Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality


May 23, 2016

Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality 

By Greg Rushford

Air Force One touched down yesterday evening in Hanoi. The White House and influential Washington think-tank scholars are spinning President Barack Obama’s three-day Vietnam visit as a “legacy” moment, validating the president’s “pivot” to Asia. Expect much warm talk of how America is forging ever-closer economic- and security ties with a modernizing Vietnam. Expect the usual heartwarming television images of happy people -including peasants toiling in lush rice fields, wearing their iconic conical hats.

Don’t expect any admissions from Vietnamese Communist leaders of the suffering they continue to inflict upon some of their country’s best citizens. As former prisoner of conscience Cu Huy Ha Vu rightly notes, today’s Vietnam is “a kleptocracy.” Intrepid pro-democracy advocates stand in the way.

Courageous men like Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Tran Vu Anh Binh, three of Vietnam’s 100-plus current political prisoners. They languish behind bars, while some Washington insiders have averted their eyes.

Some of those insiders are Southeast Asian analysts who work inside the gleaming $100 million headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just a few minutes from the White House – and who have undisclosed sidelines as business consultants. They know that to speak forthrightly on Vietnam’s shameful human rights record would threaten their easy access to senior communist officials. Their corporate benefactors who depend upon that political access to win lucrative business contracts in Vietnam could lose the big bucks.

Ernest Z. Bower President & CEO, Bower  Asia Group,  is widely recognized as one of the strongest proponents for close ties between the United States and Asia. In recognition of his work, the King of Malaysia has awarded him the Darjah Panglima Jasa Negara (PJN), pronouncing him holder of the title Datuk in Malaysia.  The president of the Philippines also awarded him the rank of Lakan, or Commander, for his service to the Philippines.  Ernie is currently the United States Chair of the Advisory Council on Competitiveness for the Vietnamese Prime Minister and serves on the boards of the Special Olympics, American Australian Education & Leadership Foundation, the Institute for Religion & Public Policy, the United States-New Zealand Council and the Board of Advisors of the United States-Indonesia Society.

Moreover, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States has a team of $30,000-a-month Washington lobbyists on his payroll. Their assignment is basically not to let awkward questions about political prisoners interfere with enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese commercial- and security ties, especially the sale of lethal weapons to fend off Chinese maritime intimidation.

One wonders what Dieu, Hoa, and Binh, locked away in their cells, would have to say – if they were free to speak. Dieu, a devout Catholic citizen journalist, has been imprisoned since 2011. He committed the “crime” of exercising free speech. Dieu has been living “in hell” – beaten, humiliated, and treated like a “slave” for refusing to wear a uniform with the word “criminal” – his brother has told Radio Free Asia. Hoa, also a blogger whose crime was his free speech, has been incarcerated since 2011. Binh, a songwriter, lost his liberty in 2012. His crime was writing music that offended the Communist Party. While Binh’s term is scheduled to end next year, Dieu and Hoa could languish behind bars until 2024.

All three men are associated with the Viet Tan, a U.S.-based political party that is highly effective in using the social media to advocate democratic freedoms of speech and assembly. The Viet Tan reaches a wide audience, both inside Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. For its skilled high-tech advocacy, the Hanoi’s feared Ministry of Public Security brands Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

Binh, Hoa and Dieu were amongst a group of 17 political prisoners who have been represented by Stanford law professor Allen Weiner, a former high-powered U.S. State Department official. Weiner won a United Nations panel determination that his clients – all either Viet Tan members, supporters or friends – had been unjustly imprisoned. While 14 of Weiner’s clients have been released, that’s unfortunately not quite a happy ending. “Some of those who have been released, however, continue to suffer severe harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Vietnamese security services,” Weiner reports. “They continue to pay a heavy price.”

That’s the sort of glaring injustice that no credible analyst of today’s Vietnam would want to downplay. Meet CSIS Asia analyst Murray Hiebert (pic  above)- a man who doesn’t deny that Vietnam has human rights issues, yet is careful never to use clear language that would anger senior Vietnamese officials.

