Trump and Dictators

March 23, 2018

Trump and Dictators

by Mike Mineham*

Trump is at it again. He called President Putin to congratulate him on winning the latest Russian election. This was despite his national security advisors telling him in capital letters NOT to do so. But then, when has Trump ever listened to anyone except himself?

The former US presidential candidate John McCain was quick to criticize Trump for his failure to raise allegations of widespread voter irregularities in Russia.

To the contrary, Trump has nothing but praise for the Russian President. An opinion piece in the New York Times observes that Trump’s liking for Putin is just part of his liking for dictators everywhere.

‘Trump has defended President Putin for killing critics and praised Egypt’s brutal President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for “a fantastic job”. Trump hailed the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.’

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President Donald Trump with Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines

And Trump has never embarrassed anyone by raising unsavory issues such as press freedom or human rights when he has met wilth leaders of the three top jailers of journalists – China, Russia and Turkey. No, indeed.

In fact, Trump would probably like to imprison American journalists, with the probable exception of the sycophantic friends on Fox News.

Trump has described US news organizations as “the enemy of the American people” and he routinely abuses reporters with descriptions such as “scum,” “slime,” “dishonest,” and “disgusting”.

In response, apart from maintaining high standards of reporting, the trouble for the media is that if they fight back, they lower themselves into the muckraking liked so much by the president.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw said it best: “I learned a long time ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and besides, the pig likes it”. I would add that this pig wrestling becomes even more grotesque when the pig tries to wear lipstick.

The coming electoral process in the USA is where the real battle will play out. The questions are: how many of Trump’s voter base will remain loyal? Especially if these working class white males don’t get to enjoy a trickle down effect from the Trump tax cuts which will benefit Trump himself and other friends in the Rich Club.

Will the MeToo women’s vote drag down someone who admits he’s a serial abuser of women? Can America’s legal institutions withstand Trump’s attempts to discredit and destroy them? And the biggest question of all –  can the rest of America stomach another term of a serial liar who is vindictive, vulgar, and who’s own former Secretary of State described him as a f…..g idiot?

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Then there’s the Russian investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller( pic above) and the answer to whether or not Trump won the last election himself, without foreign assistance. There’s a lot more mud to go. Oh yes. And a lot more tweet storms, too.

*Dr Mike Mineham is Dean, School of Graduate Studies, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own and do not in any way implicate the University.

Trump’s Choice –John Bolton as National Security Adviser

March 23, 2018

Trump Taps John Bolton for NSA Post

President had discussed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s departure for ‘some time,’ White House says

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President Trump’s Choice as National Security Adviser–The Neo-Con (Amb) John Bolton

President Donald Trump said he named former Ambassador John Bolton as his new National Security Adviser, succeeding Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

“I am pleased to announce that, effective 4/9/18, @AmbJohnBolton will be my new National Security Advisor,” Mr. Trump tweeted Thursday. “I am very thankful for the service of General H.R. McMaster who has done an outstanding job & will always remain my friend. There will be an official contact handover on 4/9.”

Mr. Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, has openly discussed his interest in taking the national-security post in the Trump administration. He will be Mr. Trump’s third National Security Adviser in 14 months.

Mr. Bolton, who won’t need Senate confirmation to take the job, has been a controversial figure in Washington and has pressed the White House to take tougher positions on Iran and North Korea in editorials, television commentary and other conversations.

In a Fox News interview Thursday evening, even Mr. Bolton seemed taken aback by the news of his appointment. “I really didn’t expect the announcement this afternoon,” he said. “I think I still am a Fox News contributor,” he added, noting that he was “in limbo” until he takes over next month.

Mr. Trump last week conveyed his decision to replace Gen. McMaster to John Kelly, his Chief of Staff, according to administration officials. The President had sought a more graceful exit for his National Security Adviser than the one he afforded his Secretary of State, whom he fired over Twitter last week.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump began discussing potential successors for Gen. McMaster, according to former Trump administration officials. Mr. Trump met with Mr. Bolton last week and again on Thursday.

