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