As the Australian Parliament ties itself up in knots over the misdeeds of various senators — something over which no political party has much control — our region is being roiled by religious and security issues. It’s not yet the perfect storm, but it has people who understand the Asia-Pacific increasingly concerned.
While Australia’s diplomats are doubtless busier than usual sending cables, or whatever they send in this digital age — and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would doubtless only operate one email account — the rest of Australia appears to be largely oblivious.
In Jakarta last Friday, a protest rally of about 150,000 people converged on the country’s parliament to complain about the alleged blasphemy of the city’s Christian governor against Islam. It soon turned violent. The fact that he is Chinese by descent, in a nation whose pogroms against people of Chinese origin are a stain on its history, is making the event a potent mix of religion, race and politics — not necessarily in that order. As the protest tinderbox was eventually lit on Friday night, Indonesian President Joko Widodo had to cancel his trip the Australia and address to Parliament.
In neighbouring Malaysia, the other major south-east Asian country where Islam is the dominant religion, there is a bill before parliament promoting sharia law in the country. It is set for debate in the current session of parliament, which concludes on November 24.
Malaysia has fractured even further under the suspect regime of Razak Najib, and has been doomed since it introduced a form of religious/ethnic apartheid. The majority Malay Muslims are given the first opportunities — all the time , everywhere — over the significant Chinese and Indian minority. The country also has a significant Christian population, mainly in the eastern island provinces of Sabah and Sarawak. Think about that for a moment: the prospect of hardline Islamic law in one of Australia’s top 10 trading partners, a country with whom we have a free trade agreement and where hundreds of thousands of Australians choose to take their holiday each year.
Yet those troubles, and the possibilities they throw up, while real, are less immediate than the situation in the Philippines: a country that, since the Second World War, has had an enormous amount of political turmoil. There was the kleptocratic dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos; the peaceful revolution of Corazon Aquino, whose husband, then opposition leader, had been murdered by Marcos; and, of course, the county’s colourful domestic politics has continued.
It’s worth noting that the Philippines — the only place in south-east Asia, apart form Singapore, where English is almost universally spoken and the de facto official language of business — is now home to countless call centres, fielding calls from customers from many of Australia’s cosseted banks and our largest telecoms companies: Telstra and Singtel Optus.
There is much to be concerned about, with vigilante death squads, said to have President Rodrigo Duterte’s blessing, running rampant.
Then there is Thailand, a country deep in mourning after the death of its beloved King. Until his death last month at 87, Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s longest reigning monarch. Thailand remains in some stasis, albeit one that so far has not frightened the horses. Two and half years ago, the military took charge of day-to-day politics in the country, as it has with clockwork regularity since the absolute monarchy was dismantled in 1932. Election are promised again for next year, but with the royal succession still perhaps a year away this could be delayed. The military junta has moved closer to China while still remaining a key American ally.
At the sidelines, in terms of regional heft, the quasi-dictatorship of Prime Minister Hun Sen remains pre-eminent in Cambodia, having locked down the opposition ahead of local election next year and a national poll due in 2018.
Myanmar, despite the remarkable sweeping election victory of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, remains very much a desperately poor nation with abundant resources and where the military still holds the upper hand.
The outlier, in many ways, is the more potent force of Vietnam, which remains under Communist rule.
Looming in the foreground is China, which is overtly attempting to wield economic and military influence over the region. It also remains in dispute with seven countries, including Taiwan, over territory in the South China Sea. No one is much keen on its extending its claims further than it already has with its island building and covert miltarisation of those islands, despite explicit promises that it would not.
[Tomorrow, the world: China is steadily buying off south-east Asia]
A few nations, such as Cambodia and Laos, have fallen in line. Others, notably the Philippines, are finding their way. Duterte prompted global headlines a few weeks back when he announced, and then kinda sorta recanted, a divorce from the US on a visit to Beijing. He them followed up. The Philippine military is seen as very aligned with with the US — a coup, perhaps, is not out of the question in coming years. So he is very much a watch-this-space guy who also has a civil war with Muslim separatists in the country’s south to deal with.
This week, Malaysia announced it would buy patrol boats from China, yet its treatment of Malaysian Chinese must surely have raised a few hackles in Beijing.
Australia, in any calculus, has a dog in these fights. Peace in the region is of prime importance, the trade route for Australia’s resources laden ships lie through this region. The vast bulk of our trade is with north and south-east Asian.
Put simply: it’s complicated, and increasingly so. And then there is this week’s US election to eventually factor in. Interesting times, indeed.