The world is officially upside down.
The White House is about to be occupied by someone who can be likened to a classic “Oriental despot”: thin-skinned, petulant and vengeful.
Southeast Asians intuitively know Donald Trump. We’ve 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’ve suffered 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 the 20th century, we’ve had Cambodia’s childlike King Norodom Sihanouk, the “oh-so-acquisitive” President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and the power-crazed, nihilist Ne Win (again, from Burma). Such figures are a given in our part of the world.
All of this is ironic given that the current occupant of Zhongnanhai is almost the 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.
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 2am? Don’t think so.
It’s a sign of just how 2016 has upended our geopolitical calculations that China now seems to be the mature, stable player in the great global game, as evidenced by Xi’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 Russian President Vladimir Putin is little more than an extension of the Nixonian playbook of the 1970s 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 decades later remains to be seen.
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 these issues requires all concerned to adopt tact and finesse, while keeping in mind 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-saving (both essentially the same thing) mean that Southeast Asian nations might not be able to rely on the subtle diplomatic manoeuvres that have worked in the past.
Countries such as Vietnam have been able to survive and thrive for decades by playing both sides against each other. This option may well disappear because of Trump’s zero-sum rhetoric. Yet few in Southeast Asia would want 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 – this perhaps is the first lesson that Trump must learn.
He who is silent is deadly, whereas an empty vessel makes the most noise.