Trump gladhanded then worked around
It was a 12-day excursion through Asia always skirting on the edge of mishap, and Donald Trump left allies concluding his administration has nothing much to offer the region and it’s best to get along organising things among themselves.
His hosts in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Da Nang and Manila had worked out how to manage him, and laid on the pomp and flattery – all of which he proclaimed to be “incredible”, “amazing” and “unbelievable”, as well as totally without precedent. He was particularly warm towards the authoritarians he met: China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Malcolm Turnbull had his private dinner with Trump cancelled, and had to make do with 30 minutes in the presidential hotel suite.
In Beijing, Xi cobbled together already announced orders for American-made aircraft and other items, added some vague memorandums of understanding about future purchases, and presented this as a $US250 billion gift to Trump. Along with the duchessing, it worked. The Trump who’d accused China of “raping” the United States economy, now blamed America’s $US350 billion trade deficit with China on previous US administrations. “I don’t blame China,” he said. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”
At the APEC meeting in Da Nang, he was blunter. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first,” he said. Some trading partners were not playing by the rules, and Trump was going to crack down on closed markets, predatory practices, currency manipulation and intellectual property theft: “I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.”
The 11 countries left in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which actually tries to tackle all these trade abuses, are still trying to persuade Trump to reverse his decision to withdraw the US from it. But they’re not waiting, and at Da Nang patched over the absence and agreed to push ahead without the Americans, although Canada’s Justin Trudeau added some quibbles about protecting his country’s bilingual culture.
In Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, Australia, Japan and India agreed to build a “quadrilateral” security dialogue with the US, over the protests of Chinese delegates. But Trump didn’t hang around. He departed the Philippines before any actual sit-down, after a meeting with Duterte that he said cemented a “great relationship”.
It was a tour, most commentators concluded, that hastened the decline of US regional influence.
As usual, the Association of South-East Asian Nations Summit, around which the other meetings were arranged, skirted past the glaring crisis in its midst: the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which forced 60 per cent of this one million Muslim minority to flee into Bangladesh from massacres, rapes and destruction of their homes since midyear.
Armoured vehicles take control of the street, parliament, government offices and airports in the capital. Soldiers take over the mikes at the national TV station. The president is in protective custody and the military is removing the “criminals” in his circle. An ousted vice-president returns from exile. But this is not a coup, Zimbabwe’s army generals insist.
So the 37-year reign of Robert Mugabe seemed to be running out of power in Harare this week, following manoeuvres the 93-year-old tyrant kicked off earlier in the month when he sacked long-time ally and heir apparent Emmerson Mnangagwa from the vice-presidency, to clear the succession path for his free-spending and highly unpopular wife, Grace Mugabe, 52.
That proved a step too far for the army and anti-colonial struggle veterans supporting Mnangagwa, 75, known as “The Crocodile” in his days fighting the white settler rule of Ian Smith and later an intelligence chief in Mugabe’s increasingly abusive regime. Mnangagwa fled to South Africa then, but returned to Harare on Tuesday night as the military made its move. Reports said the army plans to make him head of a transitional government with leaders of the opposition MDC party as vice-president and prime minister. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party showed no resistance. Though he was enforcer for Mugabe’s ruinous rule, Mnangagwa is sending signals he wants to start reforms to rescue the economy – even inviting white farmers back to farms seized by Mugabe and distributed to his cronies.
It seems Australia can’t take part in any war without claiming we won it or made the crucial breakthrough.
Fresh from hailing the Light Horse role in the British capture of the Beersheba oasis from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, Turnbull was at the Camp Aguinaldo barracks in the Philippines this week to see Filipino troops show off the urban warfare skills imparted by 80 Australian Army trainers.
There he said Australia had been a “game changer” in the recent recapture of the southern Mindanao island city of Marawi from Daesh-affiliated local Islamists, after a five-month siege. Australia had provided “real-time” intelligence to the Philippine forces, presumably from the P-3 spy planes sent by the RAAF. “It was a big deal – hugely important,” Turnbull said.
But that’s not the end of it, as intelligence-gathering flights and naval patrols around Mindanao by Australian units will continue, under an agreement announced by Defence Minister Marise Payne on October 24. Curiously, the director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Nick Warner, was also recently in Manila. He met Duterte in August, joining him in an ill-advised clenched-fist pose for photographers.
The Defence Department insists there is one war we are not joining, even indirectly: the Saudi campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen.
After a lot of prodding, it has assured The Saturday Paper that the Australian frigates kept on rotation in the north-west Indian Ocean since the Gulf War 27 years ago are not helping enforce the Saudi arms embargo of Yemen, recently widened to a total blockade that puts food and aid shipments in doubt. Nor are the RAAF refuelling and control aircraft operating from the Emirates against Daesh in Iraq and Syria helping the Saudi and Emirati air strikes in Yemen, unlike their US counterparts.
However, the department didn’t mention the boarding-and-search exercise conducted by HMAS Newcastle with a Saudi ship on August 14, in the Red Sea close to Yemen, imparting just the kind of skills needed for a blockade.
Brexit is blowing up in most unpredictable ways for Theresa May’s Tory party. Among the sticking points is the question of the border in Ireland between the Irish Republic and Ulster, currently a drive-across soft frontier as long as Britain stays in the European single market.
To avoid a “hard” border with customs barriers, Irish on both sides are getting attracted to the idea of Ulster staying in the single market, while the rest of the United Kingdom leaves. Even elements of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose 10 MPs at Westminster May relies to stay in power, are said to be wavering. May’s minister in charge of the Brexit process, David Davis, is appalled at the threat to Britain’s “constitutional and economic integrity”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as "Trump gladhanded then worked around". Subscribe here.