Duterte, Dating, & Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Dating and Diplomacy in the Age of Nuclear Missiles…

Part ten million one of a seemingly infinite series.

Note: For the deepest emotional experience, please play “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics as you read this article.

Diplomacy is at times a bit like dating. We’ve all felt that thrilling infatuation. Sometimes it leads to a great night or weekend, or, if you’re very lucky, a few good decades. But in romance, as in foreign policy, some relationships start poorly and go to hell all too quickly. At least in those cases, when the first date is horrific, you have a chance to avoid a bad marriage with an abusive creep. Don’t pass on the chance.

 

Philippine Pres. Rodrigo "Rody" Duterte Image by Gvt. of the Philippines, public domain

Philippine Pres. Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte
Image by Gvt. of the Philippines, public domain

 

Many of our readers are now quite familiar with the challenges and problems facing the US and other nations in the South China Sea. The short description of those problems is “China.”

Many readers are also familiar with that colorful new celebrity on the world stage, Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte. Normally, sensible people avoid weird-acting dudes called “Rody,” but this particular weird dude is now the leader of one of our key Asian allies, the Republic of the Philippines.

Most Americans and Westerners became aware of Rody this summer when, within a matter of a few weeks, he publicly called the US Ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a bitch” and then, for an encore, he called US President Obama “that son of a whore.” Foreign policy gurus the world over are all prompted to ask the same obvious question. I can answer that obvious question here and now. US Intelligence services have definitive evidence that, in spite of the strong similarities between them, Rody Duterte is not the long lost brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Rody’s anti-American outbursts were prompted by the fact that the US government, in an underwhelming response to the alleged 3,000+ recent murders by Rody death squads, had suggested to him that he might please consider following the Philippines constitution when conducting his campaign against “crime, corruption, and drugs.”

The Philippines does indeed have serious problems with violent crime, corruption, and drug addiction. When Rody Duterte was the mayor of Davao City, he gained fame, and infamy, by conducting a violent campaign against criminals. Some questioned if, while killing drug dealers and drug addicts, he hadn’t accidentally murdered a few innocent Philippines citizens that happened to oppose his political career. Accidents do happen. In Davao City and Manila, they seem to happen a lot.

While Duterte has only recently become an annoying clown to Americans and Westerners, he’s been aggravating folks in the Philippines and neighboring states for a few years.

As Mayor of Davao City, when journalists questioned him about possible connections to extrajudicial death squads, he casually responded “Yeah, I am death squad.” Prior to being elected to the presidency of the Philippines, Duterte bragged to reporters that he would kill up to 100,000 criminals if elected President.

In May of 2015, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Duterte of being involved in more than a thousand killings. It accused him of being what he said he was. In a television interview, Duterte responded by saying that the group should go ahead and file a complaint with the UN, and then he would show the world how stupid they are by killing them.

In 1989, a 36-year-old Australian lay minister named Jacqueline Hamill was held hostage, raped, had her throat slashed, and was shot during a prison riot in the Philippines. In April of 2016, during his Presidential campaign, Duterte, referred to the rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill, saying, “I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.” Yes, the mayor that he was referring to was himself. He thought he should have been the first to rape Jacqueline Hamill.

So what are the impacts to Rody’s ignorant and barbaric behavior?

It depends on whom we ask. During a recent social call on American Artist John Alexander, I asked him to describe Duterte. John described him as “A Post-Modernist Head Hunter.” That seemed reasonably artistic to me.

When asked what they thought of Rody Duterte, the Philippine people responded by electing him President. We should not ignore this obvious evidence of the Philippine people’s desperation concerning rampant crime and corruption in the Philippines.

For China, Rody had to seem like a wonderful opportunity.

A week before the September 6, 2016 Asian Summit in Laos, Rody dramatically warned China that it would “face a reckoning” for its aggression in the “Philippine Sea.” Then, a couple of days before the summit, he switched over to his Anti-American rhetoric, demanding that the US stay out of Philippine domestic policy. After returning from the summit, Rody seemed to have experienced a Chinese-style epiphany. Rody then said that the Philippines remained committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict in the South China Sea, and he urgently advised “the US to not escalate matters in the South China Sea.” The wording sounded like vintage Chinese diplomatic dogma.

So what caused the wild vacillation in Rody’s passionate political opinions?

The Chinese government does not believe in the “prayer and meditation method” of achieving epiphanies. They do believe in cash and ruthless pragmatism in the shameless pursuit of unrestrained self-interest when conducting diplomacy. I can only wonder what China might have whispered to Duterte during the Asian Summit in Laos.

For the current US administration and for any future US administration, Duterte adds to the complexity of dealing with China in the South China Sea.

The US obviously hopes to continue to help the Philippines build a credible defense capability. The US has pursued this goal by sending military aid, investing many millions of dollars in military base construction for the Philippine military, and sending military advisors in large numbers to the island nation. Those US military advisors are not happy with the Philippine government’s glib attitude concerning the casual murder of civilians in the Philippines. Duterte loves the American cash, free military equipment, and the advisors as long as the advisors don’t attempt to advise him to be civilized.

Any US President will have to worry about Rody Duterte’s wild behavior.

For his part, Rody seems thrilled at the prospect of taking advantage of the US desire to resist Chinese hegemony in the West Pacific. At the same time, he cozies up to China. Older Americans will recognize the similarity to the routine Cold War diplomatic dilemma. The US often showered cash and military equipment on pathetically bad despots in order to simply keep those countries from allying with the USSR.

