At what point did perceptions of a clear sighted, can do American start to change? Was it with the assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam, with Johnson/ Nixon, Afghanistan with Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush, Iraq and the GFC with Bush, or with Trump? Whatever the point it has happened, and in foreign policy terms, America’s role in world affairs is about to be redefined.
I was recently in the Philippines and spoke to a cross section of people including businessmen and women and journalists on local papers including the ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’, one of the more respected papers in the Philippines.
The general consensus was that the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, would have moved toward China irrespective of who won the American Presidency. Duterte was described as a cunning and clever politician, who should be judged on his actions not his words. He has been very rude toward Obama, although quite conciliatory in his remarks about Trump. It was put to me that he believes he has Trumps measure.
All my interlocutors were critical of the activities of his death squads. At the street level people are pleased that neighbour hoods are ‘safer’, but no one believes it will last. The drug barons are untouched and protected by wealth and position. They will bide their time. Drug pushers and couriers can easily be recruited with grinding poverty providing a very strong incentive.
That aside Duterte has made his play clear. He wants an understanding with China that allows trade and economic activities, such as fishing in disputed waters, to take place. His recent visit to China was regarded as a success and he claimed aid and investment projects were promised amounting to US$32billion.
US officials in the Philippines were reported as playing down any major rift in the relationship, claiming that the US and the Philippines had historic, deep and abiding ties that would overcome any temporary hiccups. The US wants to ramp up its use of the Subic Bay naval facility and Clark air force base as part of its containment of China.
Duterte has turned his back on the recent adverse ruling of an International Tribunal at The Hague on China’s claims in the South China Sea. As a result China has allowed Pilipino fisherman to enter the waters around Scarborough Shoal for the first time since 2012. Chinese patrol boats although present have not interfered with fishing activities.
The Filipino President has made recent visits to Vietnam and Malaysia and according to senior journalists Duterte is seeking to pull ASEAN states together in order to collectively deal with China and the United States. They claimed Duterte would attempt to play the major powers off against one another and that he was looking for other states in the region to do likewise. Duterte also paid a recent visit to Japan which the local media claimed was a success.
Many of those I spoke to said there was a growing expectation that regional states would be able to increase trade and other opportunities through the foil of playing off China and the US, but also Japan and Russia if they showed an inclination to be independent players in the region. There was a belief that benefit could accrue to smaller states if they handled the diplomacy involved with alacrity.
Australia is seen as a possible participant in this developing dynamic, although recent, ‘all the way with the USA’ statements from Australia’s governing LNP, following the Trump victory, were seen as naive.
Australia has the opportunity to become a regional player and participant with ASEAN states and it should do so. It should seek to play our major trading partner off against our old ally. An ally who has demanded and received a lot more than it has given, from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan to the FTA and expensive defence purchases, at times of dubious strategic value.
It is right to have reservations about aspects of China, but it is the major player in the region and reality demands that it be dealt with as such. And it has been a major presence in the region for thousands of years. It is from this perspective that it perceives its growing power and its place in the region. That is the new reality and we need to deal with it; has the US the maturity to do that. And would Australia really use it’s yet to be built submarines against its major trading partner? (Or against what might then be its rogue former ally!?) Why wouldn’t China seek to defend its trading partners and its trading routes with them?
Australia is changing, but it is in the grip of reactionary forces intent on hanging onto the past and as a result politics is dominated by white, mostly male conservatives. They are not inclined to be inclusive, innovative or imaginative. They will either go down screaming and kicking or with a whimper, hopefully the latter. However in the meantime they are denying the country opportunities.
Australian diplomats are capable of rising to the challenge; they should be encouraged to do so.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.