As Donald Trump escalates his trade war with China, slapping a 10% tariff on roughly $US200 billion of imports that will climb to 25% if China retaliates, he appears to found something of a soul mate in Scott Morrison.
“We both get it,” Australia’s new prime minister said this week. What they get, he told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, is that some people feel left off the globalism gravy train: “The president gets that. I get it.”
The US aims to secure trade routes through the Indian and Pacific oceans. China wants to shift the bedrock of international trade to Central Asia.
Its Belt and Road Initiative is a grand strategic plan to join Eurasian economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The plan would end the historic era of Anglo-American hegemony founded on controlling trade routes across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.
Leaving political ideologies aside, its economic prosperity depends on trade by sea. The return of Marco Polo’s world would eventually make Australia little more than a price-taking commodity supplier to trade and investment hubs from Beijing to Venice.
This means our national interests lie with the US defence of its seaborne trading routes.
Picking a side will be costly
In the short term, especially if the trade war escalates, siding with the US will be costly. We could lose a good deal of China-related export and business opportunities. Over the longer run we could offset the losses by diversifying to trade and invest in countries with shared strategic interests, such as Indonesia and India.
After a promising start, RCEP negotiations now appear to be stuck. The main obstacle is India’s fear of worsening its already significant trade deficit with China.
Our interests lie with the US, and India
Another sticking point is that India, the Philippines and other potential members want countries like Australia, New Zealand and Japan to open up their markets for information technology and professional services.
In pure trade terms we would lose little if the RCEP did not proceed. We already have strong bilateral ties with all the negotiating countries apart from India, with whom we are presently negotiating a free trade agreement.
We would be well advised to use our limited diplomatic resources for that and supporting the US when it comes time to pick sides.
The guilty pleas by Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, and conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, this week no doubt deepen the US president’s legal problems.
Occurring nearly simultaneously in separate courtrooms, the developments were the most dramatic yet in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
But do they pose an existential risk to Trump’s presidency? This obviously depends how special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to develop in Washington. But in terms of how damaging Tuesday’s events are for Trump, there are competing schools of thought.
Things are looking bad for Trump
The Manafort verdict was the first time Mueller’s investigation has been tested in court. Trump has spent months deriding this “witch-hunt” against him, but even witches get a trial and Manafort largely, though not completely, lost his.
Manafort was convicted of eight of the 18 charges he faced relating to tax and bank fraud with his personal finances. Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, though his crimes largely predate that three-month tenure. While Manafort’s convictions are not directly related to Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the impression the Trump campaign was staffed by white-collar criminals is now much stronger.
Manafort was also in the pay of a Russian-backed leader in Ukraine, former President Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych was ousted from office in 2014, that source of income dried up, forcing Manafort to find new and nefarious ways to support his lavish lifestyle.
The problem for Trump is the possible nexus between himself, Manafort and Putin that Manafort’s guilty verdicts could expose. That will likely be tested when the former campaign chair goes on trial in Washington next month for his alleged crimes linked to his Ukraine consultancy.
Cohen’s plea bargain also makes a possible charge against Trump more stickable. Importantly, Cohen has gone further than anyone else in directly implicating Trump as a co-conspirator in some of his actions. If Trump did authorise his former personal lawyer to pay off women with whom he had had extramarital affairs and told him to do so in order not to derail his 2016 presidential campaign, he may be guilty of campaign finance violations, at the very least.
Together, the legal travails of Manafort and Cohen bring the Mueller investigation into the White House. It has so far just been banging on the windows. Trump has been able to skirt the malfeasance of his former advisors through the court of public opinion. The problem is that the United States is a government of laws and of actual courts that bully-pulpit tweets cannot indefinitely protect him from.
This won’t hurt Trump that much (at least, not yet)
Trump has earned a sort of immunity by profusion. He commits so many faux pas, is politically incorrect so often, skirts potential legal issues so frequently, that no one transgression ever seems to stick.
Former President Richard Nixon committed one clear crime and paid the price. But what is Trump actually guilty of? Having dubious business and political associates? What president hasn’t had those?
Sexual relations with women other than his wife? Bill Clinton did as much and is regarded as one of the most successful presidents of recent years.
Trump’s supporters also don’t care about any of this. Many see the trials of Manafort and Cohen as the elite going after Trumps’s associates because they can’t land a glove on their hero.
This popular sentiment is a vital currency for the Trump administration. He has thus far remained enormously popular with his base, despite the gathering legal clouds. He is particularly adept at exploiting his victim-in-chief status. The most powerful man in the world is protected in the court of public opinion by his victimhood – a remarkable state of affairs.
