Sinking the Ships: Indonesia’s Foreign Policy under Jokowi (CO15016)
by BA Hamzah*
Despite some adverse comments, President Joko Widodo is not about to drastically change Indonesia’s “free and active foreign policy”. What may change during his tenure is the emphasis, orientation and strategy.
His challenge is how to execute his foreign policy without losing friends. Jokowi should start calling on his ASEAN counterparts to continue the traditional regional diplomacy.
OUTWARDLY PRESIDENT Joko Widodo’s policy of burning and sinking fishing vessels from friendly states for illegal fishing gives the impression that he cares less for regional diplomacy. His policy is a stark contrast to his predecessor President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s policy of “a million friends and zero enemies”. Yudhoyono has assiduously courted many friends over the last decade. In less than one hundred days, his successor, however, seems bent on leaving behind a different legacy.
Indonesian Navy Ship deployed to protect territorial waters
Although the action of burning fishing vessels is essentially a domestic matter, it has foreign policy implications. For states which have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with Indonesia on how to treat wayward fishermen, especially in disputed maritime space (such as with Malaysia), the action has ruffled diplomatic feathers as it breaches international norms and possibly the ethics of modern-day diplomacy.
Coupled with Jokowi’s observations on what appears to be Indonesia’s conditional support for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), for example, it is daunting to speculate what he will do in the next five years. Many critics (including Indonesians) have asked whether the new President is changing course, pursuing a new foreign policy orientation, or simply grabbing headlines for domestic consumption.
Notwithstanding all the nuances, I believe President Jokowi will keep Indonesia on an even keel. He is not about to drastically change Indonesia’s foreign policy. Jokowi is going to retain Indonesia’s independent posture known as the “free and active foreign policy”, which has guided Indonesia for so long. What may change during his tenure, though, is the emphasis, orientation and strategy to achieve the objective while strengthening his political grip domestically. In a way, he may give the impression that he cares less about diplomacy – but is he?
As Head of State, he is answerable to the Parliament on many issues. As such, he has to operate within certain institutional bounds. Under President Jokowi, Indonesia is not likely to dump membership in ASEAN, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), United Nations, World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
On the contrary, Jakarta is likely to strengthen its role in all the multilateral institutions including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the East Asia Summit and the Group of Twenty (G20), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and others. Rubbing shoulders with the world’s leading politicians is an essential part of diplomacy. More importantly, the national interests of Indonesia are better served by supporting their objectives.
Domestic support and diplomatic bridges
Just like his predecessors, Jokowi would not downplay the relevance of geography and geopolitics in the making of foreign policy. In a nation that is fast emerging as a middle power, Jokowi has to take into account demography and domestic politics, including managing rising nationalist sentiments in foreign policy making.
To be one among equals in the region, President Jokowi needs to formulate a pragmatic foreign policy. As he goes about strengthening his credentials at home, he should not burn the proverbial diplomatic bridges.
The seizure of the fishing vessels is Jokowi’s way of telling Indonesians that he is no pushover when it comes to defending the sovereignty and national resources of the state. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, in the long-run, the Indonesian Parliament is not likely to allow President Jokowi a free hand to undermine further Indonesia’s diplomatic credentials. Appealing to nationalist sentiments may have short-term advantages. However, it will not augur well with multilateralism in the global era.
One perennial complaint about Yudhoyono when he was in power was his indecisiveness. President Jokowi wants to be perceived as a decisive person, who does not always dance to the tune of big power politics. He will soon find out whether in an interdependent world, a reclusive nationalist is able to navigate through the rough seas all alone.
In the region, Jokowi will have to tread carefully in ASEAN waters. If he adopts a very aloof policy towards ASEAN, at a time when the organisation needs robust support from all, regional cooperation will take a back seat. Despite recent statements, there is no reason to expect Indonesia to abandon ASEAN, which has contributed positively to the political development of Indonesia since the New Order replaced Sukarno in 1966. To clear the air of uncertainty in the region, Jokowi should start calling on his ASEAN counterparts as traditional diplomacy dictates.
Jokowi’s three-pronged maritime strategy
Since the time of President Suharto, Indonesia has had a moderating influence on ASEAN. For example, when the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 failed to adopt the traditional Joint Communiqué, the Indonesian foreign minister stepped in to save the day. Together with his counterpart from Singapore, they drafted ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea disputes.
