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This week around Asia

The China syndrome

Starting this week Associate Editor Ravi Velloor begins a weekly blog offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. Exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition, his blog will be uploaded on Saturday mornings.

Perhaps opposites do attract, after all. No two leaders could be more of a contrast than the serious, soft-spoken Chinese President Xi Jinping and his loud and impatient American counterpart, the margarine-haired Donald Trump.

It will take a few weeks to distil the long-term results of their first summit, but for now, their first summit does not appear to have gone too badly.

While receiving Mr Xi courteously enough for their all-important summit, the larger than life New York real estate tycoon occupied the centre of the massive doorway of the Mar-a-Lago resort in classic Trump fashion, pushing Mr Xi, and particularly his wife Peng Liyuan, to the sidelines.

While Mr Trump and wife Melania seemed stiff at the formal picture-taking, Mr Trump told Mr Xi over dinner that “he had developed a friendship” with him and went on to joke that “so far I have got nothing” from the talks.

In an earlier era, a Communist leader had upstaged an American leader by bringing his stunning wife along, upstaging the leader of the free world. But this was no Raisa Gorbachev - Nancy Reagan moment. It will take a lot to upstage this FLOTUS, the reason perhaps why Mr Trump praised Ms Peng so lavishly.

A National Security Council official had earlier said that Mr Trump would send a clear message to Mr Xi on North Korea, and so he did - after bidding his visitors good night, he went off to watch television reports of the rain of Tomahawk missiles he had ordered on a Syrian airfield from which Damascus had conducted its chemical gas attacks on its rebel population.

In other words, Mr Trump was telling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his Chinese Godfather that unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who overlooked Syria’s crossing of the red lines he had laid down, this President was different.

He was going to bomb the Russia-backed  Bashar al-Assad regime without so much as talking about a line. Still, Mr Trump seems to have had the sense to warn the Russians in advance, essentially telling them to stay out of the way.

Watching the early footage of the US-China summit, it struck me that whoever was advising the Chinese leader as he prepared for the all-important summit in Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, his ‘winter White House’ in sunny Florida, possibly omitted to mention that blue was not the ideal colour of tie to wear for the event.

 

Mr Trump should see red when he sees that colour, which is the chosen hue of his Democrat opponents. If he did notice, he was enough of a good host to ignore it.

So far, the China-US summit has been spared another of those famous Twitter rants that would have embarrassed the Chinese leader and cost him face at home in a critical year. 

 

While Mr Xi was making nice in Florida, a host of Asian states that are wary of his fearful embrace were doing their bit to, as the Bedouin saying goes, tying up their camels even while trusting in God.

Who does not remember that promise Mr Xi made to Mr Obama in 2015 that China did not intend to militarise the South China Sea. For whatever reason - and the suspicion is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) told him he should never have made such a commitment - Mr Xi could not keep his word.

So now, much of Asia is rushing to shore up their defence lines in whatever way they can. 

Witness:

  • Taiwan said it was going to build eight submarines, taking its fleet to 12. 
  • The Indians are hastily buying US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) of advanced medium range SAM missiles from Israel as they confront a China fuming at New Delhi’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh, claimed by Beijing in its entirety. 
  • The Thais, meanwhile, are buying more battle tanks from guess who, the Chinese!
  • Meanwhile, Kuala Lumpur and India are talking a deal that would see New Delhi buying Malaysia’s aging MiG-29 fighters in exchange for vital spare parts and maintenance for its frontline Sukhois. Those negotiations were announced by no less than Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, during a trip to India last week. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprising given all the talk of early elections in Malaysia, the Najib visit began in the southern Indian city of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state. It included a call by the Malaysian leader on Rajnikanth, Tamil cinema’s most popular action hero, at the actor’s home. Indians, predominantly of Tamil stock, constitute about 8 per cent of Malaysia and with the ruling Umno having lost the popular vote in the 2013 election,  Datuk Seri Najib is clearly scraping the bottom of the vote barrel. 
  • The South Koreans, meanwhile, are saying they will take China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after Beijing leaned on Korean imports to the mainland. China is upset about Seoul allowing the United States to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system on its territory and has asked the Lotte Group, whose land was surrendered to host Thaad, to close two dozen retail outlets in China. It is an interesting twist because China, ironically, had become masters of using the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. Indeed, for many analysts (and governments) it has always been a matter of some regret that China, while playing by global rules at WTO, had steadfastly decided to ignore international arbitration on the South China Sea.

Still, for me this week’s icing on the Asian cake was the one laid on by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

 

After making eyes at Beijing (not that Beijing was ever seduced) for the first six months of his tenure, even using coarse language at the American president as part of the endeavour, he is now threatening to put up Filipino flags on the second largest of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

His violent campaign against the drug menace is raising concern in the influential Catholic church of the island, his approval ratings are dipping and he had to fire a key Cabinet associate over suspicion of shielding some drug padrones.

Not a bad time to wrap yourself in the flag. 

Until next week, then...