By Herman Tiu Laurel

‘Westlessness’ and US in Asia

February 21, 2020, 2:45 pm

THE Philippines, who has long seen itself as a tail wagged by the American dog, never took any real interest nor was taken seriously --  in international security forums. Hence, there is almost no awareness in this country of significant global defense meetings, such as, the Munich Security Conference that just transpired in Germany.

The Munich Security Conference 2020 (MSC 2020), which concluded last week reflected significant actualities in the geopolitical and security situation in the World and, of course, Asia. What can and should the Philippines pick up from the highly controversial talks at the MSC 2020?

The MSC is a legacy of the Cold War, originating when the US-European alliance was symbolic of Western post-WWII and post-USSR. collapse ascendancy. In 2007, the MSC exuded the confidence of the West as custodian of the World Order with the sanguine theme “Peace through Dialogue”.

The West contemplating its navel

In 2008, the West suffered the Global Financial Crisis with America at the epicenter. Despite this, US-led conflicts and wars continued to multiply. In 2011, the Arab Spring erupted, the “Asia Pivot” was announced, Libya and Syria attacked, Ukraine subverted and Crimea seceded. Then Trump won and broke trans-Atlantic unity, withdrawing from the Iran JCPOA and other pacts.

As a result, the MSC’s mood turned gloomy as implied in the following themes of its yearly meetings that reflected the loss of control: 2015 - “Collapsing Order, Reluctant Guardians?”; 2016- “Boundless Crises, Reckless Spoilers, Helpless Guardians”; 2017- “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”; 2018 - “To the Brink – and Back?”; and 2019 - “The Great Puzzle: Who will Pick Up The Pieces?”

The MSC hosts have found a new theme, “Westlessness”,  that has an elusive definition. Fortunately, among many convoluted interpretations, I found an honest and simple one, from the TRTWorld news site: Westlessness “... it refers to a crisis of identity and existence in the Western world and suggests infighting within its sphere. It also refers to a tendency in the world to move away from the West.”

As the East rises again

In ancient times, the East had reigned for millennia as source of porcelain, silk, tea, and spices for the West. Up till 1800 A.D., China and India held 33.3% and 19.7% of the global economy respectively. Over the next 200 years, however, the two slipped precipitously when the West learned to use the Chinese invention of gunpowder and pursued gunboat diplomacy.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Western imperialism ravaged the East and siphoned trillions out of the colonies. But within a hundred years, Asia-- after picking up modernization and modern socialist democratic systems– has started to recover and is now poised to surpass the West. The East and China in particular, had become a problem for the West.

Under Trump, the US is trying to scramble back on top using the slogans MAGA (Make America Great Again) and “America First”, clambering over old allies particularly in Europe and browbeating “friends” to cough up dollars for NATO maintenance and pay high tariffs for exports to the US. As expected, this in-fighting has alienated Europe. 

China, China, China

Ostensibly, the European Establishment’s angst is about the rise of populism against the existing order, i.e., the rise of rightwing and leftwing European political parties and protest movements like the Yellow Vest insurrection.  However, this year’s MSC is different as noted by the Washington Post’s Daniel W. Drezner who wrote:

“For the past four years, it has been impossible to go to a global affairs conference without discussing the rise of populism ... So it’s interesting to note that the overarching theme of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) turned out to be different... To paraphrase Jan Brady, MSC2020 was all about “China, China, China!”

Drezner pointed out that, “This year, both the plenary sessions and many of the side sessions were devoted to China. In her talk, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emphasized the need to “keep Chinese tech giant Huawei out of Western 5G, while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about the importance of  “... transatlantic cooperation to cope with China.”

China for ‘worldfulness’

Drezner added, “Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper ... repeatedly claimed during his talk that ‘we do not seek conflict with China’ – which was then followed by at least five minutes of bashing Chinese perfidies.” US State Secretary Mike Pompeo then countered the MSC theme with “the West is winning”, while lashing at China for alleged violations of territories and sovereignty.

China’s State Minister Wang Yi described Pompeo and Esper’s allegations as “lies, not based on facts” while giving the following wiser prescription for our times, “We need to get rid of the division of the East and the West and go beyond the difference between the South and the North, in a bid to build a community with a shared future for mankind...”

I call Wang Yi’s advice “Worldfulness”, which is meant to sum up the idea of One World in cooperative harmony. It’s an old Chinese thought called “Tianxia”, i.e., “all are one under heaven”. China recommends that the US rise above competition to cooperation and work for the common good through “Win-Win” talks and not “zero-sum” games.

Interestingly, Europe is close to China on this point with Britain, Germany and others refusing the US “zero-sum” game on the strategic technological issue of Huawei and opening its gates to China’s technological flagship.

Huawei as bone of contention

It is clear that China is confident despite US pressure against the Huawei issue. In an exchange at the MSC, National People’s Congress Foreign Affair Committee chair Madame Fu Ying, former Ambassador to the Philippines, responded to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the issue of Huawei:

“Since its reform started forty years ago, China has introduced and maintained all kinds of Western technologies, whether by Microsoft, IBM, or others.... The system led by the Communist Party has become successful ... (and it is) not threatened by the technologies... Do you really think the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by this single high tech company of Huawei?”  Her statements were followed by applause.

Speaker Pelosi’s response was disjointed: “...  – let me just say to you that are applauding back there ...We don’t want to emulate the Chinese system.  We do not want to be arresting millions of Uighurs, threatening Tibet, undermining democracy in Hong Kong, etc. 

 So, it isn’t a question of, ‘We have Huawei and we are a model, so why are you afraid of Huawei?’ 

Duterte on the right side of history

Thanks to President Duterte’s decisive and determined progressive execution of the Philippine Constitution’s Independent Foreign Policy and the recent termination of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Filipino people have begun to appreciate that the country can and does matter in international security affairs.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte is currently being subjected to a lot of critical media barrage over his termination of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Much of this criticism is unfounded. After all, the intent and purpose of PRRD’s move is simply equidistancing the Philippines from the West and moving it closer geopolitically to its real neighbors in the East with China as the primus inter pares.

While the West was handwringing at the MSC 2020, President Duterte made the historic move to junk the VFA and cut US hegemony down another size, thus de-escalating the possibility of Cold War 2.0 and freeing our nation and Asia to devote more time and energy to development, prosperity, and peacebuilding.

The Philippines and Filipinos now count as a serious factor in international affairs.




About the Columnist

Image of Herman Tiu Laurel

Herman Tiu Laurel is a veteran journalist and founder of think tank PHILIPPINE-BRICS Strategic Studies.