In a statement, Mr. Trump thanked Gen. McMaster for his service. “He helped develop our America First National Security Strategy, revitalize our alliances in the Middle East, smash ISIS, bring North Korea to the table, and strengthen our nation’s prosperity,” the President said. “This work and those achievements will ensure that America builds on its economic and military advantages.”

Gen. McMaster said in a Thursday statement that he was “requesting retirement from the U.S. Army effective this summer after which I will leave public service. Throughout my career it has been my greatest privilege to serve alongside extraordinary service members and dedicated civilians.” He said he was “thankful” to the President and proud to have served on the National Security Council.

A White House official said the President and Gen. McMaster had discussed the national security adviser’s departure for “some time” and that the timeline had been “expedited as they both felt it was important to have the new team in place, instead of constant speculation.”

The announcement, coming so soon after the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials, left the West Wing in a downbeat mood Thursday evening, with aides offering gallows humor about the number of White House departures and jobs that needed to be filled.

The 69-year-old Mr. Bolton has urged the administration to strike first against North Korea and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in columns published by The Wall Street Journal.

“North Korea test-launched on Friday its first ballistic missile potentially capable of hitting America’s East Coast. It thereby proved the failure of 25 years of U.S. nonproliferation policy,” he wrote in an August 2017 column. “It is past time for Washington to bury this ineffective ‘carrots and sticks’ approach.”

Last month, he penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” in which he argued in favor of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, calling the threat “imminent.”

Mr. Bolton has dubbed the Iran agreement the “diplomatic Waterloo Mr. Obama negotiated.” Mr. Trump faces a deadline in May to extend sanctions relief granted to Iran under the accord. The president threatened in January to pull out of the deal if Europe and Congress can’t find a way to address his concerns by then.

Democrats and some Republicans have previously suggested that if Mr. Bolton were nominated for roles at the State Department, they would oppose him, citing his foreign-policy views. Mr. Trump has considered Mr. Bolton for roles including Secretary of State.

“The problem with John Bolton is he disagrees with President Trump’s foreign policy,“ Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) said last year on ABC. ”John Bolton still believes the Iraq war was a good idea. He still believes that regime change is a good idea. He still believes that nation-building is a good idea.”

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers praised the appointment of Mr. Bolton to the national-security post. Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) called him an “excellent choice.”

Harry Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon, said he believed that Messrs. Trump and Bolton have “jelled” through conversations over the past year and predicted Mr. Bolton could be a forceful presence in the West Wing.

“Trump likes someone who will tell him straight how it is,” Mr. Kazianis said. “I don’t think Trump would have brought him in as national security adviser if he didn’t think it would work out. It could be a very strong marriage, where Bolton serves out the whole tenure of the administration.”

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster had little chemistry with the president and often frustrated Mr. Trump with lengthy policy dissertations in the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster had little chemistry with the president and often frustrated Mr. Trump with lengthy policy dissertations in the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the conversations. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Bloomberg News

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates sanctions against Iran and North Korea, said Mr. Bolton’s appointment would likely be the final nail in the coffin for the Iran deal. Mr. Dubowitz expressed hope that the rise of a more hawkish national security team would actually make it less likely that the U.S. would start a war.

“Bolton is a believer in the robust use of all instruments of American power,” he said. “But perhaps the perception that Trump, Bolton and (Secretary of State nominee Mike) Pompeo are willing to use these instruments will make it less likely they have to be used. (Ayatollah) Khamenei, Kim Jong Un, (Vladimir) Putin and others become more—not less—aggressive when they perceive American weakness.”

The appointment also drew criticism from Democrats, some former diplomats and others, who said the addition of Mr. Bolton would heighten the risk of a future military conflict. “President Trump is assembling a war cabinet full of ‘yes men’ who will fan his worst impulses,” said Sen. Edward Markey, (D, Mass.).

A Senior Fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a frequent commentator on Fox News, Mr. Bolton has cultivated a reputation as a brash conservative with an aggressive style.

