Despite China's growing influence, it's still all the way with the USA for Turnbull

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Post Trump, as Asian-Pacific alliances shift, is it time for Australia to re-evaluate its position in the region? Bruce Haigh reports.

AT WHAT POINT did perceptions of a clear-sighted, can-do America start to change?

Was it with the assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam with Johnson/Nixon, Afghanistan with Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush, Iraq and the GFC with Bush, or with Trump? Whatever the point, it has happened and, in foreign policy terms, America’s role in world affairs is about to be redefined.

I was recently in the Philippines and spoke to a cross section of people, including business people and journalists in local papers, such as the respected Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The general consensus was that the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, would have moved toward China irrespective of who won the American presidency. Duterte was described as a cunning and clever politician who should be judged on his actions, not his words. He has been very rude toward Obama, although quite conciliatory in his remarks about Trump. It was put to me that he believes he has Trump's measure.

All my interlocutors were critical of his death squads. At the street level, people are pleased that neighbourhoods are "safer" but no one believes it will last. The drug barons are untouched, and protected by wealth and position. They will bide their time. Drug pushers and couriers can easily be recruited, with grinding poverty providing a very strong incentive.

That aside, Duterte has made his play clear. He wants an understanding with China that allows trade and economic activities – such as fishing in disputed waters – to take place. His recent visit to China was regarded as a success, and he claimed aid and investment projects were promised, amounting to US$32 billion (AU$44.34 billion).

U.S. officials in the Philippines were reported as playing down any major rift in the relationship, claiming that the U.S. and the Philippines had historic, deep and abiding ties that would overcome any temporary hiccups. The U.S. wants to ramp up its use of the Subic Bay naval facility and Clark air force base as part of its containment of China.

Duterte has turned his back on the recent adverse ruling of an international tribunal at The Hague on China’s claims in the South China Sea. As a result, China has allowed Philippine fisherman to enter the waters around Scarborough Shoal for the first time since 2012. Chinese patrol boats, although present, have not interfered with fishing activities.

The Philippine President has made recent visits to Vietnam and Malaysia and, according to senior journalists, Duterte is seeking to pull ASEAN states together in order to collectively deal with China and the United States. They claimed Duterte would attempt to play the major powers off against one another and that he was looking for other states in the region to do likewise.

Australia is seen as a possible participant in this developing dynamic, although recent "all the way with the USA" statements from Australia’s governing Liberal–National Coalition following the Trump victory were seen as naive.

Australia has the opportunity to become a regional player and participant with ASEAN states, and it should do so. It should seek to play our major trading partner off against our old ally. An ally who has demanded and received a lot more than it has given — from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to the free trade agreements and expensive defence purchases at times of dubious strategic value.

It is right to have reservations about aspects of China, but China is the major player in the region and reality demands that it be dealt with as such. And it has been a major presence in the region for thousands of years. It is from this perspective that it views its growing power and its place in the region. This is a new reality and we need to deal with it. Has the U.S. the maturity to do that? And would Australia really use its yet-to-be-built submarines against its major trading partner? (Or against what might then be its rogue former ally?!) Why wouldn’t China seek to defend its trading partners and its trading routes with them?

Australia is changing, but it is in the grip of reactionary forces intent on hanging onto the past and, as a result, politics is dominated by white, mostly male, conservatives. They are not inclined to be inclusive, innovative or imaginative. They will either go down screaming and kicking, or with a whimper — hopefully, the latter. However, in the meantime, they are denying the country opportunities.

Australian diplomats are capable of rising to the challenge. They should be encouraged to do so.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceHaigh2.

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