Mixed re­sults in US midterms. Asian re­gion pre­pares for key sum­mits.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Hamish McDon­ald

Don­ald Trump will be en­cour­aged to dou­ble down on his anti-im­mi­grant and Amer­ica-first poli­cies after am­bigu­ous midterm con­gres­sional elec­tion re­sults, in which Democrats nar­rowly re­gained con­trol of the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives but Repub­li­cans tight­ened their grip on the se­nate, adding three seats to their for­mer ma­jor­ity of one.

The pres­i­dent went im­me­di­ately on the at­tack, sack­ing At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, whom he’d openly de­rided for re­cus­ing him­self from over­sight of for­mer FBI di­rec­tor Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian cam­paign in­ter­fer­ence in 2016. He ap­pointed Ses­sions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whi­taker, on record at­tack­ing Mueller, as act­ing at­tor­ney-gen­eral, giv­ing him over­sight of Mueller’s in­quiry in place of Deputy At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein. On Novem­ber 2, Trump also had signed a waiver for So­lic­i­tor-Gen­eral Noel Fran­cisco, the next in line at the jus­tice de­part­ment, from hav­ing to re­cuse him­self be­cause his for­mer law firm rep­re­sented the Trump elec­tion cam­paign.

Should this be a pre­lude to shut­ting down Mueller’s probe, a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis could fol­low. Their House ma­jor­ity al­lows the Democrats to sub­poena ma­te­rial such as Trump’s tax re­turns, block at­tempts to starve Mueller’s in­quiry of fund­ing, and in the ul­ti­mate case of proved con­nivance with the Rus­sians or ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, to launch the im­peach­ment process.

Some Re­pub­li­can se­na­tors are say­ing they wouldn’t go along with it ei­ther.

For the rest of the world, at­ten­tion will also be on whether Trump fires the last fig­ure of ma­tu­rity, ex­pe­ri­ence and moder­a­tion in his cabi­net, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, and whether he se­ri­ously tries to take down the Chi­nese econ­omy by con­fronting Xi Jin­ping at their meet­ing in Buenos Aires later in the month.

Trump has been en­cour­aged by a fairly weak “blue wave” for the Democrats in Tues­day’s elec­tions. With un­em­ploy­ment near a 50-year low at 3.7 per cent and wages start­ing to lift in a boom­ing econ­omy, the Re­pub­li­can vote gen­er­ally held. In Texas, his sup­port res­cued for­mer ri­val Ted Cruz in a close se­nate race with the pop­u­lar House mem­ber Beto O’Rourke. Else­where, tried and true tac­tics such as “voter sup­pres­sion” or dis­en­fran­chise­ment of mi­nori­ties and racist slurs also had some ef­fect.

But the re­sults re­flected a bet­ter side of Amer­ica, too. A record num­ber of women were elected to the House – more than 100 of the 435 mem­bers – in­clud­ing the first two Mus­lim women, the first two First Na­tions women, and the youngestever in Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, 29. Florida voted to re­peal its vot­ing bar on the 1.5 mil­lion with felony con­vic­tions, mostly non-whites. In Colorado, Jared Po­lis be­came the first openly gay man elected as a state gov­er­nor.

The Democrats now face dilem­mas look­ing ahead to 2020. The checks and bal­ances they prom­ise in the House will give Trump some­one to blame for not de­liv­er­ing on his prom­ises, or for eco­nomic re­ces­sion. Do they stick with age­ing cen­trist fig­ures such as House leader Nancy Pelosi and for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, and keep the Clin­tons hang­ing around? Or do they bet on the new, left­ish gen­er­a­tion ex­em­pli­fied by Oca­sio-Cortez and hope their met­ro­pol­i­tan sup­port beats the fear and anger Trump has aroused in small-town and ru­ral Amer­ica?

Almighty yuan

Our re­gion gets an early look at post-midterm geopol­i­tics when lead­ers from around Asia meet in Sin­ga­pore next week for the se­cu­rity-fo­cused East Asia Sum­mit, fol­lowed by a dif­fer­ent mix for the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit in Port Moresby at the end of the week. Trump will not be at­tend­ing, with Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence hardly a counter to Xi Jin­ping.

Re­cent events have shown that while old US friends are stepping up their mil­i­tary co-op­er­a­tion with Wash­ing­ton, they are work­ing around it in the eco­nomic field.

Ja­pan has been tak­ing part in the largest-ever joint naval ex­er­cise with the US Pa­cific Fleet in re­cent days. But ear­lier, Shinzō Abe made the first visit to China by a Ja­panese prime min­is­ter in seven years, sign­ing a host of in­vest­ment and fi­nan­cial agree­ments. Trump’s Amer­ica-first wars on trade deficits are driv­ing these two mer­can­tilist pow­ers to­gether into de­fence of the mul­ti­lat­eral trade or­der.

Aus­tralia’s rat­i­fi­ca­tion has mean­while brought the Amer­ica-less ver­sion of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship into op­er­a­tion. As it now stands, the trade and in­vest­ment pact gives Aus­tralian, Cana­dian and other ex­porters bet­ter ac­cess to Ja­pan than their US coun­ter­parts, and wa­ters down the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights the Amer­i­cans had de­manded.

