Monday, October 24, 2016

Duterte, Hanson, and Willful Blindness

Unfortunately, Hanson isn't the blind one here

As the public estrangement of the Philippines from America continues, it increasingly looks like Rody Duterte has been blinded all along by two things: resentment of the Philippines' tangled history with the US and the relative riches proffered by Chinese investment. Wined and dined by Xi Jinping, Drunken Sailor DU30 poses a dilemma not only for a spurned US, but for ASEAN and Filipinos generally as well. 

Trouble is, the Long Boat may arrive sooner than later. Regardless of rhetoric, the US isn't going away, and the reaching out to China may prove to have had poor timing. With Chinese wealth also comes its rot, which is problematic given Rody's rise on the back of long-festering resentment over corruption. China's dangles of low-hanging fruit will also likely leave a sour palate over things as well. 

Why so sure? Because even if he wanted to offer anything but a raw deal, Xi Jinping cannot wholly deliver on promises which are dependent upon ensuring other's pockets stay full. 

Perhaps the President could benefit from an edict ensuring that any Long Boat coming his way maintain a shallow draught

Meanwhile in Hapless Australia, the Trumpist Tart scores another political victory. Pauline Hanson continues to approach legitimacy as the voice of frustrated regional Whites, this time on Norfolk Island. 

Norfolk's beef is a legitimate one. The long-autonomous remote island has been buffooned by a stingy Turnbull government into a territorial back-end of New South Wales, and residents are hopping mad

Canberra's excuse is economic sustainability, and to an extent they have a point. But the execution is predictably ham-handed, with no respect for historical or cultural concerns or even best practices. It's also far from unheard of to allow such vestigial territories to "age in place" - witness the UK's largely uncontroversial largess to territories like Pitcairn. Instead, the Turnbull Goverment insist on taking a stand better suited for RT

Instead, now comes yet another opportunity for Henna'd Harridan Hanson to stoke the embers of resentment. If this continues, Australia is in store for quite the Kettle of Fishwife in regional affairs. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Thailand: A Succession, Interrupted

At the center of these seemingly incomparable differences, there was one unifying figure, a core that drew these elements together. The world has seen monarchs and heads of state who were popular and revered, but seldom has it seen one who was widely described by international media without irony as "beloved." The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand was indeed beloved as anyone who has been to Thailand can attest. The fact that the late king's portraits are hung in every business venue could be dismissed as a practice of necessity, if not for the fact that those portraits are not uniform state-issued photos depicting a regal figure, but photos many picked themselves to reflect their favorite representations of the king. Sometimes the king is depicted in Buddhist monk attire. Sometimes he is seen visiting the people in a suit instead of his royal uniform. Some photos show the king as a loving young father holding his infant child. The late king was revered as a semi-deity in the nation, but it is perhaps his human side that has endeared him most to the people. One of the most popular portraits of him features a drop of sweat on his face, symbolizing his dedication to his role.

In the same message, he also talked candidly about himself, reiterating that as a king, he did not see himself as infallible - a king who could do no wrong in the ordinary sense of the word. He clearly said he was not above criticism. He added that he welcomed critical comments based on fact and objectivity. 

For the Thai media, the King's comments were significant because he supported the media doing their job professionally in informing society. He was an avid newspaper reader, a veteran ham radio operator and an early user of computers. He often used computer graphics to compose his New Year cards and messages for the Thai people. 

At the time, his comments reflected a media environment in which journalists were under stress. Most Thai journalists would agree that his stand on the media has had a positive impact on the media's role and reduced attempted state interventions. As far as I know, no Thai journalists have been charged with lese majeste, as they have simply abstained from reporting or writing about the King's personal life. Of late, there have been reports on his initiatives related to sustainable development and a sufficient economy.
Kavi Chongkittavorn in The Nation

"The king's death adds to uncertainty in Southeast Asia, a region in considerable flux already. This makes the U.S. rebalance to Asia more difficult because the situation in so many countries is that of 'wait and see.' 

"When the pivot started, you had Thailand engaged, a new leader in Malaysia who wanted to engage, you had Aquino coming in the Philippines and very forward-leaning internationally and very open to the U.S.; you had an internationalist president in Indonesia. It was a rather different dynamic."

Adding to the uncertainty after Bhumibol’s death, Thailand’s current military junta has said that the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will not immediately assume the throne, because he needs time to mourn. In the meantime, the monarchy will be managed by a regent, longtime Bhumibol ally and former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. 

