Awkward meetings at the G20
Handshakes must be awkward at the Group of 20 summit that got under way in Buenos Aires on Friday and continues on Saturday.
Does Theresa May shake hands with Vladimir Putin, after his military intelligence sent a team to try to murder the Skripals with Novichok only in March? Or even with Donald Trump, who said her transitional Brexit agreement with the European Union “sounds like a great deal for the EU” – wonderful support as she desperately tries to marshal backing for the House of Commons vote on it on December 11.
And who wants to be photographed in a clutch with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, plausibly accused of ordering the gruesome killing of his critic Jamal Khashoggi?
The summit itself is usually an anodyne affair, joining the developed world and the larger emerging economies in a paean for free trade. The action is on the sidelines, in the bilateral meetings to sort out pressing issues. Unless the White House priorities can be adjusted, Scott Morrison is not scheduled for a bilateral with Donald Trump, who is making time for the leaders of Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Turkey and Japan. Trump is also holding a joint session with Japan’s Shinzō Abe and India’s Narendra Modi, suggesting the strategic Indo-Pacific “quadrilateral” is more of a trilateral for Washington.
The main tango will be on Saturday night, when Trump has dinner with China’s Xi Jinping. Trump is hoping Xi will blink in the trade war, and offer concessions on the transfer of intellectual property Beijing requires of foreign investors and promises to stop intelligence targeting of United States technology.
Unless he gets such concessions, Trump told The Wall Street Journal, he is “highly unlikely” to delay the planned raising of special tariffs on $US250 billion of US imports from China, from the current 10 per cent to 25 per cent on January 1. He would also up the pressure. “If we don’t make a deal, then I’m going to put the $267 billion additional on,” Trump said, referring to the remainder of imports from China.
Morrison will be anxiously awaiting the outcome. In China, steel prices have recently dropped sharply from fears of a deepening trade war. The price of iron ore has followed them down. If this fall is sustained, Morrison’s hopes of being able to announce a return to surplus in the 2019-20 budget could be dashed.
Nothing can bring Khashoggi back to life, and the chances of getting the Saudi crown prince to confess or of Trump getting him disinherited are remote. But the infamy put on Mohammed bin Salman by the murder gives leverage to end his appalling war in Yemen.
It allowed the US defence secretary, James Mattis, to quietly end the US air refuelling of Saudi and Emirati bombers that, according to Human Rights Watch, have carried out up to 90 “apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes” which “hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques”. United Nations agencies and other organisations had identified scores of others, the group said.
As harrowing pictures of skeletal Yemeni children attest, the Saudi-led air and ground attacks on the Iran-backed Houthi forces controlling the north of the country, and a naval blockade, have created a mass famine. About 8.5 million of the estimated 29 million population rely on the UN’s World Food Programme, which recently forecast another 5.6 million would soon need help to survive.
The crown prince launched the campaign three-and-a-half years ago in his then capacity as Saudi Arabia’s defence minister. It has since become a major embarrassment for the US and European powers, who’ve been averting their eyes or giving some aid while continuing the lucrative trade of selling arms to the Saudis and their Gulf allies.
Back in DC, things are not going too well for Trump, despite his claims that retaining a senate majority for the Republicans while losing the lower house in the midterm congressional elections last month was an amazing victory.
His former presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is in deeper water after prosecutors with Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian assistance to the campaign accused him of breaching his plea bargain by repeated “crimes and lies” on “a variety of subjects” during questioning. All promises are off, the prosecutors said, but Manafort can’t change his guilty plea. The heat is really on him to tell all.
Separately, The Guardian reported that Manafort had visited Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in March 2016, just before the flow of Democrat emails hacked by Russian operatives started via WikiLeaks.
Trump’s claim to be protecting manufacturing jobs also came into question. General Motors said it was ceasing production at four car plants in the northern states and one in Canada due to falling demand for small cars. About 3300 US production workers and 2500 in Canada will be laid off, plus about 8000 other staff. Ford and Fiat Chrysler also announced cuts earlier in the year.
But in the Deep South, the Republicans are holding on. In a runoff for a US senate seat in Mississippi on Tuesday, incumbent Republican senator Cindy Hyde-Smith handily beat her Democrat rival Mike Espy, an African American, affirming the Republicans now have 53 of the 100 Senate seats, up from 51.
A product of private colleges set up to avoid desegregated public schools, Hyde-Smith ran a racism-tinged campaign, at one point posing with a supporter and saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Apparently to make the point to black voters, people have been hanging nooses from trees around the state’s legislature. The Equal Justice Initiative has listed 654 lynchings in Mississippi between 1877 and 1950.
The stronger than expected midterm result for the Democrats in the house of representatives, bringing an influx of young faces, has also brought new dilemmas about how to play the role of opposition to Trump.
This week the lower house leader of the past 15 years, Nancy Pelosi, has been fighting off challengers from two groups of congress members. One 16-member group wants the 78-year-old to step aside for a younger generation. Another of nine members wants her to agree to rule changes to promote bipartisan legislation. She won the caucus vote on Wednesday, but 32 members voted against her and three cast blank ballots. When the new House meets in January, Pelosi needs to win over at least 15 of the dissenters to get the 218-vote bare majority to become speaker again. She still has a lot of persuasion ahead. An endorsement by Trump has not been helpful among the party’s progressives.
The outcome will influence how the Democrats handle things towards the 2020 presidential election. Unless Mueller comes up with direct Russian collusion, or Trump commits a “gross crime or misdemeanour” worse than the usual, impeachment by the house is out, as the trial would probably founder in the senate.
The pressure on Pelosi reflects two viewpoints. One thinks a stridently anti-Trump stance would play badly with the American public, which sees Washington “gridlocked” by politics. Better to be constructive on things such as infrastructure and medical insurance. The other, articulated by Senator Bernie Sanders in a recent Washington Post article, calls for Democrats to delineate their party as progressive.
He urged policies of doubling the minimum wage, Medicare and other social security for all, making the wealthy pay more tax, free tuition at public universities, legalising undocumented immigrants, lowering imprisonment rates and action on climate change. At 77, Sanders is showing it’s possible to be both old and bold.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Red right hand". Subscribe here.