Focus on US marines in Darwin; testing times ahead; Brexit tensions. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump’s presidency begins with a bang not a whimper

Indonesian military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo inspecting his special troops.
Indonesian military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo inspecting his special troops.

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) nixed TPP first day at Oval Office, teaching @ShinzoAbe and @MalcolmTurnbull it’s America First from now on. Next the Chinese trade cheats and island grabbers! MAGA!

We made that up of course, but as this is now the era of “alternative facts” proclaimed from the White House, why not? Contrary to hopes the new United States president will abandon his finger-pointing campaign rhetoric once in office, Donald Trump has doubled down on it.

A sinister inauguration speech. Whining against evidence crowds were not the biggest ever. A rant at the CIA against the media. US aid banned for groups offering abortion counselling. Go-ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline stopped by Barack Obama. Attack on Obama’s affordable healthcare act. A start on “the wall” with Mexico, refugee intakes suspended. No disclosure of tax returns, and retained ownership of the Trump Organisation.

And so the Trump administration got into its first week. For the Australian government, the embarrassment has been served up early. The Trans-Pacific Partnership withdrawal removes the intelligent, constructive leg of the US “pivot” to Asia that Australia − as with Japan, Singapore and other US allies – has supported and painstakingly negotiated against those who saw it as favouring corporate America. 

Steve Ciobo, Turnbull’s trade minister, argues the parrot is not dead, just resting. The remaining 11 signatories could readjust TPP clauses to keep it alive. His idea of substituting China for the US is just silly: the TPP explicitly bans the bias for state-owned enterprises that is a cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s new communism. Xi can meanwhile make the running, as he did at Davos, by talking up open trade, regardless of what his officials do behind the borders.

1 . Top End in hot seat

Those US marines in Darwin, meanwhile, look a troublesome presence rather than a reassurance, after Trump’s pick for secretary of state told a senate committee hearing: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.”

The message was reaffirmed this week by new White House spokesman Sean Spicer, he of the ill-fitting suit and facts, when asked about Rex Tillerson’s comment. “The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said. “It’s a question of, if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

At 3875 kilometres from the South China Sea, the US marine battle-group in Darwin will be among the handiest troops for such a foolhardy exercise. We can expect Trump to demand more access for US forces, especially as Turnbull’s hopes of resettling Nauru–Manus refugees in America give Trump the leverage for one of his hallmark “deals”. Home-porting a US carrier group? Basing B-1 bombers at RAAF Base Tindal?

2 . Times of trouble

The new US defence secretary, the cerebral former marine general James Mattis known variously as “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk”, has emerged the main hope of restraint in the Trump administration.

His first moves have been to assure European allies that Trump’s tweets about “obsolete” NATO don’t mean anything. How this fits with Trump’s readiness to make deals with Vladimir Putin remains to be seen. Tillerson is compromised by his previous deals with Moscow while heading ExxonMobil. New national security adviser Michael Flynn was ringing up the Russian ambassador the day Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats for alleged cyber interference in the elections.

Testing times coming up. The United Nations Security Council censure of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, outgoing secretary of state John Kerry’s admonitions and the Paris meeting in mid-January looked like farewells to the two-state solution. Benjamin Netanyahu is an early visitor to the White House next month, expecting a blind eye to the creeping annexation of Palestinian lands and hoping for confirmation of Trump’s promised shift of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

Expect trouble in the Balkans, too. With suspected Russian backing, Serbia in recent weeks has stepped up pressure on Kosovo, whose 2008 declaration of independence it does not recognise. It arrested a former Kosovan prime minister for war crimes, and this month opened a new rail link by sending a train painted with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages. There are plots to divide up the troubled Macedonian Republic with the Albanians and Bulgarians, and Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia.

3 . Jakarta eyes base

Back to the US marines in Darwin. It’s still bothering some in Jakarta, as a recent rant by the ambitious Indonesian military commander Gatot Nurmantyo indicated, alongside his unilateral (and later overruled) decision to suspend defence co-operation with Australia over perceived insults at the special forces barracks in Perth to visiting Indonesian personnel.

The Defence Department says it will explain what happened in Perth once its inquiries are complete. It’s not commenting on Gatot’s remarks at a Jakarta forum on December 10, where he said he’d made a “pura-pura” (covert) inspection of Darwin pretending to be a tourist and hiring a boat to look at what the marines were up to.

4 . Boundary riders

The Indonesian military chief also made an unusual foray into the maritime boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste, which this month led to the joint announcement that the 50-year temporary boundary agreed in 2006 would lapse on April 10 and negotiations on a permanent boundary were starting, aimed at completion by September.

It’s egg on the faces of Howard government figures such as former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who pushed through the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea. But at least the Timorese have withdrawn legal action at The Hague over the bugging of their government’s cabinet room by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in 2004, which happened on Downer’s watch.

The decision will boost Xanana Gusmão’s supporters in Timor-Leste’s elections this year, but it’s a big gamble for Dili. Contrary to naive writing by his supporters here, getting the boundary switched to the median line between the coasts (instead of the more northern line along the deep Timor Trench) won’t deliver the Woodside consortium’s Greater Sunrise gas field to Timor’s sole jurisdiction. That depends on getting agreement on a complex act of geographical weighting to swing lateral boundaries outwards, by turning Timor’s coast more “convex” than “concave”. If not, the Timorese could end up with much less than the 50 per cent share of Greater Sunrise they have now. 

To achieve the swing, Indonesia may need to come into the negotiations. Gatot rankles at Australian machinations over Greater Sunrise, saying Indonesians hadn’t realised this was Canberra’s goal. He went on to suggest Canberra might be out to grab another big gas field further east in Indonesian waters, the Masela block south of the Tanimbar islands. “If we are not vigilant, the Masela block would be like this,” he said at the Jakarta forum.

Actually, it’s probably a good time for Jakarta to suggest a revision of the seabed boundary agreed with Australia in 1972 to match the median line the Timorese will probably get. At that time, Indonesia was rich in oil and gas exports, while Australia had little domestic production. Now Indonesia is a net petroleum importer and Australia heading to be the world’s biggest gas exporter.

5 . Lost Kingdom?

How long the “United Kingdom”? With British prime minister Theresa May announcing a full withdrawal from the European Union by the end of March, with negotiations on trade deals to follow, the stage is set for tension in Northern Ireland and renewed pressure for Scottish independence. 

The “hard border” that will now be required between the two parts of Ireland could reopen conflict between republicans and loyalists. With the supreme court decision this week ruling out veto power over the Brexit for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments, the Scots are stirring again.

May was due to be first in the queue at the White House, seeking a post-Brexit trade deal. The terms could be humiliating. A state visit, with the Trumps riding a gilded coach to Buckingham Palace, would be the least of them: a queen who has hosted the likes of Idi Amin will be unfazed.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2017 as "Trump begins with a bang not a whimper".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.