Monday, January 23, 2017

Out Of The Poaching Pan

Fears are growing that US policy will shift from Too Little Too Late to Too Much Too Soon

It didn’t have to be this way. One obvious opportunity for a different approach was China’s invitation for the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The United States refused to participate and even objected to the U.K. joining the AIIB. As Leland Lazarus explained for The Diplomat, this decision was an enormous error. If the United States had pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership by publicly emphasizing it hoped China would one day join while also joining the AIIB, the entire perception of any pivot in Beijing would have been radically different. Instead of appearing to be a strategy to undermine China it would simply appear to be an effort to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by Asia’s dynamic economic growth. Instead, the United States chose a path that heightened military tensions and missed out on economic opportunities.

The relevance to Australia of this uncertain world, exacerbated if not created by the Obama Administration, is that the probability of some wider and more intense conflict that may involve Australia is as high as it has been since 1945, and probably higher. The US still possesses military power sufficient to resolve conflict with any one of the four listed nations, but our major ally’s military dominance of the world has gone, and will take years to regain. 
Australia cannot ignore the probability that if for any reason conflict occurs between the US and any one of the four, another will see opportunity in simultaneously taking military action. Or a formal or informal opportunistic alliance may occur between two or more of the four (there are signs of it already) to at least reduce US military effectiveness and the world order this has built.

Here is where we have to watch Mr Trump and his Asia policy team. If they want to play hardball against China, Southeast Asia will suffer as an arena of great-power rivalry and confrontation. But while this scenario is alarming, it provides more leverage to the Asean states more than if Washington was to talk tough and turn up empty, which would essentially cede the region to China. Moreover, Mr Trump's relative embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin plays into this mix. Mr Trump may instigate a tectonic shift among the major powers if he courts Mr Putin in a realignment at China's expense. Either way, Asean should brace for more tension.

It is hard to predict how the spat between Beijing and a Trump administration may spiral. Indeed, the incoming team is without a grand strategy—especially if it chooses to do away with the pivot to Asia. 
In fact, Trump has shown little inclination to preserve US interests in the region. His disagreement with China is not over stability, but supposedly stolen American jobs. If Trump is simply seeking better economic terms with China and is willing to use allies as bargaining chips, the South China Sea could become a Chinese lake sooner than expected.

Monday, January 16, 2017

With Enough Shovels: The Kra Canal, Revisited

Recent comments by a Sri Lankan minister dredge up new speculation

On January 12, Sri Lanka's Minister of Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga, while attending a religious event, made some interesting comments to reporters about recent protests against plans to develop the Hambantota Port, and what might "really" be motivating them. He said that "there is speculation that a major country in the South Asia region would lose businesses to Sri Lanka when construction of a canal with the Chinese funds in Thailand is completed and that country may be behind the opposition to the development of the southern port."

Ranatunga was, of course, referring to the Kra Canal, or Thai Canal Project, an almost perennial dream of a succession of mercantilist players in the region's history. The current players envision a canal through the Isthmus as the all-important Bail attaching a "String of Pearls," or Maritime Silk Road, to the Jeweled Pendant of China's Mercantilist Necklace, the South China Sea.

A canal through Thailand would certainly make shipping through the region faster than with current routes through the Malacca and Makassar Straits. If done right, it would expedite energy delivery to the region's industrial leaders. It would also change the structure of influence over that traffic, as we've written about before.

Nevertheless, the historical, technical and financial obstacles remain the same. When we last wrote about the Kra project, Thailand's Junta was ambivalent about it, and this time last year they confirmed yet again that it was a back burner item. While some Thai business interests support the project, others have long regarded an alternative idea for a deep-water port and industrial zone just across the border in Myanmar as a better and more feasible solution in the long term.

Myanmar is currently undergoing political and economic changes, that depending upon the outcomes, represent a significant development opportunity in and for the region. A Kra Canal could bypass much of that. Singapore also has a lot to lose from the changes should such a project finally materialize.

Minister Ranatunga's comments, however, were almost certainly directed towards India. That nation has significant geopolitical concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, which would be a natural consequence of both the Kra Canal and the development of Hambantota under Chinese leadership.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Stick To Strangling Chickens

Australia's post-colonial angst, along with ghosts of the Suharto era, plus Jokowi's struggle to stay on top, all figure in a new strain in the countries' defense relationship

What offended the complainant, a Kopassus lieutenant, was the use of what he considered to be a derogatory Wikipedia biography of the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s father-in-law. 
The legendary special forces general, whose own son also later commanded the elite regiment, led the purge against the Communist Party of Indonesia in the mid-1960s which claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 people. He also oversaw the so-called Act of Free Choice, a United Nations-sanctioned referendum – albeit involving only 1,025 Papuan leaders – under which the former Dutch-controlled territory reverted to Indonesian rule in 1969... 
The Wibowo biography was not the only source of the lieutenant’s wrath. He was also upset over a poster on a wall at the Australian Special Air Service’s Perth headquarters, which ridiculed Pancasila, the ideology that defines Indonesia as a secular state. The offending poster instead referred to it as Pancagila, the last five letters making the Indonesian word for ‘crazy’, and replaced the five principles of Pancasila with snide references to corruption.