My best guess is that this US administration and the next will try to deal with Duterte as best they can without being suckered into a spending competition with China.

The Philippine people have elected and tolerated Rody Duterte in the hope of reducing corruption, crime, and drugs in the Philippines. If Rody pulls that off, then the Philippines will have an opportunity to prosper, but if his brutal methods don’t create real results, then the Philippine people will tire of him and elect someone else.

Buying an ally with cash and free military equipment is never a sound basis for a reliable alliance. Buying that ally and only getting an enemy for your cash is worse. We in the US will have to dispassionately evaluate Rody Duterte and the Philippines and act accordingly. This is no time for the US to “lead with the check book.”

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People’s Republic of China — The Pirate of the South China Sea

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On July 12, 2016, a landmark event occurred for the South China Sea — the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against the People’s Republic of China in a case filed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rejecting China’s claims to western Philippine islands.

 

China's Maritime Claim (red) UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue) Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

China’s Maritime Claim (red)
UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue)
Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

 

In 2013, the Philippines filed the case as a direct challenge to Communist China’s expansive territorial claims that stretch to within a hundred miles of the Philippines west coast.

The court’s ruling makes it clear that the international community has rejected China’s imperialist aggression in the South China Sea. There are no enforcement provisions in the UN convention, so the court ruling against China does nothing to directly prevent it from continuing to expand its presence in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the ruling is a major diplomatic and public relations disaster for China’s imperialist agenda.

The ruling matters to several countries for several different reasons.

It completely validates the positions of Communist China’s opponents in the dispute. Since the ruling, Indonesia, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Borneo have experienced an increase in public interest in opposing the China’s aggression.

In the Philippines, the public celebrated the ruling while protesting against China.

Interestingly, the current administration in the Philippines has, with less fanfare, increased its efforts to negotiate economic sharing of the South China Sea. China is happy to play along with negotiations, but their word will be about as good as it usually is, which is not at all.

In Vietnam, the response has been less public.

Vietnam continues to oppose the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea dispute, but it has been careful this week to not allow public anger against China to manifest in the form of protests at Chinese diplomatic facilities in Vietnam. For the moment, Hanoi is taking a quiet but determined approach in dealing with China and is happy for the conflict to be framed as a Philippine-China problem on public relations terms. Vietnam’s caution is understandable. The closest points of land between the Philippines and Communist China are over 500 miles away from each other. The distance from China to Vietnam is only an inch.

The government of France made what might appear to be a surprising, or perhaps comical, move by announcing that it will support free navigation in the South China Sea by conducting freedom of passage exercises.

France has stated that it remains devoted to international law and order . . . Right. Maybe so. But for the moment, I’ll view France’s “freedom of navigation plans” in the South China Sea with a bit of historical context.

For reasons of free trade, France, along with nearly everyone on the globe, has a legitimate interest in the free navigation of the South China Sea. Additionally, France understandably wants to maintain maritime communications through the South China Sea between its colonial outposts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, as far as France’s noble and rather sudden religious devotion to global peace law and order, I remain skeptical. This is the same nation that wanted to deliver two Mistral class carriers to Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Currently, the French government is continuing to do all that it can to support the French defense industry through the export of warships, fighter planes, air transports, armor, artillery etc. If it could convince anyone that croissants or French lingerie were useful defense products, they’d be busy boxing some up at this very moment. Come to think of it, French lingerie would be a major improvement at all those damned boring European defense industry expos. I’ll take a French lingerie model over a skanky Airbus 400 any day.

French freedom of navigation exercises won’t do much to dissuade Beijing’s imperialist agenda, but they might drum up some nice weapons sales for French corporations.

I’m not at all opposed to France competing in the world arms market. For one thing, people that are forced to share a planet with the likes of Communist China, North Korea, Russia, and the various Jihadistans have a right to defend themselves. Some of the less fortunate countries don’t have a Lockheed Martin, an Airbus, or a Finmeccanica on which to lavish trillions of dollars or euros. These less fortunate nations must lavish their paltry billions on foreign suppliers.

When the capitalist warmongering US or the holier-than-thou peace loving European nations manage to sell their defense products on the international market, it enables their defense industries to maintain higher quality and innovation in the weapons that their own militaries use.

France is, after all, an ally of the US and an important member of NATO. So that’s fine if the French can drum up another big defense contract. I just don’t want to gloss over France’s arms sales campaigns with anything like “…devoted to international law and order,” or any other pseudo socialist pabulum.

In China, the response has been predictable and highly managed as ever.

The People’s Republic of China has allowed an egg throwing festival-type protest against the demon aggressor Obama. The government provided members of its public with large quantities of eggs and posters of Obama to use as targets. If China didn’t have nuclear weapons, they’d be so damned funny.

In Beijing, no protests were allowed at the US or Philippine embassies. Also, China has minimized the rage factor against Obama and the Philippines on the internet. The interesting thing is that China is choosing not to overextend its credibility with the Chinese public by overplaying the old “rage against the capitalists” routine.

That restraint tells us something important — Communist China is not as confident as it likes to pretend to be about its ambitions in the South China Sea.

While swearing that it will never back down an inch, it in fact is hoping to negotiate a face saving way out of its South China Sea public relations disaster. Otherwise, it would be encouraging a much more toxic rage in the Chinese public.

