America and China–Managing the Possible


May 21, 2017

America and China–Managing the Possible

by Tan Sri  Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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The  Go It Alone Eagle and The  Globalist Dragon

THE contrast could not be greater. While United States President Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s President Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers an alternative global future to the world.

Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.

Leadership, like politics, is the art of managing the possible. Trump does not understand this, and does not know how. Xi does, knows why, and knows how.He has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic.

His plan to boost the American economy, based primarily on slashing corporate tax from 35 to 15%, is likely to flounder in an American Congress seriously concerned about its causing the fiscal deficit to balloon.

Already Trump has had to climb down from trying to secure funds from Congress for his dreaded border wall with Mexico in order to avoid budgetary shutdown in September.

The stock market has fallen back from the boost to the price of banks and industrial products following his election. Interest now has returned to what might be termed “American ingenuity stocks” such as Google, Apple and Microsoft on Nasdaq – a proxy for much that is great about America, which Trump’s immigration and closed-door policies threaten to destroy.

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Meanwhile Xi has been rolling out his “Belt and Road” plans – something he first envisaged at the end of 2013 – for greater world connectivity and development, committing funds from China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and engaging global financial institutions such as the World Bank.

Malaysia, for instance, will be an actual beneficiary with additional projects thrown in. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. But the US has not been a laggard, being Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner. And indeed the US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, both new investments and total stock.

A staggering statistic not often recognised is that total American investment in ASEAN is more than its investment in China, Japan and India COMBINED!

The point, however, is that this position is being eroded. Trump’s policies are hastening this process. Abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) means there is no American strategic peaceful challenge to the Chinese economic juggernaut in Asia-Pacific.

Balance is important to afford choice. Absence of choice means serious exposure to risk. Price, quality and after-service standards are affected, not to mention a new geo-strategic economic underlining.

Over-dominance by China in the region is a price not only countries in the region will pay, something that most probably is on Trump’s mind. It is a price that America too will sooner or later have to pay.

China’s Belt and Road proposition is not without its challenges, of course. India is deeply suspicious of the connectivity with Pakistan which cuts across India-claimed Azad Kashmir, about 3000km of it.

The link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in southwest Baluchistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is seen by India as a Chinese presence at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a hawk eye on the Indian sub-continent. With the Chinese also in Sri Lanka, India is circumspect on China’s Belt and Road initiative.

There have also been commentaries on some uneconomic linkages which extend right across the English Channel.

All these reservations, however, do not take into account the benefit of connectivity to economies, the time it often takes to get those economic benefits and, most of all, the patience, persistence and long view of history of China and its leaders.

One of the most striking things about the Belt and Road map is that America is not there. Of course, Xi Jinping does not preclude America just as much as the US did not say that China was not permanently excluded from the TPP. And of course, in the Old Silk Routes and shipping lanes, the New World – America – had not been discovered.

But in their revival, led by now rising and then ancient China after 150 years of national humiliation to the present time, there is the irony that the last three quarters of a century of America world dominance is on course to be marginalised, if not supplanted, by the old Eurasian world centred in an ancient civilisation.

Trump does not seem to understand history. The art of the deal is purely transactional. Short-tempered and short-term gratification does not a strategy constitute.

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So we have leader, system and economic promise distinguishing the two leaders – and the two countries.

Instead of America first, what we are seeing is Trump hurrying America’s decline relative to a rising China. We are not seeing a world changed from people wanting to be like a kind of American to being people wanting to be a kind of Chinese. Actually, the Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.

What we are seeing is China – not America – leading the way to that desired, if not always desirable, end. It is China that is driving the next phase in the evolution of world economic development.

Under Xi Jinping, China appears to be heroically moving towards an epochal point in its Peaceful Rise. With Donald Trump, America is being led backwards and inwards, with all the problems of its governance now all coming out. It is in grave danger of losing in the peaceful competition.

Not knowing how to play that game – certainly under its current President – there remains the danger of the status quo power lashing out against the rising one.

The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” A Harvard professor has studied what is now called the Thucydides Trap and found in 12 out of 16 cases in which this occurred in the last 500 years, the outcome was war.

There are many potential flash points against the background of China’s rise – the North Korean Peninsula and the placement of THAAD missiles in the south, the South China Sea – where Trump may temperamentally find cause to lash out. This is the trapdoor he might take the world down because of failure to compete peacefully.

