Donald Trump has turned himself into a lame-dog president; for the time being at least, the United States is of no use to Australia or anyone else. The internal battles to unseat the usurper will occupy Washington politics for the next two years. And the US economy will continue to lag.
In the meantime, China will push to enhance what it regards as its natural sphere of influence: the South China Sea. But its ambitions extend further. It wants to dominate world trade and greater influence over international affairs. It is playing its cards carefully, but playing them nonetheless, particularly in Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In view of China’s restless ambition, and American distraction, Australia ought to take the Association of South-East Asian Nations more seriously.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to play off China and the US. He has partly succeeded. He has held the US but not entirely China, which pushed back. Nonetheless, China has promised aid for infrastructure, soft loans and fishing concessions. Chinese investment in the Philippines is burgeoning, particularly in the property sector; US investment is stagnant.
Duterte hosted and chaired the 30th ASEAN summit in Manila last month, the theme of which was a rules-based, people-oriented and centred ASEAN. In the chairman’s statement, ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes and “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, including respect for international laws. However, apparently after pressure from China, the chairman dropped the affirmation of respect from the section on the South China Sea.
Existing guidelines for hotline communication were endorsed while a “code for unplanned encounters at sea” will soon become operational.
The activities of Islamic extremists remain a problem within ASEAN, in particular Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Weeks before ASEAN ministers were due to meet in Panglao on the island of Bohol, Abu Sayyaf militants attacked local police. To safeguard ministers, delegates and officials, the Philippines deployed 26,000 police and soldiers.
It is this security issue, together with tackling issues associated with poverty, that should be exercising the minds of Australian policymakers. Several months ago, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said returning Islamic State fighters from the Middle East, perhaps up to 600, would try to strengthen the militant Islamic presence in southern Philippines and, as part of the process, establish a “caliphate”. The leader of Filipino terror group Abu Sayyaf recently declared himself an emir.
These militants will not enter the Philippines through airports. They will travel to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao by boat from Malaysia or Indonesia. Indonesia’s immigration spokesman, Agung Sampurno, said recently that checkpoints at Miangas and Marore Island were unable to effectively screen seaborne movements between Sulawesi and Mindanao.
Bishop is right to be concerned and Australia’s intelligence agencies have been working with their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to address the threat. However, more is required. Border protection is more than bullying and terrorising asylum seekers. The best way for Australia to protect its border is through regional cooperation and that should be done through joint naval patrols. Australia has taken part in such arrangements in the Gulf.
At present, Australia deploys vessels in the region for a variety of tasks, including naval exercises and showing the flag.
Some express squeamishness at the prospect of cooperating with Duterte in light of his poor human rights record. Any such relationship might not last long. He is said to have pancreatic cancer and, in light of that, to be grooming his daughter to succeed him. She is mayor of Davao City, Duturte’s old powerbase.
The best way for Australia to protect its border is through regional cooperation and that should be done through joint naval patrols.
To be even-handed, that squeamishness might extend to Malaysia and its corrupt political system, and to Indonesia as it buckles to Islamic extremism. As flawed as some of our neighbours may be, that should not override our national self-interest, nor allow us to overlook our own poor human rights record with respect to asylum seekers and corruption in our own institutions.
I propose a permanent Australian patrolling presence in the region, undertaken with the Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino and Singaporean navies and rotating the home ports among those countries. Greater and more aggressive naval patrols should aim to deter the flow of arms and fighters between the targeted countries.
By engaging in regional maritime security, Australia would also signall a broader and deeper interest in the region, no bad thing in the absence of US leadership.
Bruce Haigh is a commentator and retired diplomat, who recently spent time in the Philippines, including Mindanao.