And another important point: there is still no clear crime that would make Trump impeachable. There is still not enough in the Manafort verdict and Cohen plea bargain to force Republicans to desert the man on whom their fortunes in the November midterm elections (and beyond) depend.
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American politics is about to become even more partisan and personal because the legal stakes have just gotten higher. Are they high enough to end the Trump presidency, though? Probably not. There is some way to go and many more days in court before we can answer that with any confidence.
In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?
Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.
Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.
It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.
In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.
They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.
As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).
Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.
I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.
Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.
More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.
Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.
The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.
This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.
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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.
Three months before the November 6 US midterm elections, the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate gives Donald Trump a 41.7% approval rating and a 52.5% disapproval rating, for a net approval of -10.8. Despite issues such as Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and immigration, his ratings have been fairly stable since rising to their present level in early May, helped by the good US economy.
Trump performs poorly when compared to other presidents at this stage in their presidencies. When comparing net approval, the FiveThirtyEight aggregate shows Trump is only ahead of Harry Truman, president from 1945-53. Presidents prior to Truman came before there was much scientific polling.
According to CNN analyst Harry Enten, the majority of presidents approaching a midterm had an overall job approval far higher than their approval of handling the economy. The two largest exceptions were Bill Clinton in 1998, owing to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Trump now. In both these cases, the president’s approval on the economy far exceeded his overall approval.
The implication of Trump’s economic vs overall approval gap is that the good US economy is holding up his approval. If the economy does not perform well, Trump’s ratings are likely to suffer a large drop.
Trump has bragged that his approval ratings with Republicans are higher than Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln died long before scientific polling started, so we do not know what his ratings were.
The Huffington Post Pollster aggregate has Trump’s approval with Republicans at a high 85%, but self-identified Republicans made up just 26% of all registered voters in 2017 according to the Pew Research Centre, down from 29% in 2016. This suggests that Trump is appealing to a diminishing base.
Trump’s popularity with Republican voters explains why criticism from prominent Republican politicians over issues such as Russia and tariffs has been muted. According to Enten, candidates endorsed by Trump have won Republican primaries, but Trump’s poor overall ratings are a negative for Republicans in a general election.
Republicans barely hold Ohio 12 seat at byelection, and midterm election polling
On Tuesday, the Republican, Troy Balderson, defeated the Democrat, Danny O’Connor, by a 50.2-49.3 margin in a byelection for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. Provisional votes are likely to narrow the gap, but not overturn the current Balderson lead.
Trump won this district by an 11.3 point margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Mitt Romney won by a similar 10.5 point margin against Barack Obama in 2012. This district is historically Republican; the Democrats have only won it once since the 1930’s, in 1980. A loss by less than one point is a strong result for the Democrats.
In the FiveThirtyEight aggregate, Democrats hold a 47.4-41.2 lead over Republicans in the race for Congress. This aggregate has been more volatile than the aggregate of Trump’s ratings, and the recent move towards the Republicans could vanish soon.
All 435 House seats are up for election on November 6. Owing to natural clustering of Democratic voters and Republican gerrymandering, Democrats probably need to win the House popular vote by about seven points to take control.
35 of the 100 Senate seats are also up for election on November 6, including two Senate byelections in Mississippi and Minnesota. 26 of these seats are currently held by Democrats and just nine by Republicans. Democrats will be defending five states that voted for Trump by at least 18 points.
Despite the tough Senate map for Democrats, RealClearPolitics gives Republicans just a 48-45 lead for the Senate including seats not up for election. Seven states are rated toss-ups; these occur when the polling average has a lead under five points. If toss-up states are assigned to the current leader, Republicans hold a 51-49 Senate lead, suggesting no net change from the current Senate.
Australian polls: Newspoll and Essential both 51-49 to Labor
Last week’s Newspoll, conducted July 26-29 from a sample of 1,700, gave Labor a 51-49 lead, unchanged since three weeks ago. Primary votes were 39% Coalition (up one), 36% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (steady) and 7% One Nation (steady). Three of the four days of this poll’s fieldwork were taken before the Super Saturday byelection results were known.
This was the Coalition’s 37th successive Newspoll loss under Malcolm Turnbull, four more than the previous record of consecutive Newspoll losses for a government. However, the primary vote shift in this poll indicate the Coalition is closing in on a 50-50 Newspoll.
