June 9, 2017
April 21, 2017
Soothing East Asia’s Nerves
- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 10-day tour of East Asia will focus primarily on easing uncertainty among U.S. allies about the administration’s policies in the region.
- U.S. moves to contain North Korea and compel China toward cooperation will dominate discussions in Seoul and Tokyo, though tension over the Trump administration’s trade policies will loom large in both visits.
- Indonesia and Australia will remain wary of joining U.S. initiatives that risk provoking China but also receptive to U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for more robust defense cooperation.
Nearly 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, uncertainty over the direction of U.S. policy and its behavior in the Asia-Pacific continues to pervade the region, including among many of Washington’s most important allies. In particular, between Trump’s early calls for strategic partners such Japan and South Korea to cover more of the costs of supporting U.S. troops on their shores, his decision to withdraw the United States from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his administration’s recent statements and actions in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Trump has helped put the typically slow-moving and carefully managed geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific in flux.
In doing so, his administration has arguably opened avenues for progress on issues of longstanding concern to Washington, especially U.S.-China trade relations and North Korean nuclearization. At the same time, the White House’s actions have left countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — traditional linchpins of U.S. strategy in the region — looking for greater stability and predictability from Washington.
US Vice President Mike Pence at The DMZ , South Korea
During his ongoing tour of the region, which started April 15 and will end April 25, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is seeking to project precisely that: a more stable, predictable and reliable United States. In meetings with heads of state and key lawmakers in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia, the Vice President will reaffirm Washington’s commitment to stability in the region and the defense of allies and partners against a range of threats, including North Korea, Chinese maritime expansion and terrorism. Likewise, in scheduled “listening sessions” with business leaders from each country — and, in particular, by formally opening the U.S.-Japanese economic dialogue with Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso — Pence will seek to address regional concerns over Washington’s trade, investment and currency policies and foreground its continued commitment to regional free trade, albeit through avenues other than multilateral pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Notably, on April 18, Pence announced that Washington plans to review and reform the 2007 U.S.-South Korean trade pact.)
To the extent that Pence’s visit is aimed at shoring up Washington’s regional alliances and partnerships, the four stops of his tour share at least one common theme: the goal of countering China’s expanding security footprint in the South and East China seas and, more broadly, to constrain Beijing’s long-term strategy of replacing the United States as the dominant power in East Asia. But each leg of his tour will address a different aspect of this underlying imperative. Like his visit to South Korea on April 16-17, Pence’s subsequent meetings in Tokyo likely will center on managing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and, in Japan’s case, checking Chinese maritime activities in the East China Sea. His meetings in Indonesia and Australia from April 20-23, by contrast, will focus on clarifying Washington’s positions on regional trade and South China Sea security, while smoothing over earlier bumps in relations (in Australia’s case) and offering increased defense support both for maritime and counter-terrorism activities (in Indonesia’s case).
Pence’s Seoul Visit and the North Korean Nuclear Quagmire
Given the visibility and significance of mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is no surprise that South Korea was the first stop on Pence’s tour. His visit, which comes just ahead of the expected arrival in Northeast Asian waters of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group and, more significantly, the North’s ballistic missile test on April 15 — the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung — sought to reaffirm U.S. defense support for South Korea and signal Washington’s willingness to take unilateral military action against the North if diplomacy fails. Such moves are aimed as much at compelling China to step up its own efforts to coerce North Korea as at deterring Pyongyang itself from conducting further nuclear or missile tests. Last week, the semiofficial Chinese news outlet Global Times said China would cut off oil supplies to the North (one of Beijing’s most effective tools of leverage over the Kim government) if Pyongyang conducted additional nuclear tests.
But while China’s tacit announcement, followed with a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, signal burgeoning cooperation, however limited, between Washington and Beijing on North Korea, the situation on the peninsula is highly fraught and fluid. In particular, it remains to be seen whether the United States can compel China to throw its full diplomatic weight behind the effort to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It is also unclear whether China possesses sufficient leverage to compel the North to meaningfully change its behavior.