He has pushed for limiting U.S. involvement in multilateral institutions and treaties, including the International Criminal Court, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol.

Recent Commentary from John Bolton

Mr. Bolton left his U.N. post after he failed to gain enough support in Congress to be confirmed in 2006. President Bush had originally used a recess appointment to put him in the role after his nomination had been blocked by a Democratic filibuster.

In addition to his U.N. post, Mr. Bolton also served in the Bush administration as Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005.

Gen. McMaster has been working with strained alliances both inside and outside the White House and has faced persistent speculation that he would be pushed out as soon as the White House settled on someone to take his place.

Gen. McMaster has little chemistry with the President and often frustrated Mr. Trump with lengthy policy dissertations in the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the conversations. Gen. McMaster would typically lay out multiple options for the President, explaining each one at length, and Mr. Trump would grow impatient, preferring more to-the-point discussions, the people said.

Gen. McMaster had told associates last week that he believed he was safe and that the President urged him to remain in the job until after the midterm elections in November. On Tuesday, he was one of a handful of U.S. officials in an Oval Office meeting between the president and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Another reason Mr. Trump has sought to speed the hiring of a new national security adviser is that he wants to have a team in place ahead of possible talks with North Korea later this spring. This past weekend, Gen. McMaster traveled to San Francisco for a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan to discuss plans for the summit.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at

Corrections & Amplifications
John Bolton is 69 years old. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated his age as 68 years old. (March 22, 2018)

America–Led Liberal World Order, R.I.P

March 22, 2018

America–Led Liberal World Order, R.I.P

by Richard N. Haass–haass-2018-03

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America’s decision to abandon the global system it helped build, and then preserve for more than seven decades, marks a turning point, because others lack either the interest or the means to sustain it. The result will be a world that is less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful, for Americans and others alike.

NEW DELHI – After a run of nearly one thousand years, quipped the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, the fading Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Today, some two and a half centuries later, the problem, to paraphrase Voltaire, is that the fading liberal world order is neither liberal nor worldwide nor orderly.

The United States, working closely with the United Kingdom and others, established the liberal world order in the wake of World War II. The goal was to ensure that the conditions that had led to two world wars in 30 years would never again arise.

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To that end, the democratic countries set out to create an international system that was liberal in the sense that it was to be based on the rule of law and respect for countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Human rights were to be protected. All this was to be applied to the entire planet; at the same time, participation was open to all and voluntary. Institutions were built to promote peace (the United Nations), economic development (the World Bank) and trade and investment (the International Monetary Fund and what years later became the World Trade Organization).

All this and more was backed by the economic and military might of the US, a network of alliances across Europe and Asia, and nuclear weapons, which served to deter aggression. The liberal world order was thus based not just on ideals embraced by democracies, but also on hard power. None of this was lost on the decidedly illiberal Soviet Union, which had a fundamentally different notion of what constituted order in Europe and around the world.

The liberal world order appeared to be more robust than ever with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But today, a quarter-century later, its future is in doubt. Indeed, its three components – liberalism, universality, and the preservation of order itself – are being challenged as never before in its 70-year history.

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Liberalism is in retreat. Democracies are feeling the effects of growing populism. Parties of the political extremes have gained ground in Europe. The vote in the United Kingdom in favor of leaving the EU attested to the loss of elite influence. Even the US is experiencing unprecedented attacks from its own president on the country’s media, courts, and law-enforcement institutions. Authoritarian systems, including China, Russia, and Turkey, have become even more top-heavy. Countries such as Hungary and Poland seem uninterested in the fate of their young democracies.

It is increasingly difficult to speak of the world as if it were whole. We are seeing the emergence of regional orders – or, most pronounced in the Middle East, disorders – each with its own characteristics. Attempts to build global frameworks are failing. Protectionism is on the rise; the latest round of global trade talks never came to fruition. There are few rules governing the use of cyberspace.

