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Two takeaways from Asean party

/ 05:04 AM November 18, 2017

Among the takeaways from the recent Asean events in Manila, at least two loomed large. The first is the emergence of the relatively new concept of “Indo-Pacific” as a soundbite (if nothing else) to replace Asia-Pacific. The second, in the Philippine context, is the morphing of the US president’s relationship with the Philippine president: from father or big brother to karaoke partner.

US President Donald Trump, in his visit for Asean’s 50th anniversary, occasionally introduced the summit to the term “Indo-Pacific” as a positive enhancement of the term “Asia-Pacific” in the Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) acronym.

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The conscious introduction highlighted several thrusts from the United States: a defense mechanism vis-à-vis China’s role as the “Middle Kingdom” of the Apec region; a counterpoint to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative that stretches beyond China, and evokes memories of Genghis Khan’s empire; the inclusion of India into the mix as a counterpoint to China’s ally Pakistan; an enhancement of the respective roles of Australia and Japan in containing the rants of North Korea’s militant millennial, Kim Jong-un; and in the economic sphere, a hedge against the awesome BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) grouping that may be uncomfortable for America because it unites America’s two great Cold War adversaries.

The “Indo-Pacific” is certainly no serious threat to China, since China is still very much a member of the club. Using the more extended “Indo Sino Pacific” would have been accommodative, but redundant. And “Emerging Pacific” would have been inaccurate given Apec’s mixture of advanced and growing economies. And so, Indo-Pacific it is.

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Not surprisingly, the Chinese government through its foreign ministry gave a response that reflects China’s new role as a mature diplomatic power and the world’s second largest economy: “All sides can come up with their own plans and positions on how to promote regional cooperation.”

On the other hand, is “Indo-Pacific” a simple matter of Seato Version 2.0? Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was born in Thailand in 1967, another group called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or Seato, was born right here in Manila 13 years earlier, in 1954. It was formalized a year later in 1955 in Thailand.

Students in the 1960s were taught that Seato was like the Holy Roman Empire. The latter was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire. And Seato was not Southeast Asian at all. Strangely enough, Seato only had two Asean members—Thailand and the Philippines—out of its total eight (the six others were the three global western powers—the United States, the United Kingdom and France—and Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan (not India, given the latter’s then cozy relations with the then Soviet Union).

To say that Indo-Pacific is Seato v2.0 may be a stretch in that 2017 is very different from 1954: The Cold War is over, China has a cooperative relationship with America, and Kim Jong-un has nudged Japan toward greater militarization.

And yet, hidden dangers do lurk for America’s Trump, whose liberal adversaries are saying his responses to Kim should morph from schoolyard trash talk to more thoughtful approaches. China is still a bit reticent about controlling Kim. And the US electorate is sending the message to Trump that, given his problems regarding his own Russiagate, it may be a good thing to show class on the international stage in dealing with both China’s ascendancy and North Korea’s belligerence.

All this may or may not necessarily mean that Apec will be overhauled. Still, the disruption of longstanding regional groupings seems to be a hallmark thus far of Trump’s first year in office.

The second takeaway is that the current American President’s way of doing things (i.e., as a karaoke buddy of “Rodrigo” rather than father or kuya) fits nicely with Asean’s culture of consensus.

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The two heads of state who entered the summit with some exposure to political land mines blowing up—Rodrigo Duterte and Aung San Suu Kyi—remain unscathed. Mr. Duterte’s crippling national problem of drugs is a legacy of decades of neglect. Suu Kyi’s crippling national problem arises from the Myanmar military’s policy set 55 years ago, in response to migration policies initiated by British colonizers 193 years ago.

Trump’s light-touch approach does not mean that the EJK and Rohingya issues will go away. If anything, it means that these will be even more front-and-center moving forward. For example, Mr. Duterte’s new spokesperson is a human rights lawyer, not a policeman.

The unscathed status of Mr. Duterte and Suu Kyi arises significantly from the rather wise convention in Asean of simply understanding that to lecture is pointless when dealing with a hugely elected country head: in the former’s case, by 16.6 million Filipinos or 15 percentage points ahead of the first runner-up, and in the latter’s case by her 2015 landslide when she won 86 percent of the Assembly seats. To pontificate is futile when it just does not work.

The tangible result of a more subtle and less heavy-handed approach is that the popular elected official is more motivated to do the right thing, and to achieve a favorable outcome based on realities on the ground. And America’s role as father or even as kuya has thankfully come to an end. Jeffersonian democracy, under which Barack Obama felt he had a duty to instill into Mr. Duterte’s brain what Jefferson called the “Empire of Liberty,” is dead. Indeed, Mr. Duterte’s wordsmith Harry Roque did say that “there was no mention of human rights” in the Trump-Duterte meeting. That was almost surely correct, since the two words were probably not uttered, and certainly not in juxtaposition.

In place of Jeffersonian democracy is what a smart Trump speechwriter had him say to each Asean member: “I speak to you on behalf of 350 million Americans with a message of friendship and partnership.”

John Foster Dulles, the American foreign minister in 1954 when Seato was born, and a figure unfairly perceived by some liberals as a quasi-Nazi, said in reference to despots (as opposed to popular elected leaders): “They [despots] may be dimly perceiving a basic fact—that is, that there are limits to the powers of any ruler to indefinitely suppress the human spirit.” US foreign policy at last accepts the fact that the human spirit should be left to its own designs. No ineffectual lecturing required.

Jovy Cruz ([email protected]) was a columnist in a Philippine business daily from 1998 to 2004.

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TAGS: Asean, Asean takeaways, Commentary, Indo-Pacific, Inquirer Opinion
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