Washington’s ability to nudge Beijing toward action depends on a number of factors — in particular, what measures the White House has asked the Chinese to take toward Pyongyang and the extent to which Beijing, given its own geopolitical constraints and often countervailing interests, can or is willing to intervene. The Trump administration’s threats to use military force against Pyongyang and its expected positioning of the carrier strike group near the peninsula are likely intended to undercut China’s capacity to parlay its leverage on North Korea into concessions from Washington on other issues. The U.S. moves also raise the direct costs for China of continued intransigence on negotiations with Pyongyang. The prospect of an even greater U.S. defense footprint in South Korea and Japan is deeply worrisome for Beijing, independent of what happens to North Korea. China’s recent statements suggest that Washington’s actions have had some effect. Even so, it is questionable whether any action China takes against North Korea, short of completely cutting off the latter’s economic lifelines, will deter Pyongyang from pursuing a functional nuclear deterrent. In fact, punitive actions by Beijing and increased saber rattling by the United States may only accelerate the North’s nuclear weapons development efforts.
Against this backdrop, Pence’s visit to Seoul served primarily as an opportunity to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the South’s security and, to that end, to shore up political support within South Korea for rapid deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in the face of Chinese economic retaliation. The emphasis on the reliability of U.S. support will carry over into Pence’s visit to Japan from April 18-21. But unlike in South Korea, where Washington must carefully weigh its options against the risks and costs of retaliation by China or further provocations by North Korea, the United States faces fewer such constraints in Japan.
Reflecting the approach of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis during his February visit to Tokyo, Pence will use his time in Japan to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance as foundational to regional stability. In addition, he may urge Tokyo to take on a more prominent and proactive role in maintaining security in the East and South China seas and discuss avenues for future U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation.
Looking South: Indonesia and Australia
US Vice President Mike Pence and his family were taken on a tour of Istiqlal, Indonesia’s biggest mosque, in Jakarta © POOL/AFP / Adek BERRY–Indonesia is a truly moderate Islamic country.
Pence’s discussions on Japan’s expanding diplomatic and security roles in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea will pave the way for the second half of his trip.
Conspicuously, Pence is not visiting Thailand or the Philippines, the United States’ two treaty allies in Southeast Asia, but which have both been tilting slightly toward China. Nor is Pence visiting Vietnam or Malaysia, two parties to the dispute with China over the South China Sea with which the Barack Obama administration was keen to enhance defense ties. What the decision to steer clear of the front lines of the South China Sea dispute signals, if anything, is difficult to say, though the Trump administration appears to be relying increasingly on Japan’s growing influence in these countries to further U.S. regional goals.
Vice President Mike Pence seen with Indonesia’s President Jokowi Widodo gives Malaysia a pass?
But Indonesia and Australia are increasingly pivotal players in the Western Pacific in their own right. In Jakarta, Pence will urge an inward-focused government to embrace the country’s potential role as a regional counterweight to China, a unifying voice within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and a robust check on sources of maritime insecurity. And in Australia, a steadfast treaty ally of the United States, Pence will focus on smoothing over lingering uncertainties about the Trump administration’s commitment to maintaining the U.S.-led economic and security architecture in the Western Pacific — doubts magnified by the famously rocky start to Trump’s relationship with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In particular, Pence will seek to build on the momentum of his lengthy, reportedly fruitful talks with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during her trip to Washington in February.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop meets with US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington. Picture: Yuri Gripas
One important difference between Japan on one hand, and Indonesia and Australia on the other, is that where Tokyo possesses the requisite economic, diplomatic and military power to chart a strategic course openly at odds with Chinese interests, Jakarta and Canberra depend heavily on China for investment and as a market for their raw materials and finished goods. Indonesia and Australia’s interests in maintaining stable, close ties with Beijing will limit their ability and desire to throw their full weight behind U.S.-led efforts to check Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
In fact, though the United States and Indonesia have ample room for cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism, Jakarta remains exceedingly reluctant to entangle itself in regional disputes, and bilateral defense ties are relatively underdeveloped because of past U.S. sanctions over the military’s human rights abuses. (Jakarta’s deep suspicions about Canberra’s strategic intentions have also hindered development of Australian-Indonesian defense cooperation, despite a recent warming of ties.) Meanwhile, entrenched protectionist forces at home limit Indonesia’s ability to diversify its trade relationships and expand its economic influence in Southeast Asia. Australia, for its part, has a geopolitical imperative to ally itself with the world’s foremost naval power, but it, too, remains wary of provoking China, for example by joining U.S. “freedom of navigation operations” aimed at discrediting Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Even so, both countries have powerful incentives to keep the United States close. Though not directly involved in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Australia relies on global sea lines of communication — and the freedom of navigation through them afforded by U.S. protection — as the bedrock of its export-intensive economy. Indonesia, for its part, has stepped up efforts in recent years to defend its territorial claims in areas such as the Natuna Islands against China, as well as Malaysia and Vietnam. For Jakarta, substantially stronger defense ties with the one country capable of enforcing rules and checking Chinese expansionism in the region would be critical in a crisis.