At the same time, great power rivalry is returning. Russia violated the most basic norm of international relations when it used armed force to change borders in Europe, and it violated US sovereignty through its efforts to influence the 2016 election. North Korea has flouted the strong international consensus against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The world has stood by as humanitarian nightmares play out in Syria and Yemen, doing little at the UN or elsewhere in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. Venezuela is a failing state. One in every hundred people in the world today is either a refugee or internally displaced.Image result for Liberal World Order, R.I.P.

The Retreating Eagle–“America First” and the liberal world order seem incompatible.–Richard N. Haass

There are several reasons why all this is happening, and why now. The rise of populism is in part a response to stagnating incomes and job loss, owing mostly to new technologies but widely attributed to imports and immigrants. Nationalism is a tool increasingly used by leaders to bolster their authority, especially amid difficult economic and political conditions. And global institutions have failed to adapt to new power balances and technologies.

But the weakening of the liberal world order is due, more than anything else, to the changed attitude of the US. Under President Donald Trump, the US decided against joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. It has threatened to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. It has unilaterally introduced steel and aluminum tariffs, relying on a justification (national security) that others could use, in the process placing the world at risk of a trade war. It has raised questions about its commitment to NATO and other alliance relationships. And it rarely speaks about democracy or human rights. “America First” and the liberal world order seem incompatible.

My point is not to single out the US for criticism. Today’s other major powers, including the EU, Russia, China, India, and Japan, could be criticized for what they are doing, not doing, or both. But the US is not just another country. It was the principal architect of the liberal world order and its principal backer. It was also a principal beneficiary.

America’s decision to abandon the role it has played for more than seven decades thus marks a turning point. The liberal world order cannot survive on its own, because others lack either the interest or the means to sustain it. The result will be a world that is less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful, for Americans and others alike.

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*Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.


American Foreign Policy after Rexit

March 20, 2018

American Foreign Policy after Rexit

Mr, Rex Tillerson was a poor secretary of state. What follows may be worse.

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Mr. Rex Tillerson paid  a heavy price for calling his White House Boss  “Moron”

EVEN by the reality-TV standards of this White House, the manner in which Mr. Rex Tillerson was sacked as Secretary of State was jaw-dropping. President Donald Trump fired him by tweet, saying that he would be replaced by Mr. Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA. He did not call him until much later, nor did he offer an explanation. Mr. Tillerson’s spokesman said that he had no idea why his boss had been fired. So he was fired, too.

Mr. Tillerson was a poor Secretary of State. Having run ExxonMobil, the tenth-biggest company in the world by revenue, he treated diplomacy like business and his department like a division ripe for restructuring. He seemed to regard his underlings as idle assets and they repaid him with their scorn (see article). So, too, did the President, at least after reports that Mr. Tillerson had called him a “moron”.

Image result for mike pompeo and trumpMr. Mike Pompeo


The new man, Mr. Pompeo, has distinguished himself in Mr. Trump’s eyes by talking up a Trumpian, America First view of the world (see Lexington). The result may well be a more co-ordinated policy, with fewer public rifts between the State Department and the White House. But when you look at the two biggest tests facing American foreign policy, the new set-up does not inspire confidence.

The first of these is North Korea. Mr. Trump’s decision to kick-start negotiations by talking directly to Mr. Kim Jong Un is unconventional. A photo-op with the American President is a great prize for Mr. Kim and, rather than holding it out as a reward, Mr. Trump has chosen to give it away cheap. That is not necessarily a bad idea, given that other approaches have failed and that merely talking is a chance for him to reinforce deterrence by setting out his red lines.


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The trouble is that, whereas the talks aimed at ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons will be delicate, complicated and technical, Mr. Trump is impulsive and self-indulgent—as this week’s sacking of Mr. Tillerson showed. Mastering the specifications of the North’s programme and knowing how to blunt it require deep expertise. Any deal to ensure that the North does not cheat, as it has so often before, will need to be thorough and enduring. America must not enhance its own security at the cost of lower security for its allies in South Korea and Japan. And if the talks should come to nothing, as is likely, both sides will need to be sure that the bad blood does not lead to conflict.

