Sin­ga­pore and Manila il­lus­trate best and worst re­sponses to a su­per­power

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

THE most star­tling news out of Southeast Asia in re­cent days, and by far the most im­por­tant in terms of re­gional im­pact, came from Sin­ga­pore. But many peo­ple missed it be­cause they were dis­tracted by more out­landish com­ments from Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philippines, who hogged the head­lines by say­ing he wanted to copy Adolf Hitler.

Re­fer­ring to the way Germany’s wartime leader had ex­ter­mi­nated 6 mil­lion Jews, Duterte said he’d like to en­force the same pol­icy against his coun­try’s al­leged 3 mil­lion drug deal­ers.

Ini­tially, he re­fused to re­cant this vile and ig­no­rant state­ment, but then he gave way and said, “I apol­o­gise pro­foundly and deeply to the Jewish com­mu­nity.” He could hardly do oth­er­wise.

Still, it was a shock­ing episode, al­though what was more trou­bling in the long term was his state­ment about in­tend­ing to down­grade ties with the United States and boost those with China and Rus­sia.

A bit of strate­gic balance would be fine and dandy, but Duterte went way over the top and as a re­sult his own peo­ple, as well as those across the re­gion, are likely to re­gret it.

If the Philippines sev­ers its his­toric ties with its Amer­i­can treaty ally and jumps into the oily and ev­er­tight­en­ing ten­ta­cles of Be­jing, then it will not eas­ily free it­self again – as Cam­bo­dia and Laos have dis­cov­ered.

Whether Duterte un­der­stands this is doubt­ful.

Yes, he has al­ways har­boured an­tiAmer­i­can sen­ti­ments, but to call US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama a “son of a bitch”, to tell the Amer­i­cans “to go to hell”, and to be­lit­tle them in talks with Chi­nese and Rus­sian lead­ers is not only stupid but dan­ger­ous.

At a re­gional sum­mit in Laos last month, Duterte told Rus­sia’s Premier Dmitry Medvedev about his prob­lems with the US. “They are giv­ing me a hard time,” he said. “They are dis­re­spect­ing me. They are shame­less.”

This was all be­cause Wash­ing­ton had crit­i­cised his pol­icy of us­ing vig­i­lantes to mur­der al­leged drug ped­dlers on the na­tion’s streets.

Duterte then told Bei­jing the same thing and nat­u­rally the Chi­nese agreed and said the Philippines would not get much value out of re­main­ing an Amer­i­can ally.

China’s Vice For­eign Min­is­ter Liu Zhen­min pub­licly ap­plauded Duterte’s change of di­rec­tion and said that China-Philip­pine ties were now “at a new turn­ing point”.

If Filipinos are not care­ful it could be a turn over the cliff, es­pe­cially as Duterte has also said he may scrap the En­hanced De­fence Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment signed last year be­tween Manila and Wash­ing­ton.

How not to deal with a su­per­power, or, as the wild man of Manila put it him­self: “I am about to cross the Ru­bi­con be­tween me and the US.”

It is enough to cause col­lec­tive hand-wring­ing across the en­tire re­gion, but at least all is not lost and one mem­ber of ASEAN has just dis­played the cor­rect and firm way to deal with an­other su­per­power.

Step for­ward Sin­ga­pore, which has re­cently been em­broiled in a nasty war of words with Bei­jing.

How­ever, un­like the cock-eyed non­sense spew­ing from Manila’s mo­tor­mouth, the ver­bal rock­ets fired back at China from Sin­ga­pore were en­tirely jus­ti­fied – and very brave.

The tiff be­gan Septem­ber 21 when the Global Times, a pub­li­ca­tion tied to the rul­ing Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP), said Sin­ga­pore had lob­bied for a stronger pro-ASEAN line re­gard­ing the South China Sea sovereignty dis­putes.

The news­pa­per said this had oc­curred at the Non-Aligned Move­ment Sum­mit in Venezuela last month when Sin­ga­pore “in­sisted on shov­ing in con­tent en­dors­ing the Philippines’ South China Sea ar­bi­tra­tion case”.

It may be re­called that in July, the Philippines won a case against China that it had taken to a United Na­tions ar­bi­tra­tion tri­bunal in The Hague about its off­shore sovereignty rights.

The Global Times said that if Sin­ga­pore, a non-claimant, con­tin­ued to in­ter­fere in the South China Sea is­sue, then Sino-Sin­ga­pore re­la­tions would be af­fected.

Rightly irked, Sin­ga­pore’s am­bas­sador to China, Stan­ley Loh, wrote to the news­pa­per’s ed­i­tor Hu Xi­jin say­ing the ar­ti­cle was “re­plete with fab­ri­ca­tions and un­founded al­le­ga­tions”.

Loh con­tin­ued, “Con­trary to the claim fabricated by the Global Times, the Sin­ga­pore del­e­ga­tion did not raise the South China Sea or the tri­bunal rul­ing at the NAM Sum­mit.”

So, us­ing proper lan­guage, he ef­fec­tively said that Bei­jing’s semiof­fi­cial mouth­piece had lied.

That could not be al­lowed to stand and the Global Times ed­i­tor Hu re­torted that Sin­ga­pore ap­peared “bi­ased to­wards the Philippines and Viet­nam” and was on the same side as the US and Ja­pan.

Hu wrote, “Sin­ga­pore should feel ashamed of how it has treated its top trad­ing part­ner, China. You should en­cour­age your coun­try to re­flect on its ac­tions.”

Sin­ga­pore’s Loh replied by point­ing out that the Global Times was not in the meet­ings and had re­lied on un­named sec­ond-hand sources, whereas Sin­ga­pore, as a mem­ber of NAM, at­tended all the sum­mit pro­ceed­ings.

Sin­ga­pore’s ac­count could be ver­i­fied by the pub­lic record of the meet­ing.

Of course, it did not end there, be­cause, as Duterte will soon learn, no mat­ter if it’s a big or small mat­ter, China al­ways de­mands the last word.

On Septem­ber 29, a se­nior Chi­nese mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, Ma­jor Gen­eral Jin Yi­nan, urged Bei­jing to re­tal­i­ate and en­force sanc­tions to make Sin­ga­pore “pay the price for se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing China’s in­ter­ests”.

He also claimed that Sin­ga­pore had co­op­er­ated with Wash­ing­ton on the is­sue and caused con­flict be­tween the US and China.

He was wrong. The one who has been do­ing that, and do­ing it in a dumb and fool­hardy way, is Duterte, whose mur­der­ous ac­tions and an­tiAmer­i­can rants are sure to back­fire.

It is Duterte’s wild, ir­ra­tional be­hav­iour that is most likely to cre­ate se­ri­ous re­gional con­flict.

Photo: AFP

Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte holds a cer­tifi­cate show­ing a Glock 30 hand­gun, awarded to him by a Philip­pine firearms im­porter for his bloody crack­down on il­le­gal drugs, dur­ing a “talk to the troops” visit in Manila on Oc­to­ber 4.

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