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Donald Trump: The new oriental despot

THE world is officially upside down. We have a classic "Oriental despot" in Washington DC: thin-skinned, petulant and vengeful.

Southeast Asians know Donald Trump. We have had to deal with the likes of him for decades, if not centuries.

It's part of our political DNA: coping with the rages of an erratic demagogue. That doesn't mean we like tyrants – we just understand who they are.

For us, it's all about survival: after all, “palace” politics can be extremely vicious.

We see antecedents of Trump in the despots of antiquity such as Burma’s King Narathu (who allegedly murdered his father, elder brother and queen) or Amangkurat I of Mataram (who had a bad habit of murdering his critics).

In more modern times, we’ve had the childlike Norodom Sihanouk to the “oh-so-acquisitive” President Ferdinand Marcos and the power-crazed, nihilist Ne Win: corruption and abuse of power are a given in our part of the world.

Of course businessmen have more options and in the “court” of Donald Trump. they will inevitably gravitate to the slim, elegantly dressed young couple that accompanies the former reality-TV star wherever he goes.

Every tyrant's inner circle is marked by hierarchies of influence' and with Trump, Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka are the very pinnacles of power.

All of this is ironic given that the current occupant of Zhongnanhai is the almost exact opposite.

Bear in mind that Beijing and indeed the Forbidden City has nurtured countless supremely paranoid and unsteady leaders from Emperor Yang of Sui to the Empress Dowager Cixi of Qing and Mao Zedong himself.

Instead, the impassive Xi Jinping is the apogee of technocratic discipline. He is supremely rational, deliberate and relentless.

The impassive Xi Jinping is the apogee of technocratic discipline.
The impassive Xi Jinping is the apogee of technocratic discipline.

Beijing's “core leader” is a man whose every step is minutely considered, planned and executed. For the Chinese President, there is no such thing as chance.

Angry tweets at 2:00AM? I don't think so.

It’s a sign of how 2016 has upended our geopolitical calculations that China now seems to be the mature, stable player in the great global game – witness Xi Jinping's dignified presence at Davos.

Complicating the mix is the troubling issue of personal chemistry.

How will these two men manage? Can anyone seriously imagine the mercurial, temperamental Trump bonding with the staid, implacable Xi?

A combustible relationship will have severe implications for global peace and prosperity.

The emerging Trump 'bromance' with Putin is little more than extension of the Nixonian playbook of the 70's when Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai united to isolate the Soviets.

Whether Putin's economically and demographically enfeebled Russia can play a similar role against China forty years on is perhaps unlikely.

American policy in Asia used to be an open book: it was fundamentally about containing China – with varying levels of force – via key alliances and interests.

If Trump gets his way (witness his unprecedented telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen) all of this goes out the window.

China’s mandarins will be perplexed by Trump's publicity-seeking ways and there’s no telling what they will do by way of response.
Trump has risen to power on the back of his people's sense of having fallen behind.

He cannot now let China rise without challenging the Middle Kingdom. His pride and desire to see “America First” all the time, every time will preclude this.

This will complicate the already-fraught challenges in Southeast Asia, especially the South China Sea disputes.

Resolving this issue requires all concerned to adopt tact and finesse.

A viable solution doesn’t always have to have a clear winner or loser.

However, Trump’s obsession with “winning” and China’s with “face” (both essentially the same thing) mean that Southeast Asian nations might not be able to resort to the subtle manoeuvres that we’ve relied on in the past.

Countries like Vietnam have been able to survive and thrive for decades by playing both sides off against each other.

This option may well disappear (as the Singaporeans are fast discovering with their stand-off in Hong Kong), because of Trump's zero-sum rhetoric.

None of us in Southeast Asia wishes to have to choose one side or another.

Given the immense challenges, why are the region's elites so nonplussed?

Well, maybe it’s because we are used to the kind of “leadership” that Trump is going to bring to America.

We've seen the empty bragging and trash-talking before, especially when Southeast Asia was first faced with the arrival of the Europeans.

Knowing they were outgunned, most of our ancestors had little option but to ramp up the talk only to concede at the last moment – leaving us with business as usual.

Because in Asia, the man who wields power over life and death is often very guarded in his statements.

All too aware of his immense might, Xi has no need to resort to verbal pyrotechnics and this perhaps is the first lesson that Trump must learn.

He who is silent is deadly whereas an empty vessel makes the most noise…