42% were satisfied with Turnbull’s performance (up one), and 48% were dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of -6, equal with a Newspoll four weeks ago for Turnbull’s best net approval this term. Bill Shorten’s net approval fell one point to -25. Turnbull maintained an unchanged 48-29 lead as better PM.
Last week’s Essential, also conducted July 26-29 from a sample of 1,022, gave Labor a 51-49 lead, unchanged since three weeks ago. Primary votes were 41% Coalition (up one), 36% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (steady) and 6% One Nation (steady). Essential is using 2016 election flows, and this poll would be 50-50 by Newspoll’s new methods.
For more on Newspoll and Essential, including best to lead Labor and Liberal questions and party attribute changes, see my personal website. Turnbull and Anthony Albanese have gained in Liberal and Labor leadership polling.
Greenpeace ReachTEL poll: 52-48 to Labor
A ReachTEL poll for Greenpeace, conducted July 30 – two days after Super Saturday – from a sample of 4,000, gave Labor a 52-48 lead by respondent allocated preferences. Primary votes, after assigning undecided through a forced choice, were 37.3% Coalition, 34.4% Labor, 12.1% Greens and 7.9% One Nation. A Victorian breakdown of this poll gave Labor a 57-43 lead with the Greens on a high 18.0%.
ReachTEL always asks for voting intentions first, but other questions in these polls are skewed towards Greenpeace’s environmental agenda.
Trump Baby is President Donald Trump’s highest-profile troll. During his recent UK visit, the airborne infant protested alongside tens of thousands of marchers against current US policies. While Trump’s itinerary was carefully choreographed to avoid protesters, his nappy-clad inflatable caricature was embraced by crowds on the streets and watching from afar. Now there is speculation that the baby blimp will come to Australia for Trump’s expected visit here later this year.
Trump Baby critiques the president not from a political or moral standpoint, but at the level of ego. It is designed to embarrass and humiliate him. Baby’s makers believe such an insult has a better chance of hitting its target than political arguments, which Trump is seemingly impervious to. Indeed Trump complained that the balloon made him feel “unwelcome”. Bullseye!
Trump Baby quickly went viral, demonstrating that while art cannot necessarily change the world, it can harness to great effect the zeitgeist of cultural sentiment. Yet in these times of political uncertainty, creative people need to step up to the challenge of not simply mirroring the issues and concerns of the day, but of providing new ways of thinking about the world and its problems. This opportunity was largely missed with the Trump blimp.
Social change and uprisings have been marked by image-led protests throughout history. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was made in response to the suffering and violence inflicted by the Spanish civil war, and 80 years later remains a universal symbol of anti-war protest.
Artists responded with murals and multiple-edition prints to the 1968 uprisings in Europe, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire in 1989, and as part of the global Occupy movement from 2011 onward. In the last two years, the preponderance of Trump protest art has almost become a genre of its own.
The process of staging any interventionist art project is fraught with obstacles. These range from prohibitive public safety regulations and sceptical bureaucrats to cost blowouts and unpredictable weather. Yet in Britain last month the protest gods (and indeed, Mayor Sadiq Khan) were on the side of Trump Baby, eagerly rolling out the red carpet in a spirit of geniality that was not extended by the public to Trump the man.
In the Don’s home country, the state has assumed a more cautious, sometimes censorial approach. Last year, a proposal for another balloon artwork opposing Trump was scuttled by Chicago authorities. The plan was to fly four, nine-metre wide, pig-shaped helium balloons from a section of the Chicago River that fronts Trump Tower. The bloated, golden swine would obscure the giant letters that spell out the proprietor’s name.
Designed to protest falsehoods in the current political environment, the project invoked a range of cultural references. The pigs referred variously to the four central pig characters of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Trump’s controversial “Miss Piggy” comments about a former Miss Universe, and the garish gold interiors of the Trump penthouse. In a blow to the creators, Chicago authorities blamed the potential for river traffic congestion in ruling that, for now, the pigs can’t fly.
Trump Baby, like much Trump protest art, provides some much needed levity in the depressing news cycle of world politics. It was preceded in 2017 by Don the Chicken, an inflatable fowl that temporarily landed on the lawn behind the White House. Don’s grotesque features also mocked Trump’s inflated ego and narcissistic preoccupation with appearance.
The motivation behind these inflatables and other Trump protest art is mostly uniform and blatantly obvious. The UK designers of Baby Trump have stated on numerous occasions that the current US administration is not representative of the kind of politics that people in the UK believe in. The creators behind the Chicago proposal have similarly explained that they are not activists. Instead they are proud Americans creating visual commentary on the current political environment.