The People’s Republic of China routinely relies on manufactured outrage to try to manage public and international policy. It’s a tough habit to break, even momentarily. For Communist China, its most dangerous and vicious opponent in the South China Sea remains Communist China. That is perhaps the one thing that it and the US have in common in the South China Sea.

So what does all this mean to US taxpayers?

The US administration won’t gloat about the ruling against China. Along with everyone else, the US expected this result, but the US will continue to encourage Communist China’s neighbors to better develop their own defenses to deal with that country’s imperialist agenda.

The US will continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but at the same time, this administration and congress won’t take the obvious steps for opposing China’s imperial agenda by withdrawing its “most favored nation” status.

Corporate America and American consumers will continue to support Communist China’s economy by purchasing low quality overpriced junk from it. The trade balance between the US and China will remain hideously unfavorable to US taxpayers and the US economy, but don’t expect this congress or this administration to do anything about it. They won’t.

The important silver lining to all this is that although the People’s Republic of China will never admit it to the Chinese people, it clearly does not intend a major military escalation in the Pacific.

Its usual temper tantrums are not working, and in China, as on Wall Street, money talks. The shrill Communist Chinese rhetoric will continue, but expect some quiet back alley diplomacy from the Chinese in the next few years.

The People’s Republic of China will demand everything, but it will take what it can get.

US-India Alliance — The Joker in the South China Sea Poker Game

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

One of the most important US-Asia relationships is that of the US and India. Like the US, India has no territorial claim in the South China Sea. However, because of its size and its location on oil trading routes, India has the potential to greatly impact any strategic balance in the South China Sea region.

 

US Pres. Obama & India Prime Minister Modi Image by Pete Souza, public domain.

US Pres. Obama & India Prime Minister Modi
Image by Pete Souza, public domain.

 

The US is the oldest democracy. With approximately 1.3 billion people, India is the largest democracy.

India’s population is currently only slightly smaller than that of the People’s Republic of China, and it is trending to surpass Communist China in 2028. Both countries’ national economies have grown substantially during the past twenty years, but Communist China’s economic growth, much of it fueled by the US and other Western consumers, has outstripped India’s by nearly three times. Indian politicians and business leaders are aware of that, and their desire to increase trade with the West is impacting foreign policy debates in India.

While India has no territorial claim in the South China Sea region, it needs to freely navigate the South China Sea to reach markets in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Freedom of navigation in that region directly impacts India’s ability to increase exports and potentially import energy and food. As a result, what happens in the South China Sea matters in the corporate boardrooms of Mumbai and in the homes of the Indian people, giving India a keen interest in the region.

Historically, the US and India have always maintained civil, if not always friendly, relations, and most Americans and Indians hold favorable views of each other in spite of the two nations’ other alliances.

Shortly after its independence, India established strong diplomatic relations with the USSR, and the USSR, now Russia, has traditionally been India’s biggest supplier of technology and military hardware. India’s close relations with Russia were driven by two major factors. One factor was India’s continuous multi-border disputes with China in conjunction with Moscow’s break with Communist China during the East-West Cold War. The other factor was, and remains, Pakistan.

Pakistan vacillates between near-war and low-intensity war with India.

That constant hostility has at times been much larger in the minds of Pakistanis than in the minds of most Indians, but coupled with terror strikes by Pakistani-controlled groups, the continuous enmity makes it impossible for Indians to ignore US military aid to Pakistan.

In spite of this, most Indians are willing to establish an equitable peace with Pakistan.

For Indians, the center of the universe is not located anywhere in Pakistan. For many important Pakistani power brokers, the center of the universe must continue to appear to be in India. By remaining in or near a state of emergency, the Pakistani intelligence establishment and some Pakistani military leaders have been able to maintain an inordinate and unhealthy influence over Pakistani politics.

Given India’s conflicts with China and Pakistan, along with US support for Pakistan, it’s easy to understand how India built strong ties with Russia.

This may be changing somewhat, but don’t expect a complete halt to the import of Russian military equipment. India has shown a desire to reduce its reliance on Russian military hardware, but its goal is not to replace Russian suppliers with Western suppliers. Its goal is to replace Russian suppliers with Indian suppliers. The trick is, of course, developing adequate Indian suppliers.

With a massive labor surplus and high unemployment in India, the political pressure to “buy Indian” is now a major factor in Indian politics.

And remember, unlike Communist China, India is a democracy, and the public’s concerns drive foreign and domestic policies. As in other democracies, that linkage is never as direct as the voters would prefer, but no Indian politician can ignore major domestic concerns and survive in office.

Ideally, India could do whatever is needed and take however long it needs to accommodate the powerful “buy Indian” agenda. Unfortunately, India is not in an “ideal world,” but rather in a world that finds them next door to Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China – a very “un-ideal” neighborhood, indeed.

India has access to European military equipment. To the displeasure of the ruling Pakistani junta, India has now also been granted nearly the same level of access to US-made military hardware as that enjoyed by close US allies. At the same time, for a variety of well-founded reasons, Pakistan has been facing more difficulty in acquiring high tech US military hardware.

To the displeasure of US military suppliers, India has yet not showered cash on them. Deals with the US and other Western suppliers are announced with much fanfare. Those deals usually die at the cash register with far less fanfare.