The combination, to put it mildly, sits ill with Mr Trump’s style of government. In a properly run administration, the fiddly stuff could be left to underlings. Yet America has no ambassador to South Korea and no under-secretary for arms control. Even if it did, it is not clear that Mr. Trump would give them the time of day. He shows every sign of thinking that he has the flair to broker a breakthrough all by himself. There is a risk Mr. Pompeo would seek to flatter his boss by agreeing.

By a curious symmetry, the second test of American policy involves a nuclear deal that Mr. Trump seems determined to wreck. In May he is due to decide whether to stick with the agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear programme or pull out. Mr. Pompeo, unlike Mr. Tillerson, is a longtime opponent, as are many Republicans. A pull-out is therefore likely.

That would be a mistake. When it comes to deals, Mr. Trump always believes that he can get a better one—especially if they were negotiated by his predecessor, Mr. Barack Obama. But the Iran deal is already the result of hard-fought trade-offs. The chances that it can be substantially renegotiated are slim indeed. Opening it up in the hope that America can expand it to force Iran to limit its regional ambitions is almost certain to fail.

If America walks away, its European allies will stick with the deal but they will conclude that Mr. Trump puts a low value on the transatlantic alliance. The nuclear agreement may not collapse immediately, but the odds would increase of a nuclear arms-race in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt began to prepare for the day when Iran had the bomb. And because of the symmetry, Mr. Kim would surely be less willing to think he could trust an agreement struck with Mr. Trump.

It’s simple really

To hope that Mr. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, who may shortly be fired himself, or Mr. James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, can be relied on to constrain the president is to clutch at straws. Mr. Trump does not have a foreign policy so much as a worldview rooted in grievance and a belief that others must lose for America to win. He has his tariffs, his talks with North Korea and maybe soon a Middle East peace plan. The world is about to witness Mr.Trump unbound. What could go wrong?

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “After Rexit”

Fareed Zakaria on Mike Pompeo

March 19, 2018

On Mike Pompeo–The New Man in The State Department has to handle Iran and North Korea

By Dr.Fareed Zakaria
Mike Pompeo has a crisis to handle — even before the North Korea summit

Image result for Mike PompeoFareed Zakaria: Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”


If confirmed as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo will arrive at a State Department that has been battered by proposed budget cuts, hollowed out by resignations and vacancies, and neutered by President Trump’s impulsive and personal decision-making style. But Pompeo’s most immediate challenge will not be rebuilding the department and restoring morale; it will be dealing with an acute foreign policy crisis that is largely of the President’s own making — the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Pompeo will have to tackle a genuine foreign policy challenge soon. Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un before the end of May. This could be a promising development, defusing the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across Asia. Yet before Trump even sits down with Kim at the negotiating table to discuss a nuclear deal, the administration will have to decide how to handle the preexisting deal with Tehran.

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Trump has already announced that the United States will no longer abide by the Iran nuclear pact unless European leaders agree to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.” (And from the outset, he has been cheered in his hard-line posturing by Pompeo.) European nations seem unwilling to endorse more than cosmetic changes, and Iran has flatly refused to renegotiate. That means by May 12 the United States is set to pull out of the agreement, which could lead Iran to do the same and restart its nuclear program. This would happen at the very same time as the summit with North Korea — when the United States will surely be trying to convince North Korea of the benefits of signing a similar agreement.

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To understand the virtues of the Iran deal, recall that a quarter-century ago, the United States was negotiating a nuclear accord with Pyongyang. At that point, North Korea had a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration was trying to get the regime to freeze its program, agree to some rollbacks and allow intrusive inspections. But the accord that was ultimately reached was far more limited than hoped for. The inspections process was weak, and the North Koreans cheated.

The Iranians in 2015 also did not have nuclear weapons (and insisted they had no intention of ever making them). Still, the nuclear deal required them to scale back significant aspects of their program, dismantling 13,000 centrifuges, giving up 98 percent of their enriched uranium and effectively shutting down their plutonium reactor at Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency has cameras and inspectors in Iran at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle — from mines to labs to enrichment facilities. The IAEA attests that Tehran has abided by its end of the deal. Even Pompeo himself has conceded as much.