Australian Defence Association spokesman Neil James believes there are deeper reasons for the breakdown of military co-operation and described the saga as a "storm in a tea cup". 
"The new Indonesia chief of defence force equivalent is perhaps not as pro-Australian as some his predecessors," he told AAP. 
"There's an unfortunate tendency in Australia, particularly in academic and diplomatic circles, every time there is a dispute between Australia and Indonesia, there is an instinctive reaction by many ... to say 'it must be our fault'. But just as often it's not our fault."

That a somewhat eccentric army chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, could single-handedly create such chaos and confusion that the political leadership in both Indonesia and Australia were unable to say for several days whether military co-operation between our nations had been cancelled is gravely concerning... 
Australia has been fortunate that the recent Indonesian leadership has been more inclined than its military to maintain strong neighbourly relations despite the provocations offered by former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard (abrupt cessation of live cattle exports) and her Labor rival former prime minister Kevin Rudd (attempting to bug ­former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s mobile phone). 
Current President Joko Widodo has proven just as amiable but that doesn’t mean we can take Indonesia’s goodwill for granted. 
Clearly there are political fault lines Gatot has been ­opportunistically exploiting.

To be sure, these sensitivities are sometimes overhyped, as this latest controversy has arguably proven (See: “Old Shadows in New Australia-Indonesia Military Spat”). But these tensions have nonetheless dealt blows to the relationship, at times even to the point of rupture. 
In spite of occasional tensions and crises, it is also true that both countries have increasingly grown to appreciate the significance of the other and understand that a broader and deeper overall relationship, including in the defense realm, can help build the confidence for better ties. For instance, in Australia’s 2016 Defense White Paper, what was interesting was not the fact that Indonesia was characterized as “vital,” (Canberra has long been assailed by naysayers who claim that this sort of praise sets unrealistically high expectations for ties), but rather that this vitality was viewed as being based not just its traditional geostrategic importance, but also its growing potential in the economic, diplomatic, and military realms as well. 
Second and more specifically, preserving bilateral defense ties is additionally significant because of the inroads that have already been made in recent years in spite of this prickly past. Over the past decade, the two countries have taken some significant steps to strengthen the architecture of their military relationship to institutionalize and regularize interactions at the highest levels, thereby promoting trust and better insulating ties against further downturns.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

This Year's Christmas Dinner: Cold Turkey

We've been left speechless by this year, so here's some video of Christmas around the region. Enjoy.

Peace in the New Year. Please.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Beware of Unclear Air

PLEASE LET CHENGDU BREATHE: China censoring smog protests

Robert Kelly: Trump, South China Sea, and Various Korean Gambits mark major North Asia security shifts in 2016

A'An Suryana: Participant Mobilization Theory and the Anti-Ahok movement in Indonesia

Remy Davison: “America sneezes and Australia gets a cold.” Trump, Brexit buffet Canberra's Mid-Year Fiscal Outlook

I-Fan lin: Taiwan concerns over Trump's real intentions

Monday, December 12, 2016

Leung Transplant

Hong Kong Chief Exec Leung Chun-Ying has had a hard year of Fishballs, Filibusterers, and Failure to please Beijing. Now it will go to someone else to return balance to the balancing act of HK governance

The problem remains, however, that Leung’s poor standing among both the public and business community was due as much to his following Beijing’s instructions as to the character and missteps of the man himself. 
Leung’s departure will for now remove some of the anti-government steam that has built up over the past two and a half years, as evidenced by the 2014 Umbrella movement and the September elections to the Legislative Council, where pro-democracy candidates increased their share of directly elected seats. 
The puzzle for Hong Kong now is the direction in which the Beijing-aligned hard-core pro-government camp will move.
Asia Sentinel

“Now that he won’t run, Hong Kong society may not be so split, it may benefit the restarting of the political reform – I am happy,” (Woo Kwok-Hing) said. “It’s a happy day today. I am happy for Hong Kong.” 
He said he has been meeting with people from different sectors and has been constantly learning. “I hope I can serve them if I am elected.”
Woo, a former chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, urged those who were entering the chief executive race to announce their candidacy as soon as possible. The election for the 1,200-member chief executive election committee – who will decide the city’s leader in March – will take place on Sunday. However, lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is only expected to announce her candidacy next Thursday.
HK Free Press