In one concrete sign of closer US-India relations, India and the US are “cooperating” in the construction of new Indian aircraft carriers and other new Indian Navy ships. What “cooperating” will end up looking like precisely is difficult to say, but if real cooperation occurs in these projects, then that may be a clear indicator of growing ties between India and the US.

It’s not surprising that in a nation of 1.3 billion people, not everyone agrees about the direction that Indian foreign policy should take.

China and Russia’s willingness to improve their relations enough to forge a massive natural gas deal has many Indians wondering about the possibility of improving relations with China and eventually receiving much-needed natural gas from Russia via Chinese pipelines. China is currently paying much less for Russian natural gas than India is paying for Middle East natural gas.

On paper, the concept of a Russia-China pipeline looks good to India, unless that paper is being viewed in China.

China had a huge motive for accepting a gas deal from their old enemies to the north. China feels fragile and insecure about its short term and long-term energy needs. And it should. Increased energy costs could throw the Chinese economy into near chaos. Helping India gain access to cheaper natural gas would make India a competing consumer for Russian natural gas. It would also help India realize its dreams of military modernization, and it would help that country compete for a larger share of Western export markets. China wants to help India improve its military and its economy about as much as I want to live in Syria – not one damned bit.

Overall, we will likely see closer economic and military ties between the US and India, but it will not happen overnight.

Most Indians are politically rational. They neither wish to become “pro-American,” nor “pro-Western.” They simply wish to find a way to be effectively “pro-Indian.” India’s desire to pursue a pro-Indian agenda in no way conflicts with US or European goals in Asia.

While it is unlikely that India will want or be able to exert much military influence in the South China Sea over the next decade, India remains a critical factor for any Chinese military strategy. Just as India needs to freely navigate the South China Sea, China even more critically needs to navigate the Indian Ocean.

The world champion diplomatic double talkers in Beijing love pretending to ignore India’s influence in Asia. That plays well to the captive Chinese audience, but not so well in the geopolitical reality. India’s slowly growing strength in the Indian Ocean will act as an indirect but strong deterrent to Communist China’s escalation of hostilities in the South China Sea.

In our next article we will consider the overall geopolitical realities in the South China Sea.

US-Vietnam Relations — The Healing Power of Cash

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Due to Communist China’s aggression in the South China Sea, or as the Vietnamese call it, the Eastern Sea, the US has become interested in building a closer relationship with Vietnam. Despite strong emotions on both sides, the changing relationship with Vietnam is less complicated and less subtle than the relationships that the US has with other South Pacific nations. However, it is not without obstacles.

 

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016 Image public domain.

US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang
Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016
Image public domain.

 

Understanding the forces that drive the US/Vietnam relationship is easy if we consider a few key events since the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.

From the point of view of many US citizens, building a working relationship with the communist Vietnamese government is something new and innovative. From Hanoi’s point of view, it is something natural that should have happened a long time ago.

It might surprise many Western Cold War survivors to know that Hanoi fully expected to quickly normalize relations with the US once it was able to capture and control South Vietnam. US President Richard Nixon had ordered an increased bombing campaign against North Vietnam to force Hanoi to return to the Paris Peace Talks. Both the North Vietnamese government and the US government understood that those peace talks were pure theater and without any potential lasting value, but Nixon felt he needed to create the appearance of a peaceful settlement to the conflict. All Nixon really wanted was for the US to pull out of South Vietnam.

When President Nixon told the South Vietnamese government that the US military would return if North Vietnam broke the peace treaty, he knew that he was lying. The South Vietnamese government knew it, as well, but there was nothing it could do about it. Years of blatant corruption and criminality in the South Vietnamese government, combined with the thousands of deaths of young Americans, had left much of the American public unwilling to continue to support South Vietnam. Nixon fully understood that the US public was done with Vietnam.

Westerners understood that Nixon was clearly using a “big stick” approach against the North Vietnamese government in order to force them back to the transparently farcical Paris Peace Talks, but most were unaware that Nixon and his soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were also quietly holding out a large carrot to the North Vietnamese government. That carrot was a normalization of relations with the US, trade agreements, and US influence to allow North Vietnam access to the International Monetary Fund.

The North Vietnamese government carefully considered the offers from Nixon, and after about two minutes fully agreed. What could be more splendid than the US showering North Vietnam with cash instead of bombs? In response to Nixon’s offers, Hanoi suggested that the US quickly develop offshore oil reserves in Vietnamese territory with a perfectly reasonable revenue sharing formula. The communists in Hanoi were clearly in love with capitalism.

Hanoi wanted to become something like a new Saudi Arabia.

The automobile-addicted Yankees would get more oil, and Vietnam would get cash. And here is the subtle little detail that mattered most in all this. Hanoi expected its “capitalist Yankee dog” enemies to become Vietnam’s beloved allies against Vietnam’s problematic neighbor, the People’s Republic of China.

It might be difficult for Americans that remember the Vietnam War to believe that the Hanoi government would have been capable of an alliance with the US after the Vietnam War.

If we consider the North Vietnamese view for a moment, it’s a little easier to understand how they might have hoped for our bombing campaigns to be converted to cash-dropping operations. From Hanoi’s perspective, the US had spent more than a decade lavishing cash, equipment, and young American blood on a wildly corrupt South Vietnamese government in exchange for nothing.

So why then would the Yankees not do the same for a wildly corrupt communist Vietnam in exchange for oil rights?