Nine months ago, I brought Allen Weiner’s brave clients to Hiebert’s attention, asking if perhaps this would be an opportunity to highlight the injustice by holding a public forum. The CSIS analyst brushed off the inquiry – at the time I had not realized that CSIS has never held such an event. He also declined to say whether he agreed with Hanoi’s characterization of the Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

(The White House and State Department are better informed than CSIS. Not only do they respect the Viet Tan for its peaceable advocacy, but Obama’s national security officials have maintained close ties with the Viet Tan leadership. Radio Free Asia reported that on May 17 representatives of the Viet Tan, along with other respected Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates including Boat People SOS and Vietnam for Progress, were briefed on Obama’s upcoming Vietnam trip in the White House on May 17.)

A few weeks ago, Hiebert once again did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the imprisoned Viet Tan supporters. I then tried to register for a May 17 press briefing that Hiebert and two other CSIS scholars held on the Obama visit. I had hoped to ask about Binh, Hoa and Dieu. But CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz – who also had not responded to a recent e-mail inquiry – denied me admission, asserting that the event was “oversubscribed.”

While the briefing room was indeed rather crowded, even full, according to people who were present, Schwartz found room for Vietnam Television. VTV is a Hanoi-controlled media tool that the Communist Party finds useful for spreading the party line. These days, VTV’s best “scoop” has been in warning Vietnamese independent journalists – and specifically the Viet Tan – to stay away from linking corrupt communist officials to a Taiwanese steel mill that somehow obtained environmental clearance to discharge toxic wastes into the sea, which has resulted in a massive fish kill.

(At the May 17 CSIS briefing, a Television Vietnam correspondent asked if the next American president would continue Obama’s “pivot” to Asia – which at least drew laughter. It is perhaps also worth noting that while “journalists” from Vietnam Television are welcome to peddle their propaganda in the United States, authorities in Hanoi continue to jam Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service. And while the BBC is free to broadcast its English-language programs in Vietnam, the BBC’s celebrated Vietnamese Language Service frequently has run into problems.)

As it turns out, CSIS has a history of making life uncomfortable for guests at the think tank’s public events who might pose awkward questions. On May 24, 2015, former political prisoner Ha Vu angered the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, by asking how Vietnam justified persecuting its political prisoners. Vinh, visibly upset, retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners – which was pretty rich, considering that at that moment, the ambassador was busy trying to avoid making eye contact with one of Vietnam’s most famous political prisoners.

Moreover, CSIS analyst Hiebert, who chaired the panel, did not challenge the ambassador’s absurd claim. (The CSIS event discussed a study on U.S.-Vietnamese relations that Hiebert had co-authored; that study had not disclosed that the Vietnamese government had secretly financed it, Hiebert subsequently admitted to me.)

And last July, Hiebert went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Vietnamese security officials when Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong spoke at CSIS. Hiebert summoned a guard, escorting Dr. Binh Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American physician, from the premises. Hiebert apologized to Binh, who had been invited, but said that the communist security officials insisted that she be ejected (for details see: How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., www.rushfordreport.com).

Turns out that there are other reasons to doubt Hiebert’s independence. While his official CSIS bio does not disclose it, Hiebert is also a senior advisor to a prominent business consultancy, the Bower Group Asia.

Conflicted interests

Hiebert’s boss at CSIS, Ernie Bower, runs the Bower Group Asia. “Our clients include the world’s best global enterprises,” the BGA website proclaims. “We understand the nexus between politics and economics.” Bower has more than 60 employees in his Washington, D.C. headquarters and in 21 Asian countries (including Vietnam). Another CSIS analyst, Chris Johnson, is a BGA managing director for China. Like Hiebert, Johnson does not disclose his business affiliations on his CSIS website.

Bower, who formerly chaired the CSIS Southeast Studies chair, responded angrily last year when I asked him which was his real day job: CSIS or his business consultancy. He said he was “saddened” that I had suggested he appeared to have conflicts of interest. But perhaps aware that others might also wonder, Bower now identifies himself on the CSIS website as a “non-resident” advisor. The chair remains vacant. CSIS spokesman Schwartz and John Hamre, the think tank’s CEO and one of Washington’s most acclaimed fundraisers, have not responded to persistent inquiries to explain the apparent conflicts.