To its credit, Indonesia has been instrumental in promoting the ASEAN Political and Security Community (APSC). Jakarta was also instrumental in establishing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976) and Bali Concord II, which provided the foundation for the emerging ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Due to be formalised by the end of this year, the AEC will not be realised without Indonesia.
Over China, President Jokowi walks a tight rope. No one expects Jokowi to shy away from criticising China for its expansive maritime claims that overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna islands. Nevertheless, demography, geopolitics, geography, economics and realpolitik dictate that Indonesia and China remain the best of friends. Moreover, Indonesia is considered the most acceptable party to engage with an assertive China in the South China Sea. For example, Jakarta can push for the conclusion of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It can also help moderate the Sino-US naval rivalry in the region.
President Jokowi’s policy of transforming the Indonesian maritime space is three-pronged. The first prong deals with strengthening internal resilience. The crackdown on illegal fishing is just one aspect of it. Upgrading the capabilities of the navy and air force is the second. The third prong involves the construction of some 24 deep-seaports across the entire archipelago as well as improving other support facilities in the maritime sector.
President Jokowi’s decision to upgrade the navy may exacerbate the ongoing regional naval arms race and make it more complex to manage regional security problems at sea, including the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Besides Indonesia, Australia, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are also expanding their respective submarine fleets.
The challenge for President Jokowi is how to execute a robust maritime policy without losing friends in the region.
*B. A. Hamzah is a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. The views are personal. He contributed this specially to RSIS Commentary.
The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.
As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century.
The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants.
Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.
The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence.The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”.
Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.
Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion.
Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion. But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.
After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive.
The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.
Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar.
When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
The Myth of Religious Violence
Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe.
The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.
It was these European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create what has been called “the myth of religious violence”. It was said that Protestants and Catholics were so inflamed by the theological passions of the Reformation that they butchered one another in senseless battles that killed 35% of the population of central Europe. Yet while there is no doubt that the participants certainly experienced these wars as a life-and-death religious struggle, this was also a conflict between two sets of state-builders: the princes of Germany and the other kings of Europe were battling against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his ambition to establish a trans-European hegemony modelled after the Ottoman empire.
If the wars of religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so. Thus Catholic France repeatedly fought the Catholic Habsburgs, who were regularly supported by some of the Protestant princes.
In the French wars of religion (1562–98) and the thirty years war, combatants crossed confessional lines so often that it was impossible to talk about solidly “Catholic” or “Protestant” populations. These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. There was as yet no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes.
People were fighting for different visions of society, but they would not, and could not, have distinguished between religious and temporal factors in these conflicts. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.
These developments required a new understanding of religion. It was provided by Martin Luther, who was the first European to propose the separation of church and state. Medieval Catholicism had been an essentially communal faith; most people experienced the sacred by living in community. But for Luther, the Christian stood alone before his God, relying only upon his Bible.
Luther’s acute sense of human sinfulness led him, in the early 16th century, to advocate the absolute states that would not become a political reality for another hundred years. For Luther, the state’s prime duty was to restrain its wicked subjects by force, “in the same way as a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes”. The sovereign, independent state reflected this vision of the independent and sovereign individual. Luther’s view of religion, as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction, would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal.
But Luther’s response to the peasants’ war in Germany in 1525, during the early stages of the wars of religion, suggested that a secularised political theory would not necessarily be a force for peace or democracy. The peasants, who were resisting the centralising policies of the German princes – which deprived them of their traditional rights – were mercilessly slaughtered by the state. Luther believed that they had committed the cardinal sin of mixing religion and politics: suffering was their lot, and they should have turned the other cheek, and accepted the loss of their lives and property.
“A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”
Dawn of the liberal state
By the late 17th century, philosophers had devised a more urbane version of the secular ideal. For John Locke it had become self-evident that “the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable.” The separation of religion and politics – “perfectly and infinitely different from each other” – was, for Locke, written into the very nature of things. But the liberal state was a radical innovation, just as revolutionary as the market economy that was developing in the west and would shortly transform the world. Because of the violent passions it aroused, Locke insisted that the segregation of “religion” from government was “above all things necessary” for the creation of a peaceful society.
Hence Locke was adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse. Locke was a major advocate of the theory of natural human rights, originally pioneered by the Renaissance humanists and given definition in the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and property. But secularisation emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonise the New World, and it would come to exert considerable influence on the way the west viewed those it had colonised – much as in our own time, the prevailing secular ideology perceives Muslim societies that seem incapable of separating faith from politics to be irredeemably flawed.
