Monthly Archives: September 2016

Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ failed. China is in the ascendancy

Tsai Ing-wen is new to the job and the strain is beginning to show. Elected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory, she took office in May, buoyed by high approval ratings. Yet in a few short months, Tsai’s popularity has plunged by 25%. The reason may be summed up in one word: China. Suspicious that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party, which also won control of parliament, harbours a pro-independence agenda, Beijing suspended official and back-channel talks with its “renegade province” and shut down an emergency hotline. More seriously, for many Taiwanese workers, China also curbed the lucrative tourist trade, which brought millions of mainland visitors to the island during the accommodating presidency of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Cross-strait investment and business have also been hit. The stories you need to read, in one handy email Read more Tsai faces contradictory pressures. The public wants the benefit of closer economic ties with China but Beijing’s intentions are rightly distrusted by a population that increasingly identifies itself as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Given President Xi Jinping’s ominous warnings that reunification cannot be delayed indefinitely, China’s military build-up and hawkish suggestions that Beijing may resort to force, Taiwanese ambivalence is wholly understandable. This dilemma – how to work constructively with a powerful, assertive China without compromising or surrendering national interests – grows steadily more acute. It is shared by states across the east and southeast Asian region. From Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam, Japan, Seoul, Malaysia and Singapore, the quandary is the same. But the answers proffered by national leaders are different and sometimes sharply at odds. The China dilemma is felt strongly in Washington. The US has striven in recent years to strengthen Asian alliances, increase trade and raise its regional military profile – Barack Obama’s so-called rebalance or pivot to Asia – in a bid to contain and channel China’s ambitions peacefully. But analysts say the pivot appears to be in trouble. For Europeans fixated on Syria and immigration, this may not seem especially worrying or relevant. That’s shortsighted. If Obama and future US presidents get China wrong, the resulting damage could be global, threatening the security and prosperity of all.

Could Duterte’s Comments Be a Threat to Peace in Southeast Asia?

Duterte has picked fights with Obama and with the EU. His behaviour is shaking the US-Philippine alliance and stability in Southeast Asia. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao after Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed from the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group in Jolo, Sulu in southern Philippines September 18, 2016. Credit: Lean Daval Jr/Reuters Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao after Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed from the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group in Jolo, Sulu in southern Philippines September 18, 2016. Credit: Lean Daval Jr/Reuters US efforts to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea are facing a new challenge. This time, the difficulty comes not from China but from the leader of a US treaty ally – President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. In recent weeks, the US-Philippine alliance has come under strain as Duterte has rebuked the US and threatened drastic changes in Philippine foreign policy. His volatile behaviour threatens the alliance, President Obama’s strategy for “rebalancing” to Asia and the stability of the Southeast Asian strategic landscape. How is incendiary rhetoric like Duterte’s likely to affect a strong defence partnership and regional security more broadly? This is the kind of question my research on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific addresses. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives the EU the finger on Sept. 20, 2016. Credit: Reuters/ Lean Daval Jr. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives the EU the finger on September 20, 2016. Credit: Reuters/ Lean Daval Jr. Duterte’s outbursts Since taking office in late June, Duterte has launched a ruthless domestic war on drugs and declared that he doesn’t “care about human rights.” Those critical of his policies have met with his sharp, uninhibited tongue. “F-ck you,” he most recently told his critics in the EU. Senior officials from the US, a treaty ally since 1951, have not been spared. Even mild US criticism has irritated Duterte’s thin skin, prompting him to describe US Secretary of State John Kerry as “crazy” and call President Barack Obama a “son of a whore.” He has chided the US as a former colonial power, announced plans to expel US special forces engaged in counter terrorism training, halted joint patrols in the South China Sea and said he would consider buying arms from China and Russia. The line between Duterte’s bombast and real policy views is unclear. He has already backtracked from his pledge to expel US special forces and said the Philippines needs the US in the South China Sea. Still, his volatility threatens the US-Philippine alliance, the strongest check against unilateral Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Could Duterte’s Comments Be a Threat to Peace in Southeast Asia?