Here’s how the conflict works:

At CSIS Hiebert has advocated the TPP trade deal. The Bower Group is actively seeking TPP business.

Hiebert has strongly contended that the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness, and should be lifted. Lockheed, which wants to sell Hanoi its P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules surveillance planes, has a seat on Hiebert’s CSIS board. So does Boeing, which has been peddling its P-8 Poseidon military surveillance aircraft in Hanoi. Imagine how the giant defense contractors would feel if the money they dole out to CSIS would be used to shine a spotlight on issues involving corruption and human-rights abuses in Vietnam.

Coca-Cola, a Bower Group client, got into Laos a few years ago, thanks to Ernie Bower’s understanding of “the nexus” between business and politics. Coke also has a seat on the CSIS Southeast Asia Board.

Chevron, another major CSIS benefactor, also has a representative on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Hiebert authored a November 2014 column for the Wall Street Journal defending Chevron in bitter litigation the oil giant had in Indonesia. In his column, Hiebert identified himself only as a CSIS analyst. Then Ernie Bower got busy on the Bower Group’s Facebook page, touting the Journal piece: “BGA’s Murray Hiebert provides much-needed analysis of the court case against Chevron in Indonesia” in the Wall Street Journal. [Full disclosure: I have been an occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition for more than two decades.]

In recent months, Hiebert has been quoted widely by major news outlets including CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, Politico, the Financial Times, the Washington Times, and the Voice of America – always only identified as a CSIS analyst. Readers would not know that Hiebert also works for a business consultancy. They would not know that corporations that fund Hiebert’s CSIS programs have serious financial interests at stake.

One wire-service report that quoted Hiebert about Vietnam’s new top leadership was picked up by the New York Times in April. This gave Ernie Bower another opportunity to twitter to his clients about how “BGA Senior Advisor Murray Hiebert” had made the pages of the Times.

And earlier today, CNN quoted Hiebert’s approving views of enhanced U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam, identifying him only as a CSIS scholar. Viewers were not aware that this “scholar” is funded at CSIS by major U.S. defense contractors, and has taken money from the Vietnamese government for co-authoring a study that called for the lifting of the U.S. weapons embargo to that country. Nor would viewers know that Hiebert also works for the Bower Group, which also touts its interest in facilitating arms deals.

A little digging illustrates how Bower mixes his CSIS affiliations with business. In 2014, for example, Bower opened some important doors in Washington to a Manila wheeler-dealer named Antonio “Tony Boy” Cojuangco. Tony Boy also sits on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Bower brought him to town as the head of an “eminent persons” group – such flattery can go a long way in certain Asian circles.

CSIS arranged appointments for the Filipino eminences in the White House, the Export-Import Bank, on Capitol Hill and of course at CSIS headquarters, where they had a scheduled appointment with the think tank’s president, John Hamre. That was during the day. That night, the Bower Group hosted a lavish dinner for Tony Boy and his associates at the posh Jefferson Hotel. Bower, Hiebert, Chris Johnson, and other CSIS/Bower Group operatives were present. To judge from photos I’ve seen, it was a good night all around, lubricated by bottles of Pomerol. (Hamre has not responded to repeated requests to comment. On the CSIS website, the CSIS head asserts that some unnamed journalists who have questioned CSIS ethical practices have ignored evidence to the contrary that he has provided.)

Agents of Influence

Speaking of influence peddling, if one looks closely, the Washington lobbyists on that $30,000-a-month retainer from Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh unwittingly illustrate how the official spin surrounding the Obama visit to Vietnam doesn’t tell the whole story.

The most recent foreign agent’s disclosure form that the Podesta Group has filed with the U.S. Department of Justice lists some of what the firm did to earn its $180,000 for the last six months of 2015. One is left wondering exactly what the lobbyists did to earn their keep.

The lobbyists disclosed only seven meetings, mostly with congressional aides. The only elected representative who met with Podesta representatives was Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year.

