Asia-Pacific hotbed; Dutch elections. By Hamish McDonald.

Roles reverse as US turbulence continues

Trump confidant Roger Stone in his Florida office.
Trump confidant Roger Stone in his Florida office.

The celestial emperor will meet the American fake suntan king at the latter’s resort-palace in Florida next month to discuss the great disorder under heaven, as lesser nations in the Asia-Pacific region ponder a strange reversal of roles by which China looks the responsible power and the United States the disruptor.

What sense Xi Jinping will get at the Mar-a-Lago summit from Donald Trump is hard to predict. Washington continues in confusion. 

As congress asked him to produce evidence, Trump backed off his charge that Barack Obama ordered phone taps on him, with spokesman Sean Spicer saying quote marks in the presidential tweets indicated figurative speech. New reports linked Trump confidant Roger Stone to Russian hacking group Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks to expose Democrat emails during last year’s campaign, with Russia’s GRU military intelligence supervising.

Republicans introduced their Obamacare replacement that the Congressional Budget Office said would leave 24 million more people without medical cover within 10 years. A Breitbart News item suggested Trump will blame lower house speaker Paul Ryan for the bill’s likely failure. 

Trump sacked the “sheriff of Wall Street”, federal attorney Preet Bharara, whom he’d earlier promised to keep on, just as he was investigating whether Fox News told shareholders all about settlements for alleged sexual harassment by dismissed chief Roger Ailes, later a Trump campaign adviser. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is helping organise Xi’s visit, got $US400 million from a Chinese insurer for his family’s Fifth Avenue building project.  

A leak of Trump’s 2005 federal income tax return showed he paid a reasonable 25 per cent tax on $153 million, suggesting Trump himself was the leaker. Closer study showed he would have paid just 4.6 per cent but for an anti-tax-dodging measure he now seeks to abolish. 

A judge blocked Trump’s revised immigration ban from certain Muslim-majority countries such as Yemen. But Trump was able to ease restrictions on US military drone strikes in these and other places, and the CIA is allowed to join in. The United Nations World Food Program said seven million people could starve in Yemen. Trump’s 2018 budget plan is reported to cut billions in funding for UN agencies such as the food relief body.

1 . Asia-Pacific hotbed

New Zealand reported the number of Americans applying for citizenship in the 12 weeks after Trump’s election was 70 per cent above the same period a year earlier, while Trump’s administration dispatched its more sensible heads to the Asia-Pacific region to quell doubts about sanity in Washington. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson started a trip to Japan, South Korea and China this week. Vice-President Mike Pence follows to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia in April to reassure friends that US interest has not waned, despite Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and investment pact on which Tokyo and Canberra expended much political capital.

They will find discontent. As diplomatic elder and Chinese scholar Stephen FitzGerald put it in his Whitlam Oration on Thursday, Trump was the biggest “wake-up call” since the Vietnam War: “For Australia, if you didn’t already think we should have a more hard-headed, more independent relationship within the alliance, Trump’s ascension has laid bare the danger of our dependence, our unquestioning involvement with America’s foreign contests and wars, and the delusion
that our interests and America’s are the same, or that the US cares about ours.”

Not much traction for that in Canberra, however. It has already signalled willingness to step up involvement in US-led campaigns in the Middle East, the sort of distraction from the region FitzGerald and many foreign policy experts wants ended. Days ahead of a visit here by the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, the official trying to steer China’s economy away from its export focus to greater domestic consumption (which should benefit Australian food and service sectors), Foreign Minister Julie Bishop used a speech in Singapore to lecture China on its lack of democracy and declare the US “must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific”.

Bishop did allow that the signals from Washington were mixed, and the region was in a “strategic holding pattern and waiting to see whether the US and its security allies and partners can continue to play the robust and constructive role they have for many decades in preserving the peace”. 

She went on to the Philippines, to have words with regional disrupter Rodrigo Duterte. Japan was not waiting for others to be robust. It dispatched its biggest warship, the helicopter-carrier Izumo, at the head of a flotilla to show the Rising Sun flag in the South China Sea for three months. Indonesia backed off earlier hints about joint sea patrols there with Australia. 

South Korea also could go soft. It prepared for a presidential election in May, after its constitutional court affirmed the impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye and lifted her immunity from possible charges over a slush fund and shakedown of Samsung and other corporations. Park’s most likely replacement, Moon Jae-in, is inclined to the kind of “sunshine diplomacy” to North Korea that resulted in the late-president Kim Dae-jung paying Kim Jong-il half a billion US dollars to get the meeting that earned a Nobel peace prize. The US is rushing to install its contentious THAAD anti-missile battery ahead of the election.

2 . Call of the Wilders

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did his best to help anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections on Wednesday, by trying to take his referendum campaign for sweeping presidential powers to voters in the Turkish diaspora there. 

When the Dutch barred the Turkish foreign minister from entering the country last weekend and deported another minister, Wilders took the resulting riot by Turkish flag-waving Erdoğan supporters as evidence of refusal to integrate. It was political symbiosis.

But the tough action helped Prime Minister Mark Rutte. His liberals stayed the largest party, with a likely 31 of the 150 seats, down 10. Coalition partner Labour collapsed from 38 seats to about nine, so Rutte now needs three partners, perhaps the GreenLeft, which jumped from four to 16 seats. Wilder’s Freedom Party looked set for 19 seats, up from 15. Rutte said voters rejected “the wrong side of populism” and other European leaders were relieved. Wilders said “the genie is out of the bottle”.  

Showing a tad more delicacy than Erdoğan, Britain’s Theresa May got approval from parliament on Tuesday to exit the European Union, but held off pulling the trigger until after the Dutch election to avoid any more encouragement to Wilders, who also wants to quit the EU. 

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would seek a second referendum on independence in late 2018 or early 2019, but she would have to get London’s agreement. May rejected the idea, saying the referendum would be divisive and the Scots had already had their say in 2014 (even though Britain still seemed firmly in the EU at that point).

3 . Not Beast pleased

Showing how “woke” it has become to social issues, Disney included a fleeting gay scene in its latest family blockbuster, a new version of Beauty and the Beast, in which the bumbling servant LeFou is portrayed as somewhat sexually confused and dances with a man in a dress. 

Alas, some more conservative parts of the world are not receptive. Malaysia’s censors demanded the scene be cut. The Russian Ministry of Culture gave the film a 16+ rating. Two drive-ins in Alabama decided against showing it. They don’t seem to mind the main story, about a young woman falling for a man transformed into a fearsome humanoid buffalo, which could be taken as affirming Cory Bernardi’s linkage of same-sex marriage and bestiality.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "Roles reverse as US turbulence continues ".

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