Sunday, February 19, 2017

Navigating in Fog

Malaysian police have closed their investigation into the Kim Jong Nam assassination,
but not before the NST puts the body on the cover of their Saturday edition. Brunch, anyone?
Also: (Some Say) KJN may have been killed due to reports he entertained offers to defect
Is the Japanese media crapping the bed on DPRK coverage?

Beyond unilateralism in South China Sea FONOPs
Jeffrey Ordaniel in East Asia Forum
While unilateral US Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) should continue, including in waters surrounding Chinese-built artificial islands, Washington should establish another mechanism that engages its treaty allies and partners in the Pacific on freedom of navigation issues: bilateral and multilateral freedom of navigation patrols. In essence, Washington should institute another instrument that involves allies and regional partners that not only challenges excessive maritime entitlement claims, but also reinforces the rule of law in other areas that could be subject to new and illegal restrictions by any state in the future. 
Australia and the Philippines are ideal partners for bilateral or trilateral FON patrols. Canberra has been conducting overflight exercises in the South China Sea since the 1970s and its involvement should not be too surprising to the Chinese. Manila is a direct claimant and a US treaty ally. In early 2016, a joint patrol was integrated as one manifestation of the long overdue US–Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement forged in 2014. But the Duterte government decided to end this cooperation. 
A clearer US commitment to defend Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, as per Article 5 of the 1951 US–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, could encourage an increasingly unpredictable Manila to begin to trust Washington again. The transition from the Obama to the Trump administration provides an opportunity to reset relations between the two allies.

Realistically assessing Australia's national ambitions
Geoff Miller, Lowy Interpreter
It’s important to note that that is not getting easier. For years after the end of World War II we had a significant technological advantage over our neighbours, but they have caught up and other factors — like their larger populations and the international mobility of capital — have come into play. One obvious example is the auto industry. Very soon we will not have one, while Indonesia and Thailand will. 
For a country with a small population like Australia of course there will always be questions as to what we pay attention to, both economically, politically and in terms of supra-national issues like climate change. For example, for decades Australians with an interest have complained that neither our government nor our business people have paid sufficient attention to Indonesia; large, on the march and full of potential despite the difficulties of doing business there. But in those same decades our economic engagement with China, even larger and more on the march, has increased enormously, absorbing a huge amount of our commercial and governmental energies. (Perhaps the visit to Australia by President Jokowi later this month will focus more attention on Indonesia.) 
The above is just one example. In terms of our situation in the world we should pay sustained attention to many kinds of countries and relationships as well as issues. As an ally of the US and a major trading partner of China, we need to be alert to everything that goes on between them, as well as within them. As a neighbour of the countries of East, Southeast and, to some extent, South Asia we need to pay close attention to countries such as Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea and work with them to foster regional stability and resilience. With New Zealand, we have to pay close attention to the small island countries of the South Pacific, where we can make a difference to their struggles for social and economic advancement, and, unfortunately, perhaps later assist with the consequences of climate change.

Sheridan Mahavera, South China Morning Post

The PAS left the Hope Coalition in 2015 and became independent after a fellow coalition member, the secular Democratic Action Party, protested against its campaign to introduce a Muslim penal code called hudud. A senior leader of the Democratic Action Party – which is popular with ethnic Chinese voters – recently signalled a willingness to mend ties with the PAS, while former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, long known for his criticisms of the PAS’ ultra-conservatism, has also appeared to change tack. 
Mahathir’s party, the Malaysian Indigenous People’s Party, or Bersatu, is allied to the Hope Coalition and is now leading negotiations for an electoral pact with PAS in an effort to oust the National Front and its scandal-tainted chairman, Prime Minister Najib Razak. But Najib, too, is thought to be working behind the scenes to influence the PAS, leading to questions over where its loyalties lie. 
Will the PAS side with its estranged former allies in the Hope Coalition? Or will it go it alone in the elections, splitting support for the opposition and thereby helping keep Najib in power?

Long Zhenyang: The resignation that shook Hong Kong media
By Juliana Liu, BBC China Blog

"Given the draconian instructions given by the propaganda department and the increasingly rigid restrictions on what editorial line they can take, I imagine many journalists are not happy with their jobs. But most will simply obey the party line," he said. 
Mr Long has claimed he was anti-Party for many years, even as he rose through the ranks at Shenzhen newspapers from junior reporter to senior editor. 
"Over the past 20 years, I've written a lot of things I don't believe in," he said. 
But he believes it was essays supporting the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that he shared privately, to his Wechat group, that got him into trouble.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Things Are Tough All Over, Part 11,715