It made perfect sense to the pragmatic Kissinger, the impatient Nixon, and to everyone else involved in the Vietnam quagmire. It would have worked except for another critical event. To the surprise of no sober adult in Vietnam or the US, the North Vietnamese could not resist invading and conquering South Vietnam after the US military went home. They miscalculated. Oil or not, the US was not going to become close friends with Hanoi once Hanoi so completely violated the Paris Peace Treaty.

So, all “that” explains why communist Vietnam would pretend to be our friend now. Now let us consider why the US government might be willing to pretend it believes that the Vietnamese are our friends.

The answer is simple enough to express in one word – China.

It is easy for the Vietnamese communists to abandon their own dogma and do business with their old “Imperialist Yankee dog” enemies in the face of the more avaricious Communist Chinese imperial aggression. In the face of that same Chinese Imperialist campaign in the Pacific, the US government is willing to cooperate and even aid its old “communist terrorist” enemies.

Vietnam understands that the USA does not wish to install a “Pax Americana” in the South Pacific. It understood that we weren’t even willing to install a “Pax Americana” in South Vietnam, and it counted on that fact in its strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. For other South Pacific nations, an escalated conflict with China is future possibility to be avoided. For the Vietnamese, it is a reality that they have experienced many times over, and as recently as 1979, when China again invaded Vietnam. For the Obama administration, convincing the Vietnamese to take the Chinese Imperialist agenda seriously is about as difficult as convincing a teenager that sex is good.

Changes in the US-Vietnam relationship can be measured by key steps the two countries have taken.

On January 13, 1993, the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave a favorable final report that cleared the way for the Clinton Administration to resume IMF and World Bank lending to Vietnam. For Americans such as me, who were still waiting for a loved one to return from Vietnam, the fact that Vietnam had conducted a visible long-term effort to account for all US MIAs in Southeast Asia mattered a great deal. For the Vietnamese, access to the IMF and World Bank mattered a great deal financially.

On February 3, 1994, US President Bill Clinton partially lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was a boon for the Vietnamese economy and provided US corporations with an alternative to cheap Chinese manufacturing labor.

On July 11, 1995, US President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In November 2003, the USS Vandergrift became the first US Navy vessel to make port call in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. This initiated a regular schedule of US Navy calls at Vietnamese ports.

The US Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Vietnam in January 2007. This further boosted US Capital investment in Vietnam.

In early October 2014, the United States approved a relaxation of its arms embargo on Vietnam.

In May 2016, President Obama announced the full lifting of the embargo during his visit to Vietnam.

Thus far, there has been little practical impact from lifting the embargo because Vietnam prefers to purchase less expensive weapons and systems from their Russian allies. However, one sign that that the trade agreement might benefit the US economy is the $11.3 billion pending Vietnamese agreement with Boeing for the purchase of 100 airliners. It is not clear to me where the cash will come from to make this deal a reality, but time will tell. There is also optimistic chatter about Vietnam purchasing P-3 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, but I can’t see Congress and the DoD signing off on the sale of such high tech military systems to a close ally of Russia.

Many human rights groups feel betrayed by the Obama administration.

Critics of the lifting of the embargo feel that Obama could easily have demanded human rights reforms in Vietnam in exchange for such a lucrative agreement for Vietnam. Vietnam has clearly demonstrated that it is in no rush to improve human rights for their citizens. From a political point of view, Vietnam remains very similar to Communist China. The one difference is that Vietnam is reliably anti-Chinese, and, therefore, this administration and previous administrations have been willing to ignore Vietnam’s transparently horrible human rights record.

It’s tough to not see the parallel between current US Pacific strategy and the US strategy in Central America during the Cold War.

Then, as now, we have often been willing to tolerate wildly corrupt governments when they have opposed major enemies of the US. The philosophical and moral questions surrounding the current US administration’s willingness to do business with a despotic Vietnamese government are beyond the scope of this article and this series of articles. In the European tradition of “Realpolitik” and in step with the worldwide practice of self-interested political policies, the US has chosen to strengthen ties with Vietnam.

In my estimation, the relationship between the US and Vietnam will continue to grow. The next US presidential election will not likely disrupt this trend, regardless of which candidate wins.

In our next article, we will consider the relationship between the US and India, and India’s huge potential influence on South Pacific affairs.

 

US-Australia Alliance — Rocky Past, Solid Future

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

An important part of the current US Pacific strategy is the US-Australian alliance. Since World War II, both nations have remained allies. On the surface, that alliance appears to be straightforward and reliable from both sides of the alliance. However, while it has been reliable and consistent over time, it has not always been simple, and citizens in both nations have not always viewed it the same way.

 

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and US Pres. Obama Image by US govt., public domain

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and US Pres. Obama
Image by US govt., public domain

 

Both Australia and the US agree that their alliance is important, and while both governments avoid labeling the alliance as being primarily a shared defense against Chinese aggression, both governments work from that assumption in their relations with one another.

The biggest complications in US-Australian relations have generally come from public opinion, as opposed to conflicting policies. One stark example would be World War II.

Australia has only had an independent foreign policy since 1940. Previously, its foreign policy had been controlled by the UK. In spite of this, the Australian and US governments were able to work together very well during the war.

However, many citizens from the two countries did not work together quite so well. When US General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia, at the request of the Australian government, he took over overall command for allied forces for the Southwest Pacific area. MacArthur did a good job in military terms. In public relations terms, he was a disaster.