Speaking to the converted
The visual aspect of the commentary is key to the concept of Trump Baby, Don the Chicken and the (currently grounded) flying pigs. Historically, visual imagery in the public sphere was mainly found in places of worship. Renaissance scholar Leon Battista Alberti wrote in the 15th century that images were essential to help people understand the message being conveyed.
Inside the churches and cathedrals of Europe, artists’ murals, paintings and sculptures reinforced the word spoken from the pulpit. Like Baby Trump, in its day religious imagery was speaking to the converted. However unlike art of the Renaissance, the baby blimp eschews the possibility of subtle inference and nuanced interpretation in favour of delivering a bland message designed for mass appeal.
This is the crucial difference between art and caricature: Baby Trump is a towering gasbag that sucks up all the intellectual oxygen in the room.
Religious art of the Renaissance was also commissioned as eye candy with an essentially didactic purpose. However, that imagery is imbued with a narrative-based layering that continues to command interest and acclaim from historians and tourists of all faiths 500 years later. The baby blimp, in contrast, is the brainchild of graphic designers who excel in creating witty one-liners.
This is not to say that serious art cannot play a role in protest movements. However, because inflatables have been commandeered by advertising since the 19th century birth of the Michelin Man, artist-led balloon projects need to disassociate themselves from the visual vocabulary of the marketing industry.
Australian artists have proven this is possible: in Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial created for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney and Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale commissioned for the 2013 centenary of Canberra, each artist drew on their own unique repositories of image and form to present unexpected and engagingly complex juxtapositions of politics, history and fun.
The crude rendering of Trump Baby, in contrast, reflects its simplistic concept: Trump is like a baby – immature, noisy and self-centred. In an image-driven 21st century threatened by divisive politics, this blimp exemplifies the brash and infantile folly that it purports to critique.
If Trump’s troll travels here later this year, it throws open a challenge for Australian artists to greet the man and his Baby with thoughtful, artistically sophisticated responses that provoke considered debate rather than superficially regurgitating popular opinion.
Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.
The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.
Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.
Another war in Europe remains possible
Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.
Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.
The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.
The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.
The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.
Kaliningrad is strategically important, as well, as the site of recently deployed nuclear-capable short-range missiles and an upgraded nuclear weapons storage site.
Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.
These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.
Going it alone
But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?
It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.
While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.
Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.
France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.
Trump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left his historic Singapore summit with US President Donald Trump last month with a massive political victory in hand, but questions remain how this will help his isolated country in pragmatic terms.
A Japanese newspaper reported Sunday that Kim has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in lifting the sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. But even if sanctions are lifted, will this be enough to improve the standard of living for North Korea’s impoverished citizens?
In recent years, Pyongyang has focused on twin policy objectives: achieving global political legitimacy, and embarking on a program of economic modernisation. The Singapore summit has arguably helped in reaching the first objective. North Korea will now be looking to achieve the second.
A possible high-speed future
Compared to neighbouring China and South Korea, North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of expansion and modernisation. For decades, the government emphasised investment in heavy industry and weapons programs, allowing its roads, ports, rail lines and airports to fall into disrepair. North Korea’s energy, water and communications systems lag behind the rest of the world, as well.
When Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Moon said he would like to travel through North Korea to climb Mt. Paektu – a site of great importance in Korean folklore. Kim responded with a revealing admission that he would be “embarrassed” by his country’s railways.
Kim also told Moon how the North Korean athletes who took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were impressed by the South’s high-speed rail network. This was seen by many as a likely signal that North Korea was motivated to bring its own rail network – and the rest of its infrastructure – into the 21st century.
And South Korea evidently wants to help. At the summit between the two leaders, Moon gave Kim a USB drive that laid out a vision for connecting the two Koreas through new infrastructure projects and special economic zones.
Moon’s proposal is shrewd. The rail lines would also connect North Korea to its northern neighbours, China and Russia, and ultimately serve as a vital link between the entire Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia and Europe.
These reserves consist of iron, gold, copper and graphite, as well as large amounts of rare earth deposits needed for production of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets made in the South. There are also unconfirmed reports of oil and gas deposits in North Korean waters.
However, modernising North Korea’s neglected infrastructure won’t come cheaply. The cost is estimated at several trillion dollars , similar to what West Germany spent to develop the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The technical know-how and capacities of North Korea’s labour forces will also pose huge challenges.
