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The biggest threat to Australia: What Trump is prepared to do for re-election

Donald Trump – He's even scarier than Josh Frydenberg pledging allegiance to Reaganomics, writes Michael Pascoe. Photo: TND
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The scariest thing I saw last week was not Victoria’s coronavirus figures or Josh Frydenberg pledging allegiance to Reaganomics, but a scenario of what the Trump regime could be prepared to do for re-election – and might already be doing.

The stakes are high for Trump in November. He is significantly behind in the polls and there is plenty of commentary suggesting he could face jail without the protection of Presidential office.

What would Trump be prepared to do to avoid prison? Anything – he is  without scruples, without ethics or empathy. As The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner observes, he is a narcissist dangerously wallowing in self pity.

So how about a “small” military skirmish with China? A strong man display, giving the Dragon a bloody nose after years of increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, playing to Americans’ fervent patriotism, capitalising on America’s overwhelming air and sea superiority.

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research shows President Donald Trump is out of step with the country on the most important issues facing it. Photo: AP

I’ll provide the scenario for that shortly, but first: Cue Trump’s one true blue friend, Scott Morrison, champing at the bit to go all the way with Donald J in a series of moves which, at best, can only be seen in Beijing as adding frost to the new Cold War.

Exhibit A: We began the month with the Prime Minister announcing a “record” $270 billion defence budget, complete with longer-range missiles and cyber security dramatics.

It was a media stunt that was predictably lapped up – the $270 billion over 10 years actually falls short of the existing bipartisan policy of spending 2 per cent of GDP on things that go bang.

Mr Morrison stopped short of saying the whole stunt was aimed at China, but increasingly Sinophobic media and the Canberra security club immediately did it for him.

Exhibit B: The cyber element had been set up by another stunt, Mr Morrison’s June announcement that Australia was the target of a “state-based” cyber attack with a big nudge-nudge, wink-wink duly filled in by the usual commentators.

It wasn’t new, it’s constant, everyone does it, the Americans are the world champions at it, and we even boast about our efforts on the front page of the Australian Signals Directorate’s website, never mind still trying to hide details of our grubby commercial hacking of the East Timor government.

Exhibit C: Two weeks ago “Donald Trump has used a phone call with Scott Morrison to commend Australia’s $270 billion defence budget boost and discuss China’s “unfair retaliatory trade measures” and threats to Indo-Pacific security”.

(The last time the trans-Pacific mates had a phone chat, Mr Morrison blundered out of the blocks to needlessly push the US line of demanding an inquiry into China’s handling of COVID-19, further damaging our relationship with Beijing for no upside. A more diplomatically managed European-led motion for an international inquiry was subsequently co-sponsored by China and unanimously adopted by the World Health Assembly.)

Exhibit D:  Last week Australia followed the US in declaring China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea illegal. Why now, you might wonder.

Exhibit E: Our Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers have been whistled to attend Washington in person for AUSMIN talks explicitly about getting tougher with China.

Despite the virus, despite the availability of secure teleconferencing facilities, off they dutifully flew on Sunday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Payne was happy to talk up the urgency – this year’s discussions were the “most significant in my time for Australia’s short, medium and long-term interests”.

In isolation, these five examples of Australia in short order further damaging diplomatic relations with its most important economic partner – relations that are at their lowest ebb in nearly half a century – would be a worry.

But they have not occurred in isolation.

They are part of a dramatic escalation of America’s new Cold War heading towards the November presidential election.

Which is why the scenario posed by funds manager Mike Mangan last week was so scary. Mr Mangan was an army officer in a former life and maintains an insight into the military view of matters.

Following is an abridged version of his latest newsletter. You might think it crazy. You might further think no Australian government could be so crazy as to assist such craziness, then you might wonder if we already are.

Mr Mangan wrote: “Last week I suggested ‘gold bugs’ were in heaven: political upheaval, pandemic, zero to negative interest rates, monetary excess and inflation.

The only thing missing was war. That may be coming. July 2020 and the US has deployed a two-carrier naval fleet to the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is the focus of US-China tensions.

In the midst of the deployment we got this from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 14: “Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of South-East Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with ‘might makes right’.

“Beijing’s approach has been clear for years. In 2010, then-PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his ASEAN counterparts that ‘‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact’’.

“The PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.

“The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region.

“Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its “Nine-Dashed Line” claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.

“America stands with our South-East Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.

“We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.

“I’m not interested in talking to China right now,” said President Trump on July 14.

This from a President who’ll talk to any authoritarian leaders be it Putin or Iranian Mullahs. He’s the only President to ever meet North Korea’s Paramount leader. He did that thrice.

But he won’t talk with Xi. Could be trouble!

“Nothing is off the table” said David Stilwell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia on July 15.

This is diplomatic code for ‘if all else fails, we’ll send in the marines’.

It seemed more than coincidence. Major US naval exercise in the South China Sea plus a robust policy statement on the same area.

I don’t know what the US naval armada is practising in the South China Sea.

But a good guess might be rehearsing the interdiction of the Spratly Islands China has occupied and fortified since about 2012. Think 1962 Cuba blockade.

Those southern islands, 3000 clicks from China’s mainland are very exposed, militarily speaking. That makes them quite vulnerable to interdiction, and more.

The CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party)  ~3 million man military won’t be much help defending them. Nor will their second-rate navy.

Interdiction could be followed by expulsion & occupation. Think WW2 Pacific island operations.

Pompeo’s July 14 statement included this: “In line with the Tribunal’s (constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention) legally binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef.” (MP: There’s a little irony here in that the US has never ratified that convention.)

Hmmm. That’s a potential legal justification for a robust interdiction and ‘Ultimatum’ i.e. leave now or face eviction.

If that were to develop, we would all need to pull on our big boy pants.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photo: EPA

Put yourself in Trump’s shoes. First, your electoral position is dire. Your competitor ‘Sleepy Joe’ is well ahead in the polls.

Second, ‘Sleepy’ said he will not pardon you if after leaving the Presidency, you’re found guilty of any criminal acts.

You have, of course, routinely engaged in multiple criminal acts your entire life.

You’ve covered up your crimes because you’re surrounded by sycophants desperate to be in your good graces. Many of them either witnessed the crimes, committed them or did both.

If you lose the Presidency and you’re subsequently charged, you may have neither power nor money, nor sycophants to tell you how ‘great’ you are.

You, your Administration (and just as importantly your family), all have their backs against the wall.

In these relatively unique times, any ‘‘stable genius’’ might be tempted to impose their will on a few specks of land in a far-away place.

A quick and decisive military victory on Mischief Reef etc, might be just the electoral fillip your campaign needs.

You could ‘sell it’ electorally as payback for unleashing ‘Wuflu’. Or so you might reason.

(Mr Mangan goes on to outline strategic considerations and the obvious risks of the such a path, including the damage to Australia, before concluding:  “Of course the scenario I’ve outlined here is unthinkable. But 2020 has been a year of unthinkable events”.

Plenty past years were also pregnant with unthinkable acts and events.

Take the early summer of 1914. War was unthinkable in that lazy summer a century ago. Then in a matter of days the ‘dogs of war’ were unleashed.

Yes, 2020 is that serious. But if you hadn’t worked that out already, you haven’t really been paying attention.