One of Scott Morrison’s first phone calls to foreign leaders the day after becoming prime minister was to Donald Trump, in the course of which Morrison invited the United States president to visit Australia when he was out this way in November for regional meetings.
Six days later, the White House announced Trump had better things to do. He would not be attending the East Asia Summit, the key regional security forum, in Singapore, nor the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Port Moresby. Instead, he’s going to Paris to see a big military parade marking the centenary of the World War I armistice. Vice-President Mike Pence will go to Asia in his place.
As much as some politicians and officials would be relieved that a Trump visit to Australia seems off the agenda – big demos were being planned – the presidential absence from the Asian summits will be a blow to Canberra. Just getting top United States leaders to turn up has been a struggle at times. In Port Moresby, in particular, Trump will be vacating the field to China’s Xi Jinping, who will be using the APEC meeting to talk on the side to South Pacific leaders.
Keeping the US administration coherent and focused in its Asian approach is proving hard with Trump. Under Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, Canberra had got the Americans to go along with the “Indo-Pacific” concept, to bring India into the strategic balance. But Trump has been stuffing that up, with a Peter Sellers-type imitation of Narendra Modi’s accent, and the threat of sanctions if India goes ahead with a purchase of an air defence system from Russia and keeps buying oil from Iran.
Of course, Trump may be licking his wounds in Washington anyway when these Asian summits happen. By then, his Republicans might have had a thrashing in the congressional midterm elections on November 6. Special counsel Robert Mueller is getting more and more Trump confidants to talk about Russian connections.
This week, the talk of the town has been Bob Woodward’s new book on the Trump administration, titled Fear. It quotes Trump’s top White House staff using terms such as “unhinged” to describe him. Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired marine general, is quoted as telling colleagues: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.”
Trump lawyer John Dowd was said to have put the president through a mock interview with Mueller, but was so dismayed by his rants and lies he advised Trump: “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.” Dowd quit when Trump insisted he would be a good witness.
Woodward alleges economic adviser Gary Cohn stole from Trump’s desk letters of withdrawal from free trade agreements, hoping Trump would forget about them, which he did. And when Defence Secretary James Mattis briefed Trump on how North Korean missile launches were being detected, Trump asked why the US was bothering. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis allegedly replied, venting later that Trump was like “a fifth- or sixth-grader”.
Denials of Woodward’s allegations were flying around. But an anonymous “senior White House official” wrote in The New York Times of an internal “resistance” to thwart Trump’s worse instincts. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the official wrote.
But Scott Morrison can hardly complain about the presidential absence when in his second week in office he prioritised talks at the 2GB and 3AW studios with shock jocks while across in Nauru a gathering of all the South Pacific’s leaders would have been wondering, “Where the bloody hell are you?”
The prime minister opted out of the yearly Pacific Islands Forum summit, leaving the new foreign minister, Marise Payne, to represent Australia. At least he didn’t give her a piece of coal to wave around, but her job was not made easier by the virtual omission of climate change and carbon emissions reduction from the new government’s agenda.
The islands’ prime ministers and presidents are not happy, as their countries are among the first hit by rising sea levels. Concerned about growing Chinese influence, Canberra officials have been working all year on a new security declaration known as “Biketawa Plus” aimed at making Australia the “partner of choice” for the region.
However, Canberra has had to broaden the declaration to include human security, the environment, resilience to natural disasters and climate change among the concerns. As Lowy Institute regional expert Jenny Hayward-Jones points out, the region’s leaders are much less worried about China, and welcome its projects. “Island states, with other aid and investment partners available to them, have more leverage over Australia and New Zealand,” she wrote in The Interpreter blog. “With Australia’s credibility on climate change at its lowest ebb, it is not in a strong position to assert its interests in the region.”
Still nursing new baby Neve, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern attended and assumed regional moral leadership. She said she wanted to meet Australia’s asylum seekers, some of whom her government has offered to take. The Nauruan president, Baron Waqa, was not happy. His officials briefly detained TVNZ reporter Barbara Dreaver for interviewing refugees at their camp, and removed her summit accreditation. Australia’s payments and salaries for the detention operation provide most of Nauru government income.
Africa gets Xi up
In Beijing, Xi Jinping was hosting a summit with African leaders designed to assuage the kind of fears about “debt traps” that some Australian figures have been trying to raise with Pacific leaders.
Xi said China would be handing out another $US60 billion in aid to African countries – “no strings attached” and not for “vanity projects” − and would waive repayment of existing loans to the smaller and weaker states. He made it clear this largesse was available only to countries that did not formally recognise Taiwan. As only one African country, eSwatini – formerly Swaziland – recognises Taipei as against 53 linked to the People’s Republic, this is not much of a barrier to expanding Chinese influence.
In the Pacific, it’s more of a hurdle, with Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu forming the largest regional bloc of the 17 countries still recognising the Taiwan government. Nauru’s Waqa rubbed it in by insisting Chinese officials coming to observe this week’s forum meeting could not have their visas stamped in diplomatic passports. But increasingly these states will feel they are missing out on the Beijing bonanza.
China’s heavy hand
Even in Africa, Chinese diplomacy can be a bit too heavy-handed, however, as shown in a recent report by The Namibian newspaper.
Ahead of the China–Africa summit, the Chinese ambassador in Windhoek, Zhang Yiming, called on President Hage Geingob to discuss his impending speech on behalf of the southern group of African countries. He suggested it might go something along the lines of what a good job China was doing in Africa. “Zhang further proposed that Geingob should affirm Africa’s political support for China and that of Namibia, since he was ‘a statesman’,” The Namibian reported.
This did not go down well with the president of this country of three million people, despite Beijing offering to build a new airport and send more tourists. “I have my speechwriters – they will handle it,” Geingob replied. “You should not tell us what we should do. We are not puppets. Let’s talk about the program of the summit.” Zhang said he had already “conveyed” his suggestion to the presidential speechwriters.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "Trump snubs Asia-Pacific for parade".
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