Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: Comey, Belt and Road, Iranian elections and more

The Belt and Road Forum, what to make of Trump and Russia, a new refugee programme, and more.

Photo: Flickr/US Coast Guard Academy
Photo: Flickr/US Coast Guard Academy
Published 20 May 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

The US news cycle accelerated to warp speed this week, with near-hourly updates on the saga of President Donald Trump's decision last week to fire FBI Director James Comey amid an FBI investigation into his campaign's potential ties to Russian agents. As I write, the latest twist is the personal revelations from Lawfare Editor-in-Chief and friend of Comey Benjamin Wittes about conversations he had with the former Director in the lead-up to his firing, including one astonishing anecdote about Comey attempting to camouflage himself against a set of blue drapes in order to avoid Trump's attentions.

On Monday (prior to the Washington Post story alleging Trump revealed state secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Larov and Russia's Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak), Paul Schroeder analysed the state of the crisis the US finds itself in, and where the issue might progress from here:

Many Americans are calling this a constitutional crisis, just as Watergate was hailed in the 1970s. In both instances, however, the Constitution worked: it was not in crisis. The crisis is whether partisanship in Congress takes precedence over the principle of honest governing.

After the Post's story broke, John Blaxland examined just how egregious Trump's actions may have been:

Trump, seeking to demonstrate the ‘art of the deal’ on the international stage, appears to have sought to trade some intelligence for increased cooperation form the Russians. That in itself should not cause us to reel in horror. Sanitised intelligence, drawn from sensitive sources has been passed between nations for a long time. The trick is to sanitise the material by removing reference to the sources and method of collection...But a cavalier removal of indicators of sources and methods, without having a plausible alternative source and method as cover, makes the sanitisation process incomplete. It is here where President Trump may have tripped himself up.

David Wells argued that the 'leak of the leak' may have been monumentally more damaging than Trump's original actions:

In their rush to demonstrate where Trump has erred, there is every chance that US government officials have made the short-term situation worse. Russia potentially being able to identify a spy inside ISIS is bad; but it’s nowhere near as serious as ISIS actually identifying that spy. Or Israel being told its sensitive intelligence has been mishandled.

While there are many differences between Nixon's position in the 70s and the scenario Trump now finds himself in, there's one key similarity, wrote Steven Casey

Just over a week after Comey's firing, Trump has ended up in a very similar position. Trump clearly hoped Comey's ouster would bring the Russia investigation to a grinding halt. Instead, he now faces a much more damaging probe from Robert Mueller, himself a former head of the FBI, who has a history of tenaciously pursuing cases wherever they lead.

This week Trump also met with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. While it might be tempting to frame the meeting as a detente between strongmen, the reality was somewhat harsher for Erdogan, wrote Lauren Williams:

In the end, Erdogan was forced to concede on almost everything, notwithstanding Trump's repeated mispronunciation of his name during the press conference.

Today Trump is scheduled to visit Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi Arabian officials, before flying on to Jerusalem, Rome, Brussels (where he will meet with NATO and EU officials) and Sicily (where he will attend a G7 Summit). Ben Rich on what's at stake in Saudi Arabia:

In the unprecedented chaos that is the Trump presidency, the apparent swing back towards Saudi Arabia seems abnormally normal. The Saudis have long been natural – some would say ideal – allies for the US in the region. The country remains largely status-quo oriented in its objectives, turns a blind eye to the special US-Israel relationship, provides an invaluable and stabilising resource to the global economy and covers its own defence needs (unlike Israel or Egypt, the Saudis pay for all the arms and training they receive from Washington). In the transactional view that seems to underpin Trump’s thinking, such traits are desirable and make the Saudis a natural go-to when considering wider challenges in the Middle East.

Stephen Grenville on the evolution of Trumponomics from brash campaign threats to a more conventional (but notably more transactional) approach, and what this evolution means for Australia:

Anyone brought up on the micro-view embodied in ‘The Art of the Deal’ would do exactly what Donald Trump is doing: if you are powerful, you will want to ‘divide and rule’ through bilateral negotiations. Each one should be an overwhelming victory. But if you add together multiple micro-deals, each of which involves purchasing from a supplier which is not the lowest-cost most-efficient provider, the sum of the deals is less than it could be.

