Everyman’s Strategic Survey: Patching up the Pacific

downloadThere are three current article relating to the United States’ strategic situation (and, by extension that of the entire US led West) in the Pacific, especially vis-à-vis the Philippines:

  1. A Reuters report headlined: “Duterte says felt rapport with Trump, assures U.S.-Philippines ties intact;”
  2. A Center of International & Strategic Studies report entitled: “Taking Stock of the Alliance as the Philippines Prepares for Trump;” and
  3. A report in the Financial Times that says that “Duterte’s deputy to quit Philippines cabinet as tensions emerge.”

The crux of all three, it seems to me are, that:

  • Despite quite enormous reserves of support or good will or, at leduterteast, benefit of the doubt, , a bombastic fellow who was elected after a campaign full of often outrageous and often contradictory promises, cannot have everything his own way;
  • His rapprochement with China has worked well enough in a simple, pragmatic, horse trading sort of way;
  • He, and most Filipinos, want to remain allied with America, and more broadly, with the liberal West … just, in President Duterte’s case, not with Obama’s America which he seems to have seen as weak and fickle. He and the Philippines and East Asians in general seem to want America (and the West, more broadly) to “backstop” them as they adapt to a resurgent, pushy, even bullying China; and
  • President Duterte has demonstrated that China will bargain.

The CISS report makes two very important points:

  1. Duterte’s outreach to China is also not a blow to U.S. strategy in Asia, as it is often depicted. While Duterte seems too willing to undermine the Philippines’ key U.S. alliance and ignore his country’s legal victory on the South China Sea at The Hague in exchange for promises of future Chinese cooperation and investment, it is ultimately good for all parties if Manila and Beijing can agree to manage contentious issues such as the Scarborough Shoal peacefully and constructively. The U.S.-Philippine relationship is robust enough to weather some short-term disruption as Duterte attempts to chart a more “independent” foreign policy;” and
  2. If Duterte’s attacks on the alliance have been part of a plan to create diplomatic space for his rapprochement with China, one might expect a follow-on effort to repair the damage after the next U.S. administration takes office. Indeed, there have been hopeful noises from Manila regarding a reset of relations with president-elect Trump. Duterte spoke well of Trump following the U.S. election, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay suggested that Duterte and Trump are temperamentally suited to work together, and Trump’s Manila business partner, Jose E. B. Antonio, has been named the Philippines’ special trade envoy to Washington. These signals are promising and hopefully will be followed by a concerted effort to improve ties, but there are reasons to believe that the downward trend in relations could continue after Trump takes office.

In the Reuters report “Ernest Bower of the Bower Group Asia consultancy said it was likely the call was set up by Trump’s Philippine business partners and a core group of advisers, including his children … [and] … Bower said Trump’s win could offer Duterte a face-saving way to step back from his anti-U.S. stance, while Duterte offers Trump a chance to stress the importance of Asian alliances … [and, further] … Duterte said it would be “great for our country” if Trump visited Manila next year when it chairs the Association of South East Asian Nations and summits of Asian leaders, and Trump wanted to attend.

The spat between President Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo appears to be an artefact of domestic Philippines politics and while it might weaken President Duterte’s ability to push all of his domestic agenda as far or as hard as he wishes it ought not to have much impact on foreign, defence and trade policies.

Over in Foreign Affairs, J Berkshire Miller worries that “many U.S. allies in the region are worried. Trump chastised his opponent Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail for her support of the TPP as secretary of state and called the agreement a “disaster.” He questioned the value of strengthening alliance networks in the region, (a pillar of Obama’s rebalance) and criticized Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees. At one point, he even mused about both countries’ attaining nuclear weapons programs of their own rather than relying on Washington’s. Finally, Trump notoriously singled out China, the world’s second-largest economy, as a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States through unfair trade practices. He has also, since being elected, made the provocative and unprecedented move of having a phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen—one certain to anger Beijing.

Mr Miller concludes that “In its first few months, the Trump administration must take a deep and principled look at U.S. interests and engagement in the region—including at some of the initiatives inherited from Obama’s rebalance. For reasons central to U.S. national interests and security—such as stability in the Korean peninsula and the avoidance of escalation with China—it will be prudent to maintain, and further enhance, U.S. security relationships in the region. This effort should start with Washington’s most important regional allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—but should also include mending ties with Thailand and the Philippines. The Trump administration should also enhance relationships with emerging partners such as India and Vietnam … [but] … more important than the TPP itself is the issue of U.S. credibility in the region. As Singapore’s prime minister said prior to the election regarding Washington potentially abandoning the trade deal, “How can anybody [in the region] believe you anymore?” This erosion of faith in the United States is not based solely on trade, but greater doubts about Washington’s desire to remain a principal actor in shaping the region’s political and security landscape. Trump should do his best to allay such concerns by working with U.S. allies and partners in the region through concrete actions, adept diplomacy, and focused attention to the clear risks and opportunities unfolding there.

slide1I think free(er) trade is an important foundation stone for peace and security around the world. I’m afraid this graphic, which I have modified from the original which was in The Economist, is a bit busy but it shows China under the magnifier and, in particular, that the Philippines was left out of the TPP, but it is a member of both the FTAAP and the RCEP.

Given his campaign rhetoric it appears that President elect Trump will kill the TPP and he is unlikely to be interested in either the FTAAP or the RCEP, but Canada should be seeking to join both and, even, to unite them. My guess is that China will want to bring Chile and Peru into a Chinese dominated Asia Pacific trading area and it should want Canada, too.

I think the Philippinesmay be the key to uniting the RCEP and FTAAP and bringing some TPP candidates into the fold, too. It seems to me that President elect Trump and President Duterte can reach mutually acceptable understandings on security issues even if they will disagree on free(er) trade.

tumblr_nz2og113hy1s5pbcjo1_1280It is time for Prime Minister Trudeau to start woking the phones with his colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Singapore and the Philippines to make the case for Canada joining at least the RCEP and, preferably, an RCEP that also includes Hong Kong, Taiwan and a few others … even Russia, if need be.

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