Overall, Pence’s Asia tour is unlikely to bring major policy breakthroughs. Rather, the aim of his visits is to reaffirm the fundamental continuity of U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific and to communicate that while the ways in which Washington wields its power may be subject to modification under the Trump administration, that power and influence will not diminish.
April 12, 2017
Treat IA-CEPA with Caution, says CSIS Researcher
by Rudy Intan
“…the statist–nationalist approach clearly indicates where Indonesia under Jokowi lies with respect to multilateral trade negotiations in the Asia Pacific. As the dust settles on the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan and Australia will be keen to ensure that RCEP includes higher commitments on things like services and investment. China on the other hand is keen to secure an early deal by the end of 2017 that primarily involves reducing tariffs. Jokowi’s approach suggests Jakarta will lean towards Beijing in the contest to shape a trade pact that will cover a third of the world economy and half its population.”–Rudy Intan
Despite the warmth between Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following their February 2017 meeting in Canberra, hopes that the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership (IA-CEPA) will achieve a high quality ‘21st century partnership’ should be treated with caution.
FTAs are generally evaluated differently by their respective countries. In the case of IA-CEPA, Indonesia maintains formidable barriers to sectors of Australian interest such as agriculture, mining and education. Matthew Busch highlights that announced deals to improve access for Australian sugar and cattle do not confront the daunting market access challenges in Indonesia.
The challenges of reaching a meaningful agreement have been well documented. Yet the Jokowi government’s approach to FTAs has so far avoided scrutiny. This is relevant not only for the IA-CEPA but also for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). International economic policy is driven by domestic economic policy concerns. Consequently, Jokowi’s approach to international economic policy is but an extension of his domestic one.
Eve Warburton provides the clearest articulation to date of Jokowi’s approach to economic policy, termed new developmentalism. It is a statist–nationalist mode of thinking focused on ‘infrastructure, deregulation, and de-bureaucratisation’. The approach is statist because it views state intervention as necessary to accelerate national development, with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) acting as growth locomotives. At the same time, it is nationalist because intervention aims to reduce reliance on foreign capital, build state strength, and safeguard sovereignty.
Clear examples of statist–nationalist policy include capital injections and the awarding of strategic projects to SOEs, as well as plans to establish large holding companies in key industries. Recent moves on beef import licenses and an export ban on unprocessed minerals are further illustrations. Other agendas such as anti-corruption and human rights take a back seat to safeguard the political equilibrium created by the administration to accelerate growth.
The statist–nationalist approach is oriented towards delivering short-term victories in the form of tangible economic outcomes. There is speculation that one of the reasons the Jakarta–Bandung high-speed rail project was awarded to Chinese developers over a Japanese company was the former’s promise to deliver results before the next election, with construction to finish in 2018 and the line operational in 2019.
By extending these priorities into international economy policy, how Jokowi views FTAs can be discerned. The overarching goals are growth and development, with an emphasis on export market access. Imports should be controlled since they are perceived as undermining local industry and productivity. Liberalisation is viewed as a last resort for attracting foreign direct investment and only allowed if not overtly disruptive, especially to political stability. Foreign policy and geopolitics will not factor much into FTA calculations.What do these priorities mean for Jakarta’s trade agreement prospects with Canberra and its participation in the region’s multilateral negotiations? First, IA-CEPA will likely fall short. It is unlikely that the agreement’s scope and commitments will be comprehensive enough. Australia’s interests in agricultural exports and mining investment will run against powerful and entrenched Indonesian interests, a clash where the latter will most likely carry the day.
This calculus could be different if Australia offers meaningful concessions, such as by opening up its labour market for Indonesian migrant workers. Yet even such enticement will not amount to much without significant skills and language training on Indonesia’s part. It is likely that notions of economic sovereignty and self-sufficiency will prevail, especially if powerful actors in the agriculture and mining industry are considered necessary allies to maintain the political equilibrium.
