Malaysiakini Letter

We are better than the Philippines - what say you?

Saleh Mohammed
Published:  |  Modified:

Earlier in the year I wrote about ‘Apa Lagi USA Mahu’ (What More Does USA Want). Today, I am a fan of Donald Trump but I love Rodrigo Duterte more.

There was this ‘US-Special Leaders’ Summit’ at Sunnylands, California. It was to commemorate the strategic partnership between the USA and Asean. The Sunnylands Declaration (repackaging of the commitments made at the KL Summit in November 2015) unveiled a series of hubs in Asean. The 14-page document for some obvious reasons had three of the seventeen paragraphs dealing with maritime security.

In July 2016, the UN Arbitral Tribunal decided for the Philippines on disputes over South China Sea.

In August, Duterte warned China that if they can’t “understand each other”, the Philippine military has no choice but to defend the country’s sovereign rights. However, neighbours strongly support the settlement of disputes by peaceful means. They are trapped into a dilemma - loss of economic support from China and on the other end, loss of security support from the USA.

A research study reported that about 70 countries endorsed China’s position on the South China Sea. As usual, the figure caused uneasiness in USA and was doubted by the American media and think-tanks.

Later, the Philippines said it will utilise the favourable ruling of its international arbitration case to peacefully resolve the country’s territorial disputes. Duterte decided to visit China and said the arbitration case will “take a back seat” during talks with Beijing and “as a matter of courtesy, and the oriental way, we will always wait because I am a visitor. I cannot destroy the goodwill just by blurting out something.”

In October, Duterte made a four-day trip to China. It was a very successful one with him taking home US$24 billion in investment pledges from Beijing. The two countries had also agreed to seek “settlement through bilateral dialogue”.

Meantime, Duterte admonished USA for criticising him over his bloody war against drugs and said Barack Obama could “go to hell”. That reminds me of another Asian leader who many years ago said ‘Buy British Last’. Sometimes, we need to remind Hollywood and the West that others can be a hero, too.

Duterte’s timing of the visit was appropriate because he is visiting the two Asian Argonauts and could have Japan, to a certain extent, to balance the equation in maritime disputes

Now, what is happening at home?

Our prime minister will be in Beijing this whole week from Monday. Like Duterte, he is also looking to secure investments that can boost our economy. However, critics are worried about the longer term implications of our growing reliance on Chinese funding.

‘Borne of necessity rather than choice’

According to Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, the moves towards China were borne of necessity rather than choice. Further, Chinese investors would do little to generate jobs or transfer technology to our economy.

A senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore said, “If this trend continues, it will deepen Malaysia’s economic dependency on China, which will also exert high political costs on Malaysia and ultimately undermine its strategic autonomy”. Let us not forget, China has its own economic stresses.

After the 2017 Budget speech, Moody’s noted there were no major new reforms to address the country’s underlying fiscal weakness. There will be declining revenues, weakening in debt affordability and an absence of major fiscal reforms.

The painting being done for a goal of balanced budget by 2020 may not be completed.

The question now is, can Malaysia match the Philippines in getting US24 billion in investment pledges from Beijing from the seven-day visit. Duterte did it in four days. He went to Beijing in a position of strength but can we say that for our team going there? Remember what Wan Saiful Wan Jan said.

As for the USA, we have not seen our official stand like what Manila had. Looking at the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnershipship Agreement (TPPA) and the prime minister’s dismissal of the US Department of Justice lawsuit as foreign interference in Malaysia’s affairs and questioned why the United States publicised the issue, one can form an opinion in this area. The USA’s loss could be China’s gain. Our prime minister, too, may have a new golf buddy...

Why I love Duterte more is because he managed to reduce regional tensions and naming Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia as among the countries who have claims over parts of the South China Sea. He does not forget his neigbours. He is considerate, a gentleman and above all, a courageous leader, even though his country is not a high-income nation.

Are we better than the Philippines? What say you...

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