Prem is a divisive figure. Although he oversaw a period of rapid economic growth as Prime Minister, many poor Thais dislike him, favoring populist parties linked to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was also prime minister until she was ousted in a 2014 coup. Many Thais consider Prem an archenemy of Thaksin, whose own government was toppled by the military in 2006. To them, Prem represents elites who would deny Thais outside the capital a voice in determining the country’s future. Moreover, at age 96, Prem may lack the stamina to manage the crown’s transition. 

There could be several reasons why Vajiralongkorn is not immediately assuming the crown. For starters, he may realize that he is nowhere near as popular as his father and needs time to build public goodwill. Alternatively, the junta (and Prem and other Bhumibol advisers) may have forced the crown prince’s decision, because they fear his playboy reputation and reported friendship with Thaksin. Yet another explanation is that the junta is stalling so that it can maneuver Vajiralongkorn’s sister, the beloved Princess Sirindhorn, into power instead, even though there is no constitutional basis in Thailand for a woman to reign.
Joshua Kurlantzick spells out the Junta's Opportunities (Project Syndicate)

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Fate (or Fallacy) of Melos

Jokowi: Sharp End of the Tightrope

Like it or not, in the new normal, Sino-Singapore relations will need to withstand the stress and pressure of being caught between a superpower and an aspiring one. The Thucydides’ Trap often ensnarls many smaller players.
Peh Shing Huei on how the South China Sea is just one factor in the changing relationship between Singapore and China (link)

A more accurate representation of Sino-American relations in the Asia-Pacific would be a triptych: Asian countries refusing to make stark choices between the two great powers; a calculation that US power will not wane, let alone be withdrawn from the region; and the earnest hope that the two powers can reach a working accommodation ...
William Choong outlines why the time for ASEAN to choose sides hasn't yet - and hopefully won't - arrive (link)

"We can see some countries taking actions that effectively reveal their consistent positions and others are being much more deferential to China, rolling over and waiting for a tummy rub from Beijing."
Ian Storey, quoted by Reuters, on how Indonesia is doing the former (link)

As for Singapore, this is not the first time that its principled foreign policy has required it to stand up to pressure from larger countries. In the past, it has withstood various forms of pressure from not only China, but also Indonesia, Malaysia and even on occasion the US. As a potentially vulnerable small state, it would be dangerous for Singapore to accept that any other country has the right to act as its “big brother”.
Tim Huxley and Alexander Neill in the SCMP (link)

The president says he wants an “independent foreign policy” where ties with the US will be limited while heightened relations with Russia and China will be pursued. Former national security adviser Joe Almonte whom I consider to have a good grasp of our strategic foreign policy unequivocally advises that as an independent nation, we should maintain friendship with old allies, yet still be friends with other nations even if they are enemies of our allies. Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario totally agrees that “you try to get as many friends as possible.” In short, it’s not a zero-sum game.
Babe Romualdez: Hey Rody, You're Doing it Wrong (link)

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Week in Asian Geopolitical Crazy Talk

PROGRAM ADVISORY: As Your Humble Correspondent has been sucked into the undertow of the US election season, IPM will be moving to weekly rather than daily updates. Look for them after Midnight Monday, Christmas Island Time. 

It always ends in tears (original image: AFP)

Chinese leaders are painfully aware of the delicate nature of dealing with a sensitive North Korea. Beijing often stresses that it has no “special influence” over Pyongyang. This is partly true as members of the “Chinese faction” in North Korea have been purged by Kim. But Chinese leaders are also aware that if they publicly claim to have leverage over North Korea, it will drive the nationalistic young leader farther away.
Chow Chung-yan cites the the history of balancing Korean nationalism with necessity in explaining why it's actually rather hard for China to "rein in" the Kim Regime (link - SCMP)

(Translation: China should quickly embark on the Kra Canal project and turn Singapore back into a third world country. This is the best present to give to a “2-headed snake”.)
An editorial in The Independent (link) sees China digging up the Kra Canal (link) again as leverage against Singapore for Global Recalcitrance

The reporter then moves on to disputed territories. The South China Sea? “It has to be China’s,” Comrade Tan asserts. The Diaoyu Islands? Taiwan? All China’s. What about Sora Aoi (Cangjingkong 苍井空 in Mandarin)? “Sora Aoi is also the Chinese people’s,” says Comrade Zhou—not realizing that Sora Aoi is not a place, but a Japanese porn star. 
How about Hong Kong independence? Sunglassed Comrade Chen has a quick answer. “If you get independence, Boss Xi will drop a bomb and destroy you.”
Roy Tsui's TVMOST gives Mainland visitors to HK more than enough rope on National Day (link to story: China Digital Times) (link: Facebook)