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America


May 17, 2017

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the Silk Road must heed the lessons of a bygone era

By  Sourabh Gupta

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Perceptive China-watchers have observed that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has modelled his political mission on Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – even if his methods bear a whiff of Maoism.

Deng put an end to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and engineered China’s transformation towards socialist modernisation. Xi’s sweeping reforms and anti-corruption crackdown aim to engineer an analogous transformation that will deliver China to the cusp of a “moderately prosperous” society by the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial founding in 2021.

In one notable respect though, Xi has broken with the Paramount Leader. Deng had counseled a 24-character strategy on his countrymen: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” By contrast, Xi has not been shy to employ assertive diplomacy in support of an ambitious, long-term and strategic foreign policy.

No single political project personifies this more than the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to resurrect the ancient Silk Road through infrastructure projects that will link Eurasian economies into a China-centred trading network. When two dozen or so heads of state assemble in Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit on Sunday and Monday, the magnitude of the imposing soft-power dimension of this “win-win” project that aspires to embed Xi’s “China Dream” within a “neighbourhood community of common destiny” will be on ample display. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen (廈門) this September will be a sideshow by comparison.

A variety of malignant motives, mainly economic, have been ascribed to the Belt and Road plan. It aims to channel Beijing’s allegedly manipulated reserve surpluses abroad, prop up the internationalisation of the yuan, unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours, ensnare the recipient country in a cycle of debt, exploit the host country’s strategic resources and purchase their political affiliation along the way.

Steel pipes are loaded for export at Lianyungang port, Jiangsu province, China. Some critics see the Belt and Road as a way to unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours. Photo: Reuters

While these claims contain merit, the redeeming arguments are more compelling. China’s hard currency reserves are better put to use in hard infrastructure projects in developing countries than deposited passively in New York’s financial market. At a time of volatility in liquidity provision in the international monetary system, yuan internationalisation and the rise of another issuer of safe, short-term and liquid instruments is to be welcomed. Moreover, the bilateral yuan swap lines and dedicated trade payments and securities settlement infrastructure that Beijing has rolled out over the past half-decade will enable recipient countries to denominate their borrowings in local currency, thereby limiting costs and exposures.

Transferring industrial capacity, improving infrastructure and reducing transaction costs on the other hand will enable developing countries to jump-start a dynamic upward spiral of growth and development in sectors where they enjoy latent comparative advantages – on lines similar to China’s own industrial jump-start in the 1980s. A comparison of China’s and the US’ Eximbank (Export-Import bank) loans to Africa, meanwhile, belie the oft-repeated claim that the former is directed solely at natural resources. China Eximbank has contributed to almost all 54 countries in Africa – resource rich or poor – and displays no perceptible pattern of favoured client state lending. US Eximbank loans, by contrast, are concentrated in energy and mining and confined to a favoured few.

Finally, with developing and emerging economies forecast to account for 59 per cent of world GDP in 2018 (neatly reversing the average 59 per cent accounted for by advanced economies from 1980 to 2007), as per the IMF, the rise of an alternate model of development financing that is leaner, cheaper, quicker and more flexibly attuned to host country systems and requirements should be welcomed, not stigmatised.

Development economics aside, the most consequential effects of the Belt and Road will be in international relations.

The Belt and Road’s storied predecessor, the Silk Road, two thousand years ago ushered in an age of commerce and civilizational exchange and afforded a set of loose principles of order and self-restraint. The Belt and Road’s ‘open regionalism’, likewise, will showcase Xi’s determination to practice a “new type of international relations” that binds China’s extended periphery as far out as Africa in a win-win embrace. Purposeful translation of his optimistic assessment for peace and development will realise the long-delayed promise of south-south cooperation in the post-colonial age. With luck, it will also confine the fascination with Great Power transition ‘traps’ – particularly the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads them into a vicious cycle of competition and eventually war) – to the armchairs of zero-sum-minded historians and think tank specialists.

Banners advertise the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: AP

China’s re-emergence at the turn of, and the first few decades of, the 21st century bears remarkable parallels to America’s rise a century ago. Between 1890 and the early-1900s, the proportion of US manufacturers engaged in exports rose from less than a quarter to more than two-thirds, as the burgeoning surpluses of farms and factories were absorbed overseas. By the late-1910s and through the 1920s, the US became a prodigious exporter of capital as more than US$1 billion a year in loans surged out of New York. Nearly one-third as many foreign bonds floated on Wall Street as bonds of US companies.

