In the subtle world of diplomacy, sometimes the smallest thing can evoke a larger sense of significance. One such incident occurred on Wednesday night at a dinner table in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Gathered there for the meal were the heads of state or cabinet representatives of 19 nations. It was the last hoorah before delegates to the (Asean and Related) summits concluded their business the following day.
The thing was the seating arrangements; and had those involved any other than the three statesmen they did involve, they would have meant nothing. Let’s wind back a few hours.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had fired a less-than-diplomatic broadside at US President, Barack Obama (whether this was ill-advised, or not, has been thrashed out in the media around the world ever since, so we won’t be adding to that here). But the upshot of that furore was that for the purposes of diplomatic etiquette – and maybe in some minds to avoid the meal turning into a food fight – it was decided that the original seating plan, in which the two presidents were to have been placed next to each other, should be hastily revised. Of course, that makes sense. At that point neither would feel comfortable asking the other to “please pass the salt”.
The thing was the new seating plan. In this, Obama found himself sandwiched between Brunei’s King Hassanal Bolkiah and Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc – esteemed gentlemen, no doubt, though their nations right now figure much less than the Philippines in Washington’s calculations.
Further down the table, Duterte settled into a seat next to Indonesian President, Joko Widodo – with whom he has much to discuss, and did the following night when he arrived in Jakarta for a two-day working visit. Meanwhile, on his right side sat Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation – who had a great deal to talk to Duterte about, and did at a private one-on-one get-together the following day. What transpired during Duterte’s Indonesia trip, The Volatilian™ will be looking at in a later article. As far as what was discussed between Duterte and Medvedev, over dinner and privately, we can only guess, but Russia’s ambitions to increase its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia might have been in there somewhere.
Obama may not have wanted to be seated next to Duterte at the dinner, given what had transpired between them, but you can guarantee that the last person he wanted Duterte breaking bread with was Russia’s Medvedev.
Whether Russian aides used their not inconsiderable skills in realigning the chess board for the dinner seating, we have no way of knowing. We’re fairly certain, though, that those new dining arrangements didn’t come about by accident. For Russia, the optics alone, amounted to a diplomatic coup. This seems to be more than symbolism; it’s starting to look prophetic.
The Russian Federation has been quick to capitalise on the perception of reserve that Duterte has been exhibiting towards his country’s former proprietor. Washington’s implied notion that the Philippines is America’s 51st state and that their “special relationship” is inviolable, has worn thin with the present administration in Manila. (The Volatilian™ article of 26 August, Moscow’s overtures to Manila, attempts to put this into context).
Furthermore, the current administration is not convinced – unlike its predecessor – by the constant US assertions that in some way Philippine security (more specifically its sea borders) is better under US protection. Better than what? An entente cordiale between Manila and Beijing? That would certainly get the Obama team reaching for the methaqualone. Or worse, Heavens! Some form of Protection Agreement crafted in the Kremlin, with Lord alone knows what devils lurking in its detail?
Moves in either of those directions would virtually put Washington’s geopolitical plans in check in this region – it would certainly stall them – along with its plans for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact signed by 12 Pacific Rim countries. Interestingly, China, Russia and the Philippines which all have Pacific coastlines, are not TPP signatories.