The first one is that it comes from Messrs Sit, Fung, Kwok and Shum. I presume they are a respectable firm, though not perhaps very experienced in this line of work. But Mr Leung does not need to resort to private lawyers, respectable or otherwise. Senior government officials who wish to sue for libel have to ask for permission (which in the case of Mr Leung I suppose he can give himself) and having obtained permission get the free services of the Department of Justice. Well we know Mr Leung is not short of a bob or two. But one does wonder why this particular chore was outsourced. Was the DoJ consulted, and discouraging?
Tim Hammlet analyzes, perhaps though the bottom of a beer glass, CY Leung's legal threats against Apple Daily (link: HK Free Press)

Nonproliferation zealots (!!!!) are making sure nuclear weapons now proliferate only to totalitarian states. Despite much rhetoric and sincere, well-intentioned efforts, the United States sat by as North Korea developed its nuclear weapons. It is not too late to disabuse China and North Korea of the idea that nuclear proliferation pays. Japan ought to begin a sincere program to build deliverable nuclear weapons to show China that China’s support to North Korea is counterproductive and strategically naive. The Republic of Korea ought to begin a nuclear-weapons development program.
James Van de Velde wants things to escalate quickly. (link: National Interest)

Friday, September 30, 2016

China aid to Pacific Island nations is exacting a price

Danielle Cave at the Lowy Institute sends an update on her dogged research into Chinese development aid patterns (link):
For example, it’s hard to tell whether PNG’s 'distance education network community college' — which is being funded with a US$35 million EximBank loan — ever eventuated. The mysterious project was recently caught up in a high-profile money laundering case in Singapore after authorities detected suspicious transactions that led to the bank account of former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare (of which he denies knowledge). PNG Government budget documents report the project funds are currently in a trust managed by law firm Young & Williams Lawyers (who were the subject of 2015 investigations by SBS and Fairfax).

This development, which may unravel further and is gathering steam across PNG's online discussion forums, should spook Chinese Government officials working in the region. An opaque aid program is already a tough sell in the Pacific Islands where mistrust, misinformation, frustrations and resentment about China's regional intentions abound.
Some regimes in the region, however, may find that their ambitions dovetail with China's evolving aid goals. Here's Grant Wyeth in the Diplomat (link):
While previously China’s aid presence within the South Pacific was motivated by a desire to squash Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the region, there seems to be a recent shift toward a more strategic motive. As China develops its blue-water navy capabilities it will require greater access to more ports in the Pacific. Building stronger relationships with Pacific Island nations is paramount for China to be able to project power throughout the Pacific Ocean, and will lay the groundwork for future hegemony should the United States retreat in a measurable way from the region (although this is unlikely in the foreseeable future). 
This is clearly a long term project, but one that China seems very serious about. In late-2014, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to visit Fiji. An official state visit to a Pacific Island country demonstrated China’s interest in the region. It was also significant signal of solidarity after Australia and New Zealand had isolated Fiji regionally following the country’s 2006 coup. The continued frosty relationship between Suva and the two regional heavyweights led to Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, indicating to the United Nations General Assembly that he was reevaluating Fiji’s relationships.
Fiji and PNG figure in another analysis of aid and influence in the region. Joanne Wallis (link):
More recently, changes to the broader Asia-Pacific power structure have altered the geopolitical landscape. Most notably, China has increased its aid to the region and Russia recently made a significant donation of military equipment to Fiji. Indeed, the 2013 Defence White Paper acknowledges that ‘attitudes to our role are changing’ in the region, as ‘the growing reach and influence of Asian nations opens up a wider range of external players for our neighbours to partner with’. A number of these external partners were out in force at the dialogue following the recent Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. 
In only a few years, China's flexibility and forbearance in regional aid strategy has started to pay off. Time to catch up.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ink By The Barrel

“Underlying all of this is China’s irritation that Singapore, though it professes to look both ways and doesn’t want to make invidious choices, is deepening its relationship with the US,” said Alex Neill, an Asia-Pacific security fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore. “On [Singapore prime minister] Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to DC he was afforded the highest of honours and access, what came out of that was an enhanced defence relationship.” 

“I don’t want to use the word ‘spy,’ I don’t want you to look at it in a pessimistic way,” the major general said. “If somebody spreads distorted information which can harm society in the future, then we have to help notify the relevant government agencies.”


Is the Philippines' 'war on drugs' fuelling an HIV epidemic?