As the Belt and Road becomes a conduit for the export of Chinese capital on as prodigious a scale as the US a century ago, its design and roll-out must also be informed by the cautionary lessons of that era. When boom had periodically turned to bust in the US economy and subjected many of her poorer hemispheric trade partners and raw material suppliers to simultaneous capital and commodity market shocks, Washington failed to provide the public goods (international development financing; recycling of capital flight; inter-governmental institutionalisation, and stabilisation loans, and so on) that could have placed a floor under the crash – and misery – overseas. China’s capital exports must avoid such boom-bust patterns and instead marry hard physical capital with soft technical know-how, managerial skills and local project ownership with purpose and patience.

During the next decade, China will replace the US as the world’s largest economic power. As it grows richer, it must assume the mantle of collaborative leadership and provider of global public goods. The Belt and Road is an appetising start but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating, as well as its ability to draw sceptical bystanders in the West and in Asia to the banquet

IMF on Malaysia–Report Card


May 3, 2017

International Monetary Fund on Malaysia–Report Card

by The International Monetary Fund

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Putrajaya–The Administrative Capital of Malaysia

The IMF conducts an Annual Review of member country economic situation. At the conclusion of the consultations the Executive Board considers the findings which are also conveyed to the Government. A Press Release is issued  together with access to the full staff report on the Fund’s website. The Report  is in the nature of a “Report Card”.

The text of the Press Release is reproduced below. The full report can be accessed and downloaded from  ::

http://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2017/04/28/Malaysia-2017-Article-IV-Consultation-Press-Release-Staff-Report-and-Statement-by-the-44869

On March 15, 2017, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation1 with Malaysia.

Despite a challenging global economic environment, the Malaysian economy performed well over the past few years. Notwithstanding the impact of the global commodity price and financial markets volatility, the economy remained resilient, owing to a diversified production and export base; strong balance sheet positions; a flexible exchange rate; responsive macroeconomic policies; and deep financial markets. While real GDP growth slowed down, Malaysia is still among the fastest growing economies among peers. The challenging global macroeconomic and financial environment puts premium on continued diligence and requires careful calibration of policies going forward.

Risks to the outlook are tilted to the downside, originating from both external and domestic sources. External risks include structurally weak growth in advanced and emerging market economies and retreat from cross-border integration. Although the Malaysian economy has adjusted well to lower global oil prices, sustained low commodity prices would add to the challenge of achieving medium-term fiscal targets. Heightened global financial stress and associated capital flows could affect the economy.

Domestic risks are primarily related to public sector and household debt, along with pockets of vulnerabilities in the corporate sector. Federal debt and contingent liabilities are relatively high, limiting policy space to respond to shocks. Although the household debt-to-GDP ratio is likely to decline, household debt also remains high, with debt servicing capacity growing only moderately.

Real GDP growth rate is expected to increase moderately to 4.5 percent year-on-year (y/y) in 2017 from 4.2 percent in 2016. Domestic demand, led by private consumption, continue to be the main driver of growth, while a drag from net exports, similar to 2016, will remain.

Consumer price inflation is projected to rise and average 2.7 percent y/y in 2017 on the back of higher global oil prices and the rationalization of subsidies on cooking oil. The current account surplus would be largely unchanged as impacts from an improved global outlook and higher commodity prices would be offset by the strength of imports on the back of a resilient domestic demand.

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Bank Negara Malaysia—in full control of the Pulse of the Malaysian Economy

Executive Directors commended the resilience of the Malaysian economy, which reflects sound macroeconomic policy responses in the face of significant headwinds and risks. While Malaysia’s economic growth is expected to continue in 2017, weaker-than-expected growth in key advanced and emerging economies or a global retreat from cross-border integration could weigh on the domestic economy. Against this background, Directors urged vigilance and continued efforts to strengthen policy buffers and boost long-term economic growth.

Directors agreed that the authorities’ medium-term fiscal policy is well anchored on achieving a near-balanced federal budget by 2020. The planned consolidation will help alleviate risks from elevated government debt levels and contingent liabilities and build fiscal space for future expansionary policy, as needed.

