Singapore and Manila illustrate best and worst responses to a superpower

The most startling news out of Southeast Asia in recent days, and by far the most important in terms of regional impact, came from Singapore.

By Roger Mitton   |   Thursday, 06 October 2016

But many people missed it because they were distracted by more outlandish comments from President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who hogged the headlines by saying he wanted to copy Adolf Hitler.

Referring to the way Germany’s wartime leader had exterminated 6 million Jews, Duterte said he’d like to enforce the same policy against his country’s alleged 3 million drug dealers.

Initially, he refused to recant this vile and ignorant statement, but then he gave way and said, “I apologise profoundly and deeply to the Jewish community.” He could hardly do otherwise.

Still, it was a shocking episode, although what was more troubling in the long term was his statement about intending to downgrade ties with the United States and boost those with China and Russia.

A bit of strategic balance would be fine and dandy, but Duterte went way over the top and as a result his own people, as well as those across the region, are likely to regret it.

If the Philippines severs its historic ties with its American treaty ally and jumps into the oily and ever-tightening tentacles of Bejing, then it will not easily free itself again – as Cambodia and Laos have discovered.

Whether Duterte understands this is doubtful.

Yes, he has always harboured anti-American sentiments, but to call US President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch”, to tell the Americans “to go to hell”, and to belittle them in talks with Chinese and Russian leaders is not only stupid but dangerous.

At a regional summit in Laos last month, Duterte told Russia’s Premier Dmitry Medvedev about his problems with the US. “They are giving me a hard time,” he said. “They are disrespecting me. They are shameless.”

This was all because Washington had criticised his policy of using vigilantes to murder alleged drug peddlers on the nation’s streets.

Duterte then told Beijing the same thing and naturally the Chinese agreed and said the Philippines would not get much value out of remaining an American ally.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin publicly applauded Duterte’s change of direction and said that China-Philippine ties were now “at a new turning point”.

If Filipinos are not careful it could be a turn over the cliff, especially as Duterte has also said he may scrap the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed last year between Manila and Washington.

How not to deal with a superpower, or, as the wild man of Manila put it himself: “I am about to cross the Rubicon between me and the US.”

It is enough to cause collective hand-wringing across the entire region, but at least all is not lost and one member of ASEAN has just displayed the correct and firm way to deal with another superpower.

Step forward Singapore, which has recently been embroiled in a nasty war of words with Beijing.

However, unlike the cock-eyed nonsense spewing from Manila’s motormouth, the verbal rockets fired back at China from Singapore were entirely justified – and very brave.

The tiff began September 21 when the Global Times, a publication tied to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said Singapore had lobbied for a stronger pro-ASEAN line regarding the South China Sea sovereignty disputes.

The newspaper said this had occurred at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Venezuela last month when Singapore “insisted on shoving in content endorsing the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case”.

It may be recalled that in July, the Philippines won a case against China that it had taken to a United Nations arbitration tribunal in The Hague about its offshore sovereignty rights.

The Global Times said that if Singapore, a non-claimant, continued to interfere in the South China Sea issue, then Sino-Singapore relations would be affected.

Rightly irked, Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, wrote to the newspaper’s editor Hu Xijin saying the article was “replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations”.

Loh continued, “Contrary to the claim fabricated by the Global Times, the Singapore delegation did not raise the South China Sea or the tribunal ruling at the NAM Summit.”

So, using proper language, he effectively said that Beijing’s semi-official mouthpiece had lied.

That could not be allowed to stand and the Global Times editor Hu retorted that Singapore appeared “biased towards the Philippines and Vietnam” and was on the same side as the US and Japan.

Hu wrote, “Singapore should feel ashamed of how it has treated its top trading partner, China. You should encourage your country to reflect on its actions.”

Singapore’s Loh replied by pointing out that the Global Times was not in the meetings and had relied on unnamed second-hand sources, whereas Singapore, as a member of NAM, attended all the summit proceedings.

Singapore’s account could be verified by the public record of the meeting.

Of course, it did not end there, because, as Duterte will soon learn, no matter if it’s a big or small matter, China always demands the last word.

On September 29, a senior Chinese military officer, Major General Jin Yinan, urged Beijing to retaliate and enforce sanctions to make Singapore “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests”.

He also claimed that Singapore had cooperated with Washington on the issue and caused conflict between the US and China.

He was wrong. The one who has been doing that, and doing it in a dumb and foolhardy way, is Duterte, whose murderous actions and anti-American rants are sure to backfire.

It is Duterte’s wild, irrational behaviour that is most likely to create serious regional conflict.