Middle East Violence: Mr. Obama, Don’t Bark at the Wrong Tree, it is not Islam


October 31, 2014

Middle East Violence: Mr. Obama, Don’t Bark at the Wrong Tree, it is not Islam

by BA Hamzah

Islam is not at risk in the Middle East. At risk are theDr BA Hamzah repressive Arab regimes under the protection of the external powers. The threat to the stability of the political regimes will come from those who have been deprived of their human rights and dignity.

The women who are not allowed to drive and those who cannot find jobs in their own countries are likely to rebel for freedom and political gains. Those who cannot be accommodated by the regimes are likely to join the ranks of alternative military and political movements like ISIL or the Muslim Brotherhood.–BA Hamzah

Terrorism has been associated with different faiths at different historical times.There is no empirical evidence to suggest that violence is embedded, ingrained or inherent in any religion, certainly not in the case of Islam.

Karen Armstrong Latest BookKaren Armstrong reminds readers in her recent book (Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Bodley Head, 2014) that it is incorrect to blame religion as the cause of world’s many bloody conflicts.

Karen Armstrong makes a persuasive argument that is likely to enrage many neo-cons: the root cause of the “carnage” in the Muslim world (by extension the current political crisis in the Middle East) is “politics” rather than faith.

Many analysts have long pointed to the disputed colonial-drawn boundaries in the Middle East as a major political-cum-security problem. Abu Bakar Al-Bagdadi has reportedly promised his flock he would demolish the Skyes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which partitioned the Arab land into imperial enclaves. He wants to redraw the political map of the Middle East, to undo, the wrongs of the Imperial powers, presumably to restore Arabs’ dignity. Bagdadis’ promise borders retribution by Arab nationalists and not about Islam.

The Arab land is likely to implode further with Israel’s decision last week to expand its illegal settlements on Palestine land. By now, the world has come to realise that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about religion but about territory, suppression, human right violations and the denial of a homeland for Palestine.

The fault-lines over the territorial conflict in the Middle East are blurred but hardlyObama's Mid East Policy religious in nature. It is true that the current conflict involves some radicals who call themselves Muslims but it is NOT over Islam per se. Do not confuse Islam with the angry actions of some extremists. There is a fine distinction between Islam as faith and its use as an operating ideology by extremists.

The Islam world comprises some 1.6 billion adherents, only a small number hate peace. Unfortunately, the Western media has stigmatised and stereotyped the entire Muslim community for the actions of the few hard-core extremists.

Violence often accompanies conflicts. For example, the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648). Contrary to popular belief, the cause of the Thirty Years War was not religion per se; it was due to sectarian violence, nationalism and the fight for territory as well as the continuation of rivalry for political pre-eminence between the Habsburg of Bohemia and the French Bourbon aristocracies.

The Thirty Years War also saw the involvement of external major powers, (Sweden, Spain, France and Austria) waging wars on the German soil. As history reminds us, the fall-out from this quagmire led to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a series of peace treaties between the warring factions that gave Europe its current political boundaries and the concept of State in international relations.

The US-led coalition forces and their local Arab partners in the Middle East are obama-clueless-on-middle-east-foreign-policydefending the present political boundaries that Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot drew in 1916 and their geo-political interests there. The political divisions of the Arab world resulted from politics and big powers rivalries. Islam played no role in the political division of the Middle East.

This rivalry between big powers for the control of the Middle East is being re-enacted with ISIL as the cannon fodder. The current contest for power has to do primarily with access to strategic resources and control of the strategic waterways. At the local level, the conflict is about sectarianism, Arab nationalism and the quest for territories, identity and a revolt against suppressive regimes as well as a desire to rewrite the political history of the Middle East.

Social-cultural and economic considerations are equally important in understanding the current conflict in the Middle East. Arab nationalists masquerading as radical Muslims are also rebelling against external powers propping- up unpopular regimes. The Arab  revolutionary reawakening is about politics along a historical fault-line.

Abu Bakar Al-BagdadiThe story of ISIL is also a story of proxy wars between regional powers. On one side, we have Iran jockeying for greater eminence beyond Iraq and Syria. The Saudis are teaming up with the Qataris with help from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to expand influence in Syria and Libya. Turkey is bidding for more time before jumping into the political quagmire.

According to authority, the five Arab states in the US-led coalition against ISIL need the US as a cover their “increasingly repressive policies.” This is not about Islam. On the contrary, it is about regime preservation. The governing elites fear for their lives after what they saw in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.

