Saturday, September 29, 2012

UNGA Sept 24-28


So, another UNGA done. This one felt longer than most, but the basic outlines of the U.N. General Assembly week are the same: run, wait, wait, file, run, wait etc. And don't forget to go through security at every possible opportunity.

Clinton's schedule was heavier than usual this year, because Obama only came for one day, leaving her to meet with lots of the visiting presidents etc. These meetings are carefully staged, and almost never vary: the press is screened by security (with dogs), and then taken up in a service elevator at the Waldorf. Once we reach Clinton's floor, we wait in the holding bay of the service elevator -- often with large mounds of towels, push carts loaded with dirty dishes, whatever -- until they are ready. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, so you get to know that windowless holding bay pretty well.

Once the "go" signal comes thru, we are marched -- no, run -- through the hallway down to the room where Clinton and the visitor are. The cameras go first, set up quickly, and the print press follows. Clinton and the visitor stand (or sometimes sit) in front of their flags, exchange a few of the most banal comments imaginable, and then a State Department handler says "thank you folks" as a signal to the press to get pushed out the room. Head back to the service elevator, back downstairs, and you're done. Until the next one.

It's a questionable use of time for most of us, but that is what UNGA is about, at least when you are covering Clinton. Sometimes she will make a statement (she did, for instance, urge "cool heads" in the China Japan island spat) which will make for a story. But other times we just have to wait around until we get a "read out" from the State Department spokeswoman on what was discussed. Usually it is something along the lines of "wide ranging discussion of issues of common concern" which is kind of hard to get excited about.

That said, I feel like I had a lot of stories. Clinton meeting the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda to tell them to sort out out their border war, Clinton meeting the president of Libya after the Benghazi attack, Clinton meeting the new Islamist president of Egypt, Clinton hosting a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" contact group, etc. Incremental stuff, but it made the wire so it wasn't a total waste.

UNGA is also strange because you are rarely outside. We all stay in hotels as close to the Waldorf as possible, because the schedule can run late into the evening, and so your only glimpses of New York are a few blocks of Lexington Avenue and then a few more blocks down 46th Street to the U.N. Headquarters. The whole place is doubly surreal because of all the security, the motorcades, and the roadblocks...

But still you can manage to have some decent dinners (if very late), and feel that you are in the center of the diplomatic world, if only for a week. But I'm glad it is only one week a year!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Vladivostok Sept 8-9


We are in Vladivostok, sort of. We are actually on "Russky Island" (no joke), which used to be a naval base and which the Russian government is making over. And we are only sort of on Russky Island -- we are actually in APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, with no way to get out.

You can see Vladivostok just over the gigantic suspension bridge (the largest of its kind in the world), but where we are feels as though it could be any place: they are holding APEC at a brand new Russian university, which has the look and feel of a California junior college. We are staying in brand new dorms, the conference itself is taking place in the brand new convention center. But that's it -- they've got the entire island on lockdown so we can't actually get out to see anything.

Our arrival at the airport was cool -- they taxi'd Clinton's airplane to the corner of the airfield where all the national delegations had parked their planes, so when you walked down the stairs to the tarmac you were in a huge parking lot full of 747s all marked with national flags. The richer countries (Japan) bring two. It made Clinton's little plane look pretty insignificant.

But after that, we've been stuck. So we meander around here. The buildings don't look like they will age very well, and all have a sort of submarine interior construction with metal beams running along the bottom of doorways, I guess for fire suppression. But it means that you are constantly tripping and stubbing your toe. They also have one of the wackiest elevator systems I've ever seen -- the buildings are set into a hillside, and all the floors have two numbers (one counting from the ground level, one counting from the third level where their backdoors are). So if you want to go to the 6th floor, sometimes you press 3 and sometimes you press 6. Also a lot of the hallways don't connect, so you've got to go back into the elevator in the next wing where the numbering is totally different. It makes for a lot of confusion.

But that said, the accommodations are fine and the Russians have put themselves out to make things work -- there are big buffet spreads (although we are hearing tales of food poisoning) and lots of coffee. Last night they had a welcoming reception where the vodka flowed. So no commplaints.

This set-0piece events involve endless waiting around. Clinton has had round robin meetings with most of the Asia Pacific leaders, and in each case the press is herded in for the photograph of the handshake, and then hearded back out to wait another hour for the next one. We get almost no information about what is going on behind the closed doors.

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This can be frustrating, especially when other delegations are not so cautious with the news. Yesterday we had some very vague comments from a "senior State Department official" describing Clinton's meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. This was pretty thin gruel, but we made the most of it. Then two hours later Lavrov himself spoke to Russian journalists, on the record and in detail about what said to Clinton. So the story ended up looking ridiculously unbalanced, but that is all we had to work with. It can be interesting to see how these tactical decisions about how to "manage" the news flow can either work (as they did for the Russians) or not work (as for the Americans in this case).