Second, the statist–nationalist approach clearly indicates where Indonesia under Jokowi lies with respect to multilateral trade negotiations in the Asia Pacific. As the dust settles on the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan and Australia will be keen to ensure that RCEP includes higher commitments on things like services and investment. China on the other hand is keen to secure an early deal by the end of 2017 that primarily involves reducing tariffs. Jokowi’s approach suggests Jakarta will lean towards Beijing in the contest to shape a trade pact that will cover a third of the world economy and half its population.
Without the lure of a large market that it currently does not have an FTA with — such as the US market which previously was offered by the TPP — Indonesia is in no rush to bind itself to a high-commitment agreement and will be wary of allowing RCEP to evolve into such. Prospects do not seem rosy for those hoping Indonesia will enact meaningful reforms initiated by an FTA, be it through IA-CEPA or RCEP. Grounding expectations for both is in order.
Rocky Intan is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta
March 4, 2017
Gearing-up for the Mardi Gras
by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com
Today, March 4, 12,000 people from Australia and around the world identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) will be proudly participating in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras street parade.
And like millions of Sydneysiders of other sexual persuasions I’ll be watching them with a mixture of particular pleasure and pride.
Pleasure in the fun the marchers will be having showing off the fabulous floats and costumes they traditionally create to dress – or undress – in for the occasion, and pride in being part of a community that doesn’t just tolerate individual difference, but outright celebrates it.
And then there’s the feeling of achievement that comes from seeing that society can change for the better, recalling as I so vividly do that the Australia in which I grew up was so disrespectful of difference that when the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras started in 1978 it was a march of protest against the homophobia that was rampant back then.
Not, of course, that homo- or other phobias are entirely extinct in even this comparatively enlightened year of 2017, or in this comparatively enlightened country of Australia.
As recognised by the theme of this year’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, ‘Creating Equality’, there is still a very long way to go before we achiever the organisers’ stated aim of ensuring that “everyone is treated fairly and equally – and no-one is discriminated against for their sexuality, sex, gender identity, race, beliefs, age or abilities.”
Many of my fellow Australians are as bigoted, racist, sexist and religionist as ever.
In fact the most extreme example of this deplorable reality is the subject of a story in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Neil Prakash, Australia’s most infamous Islamic State recruit
“Neil Prakash, Australia’s most infamous Islamic State recruit,” the story begins, “strode the streets of the Iraqi city of Mosul with four bodyguards and acted as supervisor for the terror group’s medieval punishments.”
Punishments overseen by Prakash, the Melbourne-born son of Fijian and Cambodian parents, reportedly included public beheadings, stoning and whippings conducted in Mosul’s main Bab al-Toub Square, and the throwing of people accused of homosexuality from the top of the 10-storey Orizdy building on one side of the square.
Anathema to the vast majority
Such atrocities are, of course, as anathema to the vast majority of Muslims as to the adherents of other religions or to agnostics like myself.
Hudud –The Barbaric System of Justice
As also, I imagine, or at least hope, are such attitudes as that expressed by state executive councillor Mohamed Fadzli Hassan of Kelantan in his recent announcement of his government’s intention to stage a public-caning demonstration in support of the PAS – or, as I think of it, PUS – party’s push for hudud in Malaysia.
Lest I start to appear unfairly islamophobic here, however, let me make the point that I’m strongly if not violently opposed to all religions whose ‘believers’ consider that as long as they pray to some divinity or another they have a right to prey on other people.
As witnessed in the shocking numbers of Catholic and other Christian clergy that have been revealed as predators on the children in their congregations, and other self-styled ‘conservative’ Christians in right-wing racist, religionist political organisations like Australia’s One Nation and the Christian Democratic Party.
Founder and leader of the Christian Democratic Party, the Reverend Fred Nile, is as ferocious an opponent of homosexuality and thus of the Sydney Mardi Gras as almost any mufti or other berobed cleric of any religion could possibly be.
An observation that brings me to the point that it’s impossible to avoid noticing that clerics of all major religions and significant numbers of the participants in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras have in common – cross-dressing.