When Australian troops won important battles under horrible conditions, such as on the infamous Kokoda trail in New Guinea, MacArthur and his staff announced these victories as “AMERICAN (and allies)” victories. This was done loudly on three occasions. The Australian troops deserved the highest praise, but they received mostly criticism from MacArthur and his staff. Also, when joint forces consisting of US, Australian, and New Zealand troops won battles, MacArthur and his staff announced victories as “American” and usually failed to mention the Australians and New Zealanders at all. To make matters worse, thousands of Australian soldiers had been fighting and dying in North African campaigns for many months before the US fully entered the war. With so many young Australian men serving overseas, Australia was very vulnerable to Japanese invasion.

The US merchant marine fleet had already suffered heavy casualties in men, ships, and war materials in the North Atlantic prior to actually declaring war on Japan and its Axis partners. The UK needed fuel and food to survive, as well as millions of tons of war materials to rebuild its army. From the US point of view, committing to defend Australia was a major step requiring a monumental logistical effort. That logistical challenge had to be undertaken without decreasing the flow of supplies to the UK. In light of that difficult situation and Australia’s vulnerability to Japan, members of the Australian government chose not to take issue with MacArthur’s megalomaniacal personality because it assumed that, without a US General in command of the area, the US would be less generous in sending food, weapons, ships, planes, and troops to Australia.

With thousands of US servicemen roaming the streets of Australian cities and spending more money than most Australians could afford to spend, friction between the locals and the US troops increased.

On November 26, 1942, tensions boiled over in Brisbane, resulting in two days of rioting between US troops on one side and Australian troops and civilians on the other. One person was killed, and dozens were seriously injured before military and civilian police were able to regain control. Fortunately, despite the obvious animosity between many of the troops and civilians, the alliance between the US and Australian governments kept right on rolling.

While I have no reason to fear any further rioting between Australians and Americans, the public perceptions of the voters in Australia don’t always seem to be in step with Australia’s foreign policy toward the US. Like the US, Australia is a democracy and opinions change over time. With opinions, foreign policy and defense policies change as well. This is normal for any democracy.

For Americans, it can seem as though Australians don’t hold a favorable view of the US and its citizens. The issue is likely less serious than it may appear from the US point of view.

We Americans should consider that Australians may share the same basic language, but we do not share the same basic culture. For outsiders, Australians often don’t seem to like anyone including other Australians. Australians understand it differently. They simply have very different social norms than Americans do.

What most Australians do share in common with most Americans is an increasing concern over Communist China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and this is reflected in their changing defense policies. Australia is increasing its defense spending and has committed to several major defense programs. Australia is involved in the F-35 fighter program. Like many Americans, cost increases and testing delays have made some Australians wonder about the wisdom of the F-35 program. In spite of whatever rhetoric and soft-speak diplomacy we might hear from Australia, the F-35 program is strong evidence of a shared defense commitment between the US and Australia.

Much of the political rhetoric in Australia is designed with the People’s Republic of China in mind.

Communist China has made a strong career of being easily offended, outraged, and otherwise rabid and irrational whenever anyone from any country says anything that might be even slightly out of step with its dictatorship. China loves to pretend to expect everyone on the planet to cower toward its authority in the same way its own citizens must cower.

So why does Australia care if China gets upset? There are several reasons.

The obvious one is trade. China remains an important trade partner for Australia. For American observers, the less obvious reason is geography. We all know where Australia is on the map, but it’s not easy for Americans and Europeans to quite grasp how important Asia is in the minds of Australians. Australians recognize and accept the importance of their military and economic alliance with the US. They just don’t want it to be the single issue in their foreign policy. The US administration is in an election year, and naturally, the fanfare that accompanies any foreign policy substance is important. The Australians almost always prefer less fanfare.

While maintaining close relations with the US, Australia is also actively seeking better relations and trade with its Asian neighbors.

The Australian Ministry of Defense recently considered purchasing new submarines from Japan. Last month, the final decision was made to purchase French-made submarines. Ten years ago, it would have been politically difficult for any Australian politician to openly discuss the possibility of such a purchase from Japan. The fact that Australia is pursuing a broad foreign policy strategy is in no way a hindrance to US-Australian relations.

The current US-Australian alliance is healthy, and my best guess is that it will continue to improve. Australia will not always provide the political rhetoric that we might hope it would, but its foreign policy agenda for the Pacific region closely resembles the US agenda. This alliance is strong and will remain so in substance, regardless of changing political tides and rhetoric.

Next week, we will look at how US-Vietnamese relations are changing.

US/Asia-Pacific Alliances — Decision Time in Jakarta

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

As part of overall US strategy in the Pacific region, the US is attempting to forge a closer economic and military relationship with Indonesia. The Obama administration made improving ties with Indonesia a major priority when President Obama first took office in 2009. The White House and US State Department have maintained that priority during Obama’s seven years in office.

 

Indonesia Pres. Joko Widodo and US Secy. of State John Kerry (center) Image by US State Dept, public domain

Indonesia Pres. Joko Widodo
and US Secy. of State John Kerry (center)
Image by US State Dept, public domain

 

The White House has always been quick in declaring diplomatic victories following overseas trips by the President as well as after meetings with visiting heads of state and their ministers. In reality, the US-Indonesia “new alliance” remains a work in progress.