This introduced an inconsistency, since for the Renaissance humanists there could be no question of extending these natural rights to the indigenous inhabitants of the New World. Indeed, these peoples could justly be penalised for failing to conform to European norms. In the 16th century, Alberico Gentili, a professor of civil law at Oxford, argued that land that had not been exploited agriculturally, as it was in Europe, was “empty” and that “the seizure of [such] vacant places” should be “regarded as law of nature”.
Locke agreed that the native peoples had no right to life, liberty or property. The “kings” of America, he decreed, had no legal right of ownership to their territory. He also endorsed a master’s “Absolute, arbitrary, despotical power” over a slave, which included “the power to kill him at any time”. The pioneers of secularism seemed to be falling into the same old habits as their religious predecessors.
Secularism was designed to create a peaceful world order, but the church was so intricately involved in the economic, political and cultural structures of society that the secular order could only be established with a measure of violence. In North America, where there was no entrenched aristocratic government, the disestablishment of the various churches could be accomplished with relative ease. But in France, the church could be dismantled only by an outright assault; far from being experienced as a natural and essentially normative arrangement, the separation of religion and politics could be experienced as traumatic and terrifying.
During the French revolution, one of the first acts of the new national assembly on November 2, 1789, was to confiscate all church property to pay off the national debt: secularisation involved dispossession, humiliation and marginalisation. This segued into outright violence during the September massacres of 1792, when the mob fell upon the jails of Paris and slaughtered between two and three thousand prisoners, many of them priests.
Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors: “The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women … The roads are littered with corpses.”
Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.
To die for one’s country
When Napoleon’s armies invaded Prussia in 1807, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte similarly urged his countrymen to lay down their lives for the Fatherland – a manifestation of the divine and the repository of the spiritual essence of the Volk. If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die, what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation had come to replace God. It is now considered admirable to die for your country, but not for your religion.
As the nation-state came into its own in the 19th century along with the industrial revolution, its citizens had to be bound tightly together and mobilised for industry. Modern communications enabled governments to create and propagate a national ethos, and allowed states to intrude into the lives of their citizens more than had ever been possible. Even if they spoke a different language from their rulers, subjects now belonged to the “nation,” whether they liked it or not.
John Stuart Mill regarded this forcible integration as progress; it was surely better for a Breton, “the half-savage remnant of past times”, to become a French citizen than “sulk on his own rocks”. But in the late 19th century, the British historian Lord Acton feared that the adulation of the national spirit that laid such emphasis on ethnicity, culture and language, would penalise those who did not fit the national norm: “According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.”
The Enlightenment philosophers had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with “religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past. The structural injustice of the agrarian state, however, had made it impossible to implement these ideals fully. The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities.
More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratised forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of modernity to an elite fell behind.
Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.
Yet this toleration was only skin-deep, and as Lord Acton had predicted, an intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the achilles heel of the nation-state. Indeed, the ethnic minority would replace the heretic (who had usually been protesting against the social order) as the object of resentment in the new nation-state.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment in the United States, instructed his secretary of war in 1807 that Native Americans were “backward peoples” who must either be “exterminated” or driven “beyond our reach” to the other side of the Mississippi “with the beasts of the forest”. The following year, Napoleon issued the “infamous decrees”, ordering the Jews of France to take French names, privatise their faith, and ensure that at least one in three marriages per family was with a gentile.
Increasingly, as national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would come to be seen as rootless and cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of antisemitism in Europe, which undoubtedly drew upon centuries of Christian prejudice, but gave it a scientific rationale, claiming that Jews did not fit the biological and genetic profile of the Volk, and should be eliminated from the body politic as modern medicine cut out a cancer.
When secularisation was implemented in the developing world, it was experienced as a profound disruption – just as it had originally been in Europe. Because it usually came with colonial rule, it was seen as a foreign import and rejected as profoundly unnatural. In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life.
What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.
Very often modernising rulers have embodied secularism at its very worst and have made it unpalatable to their subjects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic of Turkey in 1918, is often admired in the west as an enlightened Muslim leader, but for many in the Middle East he epitomised the cruelty of secular nationalism.