The involvement of the US, UK, France, Australia and Canada in the Middle East proxy wars is likely to embolden their internal home- grown dissidents. Read Amnesty International “Report Choice and Prejudice: Discriminations against Muslims in Europe (2012)” for a glimpse of racial profiling and discriminations against Muslims.) The solution to their citizens taking up arms in the Middle East is to provide them jobs at home and eliminate the religious stereotyping and stigma.

The current spate of the regional proxy wars commenced with the failed US policy in Iraq, followed by Sunnis frustration with a pro- Shia Al-Maliki regime. Lighting the bonfires of counter movements in the current political turmoil, apart from the US invasion of Iraq (2003), were the 2011 internal uprisings among Arabs (dubbed as the Arab Spring).

The Arab Spring has exposed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of many Arab political regimes. The collapse of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt at the hands of their own citizens (of course, with help from some Western powers) was unprecedented in the post 1945 Arab world.

Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq are on the danger list. The richer Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are also feeling the heat from the unresolved Syrian conflict. Their military intervention in the Syrian conflict will have long-term strategic impact including expediting their downfall.

The small Potentates suffer from massive internal problems like unemployment, corruption and human right abuses. Those who can no longer suppress the rising expectations of their people are turning to America for help.

The political regimes in Lebanon and Jordan may not last very long without outside help as they find it difficult to cope up with refugees inside their borders. The threat from ISIL/ISIS posed on their sovereignty and territorial integrity must be their regimes nightmare.

Repressive Arab regimes are at risk not Islam

Saudi prince announces defection from royal familySaudi Arabia’s Elite

Islam is not at risk in the Middle East. At risk are the repressive Arab regimes under the protection of the external powers. The threat to the stability of the political regimes will come from those who have been deprived of their human rights and dignity. The women who are not allowed to drive and those who cannot find jobs in their own countries are likely to rebel for freedom and political gains. Those who cannot be accommodated by the regimes are likely to join the ranks of alternative military and political movements like ISIL or the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are other political permutations, too. A strong Kurdistan with backing from Western States may rattle Turkey and Iraq. The thought of the Kurdish-Peshmerga forces controlling Kobane, a town on Turkey’s border, will not bode well for Istanbul that has been fighting the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) forces for the last thirty years.

With Turkey drawn in the conflict, the scenario will change the strategic calculations and political landscape on the ground. Iran and its allies (e.g., the Hezbollah in Lebanon) are not likely to remain quiet. So does Russia, which has a naval facility at Tartus, Syria.

Finally, bombing the ISIL is not the solution; it was proven during the strategic bombardment of Dresden, Germany during WW 11. The idea that the US could roll back the ISIL/ISIS with air strikes is just simply preposterous. On the contrary, the airstrikes will further radicalise the fence- sitters whose families and property were destroyed.

Also Read: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Obama_and_the_Middle_East_Two_Speeches_Three_Challenges.htm

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC


October 29, 2014

Malaysia as seen from Washington DC

By Kean Wong, Special to the Malaysian Insider

 The White HouseThe White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had just outlined the robust prospects for Malaysia’s economy and was busy posing for photos with Malaysia’s new Ambassador to the United States Datuk Awang Adek and various Manhattan dignitaries on stage when a few visiting Malaysians and an American businessman familiar with what he called the “heyday of Mahathir’s Malaysia” opened up around the coffee stand about the challenges that needed trouncing today if the weather was to clear up in the weeks and months ahead.

Like President Obama – who considers PM Najib a close Asian confidante, andNajib and Obama according to Washington insiders, a “most reliable friend” amid an anxious region – the Prime Minister has sought comfort in foreign policy wins over the often thankless and truculent realities of domestic politics.

So the ringing global endorsement of Malaysia as a new UN Security Council member next year that handily coincides with its much-awaited chairmanship of ASEAN (after Cambodia’s recent vexed leadership) is justly deserved and celebrated, avers a veteran former Asian diplomat now at the United Nations in New York.

Razali IsmailThanks to Malaysia’s “inspired and markets-friendly” global leadership during the Mahathir years, and fondly remembered diplomats like Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Malaysia still glows on the world stage.

The country represents a “necessary and useful” example and plays an international role as a globalised, Muslim-led country at a time of fraught Western relations with the Muslim world, notes a senior American diplomat echoing a common view at Washington-based think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In the current campaign against Isis and its unravelling of Iraq and Syria, where the Obama administration has been desperately keen on stitching together a better “coalition of the willing” (Muslim) nations to combat such extremism, the Najib government is a stalwart ally.