As Trump flip-flops on Asia, China's fortunes appear to be on the rise, wrote Euan Graham:

Some of Trump and Tillerson's initial tough talk on China was clearly overheated and needed tempering by exposure to policy reality. But now US policy on China shows signs of flipping to the opposite extreme. Since Mar-a-Lago, strategic and commercial frictions have given way to an uncritical embrace of cooperation on both fronts. America's singular reliance on China as the crux of its 'maximum pressure and engagement' approach on North Korea is proving especially useful to Beijing as a source of leverage with Washington for what appears to be a marginally tougher approach towards an indifferent Pyongyang.

This week Beijing hosted a widely-anticipated forum with global leaders and officials on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – while Australia has not formally signed up for the initiative, it was still represented at the summit by Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, who walked a fine line between endorsing and opposing BRI at a doorstop in Beijing

As a project BRI is still very malleable – thus having seat at the table gives countries the ability to impact BRI's final form, argued Brett Neilson:

For countries entertaining participation in BRI, the question becomes not only about having a seat at the table but also about how the table is changing shape. Summits and statecraft aside, BRI presents architectures of governance and globalisation that nations too wedded to twentieth century visions of internationalism will have trouble negotiating and benefiting from.

One notable absence was Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong. Angela Han:

China had not invited Singapore’s prime minister in the first place. This is surprising, especially as Singapore has been one of the biggest advocates of BRI...Beijing’s snub is significant. It is fair to conclude that, if China continues to freeze out Singapore, there could be significant implications on at least three levels.

Another notable absence was India, who declined to send a ministerial representative despite Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicating one would be sent. Pradeep Taneja:

The fact that India waited till the last minute to articulate an official position on the BRI Forum is, however, indicative of a bigger problem – the lack of a clear strategy on how to deal with China's rise.

It's important to keep in mind that BRI isn't the only infrastructure show in town, wrote Malcolm Cook:

This year, the largest infrastructure deal to be signed by the Philippines will not be part of the BRI and it won't be with China. Instead it will be with Japan, the predominant foreign infrastructure partner of the Philippines for decades. According to Philippine Secretary of Transport Arturo Tugade, the $US6 billion deal to build the country’s first subway has been 'sealed'.

As I write, polls have opened for Iran's presidential elections. Rodger Shanahan on what will await the eventual winner around the region:

Although the Iranian president has relatively little say over external security policy in the Islamic Republic, whoever wins the election on Friday - or the runoff if required a week later - will face an external security environment that is looking increasingly bleak.  And when you are already decisively engaged in Syria and Iraq, the fact that the environment is becoming more threatening certainly says something about the potential size of the problem.

Khanh Hoang on the newly established Community Support Programme (CSP), a measure included in the 2017 Budget that will see private businesses, families and individuals given the ability to sponsor refugees for resettlement in Australia:

Private sponsorship and other pathways should be in addition, not an alternative, to existing refugee places provided by governments. So while the introduction of the CSP should be applauded, the fact it eats up part of Australia's existing refugee and humanitarian quota is problematic.

Greg Earl's fortnightly diplomacy brief examined how the 2017 Budget accounted for upcoming international summits in Sydney and Port Moresby, and the state of Australia's foreign investment:

But there's some significant spending on the softer side outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade allocation that hasn't received much attention – that's the $56 million being spent on the summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Sydney next March.

Amid the foreign policy challenges emanating from Washington, Beijing and London, it's easy to overlook an event that perhaps offers Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull his best shot at his own regional legacy this term (which could be his only term, judging by the opinion polls).

And finally, Emma Connors on Australia's Vietnamse disapora:

Australia's Vietnamese diaspora is a remarkable element in the fast-evolving relationship between the two countries. Hanoi and Canberra are both doing what they can to help Australian Vietnamese to forge and strengthen links that can pay enormous dividends in trade and tourism.

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