Best columns: International
Philippines: Dumping the U.S. for China?
President Rodrigo Duterte just dropped a bomb on the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S., said Jocelyn Montemayor in Malaya Business Insight. “I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told Chinese leaders while on a state visit to Beijing last week. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” The announcement came after weeks of rants by Duterte against the U.S., during which he called President Obama a “son of a bitch,” canceled planned joint military exercises, and threatened to pull the Philippines out of a key defense treaty. Other Filipino officials claimed that Duterte didn’t really mean what he said in Beijing, but his words seemed to signal the complete reorientation of Philippine foreign policy. “I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there,” Duterte said. “So time to say goodbye, my friend.”
This was an overdue declaration of independence from the U.S., our former colonial master, said Ramon Farolan in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. By telling “Uncle Sam to go to hell,” Duterte has given the whole region a few “lessons in national dignity and pride.” For too long, Southeast Asian nations have been pawns of “Yankee imperialism,” obeying Washington’s every decree and letting American troops operate on our soil and violate our sovereignty. Of course, the more craven among our foreign policy elite are hyperventilating. Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario even called it a “national tragedy.”
That’s because replacing the U.S. with China as our primary ally would be a catastrophe, said Narciso Reyes Jr., also in the Inquirer. By failing to bring up China’s land grabs in the South China Sea during his visit, Duterte has all but granted Beijing the rights to the vast natural gas fields beneath our section of the seabed. If the president now turns the Philippines into “a vassal of China, meekly singing its tune,” we could see “an exodus of U.S. firms from our shores.” And we could “kiss goodbye our preferential trade benefits” worth tens of billions of dollars. Most of the countries in the region would no longer be our close allies. This realignment has “immense socioeconomic import and potentially dangerous geopolitical repercussions.”
Calm down: The president knows exactly what he’s doing, said Ricardo Saludo in The Manila Times. Duterte’s “seemingly unscripted yet surely deliberate” outbursts are already getting results. When was the last time that “the three most powerful nations in the world”—the U.S., China, and Russia—were “all trying to be nice to the Philippines?” Beijing just handed us $24 billion in aid and business, and you can bet Russian and American offers will follow. No, Duterte didn’t discuss the South China Sea, but by loudly announcing a break with the U.S. he made it “highly unlikely that China would grab islands from the Philippines under his watch.” The Philippines has a new swagger. No more “fawning and provocative stooging to America.”
Bogged down in the Syrian quagmire
Russia has trapped itself in Syria, said Leonid Isaev. It is now “obvious to everyone why we are there,” and it’s not to fight ISIS—despite what the Foreign Ministry keeps saying. Russia intervened on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to ensure continued access to our only military base on the Mediterranean, the Syrian port of Tartus. But that was only part of the reason for our intervention. There was another key foreign policy goal: “to establish dialogue with the West” and show ourselves to be an indispensable partner in world affairs. Unfortunately, to achieve that, we need a political settlement in Syria. And that’s not possible, because Assad’s main goal is to utterly annihilate the Syrian opposition through military means, which is why he keeps sabotaging the peace process. Moscow has been unable to force Damascus to cooperate. In fact, “in the eyes of the West, Russia appears increasingly to be a puppet in the hands of the Syrian regime.” To keep our influence in Syria, we must prop up Assad. Yet when Assad refuses to negotiate, we show we have no influence over him. “We have once again found ourselves pulled into an alien conflict” with no clear goal and no way out.
Can we elect a Christian?
The Jakarta Post
Will Indonesia’s Muslim majority ever accept true diversity? asked Lailatul Fitriyah. Extremists among us are working hard to make sure that never happens. They are calling for the execution of Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese ethnicity, for supposed blasphemy. Ahok was not elected governor: He was Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s deputy governor and inherited the post when Jokowi was elected president in 2014. Now Ahok is running for governor in his own right, and some hard-line Muslims are invoking a twisted interpretation of the Quranic verse that says “Do not take the Jews and Christians as allies” to argue that true Muslims must not vote for him. Ahok said that interpretation was deceptive and told a crowd, “You are being fooled.” Off with his head, the hardliners replied. This is preposterous. Most Indonesians don’t support such a literal reading of that Quranic verse. But apparently “some of us Indonesian Muslims still are unable to place ourselves in an equal position with other, non-Muslim, non-Javanese Indonesians.” Ahok’s Chinese and Christian identity is seen as a negative. Why? Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, some 200 million people, but it is “not an Islamic state.” We mustn’t impose a religious test on our citizens—or our leaders.