He hated Islam, describing it as a “putrefied corpse”, and suppressed it in Turkey by outlawing the Sufi orders and seizing their properties, closing down the madrasas and appropriating their income. He also abolished the beloved institution of the caliphate, which had long been a dead-letter politically but which symbolised a link with the Prophet. For groups such as al-Qaida and Isis, reversing this decision has become a paramount goal.
Ataturk also continued the policy of ethnic cleansing that had been initiated by the last Ottoman sultans; in an attempt to control the rising commercial classes, they systematically deported the Armenian and Greek-speaking Christians, who comprised 90% of the bourgeoisie. The Young Turks, who seized power in 1909, espoused the antireligious positivism associated with August Comte and were also determined to create a purely Turkic state.
During the first world war, approximately one million Armenians were slaughtered in the first genocide of the 20th century: men and youths were killed where they stood, while women, children and the elderly were driven into the desert where they were raped, shot, starved, poisoned, suffocated or burned to death.
Clearly inspired by the new scientific racism, Mehmet Resid, known as the “execution governor”, regarded the Armenians as “dangerous microbes” in “the bosom of the Fatherland”. Ataturk completed this racial purge. For centuries Muslims and Christians had lived together on both sides of the Aegean; Ataturk partitioned the region, deporting Greek Christians living in what is now Turkey to Greece, while Turkish-speaking Muslims in Greece were sent the other way.
The Fundamentalist Reaction
Secularising rulers such as Ataturk often wanted their countries to look modern, that is, European. In Iran in 1928, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the laws of uniformity of dress: his soldiers tore off women’s veils with bayonets and ripped them to pieces in the street. In 1935, the police were ordered to open fire on a crowd who had staged a peaceful demonstration against the dress laws in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Policies like this made veiling, which has no Qur’anic endorsement, an emblem of Islamic authenticity in many parts of the Muslim world.
Following the example of the French, Egyptian rulers secularised by disempowering and impoverishing the clergy. Modernisation had begun in the Ottoman period under the governor Muhammad Ali, who starved the Islamic clergy financially, taking away their tax-exempt status, confiscating the religiously endowed properties that were their principal source of income, and systematically robbing them of any shred of power. When the reforming army officer Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952, he changed tack and turned the clergy into state officials.
For centuries, they had acted as a protective bulwark between the people and the systemic violence of the state. Now Egyptians came to despise them as government lackeys. This policy would ultimately backfire, because it deprived the general population of learned guidance that was aware of the complexity of the Islamic tradition. Self-appointed freelancers, whose knowledge of Islam was limited, would step into the breach, often to disastrous effect.
If some Muslims today fight shy of secularism, it is not because they have been brainwashed by their faith but because they have often experienced efforts at secularisation in a particularly virulent form. Many regard the west’s devotion to the separation of religion and politics as incompatible with admired western ideals such as democracy and freedom. In 1992, a military coup in Algeria ousted a president who had promised democratic reforms, and imprisoned the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which seemed certain to gain a majority in the forthcoming elections.
Had the democratic process been thwarted in such an unconstitutional manner in Iran or Pakistan, there would have been worldwide outrage. But because an Islamic government had been blocked by the coup, there was jubilation in some quarters of the western press – as if this undemocratic action had instead made Algeria safe for democracy. In rather the same way, there was an almost audible sigh of relief in the west when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt last year. But there has been less attention to the violence of the secular military dictatorship that has replaced it, which has exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak regime.
After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms.
Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs.
There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain. •
• Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is published today by Bodley Head.
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 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.–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 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 hardly 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 defending 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.
The 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 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.
“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
THE 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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
The most interesting news in former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s memoir, “Worthy Fights,” concerns his disagreements with the Obama White House over Syria, Iraq and the budget crisis — disagreements that have been outlined in recent interviews and in testimony before Congress.
Still, Mr. Panetta elaborates on such subjects here, and these passages — in what is otherwise an often opaque and evasive book — shed light on the distressing events now unfolding in the Middle East as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, rolls through large sections of Syria and Iraq. They also illuminate decisions made by the Obama administration, which, in the view of Mr. Panetta and many military observers, contributed to (or at least failed to help inhibit) these sobering developments.
