BY SHASHI MALLA
United States – North Korea Summit
The uncertainty about the US-North Korean summit was finally laid to rest last Friday when US President Donald Trump personally corroborated that he would hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore in the high-stakes diplomacy over terminating Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and missile programme. This came 8 days after Trump had abruptly cancelled the unprecedented summit citing the North’s “open hostility” and its sharp criticism of US Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.
The North Korean envoy, Gen. Kim Yong Chol first had talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York before proceeding to Washington where he was able to hand over a personal letter from the North Korean leader and to confer with Trump for about 90 minutes. He thus became the first North Korean official to visit the White House in 18 years (a senior envoy visited former President Bill Clinton back in 2000) — a definite coup for the ‘hermit kingdom’. Trump later called him “the second most powerful man in North Korea”.
With all the diplomatic activity, Trump has at last realized that complete ‘denuclearization’ cannot be achieved in one go, i.e. ‘the complete, verifiable and irreversible’ end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes will be a process that will require time and effort. Kim has signaled that he is committed to ‘denuclearization’ in some form, but he is expected to demand security guarantees in return. From Trump statements, it seems that the two sides have agreed to formally end the Korean War at the summit — so they can show something for their efforts. At least, the situation of ‘neither war, nor peace’ will cease, and the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (DMZ) will be converted — hopefully — into a ‘Zone of Peace & Tranquility’.
Crisis Redux: New Populist Government in Italy
Italy’s new populist government has been sworn in, ending months of political uncertainty. The anti-establishment “Five Star Movement” and the right-wing “League” have formed a coalition government, preparing to set the European Union’s (EU) fourth largest economy (after Germany, UK, and France) on a path of tax cuts, a guaranteed basic income for the poor and deportations of some 500,000 migrants. Both parties reject years of EU austerity and want to renegotiate Italy’s national debt. The government is led by law professor Giuseppe Conte, who is a newcomer to politics.
Both parties are critical of the EU and the Euro. League leader Matteo Salvin has said that the single currency was “a mistake” for Italy’s economy. The “Five Star Movement” had even wanted a referendum on Italy’s future membership. EU leaders remain critical of their stance. France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Mare has warned the populist parties to respect their country’s budget commitments.
Italy was ravaged by the 2006 financial crisis that left the economy 6 percent smaller and three million more people in poverty. ‘The League’ and ‘Five Star’ have promised to move Italians out of poverty. However, their policies will cost tens of billions of euros, for a country with the second largest public debt in the EU after Greece. It stands at 132 percent of national output. Poor families will get a Euro 780 basic monthly income, provided recipients actively seek work. Families would receive a Euro 3,000 annual tax reduction based on household income. Sales and excise tax increases next year, worth Euro 12.5 billion, will be scrapped. The two parties’ joint pact, or “Contract”, does not explain how all the extra spending will be financed. However, the proposal (which did not make it into the coalition agreement) that the European Central Bank should write off the EUR 250bn of Italian government debt that it purchased as part of its quantitative easing suggests that the cost should be born by the other EU member states.
Italy’s populists are not just aiming to reset the economy and revisit the EU’s rules on debt. They are also strongly anti-immigration. They demand more EU help for Italy — the main destination for migrants arriving from North Africa — and insist that the estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants in Italy must be deported “as a priority”. The populist leaders disagree with the EU sanctions on Russia and want them lifted. They do not see Russia as a military threat, but as “a potential partner for the EU and NATO.” They also see Russia as a key player in ending the wars in the Middle East.
The Euro-skeptic Italian populists have formed a fragile and inexperienced coalition which will challenge every aspect of the EU’s notion of fiscal responsibility and are thus posing a serious threat to the organization’s stability (more so than previously Greece). According to
the highly respected German newsmagazine “Der Spiegel” : “the political situation in Rome could throw the EU into the next major existential crisis.”
Spain’s New Government
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, 63, has been forced out of office by a no-confidence motion in parliament, the first time that this has happened in Spain’s democratic history. The leader of the conservative “Popular Party” (PP) had been prime minister since 2011. Although, Rajoy has not been implicated personally, he has been accused of failing to take responsibility for his party’s involvement in a financial scandal which has made headlines. One of its former treasurers has been given a 33-year jail sentence for receiving bribes, money laundering and tax crimes. Many Spanish voters, discontented by corruption scandals involving the traditional centre-right PP and centre-left Socialist parties, have abandoned them for newly-created parties like the left-wing “Podemos” (‘We can’) and pro-market “Ciudadanos” (‘Citizens’) as well as regional parties.
Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist ‘PSOE’ party who filed the no-confidence motion without being a member of parliament, has now been sworn in by King Filipe as prime minister. Spain’s constitution states that the party presenting a no-confidence motion must be prepared to govern and replace the deposed prime minister if a parliamentary majority backs it — 180 MPs backed the motion, 169 voted against, with one abstention. This moderate but ambitious 46-year-old from Madrid is, therefore, set to govern, despite the fact that his party commands less than a quarter of the seats in parliament. With only 84 lower house seats, the party will struggle to find allies to get legislation enacted. Sanchez is expected to get support from “Podemos”. Smaller groups, including Basque and Catalan nationalists, supported the no-confidence motion, but it is unclear whether they will back the new government.
Sanchez, an economist, thus heads a government with several expectant parties with conflicting interests. The new political constellation embarks the EU’s fifth-largest economy into political uncertainty. Some have even styled it the “Frankenstein coalition” for having created a possible political monster. However, many are optimistic for a new kind of Spanish politics without corruption.
US-China Confrontation in the South-China Sea
Speaking at the Singapore security conference, the “Shangri-La Dialogue”, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused China of [unacceptable, illegal and offensive] military build-up in the disputed South China Sea and its deployment of high-end weapons systems in the contested waters [in part international] and which was designed ‘to intimidate and coerce’ neighbors. His broadside drew a sharp rebuke from fellow participant Chinese Lt General He Lei, telling the conference that ‘irresponsible comments from other nations cannot be accepted’ and “As long as it is on your own territory you can deploy the army and you can deploy weapons” , as “It is for the sake of defending ourselves”, he added. He also warned that Beijing would take ‘firm measures’ if other countries sent ships and aircraft close to what it considers its own islands in the South China Sea.
China claims almost the entire resource-rich sea [considering it almost as a Chinese lake], through which US Dollar 5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, with competing claims also from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan [itself claimed by China as an inseparable part of its territory] and Vietnam.
Mattis said that Beijing had deployed a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers across the South China Sea, where it had built-up islets and other maritime features into hardened military facilities. China had also landed heavy bombers on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands [also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan].
Mattis reminded the meeting in Singapore (where Trump is due to meet Kim Jong Un in a week’s time) that “despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purpose of intimidation and coercion.” He also reprimanded Chinese President Xi Jinping for reneging on a 2015 promise made at the White House that Beijing would not militarize the island features in the South China Sea.
Mattis address in Singapore returned to the theme that senior US officials have sought to hammer home – ever since former US President Barrack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ – that Asian allies should stick with Washington instead of aligning with Beijing. But this message has become a tough sell with Trump’s ‘America First’ approach and his erratic foreign and trade policies.
The columnist can be reached at: [email protected]