Photo: Carrie Lam's Facebook page is blowing up - and not in a good way


Specifically, the PLA Rocket Force appears to have been practicing on several ship targets of a similar size to U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers moored in a mock port that is a near-mirror image of the actual inner harbor at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka (see Figure 11). Note what looks like an impact crater located near the center of the three ship targets, close enough to have potentially damaged all three ships with submunitions. The display of these targets may itself constitute signaling to the United States and its allies as a long-term deterrent effort. All the same, it bears considering that the only way that China could realistically expect to catch multiple U.S. ships in port as shown above would be through a surprise attack. Otherwise, with clear signs of imminent hostilities, the United States would likely have already sent its fleet to sea. Some skeptics might say that catching the U.S. flat-footed would be unlikely, but history teaches us not to discount the possibility of successful surprise attacks.  
Japan is the 62nd largest country in terms of area. It is the 11th largest in terms of population. But neither of these facts disqualifies Japan from rising as a regional power. 
Unlike China, Japan has no land-based enemies—it is an island nation. Unlike China, the Japanese government has no concern about its ability to impose its writ throughout the entire country. 
Nor does it have to deal with a huge gulf in wealth disparity between regions. Japan has also managed a transition from a high-growth economy to a low-growth economy without revolution. 
Japan's weaknesses have manifested in the development of a strong navy able to guard maritime supply lines. It has also cultivated a tight alliance with a country that will guard those supply lines, the United States.


Dahwood Rheman, Daily Pakistan
(The) Sipri report is the first one that elaborately touches upon the topic of Indian concerns on CPEC-a subsidiary of 'One Belt One Road' initiative and discussed the mega project's implications on security mechanics in the region.

According to the report, India has serious reservations against the CPEC and strictly opposes it. India fears that China will ultimately pose a threat by possessing a clear edge, though a toehold in the beginning, in the Indian Ocean with direct access to the Arabian Sea. India considers that the toehold will culminate into a military presence at some stage, the report says. 

Senator Cory Bernardi's warning for Malcolm Turnbull

While he pledged his support for money bills to keep the Government operating, Bernardi hinted he wouldn't rubber stamp other legislation. As expected, the South Australian used the first sitting day of the year to inform Parliament he had resigned from the Liberal Party to guide his political movement, the Australian Conservatives.

His defection means the Turnbull Government will need the support of nine of the 10 independent cross benchers to have its legislation clear the Senate against opposition from Labor and the Greens.

Bernardi defended the "difficult" decision, arguing the political class was out of touch. He warned that Australia was succumbing to the lure of personality politics which he claimed was shrinking the debate and compromising the sense and values of the many.

The Rohingya Insurgents: Myanmar Creates Its Own Frankenstein 

Aparupa Bhattacherjee, THE DIPLOMAT
One thing is clear: HaY is a monster of Myanmar's own creation, an offspring of failed policy and abhorrent treatment toward the Rohingya. If this group becomes a threat the world is afraid of, the credit for HaY's growth and strength should be attributed to the failure of Myanmar's peace initiative and also the atrocities by the BGP and Tatmadaw in the name of preventing conflict. 

Monday, February 06, 2017

Fences and Neighbors

The arrest of Xaysana Keopimpha, the suspected mastermind behind several drug rackets in Southeast Asia, has raised fears that Thailand has become a "superhighway" for drug trafficking.

If you want to see what a “Muslim ban” really looks like, start paying attention to Australia / Alex MacKinnon, Quartz

Watching the most powerful man on earth publicly embarrass one of the United States’ staunchest allies for attempting to uphold a diplomatic agreement has captivated many on both sides of the Pacific. But you shouldn’t play Australia the victim: Our inhumane immigration policies are arguably the groundwork for Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” But in Australia, politicians don’t need walls and visas revocations to keep unwanted visitors out—they have a moat.

Pirates, cyclones and mud: Bangladesh's island solution to Rohingya crisis / Reuters

While most experts dismiss the scheme as impractical, a Bangladeshi minister told Reuters this week that it was determined to push ahead, adding authorities would provide shelters, other facilities and livestock.

Local administrators, however, say they have not been informed, and when Reuters visited the island the only signs of activity were a few buffalo lazily grazing on the yellow grass along its shores.

"We have only heard bad things about the Rohingya. If they work with the pirates and get involved in crime - we don't want them here," said Mizanur Rahman, 48, the administrator of Might Bangha village, the closest settlement to Thengar Char.


Whatever Mahathir’s true motives, controversy over his stance on Chinese investment is the latest snag in the coalition’s efforts to unseat Najib – efforts that have faltered despite the unpopularity of the prime minister, who is fighting corruption allegations regarding the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Najib was drawn into the crisis surrounding the fund when it was revealed that US$681 million in transfers were made to his personal bank accounts in 2013. He says they were “personal donations” from the Saudi royal family and has denied all wrong-doing.

