Reports by and about Cleo Paskal: Associate Fellow Chatham House, London, UK; Trudeau Fellow, CÉRIUM, Canada; Adjunct Faculty Manipal University, India. Author Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, And Political Crises Will Redraw The World Map.
Small countries might be big players in Pacific’s Great Game.
One of the biggest questions roiling Pacific countries is “will the United States militarily defend its Asia-Pacific allies in a time of conflict?” Much of the strategic architecture of the region is predicated on a “yes”. That’s why there are US bases in Japan, close American military cooperation with the Philippines, rotating Marines in Australia, and more. Much more.
China has been working hard to undermine those relationships. It declared an Air Defence Identification Zone that covers areas claimed by Japan, in part to see what the US would do (officially, the US didn’t do much). Beijing is actively courting regional leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines (though Duterte himself seems much more willing to work with President-Elect Donald Trump than he was with President Barack Obama). Australia allowed a Chinese company to lease a port right next where the Marines are stationed in Darwin. And more. Much more.
One zone where this geostrategic chess game is moving at a dizzying pace is Oceania. Oceania is roughly the zone between Hawaii, New Zealand and Japan. Made up of over a dozen independent countries, and covering close to 1/6th of the planet’s surface, it is still littered with the rusting carcasses of World War II era Japanese and American planes and boats left over from the last time it was at the front line of a conflict between Asia and America.
From a defence, intelligence and economic perspective, Western presence in the area is mostly covered by Australia and New Zealand. However, both have a track record of regularly using their influence in the region to advance their own narrow interests, sometimes to the detriment of regional (and even their own) security.
For example, when the country of Tonga wanted to introduce more renewable energy into its grid in order to lower rates, Wellington actively used its aid and influence to try to ensure a key solar power procurement contract went to a New Zealand company, even though the company had little experience operating in a tropical region. The end result was that the Japanese had to step in to complete the New Zealand-built solar plant and there was no reduction in cost to the consumer, in some cases costs actually increased.
This sort of ill-conceived, heavy-handed interference has weakened the Western position in the region and, in the medium and long term, is damaging to Australia and New Zealand themselves.
It has also left the door wide open for China. China’s footprint in the region has expanded very rapidly, on multiple fronts. In Samoa there are plans for China to build what will be the largest wharf in Australasia. In Fiji, there has been extensive military cooperation. In Tonga, newly arrived Chinese have taken over around 90% of the retails sector in less than a decade. And the list goes on.
The response from Australia and New Zealand has been conflicted. While some in the political and strategic communities are clearly concerned, others seem resigned.
At a macro level, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in 2009 that the US would not protect Australia in a time of crises. More recently, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said that Australian foreign policy has been “tagging along” behind the US, and that Canberra should “cut the tag”.
At a micro level, grasp of the speed and degree of change is sometimes dangerously incomplete. Recently, in Tonga, a Chinese shopkeeper was attacked in her sleep and nearly killed. A young Tongan man was arrested. The New Zealand press used the incident to promote the narrative that Tonga, and Tongans, are violent and increasingly unstable, justifying more “impartial” New Zealand oversight.
In response to its own narrative, New Zealand sent an ethnic Chinese New Zealand policeman to Tonga to embed with the Tongan police in order to “help protect” the ethnic Chinese in Tonga. In reality, however, the Tongan attacker was hired by a Chinese businessman to attack a rival. This was all about crime within the newly arrived Chinese community, not about Tonga. The New Zealand response only exacerbated the situation.
Similarly, New Zealand is pushing for the commercialisation of customary lands in various countries in Oceania. The expectation in Wellington is this will benefit New Zealand business in the region. What is more likely, as Samoan academic Dr Iati Iati has shown, is that the locals will be disposed and may become desperate, meanwhile the land itself is more likely to end up with Chinese investors. Again a lose-lose situation.
It is in this context that, last week, the University of French Polynesia convened a high level conference called “Coveted Oceania”. France has vast ocean territories in the Pacific, based primarily on its two possessions, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In the last year, the French profile in the area has grown rapidly. In April, in a deal worth close to $40 billion, France won the contract to build 12 submarines for Australia (New Caledonia and Australia share a maritime border). And just a few months ago, New Caledonia and French Polynesia joined the Pacific Island Forum. On the sidelines of the “Coveted” conference there was active engagement with Australian academics with the goal of expanding collaborations. France is suddenly much more visible in Oceania.