Asia’s poor choking on filthy air

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Back Foot

Wait...where do we stand?

Enlargement of SCO means that member states in Central Asia are to transit from the familiar and easy-to-understand Central Asian regional dimension to a larger, Asian one. Central Asian republics and mainly Uzbekistan fear this enlargement because it could marginalise their role within the organisation and also decrease their influence on decision-making within SCO. They may be then exposed to the impact of the Sino-Russian geopolitical strategies to a larger extent.
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization looks to expand, some fear being swept up in larger conflicts (link)

This peace deal that was being negotiated for two years has generated serious concerns about the signals it sends. At one level, apprehensions remain about the substantive execution of this peace deal. At another level, the clauses of the peace deal are being seen as having set a wrong precedent to follow. In addition to the probable, direct impacts of the peace deal, it is also being opined that the brokering of an accord between the HEM and Afghan government might have a deleterious impact on the prospects of negotiating with the Taliban. While it cannot be said with certainty that the Taliban – which has already refused to negotiate unless its demands are met – will further distance itself from the peace process, but given the rivalry that has persisted between it and the HEM, it is highly likely that the Taliban will not follow in its footsteps.
Afghanistan's peace accord with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar may be more trouble than its worth (link)

Not only are foreign visits by Modi and his diplomats being leveraged for defense sales, India is also fast tracking indigenous production of defense equipment. It has ordered BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between the DRDO of India and Russia (which produces the missiles), to expedite sales of the missile to five countries – Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. Requests from 11 other countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and United Arab Emirates are under consideration.

This flurry of activity is unnerving China which especially sees the sale and purchase BrahMos missile – reputed to be the world’s fastest cruise missile with a top speed of up to three times the speed of sound – as “destabilizing.”
India as Arsenal of Democracy (link)

Second, there is a question of utility. As elaborated above, submarines are great when it comes to sinking huge warships in naval battles. However, the maritime security threats that Indonesia faces today are not from imperial navies. They come from illegal fishing and piracy. Submarines are useless when it comes to low-intensity operations. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s explosive measures against illegal fishing boats reflects the gravity of the problem. Indonesian waters are plentiful with fish, yet due to illegal fishing, Indonesia stands to lose US$20-25 billion per year. Seeing such grave losses, it would make more strategic sense to invest in enhancing surface capabilities, such as fast patrol boats, rather than in submarines.
"Submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them." Indonesia cannot have them (link)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Game Theory: Fuck You, Buddy

Chinese officials seem to recognise that volatile leaders can swing in more than one direction. Moreover, anti-China nationalist sentiment is widespread in the Philippines and among the military leadership, constraining Duterte’s ability to compromise. His high approval ratings – 91% at the end of July – do not ensure that his harsh domestic policies or swings in foreign policy will not come back to haunt him.

China can do away with the sense of physical ownership of real/property assets; it can focus on the services attached to production factors they need not have title to, and thereby rise to be a world power peacefully in the 21st century.

The Japanese business community clearly believes that political and security issues do affect Japan’s economic relationship with China. Only 8 per cent of Japanese support Japan’s long-standing principle of ‘keeping politics and economics separate’ (seikei bunri). In contrast, 40 per cent believe Japan should scale down its business interests in China if the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute deteriorates over the long term.
Amy King on the hardening Japanese business consensus towards China (East Asia Forum, link)

Yet there is no nation in southeast Asia better positioned to provide the counter-weight to China and Russia that America needs in the South China Sea than the world’s fourth-most populous country, one that’s not only strategically located in the region but growing economically in ways that will increase its ability to assert its interests. And there is no nation in the world that provides a more powerful example in this era of global extremism and instability than the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy which, at 250 million strong, proves every day that democracy and Islam can not only co-exist, but thrive. 
If the story of the Obama years was about America’s supposed pivot to Asia - which critics say is sinking—the story of the next eight years needs to be America’s pivot to Indonesia. And after two years of false starts and concerns about his leadership, Jokowi is ready for his close up. And not a moment too soon.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Shared Identity

...more Australians considered education, health, the economy and domestic violence as a very or somewhat important issue facing Australia than terrorism/national security, refugees/asylum seekers, or immigration. A significant chunk of Australians may support the notion of banning Muslim immigration, but it's not clear it's a policy priority for anyone outside a very small segment of the population.
Australians generally don't care for immigration. But they may not care about it as much as more pressing issues 