But, paradoxically, priests, monks, muftis, mullahs, archbishops, popes and whatever try and dignify the fact that they’re decked-out in dresses by trying to pass them off as robes, habits, cassocks, vestments or other such euphemisms, most seem opposed, if not outright frocking hostile, to good, honest trannies and others who cross-dress for fun.
Just one more reason why, if I had the choice between watching or joining some religious procession in support or praise of some alleged divinity, or grooving along with the gang at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, I’d go for the latter, any day.
DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.
East Asia: Trade Regime critical for Economic Stability and Political Security
by EAF Editorial Group
What the Trump Administration will ultimately do to the shape of the global trade regime is difficult to foretell but there’s no question that it will change it forever, even if there is strong global push-back against Trump’s threat to unravel trade agreements and carry a protectionist stick.
The trade regime, and the way in which it encourages open trade and international interdependence among those who sign on to its rules, is not simply an instrument of economic policy strategy that can be changed without political consequence. For most countries, and certainly those in East Asia which are so dependent on open trade to sustain their basic livelihood, the trade regime is a critical instrument of political security.
Trump has already signed executive orders to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). What appeared noisy campaign rhetoric has been transformed into concrete action.
Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP is no big deal in itself: with the exception of what it promised in terms of liberalisation of the Japanese economy, the economic effects of the deal that was on the table were oversold. Even renegotiation of NAFTA may have more limited economic consequences than have been threatened. But these steps, together with the threat of punitive tariffs on imports from China and Mexico, plus a total retreat from multilateral or regional trade agreements, tears at the core principles upon which the US supported postwar economic order had been built.
POTUS Donald J. Trump and China’s President Xi
Anyone who says that a switch of this magnitude and direction in the trade policy strategy of the world’s largest economy and second-largest international trader is of little consequence is seriously delusional. The old certainties that brought prosperity and a significant measure of stability to world affairs for nearly three-quarters of a century after the Second World War are under serious threat.
A world in which the defining characteristic is a lot of bilateral trade agreements rather than one in which multilateral and regional frameworks are predominant imposes costs on business and consumers alike because of the need for compliance with different rules of treatment across different trading partners. It also injects a different tone into international politics. These concerns are what motivates the argument for regional and global trade regimes that govern international flows of goods and services through unified rules and standards.
The broader the framework within which trade can take place, the greater will be the scope for division of labour and the higher the gains from international trade. Bilateral trade deals can’t replicate the gains from regional and multilateral agreement, and they will unhelpfully cut across global and regional value chains. As the largest centre of production networks, East Asia has much at stake in the push back against an open, global rules-based trading system and the regional arrangements that support it.
While the direct economic costs of Trump turning America’s back on the TPP and other measures might be relatively small, the systemic costs are much larger.
As Shiro Armstrong and Amy King write in this week’s lead essay, Trump’s executive order to withdraw the United States from the TPP agreement in the Asia Pacific ‘is a strategic turning point in the open economic order. It is a blow to furthering reform for some members, a lost opportunity for the United States to write the rules of international commerce, and more worryingly a sign of the United States turning its back on the global economic system it helped create and lead’.
How can East Asia, which includes China and Japan — the world’s largest and fourth-largest trading nations — stand against the corrosion of a global trading order that is so central to their common economic and political interests?
The economies of East Asia must, of course, stand quietly firm in global and regional forums and in all their bilateral representations to the United States against the undermining of the global trading system, giving strength to those forces in America that can help to shape much better outcomes than the present circumstances threaten. But, through their own commitment to collective liberalisation and reform, they can also help to lead the system back from the brink.
With major multilateral trade deals at the WTO now too difficult and bilaterals only able to make slow and incomplete progress towards freer markets, Armstrong and King observe, all eyes now turn to Asia’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. It is the most important initiative on the global trade scene.
RCEP comprises the 10 Southeast Asian members of ASEAN as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Though, as Armstrong and King say, there are many misconceptions about the RCEP enterprise.
‘The first misconception is that RCEP is China-led. But China is a spoke and ASEAN is the hub of the arrangement. RCEP was built to consolidate ASEAN’s five separate free trade agreements with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia–New Zealand. And the RCEP idea and its guiding principles were crafted not in China, but in Indonesia. ASEAN centrality has ensured that RCEP has incorporated Asia’s other large power — Japan — and reflects Japanese preferences as much as those of China. Originally, China wanted to limit core membership of Asian cooperation to ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea. Japan wanted a larger membership, involving Australia, New Zealand and India, to help provide a counterweight to China’.