China’s Nine-Dash Line and its Misplaced National Pride

Managing Director of Risk Cooperative / Co-author of “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”. Even after The Hague decision, China’s government continues to vociferously argue that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. In a letter to The Economist, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. The Chinese government has beaten this drum so hard and for so long, that the Chinese people believe it. The nine-dash line has appeared in school room maps throughout China for decades, in conjunction with the narrative of national humiliation that resulted from tales of imperialist plundering by foreign powers. The truth is somewhat different, however. As is noted in the book “The South China Sea”, written by veteran journalist Bill Hayton, the first Chinese official ever to set foot on one of the Spratly Islands was a Nationalist naval officer in 1946, the year after Japan’s defeat and its own loss of control of the Sea. He did so from an American ship crewed by Chinese sailors who were trained in Miami. As for the story of the nine-dash line, it began a decade earlier through a Chinese government naming commission. China was not even the first to name the islands; the naming commission borrowed and translated wholesale from British charts and pilots. It is unclear how the Chinese government translated all this into a bill of goods to be sold to the Chinese people, but by now, it is a source of national pride, however misplaced it may be. The Chinese government, and its people, have essentially backed themselves into a corner. They have been drinking the nine-dash line kool-aid for so long that even despite this year’s Hague ruling that there is no legal basis for China’s claim, and even though the Chinese government has failed to produce evidence of its declaration to back their version of the facts up, national pride will not allow them to admit that what the government is doing in the South China Sea is illegal under the very international maritime law (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas – UNCLOS) to which it first subscribed on the very day in 1982 when the Convention first became a legal instrument. Although China formally ratified UNCLOS in 1996, in 2006 the Chinese government filed a statement with UNCLOS saying that it “does not accept any of the procedures provided for in Section 2 of Part XV of the Convention with respect to all the categories of disputes referred to in paragraph 1 (a), (b), and (c) of Article 298 of the Convention.” These provisions of the Convention refer to “Compulsory Procedures Entailing Binding Decisions” issued by at least four venues: the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an “arbitral tribunal” which may refer to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), and a “special arbitral tribunal”.

China to fly drones over South China Sea

BEIJING: China is capable of flying drones over the disputed South China Sea to keep a watch over the contested waters spread over 3.5 million square km. These indigenous drones will hover over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea claimed by both China and Japan, an official said. “Many of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea have much larger underwater portions than what is visible above water, making them harder to survey and map,” Li Yingcheng, general manager of China TopRS Technology Co. Ltd said. “In response to this challenge, China has designed drones to handle such complicated surveying, including the ZC-5B and Zc-10 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The ZC-5B has a maximum flight distance of 1,400 km, and can stay in the air for up to 30 consecutive hours,” Li was quoted as saying by Chinese media. “Its design makes it especially stealthy, which comes in handy for open sea reef surveying and mapping” Li added. These drones will use the Beidou (Chinese equivalent to Google) navigation system. Last month, China had launched a high-resolution satellite for the protection of its maritime rights amid disputes with maritime neighbours over the South China Sea. In July, an international court rejected China’s claims over the South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims over the world’s most important waterway through which trade worth $5 trillion passes every year. Beijing has rejected the ruling as illegal.

Submarine sanctuary: Why China is so determined to establish dominance over the South China Sea

President Barack Obama’s final address to the UN General Assembly featured a pointed swipe at Beijing’s aggressive moves to militarise “a few rocks and reefs” in the South China Sea. “A peaceful resolution of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability,” he said. Indeed, installing airstrips and missiles on reclaimed land would represent a rather feeble effort to claim sovereignty – if that was actually China’s core objective. In reality, however, Chinese leaders have a much broader strategic objective, one which Obama cannot publicly talk about. Establishing dominance of the semi-closed South China Sea is but the first essential step in achieving China’s blue water ambitions, which Washington is unlikely to support. By declaring the South China Sea as a “core interest” alongside Taiwan and Tibet – precluding the possibility of compromise or negotiation – Beijing is underlining the strategic value it attaches to the waters. On the surface, this deep commitment seems odd because, other than claiming ambiguously defined historic sovereign rights over a vast body of water (which was rejected by an international court) containing oil and fishing resources, China has not articulated what it seeks in the shallow waters of South China Sea. Some of China’s interests in the waters are obvious: China has been drilling for oil and gas in the waters of South China Sea, it has sought to involve foreign oil companies by giving concessions and has diplomatically and physically obstructed other claimants like Vietnam from exploring. China has unilaterally banned fishing in the waters by other coastal nations at certain times of the year and has recently asked fishermen from other countries to seek permission before engaging in fishing. China has vastly expanded its coastguard fleet and armed it with powerful weapons, encouraging its fishing fleet to go out aggressively to neighbours’ exclusive economic zones. Submarine sanctuary: Why China is so determined to establish dominance over the South China Sea

Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia in tatters

Rodrigo Duterte has described any criticism from the US as a violation of Philippine sovereignty. To assert Philippine independence from the US, Duterte has openly suggested sourcing military hardware from Russia and China, writes Heydarian [Reuters]To assert Philippine independence from the US, Duterte has openly suggested sourcing military hardware from Russia and China, writes “No, I will only bring [up] the [arbitration case] face-to-face [with China]… because if you quarrel with them now, claim sovereignty, make noise here and there, they might not just even want to talk,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before his global diplomatic debut earlier this month. The Filipino leader reassured his Chinese counterparts that he wouldn’t even mention Manila’s landmark legal victory against China during latest discussions of the South China Sea disputes at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. This was no trivial matter. In its arbitration case, the Philippines managed to convince an international arbitral body, constituted under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to nullify the bulk of China’s “historic rights” claims over almost the entirety of the South China Sea, a global artery of trade.

Japan and China’s maritime tensions in the South China Sea are resurfacing World War II-era wounds

Last month, Japan’s defense ministry requested a record budget of about $51 billion for fiscal 2017. At the top of its security worries: China’s maritime aggression. Japan has reason to worry. In both the East China Sea and South China Sea, Tokyo faces an increasingly assertive China that looks determined to become an unfettered maritime powerhouse—and is beefing up its naval capabilities accordingly. China’s moves threaten to disrupt Japan’s economy and erode its sense of security. The South China Sea is not the only sea route, but it offers the cheapest, most direct way for energy supplies from the Persian Gulf (and other commodities from elsewhere) to reach northeast Asia. As a nation with few natural resources, Japan has a clear interest in keeping sea routes open. Japan and China’s maritime tensions in the South China Sea are resurfacing World War II-era wounds

Geographer: China’s Claim to South China Sea Not Rooted in History

A British geographer and journalist described China’s claims to large swaths of seas and land formations off its coast are based on 20th-century events — from the Boxer Rebellion to the defeat of Japan in World War II — and not deeply rooted in its history. This assertion brought several heated questions from the audience. Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House and the author of South China Sea, The Struggle for Power in Asia, said in response to a question that Beijing’s claims are valid “because [these territories] are ours” historically, said “a hundred years ago you [Chinese citizens] wouldn’t feel” the same way. For much of China’s past, most of the South China Sea was viewed as “a place where pirates roam.” Speaking Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank, he added, now, “every Chinese child is taught James Shoal is the southernmost part of Chinese territory.” The shoal is under water and claimed by China, Taiwan and Malaysia. It is more than 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland and 50 miles from the Malaysia coast.

A ham-fisted hegemon

IT IS already being described as the moment when America’s “pivot” to Asia was seen to have gone awry. Not the shock when Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, an American ally, caused titters by calling Barack Obama the “son of a whore”—but when he called a few days later for an end to American military assistance, including joint patrols in the South China Sea. “China is now in power,” he declared, “and they have military superiority in the region.” China is chuffed. The Philippines, after all, had brought a landmark case against China’s activities in the South China Sea to an international tribunal at The Hague. In July the tribunal rubbished China’s territorial claims and criticised its construction of artificial islands. Outraged, China swore to ignore the ruling. America insisted it must be binding. Its interest in the South China Sea, it has always said, is in upholding international law. So imagine its embarrassment now. The vindicated plaintiff appears to be saying to China, “Go ahead, help yourself.” The intention of the pivot was to reassure America’s allies in the region. Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of American forces across Asia and the Pacific, boasted last week that, in terms of American military hardware, “Everything that’s new and cool is coming to the region.” That includes the first of the Zumwalt class of destroyer, with looks straight out of “Star Trek” and a captain by the name of James Kirk. Yet although America has boosted its strength in the Pacific, its defence budget is severely constrained. Chinese military spending, meanwhile, has been growing by 10% a year, much of it on naval, satellite and cyberspace programmes designed to deny America access to the airspace and seas around China in any conflict, and to undermine America’s commitments to its Asian allies. America still has the world’s strongest armed forces, and even the most fearsome military presence in East Asia. Yet the alchemy of power involves more than iron force, as Admiral Harris underlined by stressing another vital aspect of the pivot: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade pact foundering in Congress. In August the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, called TPP’s ratification “a litmus test” of American credibility in Asia. With both presidential candidates opposed to TPP, and Mr Obama’s chances of pushing it through the lame-duck Congress looking ragged, it is a test America will probably fail.