“Singaporean voters are mature enough to vote objectively”. He added: “A minority race candidate can also be elected as president if he or she is a good candidate in the eyes of the electorate. There is no need to amend the constitution to ‘reserve’ certain presidential elections for them.”
Observers ask whether a new constitutional amendment in Singapore to make it easier for minorities to become President is necessary, or just tactical

In another sign that lines are blurring, Koh said fishing boats have attracted suspicion for being painted like navy patrol vessels. What if, he said, fishermen get drawn into the maritime nationalism and take on the role of vigilantes?
China's "Militia-Fishermen" are just one example of the hybridization of political conflict in the South China Sea

While the government in relatively affluent Dili is obsessed with large-scale projects, it is neglecting the patient micro-work that could uplift the impoverished rural bulk of the population through programs like education for coffee growers and repairs to their roads.
Familiar fallacies pose pitfalls in East Timor economic development

Friday, September 23, 2016

No Big Deal

Please Remain Calm
The recent naval exercises demonstrate Russian support for China. Their implications are significant and should be monitored, but they should not be exaggerated. Apart from Russia’s desire to balance its relations with other regional partners, there are also signs that both Russia and China are aware of the sensitivity surrounding their actions. The fact that the exercises took place just east of the port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, and not near to the contested Spratly islands, is an indication of a conscious decision on the part of Russia and perhaps even China not to push the boundaries too far. While this geographical restraint may be partly due to logistics, it certainly also signifies a diplomatic choice. 
In effect, Russia and China are playing a balancing act in their bilateral relationship: they show mutual support on issues that are important to both, but gingerly navigate around other contentious matters in each other’s backyard. Just as Russia has not protested against Chinese economic influence in Central Asia, Beijing seems to be quiet on Moscow’s move towards regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. 
Some Say The Sino-Russian Alliance May Not Be All That. It's certainly not as deep as some represent

Limited attention on the Asia-Pacific need not obfuscate the reality that this region can be a critical node for more effective, dignified and durable action on migrants and refugees. Concerted progress in the region on trafficking, disaster preparedness and the new Bali Process consultation mechanism can be a catalyst for greater global ambition. 
Asia has seen large forced migration flows in the past. But there has been a respite in the last year. Nevertheless, the continent is home to the world’s largest-known stateless group, the Rohingya. 
Asia also hosts the world’s largest group of undocumented labour migrants and the most refugees and displaced people of any region. It includes, in Afghanistan, the world’s second-leading producer of refugees and second-largest source of refugees into Europe. 
The top-ten countries most at risk from sea-level rises and climate-induced displacement are in the corridor from India to the US. 
The brief period of calm in Asia presents policymakers with the space to deal more effectively with human trafficking, asylum-seeker protection and refugee status determination, and to improve regional co-operation. They must take decisive action to deal with the issues at hand and prepare the region for what’s likely to come.
Despite the Mediterranean holding world attention, the Indo-Pacific is the real theatre for progress on migration issues

OBOR unarguably offers great potential for the GCC. Even though it is a Beijing-led project, it is impossible for China to do everything by itself. There are plenty of opportunities for GCC businesses and sovereign wealth funds to evaluate investments that are mitigated by Chinese support. Although some observers are measuring GCC gains or losses carefully in comparison to Iran, the Gulf approach to the Chinese initiative must not be founded solely upon regional rivalry, especially as the volatile political environment and problematic government regulations in some Gulf States pose challenges for Chinese investors. Zhao thinks that Chinese companies will have to be cautious in marching into these new markets. This does not mean China will bypass the Middle East, but it will certainly take a gradualist approach and increase its investment incrementally as it becomes more familiar with the local environment. Security challenges will require Beijing to play a more active role in these issues, or at least pressure relevant stakeholders to resolve their rivalries; according to China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Gong Xiaosheng, OBOR could contribute significantly to the Middle East peace process.
China's New Silk Road presents opportunities for Gulf states, but the Devil is in the Details

In many ways, Bangladesh is still fighting the battles of 1971. The domestic political tension between the two Begums — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Opposition leader Khaleda Zia — itself emanates from a debate over ‘who owns the narrative of 1971, and who secured freedom’, as Salil Tripathi, the author of a book on Bangladesh’s modern history, puts it. 
India played a part in these events; it has been considered Delhi’s most successful neighbourhood intervention. But the intervention did not create the kind of pliant state that Delhi would have hoped. As India prepares to engage with another internal movement in Pakistan, the experience offers lessons.
As we wrote earlier, Bangladesh' violent history is catching up with her. However, India also played a role and still has lessons to learn