In “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta reminds us that two years ago, he — along with David H. Petraeus, then the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — supported a plan to arm moderate Syrian rebels. In an interview last month with “60 Minutes,” Mr. Panetta said he thought that such a plan “would’ve helped. And I think in part, we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS” today. Here, he writes: “If we don’t prevent these Sunni extremists from taking over large swaths of territory in the Middle East, it will be only a matter of time before they turn their sights on us.”
Mr. Panetta also writes that he advocated leaving a small American force to help preserve “the fragile stability” that was “barely holding” Iraq together in 2011. This position was shared by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders in the region, he writes. But “the president’s team at the White House pushed back.”
Those “on our side of the debate,” Mr. Panetta goes on, “viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” And “without the president’s active advocacy,” he says, a deal failed to emerge with Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, then the Iraqi Prime Minister, to keep a modest number of American troops there.
To this day, Mr. Panetta says he believes “that a small, focused U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with Al Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.” Instead, the last American troops left in December 2011, and at the start of this year, trucks flying the black flag of Al Qaeda rolled into Falluja and Ramadi, where American soldiers fought and died in some of the war’s bloodiest battles.
It is in these sections of the book, dealing with Iraq, Syria and presidential leadership (or its lack), that Mr. Panetta is most plain-spoken and impassioned. In other chapters, he writes more as the genial congressman he was for 16 years, dispensing a mix of reminiscence and spin, as well as boilerplate accounts of his work toward a balanced budget as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. From 2009 through mid-2011, he served as the Obama administration’s first C.I.A. director, overseeing the American operation that led to the death of Osama ben Laden.
In this book, Mr. Panetta skims over crucial Defense Department issues, including systemic problems in veterans’ hospitals, and a military stretched thin during two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is even more evasive when it comes to discussing the C.I.A., often rationalizing or sidestepping troubling questions about the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush years and its growing reliance, under President Obama, on drone warfare and targeted killings.
Having once accused the Bush administration of turning the country into “a nation of armchair torturers,” Mr. Panetta — who had little background in intelligence or military affairs — was initially greeted with suspicion by the agency when he arrived. But, as Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times wrote in his incisive book, “The Way of the Knife,” Mr. Panetta quickly “became a C.I.A. champion, beloved by many at Langley but criticized by others who said that, like so many C.I.A. directors before him, he had been co-opted by the agency’s clandestine branch.”
Though President Obama overruled him, Mr. Panetta argued against declassifying and releasing internal memos detailing the early Bush-era interrogation methods that he had once publicly condemned.
In “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta writes that “it seemed wrong to me to ask a public servant to take a risk for his country and assure him that it was both legal and approved, then, years later, to suggest that he had done something wrong.” He also takes issue with critics who have questioned the utility of what he calls “unsavory techniques,” asserting that “harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand Al Qaeda’s organization, methods and leadership.”
In this book’s pages, there is no substantial exploration of the intelligence lapses that contributed to the Obama administration’s failure to anticipate the Arab Spring or understand its fallout in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Nor is there any real analysis of why the White House seems to have been caught off guard by the Islamic State’s swift advance and the collapse of the Iraqi Army. These developments took place after Mr. Panetta left government, but readers cannot help wishing he had weighed in here on the debate over whether this was primarily a problem with intelligence or a problem with policy-making in the White House.
While he neglects such important matters in “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta does take time to argue that James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence — who misled a congressional hearing when he said that the National Security Agency was not gathering data on millions of Americans — “may be the perfect person to serve” in that “difficult position,” praising him as “deft and scrupulous.”
When it comes to the Obama administration’s proclivity for trying to centralize decision-making in the White House, Mr. Panetta echoes observations made by journalists (like James Mann, the author of “The Obamians”) and other administration insiders, like his predecessor at the Pentagon, Robert M. Gates (in his candid memoir, “Duty”).
Here, Mr. Panetta writes that the centralization of authority in the White House meant that cabinet members and agency heads “were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities,” and senior officials “who knew the most about certain subjects were excluded from important public debates, skewing the conversation in ways that sometimes did the administration’s policies a disservice.”
It was believed “among those close to him,” Mr. Panetta adds, that the President had not found his “time as a senator very rewarding” and tended “to be disdainful of Congress generally.” Mr. Panetta says he never “witnessed that disdain directly, but I did pick up evidence of it within his senior staff.”
