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New Year, New Uncertainties in 2018

04 Jan 2018
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Trump meeting Xi Jinping on his trip to Beijing in 2017

As the world recovers from another New Year’s Eve thoughts are now moving to what 2018 will bring. Unfortunately, following a turbulent 2017, it appears the hangover may last well into the foreseeable future.

2018 is starting to sound a little like 1984. Not the 1984 of Australia when capital punishment ended, Medicare began, banks were deregulated, and the first dollar coin was minted. I have in mind the 1984 of George Orwell’s eponymous novel, with his vision of superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government and public manipulation.

An exaggeration, no doubt, but the ideas of recent months are troubling.

As the White Paper noted, the most important global relationship is between China and the United States. The Paper called for a rules-based world order. Yet, both China and the USlike many others including Britain and Russiahave been resetting the rules to what they believe is their national advantage, ignoring a rules-based world order.

As we know, China lays claim to islands in the East and South China Seas, and has provocatively built military installations on those adjoining important trade routes to north Asia, rejecting a ruling by the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that found against Beijing. Politely, but bluntly, Chinese diplomats told the AIIA recently, Australia is not part of Asia. So much for Australia in the Asian century.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US is little better. Trump has binned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, wants to tear up the Iran nuclear arms treaty and scrap the long-standing NAFTA treaty. Upsetting the European allies, he refuses to recognise the International Court. So much for rules-based order.

And yet the US president has avoided a major clash with China. After several meetings and numerous phone conversations with China’s president Xi Jinping, the two men appear to have a reasonable working relationship.

This is in no small way due to Xi’s skilful handling of Trump, particularly during the American leader’s November visit to Beijing. The Chinese pulled out all the stops. Amid rich pageantry, Trump was the first foreign leader to be invited to a private dinner in the Forbidden City. Pulling out his iPad, Trump showed Xi a clip of his six-year-old granddaughter singing in Mandarin. As a senior Chinese diplomat told me, “We made it an A-plus state visit, laying on things we’ve never done before.”

Trump and Xi made progress in many areas, not least how to contain North Korea’s march towards nuclear weapons, agreeing Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions must be thwarted. China supports UN sanctions but, with Russia, believes the best settlement would be for the US to pull out its 37,500 troops from South Korea, and cease naval exercises offshore. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has now helpfully suggested there should be be direct talks with North Korea.

We know the US is in private talks with North Korea and these will continue in 2018 unless, in a moment of madness, either Trump or Kim, attackas both have threatened. The problem is that none of the interested partiesthe Japanese, Russians, Chinese or even the South Koreanswant to see a united Korea, whatever they may say in public. I attended the last five-nation conference in Seoul when this was discussed and the inevitable conclusion, then as now, was that the only solution is to persevere towards peaceful co-existence.

Such an outcome would also be the foreign affairs White Paper’s preferred goal. Alas, it is hard to be optimistic. The assorted Middle East conflicts will continue to rage, and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia will intensify. Trump’s recent actions on Iran and Jerusalem will make diplomacy even more difficult.

A further complication is that throughout 2018 the president will be mired in the Russian controversy that is closing in on him. The painstaking detective work of Robert Mueller, the US special prosecutor heading the investigation into alleged links between Trump’s presidential campaign aides and the Kremlin will continue.

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has publicly admitted lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Mueller ahead of a court appearance in March, where he hopes his plea bargaining will lead to a lenient sentence.

Mueller has also alleged that Paul Manafort, who headed Trump’s campaign, recently contacted a person believed to have ties to Russian intelligence. Manafort has been under house arrest at his Virginia home pending trial on charges, including money laundering, relating to his business interests in Ukraine.

Trump continues to rail against the Russia investigation. At best, it will be a massive distraction in 2018, at worst it could be the start of a long road to impeachment.

That is less likely if the Republicans win the November mid-term elections when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. You might expect the Democrats to win, but the party lacks an effective leader. Despite Trump’s foibles and fumbles he still appears to have broad popular support.

While these developments will dominate headlines, the evolution of China is likely to be the most pressing concern for Australia. Arguably, Australia is over-dependent on China and Xi Jinping’s powerful endorsement of globalisation at last year’s World Economic Forum was strongly in Australia’s interest, trimming back what was starting to become a surge towards protectionism, particularly on the left.

Now that Xi has consolidated and expanded his personal power, he will continue to exert Chinese power and influence in the region, conceding nothing and rejecting criticism. Australia is in Beijing’s sights, with a coordinated and targeted attack on Canberra, through its ambassador, designed to undermine our US relationship, which is already under challenge from various quarters.

Australia is not the only Asia-Pacific country China is seeking to prise away from US influence. The Philippines, where rival Japan exerts influence, is also high on Beijing’s list. Like Australia, in 2018 Japan will push hard for South East Asia to resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This will be a key, if misunderstood, aspect of foreign policy.

The answer is obviousAustralian politicians need to spend less time squabbling over whether to choose between China and the US, and give more attention to building closer relations with South East Asia, India and Europe, all important theatres that are rarely discussed in Parliament or on media.

Europe may be distant but it is the largest economic bloc in the world and has started to recover its mojo. There are problems of course, with an uncongenial nation on its eastern border whose leader, Vladimir Putin, will seize any opportunity to create instability, especially in the Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet empire.

Apart from Russia’s involvement in the Trump election, when thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails were hacked and distributed through Wikileaks, Russian hackers are active cyber criminals. They use malaware to steal information from business websites and demand ransoms for the return of data. This is estimated to have cost the UK over USD$1.7 billion (AUD$2.2 billion), but the practice is global and we can expect much more cyber warfare in 2018.

Other problems for Europe, such as immigration and Brexit, will fade. Europe is gradually finding ways to tighten its borders. With ISIS beaten in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq and reduced to a terrorist threat, the focus is now on the (largely) illegal immigration from North Africa. Whatever happens over Brexit, the European Commission and President Donald Tusk, have outwitted Britain’s negotiating team. The plain fact is that even the best deal that could now be negotiated with Brussels will not match the arrangement that Britain already has and is set on giving up.

A bigger hangover from 2017 will be the recent wave of revelations of powerful men behaving badly towards the opposite sex. What started in October with the New York Times’ exposure of allegations of sexual abuse against Hollywood film director Harvey Weinstein, has rapidly expanded into political, media and business circles. Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been forced to resignas cases come to court in 2018 we will hear much more.

So far, this has been a story of the Anglosphere, but the focus will move to the treatment of women in other societies, particularly in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, many parts of Africa and Asia, and in Australian indigenous communities.

When the 2018 Davos meeting gets under way in late January, this issue will resurface.

Women will feature strongly among the session co-chairs, including Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF. Under the theme “a shared future in a fractured world”, one strong strand will be ways in which women can play a stronger and rightful role in that future. Watch this space.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a past president of the AIIA NSW.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.