...a still coy Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah dropped yet another hint of his desire to contest, with sources indicating he was likely to resign from his post as early as Monday. 
Such a move could leave Beijing in a tight spot with not one but possibly three pro-establishment contenders in the race. If this did happen, a split of votes in the pro-establishment bloc could give the pan-democrats a bigger say in the outcome (...) 
City University political scientist Dr James Sung lap-kung said: “In Beijing’s eyes, Tsang is too close to the pan-democrats.“ And his participation in the race could affect the unity of the pro-establishment camp. He can choose to go ahead without Beijing’s blessing, but I’m not sure if his supporters in the business sector could dare to continue their support against Beijing’s will.”

It would be hard to find a more mournful public figure announcing she might reconsider her intention to retire and run for the top job after all. Watching (Carrie Lam) on television, I thought she was on the verge of tears. She said Leung Chun-ying’s shock announcement not to seek a second term had left her with no choice but to consider running. 
Poor woman, she thought she could retire and live happily ever after. Hong Kong politics just doesn’t allow such happy endings. It swallows people whole and spits them out mercilessly. “It is tragic that at this time in Hong Kong,” she said, referring to Leung’s decision, “serving the community and protecting your family cannot both coexist and that those in politics would have to make such a difficult ­decision.” aShe might as well be talking about herself. 
Her predicament is that there is no one as acceptable to both Beijing and Hong Kong people as Lam at this time. She might not be ideal but the rest are less than desirable.
Alex Lo, editorial in the SCMP

Monday, December 05, 2016

Taiwan Trumps


Never mind the Rohingya Crisis. Forget those Singaporean troop carriers seized in Hong Kong. The real news is the unprecedented phone conversation between the US President-elect and Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing Wen. The problem is there's still no consensus on what it means

Was it part of a calculated shift in US policy towards the "Renegade Province" or yet another example of the "Here, Watch This!" ersatz statecraft which is becoming the public face of the Trump Presidency, before it even starts? Despite the opportunity for hand-wringing the affair provides, the tea leaves seem to indicate the former. It's no secret that Trump's eye on China is a baleful one. He knew what he was doing - at least in a general way. Meanwhile the foundations for the details had been laid out previously. The remaining questions are ones of intent and timing.

Intent comes into question, because what appears to be a reorienting of late 20th Century neoconservative policy from confronting a mendacious Soviet Union to a mendacious People's Republic of China may suffer from a failure to recognize that the rules have changed. Taiwan is no longer a redoubt for an anti-Communist vision of China. It is instead, despite facile protestations, increasingly its own nation, its own people and its own history. That history was set when the Guomindang, not so much a Taiwanese political party but a Chinese one in exile, began its decline. Taiwan is also a full-fledged democracy with modern values, including increasing support for marriage equality, among other issues. Will a Trump administration see Taiwan as a valued partner in and of herself, or merely as a disposable cudgel against Beijing?

Meanwhile, despite the trappings of Globalization and a new middle class, the Mainland seems to have devolved politically, from Communism to Mercantilism; an absolutist state with a modern window treatment. Chinese people may indeed be more free than they ever have been in history, but in one sphere only, and the social contract upon which that grant is based is eroding. Xi Jinping is merely the prime exemplar of China's ruling generation - a Lost One, born of the tail of the Cultural Revolution, bellicose and entitled, with glass hearts and chips on their shoulders - who, despite being named "Core Leader" lacks the foresight and empathy of a Deng Xiaoping.  This is where timing comes into play. Is this really the right season to press a Beijing which sees corners everywhere?

Well, it looks like we're going to find out.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Poison Pill

Myanmar, pressured by China, is expeditiously erasing its Muslim Rohingya minority. Monstrous on its own, the move is also a gift to Islamists set on shattering the entire region

I was at a car wash a few days ago. The workers were young men from Myanmar. All of them did their chores like clockwork. One drove the car to the washing area, one hosed the car with foam soap and another wiped the car off. In less than 20 minutes, the car was spick and span. I paid them the RM8 for the wash and vacuum. Since there were no other cars, I sat and had tea with them. They told me stories of horror and terror that would make anyone’s blood boil just by listening. The gory details are enough to make anyone listening puke. They refuse to say whether they are Rohingya. But they talk of friends and people they know, whose families back home in Rakhine die by the dozens every day.