Directors recommended that the pace of consolidation reflect economic conditions and that any counter-cyclical fiscal policy measures be well-targeted and temporary. They noted that improvements to the fiscal framework, such as elaborating medium term projections and preparing and publishing an annual fiscal risks statement, would help anchor medium-term fiscal adjustment and mitigate risks.

Directors agreed that the current monetary policy stance is appropriate. Going forward, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) should continue to carefully calibrate monetary policy to support growth while being mindful of financial conditions.

Directors emphasized that global financial market conditions could affect the monetary policy space and should be carefully monitored.

Directors noted that the banking sector is sound overall and that financial sector risks appear contained. Nonetheless, they cautioned that potential pockets of vulnerability should be closely monitored. They noted that household debt remains relatively high, while in the corporate sector, there are emerging vulnerabilities in some sectors. Directors suggested that macroprudential measures be adjusted if needed.

Directors underscored the central role of macroeconomic policy and exchange rate flexibility in helping the economy adjust to external shocks. In this regard, they welcomed the authorities’ commitment to keeping the exchange rate as the key shock absorber. They recommended that reserves be accumulated as opportunities arise and deployed in the event of disorderly market conditions. Noting the authorities’ aim to improve the functioning of the onshore forward foreign exchange market, Directors urged the BNM to monitor the effects of the recent measures introduced in this regard, recognizing their benefits and costs.

They emphasized that close consultation and communication by BNM (Bank Negara Malaysia–Central Bank) with market participants will be essential in further developing the foreign exchange market and bolstering resilience.

Directors underscored that steadfast implementation of the authorities’ ambitious structural reform agenda is key to boosting long-term economic potential. They supported the emphasis on increasing female labor force participation, improving the quality of education, lowering skills mismatch, boosting productivity growth, encouraging research and innovation, and upholding high standards of governance.

At the conclusion of the discussion, the Managing Director, as Chairman of the Board, summarizes the views of Executive Directors, and this summary is transmitted to the country’s authorities. An explanation of any qualifiers used in summings up can be found here: http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/misc/qualifiers.htm.

ASEAN Limps to a Filipino Gala


May 1, 2017

ASEAN Limps to a Filipino Gala

by Philip Bowring@www.asiasentinel.com

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Anybody wondering what useful came out of the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit in Manila over the weekend may read this brief communique. The answer is clear: very little besides what appears to have been quite a party.

  1. We, the Heads of State/Government of ASEAN Member States, gathered for the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila on 29 April 2017 under the Chairmanship of the Republic of the Philippines with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World,” which envisions an integrated, peaceful, stable and resilient ASEAN Community that actively takes a leading role as a regional and global player in advancing political-security cooperation, sustainable economic growth and socio-cultural development in Southeast Asia and in the world.
  2.   We engaged in productive and fruitful deliberations reflective of our commitment to renew the aspirations and the enduring values of the ASEAN Founding Fathers, in adherence to the purposes and principles enshrined in the Bangkok Declaration which launched ASEAN in 1967 and the ASEAN Charter and to realize the six thematic priorities selected by the Philippines as ASEAN’s main deliverables for 2017, the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN, namely: (a) A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN; (b) Peace and stability in the region; (c) Maritime security and cooperation; (d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth; (e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and (f) ASEAN: a model of regionalism, a global player.

Or they could read the 124 paragraphs of additional waffle about lofty goals and such as ending smuggling, piracy and other evils and fears about situation, such as North Korea about which ASEAN has no role to play. Or they could cheer the acknowledgement of the “Role of the Civil Service as Catalyst for Change,” a document oozing with the self-congratulatory spirit of so much of the group’s pronouncements.

A more entertaining and doubtless more accurate flavor of the meeting was the priority given in the Philippines media to congenial aspects of the events. President Duterte managed to be on his best behavior, dressing in a manner his fellow leaders would regard as appropriate and not delivering swear words or gratuitous insults. Even his kowtow to China was delivered in phrases which did not especially offend the Vietnamese and others wanting a stand against China’s annexation of the South China Sea rather than pitiful retreat in the face of promises of Chinese riches.

The main theme as far as the local media was concerned was it showed the Philippines was the best big party organizer in the 10-nation group. The highlight was the “ASEAN Fiesta” attended by 800 guests and featuring ethnic dances, folk and chart-topping music, and with the ASEAN leaders all attired in newly-designed barongs based on Mindanao tribal patterns and receiving Philippine mahogany trays designed with folk dancers or colorful birds.