Despite American concerns raised over the alleged use of the Sedition Act to crackdown on Malaysian dissent and an expectation that this week’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim trial will turn out poorly for the opposition leader, there is a prevailing Washington agenda about terrorism, China’s rise and related trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – not necessarily in that order – that should not be derailed.

John KerrryAs a senior US State Department official explained in a briefing ahead of Secretary John Kerry’s series of bilateral meetings in Jakarta following President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, “at the top of the list (is) the international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (Isis)… we hope that the individual countries can do more and cooperate more to ensure that, in the first instance, Southeast Asia remains immune to the proselytizing efforts of Isis; and secondly, that these countries assist effectively beyond what they’ve done already to rebut the false ideology.”

“Of course, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore are also members of the TPP negotiations. That’s a topic that is likely to be touched on (in bilateral talks),” Kerry said. “Malaysia, I would flag for you, has just won a seat on the UN Security Council circa 2015 and will take over from Burma in 2015 as the next chair of ASEAN. So there’s a lot of good work to be done in the meeting with Prime Minister Najib.”

Yet it was the mixed results so far of Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and worries over the Prime Mminister’s political future that coloured the backdrop of conversations accompanying a slew of Malaysian leaders over the past month of American visits.

For one traveling Malaysian businessman, speculating about life after a Najib Prime Ministership was apparently commonplace among his peers. He was concerned that the “many good ideas and sincerity” of the Prime Minister’s team in pushing Malaysia forward could be jeopardised by the various UMNO-linked pressure groups like PERKASA and ISMA, which “did not understand” how the globalised Malaysian economy worked.

Perhaps surprisingly, his American businessman friend was more adept at working out the realpolitik, contrasting Washington’s acute polarisation of politics and culture by going through Malaysia’s possible list of successors, and echoing what some in UMNO Youth have argued is the ascendancy of leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin to break political deadlocks (and stasis).

But as another visitor remarked, where does that leave the present incumbent? With looming defeat expected at next month’s polls for the Democrats – where losing control of the US Senate means souring prospects for Obama’s domestic agenda and legacy – perhaps navigating past lame-duck leaders will be the corporate world’s biggest challenge on both sides of the globe.

Yet the bilateral relationship between Malaysia and the US has “never been better”, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, pictured in 2010greased along by a “strong” personal bond forged between the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama, explained a diplomat travelling with Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to Washington last month.

As a measure of the depth of bilateral ties, and in time for the current campaign against Isil and related security threats, Zahid was feted across Washington in long meetings with key Obama administration officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CIA Director John Brennan (where Zahid spent three hours at the Langley HQ), and Attorney-General Eric Holder.

Zahid later explained at a Malaysian Embassy dinner that our “strong ties, trust” will also help propel along the likelihood of Malaysians being granted coveted visa waivers to the US, in another sign of the strengthening “people to people” links that are a key feature of bilateral ties.

In an embassy reception marking both Hari Merdeka and Armed Forces Day, Zahid as a former Defence Minister also listed in his speech the various ongoing Pentagon-funded programmes and regional exercises where Malaysia plays a key part, that was as much a legacy of Malaysia’s anti-communist Cold War role as today’s delicate exigencies over the South China Sea.

The Minister waved away concerns over domestic politics by referring to the “national interest”; moreover, as a senior officer working for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff saw it, Malaysia’s domestic uncertainties paled by comparison to the jostling ASEAN faces in the South China Sea with China and there was “much to look forward to with Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship”.

J YunAt a discussion a few nights later at nearby American University, the visiting US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun (left) also echoed the Home Minister’s celebration of our American relationship, and explained that Malaysia was on track to join the US visa waiver programme as our “5% visa refusal rate” trends down towards a 3% criterion.

While the US envoy was perhaps more circumspect than usual in deference to the Malaysian Ambassador in the audience, Yun did note American concerns over the “social, political challenges” that included vexed differences over religious issues and the ‘politicised’ TPP negotiations.

The audience chuckled along when both envoys agreed the Malaysian government faced such dilemmas in a polarised atmosphere “just like Washington”, blaming much of it on “hard to control” social media and the Internet.

Yet as the former US Ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott, points out, strongambassador-john-malott bilateral ties notwithstanding, Malaysia has been a skilled diplomatic player in an increasingly anxious region, which knows its interests may be between that of the US, China and Asean over immediate issues like the South China Sea – and the need to recalibrate responses to China as it asserts its economic weight and ambitions.

“I find it amazing the US puts so much store in the TPP with Malaysia when there are other economic and trade interests that are just are important to American companies, when American companies don’t get a fair shake because of the problems of corruption, a lack of transparency in such areas as ‘no bid contracts’,” Malott said.