Already, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and other corporations provide training for the North Koreans they’ve employed in special economic zones along the border. These giants are well-placed to rebuild the North’s deteriorating infrastructure, but would need to invest much more time and money to train the local workforce.
Whether the North accepts the South’s help remains to be seen. This could prove to be a major stumbling block.
Of course, China could step in and play a major role. The country has built the world’s longest high-speed rail network, extending some 22,000kms, in a remarkably short span of time.
Before any progress can be made on grand plans like these, North and South Korea need to take an important first step and reopen the rail links and roads between the countries. The two neighbours agreed in June to work towards that goal, but any material progress will need to wait until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted.
The two Koreas agreed to start limited cross-border rail service to an industrial zone just over the North Korean border in 2007, but the fraught relationship between the two countries soon brought the initiative to a halt.
This time around, progress will depend on the cooperation of the North Korean leader, who has been reluctant to accept help in the past, but might be persuaded to do so now with his country’s future in the balance.
In contrast, he displays indifference – if not hostility – towards the liberal rules-based order that has served US interests since World War II. Issues like human rights, trade, climate change, and even America’s democratic allies have all been criticised or undermined by the president during his time in office.
But is the explanation that simple or is there something else at work? Is there a strategy that, President Trump and his allies believe, serves America’s geopolitical interests? If there is, it’s about China.
America’s ideological problem
Consider that there are a number of states throughout the Asia-Pacific and across Eurasia that may soon be “up for grabs” as US-China tensions escalate and states hedge their position. Clearly, Washington wants as many states as possible to maintain their strategic distance from Beijing and lean towards the US. This is a task that will become more difficult as China’s power continues to rise and America finds it harder to reassure its allies that it can maintain its dominance in the region.
A number of these states have authoritarian governance systems, forms of illiberal democracy or may be trending in this direction. They do not share America’s governing liberal ideology. This ideological difference could complicate America’s efforts to keep these states out of China’s orbit, which claims to have no interest in the domestic affairs of other states.
US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War cannot have reassured authoritarian and illiberal states that Washington’s ideological values play only a minor role in it. US foreign policy, at times, has looked like that of a revolutionary power intent on transforming the international system in its own image. After all, the Bush administration appeared to believe that the only way for the world to be safe was for liberalism and democracy to triumph everywhere, which could usher in a global democratic peace. This is an assumption with some empirical support.
Furthermore, the immense power of the US may have made it difficult for non-liberal states to feel assured that even if they complied with US demands to give up their weapons of mass destruction (which they perceive as a critical deterrent to US intervention), they might still face further requests and threats. As Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi found out in 2011, even a regime change can be a consequence.
Addressing a disadvantage
So how does all this tie back to America’s competition with China for the allegiance of states across the world? What could encourage authoritarian and illiberal states, in particular, to lean towards China in the years to come and accelerate the emergence of a bipolar US-China system?
Firstly, America’s power provides it with immense discretion to act and the capacity to undermine and enact regime change against illiberal states. Since 2003, we’ve seen this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Secondly, it is US ideology, and their fears that US power will be used for ideological ends – that is, to militarily intervene against illiberal states to try replace their regimes with liberal ones. The first point can generate concern all on its own but it’s further magnified by the second point.
To illiberal states, US liberalism has compelled Washington in the past to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” – and they are the ideological “monsters”.
Therefore, a case can be made that if the US credibly communicates that it is not motivated by liberal impulses, it will reduce these ideational concerns. It will increase (by how much is debateable) incentives for states to lean towards the US. Thus, American liberalism, rather than being seen as a source of strength, could leave the US disadvantaged as China’s power rises.
Trump’s challenge to the liberal order
Trump’s recent behaviour towards the G7 is consistent with this. It further communicates the point to authoritarian and illiberal states that this administration does not care about a state’s ideological stripes. This approach even gives President Trump more room to manoeuvre to attempt his own “Nixon to China” initiatives towards Moscow (if he can overcome domestic opposition) and Pyongyang.
Rapprochement with North Korea could reunify the Korean peninsula in a way that benefits the US at China’s expense (as well as eliminating a nuclear threat). With respect to Russia, it could stop Moscow’s drift towards China, and eliminate the prospects of Eurasia coming under the effective domination of a China-Russia led de facto alliance. Removing liberal ideology from the picture removes one roadblock towards these geopolitical initiatives.
The Trump administration appears to believe there is little material costs to adopting this approach. America’s traditional liberal allies lack the will to pay for their own defence and thus cannot constitute a true challenge to US global power. They can issue rhetoric and voice their opposition to US foreign policy but President Trump, rightly or wrongly, does not view these as meaningful forms of influence.
