Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: ‘Fire, fury and power’, ASEAN turns 50 and more

Australia's same-sex marriage and republicanism debates, Chinese propaganda, a return to Abenomics and more.

Photo: Getty Images/Stringer/Justin Merriman
Photo: Getty Images/Stringer/Justin Merriman
Published 12 Aug 2017 

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

This week US President Donald Trump issued (perhaps through verbal force of habit) a warning to North Korea that they would be met with 'fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before' should Kim Jong-un's regime issue any more threats to the US. Threatening nuclear attack to deter future threats of nuclear attack is a novel approach, wrote Sam Roggeveen, but the substance of US policy has been unambiguous since the armistice:

Trump is not the first US president to issue lurid threats of mass annihilation against North Korea. And putting aside the language in which it is expressed, US policy since the Korean armistice has been unequivocal: it would defend South Korea against Northern aggression with nuclear weapons if necessary. In fact, for much of that period, the US had nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea for that exact purpose.

Moreover, ever since the North Korean nuclear program came to light in the 1990s, the US has declared that a North Korean nuclear weapon is unacceptable and that the US would not stand for it. The Trump Administration has said the same thing about a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile. 'Unacceptable' may be a bit drier than 'fire and fury', but it is also pretty unambiguous.

Steven Casey analysed similar cases of rhetorical bluster throughout US history:

It might be hard to think of a precedent, but it is certainly not impossible. Interestingly, the closest a president has come to anticipating Trump's shockingly bellicose statement was actually Harry Truman, but during the Korean War, not World War II.

Last Thursday the Washington Post published the full transcript of January's infamous phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. While not of huge historical consequence, Turnbull's emphasis that Australia will 'be there again and again' is a cause for concern, wrote James Curran:

This is precisely the kind of formulation that gives American officials the impression that Australian support on any other US policy will be forthcoming, come what may. Recall that an Obama administration official said in late 2015 that 'all of our allies give us headaches, except for Australia. You can always count on Australia'.

Is this how Australia really wants to be viewed in Washington?

On 8 August ASEAN celebrated its 50th birthday in Manila, amid a number of ministerial meetings. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong argued that the government should do more to engage with the bloc:

Labor has welcomed the Turnbull Government's intention to hold an ASEAN-Australia leaders' summit in 2018, but this alone is not enough.  At this time of change, as we face unprecedented disruption to the global order and changing regional dynamics, ASEAN remains critical for the region – and Australia needs to engage deeply with both the individual ASEAN countries and with the institution.

Compared with last year, Philippine enthusiasm for discussing the UNCLOS South China Sea ruling has all but disappeared, noted Erin Cook:

Where the South China Sea was once the big ticket item for the bloc's summits, this weekend was dominated by another lingering regional flashpoint – North Korea. With 27 foreign ministers from around the world attending, including the US, Russia and China, all eyes were on North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong.

Graeme Smith analysed what we might garner from a new Chinese Communist Party slogan and the changing nature of propaganda under 'Core Leader' Xi Jinping:

Aside from Xi Jinping being elevated to 'core' status within the Party, another hint that Xi's status in the CCP pantheon will be different is coverage in the People's Daily, the CCP's leading mouthpiece. Qian Gang's analysis showed Xi showed Xi Jinping mentioned more often than Mao on the front page of the People's Daily. Partly this is because articles are shorter, but Xi still has more than double the number of mentions that Jiang and Hu enjoyed.

As Qian Gang notes, 'If after the meeting [in November], Xi Jinping Thought emerges, then we know he's reached the pinnacle of power. The others are weaker than this. Theory, concept and strategy are all weaker.' For Xi to eclipse 'Deng Xiaoping Theory' and be placed alongside 'Mao Zedong Thought' would have far-reaching effects on China's relations with the world. As the University of Melbourne's Sow-Keat Tok puts it, this development would mark a return to a strongman era.

In several interviews, Pál Nyiri examined how Chinese journalists feel about their industry's political and cultural role in the country:

As places to work and socialise, big state media are not as straightlaced and hierarchical as they once were. While older men with reliable Party credentials are still in charge at the top, many mid-level managers, a number of them women, have studied abroad. They ushered in a more easy-going atmosphere and fresher looks. A Xinhua reporter can now face the camera with a hairdo that verges on punk.

The prospect of a postal plebiscite (or is it a survey?) on the issue of same-sex marriage plays to two broad narratives the world sees in Australia, argued Nick Bryant: that the country is no longer a paragon of human rights, and that its political debates are blinkered and its prime ministers weak:

When he took office, Malcolm Turnbull, a liberal conservative with modernising impulses, seemed to be a figure capable of moulding a more cohesive national brand. Why, he even became the first sitting prime minister to attend Sydney's Mardi Gras celebrations, which passes through his own parliamentary constituency.

