By Rahman Tahir
The United States must be very worried over the latest turn of events in Southeast Asia, especially the shocking news that the Philippines has dumped it in favour of its rival China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced recently that he was realigning with China and that the two nations had agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks and that he was saying goodbye to the US.
Duterte, who was in Beijing on a visit, said: “In this venue, your honours, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.”
He said this to Chinese and Philippine businessmen at a forum in the Great Hall of the People, in the presence of Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.
Duterte said: “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also, America has lost.
“I have realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe, I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
However, after returning from China, Duterte clarified with reporters in his hometown of Davao that his strong words in the forum did not mean that the Philippines was severing ties with US.
Still, the administration of Barack Obama, which had always viewed the Philippines as one of its strongest allies in Southeast Asia, may now have to rethink its strategy considering its now unstable ties with its former colony.
With a strategic ally having broken ranks, it also means that Obama’s effort to “rebalance” US resources to Asia in the face of a rising China has taken a terrible hit.
Given this situation, the US is likely to turn to Malaysia, and it is likely to get closer to Prime Minister Najib Razak, which it already considers a close ally and good friend.
We can expect to see more efforts by the US to woo Najib despite the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) action to recover assets it says were bought using money siphoned off from 1MDB.
The US already considers Malaysia and Najib a strong ally in the fight against terrorism, and Najib has shown this to be so in his actions and statements against the Islamic State terrorists, and now with the Philippines turning its back on the US, Washington will begin to rely more on Najib.
So the DoJ’s action and the 1MDB scandal will not affect Najib. The DoJ will go after certain individuals and firms, but Najib who was not named in the suits, will not be affected.
There are already moves to forge closer links with Malaysia and Najib, and a recent letter from a prominent US Senator to US Secretary of State John Kerry is proof of this.
Senator Roger F Wicker, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, praised Najib and the Malaysian government on its counter-extremism efforts in that letter. He said he was pleased with the US State Department’s collaboration with Malaysia to counter terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State.
He said: “In an increasingly dangerous world, the partnership between the United States and Malaysia has never been more important. Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government have a strong record of rejecting all forms of religious extremism and working with the global Muslim community to counter the efforts of radical extremism.”
Referring to efforts by both nations to reduce terrorist usage of the internet as a potential recruitment tool, Wicker, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: “This collaboration between our two countries should improve counter-messaging efforts abroad and highlight Malaysia as an example in the digital fight against radical extremism.”
He urged Kerry to continue to nurture Malaysia’s efforts to defeat extremism at home and abroad.
This will only further strengthen ties between the two countries which already share strong bilateral relationships in trade and defence.
So, it is clear that the US will want to keep Malaysia and Najib as an ally and will not do anything that will upset the cart.
Rahman Tahir is an FMT reader.
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