Against this backdrop, China has been a white knight for Najib, buying up assets in the troubled 1MDB by outbidding everyone else, fuelling opposition concerns that the Chinese are buying influence.

Smoker's corner: Are we ready for CPEC? / Nadeem Paracha, Dawn

I’m not sure whether by the time this column goes into print, Pakistan’s name too would be put on Trump’s ban list. But even if it’s not, the state, government and people of Pakistan must seriously become aware of the most recent hypothesis which is predicting the rise of China as a leading superpower in the event of Trump’s (rather belligerent) attempt to isolate the US from a number of countries.

I say this because Pakistan is now at the epicentre of China’s economic influence and growth in the region. China has positively recognised and responded to the many pecuniary openings available in a growing economy such as Pakistan, despite the fact that these opportunities are often overshadowed in local and international media by the perception of Pakistan being politically unstable.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the result of China’s pursuit to utilise these untapped investment opportunities available in Pakistan. China believes that the economic outcome of this investment would have a positive impact on Pakistan’s economy, which, in turn, would result in political stability.

Does contemporary Japan need religion? / Michael Hoffman, Japan Times

That aside, postwar life was materialist, and it was good. At least it felt good. Its current twilight, says Aera, moves many to nostalgia. At its height, it was simple and (deceptively, perhaps) full. You worked hard at school, passed rote-learning tests, got into a respected university, made useful connections, joined a respected corporation and prospered. The corporation demanded a lot in return — unquestioning, unwavering devotion — but most people gave it willingly.

Then things went wrong. The economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. A “religion” called Aum Shinrikyo went on a terrorist rampage in 1995; two years later, the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated Kobe; in 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated Tohoku. You didn’t need to see the hand of God in all this to wonder whether forces other than economics, crackpot theology and geology weren’t at work. Religion is not always dogmatic certainty; it can feed also, maybe better, on unanswered, unanswerable questions.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fast Tracks, But To Where?

Tillerson, Trump, and the South China Sea - Amitai Etzioni in The Diplomat

"Moreover, these statements are all written on ice. As soon as the sun rises, they melt away and can be replaced not merely by some modification but by a rather different position altogether. Thus, one day Trump criticizes the intelligence community and accuses them of being behind a smear campaign against him. Next, he claims that the rift between him and the CIA was made up by the “dishonest” media. For much of the campaign, and even after the election, he criticized the Iraq War. Then, at his speech to the CIA, after saying we should have taken Iraq’s oil, he says “maybe we’ll have another chance.” One moment, he says that Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, but then only a few moments later he says: “Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” No one should be surprised if he states tomorrow that China can have all the islands it wants because protecting them would cost too much or some other random thought."

Rohingya Camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, Worlds Apart
Maher Sattar, Al Jazeera

'What Thailand has done - with the Karen, Kachin and Shan refugees who came earlier from Myanmar, and the Rohingya refugees later - is to engage with the refugee population and operate using a framework of international cooperation.

Organisations such the The Border Consortium, a group of nine international NGOs, and others play a large role in administering the camps in Thailand.

"We work closely with the Thai government, because it always becomes an issue of national law and how the national law allows undocumented migrants to access services," says Chiaki Lee, the project's manager at IOM.

"And we also work closely with local NGOs, because they are the ones that provide community-based services."

The Bangladesh government, on the other hand, seems to have settled on the tactic of sticking their head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away.

After 25 years, it still hasn't.'

Sino-Japanese Propaganda War Heating Up
Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times

Cambridge University historian Barak Kushner argues that “the most counterproductive propaganda effort on the Chinese side is probably the constant push to say to the Japanese that they need to ‘reflect on history like a mirror’ because now revisionist Japanese are pushing back in a comparative manner and saying that if you Chinese want to reflect so much on the war, you also need to think about the destruction that Mao caused.” In Kushner’s view, China’s more assertive stand on wartime history is counterproductive because it is entrenching a more hostile attitude among Japanese.

He notes that Beijing’s blunders are matched by Tokyo, because “no matter how many times a Japanese PM officially apologizes … there is a long list from the 1980s of individual ministers then saying stupid things and/or refuting the Nanjing Massacre.” This “has led to the idea throughout East Asia that Japan feels no culpability.”

Centrelink a Fast Track to Turnbull's Demise
Ross Gittins in The Sydney Morning Herald

Really? This is the way bureaucrats and politicians get their names into the history books for contributing to their government's demise.

So far they've mainly been picking on young people on the dole, but now they're moving on to invalids and age pensioners. Really? Courageous decision, minister.

What on earth is motivating them? Partly it's that, having made so much fuss about debt and deficit while in opposition, the government is having enormous trouble getting the budget deficit down.

It lacks the courage to tackle the big sources of rent-seeking by business interests, but is confident it can get away with cracking down on the tiddlers in social security.

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