POSTSCRIPT / November 9, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Trump’s tangled web tests Duterte

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte will need more than his political instincts to find his way through the tangled views of US President Donald Trump when he flies to Manila on Sunday to cap his five-nation 12-day swing through the region.

Trump’s consultations with Asian security allies and trading partners may reassure most of them of America’s abiding presence, but he still has to clarify to the Philippines the United States strategic response to China’s muscle-flexing in the neighborhood.

Duterte will have to ask Trump exactly what the Republican plans are for the Philippines and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that he currently chairs.

“Republican” is highlighted, because Trump’s policies are often a mere reaction, sometimes a reversal, of the direction drawn by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. Such is the nature and fate of some US policies that bend with the winds blowing at the partisan moment.

An example is the Obama instruction to the past Aquino administration to deal with an aggressive China only through a multilateral front such as ASEAN and never to talk with Beijing bilaterally. But Trump prefers to talk trade directly with a national, not regional, market.

Trump also seems aiming to drop or dilute commitments made by Obama for a Trans-Pacific Partnership group effort to boost trade. Trump wants to maximize US advantage, with other TPP participants left to negotiate their own deals?

While US enthusiasm for TPP lags, China has come up with its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative stretching from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, linking diverse but promising markets. With Chinese trade, loans and aid, can political influence be far behind?

Where does the Philippines figure in the TPP and the Belt&Road? Duterte may want to give a clue by tomorrow at the APEC meeting in Vietnam, or before Tuesday when Trump heads back to the swamp roiled by issues over gun-related violence, tax reform, and Russian meddling in US affairs.

On security, how firm and encompassing is the American commitment to the Philippines based on the 1951 Phil-US Mutual Defense Treaty and its amplification by succeeding executive agreements?

As MDT partners, are the two countries content with US warships merely passing through in “innocent passage” while China aggressively builds new islands within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, militarizing them and thereby disturbing the peace in the region?

The US should not change the topic by talking about its helping rehabilitate areas ravaged by disasters and insurgency. Nor should Trump try to get off easy by showering his host with his trade mark superlatives and playing blind to human rights violations associated with Duterte’s drug war.

But then, Duterte should in turn also clarify his own position on several bilateral issues. For one, he may want to state more clearly what he means by his “independent” foreign policy. Independent of what or whom?

• Duterte-Trump first meeting in Danang?

AS WE write this, we have not been able to confirm Duterte’s attendance in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum tomorrow in Da Nang, Vietnam. If he goes there, it would be his first meeting with his White House phone pal.

(If the two get to talking about drugs, Trump – bothered by a public health emergency on opioids — may want to ask Duterte how fentanyl, a painkiller 50 to 100 more potent than morphine, has helped him. He should also invite him to the Trump Tower rising in Makati’s poblacion.)

The APEC participants are being urged to act favorably on the recommended liberalization of trade and investment flows among Indo-Pacific nations. The Philippines is ready to go with the drift to liberalization, but Duterte’s say-so is being awaited.

How will APEC’s being outward-looking mesh with Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy? He has derided the Paris climate accord, saying climate change is just a Chinese invention. He has also shown disdain for the World Trade Organization and other multilateral frameworks.

It is good that Trump has reconsidered his earlier decision to depart Manila on Tuesday, leaving China to loom bigger in the East-West gathering there.

Obama tried to save waning US dominance in the region with his pivot to Asia, but Trump came in and dropped the initiative for the silly reason that it was an idea of his Democratic predecessor.

Trump will find it easy convincing most of Pyongyang’s neighbors to agree moving against the common menace of the “rocket man” with the weird hairdo playing with nuclear-tipped missiles.

But it may not be as easy with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who might simply flash that inscrutable half-smile and let the interpreter take over explaining the implications of his acting against the fellow traveler north of the 38th parallel.

Trump appears to be grooming Japan as a regional US proxy, and lassoing India and Australia into joining a security shield around China. It is noteworthy that the Philippines has been left out in the emerging alliance, and Duterte’s infatuation with Beijing may have something to do with it

Duterte gives the impression that he does not care alienating old friends as long as he has China and Russia to catch him as he slips from the arms of Uncle Sam. After taking his own pivot to the left, Duterte is no longer embarrassed dancing to the beat of Chinese dragon drums.

The big question is whether or not Trump will try to win back Duterte and the former US colony. Their “warm” dialog in Manila is widely awaited.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 9, 2017)

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