Oceania is changing fast. And India will be affected. As the “Indo-Pacific” century rolls on, the strategic spheres of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean will increasingly overlap. The election of Donald Trump is only likely to increase US ties with India, and give India latitude for its “act East” policy. Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, not only get along with each other, they also seem to be among Trump’s favourite foreign leaders. And all three are cautious about China.
Abe wrote about a democratic Indo-Pacific security diamond, with the Japan, India, the US (Hawaii), and Australia at the points. However, Japan was bitterly disappointed that Canberra chose to buy French submarines rather than Japanese ones and, at the same time, the Australian strategic community seems to be conflicted and is sending out mixed messages. While some are passionately devoted to the “diamond” (or similar), others are not so sure the US will come to its aid in a crisis and are proposing hedging their bets, perhaps with countries that are not democracies. The potential resurrection of France in the region adds a new element.
In an Oceania context, it’s not clear if the “diamond” (Japan, India, US, Australia) will solidify or if it will become more of a triangle (Japan, US, India), or perhaps even expand in some areas into a pentagon (Japan, India, US, Australia, France).
Whatever happens, there is no question India will become more involved in Oceania. There are plans for an Indian space research station in Fiji, growing economic ties with Vanuatu, and a whole slate of bilateral proposals crafted since Prime Minister Modi visited Fiji in 2014.
So will the US defend its Asia-Pacific allies in a time of conflict? Hopefully, ties between democratic partners will strengthen and it won’t have to. The chances of that are greatly improved if the countries of Oceania are given the space to develop stable societies and economies instead of being used by regional powers as outlets for short-term narrow economic interests that end up giving long-term advantage to China. If Canberra and Wellington want to feel more secure about their relationships with Washington, Tokyo, Delhi, and Paris, they might want to rethink their relationships with Nuku’alofa, Apia, Honiara and Port Moresby.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.
A supporter of President-Elect Donald Trump of US holds a sing in his support in New York on Wednesday. Reuters
What happens will depend on how the ‘establishments’ respond and adapt, and if Trump presses his advantage quickly and efficiently.
London: So here’s what just happened. President-elect Donald J. Trump blew up the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, major funders, major foundations, think tanks and the mainstream media. And they are not pleased. Cosy relationships, some nurtured over decades, have been exposed and excoriated. Carefully developed plans have led to dead ends. Exalted leaders now face potential legal humiliation.
This should sound familiar. Policies and personalities aside, this is the same sort of political earthquake that shook India in 2014. And, to a lesser degree, the UK the day after the Brexit vote. Washington this week echoes Delhi of two years ago, and London in June. In DC, there is a mad scramble within normally staid, and often smug, institutions. Many believed their own propaganda and never thought this day would come. They didn’t plan for it. They are scared.
What happens moving forward will depend on how these “establishments” respond and adapt, and if Trump presses his advantage quickly and efficiently.
That means understanding what really happened on 8 November. And what didn’t happen. In spite of the oft cited narrative that the vote was the result of an unprecedented “whitelash”, according to CNN exit polls, Trump received a slightly higher percentage of black votes than Romney did in 2012 (Trump 8% to Romney 7%) and a slightly higher percentage of Hispanic votes as well (Trump 29% to Romney 27%). Trump also received slightly fewer white voters than Romney (Trump 58% to Romney 59%). Given the margins of errors, that’s hardly any difference. But almost no one was equating Romney’s numbers to a “whitelash”.
In 2016, race did play a new role in that many black voters simply didn’t turn up to vote. In some states, that low voter turnout may have been decisive. And a big part of that was down to the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Her policies didn’t widely inspire, and many remember her statements during her husband President Bill Clinton’s administration in which she characterised members of the black community as “superpredators” who needed to be locked up and “brought to heel”. Bill Clinton’s policies are responsible for some of the US’ extremely high incarceration rates. Some haven’t forgotten. So, rather than vote Clinton, or Trump, they just didn’t vote all.
Also, Trump didn’t win the popular vote. Had he run against Bernie Sanders, he likely would have lost the Presidency as Bernie could mobilise voters in a way Clinton couldn’t. So the idea that the US is somehow more racist than it was four years ago when pretty much the same percentages voted for Romney as voted for Trump doesn’t seem to make sense.
What did happen is that Trump pushed a wide range of buttons, and different buttons rang bells with different sectors of voters. Some of the buttons he pushed were TV, Twitter, trade, terror, trust, and truth.