But there's been such a discrepancy between his promise and performance. His prime ministership provides yet another case study in the dysfunction of Australian politics, the primacy of the party room and how the coup culture in Canberra can have a myopic affect even on open-minded leaders.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has given Australia's republicanism debate a new lease on life by recently committing to a referendum on the issue by the end of Labor's next term in office. James Curran took issue with Shorten's short-sighted approach to British-Australian history:

Shorten however, cannot resist playing the nationalist card. He knows he needs to throw some red meat to the republican true believers. 'Aussie' Bill is confident that he is tapping into a deep vein of national sentiment: he wanted to talk about 'my sense of Australia, about what makes this country different'. Ironically, however, it was here that the speech did what so many republicans have done before: ransack the back catalogue of Australian history for some kind of usable national tradition, a myth of national deliverance

Herein lies the enduring dilemma for Australian republicans in the 21st century, as true today as for those who argued for the cause in the 1960s and the 1990s: the country does not have a history that suits the needs of its present. Since there was no act of rebellion against Britain, no moment of rejection, the tendency is instead to isolate particular moments that supposedly highlight Anglo-Australian discord.

During his time in power, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently switched rhetorical tack to the economic essentials whenever the electorate feels his nationalist agenda has gone too far. Greg Earl on his latest pivot:

After seeing his Liberal Democratic Party spurned in Tokyo's city election, and becoming personally embroiled in scandals over alleged favouritism for friends leading to last week's Cabinet shake-up, Abe has flicked the switch back to Abenomics, perhaps with some added popularism.

In Vietnam, the apparent kidnapping and transporting of former PetroVietnam Executive Trinh Xuan Thanh from Germany back to Vietnam has undermined confidence in the country's rule of law-based reforms, argued Helen Clark:

Up until now, Germany has been one of Vietnam's best friends in Europe, as well as its biggest trading partner in the EU. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011. Such non-binding partnerships are tailor-made for each bilateral relationship. Security and defence are becoming increasingly central to such relationships for Vietnam. But what is the centrepiece of the German-Vietnam agreement? Outside of education and environment, there is rule of law, German efforts to assist in reforming Vietnam's legal system and, according to German Foreign Ministry, 'advice on implementing international conventions and regulations ... promoting human rights and legal aid as well as other issues'

This does not square well with the Foreign Ministry statement on the kidnapping: 'The abduction of Vietnamese citizen Trinh Xuan Thanh on German territory is an unprecedented and blatant violation of German and international law'.

Our new International Economy Program Director Roland Rajah on the 'twin deficits' holding back high growth in Indonesia:

Even if Jokowi is very successful in his agenda, the economy may quickly run into another constraint – its current account (balance of trade and other income) and fiscal deficits. These 'twin deficits' played a key role in the growth deceleration that started a few years ago and have so far only been partially unwound.

Trump's zero-sum approach to trade will, if followed through by Trump or other leaders, result in a reduction and distortion of all global trade, argued Stephen Grenville:

How to avoid this irrational outcome? The first step is to focus attention not on the bilateral imbalances, but on the global imbalances – each country's imbalance with all its trading partners taken together. An exact balance of imports and exports is rarely optimal. Some countries (like Australia) have more investment opportunities than others (think, perhaps, of Japan with its 'bridges to nowhere'). It makes sense for Japanese savers to have the chance to invest in Australia, and for Australia to have the benefit of investing more than it would have done if all its investment had to be funded from domestic saving. To our mutual advantage, Australia runs an overall trade deficit and Japan runs an overall trade surplus, in each case with corresponding funding flows in the capital account.

Rodger Shanahan on what we can take away from the foiled plot to bring down an airliner departing Sydney's airport:

If there was any doubt previously, this incident should reinforce the value of our intelligence liaison partnerships. It appears the information regarding the plot and the individuals involved in it was gained as the result of information passed on by a partner agency or partner agencies overseas.

Finally, Chietigj Bajpaee on the flourishing sources of intrastate instability in Asia:

North Korea's growing nuclear brinkmanship, renewed tensions between India and China along their disputed border and persistent frictions in the South China Sea have all contributed to a renewed focus on inter-state instabilities in Asia. There is, however, another growing source of strategic instability at the sub-state level, as increasing religiosity and extremist ideologies gain momentum in the national consciousness of several countries in the region.

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