THURSDAY JUNE 9, 2005
Copyright – The Bangkok Post
Beijing _ On June 4, US Defence Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld rumbled across Singapore like a rusting tank,
taking aim at China for not toeing the American line.
After neglecting Asia for years, Mr Rumsfeld hit the
beach criticising China for its arms buildup while
making veiled war threats at North Korea.
Truth is often stranger than fiction, and indeed, Mr.
Rumsfeld is stranger than his fictional prototype Dr
Strangelove, looking to start new fires even as
Afghanistan and Iraq burn out of control.
Issued from the cool comfort of the Shangri-la Hotel
luxury fortress in Singapore, Mr Rumsfeld’s
belligerent comments raised temperatures, and
eyebrows, across the region.
Only days before, Malaysian Prime Minister Ahmad
Abdullah Badawi criticised the US and Japan for
painting China as a threat.
Thailand is in the midst of celebrating 30 years of
productive Sino-Thai cultural and economic exchange,
an anniversary presided over by the Kingdom’s
distinguished Sinologist HRH Princess Maha Chakri
Sirindhorn, who has travelled to every province in
China and epitomises the close links between the two
The economies of Burma and Cambodia are fragile but
would be that much closer to collapsing were it not
for extensive Chinese investment. India is engaging
diplomatically with Pakistan with China’s
When China’s Hu Jintao was in Jakarta a month earlier,
Indonesia and China signed a historic Strategic
But Mr Rumsfeld, fresh from battling reports of
prisoner abuse at far-flung US military gulags such as
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, showed up in a fighting
mood. What about political rights in China? Where is
China’s commitment to international peace? What about
Legitimate issues, but less than credible when raised
by a man whose brutal enthusiasm for a trumped up war
in Iraq has left people dead and wounded in the tens
Mr Rumsfeld roundly chastised China for possessing a
fraction of the missiles controlled by his Pentagon.
Undeterred by the lack of enthusiasm to his keynote
speech, he kept the sound-bites coming.
Chinese diplomat Cui Tiankai offered a muted rebuke of
Mr Rumsfeld’s remarks.
But it was Singapore’s Prime Minister and conference
host, Lee Hsien Loong, who most deftly deflected and
contained the rude provocations of his garrulous
American guest when he set the tone for the
conference, saying: “A strategy of confronting China
will incur its enmity without seriously blocking its
growth, while any attempt to contain China will have
few takers in the region.”
Few takers outside of Japan, that is.
Despite being steeped in antiquated Cold War thinking,
the Pentagon chief chooses to ignore history by
extending opportunistic support to Japan’s Yasukuni
rightists, ranging from Prime Minister Koizumi
Junichiro to ultra- hawks Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro,
even though these men are cult devotees of a
militarist shrine that worships kamikaze pilots and
war criminals who killed Americans by the thousand.
The Yasukuni Shrine recently issued a statement
denying the existence of war criminals in Japan and
stating its objection to the Tokyo War Crimes
tribunal, making a mockery of the Allied soldiers and
civilians who died fighting Japanese fascism.
Why the myopia from the man in sharp glasses? Is it
really in the US interest to team up with sore losers
from the Second World War?
Given Mr Rumsfeld’s leading role in the bloody, poorly
administered and arguably criminal invasion and
occupation of Iraq, one might fancifully infer that
the American militarist has started to subconsciously
identify with the war criminals of a bygone era, but
more likely it is just expedience.
He has greenlighted the strategy of Japan’s rightwing
to dump the US-mandated peace constitution so that
Japan may “carry its weight” as America’s junior
partner in keeping the world safe for Japanese and
American oil imports.
While pressing Japan to send its troops overseas might
give the overspent Pentagon some short-term slack, it
is an insult to the victims of Japan’s militarism and
an insult to the millions of courageous and principled
Japanese who want to maintain Japan’s unique peace
constitution and non-belligerent political standing.
Actively encouraging Japan to re-arm, sell weapons and
project its power far beyond its shores is not only
bound to rile the easily aroused sentiments of nations
such as China and Korea but is guaranteed to create a
destabilising arms race in East Asia, where Japan
continues to be viewed with suspicion and fear for
perfectly legitimate historical reasons.
With both wisdom and good manners, Asian diplomats
politely ignored the bugle call to demonise and
By the time America’s dark lord of war got to
Thailand, the next stop on his blitzkrieg tour, he was
effectively silenced with smiles.
Though in Bangkok only for a day, time was set aside
to give the defence chief the fabled Thai tourist
treatment, including a visit to the Grand Palace and
adjacent temple complex, where he was reminded to take
off his shoes, while being artfully reassured in
bilateral meetings that the grievous sectarian
violence in South Thailand needed no intervening from
Uncle Sam. Thanks, but no thanks.
Before parting for Europe, Mr Rumsfeld spoke up about
the dangers of sea piracy, disappointed that the offer
to have US military patrol the Malacca Straits was
turned down, but otherwise in good form, thanking the
Thais for logistic support during the tsunami relief
effort, an example of security cooperation not without
The problem faced by Mr Rumsfeld in Southeast Asia is
simple; while the US has been busy elsewhere, fighting
wars and engaging in other failures of diplomacy,
China has been assiduously working the turf through a
blend of personal links, clever statecraft, trade and
investment to mutual profit.
Following in the historic footsteps of Zhou Enlai and
Zhu Rongji, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President
Hu Jintao have shored up China’s relations with the
wide panoply of Asian states that suffered humiliation
and pain from the back-to-back intrusions of Western
and Japanese invasion.
Individual entrepreneurs and mega-firms alike have
strengthened China’s role in the region, while the
shared cultural sensitivities of local ethnic Chinese
businessmen and culturally adaptive Chinese diplomats
and traders have helped to avoid frictions of the sort
that recently erupted between China and Japan.
Classic chequebook diplomacy has also been used to
great effect, helping China to mend fences with India,
Indonesia and other traditional foes.
It is in such a context that Mr Rumsfeld showed up
beating the drum for Uncle Sam’s big military parade,
not realising that Southeast Asia now moves to the
beat of different drummers.
Being aggressive and out of touch, he makes America
look that way, too: a belligerent power mired in an
expired paradigm of US triumphalism and supposed moral
munificence. Inadvertently, the hawkish Mr Rumsfeld
has contributed to Beijing’s peaceful offensive by
making the once-esteemed US look like a borderline
pariah state in the eyes of regional public opinion.
The American public, historically known for generosity
and righteous idealism, somehow got lost in the toxic
fog of 9/11, and voted with its fear, giving the
neo-con leaders of the US
military-industrial-petroleum establishment free hand
to pursue their personal demons, further compounding
the tragedy for America and the world.
Thus the dragon’s rise in Southeast Asia comes in on
the tail of the eagle’s self-inflicted decline, due in
part to China’s undeniable economic vigour at a time
when the US is engaged in deficit spending to fund
unpopular military actions, but also built on the
widely-held perception of US callousness and neglect
in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 1997.
Add to that the Bush administration’s contempt for
states with relatively independent and neutral foreign
policies (if you are not with us you are against us)
and you have the ingredients for a role switch in
Southeast Asia, unimaginable only a few years ago,
with the United States playing second fiddle to China.
Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based freelance
writer and political commentator.
Philip J Cunningham – The Bangkok Post
THURSDAY JUNE 9, 2005