But the brutal facts underlying ASEAN in the year it turns 50 are that such political cohesion as it had at times continues to fray. Inertia and indecision on the part of Indonesia, the region’s biggest nation, must carry much of the blame despite President Joko Widodo’s international standing and interest in the maritime and archipelagic issues. Indonesian wavering makes it easier for China to keep ASEAN divided on the sea issue, again retreating into pious statements about a Code of Conduct.

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Blame for ASEAN’s lack of standing too resides with the dubious reputations of some current regional leaders, notably Duterte himself, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha. Contrast this with the days of Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto and Mahathir Mohamad.

Regional cooperation on the economic and social fronts has not been set back by political divisions so far. However, it is hard to see any new initiatives or much progress in making a reality of existing free trade agreements despite minor improvements in some areas of cooperation. A more forthright approach to real fears about protectionist threats by the new US President Donald Trump, who stunned the association by inviting Duterte to the White House at some future time, would also have been appropriate at a time when Trump is apparently entering the dangerous territory of mixing trade with security issues.

Trump has wrecked Asian unity by cancelling US participation in the TransPacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact negotiated by his predecessor, whose main if unspoken aim was to keep China out of it.

RCEP will put ASEAN centrality back on track


May 1, 2017

RCEP will put ASEAN centrality back on track

by Yizhe (Daniel) Xie, Waseda University

As ASEAN celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2017, business leaders in multinational corporations await a clear sign to boost business activities and international expansion efforts. Having missed deadlines twice, RCEP is apparently not an easy agreement to conclude. But the world desperately needs a quick and big globalisation win, and RCEP is the best possible choice.–Yizhie Xie

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/04/25/the-world-needs-rcep/

Global trade needs a win to fend off rising tides of protectionism and anti-globalisation. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) offers the best ammunition to achieve this.

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 US Vice President Mike Pence at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta

The quick conclusion of this regional mega-free trade agreement (FTA) will signal Asia’s commitment to free trade — from which it has benefited greatly — as well as boost ailing confidence in globalisation.

US President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) three days after his inauguration was a major blow for the other 11 signatories — whose leaders expended substantial political capital on the deal. But this does not discourage Asia’s bid for deeper economic integration.

In March 2017, senior officials from non-TPP countries (China, South Korea and Colombia) joined the TPP summit in Chile. This gave trade watchers some hope for an even broader trade pack — the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). But increasing global uncertainty makes it difficult, if not impossible, to picture the complex FTAAP. RCEP is the best offering for an ambitious mega-FTA.

Without the United States, the TPP is on the brink of death. Originally, the TPP was initiated by four small economies (Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand) and it attracted little attention. It was then-US President Bush’s decision to participate in the TPP that revitalised the deal and lured seven other countries (Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan) to join the pact. Access to the world’s largest market was the key reason for all countries to take part, while Japan and Vietnam also hoped the deal could contain a rising and assertive China.

Now TPP members are divided on whether they should continue the deal without the United States or embrace China. Japan — the largest market among remaining economies — was initially reluctant to push for ‘TPP 11’. Even though Tokyo has since reversed its course, the possibility of reaching a consensus document with only months before the February 2018 ratification deadline is low — especially given that members like Vietnam and Malaysia would not make the same concessions now as they did to gain access to the US market. The TPP cannot set a new standard in trade and investment without the participation of the two largest regional economies – the United States and China.

The flexibility and gradualism of RCEP is what Asia needs now. It is true that the TPP has a higher standard, more coverage and more aspiration than RCEP, but world leaders can no longer afford such an expensive bid for globalisation. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s rise and Marine Le Pen’s increasing popularity offer cautionary tales for rapid globalisation.

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RCEP recognises the reality of different needs among members, and offers a differentiated package that allows its 16 member countries to have flexibility in opening their economies. The ‘ASEAN way’ approach in RCEP has proved itself to be the best consensus building mechanism in Asia.–Yizhe (Daniel) Xie

Unlike the TPP, RCEP recognises the reality of different needs among members, and offers a differentiated package that allows its 16 member countries to have flexibility in opening their economies. The ‘ASEAN way’ approach in RCEP has proved itself to be the best consensus building mechanism in Asia. Even if the TPP set a visionary long-term standard, it may not be feasible at the moment.