The Iran accord is not perfect, but it has stabilized a dangerous and spiraling situation in the Middle East. Were the deal to unravel, an already simmering region would get much hotter. (The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, recently affirmed that his kingdom would go nuclear if Iran did.) And, again, this would all be happening just as the Trump administration would be trying to convince the North Koreans to agree to limits, freezes, rollbacks and inspections of its own nuclear program. Why would Kim sign a deal while he watches the United States renege on the last one it signed?

The tragedy here is that this is an entirely self-inflicted crisis. There was already enough instability in the world that the administration did not need to create more. Pompeo should recognize that his job as secretary of state will be to solve problems, not produce them, and he should preserve the Iran accord and spend his time on North Korea. But that would still leave a considerable challenge regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons. There, too, the administration’s position — and his — has been maximalist, vowing to accept nothing less than the total denuclearization of North Korea. But that’s a negotiating position that can and should be adjusted over time, depending on North Korean behavior.

Pompeo should take a page from his boss’s book. Trump has reversed course on issue after issue, often with little explanation. He declared that NATO was obsolete only to say later that it was not. He promised to label China a currency manipulator and then decided against it. He insisted that talking to North Korea would be a waste of time and then eagerly announced that he would. And who knows, maybe Trump understands the public’s inattention and mood better than most of us. In any case, whatever Pompeo said about the Iran deal months ago is now ancient history. He should simply declare that right now, under the circumstances, the deal is worth preserving.

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There are significant costs to America’s credibility and reputation if Washington keeps reversing its positions on core foreign policy issues. Yet there are greater costs to stubbornly persisting with the wrong policy. So, Mr. Pompeo, repeat after me: “The Iran deal was bad, but now it’s good.”

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


Trade outcome vital to success of ASEAN Summit

March 18, 2018

Trade outcome vital to success of ASEAN Summit

by Mari Pangestu and Peter Drysdale
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Economists Dr Mari Elka Pangestu (above) and Dr. Peter Drysdale

Australia has been an ASEAN dialogue partner since 1974, an acknowledgement of the centrality of ASEAN to Australia’s regional security. There have been ASEAN summits with Japan, China, the United States and India but the ASEAN summit in Sydney this weekend is the first in Australia.

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The Host, ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

The summit comes at a time when leaders in ASEAN and Australia confront a number of strategic choices. None is more important than how they respond to the threat to the global trading system, the foundation of East Asia’s prosperity and a critical element in its security.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising framework for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century.

The retreat of the United States under President Trump from leading the global economic order; the rise of China with its assertive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the North Korea crisis all present significant challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

Last week, Mr Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on steel imports and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the Section 232 national security provisions of US trade law, risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact. It also risks the WTO rules-based trading system.

Mounting uncertainty has affected confidence in trade and economic recovery since Trump translated his campaign protectionist rhetoric into an ‘America First’ agenda. But the White House announcement last week threw the international system into chaos. If Trump’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whisky. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals. That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is not effective trade policy strategy.

What can be done now?

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Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) waves with ASEAN leaders (L to 2nd R) Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha for a family picture at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney on March 17, 2018.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of a potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and the dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

Asia’s response to the Trump trade threat is critical for the international system. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system which has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resistance to the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the US stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament. That is because of ASEAN leadership in the strategic conception and negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia.

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RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But that agreement doesn’t include China or most of ASEAN and is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to the multilateral trading system is more important than the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula and worries about the South China Sea.

ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. Intra-regional trade is only 24 per cent of ASEAN’s total trade but it is deeply integrated into trade globally.

The Australia–ASEAN summit is a singularly important opportunity for setting out strategic interests in these economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to avoiding retaliation to US protectionism and elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system.

It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in cooperation across the region.

Dr. Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian Trade Minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia. Dr. Peter Drysdale is Professor of Economics and Head of the Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Co-Editor of East Asia Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. This article was also published in the Australian Financial Review on 15 March 2018.