Pivot in a multipolar world



LIKE art, diplomacy is susceptible to juxtaposition or even surrealism.

The first big event of 2017 that caught my attention was the front-page photograph of President Rodrigo Duterte in the January 7 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The President was pictured flashing his signature clenched-fist sign with Russian Navy officers and members of his Cabinet aboard a visiting Russian warship from Russia’s Pacific Fleet. I found the picture “surreal,” to borrow the Word of the Year 2016 of Merriam-Webster. I consider it the most interesting political picture since the withdrawal of US troops from the Philippines in 1992. President Duterte was even quoted as saying, “Long live Russia, be our ally and protector.”

I was astounded by the fact that in April 1999 I toured and had myself photographed in a more or less similar warship of the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok, the easternmost seaport of Russia. I had attended the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) track 2 conference, “Towards Comprehensive Security and Cooperation in the Asia Pacific” on April 26-27, 1999 at Hotel Hyundai in Vladivostok. Our gracious Russian hosts took the participants for a tour of the sprawling shipyard, including the warship.

I am personally stirred by the “surrealistic” convergence of past and recent developments in diplomacy and geopolitics. Consider the following:

1. In September 1997, Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, hosted a lunch for foreign ministers of key Asean member states at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. I was with the late Foreign Secretary Domingo L. Siazon, Jr. at that lunch. Waldorf Astoria was where the late Carlos P. Romulo used to stay while attending the annual UN sessions during his 15-year tenure as Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In early 2015, China’s Anbang Insurance Group bought the iconic Waldorf Astoria for $1.95 billion. The hotel will be closed in the spring of 2017 and converted into condos.

2. In July 1998, the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs (Aspac) in the Department of Foreign Affairs of which I was then the Assistant Secretary, handled the arrangements for the gala night of the ARF Foreign Ministers Meeting at the Manila Hotel. Each country delegation had to make a presentation showcasing its culture, talent or even political inclination with a dose of humor thrown in for good measure. To the surprise and delight of everybody, the US and Russian delegations made a joint presentation of a balcony scene with Secretary Albright being serenaded by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. He lip-synched the hit song “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” with politically rehashed lyrics. This brought the house down.

Primakov was appointed Prime Minister by President Boris Yeltsin in September 1998 but he was fired by the latter in May 1999 because he was perceived to be close to the Communist Party. Some 81 percent of the Russian population disapproved of his dismissal. Before becoming foreign minister, Primakov was an academic, Speaker of the Supreme Soviet and chief of the renamed KGB after the August 1991 putsch. Primakov coined the term “multipolarity” some 25 years ago since he could not countenance a world dominated by a “single superpower” (the US). He espoused the idea of a multipolar world to the extent of advocating a Russia, China, India axis, a concept that paved the way for BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Primakov died in June 2015 at the age of 85 but the Primakov Institute, a Russian government-funded think-tank, was formed before his death. The institute prefers to call Primakov’s multipolar world a “polycentrix world”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was known to have used the term “multipolar world” when speaking of the need to curb US dominance. Putin, who has been ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s most powerful man for 4 years in a row, said during his first inauguration as president in May 2000 that he wanted “Russia to be a strong and civilized country, a country that its citizens are proud of and that is respected internationally.” In his second term inaugural, Putin declared that he wanted “to strengthen Russia’s place in the world.” Under his leadership, Russia, through its intervention in Georgia and Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, has proven that it is still the power to be reckoned with in its sphere of influence. Russia’s current involvement in Syria is a manifestation of its major power credential.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” has striking similarity to Putin’s goal since it aims for the “great renewal of the Chinese nation, modernizing while revering classical traditions, and realizing a prosperous and strong country.” However, the Chinese dream emphasizes the centrality of the state in achieving its goal. At the United Nations in Geneva on January 18, 2017, Pres. Xi called for the rejection of dominance by just one or more countries and batted for a multilateral system based on equality of nations big or small.

In essence, Russia’s and China’s vision boils down to “multipolarity” that rejects America’s exceptional place as the lone superpower in the world. Arrayed against this vision is new US President Donald Trump’s enigmatic “America First” and “Make America Great Again” slogans. Trump said at one point that NATO is “obsolete” but has also issued contradictory and ambivalent statements. As a candidate then, he served notice to Japan and South Korea that they have to spend more for their defense. Will Trump dilute or discard Obama’s pivot to Asia-Pacific? Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent an alarming signal by stating that the US would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters within the South China Sea. It remains to be seen how Trump’s foreign policy will shape up.

1. Time magazine has claimed that Russia and China are close allies. That seems to be the case. In May 2014, the two countries conducted joint military drills in the East China Sea with President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin attending the opening ceremony. This was seen as conveying a message against America’s joint exercises then with Japan and South Korea. In a move to create a “sensational impression,” China and Russia in September 2016 conducted an eight-day joint drills that were “deeper and more extensive” involving ships, submarines, helicopters and armored equipment of their navies. The war games were carried out off the coast of Zhanjiang City in Guangdong province.

The Philippines and the US have been holding naval exercises annually. Russia has offered to hold maritime exercises with the Philippines to help the latter combat terrorism and piracy. Russia has also offered to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons, including aircraft and submarine. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that a defense cooperation agreement with Russia drafted in 2014 might be signed during President Duterte’s visit to Moscow in April 2017. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador in Manila said his country is ready to give the Philippines $14 million in small arms and fast boats to help the latter in its war on drugs and fight terrorism.

2. After giving President Duterte the “royal treatment” during his state visit to Beijing in October 2016, China offered the Philippines $9 billion in soft loans to fund drug rehabilitation programs and other development projects. It also offered $500 million in long-term loans. While dangling these offers, China is becoming more assertive in showing to all and sundry its “sovereignty over the South China Sea.” A US think tank reported towards the end of 2016 that China has installed antiaircraft and antimissile weapons in all seven islands it had built in disputed waters, thus militarizing the maritime area. Recently, a group of Chinese warships led by China’s lone aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted exercises in the South China Sea to flex Beijing’s military muscle. In his New Year address, President Xi Jinping said his country will never allow anyone to “make a great fuss” about its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights.

Given the foregoing developments, anyone is tempted to ask questions.

Can there be a durable entente cordiale (friendly alliance) between the Philippines and China despite Beijing’s vehement dismissal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling favoring the Philippines and China’s bellicose actions in the South China Sea?

Russia and the Philippines have made overtures for close friendly relations between them. Russia is renowned for excellence in ballet. We have seen the Bolshoi and Kirov in their respective theaters and we were impressed. But can the two countries’ desire for closer relations translate into a scintillating pas de deux (dance duet)?

Considering its diplomatic shift or pivot to China and Russia, can the Philippines avoid being caught in the vortex of the struggle for supremacy in a multipolar world?

I am curious.


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