Obama and Asia's crockpot

my Trade Tripper column for this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

With the country expectant at US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines, political commentators are looking for clues as to how the US truly sees the Philippine. Oft times, the analysis verges on two extreme ends: either indicating full support (to the point of going to war) or a more “pragmatic” view decided substantially by US’ commercial interests.

One book doing the rounds is Asia’s Cauldronby “ultra-realist” Robert Kaplan. To say that Mr. Kaplan is somewhat unimpressed by the Philippines would be a gross understatement. The Philippines, so says Mr. Kaplan, is “less a country than a ramshackle empire ruled from Luzon.” And it kind of goes downhill from there.

“‘This is still a bad Latin American economy, not an Asian one,’ a Manila-based Western economist told me. ‘It’s true that the Philippines was not much affected by the global recession of 2008, but that’s only because it was never integrated into the global economy in the first place. What you have,’ he went on, ‘is admittedly steady economic growth, lately over 6% per year, undermined by population growth of 1.7%, unlike other Pacific Rim economies that have churned ahead by almost a third higher that amount for decades, and without commensurate increases in population.’ Crucially, a ‘staggering’ 76.5% of that GDP growth in recent years went to the 40 richest Filipino families. It’s the old story, the Manila elite is getting rich at the expense of everyone else.”

Of course, the usual reaction among Filipinos is to go into a blind rage at the impertinence of this foreigner. But I myself can hardly argue with Mr. Kaplan’s assessment that in our culture, “prominent are the luxury, gated communities, inside which the wealthy can escape the dysfunctional environment through life-support systems.” In short, where our so-called “elite” can pretend that they’re Caucasians living a Spanish, American, or Mediterranean life.

The Financial Times (through book reviewer David Pilling, April 4) seems to back up Mr. Kaplan’s claims, particularly on the Philippines: “The chapter on Vietnam is strong because it draws out the historic antagonisms that underpin present frictions. Another, on the Philippines, highlights the near impossibility of a poor archipelago with a decrepit defence force -- Kaplan comes close to calling it a failed state -- being able to resist the rising power of China. The author deals in raw power, dismissing the Philippines’ appeal to international law in pursuit of its territorial claims as ‘the ultimate demonstration of weakness’.”

It is particularly here, however, on national security that I doubt the correctness of Mr. Kaplan’s views. Not that I argue against his view that our legal suit against China is indeed a sign of “weakness” but that our ally in this area -- the US -- is moving on pure amoral calculations.

As pointed out by David Feith (in his book review in the Wall Street Journal, March 25): “Less compelling is Mr. Kaplan’s confused argument about whether there is any moral dimension to China’s bid for dominance. ‘The South China Sea shows us a 21st century world void of moral struggles,’ he argues. ‘It is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so.’ In contrast to World War II and the Cold War, ‘there is no philosophical enemy to confront.’ Yet he acknowledges that ‘Chinese dominance in Asia would be very different from American dominance,’ partly because China’s ‘authoritarian system’ is ‘less benign than the American model of government.’ No kidding.”

The fact is, the ongoing struggle (of which the Philippines is part of) right now with China is indeed moral in character. In simpler terms, it is about respect for humanity vis-à-vis love for money or power (commercial or otherwise). On a grander scale, Mr. Feith points out: “Domestically the Chinese government disdains the rule of law, denies property rights and crushes political dissent. Overseas it operates as if only might makes right, and today it is forcing confrontations across nearly all of its borders -- not just around the South China Sea but with Japan to the northeast and India to the southwest. Though Mr. Kaplan doesn’t say so, such behavior derives not from natural Chinese nationalism but from the worldview -- or moral character -- of this Chinese regime.”

What complicates the issue is Mr. Obama’s somewhat confused foreign policy and misguided cutting of its defense budget by 7.8% (which is to be contrasted to China’s increase in defense spending by 7.4%).

In the end, however, Mr. Kaplan exaggerates by labeling this area as a “cauldron.” It’s actually a crockpot: slow burning and with truly significant developments unnoticeable to Western eyes.

And I agree with The Economist’s call (“Troubled waters”, March 15): Mr. Kaplan is “too optimistic about China and enlightened authoritarianism, and China will not for a long time, if ever, replace America as the safeguarder of the global commons. Pax Sinica is still far beyond the horizon.”