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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Trumped in Biarritz

Australia, through its Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is for free trade, freedom of navigation and “de-escalation” of tensions whether in the Middle East or between China and the United States.

In the French seaside resort city of Biarritz at the weekend, no one really got anywhere on any of it. Whatever Morrison said privately to Trump in his “pull aside” meeting we may never know. But the trade war continues apace and the cause of the threat to our oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz remains. Just a reminder: the cause of the crisis, which has Iran interdicting oil tankers through the Strait, is Donald Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing punishing sanctions on Tehran.

Australia counts itself one of Washington’s most loyal allies. Around the table in the French summit were Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan; certainly, since World War II, all firm allies of the US but none of them were able to change Donald Trump’s approach.

Even Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who appears to be a Trump favourite, came urging free trade and a tempering of hostilities between the US and China. Johnson though, did give Trump something he wanted. On the eve of the summit, the UK formally joined the so called International Maritime Security Construct. His predecessor Theresa May was more with the continental Europeans in seeing this as nothing more than an escalation of Trump’s “war” on Iran.

At this stage, the Construct is the US, Britain and Australia; Bahrain has put up its hand, too, probably to be more of a staging post. But the development has put Australia in a real bind. Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the weekend insisted that our frigate and surveillance plane will not be making things worse and has nothing to do with Trump’s sanctions. She rejected that we were in fact an integral part of the Americans’ “maximum campaign of pressure against Iran”.

There would be more credibility in Canberra’s position if we just fessed up to the fact that President Trump has us exactly where he wants us and we are following a time honoured precedent of easy compliance with our powerful ally’s adventures.

Diplomacy from Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had in fact de-escalated the nuclear threat from Iran but Trump and the hawks backing him in Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh – for their own reasons – aren’t convinced.

Australia, along with the Europeans, still backs the Obama deal but denies it puts us “at odds” with Trump; we just have “a different position”.

Whatever about Trump’s Iran stance, his trade war with China is even more problematic for the world economy. Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe says he “doesn’t know what strategy the US has”. Scott Morrison admitted before he headed off to France, the situation keeps him awake at night.

There is no doubt the Trump factor is a nightmare for everybody and the Biarritz summit more proof his allies can’t do much about it.

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