And that, I'm afraid, is that. We are waiting around now while Clinton has more meetings, then we head into the city for a brief stop off at the consulate where she will do a press conference -- so at least we will see something of Vladivostok. Then it is back on the plane for the 14 hour journey home. I'm ready.

Here's a final view of the bridge at night -- they have it rigged up with a massive lighting system which is wonderful, but hard to capture on a blackberry camera.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bandar Seri Begawan Sept 7


The Sultan of Brunei's official palace (at least the one that we saw) looks pretty much like the Washington DC Convention Center -- only with more neon.

Brunei is a small place, but at least in terms of housing the sultan thinks big. We drove over from the hotel in the evening. Clinton and her top officials were to have dinner with the sultan, but we were allowed to come along to cover their initial meeting. Most of us went, not because of any news value but because we wanted to see the palace.

Not what I was expecting. Instead of an Arabian Nights theme, or perhaps something Southeast Asian, the sultan opted for a 1970's Las Vegas shopping center approach. You drive up a huge entryway, flanked with blinking neon palm trees and centered on a row of huge pillars, also bathed in neon. The entrance looks sort of like an airport terminal, with hallways stretching back into the interior. Clinton and her team went in and we followed ...down the huge hall pictured above, to a series of escalators that go up to the second floor. Here the proportions shrank a bit, and Clinton was greeted by the sultan. They went into a nearby state dining room (no windows, as far as I could tell) and we went back downstairs for our dinner. It was nice enough, but nothing special ... chicken, shrimp, etc....still, it was hospitable of them to give us anything at all.

Dili Sept 6


From China -- hypermodern and hyperrich -- to East Timor. Asia's newest country, the poorest by far in the region...it's a major change.

Getting here wasn't easy, at least it didn't feel easy. We left Beijing at about 10:30 p.m. after a long day. Everyone in the official party was eager to get out...I think the blunt rebuff that Clinton had received on the South China Sea had taken everybody a little by surprise.

But none of us was looking forward to another night on the airplane. It is tight quarters in the best of times, and night flights can leave you feeling both sleepless and trapped. I had equipped myself with eyeshades and earplugs, however, and settled in. It was a weird night: I never felt as though I was sleeping, although I suppose I must have.

At one point we hit an air pocket -- first time for me and not something I want to repeat. Suddenly the plane shuddered, and then the nose pointed down and it really felt like we were dropping. One of the flight attendants screamed out "oh my god!", which isn't something you want to hear, and there were great crashes as things got knocked about in the galley. I was gripping the arm rests and I think everybody else was too. There were more big jerks -- like hitting waves (of air, I suppose) -- and then another drop. Then, of course, it leveled out and calmed down. It couldn't have lasted very long but was pretty alarming.

So, tired, frazzled and unwashed, we arrived in Dili, East Timor. The place looks pretty from the air -- long coast, backed by sharp mountains. Dili itself is a tiny place (see the airport picture). I don't know much about the Timorese liberation struggle but it certainly looks like they are still picking up the pieces. We went to the ambassador's house, where they parked us outside by the pool. Of course nobody's blackberry was working, and while they had set up a mobile hotspot it was repeatedly overloaded. Made for some frustration as we tried to sign on and figure out what was next. Plus, it was hot. But on the plus side they were all very nice and had some wonderful coffee for us.

Clinton made the rounds for her official meetings. They had lined up school kids on the roads to cheer and wave flags, all wearing their uniforms. The effect was both cute and creepy -- Asia's newest democracy had ordered its youth onto the streets to salute Hillary. The official buildings are mostly Chinese built, and not much to look at. But the honor guard at the president's office was great -- see picture above. You really see that this place is on the edge of Indonesia and New Guinea.

Clinton also paid a visit to a coffee sorting facility. Coffee is Timor's second largest export (much of it going to Starbucks) and USAID is supporting the industry. She seemed to enjoy it ... chatting with the women who sort the beans, listening intently while the managers described the process. And finally having a cup herself. Afterwards she posed for pictures with the workers.

Then it was the PM's office, a news conference which didn't produce much, and back to the ambassador's house. We had been told we were only going to stay for 15 mintues or so, but it dragged on and on..why? We didn't know. When we finally did leave about an hour later we finally learned that they had stopped in to the ambassador's office to watch a taped verssion of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention...which he had probably given just as she was sipping coffee in East Timor. Later on the plane she couldn't restrain herself and pronounced the speech "great". Secretaries of State aren't supposed to talk domestic politics, but I guess she gets a bye in this case since it was her husband. Seems hard to imagine that all that political back and forth was going on in Charlotte while we were knocking around in Dili south of the equator...