Rep. Salmon had already met with Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh earlier in the year and had been to Vietnam in May. The congressman already had supported an enhanced U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.

Do the math: $180,000 for seven meetings. That’s about $25,000 a meeting, throwing in about 50 e-mails and five phone calls that the Podesta lobbying form mentions. David Adams, the Podesta lobbyist who has been working to facilitate the Obama visit to Vietnam this week, is a former close aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Asked what he had really done to each the money, Adams declined to comment.

This week, when the television screens show images of happy Vietnamese peasants with their conical hats, toiling in their rice paddies, think of David Adams. The average Vietnamese citizen would have to work 13 years to earn enough money to pay for just one $25,000 Podesta Group meeting with congressional aides.

From the days of French colonialism to the present Communist kleptocracy, the Vietnamese central government has always stolen from its poorest people.

Ambassador Vinh’s lobbyist Adams proudly styles himself as a part-time “gentleman farmer” in Virginia’s wine country. Wonder what those Vietnamese peasants would say, if they knew that their stooped labor is helping subsidize such a lifestyle?

David Cameron is playing coy with Najib’s Corruption for Business


May 17, 2016

Conservative Party’s David Cameron is playing coy with Najib’s Corruption for Business

What can we expect from him? After all, David Cameron is just another politician who happened to be re-elected Prime Minister. His job is to take care of British interests. He will even entertain the most corrupt Prime Minister of Malaysia ever if  British businessmen can be benefit from deals out of Malaysia, be these be in Britain or in our country.–Din Merican

Korean Foreign Ministry acts spinelessly


May 13, 2016

Third Rate Diplomacy: Korean Foreign Ministry acts spinelessly

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Seoul. (Yonhap)

We can’t but wonder whether it is proper to use taxes to pay the wages of our diplomats who appear incompetent at best and engrossed in self-interest at worst, concerning their response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima.

The way the Ministry reacted to this rather anticipated affair is not just disappointing but, worse, makes the Korean people feel a sense of shame. The diplomats should have more clearly stated the country’s stance, asking for the public’s understanding, if necessary, or using the Obama plan to call attention to Japan’s wartime atrocities and warn against Japan’s efforts to feign as the victim of World War II. (Remembering that FDR declared the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as, “A day that will live in infamy,” it would make him turn over in his grave to see the Japanese pleas of victimhood today.).

Our diplomats should look no further than Beijing ― warning Japan not to use the Obama visit as a ruse to whitewash its colonial rule of barbarism, while refraining from directly raising any issues about the visit itself in its apparent consent for the need of a nuclear-free world Obama’s visit symbolizes.

In contrast, the Korean Ministry, in its official response, tried to emphasize that Washington had consulted with Seoul in the process of the Obama decision. The government was most concerned about a public that would feel easily slighted by the United States and the political opposition, now in control of the National Assembly, which would use it against the government. The Ministry would claim its action is restrained by a more important need to keep the U.S. and Japan on the same page as it is for the ongoing efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

This usual litany of excuses would mean the Foreign Ministry has their priorities in the wrong order, revealing they are still stuck in an inferiority complex that was overcome by the rest of the nation before the new millennium.

Just in case they don’t know, their top priority should be to act boldly in the nation’s interest and for the pride of the people on the basis of popular consent. Its behavior, however, exhibits nothing of the above. In other words, the ministry ended up insulting the people’s intelligence and let go of a chance to build national consensus and keep pressing Washington or Beijing. Rhetorically, the statement deserves scrutiny only for it is used as a bad example.

Through an anonymous official, a method that gives the impression of the lack of transparency and confidence, the Ministry said without identifying who was making the statement, “President Obama’s decision was made on the basis of his conviction in pursuing global peace and stability through a nuclear-free world.”

It sounded as if Seoul was a bystander in the Obama decision contrary to the Ministry’s insistence that it was consulted but didn’t share his vision, when Korea could be the biggest beneficiary from a North Korea that is separated from its nukes.

