West losing its grip on the global order
Germany: Since 1963, world leaders have gathered in Munich each year for a conference, attempting to jointly resolve sources of conflict. Known as the Munich Security Conference, it was originally intended to bind the United States and its European allies closer together as they attempted to forge a united Western front during the Cold War.
But this year’s conference, held last weekend, achieved the opposite outcome: it demonstrated the collapse of ties between the United States and Europe since the election of Donald Trump. This schism was on open display, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice-President Mike Pence gave successive addresses that demonstrated two irreconcilable world views, including sharp differences on climate change, trade and the Iran nuclear deal.
In an unusual move, Merkel dispensed with a script as she delivered a rousing tirade against world leaders whose selfishness and belligerence is undermining global peace and stability. She denounced the White House’s “home alone” approach to foreign affairs, criticising its tariffs and troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. The US-led global order, Merkel said, had “collapsed into many tiny parts”. The speech received a standing ovation, except from Ivanka Trump and Pence, who remained silent.
In his speech, Pence, to a thin smattering of applause, attacked European nations for failing to spend enough on defence and for considering major arms purchases from Russia. “We cannot ensure the defence of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East,” Pence said.
The three-day conference showed that – as its chair Wolfgang Ischinger lamented – the global order in which Western powers led a united push for liberal values was falling apart. “An era is ending,” Ischinger wrote in the Berliner Morgenpost. “And the rough outlines of a new political age are only beginning to emerge.”
China: The Australian dollar fell on Thursday, after it was confirmed that China’s northern Dalian ports have banned imports of coal from Australia indefinitely. The news comes as Australian coal imports face customs delays of up to 45 days elsewhere in China. Analysts say the ban is due to rising political tensions between Australia and China. Both the barring of telco Huawei from Australia’s 5G upgrade and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s allusion to Beijing playing a role in the recent cyber attack on parliament house have been criticised heavily by Chinese state media. The broader ramifications are not yet clear.
Meanwhile, almost five hours into a recent Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Shanghai, passengers were informed that the plane had not been given permission to land in China and was returning to New Zealand. Apparently, there was a problem with the airline’s paperwork, which had angered China by including a reference to Taiwan.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, quickly denied suggestions the turnback reflected a deeper rift between New Zealand and China. Relations between the countries have been strained since New Zealand also deemed Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei a security risk and excluded it from involvement in a 5G wireless network upgrade.
Other countries, including Australia, have also barred Huawei. But analysts in New Zealand have long feared that, as a smaller Western country, it could be used as a sort of testing ground for retribution by Beijing.
The plane episode was quickly followed by other signs of discord. The launch in Wellington of a much-hyped campaign to promote Chinese tourism was postponed, after Beijing suddenly refused to send senior officials. Ardern blamed scheduling problems. She has also reportedly been unable to arrange a trip to China to meet President Xi Jinping – she again blamed scheduling. Then China’s strident Global Times newspaper reported tourists were staying away from New Zealand because of the Huawei decision. “New Zealand stabbed us in the back but asks for our money?” a Beijing resident told the newspaper. “This is double-faced.”
As is common with such Beijing clashes, most experts said it was not clear exactly why China was aggrieved, or whether the Air New Zealand turnback and other incidents were deliberate rebukes. Earlier this week, Ardern said Huawei may yet be allowed to develop the 5G network in New Zealand. She insisted that, “despite those complexities”, ties with China are strong.
The Philippines: After being named a Time magazine person of the year in 2018, Maria Ressa, a prominent Filipino journalist, said her 33 years covering wars and terrorism were “easy” compared with her current challenge – reporting on corruption and extrajudicial killings under president Rodrigo Duterte.
Ressa, previously a CNN bureau chief, is the co-founder of Rappler, a news site which launched in 2012 and has been highly critical of Duterte’s brutal rule in the Philippines.
The site and its journalists have been relentlessly attacked by Duterte, after reporting critically on his violent anti-drug crackdown, which has led to the deaths of at least 12,000 people.
In December, Ressa was charged with tax fraud offences that could shut her website down. And she has now been charged with “cyber libel” over a 2012 story about alleged ties between a judge and a businessman with alleged links to human trafficking and drug smuggling.
After her arrest, Ressa spent the night in jail and, when released the next morning on bail, went straight back to the newsroom. “No amount of legal cases, black propaganda and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line,” she said in a statement.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, journalist organisations and rights groups have all condemned her arrest. “This is brazenly politically motivated,” said Butch Olano of Amnesty International Philippines.
Duterte’s assault on his critics extends beyond Rappler. Other reporters, lawyers and activists have also been targeted.
On Tuesday, Duterte’s office denied that he was trying to silence Ressa. “The administration should not be blamed if it enforces the law more rigorously than its predecessors,” his spokesperson said.
Donald Trump has often complained about the awarding of a Nobel peace prize to Barack Obama in 2009. “They’ll never give it to me,” Trump lamented to The New York Post in November, before immediately griping about the failure to give him an Emmy Award for The Apprentice.
Now, it turns out Trump has been nominated for this year’s peace prize – apparently after the White House “informally” asked Japan to nominate him.
Trump disclosed his candidacy at a recent press conference, saying he had been given a copy of the “beautiful” five-page nomination letter written by Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe. The letter apparently praises Trump for seeking a nuclear deal with North Korea.
“... he [Abe] had missiles flying over Japan,” Trump said. “Now, all of a sudden … they feel safe. I did that.”
Abe refused to publicly confirm he had nominated Trump, citing the Nobel committee’s policy of not naming those who make recommendations.
But the endorsement is entirely consistent with Abe’s shameless approach to Trump. After Trump’s election, Abe famously rushed to the US and became the first leader to meet with him before presenting the president-elect with a golden golf club worth $US3755.
But the sycophancy stems from anxiety. Abe, a staunch supporter of Washington, is worried about Trump, who has questioned the value of the US–Japan alliance and has targeted Tokyo as part of his trade war. Abe also fears Trump will overlook Japan’s security needs in his desperation to reach a prizewinning deal with North Korea.
It is too soon to tell whether Abe’s efforts will reap any special benefits from Trump, who noted that he also deserves a Nobel for his handling of the war in Syria.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "West losing its grip on the global order ". Subscribe here.