Perhaps a more attractive future Malaysia shimmered into view a week later when the increasingly popular Yuna took the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium downtown. As the gaggle of so-called “hijabsters” danced, clapped and swayed in the aisles, Yuna charmed the rest of us with her mix of polished pop tunes and modest tales between songs about her experiences as a Malaysian taking on the Los Angeles music world.

In the crowd queueing for photographs and autographs afterwards, the Malaysians who turned out in force for their homegirl merged seamlessly with the wider America on display. The future seemed within grasp for now.

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A Commentary :Jokowi’s new Cabinet


October 28, 2014

A Commentary :Jokowi’s new Cabinet

by Rashid Yusof, NST Deputy Group Editor

http://www.nst.com.my/node/46945

Joko and JusufTHERE are Malaysian connections in the Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) cabinet that was announced on Sunday. Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister M. Nasir, who is, in fact, newly appointed as rector of the Diponegoro University, has a PhD from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Marwan Jafar, the Development of villages, underdeveloped regions and transmigration Minister, obtained his PhD from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Rector of Gadjah Mada University, Pratikno, is now the Cabinet Secretary, while Yohana S. Yambise of Papua is Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister. She was also plucked from academia, having been a professor at Cenderawasih University. Likewise Culture, and Elementary and Secondary Education Minister Anies Baswedan was the president of Paraminda University.

As for the Malaysian angle, Indonesia’s first female Foreign Minister, Retno Retno MarsudiMarsudi (right), will enjoy greater name recognition here because of the nature of her job. She is a career diplomat, who, until the announcement, was Indonesia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands. Hanif Dhakiri, the manpower minister, may gain some visibility in Malaysia, too, as the issue of maids has unfailingly exasperated many Malaysian households.

The traditional universal response or refrain to a new leader’s decision — “mixed”, “cautious” — greeted the line-up of 34 ministers, which featured eight technocrats.

Emblematic of the attitude of every decision being potentially flawed, some international pundits looked at the presence of academics in the line-up, concluding, sadly, that there is a dearth of such talent in Indonesia. An international media outlet added for good measure that even if there was outstanding talent, the appointee might turn out to be the wrong choice for a government role. This is a bewildering take.

Jokowi is not the leader of any political party. That is an advantage, as he is free, to a certain extent, to appoint the best available talent. The party that fielded him for the July 9 presidential election, PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle) is in a coalition. Realistically — in fact, it is a given — the President will have to appoint representatives of PDI-P and its coalition partners.

Conversely, it was always going to be daunting to honour pledges of appointing a Cabinet made up of an entirely brilliant cast.In reality, the Jokowi Cabinet features some promising appointments.

A Barclays’ emerging markets research bulletin said the team should facilitate policy implementation, and alluded to the five key economic posts of finance, economics, energy, trade and state-owned enterprises going to technocrats.

“President Jokowi took the unprecedented but sensible step of asking the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to vet his shortlist.” Barclays applauded the appointment of Bambang Brojonegoro as Finance Minister ahead of the fuel subsidy reform along with tax reforms and broader fiscal consolidation.

“At 48, Bambang is one of the youngest Permanent Secretaries (or vice-ministers) in the Indonesian civil service, and well regarded as an economist. He is international in his outlook, having managed the Fiscal Policy Office and Debt Management Office — two portfolios in the Finance Ministry which entail frequent interactions with professional investors.” Bambang has a PhD in urban and regional planning from the University of Illinois.

Rachmat Gobel, Head of the Panasonic Gobel Group, is the new Trade Minister. He graduated from Chuo University, Tokyo, in 1987 with a Bachelor’s degree in International Trade.

Arief Yahya, Chief Executive Officer of state-owned telecommunications company Telekomunasi Indonesia (Telkom), named Marketeer of the Year 2013, is Tourism Minister. The Marine and Fisheries Minister is Susi Pudjiastuti, who started off as a fishmonger and whose business expanded gloriously that in 2004, she acquired two Cessna Caravan planes to fly lobsters from South Java to Jakarta. That was the genesis of Susi Air.

Kereta Api Indonesia Head Ignnasius Jonan, credited with the transformation of rail services in Java and Sumatra, is Transport Minister. He had been overseeing, among others, the 780km double-tracking project on the Jakarta- Surabaya line. Sofyan Djalil is the Co-ordinating Economics Minister.

PDI-P is headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Rini Soemarno, the daughter of Soemarno, a former central bank governor, and reportedly a confidante of president Sukarno, was made a minister when Megawati was president. Rini was also made head of the Jokowi transition team. Now, Rini has been appointed state-owned Enterprises Minister. A retired general, Ryamizard Ryacudu is Defence Minister, while Tjahjo Kumolo is home minister. hese three are reportedly Megawati nominees.