We are now in Brunei, which is sort of a Gulf emirate in Southeast Asia. Colossal hotel, no alcohol, very rich. Tonight Clinton is going to the Sultan's for dinner and we are being allowed to tag along, at least to the palace. This guy used to be the richest man in the world (I'm not sure if he still claims that particular title), and the palace is supposed to be over the top. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Beijing Sept 5


If you are only in Beijing for one day, then today was the perfect day to do it. Bright sun, clear skies, warm and dry. Beautiful late summer day.

We got in last night, and Clinton went to the foreign ministry for her first meetings with Yang. We followed her there, and then came to the hotel. There were a few quotes to update the story with, but nothing much. The hotel is pretty fancy -- I have a two room suite, with two bathrooms and a very comfortable bed. That's great because tonight (again) I'll be sleeping on the plane.

This morning we gathered at around 9 and headed to the Great Hall of the People, where Clinton was meeting President Hu. Just as we were leaving they told us that the Chinese had cancelled her meeting with Vice President Xi (who will succeed Hu as China's top dog after a party congress this year). Lots of speculation on why this was...were they sending a political signal over her comments on the South China Sea? Was this some sort of snub? The U.S. wasn't saying but our bureau said they had heard he had also cancelled events yesterday, so perhaps it wasn't anything beyond a sick day or a bad back. Still, a little mysterious.

It was funny to be back in the Great Hall of the People. I remember it so well...the gargantuan rooms, the endless chairs lining the hallways, the giant Chinese landscapes on the wall. It is really a throwback to old China, and I feel like I spent a lot of time there, once, covering official meetings. And when you are in there, you feel like you ARE in old China: the same unsmiling security people, the same people in dark suits ghosting around, the same hush of power.

Because Xi had dropped off clinton's schedule, the press conference was moved up. It was a small room and not many reporters -- I guess the Chinese had limited it to American outlets. Clinton and Yang came in and said their pieces (Yang said his piece at interminable length). But the upshot was neither made news. They both restated their positions on various disagreements (Syria, South China Sea etc) all the while pledging that they would do more to cooperate and ensure "pragmatic and cordial relations.

I sent thru the quotes and some paragraphs, and the pros in the Beijing bureau turned it all into a story. By the time we got back to the hotel everything was basically done. That left time for lunch at DinTaiFung (the excellent Taiwanese dumpling place) and then back to the hotel to pack.

After debating a nap, I decided it was too nice a day, so went for a walk. Beijing is not much of a walking city, tho ... at least around here ...but it was still great to be outside and to gawp at all the money, cars, buildings and people. The mall across the street had the crazy English "essay" pictured above outside to let people know that Beijing is the home of drama.

After a bit of that, I had another brainwave and went back to the hotel to ask about a foot massage place. They steered me to a shop in the basement of a nearby mall which was perfect. You walk in, they take you to your own room with a huge recliner, and tell you to change into some Chinese pyjamas. Then a VERY STRONG young woman comes in and starts working on you -- mostly feet, with pressure points, but also arms, shoulders, and back. I won't say I didn't flinch a few times, because they really know where to dig in their thumbs, but it is also extremely relaxing just to sit there, drink Chinese tea out of a water glass, and watch Chinese TV soap operas (which now seem to feature troubled young CEOs and various other capitalist characters exclusively). I wanted to stay for the next show -- some kind of game show with the (English) name "Your Face Sounds Familiar", but sadly it the 90 minutes (!) were up all too soon.

Now I'm back at the hotel, waiting for our background briefing and then the overnight flight to East Timor...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Jakarta Sept 4


Well, it's a long road from Rarotonga to Jakarta -- or to anywhere.

The flight to Indonesia showed me how isolated the South Pacific really is..after 18 plus hours from DC, we faced another 15 hours. Flew across more of the Pacific, including New Caledonia where my father served in the Second World War. Two hour layover in Brisbane for refueling, and then out across the Outback for another 7+hour stretch.

Afraid from here on in the pace picks up considerably so these updates are going to be short. We got into Jakarta at around 7 p.m. and went straight to the Foreign Ministry where Clinton had her meetings. After about an hour and a half she and the Indonesian foreign minister (who, according to his bio, is my age and looks like a 60's Beatnik) came out and said their pieces on the need for stability and a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

We went back to the hotel and filed our stories. It was, at this point, about 11 o'clock so what to do...suggestion (as usual) was to meet in the bar, which in this hotel turned out to be the most astonishingly noisy and horrible dance club you could imagine. A bad cover band, interspersed with even worse techno, all delivered at ear splitting volume. Lots and lots of Indonesian ladies in very tight dresses and a smattering of dumpy Western guys. One beer and out -- and it was time for bed anyway.