Ultimately, to the US president, liberalism is an ideology with no clear foreign policy benefit. To him it is one that could, at worst, act to drive states towards China, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order. This is one consistent element of the president’s strategy. The faster we reconcile ourselves to this, the quicker we will be able to grapple with the implications his foreign policy has for the existent liberal international order.
Overnight US President Donald Trump announced the establishment of a “Space Force” as a separate force of the US military.
Trump has indicated the reasoning behind the Space Force stems from national security concerns arising from the potential for renewed activities in space by China and Russia. Trump had previously referred to space as the “new warfighting domain.”
It’s not yet clear where this move sits in light of prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty, the document that has guided the the exploration and use of outer space by members of the United Nations since 1967.
When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.
It’s been coming
Departments in the US military currently include the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.
The announcement of a Space Force is part of Trump’s increased interest in the space domain, having in 2017 revived the National Space Council, under the leadership of Mike Pence.
Trump had previously flagged the idea of a US Space Force with statements in March and May.
However, with this most recent announcement Trump officially directed the US Department of Defense and the Pentagon to establish the Space Force.
Much more will be needed to actually make this happen. The President cannot simply declare the existence of a new branch of the US armed forces – it would also require, at minimum, an Act of Congress and quite possibly something more. Each branch of the US military has its own unique origins and would require the restructure of the Air Force and other oversight mechanisms in the Pentagon.
Further, there is also the question regarding what such a force could do. Trump’s speech flagged some sort of peacekeeping role.
Rich guys like rockets
Whilst much of the reportage of Trump’s speech has focused on the military aspects of his announcement, Trump reminded the audience that the Space Force was not the only space activity planned by his administration. Rather there was a strong emphasis on commercial space industries, observing that “rich guys seem to like rockets”.
US laws relating to commercial space are to be updated to encourage commercial space industries, directing government and the private sector to work cooperatively. Trump said:
I am instructing my administration to embrace the budding commercial space industry. We are modernizing out-of-date space regulations. They’re way out of date. They haven’t been changed in many, many years. And today we’re taking one more step to unleash the power of American ingenuity. In a few moments, I will sign a new directive to federal departments and agencies. They will work together with American industry to implement a state-of-the-art framework for space traffic management.
Trump also celebrated the potential for benefit to US workers, along with a lot of rhetoric about conquering the unknown. He said “we are Americans and the future belongs totally to us”, we will be “leading humanity beyond the Earth” and “into the forbidden skies”.
Noting the interest of private entrepreneurs establishing long term settlements on Mars, Trump observed that whoever made it to Mars first was fine as long as it was a US citizen.
The Outer Space Treaty
Trump’s proposals – as with any other new outer space settlements – must operate within prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty. Established in 1967, this document is the framework multilateral treaty that establishes the principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space.
Article II of the Outer Space Treaty indicates that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
That said, US law has been drafted to enable access to, including mining of, space resources, without any claim of sovereignty being made.
With respect to a Space Force, Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty expresses a principle of use of space for “peaceful purposes”. Members of the Outer Space Treaty are forbidden from placing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, on celestial bodies or stationed in outer space. Military bases, installations and fortifications, weapons testing and conduct of military manouevers on celestial bodies are also forbidden.
Of course, none of this has prevented military personnel being involved in space activities and exploration since the dawn of the space age. Both the early US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts have been members of their respective countries armed forces. Nor has it prevented the transit of weapons of mass destruction through space. GPS is a development of the US Department of Defense and many satellites, including Australia’s own Optus C1 satellite is a dual use (military and civilian) satellite.
The question of the legality of the extent of military uses of outer space and what role may be performed by Trump’s Space Force is still open.
Generally, the practice of the space faring states to date indicates that the prohibitions contained in Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty have been interpreted as “peaceful”, but as referring to non-aggressive rather than non-military uses of space.
Of course, militaries worldwide are already very reliant upon space in terms of communication, position, navigation and timing, surveillance and reconnaissance. Militaries regularly hold exercises such as a Day without Space, which prepares users for the possible destruction of or serious interference with GPS, internet and satellites communications, upon which all modern militaries are heavily reliant.
Space assets such as satellites are quite fragile and valuable and hence issues will inevitably arise regarding capacity to protect space assets.
Trump’s Space Force may still be a highly speculative announcement but it is true that we live in an era where militaries and civilians worldwide are becoming far more reliant and invested in the space domain.