Jokowi’s Cabinet has been dubbed Kabinet Kerja (Work-oriented Cabinet). That Jonan, of Kereta Api Indonesia, had routinely slept in trains was mentioned by Jokowi at the announcement. He was also impressed with the marketing credentials of the Tourism Minister, and singled out ministers who had authored books.

Of an immediate interest to Indonesians, and the region, would be the upcoming announcement on the fuel subsidy revamp. Realistically, that would be the real tangible test of the Jokowi brand of leadership.

US Asian Foreign Policy


October 26, 2014

US Asian Foreign Policy

by Dr. Munir Majid@www.the star.com.my

“US foreign policy in Asia, therefore, has to be delicate and sensitive enough to adjust to what can be described without exaggeration as seismic economic change. On the one hand, it should not be drawn too deeply into exclusively political-security manifestations despite China’s unacceptable belligerent and assertive actions. On the other, America must adjust to Asia’s economic rise.”–Dr. Munir Majid

Tan_Sri_Dr_Munir_MajidTHE United States is a global power. Asia the largest continent on earth. The Asian economies of the proposed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) alone now constitute 30% of global output, with consistently the highest growth rates and holding the largest reserves in the world.

It is not likely the United States would have missed Asia in the conduct of its foreign policy in pursuit of its interests. The interminable discussion, particularly among academics, on the US pivot or rebalance to Asia, following President Barack Obama’s use of the former term, can be overdone. It can result in the wood being missed for the trees.

That discussion, furthermore, leads to concentration on the military and security aspects of US foreign policy in Asia. US policy-makers lend their weight to this, with statements such as those by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in 2010 or previous Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2012.

Clinton had said freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes were vital to US interests in the region. Panetta said that in the rebalance, US naval forces in the Pacific would be increased to 60% from the present 50%.

All this was said in relation to China, in the context of disputes the rising Asian power has with a number of states in the East China Sea and South China Sea. It did not take a leap of imagination to leave the impression the new emphasis of US foreign policy in Asia is primarily political-security in nature – and is intended to contain China as it became more assertive in the sea disputes.

A number of reasons has conventionally been offered for China’s greater assertiveness. It is a rising power; these things historically happen. On the other hand the US is a declining power; often a parallel is drawn with the conflict between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC which ended the latter’s domination of ancient Greece.

It is also asserted that there has been a loss of central control in China of the country’s bureaucratic political structures which allowed the fisheries department, for instance, to go ahead of the foreign ministry in asserting the sea claims. Unlikely as it may sound, this is not impossible especially as another reason offered is not mutually exclusive: the desire, at China’s centre, to shore up legitimacy at home at a time of increasing domestic stress, such as contending with the social consequences of slowdown in GDP growth from 10% to 7.5%.

All these reasons are not implausible, although I would add ASEAN’s desultory approach in pursuing the code of conduct under the terms of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002 until the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012 between China and the Philippines, and the failure of foreign ministers from the regional grouping to agree on a joint communique for the first time in that same year, gave Beijing time and space to fashion that greater assertiveness whatever its leitmotif.

In the context of US foreign policy in Asia, the China Question has become predominant again as it was all those years ago in regard to recognition of the communist regime, its representation of China at the United Nations and final establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

The objective of balancing, if not containment of, China cannot become the sole reason for the United States’ greater involvement in Asia. It delivers a political-security good which most countries in the region secretly desire, but it cannot become the sum total of US foreign policy in Asia.

The drama of the sea disputes has obscured the good reason for US’ greater interest in Asia which is primarily economic, the region’s dynamism which has moved the centre of global economic gravity eastwards to the Asia Pacific. While the political-security interest may secure economic benefits, it can also spoil their achievement if relations between US and China are possessed by such a concern alone.

What has been happening in Asia is that both US and China are driving each other into positions which are antagonistic and not cooperative. Leaving aside military chest-thumping and bellicose diplomatic language, they are also trying to exclude, or at least marginalise the other, in the organisation of Asia-Pacific regional economic cooperation.

The RCEP (negotiation for which involves Asean and six Asia-Pacific states) does not include the United States. China has not been invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Vietnam, for instance, is a negotiating partner which would not pass the same pre-qualification as China if the US had some such objective test. It is realpolitik – and the compliment is returned with the RCEP.

