US president to visit Australia after APEC? Iran responds in kind to Trump threats. US allies working around its global trade war. By Hamish McDonald.

Plans afoot for Trump visit to Australia

Marise Payne, Julie Bishop, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis at a press conference during the Australia–US Ministerial Consultations at Stanford University in California this week.
Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Canada, Belgium, Britain, Finland – the Donald Trump wrecking ball has done its work on Atlantic alliances in recent weeks. So beware, it’s coming our way.

Officials are understood to be working on a Trump visit to Australia in November, fitted into a series of regional summits – the first with South-East Asian leaders and others in Singapore around November 14–15, and then the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering, this year in Port Moresby, over following days.

With these events coming just after the United States midterm congressional elections on November 6, Trump may be in an even more truculent mood than usual. But at this week’s meeting with US counterparts Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne almost certainly reminded them Trump was expected to attend.

The Turnbull government is putting some $100 million into the APEC summit, the first to be hosted by PNG. It’s already shaping as a show of influence by China. Xi Jinping has invited all the leaders of the smaller Pacific Islands nations to meet him on the sidelines of APEC, expenses paid, to counter accusations Beijing wants to trap them with debt.

Having just forked out $137 million for a data cable connecting Australia with PNG and the Solomon Islands, and hastily reviewing the recent closure of Australia’s shortwave broadcasts to the islands, Canberra would be highly miffed if Trump vacates the field. Trump would be the first US president to visit the country, scene of epic battles by US, Australian and New Zealand forces during the Pacific War.

Being so close by, how could we not suggest Trump call into Australia as well? The problem is the visit would be the most contentious since Lyndon B. Johnson came in 1966, when Harold Holt declared us “All the way with LBJ” and NSW premier Robert Askin famously suggested his car “ride over the bastards” when the Sydney motorcade met a mass of protesters against the Vietnam War.

Turnbull might follow the example of Britain’s Theresa May, who kept Trump well away from metropolitan London and its massive demos during his recent visit. Perhaps a call into Cairns, then Canberra, and just a brief helicopter insertion into Sydney? But the World Cup of Golf, opening in Melbourne on November 21, will be a siren call for Trump, even though there’d be more than a few divots flying if he ventures into Australia’s city of protest.

Iran trades threats

The meeting by Bishop and Payne with the Americans at Stanford University in California came after Trump’s administration ramped up belligerent rhetoric against Iran, in what seemed a diversionary move after a week of criticism about Trump’s obsequious behaviour towards Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Pompeo opened up on Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library – not known for an extensive book collection – with a speech to Iranian exiles declaring the US would work with the Iranian people against their theocratic leaders, whom he said were “hypocritical holy men” diverting state wealth to get rich and finance terrorism.

“The level of corruption and wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the Mafia more than a government,” Pompeo said, asserting that the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had a $US95 billion fund off the government books called Setad, and judiciary head Sadeq Larijani held $US300 million in personal accounts.

At midnight, Trump tweeted, in capital letters, that Iran would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if it ever threatened the US. On Monday his national security adviser, John Bolton, who up to his recent appointment argued for regime change in Tehran, repeated similar words.

The background to this is the effort by Iran and five other signatories – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – to keep alive the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons capability in return for lifting trade and financial sanctions. Two months ago, Trump withdrew the US and is pressuring the other powers, along with Iran’s other trade partners, to rejoin sanctions.

On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave a speech that offered stark alternatives. One was “the mother of all wars” if Trump kept on playing “with the lion’s tail”; the other was the “mother of all peace” if Saudi Arabia and other Arab states ended their hostility. His words suggested Rouhani, a moderate in Iran’s spectrum whose government negotiated the nuclear deal, is feeling the heat from Tehran’s anti-Western hardliners.

These hardline elements − centred on the military, the Revolutionary Guards, and Khamenei – were meanwhile talking of blockading the Strait of Hormuz if Iran’s oil exports were embargoed. About 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil goes through the strait, including shipments from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

While the three European signatories are not big oil importers from Iran anyway, Washington is having difficulty persuading others to boycott Iran. China is the biggest customer for Iranian oil and gas, followed by India and South Korea. China will ignore Trump. India, along with smaller clients such as Japan, Turkey and Greece, is seeking exemption. Figuring that flattery and shows of military might are the best approach to Trump, Narendra Modi is reported to be inviting him to be guest of honour at India’s big Republic Day parade in Delhi in January.

All this might not turn into a Persian Gulf naval war, of course. Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” against North Korea last year was followed by the recent embrace of Kim Jong-un in Singapore. But a love-in with the Iranian mullahs would be harder to organise, especially with Israeli concerns in Washington on the case.

If any of this came up in this week’s talk with Australia, we are not informed. Having just celebrated a century of joining the US in all its wars, Bishop and Payne were hardly likely to say we’d stay out of this one.

US-free trade

Trump’s other war is more immediately serious. Escalating tariff exchanges with North American, European and Asian trade partners are already affecting global economic prospects, and rebounding on the US itself.

This week Trump’s administration offered $US12 billion in aid to American farmers hit by Chinese retaliation against US exports of soybeans and pork. China’s choice of items was designed to hurt states that vote Republican. It’s working. Even is carrying a story headlined “Trump’s trade war is economic suicide”.

Repairing damage from his European trip, Trump agreed this week to wind back the tariff battle with the European Union, after its president Jean-Claude Juncker offered to buy US soybeans and natural gas. Elsewhere, Trump is still looking at higher tariffs, including on car parts made by our diminished motor industry.

Generally, friends now designated trade enemies are working around Trump. This month, the EU and Japan finalised a historic free trade pact that will give the Europeans a bigger share of Japanese markets for its food and wine, while their tariffs on Japanese cars will be dropped. Among other things, the pact will hasten the withdrawal of Japanese investment from Britain if it persists with Brexit.

Nearly 30 years ago, right-wing Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara and Sony co-founder Akio Morita wrote a book imagining The Japan That Can Say No – to the US, that is. The moment may have arrived this week when the Abe government’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo was not interested in a bilateral free trade agreement being pushed by Trump’s administration.

“Japan is not going to do anything with any country that harms the national interest,” Suga said, suggesting the US would do better re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with 11 Pacific Rim nations, including Japan and Australia, from which Trump withdrew in his first week in office. The man is isolating America on many fronts.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "It’s all the way with Donald J.".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.