Not­with­stand­ing Scott Mor­ri­son’s procla­ma­tion that his gov­ern­ment’s for­eign pol­icy would be less “trans­ac­tional”, Trade Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham hot-footed it up to Shang­hai this week for China’s big im­port expo, where Xi air­ily talked of China’s im­ports of goods and ser­vices to­talling $US40 tril­lion over the next 15 years. For­eign Min­is­ter Marise Payne fol­lowed to Bei­jing on Thurs­day, end­ing a two-year freeze-out by the Chi­nese. Though her del­e­ga­tion at­tacked China’s re-ed­u­ca­tion camps for Uygurs in the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil on Tues­day, her di­rect com­ments on “val­ues” were ex­pected to be diplo­matic. Vic­to­ria be­came the first Aus­tralian state to sign up to Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive.

In Sin­ga­pore, Pence and close al­lies will talk up the “free and open In­doPa­cific” con­cept, known as the FOIP in strate­gic cir­cles. Their hawks are egging on for­ma­tion of the “Quad”, or in­ter­op­er­abil­ity be­tween the forces of the US, Ja­pan, In­dia and Aus­tralia. But In­dia’s Naren­dra Modi has in­di­cated Delhi’s wish for au­ton­omy by buy­ing the pow­er­ful S-400 air de­fence sys­tem and two new frigates from Rus­sia.

Speak­ing at the Townsville army base on Thurs­day, Mor­ri­son put dol­lars and a few boots on the ground into the im­me­di­ate re­gion to counter China. He an­nounced a new $2 bil­lion Aus­tralian In­fra­struc­ture Fi­nanc­ing Fa­cil­ity for pro­jects in the South Pa­cific and Ti­mor-Leste, plus $1 bil­lion in ex­port cred­its for Aus­tralian com­pa­nies go­ing into the re­gion, and a roam­ing de­fence force train­ing team.

Oil flush

Asia’s pow­ers are also drag­ging their heels against Trump’s at­tempts to iso­late Iran. When US sanc­tions were re-ap­plied on Mon­day, fol­low­ing with­drawal from the nu­clear lim­i­ta­tion pact, Wash­ing­ton an­nounced waivers would be given to China, In­dia, South Korea, Ja­pan and Tai­wan, among the big­gest cus­tomers for Iran’s oil.

The waivers are for six months, dur­ing which they are ex­pected to wean them­selves off Iran. China and In­dia seem un­likely to com­ply. Ja­pan and South Korea had al­ready stopped im­ports, but may now use the waiver for a tem­po­rary top-up.

Rus­sia said it would help Iran ex­port oil through swap deals. Ira­nian tankers switched off their lo­ca­tion transpon­ders to aid clan­des­tine ship­ments. France, Ger­many and Bri­tain (which are all stick­ing to the nu­clear deal, with China and Rus­sia) are set­ting up ways to get around US sanc­tions.

Dragon’s Deng

Xi Jin­ping is meet­ing re­sis­tance him­self back home, where sev­eral se­nior fig­ures have come out to crit­i­cise him im­plic­itly for his retro­com­mu­nism and aban­don­ment of Deng Xiaop­ing ’s dic­tum about keep­ing a low pro­file while build­ing strength.

It started in July with Ts­inghua Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor Xu Zhangrun post­ing an es­say at­tack­ing Xi’s hard­line con­trols on de­bate. In Septem­ber, Deng Pu­fang, son of the late supreme leader, said in a speech: “We must seek truth from fact, keep a sober mind and know our own place. We should nei­ther be over­bear­ing or be­lit­tle our­selves.”

On Oc­to­ber 14, Pek­ing Univer­sity econ­o­mist Zhang Weiy­ing crit­i­cised those who at­tribute China’s eco­nomic growth to an ex­cep­tional “China model” based on a pow­er­ful one-party state, a colos­sal state sec­tor and “wise” in­dus­trial pol­icy. “The the­ory of the ‘China model’ sets China as a fright­en­ing anom­aly from the Western per­spec­tive, and in­evitably leads to con­fronta­tion be­tween China and the West,” Zhang said. “The hos­tile in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment we face to­day is not ir­rel­e­vant to the wrong in­ter­pre­ta­tion of China’s achieve­ment in the past 40 years by some econ­o­mists.”

Less mea­sured crit­i­cism was re­ported from anony­mous Chi­nese sta­te­owned en­ter­prise ex­ec­u­tives re­lax­ing over bot­tles of bai­jiu. “I don’t want to go back to the dark times,” said one. “I hate hav­ing to spend my week­end at Marx­ist es­say camps,” said an­other. “He [Xi] has lost touch with the peo­ple,” was an­other

• com­ment. “China must open up.”

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (cen­tre, in white shirt) with sup­port­ers in New York cel­e­brat­ing her elec­tion to congress.

HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Satur­day Pa­per’s world ed­i­tor.

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