Other Asian states are being forced into making a choice between the two constructs, whether they are members, or potential members, of both. Even if it is argued the two groupings will ultimately coalesce, the burning issue is the standards and style of trade and investment relations which differ, with the TPP particularly bearing heavy American imprint.

The US has done well in signalling its economic interest in Asia with the rebalance, often considered as the second pillar of the pivot to Asia. Understandably, having been at the centre of the international economic system that had driven Asian growth, it now wants, as a long-established Pacific nation, to share in further regional prosperity – by still being at that centre and by entrenching as well as by strengthening the rules of economic conduct.

Asian restoration

The latter gives rise to problems in the pursuit of US foreign policy objectives in Asia. It is a new Asia the US is dealing with, not the Asia of yore when the American writ was overwhelming.

It is a more confident Asia. Indeed the whole sweep of the change in the centre of economic gravity is something of an Asian restoration. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund ranked China’s economy as the world’s biggest in purchasing power parity terms. American predominance in at most the last century is over. The Chinese economy which was the biggest in many more hundreds of years is now back.

The Economist observed: “The brief interlude in which America overshadowed it (China) is now over.”

Asia has also looked on as the American capitalist system came close to meltdown in the 2008 crisis because of many excesses embedded in the rules of the economic game. Rules and forms of crisis management which America taught Asia never to entertain were employed to save the economy. There have not been contrition and enough humility afterwards.

Indeed it would seem to Asia some of those rules are being strengthened with a vengeance in American trade and investment proposals, such as to be found in the TPP, particularly in respect of corporate rights against the state. Have not any lessons been learned both from recent economic experience and from the historic rise of Asia in the desire – perfectly understandably – to further Americans interests?

Yet the system America offers is still the best to achieve optimal economic outcomes. But it has to be substantially adjusted to avoid considerable social and political cost, and to reflect that other countries, especially in Asia, have grown up and grown big.

US foreign policy in Asia, therefore, has to be delicate and sensitive enough to adjust Barack Obamato what can be described without exaggeration as seismic economic change. On the one hand, it should not be drawn too deeply into exclusively political-security manifestations despite China’s unacceptable belligerent and assertive actions. On the other, America must adjust to Asia’s economic rise.

Schemes of trilateral or quadrilateral alliances, even of a “soft” kind, involving the United States, Japan, India and/or Australia, are provocative. While it is always stated by the advocates they are not against China, this is what Beijing reasonably feels. At the very least they isolate China. Alliances have a history of bringing about precisely the outcomes they purportedly want to avoid.

CHINA-RUSSIA-UN-DIPLOMACYChina for its part should not continue to be a stick in the mud, carping and complaining, self-righteous in proclaiming always that others are in the wrong, never Beijing. Whereas China’s actions in the South China Sea particularly have been bullying and abominable. Its sovereignty over areas it claims is not God-given. It is disputed. Other states have rights. It cannot go about behaving in the vein that might is right. It must recognise international laws and the friendships it eschews.

Actually, both America and China must give substance to the new type of great power relationship which was identified in the Obama-Xi Jinping meeting in Sunnylands, California in June last year. As Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in March this year the US must articulate its own vision for the evolving international order that is acceptable to both countries.

On the other hand, China should not expect to replicate principles of that kind of relationship which it had first forged with Russia in the mid-1990s. That model would not fit. Russia is not the United States. As the status quo global power and the revisionist rising regional power due weight must be recognised in each other. A very difficult process no doubt but neither should be in denial of the other’s position and a creative relationship can be forged without recourse to tired old foreign policy constructs.

ASEAN_logo_1ASEAN too has a role beyond tedious repetition of the ASEAN platform being the basis of regional cooperation and security. That platform will float away if there was not a stronger foreign policy positioning – particularly on the South China Sea disputes. There is some belated effort on the code of conduct but to always work from the technical and official position on these issues upwards without clear leadership at the top is disappointing to say the least. How many times have Asean leaders focused for more than half an hour on the South China Sea issues? There has to be deep concentrated effort.

The fear of failure cannot rule the day. If ASEAN states cannot take on at least one major foreign policy position in their region, how could they expect the US and China to negotiate on the more daunting evolving international order?

The states of Asia as a whole, of course, must also play the responsible part of grown-up countries to ensure their new found prosperity and outstanding economic prospect are not upset by stupid swagger and assertive expression. They must remember they still have some way to go. Future prospect is not current reality.

And, as the present global superpower, the US has a complex role quite unlike the situation in the past when its word was law. It is a different world. Therefore it cannot be the same America.