Finally, RCEP is less political and ASEAN centrality is welcomed. While TPP was often quoted as a tool to contain China in the US ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, RCEP is seen as an extension of the ASEAN+1 FTA model in promoting regional trade and investment. All regional powers — China, Japan and the United States — are comfortable with ASEAN centrality, at least in regional economic integration. Moreover, ASEAN has already established FTAs with all six other countries and its experience in trade negotiations will help expedite the conclusion of RCEP.

Yizhe (Daniel) Xie

Yizhe (Daniel) Xie is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University and a non-resident fellow at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump


May 1, 2017

Today's WorldView

by Ishaan Tharoor

ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump in Washington DC

Over the weekend, the White House announced that President Trump had invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for a visit to Washington, following what was deemed a “very friendly conversation” over the phone between Trump and his counterpart in Manila.

Despite the close ties between the United States and the Philippines, the move surprised Trump’s critics and allies. In his 10 months in power, Duterte has become one of Asia’s most controversial leaders. He has presided over a vicious drug war that has seen thousands killed by extrajudicial hit squads — encouraged, say critics, by Duterte’s explicit orders. Last week, a Filipino lawyer filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court, accusing Duterte and 11 other Filipino officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity. (Duterte has shrugged off the filing and said it will not deter his campaign.)

The complaint takes into account the killings of 9,400 people stretching back to 1988, when Duterte became the Mayor of the southern city of Davao and began making his reputation as a tough guy willing to do anything to crack down on crime. “The situation in the Philippines reveals a terrifying, gruesome and disastrous continuing commission of extrajudicial executions or mass murder,” read the complaint. An estimated 8,000 people have been killed since Duterte became President last summer (2016).

None of this seemed to faze the White House. In the readout of the phone call, the only mention of Duterte’s astonishing record of violence seemed to be a positive one. It said that the two leaders “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world.”

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did his best to evade the thrust of the question when asked on ABC’s “This Week” if human rights were no longer a concern for the Trump Administration.

“Absolutely not,” responded Priebus. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get.”

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

The importance of securing strong Filipino support in dealing with North Korea is highly debatable. But administration officials indicated that the overture to Duterte may be part of a broader and much-needed mending of fences.

“The White House statement could be seen as implicit support, but perhaps is better understood as offering common ground for engaging with Duterte,” said Natalie Sambhi, a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Center in Australia, to The Post.

U.S.-Filipino relations took a turn for the worse last year, Duterte’s first in office and the final one for Barack Obama.

“The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs,” reported my colleagues. “Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to ‘go to hell’ and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for ‘son of a bitch’ or ‘son of a whore’ when addressing the then-U. S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a ‘colorful guy.‘ ”

(Obama is hardly the sole target of Duterte’s notoriously salty language: He used similar words for Pope Francis, too, and has sparked global headlines with rape jokes, admiring references to Adolf Hitler, boasts about mass killing and an insistence at one point that he would eat the livers of suspected terrorists. Even Trump was on the receiving end: “Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not,” Duterte told the Associated Press last year.)

The tensions saw Duterte publicly drift toward China. In a speech in Beijing last year, he told his Chinese audience that “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He has inked billions of dollars of deals with China, Japan and other countries in the region. As my colleague Emily Rauhala wrote earlier this year, Duterte is playing an opportunistic game, wooing all whom he can as part of a new “independent” foreign policy. But, as Rauhala noted, his efforts fly in the face of public opinion and the country’s political establishment, which largely backs the United States and is wary of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

The other lens through which to view Trump’s invitation to Duterte is that of the American President’s apparent penchant for strongmen. While the European Union called for an investigation into the referendum last month that conferred vast new powers upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan on his victory. He also hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a coup-plotting former army man whose regime carried out a ruthless crackdown on Islamists and dissidents. No matter the geopolitical scenario, Trump seems to have a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent.

“If Duterte were not immune as Head of State, he would be barred from admission into the United States,” noted John Sifton, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, in an emailed statement. “Existing U.S. laws and policy prohibit visas and entry to persons against whom credible allegations of gross human rights abuses have been made.”

Sifton goes on: “The invitation is an abomination, just as Trump’s invitation to Sissi was an abomination, and although his personality traits would seem to make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself. By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs,’ Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.”