Government News Analysis

Curtain goes up on Malaysia

The stage is set for the next act in a political drama that’s leaving audiences at home and abroad enthralled. And the plot line of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s fast-paced script, as the action moves around East and Southeast Asia, is becoming increasingly clear; Manila is taking a lead role in reshaping the region’s political map. It’s a story that’s not to everyone’s taste, but from Washington to Moscow it’s being watched very closely. Briefly, the story so far.

Act 1, [early September to mid October]. Duterte takes his team on the road to Indonesia, Vietnam and  Brunei, fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The action centred on cementing relations and stepping up trade. Enhancing maritime security cooperation, specifically in the fight against illegal narcotics and people smuggling, was a common theme.

Act 2, [18-21 October]. Camera, lights, action in Beijing where Duterte and a cast of more than 400 government officials and Filipino businessmen marked out common ground for improving foreign relations and boosting bilateral commerce. With diplomatic ties returned to normal, and a package of trade deals worth US$13.5 billion and US9 billion in low-interest loans, the Philippine cast and crew left for Manila.

Act 3, [25-27 October]. The stage moves to Tokyo where trade and other agreements are inked, among them, a number dealing with maritime cooperation and the upgrading of Manila’s naval and coast-guard capabilities. But the main theme was about the unbreakable bond that has tied the two countries together for the past 70 years.

Now, the curtain is about to be raised on Act 4, [9-10 November] – a return to Southeast Asia; this time to visit Asean member and close neighbour, Malaysia. And this should be an interesting episode – particularly for the Washington audience.

At the end of October Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, spent six days in Beijing, doing much the same – though perhaps not on quite the scale – as Duterte did  just over a week earlier. He returned home with a number of signed agreements including, significantly, deals on security.  So here’s the sub-plot.

Exactly one year ago, the White House Press Office released a document entitled, “FACT SHEET: Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific”.  In the strategy outline it stated: “a stronger treaty alliance with the Philippines and a deeper partnership with Malaysia” had been “important achievements”. In effect, this document lays out the need to contain China – though, of course, it doesn’t put it quite like that: we’ve read it, though, and that’s the thrust. It also emphasises the need to prepare the way for the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership trade bloc.

To quote: “Our top priority is to secure ratification of TPP and move swiftly toward implementation of the agreement. TPP is a critical step toward our strategic goal of revitalizing the open, rules-based economic system that the United States has led since World War II”.

So 12 months ago, all was going swimmingly for the TPP project and its implementing structure, US President Barack Obama’s coveted Pivot to East Asia. The US State Department was pleased with the progress it had made, particularly, in the case of the Philippines, through its close relationship with former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. The Philippines hadn’t actually signed-up to the TPP at that stage, but the feeling in Washington was that it would be able to persuade it to join.

Then came Najib’s trip to Beijing following Duterte’s, and suddenly US plans were thrown into disarray. The State Department, through its spokesman, John Kirby, put out a statement that everything was fine and on track. When they do that, it invariably means things are not fine.

“We have nothing to fear from the peaceful, productive rise of China, and we have nothing to fear from nations establishing better and warmer and more productive relationships with China,” said Kirby. That’s odd; it’s certainly not the message the US administration has been sending through its tame media; according to them, Duterte is deserting his people and selling his country down the river. But then that’s all part of the usual political doublespeak.

He continued: “We don’t view it as a zero-sum game. The whole idea of the rebalance is to foster the kind of dialogue that you’re starting to see happening. And so again, we welcome this”. Now they “welcome” it? Can you believe these people? They spin like tops.

The actual fact though, is this. Both the Philippines and Malaysia have taken decisive steps towards closer relationships with China and more distant ones from the US. In other words, it’s a two-step thing and the evidence is clear. Both these counties have entered into firm security agreements with the Mainland – a role traditionally reserved for the US. In fact, security assistance was largely the sales pitch Obama, made to Asean members in explaining his Pivot to East Asia. And he was doing it for them. No comment.

Anyway, now the Philippines and Malaysia are not just fellows in Asean, they also share a common partner in China. This means they are not in competition with each other for Chinese business; they are both part of the China-Asean trade grouping. Furthermore, security issues in the main have centred on disputes, which both countries have with the Mainland, over maritime island territories. But these will now be dealt with through bilateral negotiations with Beijing; in both cases, that’s been agreed. This makes America’s role as a marine cop virtually obsolete.

Thus, Washington, in its clamour to drive a wedge between the Asean states and China has managed – at least in the case of the Philippines and Malaysia – to have driven one between them and itself.

There are land disputes between Manila and Kuala Lumpur – specifically, their respective claims to the eastern part of Sabah, a state in East Malaysia. Given Duterte’s present regional policy, to create an atmosphere of cooperation, it’s unlikely that this issue will be discussed in any depth, if at all. The dispute dates back to the last 19th century, so it’s not exactly pressing.

Furthermore, like every other country in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is supportive of Duterte’s narcotics war – Najib has even asked for Duterte’s help in tackling the drugs menace in Malaysia. But he also did something else to support Duterte; he chastised the Philippine president’s critics; in particular – though he restrained from mentioning them by name – the Americans.

In a recent China Daily article he said that former colonial powers have no right “to lecture countries they once exploited, on how to conduct their internal affairs now”. And there’s another clue to help the US State Department to assess just how far the tide of influence in this region has turned away from Washington’s shores.

Act 5, we suspect will open in Taiwan and then on to South Korea. And then finally, the blockbuster finale in Moscow with the Kremlin as the backdrop. This part is still a work in progress, but we believe that every part of the geo-political jigsaw will have been snapped into place before Christmas.

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