HONG KONG – Bully and coward are the same person. Donald Trump, in office for only a brief time, is already proving that one point that ought to make even Trump voters uncomfortable. Their leading man mimics an upstart Asian leader, the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed his office last summer.
Trump shares Duterte’s loud mouth, delight in insults and post-truth utterances. And Duterte, just like Trump now, presented himself as the quintessential hard driving, no-nonsense tough guy, wielding power in the interests of the downtrodden and disadvantaged — in his case not against “Washington,” but against Manila elites, criminals and corruption. He regularly intones that he would defend the integrity of the nation against external and internal threats.
In another amazing parallel between the United States and the Philippines, the main external threat of the Philippines is quite clearly China.
After all, China had seized the Scarborough shoal, rich fishing grounds off the Philippines coast. Worse, it has been militarizing its claims over almost the whole of the South China Sea.
Given what a tough guy Duterte makes himself out to be, the expectation was that, once elected, he would surely take advantage of the July 2016 Court of Arbitration ruling in the Philippines favor and redouble its efforts to face the Chinese Goliath. Instead, he flipped in the opposite direction. He turned on the U.S. ally and pronounced that there is no point in confronting China. The Philippines cannot possibly win against such a giant, Duterte argued.
What is politically far more important for Duterte is that the U.S. makes a far better foreign target by which to express the president’s claims to nationalism.
Meanwhile, Duterte is clear that the real enemy is within — drug users and vendors. Duterte’s so-called war on them has so far claimed 6,000, and counting, lives of his own people. Many innocents have died — but none on the side of the so-called forces of law and order, official or unofficial killers.
And, of course, while thousands of civilians die in Duterte’s one-sided local war, not one soldier or sailor has been put in harm’s way to stand up to China.
Instead, the loud-mouthed president has been eagerly stretching out his hand to receive the proper payoff for his being nice to China. Ever the wheeler-dealer, purely transactional, without principle, Duterte is aggressively looking for cash for projects. Upon arrival from China, these funds will doubtless benefit many of his own officials long before they serve the public.
Contrast this Filipino connivance with (still communist) Vietnam’s principled willingness to fight, i.e., make China pay a cost for its sea-borne aggression.
While that is an unspoken matter of shame for Duterte, the pattern under his tutelage remains the same — only that his country now seeks to please China, no longer the U.S.
Likewise, Trump arrived in office waving his nationalist club. Yes, the trade deficit is a problem and clearly by far the biggest part of that problem is China — at least judging by the raw merchandise trade data China is also the one country least given to reciprocity of investment and service sector access.
Internationally, it was rather obvious that any future reduction in U.S. global influence, to the extent it isn’t home-made, does not come primarily from Russia, let alone the European Union, Iran, India or Mexico.
The new power challenging the U.S. is China, and nowhere more so than in East Asia. In “Making America Great Again,” China should be first on the list of international concerns for Trump. And yet, no sooner than Trump arrived in office did he start beating up on America’s friends, not China. First in line: Canada and Mexico. NAFTA, in many ways an exemplary trade deal, must be re-negotiated. And meanwhile, let’s insult the Mexicans with a wall. The U.S. under Trump stands out by building its version of the Soviets’ Berlin wall, and Israel’s West Bank wall. Trump, the chump, gives priority to taking on a smaller neighbor, Mexico.
Next on the list of friends to be rightfully frightened are the Europeans. The specter of an arbitrary new tariff wall threatens to undo 60 years of U.S.-led progress toward the freer trade which has helped unite Europe as well as been a driver of American global influence.
Just to add insult to threats to Europe, Trump for good measure casts doubts on NATO. Only the Brits, with Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson desperate for some way out of their Brexit cul de sac, are likely to be taken in by Trump’s unilateralist trade notions.
For the U.S.’ partners in the Asia-Pacific, Trump’s ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was another insult. The project had many flaws and may have stalled anyway, but its brutal killing sent a message of contempt to such diverse actors as Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia.
The Chinese have scarcely been able to contain their glee. U.S. friends around the region note that China will fill any vacuum Washington leaves.
Meanwhile, any faith in America as a reliable ally is undermined. Among the democratic leaders of the region, one even hears the words: Maybe Duterte was right.
That’s not to suggest that Trump will not soon fire some heavy guns at China. He has upset Beijing enough already with his phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the warlike threat from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to block Chinese access to their islands in the South China sea. That is probably hot air. What matters more in the short term at least is what Trump does on trade regarding China. The Chinese are pragmatic enough to know some U.S. complaints are reasonable.
And they know, given their own stuttering economy, that a major trade war with the U.S., its best customer yet, would do heavy damage to China.
But in a way, Trump has already missed the moment. Any tough-minded trade policy aimed at China alone might have borne fruit — without doing damage elsewhere.
However, having already annoyed most of the rest of Asia (as well as Europe) with general protectionist threats, the TPP exit, and the Japanese in particular (with his focus on the auto industry), Trump’s ability to single out the Chinese for harsh treatment is limited.
Japan may hope it can do a deal to limit damage to itself, but it, like the other players in East Asia, notably South Korea and Taiwan, are so locked into cross-border manufacturing systems that a cascade of trade contractions hurting friends and foes alike is an alarming possibility.
No increase in U.S. global power can be achieved without friends. That includes the access that the U.S. military has at key points, including Singapore and Subic Bay in the Philippines. Plans for a much bigger navy, for example, make no sense in the absence of alliances fortified by commerce as well as hardware.
Those familiar with Trump the businessman may not be surprised by any of this. In Scotland, he cared not about offending millions of Scots with his methods to get his way when building a golf resort.
Currently, his group is cooperating with a similarly ruthless Indonesian Chinese developer to build a Trump Tower hotel to overlook a sacred pilgrimage site in Bali.
Bullying may work in some business ventures, but the self-styled master of the deal cannot comprehend that international politics is more akin to Go than to Liar Dice.
Thus far, Trump internationally has angered many and pleased only the following: China, Duterte, Russia President Vladimir Putin, the Israeli expansionists, the European extreme left and racist right, the Iranian hardliners and Kim Jong Un.
Well done, America.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist. He formerly served as the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a columnist for the International Herald Tribune. © 2017, The Globalist