Mr. Panetta also has some sharp things to say about Mr. Obama’s presidential leadership, rebuking him for his policy flip-flops on Syria. First, Mr. Panetta notes, Mr. Obama indicated he was leaning toward limited military action after concluding that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had unleashed a devastating chemical attack against their own people (action that Mr. Obama had earlier warned was a “red line”); then he backed off, “agreeing to submit the matter to Congress,” which was, “as he well knew, an almost certain way to scotch any action.”
In Mr. Panetta’s view, this was “a blow to American credibility,” sending “the wrong message to the world”: “The power of the United States rests on its word, and clear signals are important both to deter adventurism and to reassure allies that we can be counted on.”
Echoing a complaint frequently heard within the Beltway, Mr. Panetta also laments what he regards as the president’s sometimes passive or disengaged approach to governing. He argues that Mr. Obama’s failure to lead Congress out of the sequester standoff is a prime example of his “reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” At times, Mr. Panetta writes, Mr. Obama “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities,” giving “his opponents room to shape the contours of his presidency.”
As for the ben Laden raid, Mr. Panetta’s description not only lacks the visceral detail and immediacy of “No Easy Day” — a firsthand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette (a.k.a. Mark Owen), a member of the SEAL team that took down the Qaeda leader — but also declines to give us a palpable sense of what was going on during the raid at Langley and the White House.
Mr. Panetta does, however, have a favorite joke, which he says he never had a chance to deliver before in public: “Looking back on my career, I’ve been a Republican, a congressman, and White House chief of staff, and a defense secretary. Come to think of it, I’ve done everything that Dick Cheney has done. Except the guy I made sure got shot in the face was Osama ben Laden.”
Malaysia has offered to host U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft at a base on the edge of a disputed part of the South China Sea, a move likely to heighten Chinese sensitivities about U.S. involvement in the region.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, said that “the Malaysians have offered us to fly detachments of P-8s out of East Malaysia” in a speech delivered Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington.
The P-8 is capable of long-range surveillance and anti-submarine missions.Adm. Greenert emphasized the Malaysian base’s “closeness to the South China Sea” and identified Malaysia, along with Indonesia and Singapore, as “the key” to the U.S. Navy successfully increasing its regional presence.
The facility in question is likely to be the Royal Malaysian Air Force base on the island of Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, which U.S. forces have used for exercises in the past, according to a U.S. Navy officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter.
While the ownership of Labuan itself isn’t disputed by China, it lies close to the southern end of the Spratly Islands chain, which Malaysia and China both contest.
Lt. Rebekah Johnson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said that no formal agreement had yet been signed between Kuala Lumpur and Washington, but she confirmed that an offer was on the table for P-8 aircraft to use the air base “on a case-by-case basis.”
Malaysian officials didn’t respond to questions about the arrangement. China’s foreign and defense ministries didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
While other South China Sea claimants—notably the Philippines and Vietnam—have objected vociferously to what they regard as aggressive Chinese behavior, Malaysia has kept a lower profile in the disputes, generally refraining from openly criticizing China.
Malaysia’s view of how to handle China seemed to shift, however, during the bruising experience after the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March, said Tim Huxley, executive director of the IISS-Asia, a Singapore-based think tank. Mr. Huxley said the incident not only exposed serious weaknesses in Malaysia’s air defense system, which failed to track the lost airliner effectively, but also left the country feeling bullied by China. Beijing took a keen interest in the search operation because of the 153 Chinese passengers on board and at times disparaged Malaysia’s efforts.
That episode, combined with Chinese pressure in the South China Sea, may finally have led Kuala Lumpur to see “a confluence of interest” with the U.S. and “may have provided sufficient incentives for Malaysia to further intensify defense and security relations,” Mr. Huxley said.
President Barack Obama visited the country in April and agreed to upgrade bilateral relations with Malaysia to the level of “comprehensive partnership,” signaling a broad commitment to increase collaboration in a wide range of areas, including defense.
China has repeatedly opposed the U.S.’s monitoring of its activities in the South China Sea—especially with aircraft, like the P-8, capable of tracking submarines. On Tuesday, Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, told U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice, who was visiting Beijing, that the U.S. should scale back or completely halt monitoring near the Chinese coast.
Last month, a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Navy P-8 off the coast of Hainan. The incident sparked fears that there could be a repeat of the 2001 collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter, also near Hainan, due to what the Pentagon described as dangerous maneuvers on the part of the Chinese pilot. China denied this, saying its fighter kept a safe distance during the encounter.