas of Eastern Europe, China has used the ‘carrot’ approach. The Chinese use their Belt and Road Initiative to suck in small states with generous loans. When the countries can’t repay the debt, China takes over the assets – and pressures the government to support China’s policies in the UN. (Are you listening, Dan Andrews?) Using this technique, the Chinese have spread their influence throughout the Pacific (including Papua New Guinea, just a seven-iron shot from Northern Australia), South America, and Africa.
Now China has moved onto a more aggressive stance. The Communist party was never going to honour the ‘one country two systems’ agreement when Hong Kong returned to the fold and the new laws, recently enacted, make it clear that any and all opposition to Beijing will be met with draconian responses. The Australian Government has warned Australians about the dangers of being arrested and jailed under the new laws and advised Aussies to come home from both Hong Kong and mainland China. I’ve already mentioned China’s bully-boy tactics in response to Australia’s call for an enquiry into the corona virus pandemic. They’ve imposed tariffs on some goods and threatened to stop students from enrolling in our universities, as well as discouraging tourists. Shades of the Berlin blockade. They’re indulging in some serious sabre-rattling, too. The Chinese military is making aggressive gestures in the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan.
I think the most important aspect of this new ‘Cold War’ is the use of computer technology and the internet. The Australian Government has accused China of orchestrating a cyber attack on Australian government departments and some businesses – vehemently denied, of course. But do we all know as much as we should about Chinese control of social media? Lots of companies have conducted meetings using the Zoom platform – including our major banks, apparently oblivious to the fact that their meetings flow through servers in Beijing.
“During a test of a Zoom meeting with two users, one in the United States and one in Canada, we found that the AES-128 key for conference encryption and decryption was sent to one of the participants over TLS from a Zoom server apparently located in Beijing, 22.214.171.124. A scan shows a total of five servers in China and 68 in the United States that apparently run the same Zoom server software as the Beijing server.” Read more about Zoom here. The possibility of spying is obvious, and if you think Zoom’s encryption keeps your meeting safe – read the article and think again.
Even the apparently innocuous social media platform, Tik-Tok, is a security risk. “TikTok, which collects data about its users using mechanisms such as challenges and surveys, late last month was outed specifically over copying information from the clipboard of users phones and tablets. It’s not the only app that does this.” (Full article but behind a paywall). Information on the internet isn’t safe.
Basically, the rattle in Australian air conditioners comes from China but Putin provides a background hum. I don’t see this ending anytime soon.
Today’s pretty picture is brought to you from Rottnest Island off the coast from Perth, Western Australia