World

Trump’s undiplomatic visit to Japan. New PNG prime minister. Brexit Party gains EU seats. Narendra Modi’s mandate for India. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Brexit Party hearty after European vote

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (second left) and newly elected members of the European Parliament from his party in a celebratory mood this week.
Credit: Henry Nicholls / Reuters

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Japan: In the 1980s, Donald Trump signalled he was interested in pursuing a political career by delivering a series of attacks against United States allies and trade partners. His main target was Japan, which he accused of “ripping off” the US through its trade imbalance and of failing to pay enough for America’s security umbrella. “They laugh at us behind our backs,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 1987.

Following Trump’s election victory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, keen to avoid a trade war and keep the US committed to its military presence in Asia as China rises, became the first leader to visit the president-elect. Abe has since launched a desperate diplomatic campaign to flatter and bestow gifts on Trump, whose narcissism, it turns out, may be unquenchable.

This week, Trump, who does not like to travel, visited Japan for four days. He became the first foreign leader to have an audience with the new emperor, attended a sumo match where he presented a 137-centimetre trophy for a championship reportedly invented for his visit, and played golf with Abe, followed by a double cheeseburger featuring US beef.

But the results, for Japan, were questionable. Abe is deeply worried about Trump’s attempt to reach a potentially flawed deal with North Korea, whose test missiles have flown over Japan. Recently, North Korea launched fresh tests, which Abe described as “extremely regrettable”. Yet Trump, in Tokyo, disagreed. “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” he said in a tweet on the second day of his visit. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”

Later, Trump said the US trade imbalance with Japan was “unbelievably large” and suggested America’s security backing of Japan depended on the outcome of their trade battle. He said a deal may be possible by August but officials in Tokyo were sceptical.

Before Trump left, Abe described the visit as “a golden opportunity to clearly show the unshakeable bond to the whole world and inside Japan as well”. But the pomp could not disguise the fissures, or Trump’s preference for praising enemies before friends.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Papua New Guinea: In April, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, held a ceremony in Port Moresby to mark the signing of a $16 billion liquefied natural gas deal with France’s Total, ExxonMobil and locally based Oil Search. But the deal was criticised for failing to guarantee adequate jobs and revenue for local communities. These concerns capped growing opposition to O’Neill over alleged corruption, growing public debt and a failure to consult MPs.

On Wednesday, O’Neill, facing a no-confidence vote, resigned. He had previously handed the leadership to Sir Julius Chan, who denied he had taken the position.

The turmoil follows a period of relative political stability for the nation of eight million people. O’Neill has been in office for seven years, marking the second-longest term since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975.

Despite attracting growing investment and loans, especially from China, he has been criticised for failing to improve health and education systems and for lavish spending on high-profile events such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ forum. He was widely praised for creating an effective anti-corruption agency but then dismantled it after the agency investigated him over an alleged fraud.

O’Neill’s departure is unlikely to end either his aspirations or the recent turmoil in Port Moresby. Sudden transitions of power there can take time to resolve, even if the catalysts – alleged corruption, misrule or cosy ties to foreign interests – rarely seem to change.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Britain: Nigel Farage has represented south-east England in the European Parliament since 1999, but this has not stopped him from leading the push for Britain to leave the European Union. In 2016, he famously told his fellow European parliamentarians that “virtually none” of them had held “proper jobs”.

Seven weeks ago, Farage, an outspoken nativist and opponent of immigration and multiculturalism, launched the Brexit Party to compete in last weekend’s European Parliament elections. On Monday, results showed his party won, securing 32 per cent of the vote and 29 seats, compared with 16 seats for the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, 10 for Labour, seven for the Greens and just four for the ruling Conservative party.

The result came days after Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation. The Conservatives have failed to deliver Brexit, and now will not elect a new leader until late July. So far, 11 candidates have emerged, including Boris Johnson, the favourite, who must still win the backing of his party. The challenge for the new leader will be to deliver Brexit despite a deeply divided party, parliament and country. This task proved beyond May. It may be beyond anyone.

Farage says his party will compete in the next British election, warning – ominously – that a failure to leave the EU by the latest deadline of October 31 will deliver a huge vote to his party from disgruntled Brexit supporters.

Outside Britain, the European elections signalled similar political upheavals as centre-right and centre-left groups lost their longstanding combined majority. Far-right and nationalist parties performed well in France, Italy and Poland, but – overall – did not gain significant seats. One of the biggest winners was the Greens with 70 members in the 751-seat assembly on strong results in Germany. This will make them a potential coalition partner. The party has already signalled it wants tougher action on climate change, particularly in the farming and aviation sectors. Beyond Brexit, the EU is moving on.

SPOTLIGHT: MODI’S INDIA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited leaders of various surrounding countries to his swearing-in on Thursday, with one notable exception – Pakistan’s Imran Khan.

Modi’s win, confirmed on May 23, was spectacular. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won 303 out of 542 seats, up from 282 in 2014. On Monday, visiting his electorate of Varanasi, Modi said it marked a victory of common workers over pundits. “Chemistry has defeated arithmetic,” he said.

Actually, most observers suggested nationalism had defeated economics. Modi won a first term on a promise to boost jobs, but his record is mixed. Unemployment is rising, farmers are struggling and growth has slowed, albeit to a yearly rate of almost 7 per cent.

But Modi turned around his political fortunes in February when he launched an air attack against alleged militants in Pakistan following a suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Pakistan retaliated, bringing the two nuclear-armed states to the brink.

The standoff added to Modi’s hardline credentials and allowed him to campaign on national security. It also apparently helped him to win over the nation’s crucial millennial voters, who backed him despite India’s rising youth unemployment.

Following his victory, Modi appeared in no hurry to ease tensions with Pakistan. He responded warmly to a congratulatory tweet from Khan. But despite inviting Pakistan’s then leader to his swearing-in in 2014, he pointedly excluded Khan. The snub does not necessarily indicate relations will worsen, but it suggests Modi enters his second term bolder and more defiant.

Modi has won a mandate to tackle corruption and inequality, but his party’s staunch supporters have also endorsed his displays of national pride and moves to transform India into an assertive Hindu state. With his unrivalled power, it is unclear which path the brutally successful politician plans to pursue.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Brexit Party hearty after European vote". Subscribe here.

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