World

Italy moves to join Belt and Road Initiative. Taiwanese leader wooing independence allies. Prayuth Chan-ocha recasting his image for Thai election. The Macron Show tours France to assuage protesters. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Grand debate quiets Macron detractors

French president Emmanuel Macron gestures during a “grand débat” meeting in Évry-Courcouronnes last month.
Credit: Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Italy: When Italy recently announced a new “citizen’s income” scheme to provide extra welfare payments for groceries, rent and medicine, Rosario Morrone rushed to her local employment centre in Rome to sign up. Morrone, 60, has been out of work for 25 years. “My main interest is to go back to work,” she told a reporter from Associated Press.

Italy is in recession and has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, including a youth jobless rate of 33 per cent. To try to boost his country’s fortunes, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is now pursuing a surprising plan – signing up to China’s globe-spanning trade and infrastructure scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Conte was expected to sign a preliminary deal with China this week during a trip to Italy by Xi Jinping, who was due to visit from Thursday to Sunday.

Italy’s membership in the BRI would mark a coup for China. It would be the largest economy – and the first member of the G7 – to sign up to the scheme.

Unsurprisingly, Italy’s move, which comes just as Washington is locked in a trade war with Beijing – has outraged the United States. The US view is that the BRI is primarily designed to boost China’s global power and influence, rather than being an initiative to promote trade. And China has long wanted to include a large economy in the BRI.

“Endorsing BRI lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people,” the US National Security Council said in a tweet.

Conte, an avowed populist and admirer of Donald Trump, has insisted Italy remains a strong backer of the US. Others within the Italian government are opposed to the China deal, though, and may yet undo it. Conte hopes that joining the BRI could deliver extra investment and boost Italy’s relatively slim trade with China, not least because he desperately needs to address the rising number of Italians living in poverty.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Taiwan: Small island states in the Pacific have long been the staging ground for a diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan, which both use aid and grants to try to buy recognition and support in the United Nations and elsewhere. But this use of so-called “chequebook diplomacy” has been intensifying, as China has succeeded in gradually peeling away several supporters of Taiwan around the world.

Taiwan now has less than 20 diplomatic allies left – and six of them are in the Pacific. But the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, is not giving up.

On Thursday, Tsai began an eight-day Pacific trip to Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands – three countries that do not often feature on the itineraries of world leaders. But late last year, the trio proved useful in pushing back against China’s reported effort to seek exclusive recognition from the Pacific Islands Forum, an 18-member Pacific-based grouping. And all three countries have upcoming elections, which could prompt debate about their allegiances.

Earlier this month, Tsai said that preventing Chinese interference was Taiwan’s “number one priority national security issue right now”.

China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway Chinese territory, has increased efforts to poach Taiwan’s allies since the election of Tsai, who supports Taiwanese independence.

At least four countries have switched their allegiances to China in the past three years, including, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador most recently. The next to change could be the Solomon Islands, where politicians have been suggesting that China’s rise makes it impossible to overlook, particularly as China is now easily its largest trading partner. Solomon Islands prime minister Rick Hou has said he will review the alliance after the next election, which is due to be held on April 3.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Thailand: Ahead of an election on Sunday, Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been cavorting across the country, posting selfies on Instagram, hugging children and – during a visit to his home province – crooning a love song. Though he still strains to smile and seems most comfortable in uniform, the 64-year-old general, who took power in a 2014 coup, has been unashamedly campaigning and trying hard to recast
his image.

But this should not be mistaken for a fair, democratic election. The ballot itself is not expected to be subject to significant interference. Like every election since 2001, parties affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire and former populist prime minister who is now in exile, are likely to win. Yet Prayuth, and his military regime, are expected to retain power.

A new constitution – Thailand’s 20th since 1932 – allows the military to appoint 250 of the 750 parliamentary members. So, Prayuth’s party needs to win just 126 of the 500 elected seats to win. In addition, a court dissolved a popular Thaksin-affiliated party, and a prominent anti-junta party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged after broadcasting a video on Facebook that criticised the regime.

The election is unlikely to settle the tension that has divided the nation for almost 20 years – the rift between the military and its royalist and middle-class supporters, based in Bangkok, and Thaksin and his poorer, rural-based supporters.

Thaksin was an authoritarian ruler who championed causes of the poor but also violated civil rights, particularly during his anti-drugs crusade. Yet the military has been unable to suppress his political machine. Most analysts say the political turmoil in this country of 69 million people will worsen after the election – and it is this instability that the military has always pointed to as the basis for its continued rule.

SPOTLIGHT: GRAND DEBAT

Late last year, a series of mass rallies, some violent, broke out across France to demand that president Emmanuel Macron address rising inequality, taxation and costs of living. Motivated by Macron’s proposed fuel tax increases, the protesters named themselves gilets jaunes, after the high-visibility yellow vests that all drivers must keep in their vehicles for emergencies.

Initially, Macron tried to address the concerns by announcing tax cuts and pay rises. But the protests continued.

Then, he announced his plan for a “grand débat” – a two-month listening tour, in which residents across the country would meet to discuss issues such as taxes, public services, immigration and democratic participation. The debates finished at the weekend. More than 10,000 sessions were held and 1.5 million individual contributions registered, all recorded by local officials who will report back to the government on the numerous proposals and grievances.

Macron may ignore the proposals and his motivations in announcing the exercise may have been self-serving – his appearance at several debates with a hand-held microphone and sleeves rolled up was dubbed “The Macron Show” – yet most observers believe they were a success. At a time when governments everywhere face alienated voters, the debates allowed citizens of all ages in all locations to speak out and engage with local officials. The debates have reversed Macron’s slide in the polls and they have also blunted some of the public fury behind the yellow vest movement.

But the protests have continued, albeit with smaller numbers. Last weekend, about 32,000 yellow vesters protested, leading to a riot on the Champs-Elysées. In the wake of the protest, Macron had to cut short a skiing trip. But this was far fewer than the 100,000 people who attended a separate climate change march. Still, Macron may not like what he hears. Regular contributions have included calls for him to reinstate a wealth tax, which he abolished, and to cut his lavish spending on such items as a 1200-piece crockery set and other accoutrements at the presidential palace. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Grand debate quiets Macron detractors". Subscribe here.

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