Still without the £100 million royal yacht – presumably with its poop beaten gold and purple sails – which he and Boris Johnson agree would significantly boost the soft power of this country, Liam Fox continued this week on his flabby mission to make Britain a great global trading nation regardless. On a visit to Southeast Asia he stopped by the Philippines, to enjoy a brief dalliance with its president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Figuratively beating his own poop, which is to say decking himself in his finest attire, Fox extolled the virtues of UK-Philippine trading relations. He noted that Philippine companies have invested over £1 billion in the UK since 2014, and that in 2015 British exports to the Philippines rose by 38% – raising the question, isn’t our capacity for global trade capacious enough without us alienating our closest partners via Brexit?
Fox was pleading for still more however, arguing that our bilateral trade and investment relations might grow stronger still with the handy use of UK Export Finance credit. A government department meant to support British export initiatives, UKEF has been criticised for effectively providing a public subsidy for bribery, and for excessive involvement in the arms trade.
But what really caused upset was Fox describing the relationship between the UK and the Philippines as one built ‘on a foundation of shared values’. Fox was after all meeting in Duterte a man who stands accused of ordering or abetting thousands of extrajudicial killings.
First as mayor of Davao and now as his country’s president, Duterte has been a vocal supporter of vigilante justice as a vicious war against drugs continues. Since his inauguration last June – after a campaign dominated by his threats to kill tens of thousands of criminals – more than 7,000 people have died as part of the drug war, with extrajudicial killings carried out by police officers typically targeting low-level drug peddlers and drug users.
In response to criticism, Duterte has threatened to pull the Philippines out of the United Nations, while promising to issue himself and the officers responsible with presidential pardons. He has also repeatedly claimed personal responsibility for three murders, carried out months into his first mayoral term in 1988.
True on some issues – LGBT rights for instance – Duterte seems more liberal than Fox, even if Duterte recently renounced his support for same-sex marriage. But otherwise the spate of human rights abuses carried out under his watch hardly seem like values worth sharing.
Meanwhile, after her attempts to woo Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and as a chemical attack devastated the town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria, Theresa May made a triumphant return to Saudi Arabia.
This was a more public affair than her visit in 2014, when she signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, designed to help modernise Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior. The Home Office did its best to keep this meeting out of the press, citing as always security reasons.
Aside from being the leading financial backer to rebel groups in Syria including Al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been responsible for a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Encouraged by the United Kingdom’s support – which has included military instruction, a whopping £3.3 billion in arms sales, and support for a naval blockade – Saudi Arabia has killed 10,000 civilians in Yemen and left 20 million on the verge of starvation.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took the opportunity of May’s visit to condemn the ‘dictatorial Saudi monarchy’s shocking human rights record’, adding ‘Yemen urgently needs a ceasefire, a political settlement, and food aid, not more bombing’.
May instead boasted about the paltry £103 million which the UK has provided in humanitarian aid to Yemen. She argued that Britain has ‘long-term and historic’ ties to Saudi Arabia which must be maintained, as the country is ‘important for us in terms of security, defence, and yes, in terms of trade’. After hoping that her presence would provide a good example to women, getting to the heart of the matter she evoked Britain’s national interest, admitting ‘Gulf prosperity is our prosperity’.