It started with TV. Trump makes great TV. And he was given an early massive boost by billions of dollars in free coverage. According to leaked Democratic emails, this was fine with the Clinton team as they thought he would be an easy person to beat, and was one of their preferred opponents (along with Ted Cruz and Ben Carson).
Trump built on this appeal by being active on Twitter. Unlike the Clinton account, he was clearly in control of his tweets. They were personal, punchy, a bit erratic, but very real. They created a powerful personal connection with his followers. He would pop up on people’s phones and computers at home and at work, putting himself in their personal space, on a regular basis and at all times of the day and night. He wasn’t asking for money, he was just letting Team Trump know what he was thinking. It was very effective, and he used it to drive home his unique policy positions.
While TV and Twitter gave him the audience, it was what he did with that audience really shook up “the elites”. On trade, Trump’s questioning of the benefits of the current form of free trade agreements put him closer to Bernie Sanders than the mainstream of the Republican Party. It is also largely sympathetic to India’s stand on a balance between trade and the protection of critical domestic sectors, as was seen with food at the WTO negotiations. This message resonated very strongly with large sections of American workers (and unemployed). Clinton, meanwhile, seemed to offer no alternative to the current economic model. And while the leaders of the big unions tended to support Clinton, many on the (dwindling) factory floors voted Trump.
On terror, Trump’s lack of compunction in linking terror to extremist Islam resonated with wide swaths of the population exasperated at being called names for just trying to discuss and understand “what the hell is going on”. Apart from generalised security concerns, many felt that free speech was only permitted by certain groups for certain groups. They felt they couldn’t even try to explain their concerns without everyone from CNN to university professors calling them every name in the book.
For some it felt like the “establishment” had decided that their emotions weren’t valid. In fact, they were called evil for even having them. These Trump voters are watching the current anti-Trump demonstrations on the news knowing that, had Hillary won, and they had demonstrated, they would have been called fascists, Nazis, and more. They felt, as Trump said, “forgotten”. And now, they hope, they will be forgotten no more. Which leads directly to Trump’s next button.
Trust. As wide sections of the electorate saw themselves being branded “deplorable” and worse, they increasingly lost trust in being accurately and adequately reflected in establishment institutions, like the mainstream media and the Republican Party. During the primaries, the Republican Party was hewing a close line to the Democrats on the sanctity of free trade and need to avoid “Islamophobia”.
Since The Donald was willing to bluntly discuss both those issues, he immediately gained trust. Supporters may not have agreed with all his policies on those two topics, but there was at least a space in which they weren’t vilified for discussing them. This also gave Trump space to do things like have openly gay Peter Thiel in a keynote position at the Republican National Convention—a first. There was no obvious political reason for it. And Trump’s relationship with his supporters was so strong, the crowd gave Thiel a standing ovation.
This sort of thing also gave Trump a reputation for the truth. At least in comparison to “crooked Hillary” and her seemingly endless FBI investigation. This was fanned by a widespread switch of media allegiances. Having been repeatedly denigrated, hundreds of thousands (if not more) abandoned the mainstream media in favour of sites like Drudge, Daily Caller, Zero Hedge and Breitbart. They are the new powerhouses, with close links to the new Trump administration. Anyone who says they were stunned by the Trump win or that no one predicted it, wasn’t reading the Daily Caller or Zero Hedge.
Apart from editorialising, this “new media” also does actual reporting. They were the first to cover the Clinton health story, the questions around media funding of the Clinton Foundation, and anti-Bernie manoeuvres at the DNC. While CNN rambled on about how the evil Russians were trying to steal the election from Hillary by leaking her emails, the Daily Caller actually went through the emails and (in their own admittedly biased way) covered the contents, while linking to original sources so you could check for yourself.
While the source of the emails was opaque, and certainly not ideal, given they were supposed to have been handed over to the FBI and therefore to the American people already, most had no qualms about reading them. The contents of the emails were extremely problematic. They seemed to show institutional incest that was questionable if not illegal. Bernie Sanders had no chance against a Democratic Party that was a subset of the Clinton machine. Add in the Clinton Foundation shenanigans and the picture got even murkier.
So, at the end of all this, Trump, eschewing traditional funders and media, rose to the top, climbing over the broken pillars of establishment Republican Party economic and social policies. Along the way, the Democratic Party’s weak community foundations and possibly systemic compromise were exposed for all to see.
