Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: Summits, quads, purges and more

The week that was on The Interpreter.

US President Donald Trump with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, November 2017 (Photo: White House/Flickr)
US President Donald Trump with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, November 2017 (Photo: White House/Flickr)
Published 11 Nov 2017 

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

On Wednesday night the Interpreter team hit the road for Canberra, where we hosted the third annual Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge, hosted this year by ABC Political Editor Andrew Probyn. Of the 32 teams who threw their hat in the ring, it was the New Zealand High Commission and friends who ultimately prevailed – congratulations!

The 2017 summit season kicked off this week with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Da Nang. But before that, US President Donald Trump set out on his tour of Asia with a visit to Japan – Greg Earl wrote on the state of US-Japan relations, as well as Trump's choice to attend the East Asia Summit after all:

The US decision on the weekend to extend Trump's already long Asian tour by one day so he can attend the full East Asia Summit in the Philippines will help his image in the region. It also suggests US officials think Trump can actually stick to the script for almost two weeks. But two developments in the immediate run-up to the Tokyo stopover underline that even though Trump may have a bond with Abe, he has a lot more work to do with the Japanese public.

Trump's Asia trip has demonstrated the two forces at conflict behind US diplomacy in Asia – the President and his people. Aaron Connelly:

Speaking in Tokyo on Monday night, President Donald Trump was serious and gracious. 'Japan is a very special place. The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant, and you've built one of the world’s most powerful economies.' Then he looked up from his prepared remarks, and with an impish grin insulted his hosts. 'I don't know if it's as good as ours. I think not. Okay? And we're going to try and keep it that way, but you'll be second.'

The moment captured the dichotomy on display in Trump’s first foray into diplomacy in Asia.

It's a precarious time for Turnbull abroad, argued Susan Harris Rimmer, with seven potential pitfalls awaiting the Prime Minister at this year's summits.

Turnbull faces a lot of difficult questions about what Australia wants from the region when he greets his Asian counterparts ... Australian foreign policy is in a period of contestation as to the best strategy for engagement with Asia and key governance bodies of the region. This debate will culminate in the release of the Foreign Policy white paper later this year.

Unless ASEAN remains focused on the possible, the communiqué from next week's summit is likely to be another bland affair, wrote Elliot Brennan:

Until it changes its restrictive consensus voting system, expressing pre-written statements on difficult issues is little more than timewasting during an otherwise crucial forum for regional dialogue and development. A leader's dialogue, as proposed by Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa here, that can nut out and nudge policy positions on a one-on-one level would be more effective in tackling thorny issues.

Meanwhile, the ever-ethereal US-Australia-Japan-India 'Quad' grouping appears to be assuming some substance, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop indicating her interest in such a dialogue on the sidelines of ASEAN. John Hemmings argued for the grouping's merits: 

We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region? We must choose actions that meet our own strategic concerns and not China’s. For this reason, the quadrilateral makes sense.

As did Andrew Shearer – who also noted the less-than-flattering perceptions of Australian determination:

[Despite] Canberra’s firm rhetoric about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, officials in Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi have lingering concerns about Australia’s resolve and are looking to see actions backing up words. It is sobering that Indian diplomats are talking of the Quad as a way to stiffen Australia’s spine.

Following on from last month's 19th Party Congress in Beijing, Gerry Groot analysed the United Front Work Department's contribution to China's long international reach:

The extent of Chinese Communist Party influence via united front work abroad has long been seriously underestimated.

North Korea's outlandish threats to conduct an above-ground (or rather, above-ocean) nuclear test are unlikely to be realised – but if they are, the consequences may prompt the US into conflict, argued Robert E Kelly:

Such a test would not formally qualify as a casus belli, but the public relations impact globally, and the possible ecological impact on Japan specifically, could well be enough for the Trump Administration to choose to fight, with Japan in support and South Korea and China ambivalent. The North can see this too and will likely not run the risk – if only Trump can keep his mouth shut during his Asia trip...

David Vallance and Euan Graham made the case for South Korea and Japan not going nuclear in response to North Korea, if the aim is to make the region more secure:

How much security would nuclear weapons buy for South Korea and Japan? Less than widely assumed. They would provide a guarantee against large-scale invasion, but little else.

Cyber attacks against the North Korean military are unlikely to be fruitful – but North Korea's extra-territorial cybercriminal groups are a more promising target, wrote Ben Flatgard:

Lazarus and Guardians of Peace’s physical location in foreign countries brings them within the reach of law enforcement. Cases can be developed against individuals.

Across the world in Bonn, Germany, COP23 is also taking place. Like Trump in Asia, there are two Americas on display, wrote Adam Morton:

Over the next fortnight, the world will witness up close another split in American life: that between its President and its bureaucracy on the question of climate change.

The detention centre on Manus has harmed the people detained, Manusians and the Australia-PNG relationship, wrote Anna Kirk:

A long-term solution needs to be found soon – continual uncertainty is harrowing not just to the refugees and asylum seekers inside the centre, but also to Manusians, and is damaging Australia-PNG relations and Australia’s international reputation.

Russia's geopolitical vision desires some level of global chaos – but it has also inherited the task of building a more durable Syria, argued Stephen Blank:

It is too early to say how Moscow reconciles the irreconcilable. The differences within Syrian factions and the pervasive Sunni-Shiite animosity, not to mention Iran’s hatred of Israel, may well be impossible to resolve except by deterrence. But Moscow cannot provide deterrence. It can make deals and exploit rivalries but for it to become an exemplar of stability, as Washington has been, is inconceivable. Russia may well have entered Syria’s civil war partly to force Washington to see it as an equal. But a Pax Moscovia in the Middle East is no more conceivable than Putin espousing Jeffersonian democracy.

The ongoing purge in Saudi Arabia is more than simple palace intrigue, wrote Raihan Ismail:

There is little doubt that the Saudi regime needs to undertake significant anti-corruption measures. But the circumstances strongly suggest that there is more at play. Some of the recent arrests were of potential leadership rivals. Another cousin, Miteb Ibn ‘Abdullah, the son of a former king, was in this category: his position leading the National Guard placed him in control of a large armed force. Less cynically, the arrests were an opportunity for Muhammad Ibn Salman to burnish his credentials as a reformer and gain popularity among young Saudis agitated by corruption within the kingdom.

Finally, Stephen Grenville on why macro-economics needs a fundamental rethink:

Nearly a decade on from the 2007-08 financial crisis, the recovery may be more assured, but the performance of these economies raises doubts about the conventional macroeconomic wisdom that had guided policy for a generation. The implications for monetary, fiscal and financial policy are far-reaching.

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