World

China–US trade war ramping up. Fiji holds forum on climate change. Philippine midterm election results. Trump pressures Iran. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Midterms shore up Duterte stronghold

Manila election workers feed ballot papers into a vote-counting machine during the country’s midterm elections this week.
Credit: AP Photo / Aaron Favila

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: The world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, are locked in a destructive trade war that is deteriorating and threatening to undermine global economic stability. “We’re having a little squabble with China,” Donald Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

The latest skirmish involved China’s decision this week to impose tariffs on $US60 billion of American imports from June 1 – a retaliation against Trump’s decision to place 25 per cent tariffs on $US200 billion of Chinese imports. The moves caused sharemarket tumbles and currency fluctuations, and angered struggling American farmers, many of whom will now lose their biggest customer.

But there were also worrying signs that China’s relatively restrained approach to the war is ending, and that Beijing – like Trump – will rally support for this self-destructive battle of wills by appealing to nationalist sentiment. In an impassioned report on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Kang Hui, a prominent news anchor, said the US-initiated battle was “an important unifying juncture in China’s development”. “After 5000 years of trials and tribulations, what kind of battle have the Chinese people not been through?” he said. His dispatch went viral on social media – a hashtag for it was shared three billion times.

Trump is convinced he will win, but it is not clear what he regards as victory. His original aim was to reduce the US’s trade deficit with China, which is occurring, although the overall US deficit is rising as Americans seek imports from elsewhere. He also wants to improve access to China for US companies, particularly in the technology sector. But some of his advisers want to go further and to weaken China’s economy to try to contain its growing global power.

Trump’s trade war is splitting the 20-plus pool of Democratic presidential contenders, with progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tending to back anti-China trade moves and more conservative candidates such as Joe Biden resorting to traditional appeals for free trade. The rising tariffs are also causing growing concern in countries such as Australia, whose mining, international education and tourism sectors depend on Chinese demand. Analysis by KPMG last year indicated that prolonged US–China tariffs could cost Australia $A58 billion over the next decade.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Fiji: Beside a quiet bay on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, tall grass and creeping shrubs have begun to hide the dilapidated wrecks of dozens of houses that once belonged to the more than 100 residents of Vunidogoloa, a small fishing and farming village. The residents now live in a batch of newer houses on an inland hillside about two kilometres away, safely distant from the eroding shoreline and the king tides that regularly forced locals to leave their homes by boat. The residents moved five years ago, becoming the first community in Fiji to relocate because of the impacts of climate change. Since then, three other villages have relocated. Fiji’s government believes another 80 villages are at risk.

Not surprisingly, Fiji has been at the forefront of efforts by Pacific island nations to demand the international community take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. “We want people to care that some small islands could disappear altogether,” Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama told a climate action meeting on Monday. “This is not our crisis alone … This is everyone’s crisis.”

On Wednesday, Fiji hosted a summit of the Pacific Islands Forum to address climate change. This was the first forum attended by the current United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, who also visited New Zealand, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. “The paradox is that as things are getting worse on the ground, political will seems to be fading,” Guterres said in New Zealand. He praised New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent move to set a national target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. His climate change itinerary did not include a visit to Australia.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Philippines: Since he was elected three years ago, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a murderous crackdown on the drug trade that has involved extrajudicial mass killings and left as many as 20,000 people dead. He has attacked judges, journalists, human rights groups and the United Nations, while issuing a steady stream of sexist and misogynistic invective. Yet his approval ratings are about 80 per cent, apparently due to support for his authoritarian approach and defiant bluster, as well as a growing economy and falling poverty rates.

However, Duterte has not been able to carry out some of the more excessive elements of his agenda, such as introducing the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12. This is partly due to the 24-member senate, which – until this week – had been relatively independent.

On Monday, the nation of 106 million people held midterm elections, which included ballots for 12 crucial senate seats. Initial results indicated Duterte’s allies had picked up at least nine seats. The winners included Duterte’s former personal aide, Bong Go, and the police chief who oversaw his drug war, Ronald dela Rosa.

The results were also seen as a victory for Duterte’s eldest daughter, Sara Duterte, who was easily re-elected as mayor of Davao City, a position previously held by her father. Sara campaigned heavily on behalf of the bulk of the winning candidates and is seen as a potential presidential successor to her father. If elected, Sara would not only be able to perpetuate Duterte’s drug war but could try to protect him from international prosecution for crimes against humanity after he steps down, as required under the constitution, in 2022.

SPOTLIGHT: NUCLEAR TENSION

Iran: In February, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, marked the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution by releasing a video message addressed to the ayatollah of Iran. Speaking directly to the camera, Bolton accused the regime of tyrannising the Iranian people and terrorising the world, before adding: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”

In recent weeks, the White House has demonstrated that this threat was not merely rhetorical. On May 5, Bolton revealed the US had dispatched an aircraft carrier and an air force bomber group to the Persian Gulf. These have since been joined by another warship and a missile defence system. In response, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said the US presence was not seen as a threat but a target. “If [the Americans] make a move, we will hit them in the head,” said Amirali Hajizadeh.

The US build-up has been accompanied by new sanctions that it says are designed to topple the Iranian regime, or to pressure it to abandon its nuclear and long-range weapons programs and end its support for regional extremists.

This “maximum pressure” campaign comes a year after Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal that Iran reached with the US and other world powers in 2015. International inspectors have confirmed Iran has been complying with the agreement. But critics believe it is too weak and will not prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons or destabilising the region.

One of the leading critics is Bolton, who has insisted for years that sanctions and diplomacy will not persuade Iran to end its nuclear program. In 2015, as a think-tank fellow, he wrote in The New York Times that “only military action … can accomplish what is required”.

The US’s tough new measures have crippled the Iranian economy but have not persuaded it to renegotiate the 2015 deal. Instead, Iran indicated earlier this month that it will stop complying with parts of the deal.

Analysts say the best hope of a resolution is a diplomatic solution, possibly through talks between Iran and the remaining parties to the 2015 deal. Meanwhile, the US and Iran are trading threats, just as their forces in the Gulf draw closer. Bolton has warned that any Iranian attack on the US or its allies will be met with “unrelenting force”. This week, two tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia – Iran’s regional rival – were attacked. Iran denied responsibility but unnamed US officials blamed Iran or Iranian proxies. This did not trigger a US response, however it went dangerously close to crossing Bolton’s threshold.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Midterms shore up Duterte stronghold". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.