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It's the region

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 23 May 2017


Trump has turned himself into a lame dog President; for the time being the US is of no use to Australia or anyone else. The internal battles to unseat the usurper will occupy Washington for the next two years and the US economy will continue to lag.

In the meantime China will push to enhance what it regards as its natural sphere of influence, the South China Sea. But its ambitions extend further, it wants to dominate world trade and it wants greater influence over international affairs. It is playing its cards carefully, but playing them nonetheless, particularly in Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In view of China's restless ambition, and American distraction, ASEAN ought to be taken more seriously by Australia.

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President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has sought to play off China and the US. He has partly succeeded. He has held the US but not entirely China which pushed back. Nonetheless they have promised aid for infrastructure, soft loans and fishing concessions. Chinese investment in the Philippines is burgeoning, particularly in the property sector. US investment is stagnant.

Duterte hosted and chaired the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, 26/29 April, the theme of which was a rules based, people oriented and centred ASEAN. In the chairman's statement ASEAN leaders reaffirmed commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes and "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes", including respect for international laws. However, apparently after pressure from China the chairman dropped the affirmation of respect from the section on the South China Sea.

Existing guidelines for hotline communication were endorsed while a 'Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea' will soon become operational.

The activities of Islamic extremists remain a problem within ASEAN, in particular, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Weeks before ASEAN Ministers were due to meet in Panglao on the island of Bohol, Abu Sayyaf militants carried out an attack against local police. To safe guard ministers, delegates and officials, the Philippines deployed 26,000 police and soldiers.

It is this security issue, together with issues associated with poverty that should be exercising the minds of Australian policy makers. Several months ago the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, claimed that returning IS fighters from the Middle East, perhaps up to six hundred, would seek to strengthen the militant Islamic presence in the southern Philippines and as part of the process establish a "caliphate". The leader of the Philippine terror group, Abu Sayyaf, has recently declared himself an Emir.

These militants will not enter the Philippines through airports. They will travel to the southern Philippine Island of Mindanao by boat from Malaysia and/or Indonesia. Recently the spokesperson for Indonesia's Directorate of Immigration, Agung Sampurno, said that check points at Miangas and Marore Island were unable to effectively screen sea borne movements between Sulawesi and Mindanao.

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Bishop is right to be concerned and Australia's intelligence agencies have been working with their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to address the threat, however more is required. Border protection is more than bullying and terrorising asylum seekers. The best way for Australia to protect its border is through regional co-operation and that should be done through joint naval patrols. Australia has participated in such arrangements in the Gulf.

At the present time Australia deploys vessels in the region for a variety of tasks including naval exercises and showing the flag.

Some express squeamishness at the prospect of co-operation with Duterte in light of his poor human rights record. Any such relationship might not last long. He is said to have pancreatic cancer and in light of that to be grooming his daughter to succeed him. She is currently mayor of Davao City, Duturte's old powerbase.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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