Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos charged. Europe swinging to the right. By Hamish McDonald.

China ready to take advantage of Trump

Paul Manafort outside court in Washington, D. C., on Monday.
Paul Manafort outside court in Washington, D. C., on Monday.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Donald Trump lurches off Air Force One in Beijing on Wednesday in what will be portrayed by the Chinese propaganda apparatus as the template for the glorious century ahead: a ruler from a distant land coming to pay tribute to the Middle Kingdom.

It won’t help that Trump himself looks like a walking example of American decline. Behind him is a chaotic Washington, with special counsel Robert Mueller making his first arrests over Trump retinue links to Russian interests and Trump’s own Republican Party riven by open criticism of the president’s behaviour in office. Ahead of him is Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the 89 million-member Communist Party locked in adulation at the profundity of his “Thought”.

The United States will of course survive Trump and continue to show the world creative surprises, and as we’ve noted before, Xi could soon find himself faced with financial crisis and Japanese-style long-term stagnation in a middle-income trap. But for the moment, Xi is likely to play Trump deftly with vague promises of “win-win” economic co-operation and token trade gestures. The Las Vegas and Macau casino magnate Steve Wynn is acting as Xi’s back channel to Trump: the Chinese have got Trump’s measure and know how to play him. 

The American business lobby in Beijing is saying the Trump administration shows no signs of grasping the systemic bias in China’s trade and investment policies, including ownership limits in many sectors, intensified promotion of state-owned enterprises, and new regulations ostensibly for national and cybersecurity that require surrender of source codes, potentially leading to state-sponsored piracy of intellectual property.

It will be Trump’s first visit to Asia as president, with stops also in Tokyo and Seoul, on the way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vietnam next weekend. He’ll then call on his chum Rodrigo Duterte in Manila before heading home, leaving behind Rex Tillerson to attend the security-focused East Asia Summit in a nearby Philippine city.

Our prime minister will be one of many regional leaders hoping to catch Trump’s attention on the sidelines, in his case to mention that pesky deal to take some 1250 of the refugees marooned on Manus Island and Nauru, as only 54 have been accepted so far. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s decision to close the Manus camp this week, throwing the inmates out into the local community, will not have made it any easier for US officials to step up the process. Unless New Zealand steps in to extract Australia from its embarrassment again, as  it did with John Howard’s “Pacific Solution”. Jacinda Ardern will repeat Wellington’s offer to take some of the refugees when she meets Turnbull in Sydney tomorrow.

Papadopoulos now

Mueller’s investigation has probably got beyond the point where Trump can do much to stop it, much as he’s toyed with the idea of emulating Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate prosecutors by sacking the former FBI director.

Such an act would clearly raise the case for impeachment on grounds of interfering in the course of justice, and destroy what remains of Trump’s assertions that he’s got nothing to hide, no connections at all with Russia. Breitbart News chief and former White House strategist Steve Bannon is said to be advising Trump to try nobbling Mueller in other ways – cutting his budget, badmouthing him and being difficult with documents – but that would look shabby, too. 

Trump has also explored his powers of pardon, which are extensive relating to federal offences, such as those against his former associates Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who’ve both pleaded not guilty. But most presidents leave pardons to their last day in office, so they can’t face impeachment or major political fallout. The charges against the two for money laundering, tax evasion and acting as the undisclosed agent of the Kremlin’s favourite politician in Ukraine are too serious for even Trump to excuse.

Trump is now wondering what the third figure’s co-operation with Mueller has opened up. George Papadopoulos joined the Trump election campaign in March 2016 as a member of his foreign policy advisory team. There are pictures of him sitting round a boardroom table with Trump and other members.

For months after that, Papadopoulos worked hard at getting the Trump campaign in contact with Russian officials, with the aim of obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton via hacked emails and setting up a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. He even thought at one point he had a pathway via a niece of Putin, who turned out to be imaginary.

Papadopoulos lied about all of this to Mueller’s investigation in March this year, then decided to sing when arrested in July. He was formally charged only on October 5, pleading guilty to having lied to the Mueller inquiry. Mueller revealed this plea-bargain just one hour after disclosing the arrests and charges against Manafort and Gates on Monday. Trump’s crowing on Twitter that their alleged criminal activity preceded his campaign was thus short-lived.

For many weeks, Papadopoulos has been effectively an undercover informant for Mueller, engaging other members of the Trump entourage in possibly incriminating email and telephone exchanges, and may even have been wired up for face-to-face meetings. Perhaps he talked to Trump himself. All the president’s men will be pondering if they should try to cut a deal, too.

Europe listing rightwards

If there was a consolidated electoral swing-o-meter for Europe, it would have gone sharply to the right in recent times. The European experiment in unity looks more and more frayed and even the internal unity of some countries is being tested.

Over the past week, the government of Catalonia has been dismissed by the central government in Madrid, and its leaders become fugitives. In Italy, voters in the rich northern provinces of Lombardy and Veneto voted in referendums last month for more autonomy and retaining a greater share of locally collected taxes. Garibaldi’s work could yet come undone, especially as the Italian running the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, is now having to slow the quantitative easing that is pouring German savings into the tottering Italian banking system.

The far right is rising in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, following the ascent of the anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic Viktor Orbán in Budapest.

Last month the 31-year-old Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, led his centre-right People’s Party to polls that put him in prime position to become chancellor, with the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner. New barriers to immigration will be the cornerstone of the alliance.

Then in the Czech Republic, the brash billionaire Andrej Babiš took his ANO party (the initials stand for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens in Czech) to first place in that country’s parliamentary elections. Again, the main grievance he tapped was over the European Union’s allotment of refugee quotas around member countries. Babiš was asked to form a government this week by President Miloš Zeman, but it will be a minority one. None of the other eight parties are ready to back him until he clears fraud charges over misuse of EU subsidies.

Zeman distinguished himself at a recent press conference by waving a replica AK-47 with the words “For journalists” written on it. This was a few days after a car bomb killed investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. Previously Zeman has referred to journalists as “manure” and “hyenas”. In May this year he joked at a joint appearance with Putin that some of the attending press needed to be “liquidated”. It’s a sorry picture for an office first adorned by the writer Václav Havel.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2017 as "China ready to take advantage of Trump".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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