What happens next depends. Will the Democratic Party use the opportunity to tear out the rot and rebuild from the ground up? They lost traditionally Democrat, working class voters to the Republicans. Will they listen properly to what’s happening across the country and try to win them back? It sounds logical but it can be harder than it seems. In Delhi, after Congress’ massive defeat in 2014, the politically logical thing would have been to go for a change of leadership and direction. That didn’t happen.
Similarly, will Trump be tempered by Washington and lose some of his overt fight? Part of his base is counting on him to “drain the swap” and “lock her up”. Will he go after corruption immediately or lose valuable time allowing the currently stunned opposition time to regroup and retrench? Again, in India in 2014, there was a lot of hope for immediate anti-corruption action. The longer the delay, the harder it gets.
The next few weeks will give a much better idea of what Trump will actually be like as a President. He is already softening on Obamacare, likely having realised that a lot of his working class base has come to rely on it. He is not ideological. And he wants to get re-elected. He will likely listen, not to the DC pundits, but to his advisors, and his base. In the meantime, what he’s already accomplished—leaving both main political parties in tatters and fundamentally changing the media landscape—is a challenge for everyone involved to up their game. Now we’ll find out who really wants to make America great again.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.
A woman holds a hand-written sign of support as US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a Hillary for America campaign event in Charlotte, North Carolina, US on Thursday. REUTERS
Before the FBI letter, it looked possible that both the House and the Senate would go majority Democratic.
London. The men who designed the American system of governance didn’t trust each other. Having just won independence from a monarchy, they put in place a complex, interlinking system of checks and balances to try to ensure that the United States didn’t produce a powerful king of its own.
Over the years, that system has been adjusted and refined, but always with the goal of a separation of powers between the legislature (the Senate and the House of Representatives), the executive (headed by the President), and the courts. The theory is, the legislature makes the laws, the executive carries them out, and the judiciary (in the form of the Federal and Supreme Courts) evaluates them. And they all keep an eye on each other.
Most of the talk around the 8 November election in the United States has been about who will be President. But when American voters step into the voting booth, they will not only be choosing a President, but will also be faced with an entire menu of choices for a whole range of other elected positions.
Given the separation of powers, what the new President can accomplish will greatly depend on who else is elected. President Obama, for example, has had a whole slate of initiatives blocked by a recalcitrant Republican legislature, including his nomination for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Similarly, the legislature keeps trying to kill the Obamacare, and the President just vetoes their propositions. With a President and legislature from different parties, already slow moving Washington can come to a standstill.
This is one reason why, to understand what is really happening on the 8th, we have to look beyond just the Presidential race. The recent FBI letter saying that it is still investigating the issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails, hasn’t just revived the campaign of Donald Trump, it has also completely changed the math around what had been considered safe Senate and House seats.
Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with approximately a third of the Senate up for election every two years. So, this year, the entire House is up for grabs, as are 34 seats in the Senate.
Before the FBI letter, it looked possible that both the House and the Senate would go majority Democratic. Now that is not so sure. This is not necessarily because people will switch their vote from Clinton to Trump. It could be that people who might have voted for Clinton are so put off by the allegations that they just don’t go out and vote, hurting the entire Democratic line up. Alternatively, Republicans who don’t like Trump might opt to stay at home, swinging it the other way.
The composition of the Senate is particularly important because the members of the Supreme Court are nominated by the President, but confirmed by the Senate. There are nine members of the Court, appointed for life. The average retirement age is 78. Currently there is one vacancy on the court, caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Three of the remaining eight Justices are 78 years old, or older. That means it is possible that the next President may appoint four Justices to the nine-person court, affecting the direction of the United States on everything, from campaign financing to abortion to voters’ rights for long after their Presidency ends.
Both parties are using the Supreme Court vacancy to try to motivate their base to vote—saying they don’t just need to win the Presidency, they also need to win the Senate. But there is a widely different approach from each party to the “ground game”. The Democratic Party puts a lot of effort into knocking on doors, driving people to polling stations, and generally making sure that people who are likely to support them are voting. The Republican Party has been particularly weak this cycle, as section of the Party itself seemed to be rejecting Trump. That is slowly turning around, in part because of the FBI letter, but it will take until voting day to see if will make the difference.
As the numbers come in on 8 November, keep an eye on not just on the Presidency but also on the Senate. If one party captures both of those pillars of power (executive and legislature), they may also capture the third (the Supreme Court), giving them the power to reshape America in their image for decades to come.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.