Macron favourite in French poll; Hamas gets new charter; Visa changes upset India, NZ. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump plays low-key for Turnbull visit

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un flanked by officers of  the Korean People’s Army.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un flanked by officers of the Korean People’s Army.

It used to be that an invitation to meet the United States president was a sure-fire political winner for an Australian prime minister. It has now become high risk, and when Malcolm Turnbull went to New York to meet Donald Trump on a superannuated aircraft carrier on Thursday he was somewhat like the boy on the burning deck.

Donald Trump has shown himself willing to snub and insult the leaders of even the closest and most valuable foreign allies and partners, such as Angela Merkel and Turnbull himself. At the same time he’s reached out to some of the most obnoxious figures in international politics. 

This week he spoke to Vladimir Putin without apparently mentioning Ukraine or Putin’s suppression of his opposition (unlike Merkel in her recent meeting with Putin), and implicitly giving him the leadership in forming a Syrian peace plan. He also had a “warm” and “very friendly” phone call with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, inviting him to visit the White House, and commending his “war on drugs” that has actually seen 7000 low-level users and others killed by police and vigilante death squads.

Whether Turnbull has carried it off without untoward incident, there was something undignified about him scurrying off at short notice in the middle of his critical domestic policy reset around next week’s budget, not even getting a reception at the White House or the Mar-a-Lago resort like the regional big shots Shinzō Abe and Xi Jinping − or even small fry such as Duterte.

Seoul searching 

In the game of chicken over North Korea, meanwhile, it seems that Trump is blinking first, after sailing his armada and flying his bombers around the peninsula.

Trump has put his offer to meet Kim Jong-un over a friendly hamburger back on the table, and has called him a “pretty smart cookie” for assuming the leadership at a young age and eliminating his family rivals such as half-brother Kim Jong-nam. “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg. 

While Kim got this dubious flattery, Trump continued to stir up his South Korean allies. They were irked that the US Navy aircraft-carrier group that was supposedly arriving off their coast was actually in the Indian Ocean at the time. Then Trump swallowed Xi Jinping’s line that Korea used to be part of China and repeated it. Last weekend, he suggested Seoul owed the US a billion dollars for the anti-missile system it has just deployed.

As well as hosing down these upsets, Trump’s national security adviser has signalled the administration is coming back to a standard policy: getting the Chinese to apply tighter sanctions on North Korea to force a cap on its nuclear and missile programs. “The president has made clear that he is going to resolve this issue one way or another,” General H. R. McMaster said. “It may mean ratcheting up those sanctions even further and it also means being prepared for military operations if necessary.”

But the Chinese seem to be concluding that Trump’s threats of pre-emptive strikes are bluster, and are reverting to their standard policy of urging direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. They still claim little ability to influence the North Koreans. Meanwhile, Trump’s apparent overture to Kim will encourage him to play the situation along without backing off.

Kim fired off another ballistic missile last Saturday, which was either a failure because it blew up midflight or, as some Japanese experts wonder, a test for a high-altitude nuclear burst that would create an electromagnetic pulse to burn out US and allied communications systems. Pyongyang’s news agency said that in response to US calls for more sanctions and diplomatic pressure, the North would “speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence”.

French dejection

Sunday is the showdown in France, and although the opinion polls indicate the centrist Emmanuel Macron will defeat the far-right Marine Le Pen, there is a risk of turned-off leftists either drifting to Le Pen or abstaining in large enough numbers for her to have a chance.

The peril has brought Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French-German figure of the May 1968 student riots in Paris, out to the barricades again, at least verbally. Dany le Rouge, as he used to be known, called on supporters of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to set aside their “hate” of Macron and “think rationally” about defending democracy and freedom. Mélenchon got 19.6 per cent of the vote in the first round, but had not, as of our deadline, advised his supporters to vote for Macron.

Like counterparts in Britain and the US, a lot of the disenchanted are ready to think with their guts, not their heads. Working-class and small-town France is hurting, youth unemployment is very high. Macron’s breezy globalism and promises of European Union reform are vague and look elitist. The prospect of the French presidency falling into extremist hands has got a lot of commentators worried. Tailored to the demands of Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s constitution gives the president powers to form governments, dissolve the national assembly, order around the armed forces and key ministries, and appoint judges and prosecutors. No wonder it’s called a republican monarchy. Le Pen has been all out to moderate her tone, but she is surrounded by a host of nasty types.

If he wins, Macron may find the Élysée Palace a lonely place. His new movement will be up against established party machines in the national assembly elections next month, and he will struggle to put together a sympathetic coalition in what will be a splintered legislature, while extremists of the left and right will be ready to take to the streets.

New Hamas charter

A realignment of politics among the Palestinians is under way. As we foreshadowed some weeks back, Hamas, which controls Gaza, this week adopted a new charter moderating its immediate territorial goals. In the West Bank, a contest has hotted up to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the rival Fatah movement.

Hamas says it will accept the 1967 boundaries as the basis for forming a Palestinian state, and now identifies its enemies as “Zionists” rather than “Jews” in general. It wants to build ties with the Egyptian government, implicitly cutting links to the underground Muslim Brotherhood.

Israelis see it as cosmetic, pointing out that Hamas still insists on the right of return for Arabs expelled during Israel’s formation and upholds the right to armed struggle. Analysts see it as a pragmatic turn and a step aimed at reconciliation with Fatah, and gaining support from Arab nations.

In Fatah circles, Marwan Barghouti has effectively launched his bid to succeed the 82-year-old Abbas − from the Israeli prison cell where he is serving five life sentences for instigating the killing of Israelis in the second intifada at the start of this century. Barghouti called a hunger strike among the 5000 or so Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails to seek better conditions. About 1000 prisoners are reported to have joined his protest, which has raised his profile further among Palestinians.

457 fractures

As with Donald Trump’s “America First” policies on jobs and immigration, Turnbull’s moves in these areas are cutting across relationships with friends and allies. 

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi spoke to Turnbull this week to express concerns about the decision to replace the 457 visa used by temporary workers with a less secure two-year one and another visa targeted at workers with “higher level skills”. Indians currently get about a quarter of 457 visas. 

New Zealand PM Bill English is meanwhile ropeable that new provisions requiring longer stays to get Australian citizenship, tightened welfare eligibility and stepped-up deportations have been followed by this week’s education changes. These strip New Zealanders and other permanent residents of subsidised university places. Instead they face quadrupled fees. New Zealanders, it seems, have become Australia’s Mexicans.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Trump plays low-key for Turnbull visit".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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