With the Philippines, Japan, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, we can clearly measure progress in the formation of a transpacific alliance in response to increased aggression from the People’s Republic of China. It is much more difficult gauge Indonesia’s intentions toward the US, its Pacific neighbors, and Communist China.

To interpret the foreign policy news from Indonesia, we need to consider a few critical facts concerning the Indonesian national identity.

First, like the Philippines and Malaysia, and unlike Japan, Indonesia lacks cultural unity.

Indonesia’s 250 million citizens are quite diverse and, in many areas, quite parochial. The official language is Indonesian, but tribal languages still persist in rural regions. When Indonesian President Joko Widodo wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t need to hear a morning report to know what his priority for the day is. That priority has been the same for every Indonesian President since the country achieved its independence in 1945 – to “unite the people.”

Foreign policy is important to Indonesia, but internal issues remain their day-to-day first priority. This does not mean that we cannot build real cooperation with Indonesia. It means we can’t expect it to be represented the same way in the Indonesian media as it would be in other countries in the region.

Second, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, but it is a secular democratic state.

Over 85% of Indonesians describe themselves as practicing Muslims, but Islam in Indonesia is far less “centralized” and regimented than in Saudi Arabia. The national legal system is secular. Radical Islamic groups do exist, but they lack anything approaching popular support. Indonesia acts independently of their fellow Muslim countries in the Mideast, but the country is never comfortable publicly disregarding “Muslim interests” in favor of US-Indonesia relations. The White House should not expect Indonesia to trumpet US-Indonesian cooperation loudly.

Indonesia is showing clear signs of growing cooperation against China and growing cooperation with its neighbors, but it has to handle the public relations battle in the way that best suits its government and its people. Indonesia’s neighbors seem to understand this better than the US does. While the US and Japan are always concerned with the public message that is delivered to the People’s Republic of China, we cannot expect Indonesia to pursue a similar public relations strategy in the near future. The good news is that it is quietly willing to increase military cooperation with its neighboring states and the US.

A third fundamental fact concerning Indonesian national identity is that Indonesia sees itself as being the leader of the region.

Indonesia was instrumental in founding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The headquarters for ASEAN is in Jakarta, Indonesia. ASEAN remains a major point of pride for the Indonesian government and people. It is something that they accomplished without the US, the UN, or anyone outside of the region. ASEAN is, in a sense, a symbol of Indonesian power and political identity.

Rather than disregard ASEAN, the US can work with ASEAN on the same issues over which the Obama administration has been trying to gain Indonesian cooperation for the last seven years. The US sees itself as being the leader in improving regional security against growing Communist Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia. The US strategy in the Pacific is based on shared concerns, but it relies heavily on US technology, military expertise, and US cash to improve defense capabilities in the region.

 

US & Indonesian Troops in Joint Training Exercise Image by USMC, public domain

US & Indonesian Troops in Joint Training Exercise
Image by USMC, public domain

 

In the case of Indonesia, the US will have to remain patient and allow that country the opportunity to redefine a US-Indonesian relationship that can fit into its national agenda. If that includes Indonesia being less publicly supportive of US-led initiatives in the area, then so be it. The White House must measure Indonesian policy and actions and ignore Indonesian rhetoric. In Indonesia, the rhetoric will never align with real policy quite the same way as it does in the Philippines or Japan.

A fourth major formative issue in Indonesia’s relations with the US is the People’s Republic of China.

China has lots of cash, and Indonesia needs Chinese trade and investment. We are asking Indonesia to abandon investment and trade from China at a time when the US national debt does not present a bright promising picture of economic perfection. This is not 1960, when the US was able to present a breathtakingly brilliant comparison to the dismal economies of the USSR or Communist China. Like any government, Indonesia cannot ignore its own business sector when conducting foreign relations. When it comes to economics, ASEAN can help bring Indonesia and the US closer in economic terms. Healthier regional and transpacific trade will help allow Indonesia to more confidently decrease economic ties with China.

Deciphering US-Indonesian relations takes some work, but one important positive fact gives reason for optimism. Indonesian democracy is stronger and more stable today than it was ten years ago, and the practice of democracy seems to be growing more complete each year. The Indonesian people know that their democracy is not perfect, but for the majority of Indonesians, expectations for democracy appear to be growing. In assessing the current state of US-Indonesian relations, there are reasons to be optimistic.

One of the greatest forces driving a closer US-Indonesia relationship is China itself.

Communist China has consistently shown itself to be unable to resist using intimidation and brute force when dealing with its Pacific neighbors. In theory, China believes in the “carrot and stick” method of diplomacy, but it has shown itself to be unskilled with the carrot and impatient to use the stick. Until very recently, Indonesia was carefully hedging its diplomatic strategies with regard to China. Recent news reports from Indonesia indicate a reluctance to see the US take a leading role in regional security. Indonesian actions tell a different story.

Indonesia recently (again) warned the People’s Republic of China that Chinese fishing boats illegally fishing in Indonesian waters would be detained. When Indonesia recently attempted to seize a Chinese fishing boat that was illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, the Chinese Coast Guard intervened and prevented the seizure. Indonesia was publicly outraged by the incursion and has filed a formal complaint against the People’s Republic of China. China will ignore the complaint, but in exchange for proudly saving one illegal fishing vessel, it has seriously damaged relations with Indonesia.