 

Malaysia brings its Tradition of Multilateral Diplomacy to UNSC


October 25,2014

Malaysia brings its Tradition of Multilateral Diplomacy to UNSC

by Dr W.Scott Thompson@www.nst.com.my

MALAYSIA has made it again, amid fierce competition, for one of theRazali Ismail with Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros Ghali at the UNGA non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Why all the fuss?

Everybody knows that the veto power held by the five permanent members, China, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, or the victors of World War 2, is what, in the end, determines whether the UN can function.

Ziaton_IbrahimWell, think again. Although the war ended 69 years ago, and world power has been substantially redistributed in the meantime, the permanent members are still five of the 10 most vital players in world affairs. But the absence of Japan, Germany and India is glaring. India has lobbied for years for a seat, as has Japan.

But it’s typical of every organisation with a hierarchy for the top group to draw a line just below them and is seldom likely to wish to diffuse their privileged position.

When I was an Assistant Secretary in the US government, we always saw ourselves as the true decision-makers, and tried to keep Deputy Assistant Secretaries in their place. But smart deputies were needed often, and so, of course, we had to act accordingly to get things done. Exclusivity is often trumped by survival needs. Trade-offs are made.

Of course, in the first instance, holding one of the non-permanent (NPM) seats, sinceZainal_Abidin_Sulong they rotate basically by region, is prestigious. Bad state performance is not a plus in these campaigns. Turkey campaigned relentlessly for the European seat, but is seen as a little heartless in the current anti-Islamic State (IS) struggle. Though it is sheltering more refugees than any country, its underlying concern is all too evidently preventing Turkish Kurds from linking up with their brethren in Syria, Iraq, and Iran (the Kurds, being the largest ethnic group in the world without a state embracing a preponderance of their number).

Malaysia has the advantage that it is not antagonising anybody, but even more importantly, it has a high-quality diplomatic tradition that brings results. The first ever book written about Third World diplomacy is by an Australian, who traced the roots of Malaysian skills back through their willingness to learn from the British, but, more importantly, to the traditions of intra-state diplomacy going way back. Everything counts: Kuala Lumpur always sends a superb diplomat to Washington, to live in the mansion where Jackie Kennedy grew up. Living next door, I watched the constant flow of VIPs.

Tun Dr.Ismail at the UNTun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman at the UN

In fact, NPM members have often played key roles in world affairs. In the 1980s, when the issue of Cambodia was front and centre, the Thai permanent representative, Dr M.L. Birabhongse Kasemsri, turned out to be the central player in resolving the basic issues. His expertise in law of the sea, along with that of Tommy Koh of Singapore, was instrumental in getting the new rules drawn up in a way that protected the needs of Southeast Asian states. Had it been otherwise, China would be having a much easier time bullying in the sea that they claim to own, and consider a core foreign-policy interest.

I had a smart student, Dr Darmp Sukontasap, now a successful Thai businessman, who wrote his PhD on the Thai role at the UNSC. He makes a point, which I cite from his letter, with thanks.

Zakaria_Ali“In May 1985, during one of the heights of the bipolar world, Ambassador Birabhongse was the chairman of the Security Council, considering a very sensitive issue of Nicaragua’s complaint against act of aggression by the US. Ambassador Birabhongse handled his role very well, focusing on consultations in an inclusive manner. In the end, although the issue was not resolved to the satisfaction of either of the parties involved, the credibility of the Security Council and its president remained intact and the practice of inclusive consultations, continued.”

It’s also the case that a diplomatic event that doesn’t happen is sometimes more important than what does. In 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, the Soviet Union was so exasperated by American dominance at the UN (and its willingness to use its veto power more often than the rest combined, all to protect Israel) that it played hooky from the UNSC, and the General Assembly was able to vote a “resolution for peace” authorising a UN force to repel the North Koreans and their great communist allies. This was more than a veneer for the central role the US played; had a large number of other states not participated, the Americans would have lacked legitimacy. The UNSC did nothing.

By far, the most important accomplishment of NPMs is making the “rule of law” central to the UN agenda. As always, the big boys don’t want to be constrained by laws while the weak ones seek their protection. And it is no longer a bipolar world, and consequently, there is much more room for trade-offs among the five and the NPMs.

On a non-core issue for a permanent member, it might be flexible and court NPMsZain_Azraai with UN Secretary-General for the legitimacy of whatever issue it is advancing. Too many new NPMs need their full term just to familiarise themselves with the processes of the UNSC. Malaysia knows its way around the UN, and its envoys will, from the start, bring credit to Malaysia while advancing the rule of law.

