Trump goes his own way on trade. Italy turns back refugees. Activists jailed in Hong Kong. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump trolls Trudeau after Quebec G7

Aquarius crew members distribute life jackets to refugees in the Mediterranean last Sunday.
Aquarius crew members distribute life jackets to refugees in the Mediterranean last Sunday.
Credit: Karpov / SOS Mediterranee

Let’s not forget what Trump did on the road to Singapore. In a display of truculence extreme even by his own standards, the United States president used the Group of Seven summit last weekend to deride close allies, push forward with trade wars on multiple fronts, and show he likes dealing with dictatorships more than democracies.

It began on the way to Quebec for the G7 meeting, with a suggestion the grouping would be better with the return of Russia, expelled from what was the G8 four years ago for annexing Crimea and waging semi-covert war in eastern Ukraine.

Once there, he delivered a long monologue justifying his recently announced tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, the threatened punitive tariffs on a range of Chinese products and on German cars, and his insistence on a five-year sunset clause in a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

As a French official described it to Reuters, it was “a long litany of recriminations, somewhat bitter reports that the United States was treated unfairly, that the trading system was totally unfavourable to the United States, the American economy, American workers, the middle class ... In short, a long, frank rant, which is undoubtedly very unusual in this kind of format.”

Leaving early for Singapore and missing a session on climate change, Trump insisted the meeting was friendly, rating his relationships with Canadian prime minister “Justin” and the others as 10 on a scale of “zero to 10”. He preferred to eliminate all trade barriers, but couldn’t accept “ridiculous and unacceptable” tariffs on US goods. “It’s going to stop or we’ll stop trading with them, and that’s a very profitable answer, if we have to do it,” he said, adding: “We’re like the piggy bank that everybody’s robbing – and that ends.”

Superficial bonhomie hit turbulence once Trump was aboard Air Force One. He took umbrage at host Justin Trudeau’s remarks to media that Canada still rejected a sunset clause in NAFTA and would retaliate against the new US tariffs. “As Canadians, we are polite, we’re reasonable, but also we will not be pushed around,” Trudeau said.

Tweeting that Trudeau was “dishonest & weak”, Trump declared the US would not be signing the G7’s concluding joint statement, and authorised his staff to go after Trudeau.

Economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who’d been in Quebec, said Trudeau had carried out “a betrayal” and was “essentially double-crossing President Trump”. Trade adviser Peter Navarro said “there’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door. And that’s what Bad Faith Justin Trudeau did with that stunt press conference”. Navarro said this opinion came “right from Air Force One”.

It was a depressed bunch of world leaders heading home, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying the G7 was starting to look like the G6. In Washington, trade pundits were totting up the costs of Trump’s trade wars for the US itself. The Peterson Institute said the tariffs on foreign cars would cost 195,000 jobs, plus lost exports from retaliation. Factories using steel and aluminium employ six times as many workers as make the metals. All this justified on “national security” grounds, as if Canadian steel or a liking for BMWs was a strategic weakness.

With the US president intent on unravelling the Bretton Woods trade system, orchestrated by America’s New Dealers at the end of World War II to prevent the kind of protectionist wars that caused the Great Depression, our leaders are going to struggle keeping a straight face when they lecture China about “the rule-based world order”.

Italy turns back boats

Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was the only other leader in the G7 to back Trump’s call for Russia’s re-admission, before his diplomats got him to add that this was subject to conditions.

But in another area, the populists behind Conte are going ahead with their election promises. The rescue ship Aquarius operated by Medécins Sans Frontières and other charities was blocked from Italian waters last Sunday to prevent it offloading 629 Africans it had picked up from overcrowded small boats. They included 123 minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women.

After Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini tried to bully tiny Malta into taking the Aquarius rescuees, Italy’s embarrassment was saved by Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, who said the ship could offload at Valencia. “It is our obligation to avoid a human catastrophe and offer a safe haven to these people, fulfilling that way the obligations of international law,” his government said.

Salvini, of the far-right League, promises to keep the port closure going, to force the rest of Europe to share the burden of migrant arrivals. “Rescuing lives is a duty – transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” he said. “Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying.” Salvini has adopted the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (We will close the ports). Just like “Stop the boats”, it worked politically: the League did well in last Sunday’s local elections.

HK activist jailed

The rule of law, as applied by Hong Kong’s judges, is meanwhile coming down hard on the young generation of activists pushing at the limits of the postcolonial “one country–two systems” principle.

On Monday, the most prominent of this generation, Edward Leung, 27, got a six-year jail term for his involvement in a fierce riot in 2016 that developed out of a street altercation between peddlers of fishball soup and heath inspectors. It turned into a more general protest against the halt called by Beijing to Hong Kong’s progress towards universal franchise in the election of its chief executive. Two fellow activists got terms of seven and three-and-a-half years respectively.

Leung has been in the sights of authorities for calling for Hong Kong to secede from China, crossing a “red line” declared by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, suggesting he has been singled out for exemplary punishment.

Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy activist, Joshua Wong – himself briefly jailed for “unlawful assembly” before winning an appeal – said Hong Kong was now in an “era of political prisoners”.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before its handover in 1997, said the public order law in force since 1970 was now being misused. “It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists,” Patten said in London.

Despite the worsening political climate, and heavy rains on the night, up to 100,000 people turned out in Hong Kong on June 4 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of Tiananmen protesters, an event Beijing is trying to airbrush out of history.

The steady promotion of Mandarin over Cantonese is also riling people in Hong Kong and its hinterland. It also resonates in the large diaspora from southern China in Australia. At a dinner in Sydney last month marking 200 years since the arrival of the first Chinese settler – a carpenter named Mak Sai Ying or “John Shying” from the Pearl River delta who worked for Elizabeth Macarthur – Jocelyn Chey, a former Australian consul-general in Hong Kong, got the loudest cheer when she used some Cantonese phrases.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 16, 2018 as "Trump trolls Trudeau".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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