If the Obama administration has been somewhat clumsy in its attempts to expand the US-Indonesian alliance, it can at least count on its one sure bet – China enjoys flaunting its increased military ability in the Pacific. It plays well in the government-controlled media in China, but it undermines China’s own foreign policy goals.

In my estimation, relations and economic ties between Indonesia and the US will improve and, more importantly, Indonesia will focus on improving relations with its own neighbors in the region.

Next week we will consider US-Australian relations and the part that Australia plays in regional security in the Pacific.

US-Malaysia Alliance — Stronger Under the Surface

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

A key part of the evolving US strategic response to communist China’s nouveau-imperialist agenda in the Pacific is to strengthen its alliance with democratic Malaysia.

 

Malaysian P.M. Razak and US Secy. of State Kerry Image by US State Dept., public domain

Malaysian P.M. Razak and US Secy. of State Kerry
Image by US State Dept., public domain

 

At first glance, the relationship between the two nations can appear painfully complex and riddled with unresolvable contradictions.

Human rights issues and human trafficking in Malaysia remain the two major sticking points for the US congress in its outlook on Malaysia. On the other side, Malaysia is concerned about the successive US administrations’ bungling in Iraq. In reality, both governments have consistently maintained a clear understanding of each other’s motives, values, and actions.

Since the independence of Malaysia from the United Kingdom in 1957, a majority of Malaysians have considered the US to be Malaysia’s most important and reliable ally.

Overall, the US and Malaysian governments have done a good job in building a strong relationship between the two nations. The two countries don’t always agree on major policy issues, but neither has allowed those differences to prevent friendly cooperation.

The average Malaysian adult probably understands more about the US than the average US citizen understands about Malaysia. For Westerners to understand US-Malaysian relations, it is worth first considering how Malaysians view their own sense of political and cultural identity.

Religion is a big factor in Malaysian culture.

Malaysia is a majority Sunni Muslim nation, and Sunni Islam is the official national religion. However, its constitution guarantees freedom of religion. According to Malaysia’s last national census, 61% of Malaysians identify as practicing Sunni Islam. The rest of Malaysians are 19.8 % Buddhists, 9.2 % Christians, 6.3 % Hindus, 1.3% percent practitioners of traditional Chinese religions, and 0.5% Jews. Understanding Malaysian Muslim’s sense of religion is critical to understanding Malaysian foreign relations.

The Malaysian interpretation of Sunni doctrine is quite different from the Saudi Arabian or Pakistani interpretations.

The fact that Malaysians included freedom of religion in their constitution clearly sets them apart from most Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, where practice of all religions except Islam is outlawed. Radical Sunni jihadis can be found in Malaysia, but they are a small minority, and they receive far less sympathy in Malaysia than they do in other Islamic nations. However, individual Malaysians choose to define their own personal sense of their Sunni practice, and the net effect is clear. Overall, Malaysians are far better equipped to deal with the non-Muslim segments of their own society and with the larger world beyond Malaysia than are other Islamic nations.

A second major factor in Malaysian culture is its internal diversity.

Malaysia was formed from several different and distinct kingdoms, each with its own unique history and culture. Malaysians have always accepted that their fellow countrymen are not all the same in cultural terms. This seems to have left Malaysians with a fairly cosmopolitan outlook. For a Malaysian, being different is not synonymous with being “bad” or “wrong.” Malaysia’s ability to accept other religions and cultures has had a major influence on its foreign policy.

When the US is in conflict with other Sunni Muslim nations such as Iraq, the Malaysian government feels a need to publicly appear to be uncooperative with the US. In the case of Iraq, Malaysia has publicly disagreed with US foreign policy while quietly maintaining very close relations with the US.

Malaysian Prime Minister Naijib Razak has made it clear that a critical aspect of Malaysia’s response to communist China’s aggression in the South China Seas is to further strengthen Malaysian-US relations.

Razak is now facing new and substantial allegations of financial corruption, but thus far, they have not distracted him from his goal of further strengthening the US-Malaysian ties. On the US side, the US congress remains unhappy with human trafficking and human rights issues in Malaysia, but the White House has chosen to ignore those issues in order to further strengthen the US relationship with Malaysia.

While communist Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is a major factor in US-Malaysian relations, it is not a new factor in the relationship. Malaysia has always been leery of communist China. When other issues such as trade imbalances or the US war in Iraq have caused friction between Malaysia and the US, the “China factor” has been an overriding influence that keeps the two countries close.

A second major factor for Malaysia’s consistency in seeking close relations with the US is Indonesia.

Malaysia’s much larger Indonesian neighbors have consistently resisted close relations with Malaysia. Indonesia serves as a second near-guarantee that Malaysia will remain close to the US, but from the US point of view, it complicates efforts at building a strong regional cooperative response to China’s current imperialist agenda.

In practical terms, the strengthening alliance between the US and Malaysia will manifest itself in increased joint training and an increase in Malaysian military spending. Malaysia’s concern over the US war in Iraq will not derail US-Malaysia relations. The current US administration and the two major candidates for the next presidency will not allow human rights issues in Malaysia to define US-Malaysian relations. The US-Malaysian relationship will continue to appear fragile and complex, while in reality, it will remain strong. Communist Chinese dictator Xi Ping will continue to use intimidation as his primitive and blunt diplomatic tool of choice. Unfortunately for China, Malaysia is listening and taking him seriously.

In our next installment, we will consider the US-Indonesian relationship.