World

Asia-Pacific chaos; upping the ante for American allies. By Hamish McDonald.

US faces increase of white patriot games following Bundy acquittal

Ammon Bundy (right) speaks to the media in Oregon earlier this year.
Credit: ROB KERR / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Remember the Bundy bunch? It was a prophetic opening to a bizarre year in American politics when Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their bunch of armed vigilantes occupied a federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon for six weeks last winter, demanding it be surrendered to local control for them to graze their cattle.

The holdout ended when federal agents captured the Bundy brothers and others when they went out to a meeting, shooting another man dead when he reached for a gun. By then the Bundys had become heroes for a mountain-man-style revolt against government, a resentment of elites and authorities that Donald Trump has tapped into so effectively.

Recently, an all-white jury in Oregon acquitted the two Bundys and five co-defendants on charges of illegal conspiracy to prevent federal wildlife and lands officials from doing their duties, bar one against Ryan Bundy for removing surveillance cameras. 

The Bundys still face more serious charges, along with their father Cliven Bundy, over an armed standoff in 2014, but this acquittal suggests more acts of rebellion by white self-styled patriots are on the cards, whoever wins the United States presidency on Tuesday US time. 

The more extreme Trump followers are not going to take a Hillary Clinton victory lying down. A Trump victory – a possibility raised from the almost dead this week by the extraordinary action of FBI director James Comey and the signal from WikiLeaks that the “third phase” of its email dump will happen on Sunday night – will be taken by white patriots as the seal of approval.

Rebellion in the Rockies would be a sideshow to the turmoil in Washington and the world if Trump does get elected, and proceeds to his promises of tax cuts for the top one-percenters, more trillions for defence, forming an alliance with Russia in the Middle East, billing Japan and South Korea for the nuclear umbrella, walling off Mexico and deporting millions of illegal migrants.

But let’s say Clinton does make it through. Much depends on whether the Democrats regain control of the senate. Even then, she would face a rancorous public mood, widespread suspicion about her own sincerity, and pressure from the Bernie Sanders wing of her own party to move fast and hard addressing inequality.

This is assuming the bizarre election year doesn’t throw up a total wildcard in the form of another gunslinger from the Rockies. Evan McMullin, a Mormon former CIA operative against al-Qaeda who quit the Republicans in disgust over Trump, could well take Utah’s electoral college seats and then, if the college is deadlocked, just conceivably could get picked by the Republican-controlled house of representatives.

Asia-Pacific chaos

In our region, the next president faces disarray among America’s usual friends: Rodrigo Duterte wanted the US military out, Thailand’s generals are kowtowing to China by excluding or handing over its dissidents, Malaysia’s Najib Razak is looking to China for arms and infrastructure in pique at being labelled a kleptocrat by US investigators.

That overshadows growing ties with some important nations that were previously cool towards the US – India, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia – and a recent improvement in relations between Japan and South Korea, the two key East Asian allies. Despite his anointment last month as the “core” of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping may find himself undisputed leader for life of a system heading for stagnation, if not an early financial crisis. Voters in Taiwan and Hong Kong recently showed their distrust of Beijing.

Xi is positioning himself as the third great leader of communist China. Mao Zedong carried out the revolution, Deng Xiaoping launched it on the path to economic leadership, and now Xi is shaping it as a great power. Yet as much as he will be parading new military hardware and offering fast trains around the region, Xi’s next year will be spent terrorising his colleagues with an even harsher anti-corruption drive. The aim will be to install his own devotees in the party’s 25-member politburo and especially in the politburo’s seven-member standing committee, the focus of power. Success might enable Xi to stay on longer than the two five-year terms recently the agreed norm for party chiefs.

Amid this infighting, economic reform is going out the window. Premier Li Keqiang talked last month of opening to foreign investors and “slimming down” state-owned enterprises and making them follow “market rules”. Xi snubbed him by calling for “stronger, better, bigger” SOEs with the party involved in their management. 

The recent uptick in iron ore and coal prices signals the construction tap has turned on again, to boost an economy running below the accepted “political stability” rate. Internal debt is ballooning towards 300 per cent of gross domestic product. Chinese householders may be less and less willing to put savings into state-owned banks. The Communist Party may look less benevolent to them than the emperor’s Postal Bank did to Mr Watanabe when Japan hit the wall 25 years ago. Capital flight has got Xi worried, especially when it’s corrupt money in the first place, like a lot of what’s splashed in foreign casinos.

The next US president does face strategic military Asian challenges in her or his first term, notably North Korea achieving a nuclear warhead compact enough for its missiles. Yet the US needs more in its repertoire than displays of armed might to preserve its influence in Asia. Both Trump and Clinton (less definitely) have bowed to the anti-free-trade backlash by opposing the main economic element of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Unless Obama gets the TPP ratified in his “lame-duck” last three months in office, his replacement comes to Asia without much to offer, as Malcolm Turnbull and Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong have reminded Washington. The TPP notably draws Vietnam into the US orbit, and is effectively the “Third Arrow” of Shinzō Abe’s reforms to revitalise Japan’s economy. Overall its trade benefits are more quality than quantity – and to its critics in Australia it gives too much power to Big Pharma and producers of unhealthy things – but on the strategic side it’s big. The main losers in America would be the remnants of low-wage manufacturing, facing a torrent of Made-in-Vietnam clothing and footwear. To walk back to the TPP, Clinton would have to push back Big Pharma and offer alternatives to displaced workers.

Upping the ante for American allies

Here, the talk in strategic circles is that Trump or not, allies such as Australia are going to be asked to do more in their own defence and line up more in shows of force against China. It’s not quite the legions are departing, but something like that.

Yet of all the ideas that are coming up, a favourite one in the tough-guy camp is to get the Americans to do more – by home-porting an aircraft-carrier group in Perth and having B-1 bombers fly in and out of air bases in northern Australia. Presumably we’d then wrangle about the cost of setting up facilities for them, as we’ve just done for the five years since Julia Gillard invited Obama to “rotate” US marines through Darwin for six months every year. Defence Minister Marise Payne has finally announced agreement to “share” the cost of new barracks for the grunts, but the details are secret. We can therefore assume most of the sharing is done by Canberra. Under Trump we’d not only have to pay for the bases, but maybe have to chip in an annual fee for the nuclear umbrella.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "US facing increase of white patriot games". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.