In the end, ASEAN centrality and the interests of Australia and India in the region meant a broader and representative group ideally placed to take the lead collectively on global trade.
‘With the world trading system under threat’, as Armstrong and King conclude, ‘it is time for leaders in Asia to step up and push for opening markets and deepening reforms to enhance economic integration, not just with each other but with Europe, the United States and the rest of the world’.
*The EAF Editorial Group is composed of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
January 4, 2017
Comments from Paul Krugman
Grow-Up, Mr. Trump–You are not Robinson Crusoe
For the past couple of months, thoughtful people have been quietly worrying that the Trump administration might get us into a foreign policy crisis, maybe even a war.
Trump with Michael Flint (National Security Advisor) and Steve Bannon (White House Chief of Staff)
Partly this worry reflected Donald Trump’s addiction to bombast and swagger, which plays fine in Breitbart and on Fox News but doesn’t go down well with foreign governments. But it also reflected a cold view of the incentives the new administration would face: as working-class voters began to realize that candidate Trump’s promises about jobs and health care were insincere, foreign distractions would look increasingly attractive.
The most likely flash point seemed to be China, the subject of much Trumpist tough talk, where disputes over islands in the South China Sea could easily turn into shooting incidents.
And while there may be an element of cynical calculation in some of the administration’s crisis mongering, this is looking less and less like a political strategy and more and more like a psychological syndrome.
The Australian confrontation has gotten the most press, probably because it’s so weirdly gratuitous. Australia is, after all, arguably America’s most faithful friend in the whole world, a nation that has fought by our side again and again. We will, of course, have disputes, as any two nations will, but nothing that should disturb the strength of our alliance — especially because Australia is one of the countries we will need to rely on if there is a confrontation with China.
Donald Trump: Americans apologise to Australia after US President’s phone call with Turnbull
But this is the age of Trump: In a call with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Prime Minister, the U.S. President boasted about his election victory and complained about an existing agreement to take some of the refugees Australia has been holding, accusing Mr. Turnbull of sending us the “next Boston bombers.” Then he abruptly ended the conversation after only 25 minutes.
Well, at least Mr. Trump didn’t threaten to invade Australia. In his conversation with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, however, he did just that. According to The Associated Press, he told our neighbor’s democratically elected leader: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
White House sources are now claiming that this threat — remember, the U.S. has in fact invaded Mexico in the past, and the Mexicans have not forgotten — was a lighthearted joke. If you believe that, I have a Mexico-paid-for border wall to sell you.
The blowups with Mexico and Australia have overshadowed a more conventional war of words with Iran, which tested a missile on Sunday. This was definitely a provocation. But the White House warning that it was “putting Iran on notice” raises the question, notice of what? Given the way the administration has been alienating our allies, tighter sanctions aren’t going to happen. Are we ready for a war?
There was also a curious contrast between the response to Iran and the response to another, more serious provocation: Russia’s escalation of its proxy war in Ukraine. Senator John McCain called on the president to help Ukraine. Strangely, however, the White House said nothing at all about Russia’s actions until Nikki Haley, the United Nations ambassador, issued a condemnation late Thursday night to the Security Council. This is getting a bit obvious, isn’t it?
Oh, and one more thing: Peter Navarro, head of Mr. Trump’s new National Trade Council, accused Germany of exploiting the United States with an undervalued currency. There’s an interesting economics discussion to be had here, but government officials aren’t supposed to make that sort of accusation unless they’re prepared to fight a trade war. Are they?
I doubt it. In fact, this administration doesn’t seem prepared on any front. Mr. Trump’s confrontational phone calls, in particular, don’t sound like the working out of an economic or even political strategy — cunning schemers don’t waste time boasting about their election victories and whining about media reports on crowd sizes.
No, what we’re hearing sounds like a man who is out of his depth and out of control, who can’t even pretend to master his feelings of personal insecurity. His first two weeks in office have been utter chaos, and things just keep getting worse — perhaps because he responds to each debacle with a desperate attempt to change the subject that only leads to a fresh debacle.
America and the world can’t take much more of this. Think about it: If you had an employee behaving this way, you’d immediately remove him from any position of responsibility and strongly suggest that he seek counseling. And this guy is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military.
This column has been updated to reflect news developments.