In just five days, America will choose its 45th president – but whether Donald J. Trump or Hilary R. Clinton is the next occupant of 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, what is becoming increasingly clear is that Philippine President, Rodrigo R. Duterte, will be fully vindicated for recalibrating his country’s foreign policy by unbuckling it from its US orbit and fixing it on a northerly trajectory towards China and the Russian Federation while remaining firmly harnessed to its best friend in the world, Japan.
The way the political map of East Asia is likely to shape up – whoever settles into the White House – will show that not only were Duterte’s instincts right and that his judgement was astute, but that his timing was pretty much perfect. He was right on the money. And here’s why.
For very different reasons, neither Trump nor Clinton will be expending too much time or energy on this region. The result of that will be that US President Barack Obama’s coveted “Pivot to East Asia” will not happen in any significant way; nor will his legacy to US trade, the Trans Pacific Partnership. As things are right now, that would be lucky to even leave port: Clinton, wary of its unpopularity at home continues to flip-flop on the issue; Trump has already said it’s not going to happen.
Our reasoning for these assertions is as follows. In the case of Clinton, given the political fire storm she faces, she looks like being a lame-duck president from the day of her inauguration. Clinton is currently under five separate probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with possible charges ranging from treason (allowing top secret and highly sensitive material to fall into the hands of the enemy) to operating a massive “pay-for-play” Ponzi scheme (generating cash for favours through her Clinton Foundation). Much of her time in the Oval Office, therefore, is likely to be spent with her legal counsel trying to pick a path through this minefield. Damage control – and lashings of it – will take precedence over any East-Asia policy making.
The US, then, under HRC is heading first for sclerosis and then for a full-blown constitution crisis. In all this, her administration will be focused primarily on survival, and after that there will be far bigger and more urgent problems to deal with than asserting its sphere of influence in East Asia. The US is still bogged down in a mess of its own making in the Middle East – the region it’s desperately trying to pivot away from – to give just one example. “Special relationship” or not then, the Philippines will be one of the last things on the minds of a Clinton White House.
In the case of Trump, given his loathing of America’s role as global policeman, his country’s defence treaties around the world would be quickly reviewed. In this region, that means its arrangements with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – although in the case of the Philippines, Duterte will have beaten him to it. In fact, he already has.
Trump believes that charity begins at home – a home that is presently staggering under US$19.8 trillion of debt. If the likes of Japan and South Korea want US military protection, he argues, then they will have to pay for it. And so defence treaties with those countries will essentially be scrapped and replaced with business contracts – pay-for-safe.
However, while South Korea might have no choice but to pay the protection money, Japan could follow Duterte’s lead and end its own “special relationship” with the US. And the effects of this could be even more far reaching. Not likely right now, admittedly; but it’s not totally far fetched.
There are elements in Japan – and they’re not insignificant – that have long wanted Tokyo to release itself from Washington’s coat tails so that, like the Philippines now, it can pursue an independent foreign policy. It’s quite feasible then that there will be pressure put on the Japanese Diet to amend or remove Article 9 of its 1947 Constitution – the pacifist clauses – thus allowing it to rebuilt and re-arm its military and have a standing army, navy and air force. Meanwhile, in this scenario, bilateral relations between the Philippines and Japan – among the closest of anywhere on Earth – could, through their respective independent foreign policies, bring them into even closer collaboration. They would both have moved from being American satellites to being full-fledged states in their own right.
Certainly, there’ll be no Pivot to East Asia under a Trump presidency; the only thing that will be pivoting is overseas US dollars and they’ll be pivoting back to the US via a tax-free corporate repatriation scheme which will encourage the money to be spent back in the States.
Against this background, Russia will waste little time in filling the vacuum left behind by America’s impotence in the region. It will consolidate its own presence – which, in fact, it’s already in the process of doing; and particularly with the Philippines. We could be seeing pictures of Duterte and Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, shaking hands before Christmas.
And, of course, China’s position and power in the region will remain unassailable. That was the case throughout Obama’s two terms and will certainly be the case post-Obama.
Although Duterte was ridiculed for comments he made last month suggesting that “there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, Russia. It’s the only way,” in fact, that’s exactly how it could turn out. Those words could become prophetic.
What he was alluding to was the need for nations to stand together against an imperialist US that seeks to peddle its influence around the world, and particularly in this region. Of course, in the cases of Moscow and Beijing, he was preaching to the converted. Both those players have been thwarting what they perceive as US hegemony for a long time – and noticeably more so under Obama’s weak presidency.
Time will tell whether the US will unravel like a big sweater snagged by barbed wire in a blustering storm, but the indications – as far as its political leverage is concerned in the East Asia region – are that it will diminish; and sharply. And so while Obama was fixating on his legacy and his dream of expanding America’s East Asia project, Duterte was getting his ducks in a row to take the rug right from under him. What Obama didn’t realise, was that while he was playing solitaire Duterte was playing chess.