A new China-Rus­sia love af­fair threat­ens the re­gion on the dawn of the TPP's demise

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

DE­SPITE the world’s tra­vails, it was hard to be down­beat when sit­ting by the win­dow of the Pushkin Café in Moscow gaz­ing out at a clear blue sky and savour­ing an early break­fast of pan­cakes with caviar and sour cream.

Out­side, the tem­per­a­ture was mi­nus two de­grees Cel­sius, but inside it was warm as I rel­ished my con­ver­sa­tion with a Rus­sian ed­i­tor, which, per­haps nat­u­rally, fo­cussed on the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

My col­league con­fessed, rather be­mus­edly, that his coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin, would like Don­ald Trump to beat Hil­lary Clin­ton, al­though in pub­lic, he has not ex­pressed a pref­er­ence for ei­ther can­di­date.

The Rus­sian head of state is too as­tute and coldly cal­cu­lat­ing to do any­thing as crass as that, and it is pity is that no leader in this re­gion has sim­i­lar qual­i­ties nor the same strate­gic vi­sion as Putin.

That has re­cently been ev­i­dent in the way he has cul­ti­vated ties with one of his na­tion’s his­toric ad­ver­saries, China, at a time when the rest of the world has been pre­oc­cu­pied by the Wash­ing­ton elec­toral cir­cus.

Bei­jing has, of course, been a happy and will­ing suitor for Putin, as was clear at last month’s G20 sum­mit in Hangzhou, when China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping went out of his way to treat Putin as his premier guest.

Right now, Bei­jing and Moscow say their “best ever” ties re­flect an “un­prece­dent­edly high level of trust”, which has led to China ordering more Rus­sian gas and more weaponry and tech­nol­ogy.

That buy­ing spree, and Putin’s sup­port for China’s re­jec­tion of a United Na­tions tri­bunal rul­ing against its “9-Dash Line” claim to most of the South China Sea, has be­lat­edly caught this re­gion’s at­ten­tion.

The new Sino-Rus­sian love af­fair has forced ev­ery­one to con­sider its ram­i­fi­ca­tions, and has led Trump and Clin­ton to ver­bally spar over who will be the tough­est in deal­ing with Bei­jing and Moscow.

In that re­gard, as my old chum on the Sin­ga­pore Straits Times, Asad Latif, wrote last week, both can­di­dates gen­er­ate an un­usual de­gree of fear that has been adroitly coun­tered by a charm of­fen­sive from China and Rus­sia.

Asad noted that since Trump and Clin­ton both op­pose the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a free-trade scheme that in­cludes Brunei, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and Viet­nam, those na­tions will prob­a­bly now turn to Bei­jing for help.

And Rus­sia’s Putin will try to copy his new con­sort and of­fer his own vast na­tion’s as­sis­tance and co­op­er­a­tion to coun­tries in South­east Asian that feel cold-shoul­dered by the TPP’s im­mi­nent demise.

As well, this re­gion has also been shocked by Trump’s con­tention that Amer­i­can al­lies, in­clud­ing those in East Asia, like Ja­pan and South Korea, should pay more if they want US mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion to con­tinue.

Al­though some may feel there is a cer­tain va­lid­ity to this no­tion, there is an al­most unan­i­mous dread about his con­cur­rent pro­posal that those coun­tries should be al­lowed to de­velop nu­clear weapons.

If a Trump-led America goes down that path, while the new Sino-Rus­sian duo op­pose it, then there is no doubt which camp ASEAN will scurry to sup­port.

Ad­mit­tedly, Clin­ton di­verges from Trump in this re­gard, but even so she has not said how she will woo back al­lies in this re­gion, like Thai­land and the Philip­pines, which ap­pear not to care if US mil­i­tary sup­port con­tin­ues.

In­deed, Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has been rid­ing an as­ton­ish­ing wave of pop­u­lar­ity based on his adop­tion of an anti-Amer­i­can, pro-China stance that may well threaten the en­tire re­gion’s sta­bil­ity.

Of course, hav­ing just been feted in Bei­jing, Duterte may ar­gue that the Chi­nese, as well as the Rus­sians, whom he has also praised, will pro­vide a bet­ter se­cu­rity um­brella than the Amer­i­cans have done in the past.

While that may be ques­tion­able, what is clear is that Xi and Putin can barely con­tain their glee at the way the smaller na­tions of East Asia are fall­ing into their lap with­out them hav­ing to do any­thing.

And in the process, Wash­ing­ton’s so-called pivot to the Asia-Pa­cific has be­come some­thing of a flat joke.

The Philip­pines and Thai­land have al­ready piv­oted away and joined Cam­bo­dia and Laos in the Sino-Rus­sian camp, and oth­ers are likely to fol­low suit if Trump moves into the White House. And things are un­likely to be much dif­fer­ent if Clin­ton be­comes pres­i­dent, for re­mem­ber that in 2011, she was the bel­li­cose one who told the world, “Our mil­i­tary is by far the strong­est and our econ­omy is by far the largest.”

Even if that un­nec­es­sary goad­ing was true back then, it most likely is not now, at least not when com­pared with the com­bined might of China and Rus­sia.

Of course, there are those like Brunei and Sin­ga­pore, who, de­spite their cha­grin at the TPP’s demise and other Amer­i­can short­com­ings, will not rashly desert Wash­ing­ton.

The re­gional an­a­lyst Ber­til Lint­ner has sur­mised that Myan­mar will join them, largely due to the rap­port be­tween State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and his pre­sumed US pres­i­dent-elect Mrs Clin­ton.

Lint­ner be­lieves this per­sonal re­la­tion­ship could lead to Myan­mar slip­ping out of its pre­vi­ous close link­age with China and in­stead fall into the arms of Wash­ing­ton.

It is a rather naive as­sump­tion, given that Myan­mar, un­der any lead­er­ship, can­not ig­nore its long, frac­tious bor­der with China, a na­tion that loy­ally helped out when the coun­try was heav­ily sanc­tioned by the West.

So, as my Moscow col­league con­cluded, all gov­ern­ments in this re­gion, whether headed by close chums of Clin­ton or Trump, must come to terms with the omi­nous prospect of a Sino-Rus­sian part­ner­ship dom­i­nat­ing the whole of East Asia.

Photo: EPA

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping dur­ing a meet­ing on the side­lines of the 8th BRICS sum­mit in Goa, In­dia, on Oc­to­ber 15.

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