Joko Widodo’s change of heart on Abu Bakar Bashir. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro addresses Davos. How Brexit may have rekindled the Troubles in Northern Ireland. By Jonathan Pearlman.

New whirled order

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets Chinese President Xi Jinping this month at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Credit: Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP


The global fallout of America’s clashes with rising powers.

Pyongyang: A slow-moving armour-plated train was seen entering China from North Korea earlier this month – the telltale sign of a visit by its leader Kim Jong-un, who reportedly fears flying and shares the family’s traditional preference for rail. North Korean media claimed Kim was making a four-day visit to Beijing, though 40 of the trip’s 67 hours were spent on the train.

Kim’s visit to meet with Xi Jinping – his fourth in a year – paved the way for an announcement on January 18 that he and Donald Trump will meet for a second summit next month. Vietnam has been named as a possible venue.

At their first summit last year in Singapore, Trump, despite his ghostwritten guide to deal-making, proved to be a terrible negotiator. Following a grandiose 12-second handshake with Kim, Trump voluntarily announced that he would suspend military exercises with South Korea on the peninsula and walked away with a vague promise of denuclearisation that contained no details about timetables or monitoring. Kim has not conducted nuclear or missile tests since the summit but has not offered any significant concessions towards dismantling his weapons program.

But the other figure hovering over this second summit is Xi.

The summit is scheduled for late February, just days before a deadline expires for resolving the United States–China trade war. After March 1, the US is due to raise tariffs on $US200 billion worth of Chinese goods, which would have a dramatic effect on the global economy.

The battle is starting to hurt both countries: China revealed this week that its growth last year was 6.6 per cent, its lowest since 1990.

Xi has so far refused Trump’s trade demands. But he has sway over Kim, not least because China accounts for 94 per cent of North Korea’s trade.

The worry, especially for countries such as South Korea and Japan which are potential targets of North Korean weapons, is that Trump will make further unnecessary concessions in the nuclear talks in return for a trade compromise with China. The other worry: the world now faces “fire and fury” on two fronts.


The Pacific and Australia’s changing role in its region.

Jakarta: For decades, Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian spiritual leader of the group behind the 2002 Bali bombings, has been in and out of prison on various charges relating to violent extremism.

This week, the radical cleric was about to walk free, yet again, after Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, agreed to grant parole to the 81-year-old for humanitarian and health reasons.

But Jokowi’s attempt to placate Islamist hardliners and to keep one of his smaller coalition partners onside, ahead of a looming election, quickly backfired. Following heavy domestic and international criticism, including from within the president’s office, he insisted that Bashir, like other terrorism-related prisoners seeking parole, must pledge loyalty to Indonesia and to the state ideology – a directive the cleric has refused. Bashir remains behind bars.

Jokowi had clearly misjudged the political mood and the risks to his image as a cleanskin reformer.

Indonesia has a young population, including tens of millions of people who in April will be voting for the first or second time.

Professor Greg Barton, of Deakin University’s Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, said the release of Bashir threatened to damage Jokowi’s reputation among these younger voters, who are crucial to his re-election.

“The so-called millennial voters tend to be more moderate, if not progressive,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“They saw Jokowi as more democratic and progressive than Prabowo [his opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto]. The risk is that they won’t turn out if he is seen to be rolling over because of religious hardliners and party manoeuvring.”

Jokowi, who is well ahead in the polls, is also keen to ward off one of his most serious threats: fake news. Social media is hugely popular in Indonesia and has been ably deployed to destroy political contenders. Before the 2014 election, for instance, Jokowi faced rumours that he was secretly a Christian.

The president is taking no chances and chose a conservative Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate. But the release of Bashir was a poorly judged and potentially costly misstep, and it demonstrated the difficulties of treading between hardliners and moderates in today’s Indonesia.


Illiberalism, nationalism and the modern dictator.

Davos: A mix of world leaders, corporate bosses, celebrities and activists descended this week on the Swiss alpine village of Davos, the scene of a strange yearly forum that somehow combines shameless elitism – corporate partnerships cost up to 600,000 Swiss francs – and a commitment to cosmopolitan liberalism.

But this year has been marked by its notable absences, which, as CNN puts it, “reflects the world in a state of crisis”. Trump is dealing with a US government shutdown, Xi with a weakening economy, India’s Narendra Modi with elections, Britain’s Theresa May with Brexit, and France’s Emmanuel Macron with civil unrest.

One of the most powerful leaders to appear was Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, a Trump devotee who supports torture and gun rights, opposes climate change action and protections for the Amazon rainforest, and has made incendiary comments about women, homosexuality, black people, immigrants, minorities and indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro, making his debut on the world stage, spoke for just six minutes at Davos, limiting himself to platitudes, plus an attack on the left and a promise that “Our motto is ‘God above all things’.” His vice-president had reportedly said Bolsonaro would use the speech to show that “he isn’t Attila the Hun”. But observers were unimpressed. “He scares me,” Nobel-winning economist Robert Shiller told a Brazilian newspaper.

Bolsonaro is just weeks into a four-year term as head of the world’s sixth-most populous country. Turning up at Davos helped him to capture the spotlight and, perhaps with an eye on foreign investors, he toned down his invective. But his capacity to surprise may be limited: these days, on the world stage, his authoritarian bent no longer seems an anomaly.


Derry/London: Last weekend, far from Westminster, a group of men ordered a pizza delivery to a home in Derry in Northern Ireland, where they put on masks, forced the driver out at gunpoint and filled the car with explosives. One of the men drove the car inside the old city walls and left it outside the main courthouse.

Shortly after, the group called a local charity to warn of the bomb. This was passed on to police, who had already spotted the strangely parked car and begun an evacuation.

The car exploded at 8.09pm last Saturday night. Nobody was injured, but the damage was done. As a veteran local journalist told The Irish Times: “It’s a long time since I’ve stood at a cordon like this on a Saturday night.”

The bombing, believed to be by a group called the New IRA, raised fears that the Troubles – as the conflict over whether Northern Ireland should form part of Britain or Ireland is known – are not completely over. But it also exacerbated the political chaos in London by crudely demonstrating the risks of the so-called “backstop” – the issue that has proved to be the great stumbling block to a final deal on Brexit.

Memories of the Troubles, which left about 3700 people dead between 1968 and the signing of a peace accord in 1998, are the reason Britain and the European Union are so determined to avoid the resurrection of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The problem, which so few people seem to have considered in the heady rush to somehow reclaim British national pride by making it smaller and more isolated, is that Ireland is part of the EU and the Brexit referendum was effectively a vote to restore a border.

The dilemma prompted Theresa May to propose keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU until a compromise could be found. But most MPs, and the public, hated this proposal. May is now desperately trying to save her job and Brexit and has promised to find a new Irish compromise. The pizza van bombing was a worrying reminder of the fragility of Ireland’s peace and of how intricate political deals are often at the mercy of destructive extremists, and of how the finer points of the backstop impasse are tearing Britain apart.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "New whirled order".

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