This unwillingness by the NLD government to critique the conduct of the military is exceedingly dangerous and will lead to thousands more falling victim to military violence and to a deepening humanitarian crisis. While the areas under military operation have been under lockdown since October 9 over the past few days hundreds of refugees finally made it to Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not welcoming them and has even pushed hundreds back across the border to Myanmar. It is highly likely that we will soon see another outflow of Rohingya refugees to other countries in the region... 
The escalating violence in Rakhine State can best be solved by allowing access to international observers and humanitarian aid. An independent international investigation is needed to address the grave abuses being reported out of the country and to deter further abuses. The current violence is occurring in a vacuum of impunity in which neutral reporting and, more importantly, life-saving aid are being denied...Punishing the general Rohingya population by cutting off aid and denying credible neutral reporting only sets the stage for further death and suffering... 
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to abandon its consensus and non-interference approach and perceive the ongoing problem as a regional problem. It would require some ASEAN disciplining of Myanmar ... the time for that has arrived.

“We conveyed to them that what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar is a serious crime against human rights," said Iskandarsyah Siregar, spokesperson of the Alliance for the Unity of Muslims who was one of the people that met with officials at the embassy.

"It is genocide, and what is clear is that we condemn it. We demanded that the government of Myanmar take clear action towards what their government there (in Myanmar) is doing."

“It is not about ethics, it is not about ideals, it is about what matters to those in power and right now helping the persecuted community is of no strategic benefit and that is the reason why we see very little coverage and very little condemnation even of what is taking place and of the despicable behavior of [Myanmar's civilian leader] Aung San Suu Kyi with her silence,” the activist told Press TV in an interview on Sunday.
He stated that Muslims in Myanmar were an “inconvenience” to Suu Kyi even before she got into power, adding that she talks about peace and having open democracy for all but the Rohingya minority group does not “come into play” for that. 
Nadim further noted there is also an “ongoing diatribe” against the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh where many of the countries’ ills are blamed on them.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Youthquake in Seoul

Original image via Instagram: junmichaelpark
Ignoble Rot has consequences. In Malaysia, Bersih 5 may have made protest a New Normal, but for youth in South Korea, Choi-Gate has proved the Last Straw

Many middle and high school students are disappointed at how Choi's daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, was illegally admitted to a top university and received special treatment there. 
"She did not study or make the appropriate effort but had the privilege of going to the university because she was born into a powerful family," Kwon Ha-kyeong, a 16-year-old student, told The Korea Herald at Saturday's rally. "While we are forced to study hard to get good grades, all she needed was her powerful parents." 
In the unfolding Choi scandal that even threatens Park's presidency, allegations concerning Chung may appear trivial. Choi is accused of much more serious crimes such as extorting billions of won from the country's top conglomerates. However, the anger and frustration felt by South Korean teenagers goes beyond just Chung -- it is a reflection of their dissatisfaction with society. 

“Adults tell us to stand still and study, but we feel like we have to do something now.” 
Kang Min-ji, a 17-year-old high school junior from the city of Seongnam, just south of Seoul, said during the protest on Saturday. Kang also explained how the phrase “stand still” itself was an insult to the Sewol Generation. It refers to the public announcement that kept on playing onboard while the Sewol ferry was capsizing and the ship’s crew were escaping. It stopped the passengers on the ship from attempting an escape and contributed to the tragic loss of 304 lives. 
“I am now the same age as the Sewol victims. All my friends definitely share and feel the impact of the Sewol disaster,” says Choi Su-jin, another high school junior from Seoul. “I was disappointed with President Park’s handling of the Sewol, and I felt betrayed when I heard about the president’s scandal. My friends and I don’t recognize Park Geun-hye as our president anymore.”
Korea Expose

Experts say the people's desire to express political satire has exploded all at once. "The people's desire to mock politics and express their feelings about the current deplorable situation, which thus had been muffled, have been unleashed. Now television shows have been reflecting the changed mood," said Jang Duk-geun, a comedy show writer. 
Looking into the present situation, which is more surreal than most movies, moviemakers are preparing to release a band of politically sensitive movies that express harsh criticism of the government. The movie "Special Citizen" reveals the two faces of politics through the eyes of a two-term Seoul mayor, played by Choi Min-sik, who runs for a third term, and military secrets and a corruption scandal are tackled in "Top Secret" which awaits local release. Director Shin Dong-yeob plans to make a political satire of the ongoing influence-peddling scandal in his movie titled "Gate."
Korea Times

The festive mood remained a constant throughout the night, and in fact, it seemed most of the people there were more interested in having a good time than anything else. That isn’t to say they weren’t angry or that their anger was without purpose, but it didn’t show. Their joyfulness wasn’t one of tactical frivolity, either. They were simply full of hope — the beating hope that their future can change because they hold the reigns of democracy in their hands. That may sound a little maudlin, but as an American, and particularly these days, it resonated.