This morning I did up a preview piece for the next stop in Beijing, and we are going to roll shortly for Clinton's meetings at ASEAN headquarters. Then, unhappily, another seven hour flight. But at least I have a good night's sleep under my belt not to mention a huge breakfast. I ate a normal hotel buffet breakfast and then realize that there was an Asian buffet on the other side of the room, so I went back and had a full Chinese dinner. The food was excellent, although I don't think I can handle back to back meals very often. The upside is we won't get much on the plane so hopefully I won't have set back the fitness program too much!

More, if time permits, from Beijing tomorrow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rarotonga Aug. 31


When Clinton's delegation for this week's meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the population of Rarotonga jumped by 5 percent.

The Cook Islands are a tiny country, and Rarotonga -- the main island -- can be circled on the main road in 45 minutes. Clinton's arrival has caused some logistical problems, such as forcing the gov't of the Cook Islands to borrow enough cars to make up her official motorcade. And, with just the one main road, the motorcade only has so many places to go: up and down the island, stopping at different hotels where different events take place.

It is such a change from most of the places we go! I'm sitting outside just before dawn, and there are roosters crowing all over the place. Just across the street is a stretch of absolutely pristine beach -- palm lined as advertised -- and the surf breaks further out on the reef that encircles the island.

It was a long trip to get here though. We left DC at around 10:30 in the morning, flew five hours to San Diego, and then flew on another 9 hours to get to Tahiti. There's something ridiculous about going to Tahiti and only staying for one hour, but that is what we did ...walking around on the airport tarmac as the plane was refueled and the French gendarmes kept watch to make sure we didn't try to sneak out into the island without passing immigration. After that, it was another three hours to get here ... finally arriving, about 20 hours later, at the small Rarotonga airport.

There were hula dancers to greet Clinton on arrival, but she avoided the more formal welcoming ceremony that other leaders got, which was to be raised on a litter by brawny Polynesian warriors and paraded around. I think her political people were just as happy there were no pictures of that.

Because there are so many of us and so few big hotels, we are spread out over a number of small guest houses. The press got a decent one -- clean, just across the street from the beach, no nonsense. It is absolutely fine and it does have a sort of tropical holiday feeling to it: no televisions, only intermittent Internet access, dogs and cats wandering around.

The island has two major bus routes: "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" and you pass lots of surf shops and mom and pop restaurants. We did go past one tiny building which advertised itself as the Cook Islands National Olympic Committee, but I wasn't able to get an answer on whether they actually had sent any athletes to London...

I took a morning walk on the beach, and then the day began: as usual, meetings, meetings and more meetings, but these all had a sort of relaxed vibe. The Pacific Islands Forum itself was held in what looked like a big indoor basketball court, and most of the other meetings were in various hotels. The whole point of Clinton coming here was to fly the U.S. flag in (yet another) region where China is making a big play for influence. Chinese money is building schools, hospitals, airport runways and government buildings across the Pacific, and apparently the Australians and the New Zealanders said it was essential for Clinton to come to show that Washington was still (as they like to say) a "resident power" in the Pacific.

Perhaps because she is going to Beijing in four days, Clinton was fairly measured on China in her remarks here: saying "the Pacific is big enough for all of us" and that the U.S. hopes to work more cooperatively with Beijing in development and maritime security projects in the region.

But China's approach is so different -- and often involves loans and grants that have virtually no conditions attached -- that it is hard to see how the Pacific Islanders will resist moving more closely into Beijing's embrace. There was also a senior U.S. naval delegation here, making the point that it is U.S. power which has guaranteed the freedom of the sealanes since the end of the Second World War. I don't think anybody anticipates a real brush up of Chinese and U.S. forces in the region, but the military dimension at the conference was interesting.

After more meetings, a press conference with the New Zealand prime minister, and a event on "black pearl" cultivation, we were finally finished. The Internet connectivity is so wobbly that it was almost impossible to file anything until the end of the day -- a headache in paradise, but given that it is Labor Day weekend at home and this is such a marginal story, I don't think anybody really noticed.

We had breakfast at the gas station next to the hotel -- where the same granny, with a flower in her hair, pumped the gas and fried up the eggs. The whole place has a very relaxed feel which is a nice change.

Today, amazingly, we are off. Clinton has no public events, and I think her team are just trying to recover from the long flight and prepare for tomorrow's equally long flight to Jakarta via Brisbane. But the press has decided to make the most of it and we are setting off for some snorkeling/diving this morning. The weather report had threatened rain, but the sun is up and it looks like it will be a fantastic day!

More later, probably from Jakarta.