US In Crisis, Asean Advances, Philippines barks…

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IMAGINE a former US president having his fingerprints and mugshot taken! A New York grand jury just indicted Trump, making him the first American president to face criminal charges. The exact nature of the charges remains unclear Friday because the indictment remained under seal, but they stem from payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign by Trump’s lawyer to silence claims of hush money paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels about what she says was a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament.

Trump has decried the investigation as “the greatest witch hunt in history.” He is the front-runner for the 2024 election, and the Democrats are resorting to every means to derail his candidacy as the approval ratings of Biden and Kamala are hovering at 40 percent going into the election year. Ongoing challenges of domestic violence, inflation, bank runs, de-dollarization of the world and the Ukraine imbroglio continue to hound the Biden White House.

The last time a US president was embroiled in a sex scandal, then US President Bill Clinton allowed NATO to drop 15 tons of bombs on Serbia, which killed over 2,000 people (Western estimates) to 5,000 people (Yugoslavia’s estimate) with tens of thousands injured. The US called the 78 days bombings as “an air war justified as humanitarian intervention,” and NATO called the civilian deaths as “collateral damages.” The destruction led to over a hundred billion dollars in damages and plunged the poor country deeper into poverty.

Last week Serbian President Vucic said, “Serbia to forget NATO’s aggression only when Serbs are extinct” in response to US Ambassador to Belgrade Christopher Hill’s expressed hope that the Serbs “will set aside their grievances” caused by NATO’s aggression. The indiscriminate NATO bombings also struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three Chinese.

Inflation continues to be a “long and bumpy fight,” according to Federal Reserve Jerome Powell, with the US releasing an additional $300 billion to backstop deposits to avert another financial crisis after SVB bank run. There’s now a heated debate between the Fed and Congress on whether aggressive interest hikes to lower inflation are worth cutting an estimated 2 million jobs. The US could also face default on its obligations as early as June if its debt ceiling isn’t lifted, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had warned Congress that her agency was resorting to “extraordinary measures.” This is not counting the costs of worldwide inflation, recession, hunger, and other humanitarian sufferings caused by the US printing even more money for war, and producing less, while bidding up commodities and devaluing other world currencies.

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children in the US for the second year in a row. A 28-year-old goes to a Christian school in Tennessee and shoots three adults and three children. There have been at least 42 school shootings since May 2021, when an 18-year-old gunman left 21 dead in Uvalde, Texas.

TikTok users are making fun of Congress members for their questions to TikTok CEO Shou Chew. US legislators grilled the TikTok CEO for over five hours, but mostly interrupted and prevented him from fully answering their questions, demanding a yes-or-no answer even for complex questions.

When Chew explained that many of TikTok’s privacy settings have done more than what any other company in the industry has done, the Illinois congresswoman Jan Schakowsky warned Chew against comparing itself with typical industry practices. The legislators failed to mention that Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft collect far more personal data and were forced by the US government to submit privacy data. Even the US government was caught spying on foreign leaders, including allies, after Edward Snowden revealed how the US National Security Agency works.

The CEO also revealed that TikTok by default uses the services of US-company Oracle for storage and audit, among others; and has offered to give access to independent third-party researchers.

The US wants the Philippines to fight and die for Taiwan against China, but Taiwan sends high-level leaders to visit China and the United States. “People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people,” former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou said while visiting China, the first Taiwanese leader to visit since 1949. On the other hand, White House’s national security spokesman John Kirby tried to assuage tensions when he said, the US hopes to see a “normal, uneventful transit” as Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen arrived in New York on her way to Central America, reminding the public that this is Ms. Tsai’s seventh transit through the US during her time as Taiwan’s chief.

The Philippines, the sacrificial lamb?

One of the arguments for the Philippines to take a position on Taiwan is the situation of our OFWs when war breaks out.

There are an estimated 153,000 Filipinos in Taiwan, and 243,000 Indonesians, 240,000 Vietnamese, 73,000 Thais and 24,000 Malaysians, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency. Filipinos are not even the most populous migrant community, yet we are the noisiest, according to “War over Taiwan is Not Our War” published in Mindanao Journal.

Indonesia and Vietnam have consistently repeated their neutral positions on the US-China rivalry over Taiwan, and also warned the great powers from embroiling Asean in their rivalry, instead opting to focus on expanding economic cooperation. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad even blamed the US for using Taiwan to provoke China, and reminded Asean nations that China’s philosophy — unlike the west — was not to conquer and occupy nations.

Bigger risks for the Philippines: To be left behind again!

The US forced the Philippines to withdraw from a deal with Russia for the deliveries of brand new helicopters and to lose P2 billion of deposit, and announced plans to donate its 30-year-old Cyclone-class patrol ships to the Philippine Navy. But US allies India, Europe and even top US banks continue to do billions of dollars of business with Russia.

While the risk of the Philippines being bombed by the great powers, like what Japan and US did in World War 2, should be a serious part of the calculations of our leaders, the bigger short-medium term risk is for the Philippines to be left behind as our neighbors speed ahead with their economic cooperation with China, even while maintaining relations with the US, Russia, etc…

Asean nations race ahead

Indonesia is set to launch the first high-speed train in Asean with China’s help. Some 10 percent of Indonesia’s global trade already uses RMB. About 65 percent of Vietnam’s agricultural produce exports go to China. In 2021, $4 billion of Thai durian was bought by China, while the Philippines only scheduled to export $260 million of durian to China in 2023, made possible by Marcos’ state visit in January. A staggering $3.4 billion of Vietnamese dragon fruit were gobbled up by the Chinese, none from the Philippines. Our Asean neighbors are seeking more China-backed infrastructure, after Vietnam completed its first metro rail, Cambodia completed hundreds of kilometers of new highways and 10 million passengers were transported by the Laos-China rail. Malaysia’s largest Chinese-backed rail project is also 40 percent completed.

President Marcos warned of a looming water crisis. Angat Dam, which is the main water source of Manila today, was funded by a China concessional loan and completed ahead of schedule in 2012, even then-president Noynoy Aquino thanked China for the assistance.

Today, some forces are trying to derail the Kaliwa Dam project that’s decades overdue and needed to modernize the water supply to Metro Manila — only China was willing and able to partner with the Philippines for this mega-project. We canceled three-rail projects, after years of negotiations. Fake and biased news continues against China. Yet critics of any China projects are asking, where are the China projects? These critics don’t produce anything, but now they are raising the risk of war and poverty, for everyone.

Austin Ong is a research analyst from the think tank Integrated Development Studies Institute (idsicenter@gmail.com).

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We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks (
idsicenter@gmail.com). Also published in ManilaTimes.

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