Congratulations, President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kala of Republik Indonesia


October 20, 2014

Congratulations, Republik Indonesia

MY COMMENT: Congratulations to my Indonesian friends, associates and the people of Indonesia, Malaysia’s good friend, on the occasion of the inauguration of your President and Vice President today.

Joko and JusufPresident Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla of Republik Indonesia

Despite some controversies during the last Presidential election, Indonesia has shown that it is a viable democratic state and a worthy leader of the ASEAN community.

To new President and Vice President I extend my warm wishes and congratulations on their inauguration. Not to be forgotten, we must say a big thank you to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for ensuring that his country remains a democracy and for promoting excellent relations with my own country. The outgoing President worked well with our Prime Minister. The good relations we enjoy today with Indonesia under SBY will continue in strength with the Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla administration in Jakarta.

There will be occasional glitches and strains, no doubt, but none seriousZahrain_Mohamed_Hashim enough to strain bilateral relations severely. I am in touch with our Ambassador Dato’ Seri Zahrain Hashim who has been working hard to improve relations with the Indonesian media and civil society since he began his tour of duty. His efforts are already bearing fruit and may he continue in an activist fashion to promote mutual understanding via dialogue and constructive engagement with opinion makers, religious leaders, and civil society activists, and think tanks and academia.

We can look forward to a further strengthening of bilateral relations under President Joko Widodo. Together, and with Malaysia in the United Nations Security Council, Indonesia in partnership with Malaysia as the ASEAN Chair in 2015 can be a positive influence on the strategic direction of ASEAN. The new President’s choice of Foreign Minister is critical though, since Foreign Minister Dr. Marty Natalegawa did a yeoman’s job of putting Indonesia’s imprint on Southeast Asia’s politics and political economy.

There are many challenges ahead for the new President, of course but one can be optimistic (certainly I am) that the new President, ably assisted by the experienced and business friendly Vice President Kalla will bring promises of a better future for the Indonesian people. Our relations with the government and people of Indonesia cannot be taken for granted. It takes a lot of effort to nip those glitches and strains in the bud.–Din Merican

The new President of Indonesia faces many challenges

by Dr. Farish M. Noor@www.nst.com.my

farish-a-noorTHE inauguration of President-Elect Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and his vice-presidential partner, Jusuf Kalla, today marks a turning point in Indonesia’s history, as a politician with a humble civilian background and with no connections to the established elite of the country assumes the most powerful office in that country. Much is at stake in this event, as are the expectations that have been laid before the Jokowi-Kalla establishment.

Having kept his cards close to his chest all along, Jokowi was reluctant to divulge the names of the members of the cabinet, said to comprise 18 technocrats and 16 seasoned politicians, though it is widely known that much political bargaining had gone into deciding the final line-up.

This new government will face a People’s Representatives Assembly (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or DPR) that is dominated by the opposition, and it is widely expected that many of the reforms that the new government will try to push through will be stalled on the debating floor.

Sec Gen-PPPEven then, last-minute developments may turn the tide in favour of the Jokowi-Kalla pairing. Last week, the United Development Party (PPP) went through one of its internal convulsions when the party assembly decided to make Mohammad Romahurmuziy (left) its new chairman, replacing Suryadharma Ali.

The PPP, at present, happens to be one of the parties that is part of the dominant Prabowo Subianto-led Red and White coalition, which currently stands to dominate the DPR. But at the PPP assembly, the winning faction signaled that there was now the possibility that the party might abandon the opposition coalition and jump to the Jokowi-Kalla pact instead.

Even if this were to happen, it would still not be enough to tip the balance in the President’s favour, and it is likely that the stalemate will continue unless, and until, another bigger party jumps across the political divide as well.

asean (1)

As things stand, we are likely to see a beleaguered presidency that will have to fight for every step it takes towards the ambitious reform package that it wishes to push through on a range of issues that span the public domain, from maritime policy, border issues, Indonesia’s role in the ASEAN region to tackling the problem of logistics and communication in that vast archipelago of a country.

Should the impasse remain, there is the likelihood that Indonesia’s wider ambitions will be thwarted by domestic political scrapes and scuffles, instead, as the parties and coalitions battle it out to block each other’s initiatives, and in the process, delay the transformation that would be necessary for the country’s economic take-off, that is long expected.

Jokowi and Kalla

For the neighbouring countries in the ASEAN region, the prospect of an Indonesia caught in the grip of domestic political stalemate is not a positive one, what with ASEAN Economic Integration around the corner, with the ASEAN Economic Community scheduled for next year.

For all these reasons, Indonesia will remain the country to watch in our region, this year and the year to come. And the state of Indonesia’s domestic politics is bound to have a spillover effect on the polities and economies of the region.