The Ministry went a step further by saying that the U.S. position about the use of its nuclear weapons against Imperial Japan has not changed. This obviously means Obama’s intention not to apologize for the bombings. Then, the ministry lost its coherence completely, saying, “The U.S. clarifies that the public acknowledgement of historic facts is indispensable to understanding the past.” Whose acknowledgment and understanding does this mean?

Not least, it ended by a highly questionable claim without corroborating evidence by saying that the Obama visit would also aim at bringing consolation to Korean victims of the Hiroshima blast. It is not until Obama mouths such a consolation that it should be seen as the Ministry’s wishful thinking.

Obama’s Hiroshima visit can be meaningful in that it is an effort to remove one of the biggest existential threats to humankind. However, it is worrisome for Korea and China, the victim countries that can’t forget Japan’s brutal colonial rule and its consistent efforts to shun its culpability for the war. It’s deplorable for the ministry to fail to register this national feeling openly and passionately. Who does this Ministry work for? We wonder.

foolsdie5@ktimes.com

UK diplomacy must maintain an edge in the face of competition


May 11, 2016

UK diplomacy must maintain an edge in the face of competition

 

Ambassadors need good language skills to be ready for a Paxman-like grilling, writes James Blitz

Jeremy Paxman

 

It is hard to think of any Whitehall department that spends as much time considering how it runs itself as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In the past five years, the FCO has been through much internal change, reconfiguring where it puts its biggest embassies, boosting its language school and holding lengthy seminars with outsiders as it strives to achieve what it calls “diplomatic excellence”. Now it has published yet another report on how it can boost “the FCO’s internal working, policymaking and impact”.

The analysis by Tom Fletcher, the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, has 36 recommendations on how the FCO can improve its modus operandi. He argues that the department’s IT system, the bane of many a diplomat’s life, needs a complete overhaul. Foreign Office staff need to spend longer at each embassy abroad — serving postings of four not three years — so that their expertise can be better harnessed. He recommends much stricter language requirements so that ambassadors can survive what he calls a Jeremy Paxman-like grilling from the local television anchor.

All this is an encouraging sign of how the FCO, instead of standing still, is thinking about what role it serves in the Whitehall firmament. Things are not as tricky for the FCO as they were in the Blair years, when Number 10 ran Iraq policy by itself. Under William Hague, the previous foreign secretary, the department regained a lot of its amour-propre. But when it comes to furthering UK diplomacy, it is competing in an increasingly crowded space.

 George Osborne, the chancellor, spearheads UK policy towards China; David Cameron’s decision to create the National Security Council has given considerable heft to the Cabinet Office; the Department for International Development has huge clout because of its considerable budget; and in the run-up to next month’s referendum on EU membership, the prime minister and chancellor have been in the lead in negotiations over Britain’s place in the EU.

 

Whatever the voters decide on June 23, the UK will continue to need an effective diplomatic service of its own. What Mr Fletcher’s report appears to indicate is that, in a world where heads of government and finance ministries are increasingly powerful, foreign ministries need to sharpen their role. For the FCO, this means reducing the amount of time it devotes to dry policymaking in oak-panelled rooms. The goal should instead be to build a well-resourced global network that comprises genuinely capable and knowledgeable individuals.

 

https://next.ft.com/content/88155146-15d2-11e6-b197-a4af20d5575e

Donald J. Trump: Major Foreign Policy Address


May 10, 2016

Donald J. Trump: Major Foreign Policy Address

https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-delivers-major-foreign-policy-address

In a major address today, Republican presidential candidate and GOP  presumptive nominee for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump detailed his views on critical foreign policy issues, making it abundantly clear that he is committed to prioritizing America first in national security, international diplomacy and global trade.  “Today, our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s no vision, no strategic purpose, no direction, no consistency.”

In his speech before The National Interest Magazine and its parent institution, The Center for the National Interest, and invited guests, Mr. Trump articulated five important criticisms of American foreign policy: the nation’s resources are overextended; many of our allies aren’t paying their fair share; our friends fear they can’t depend on us; our rivals no longer respect us – and the country doesn’t have clear foreign policy goals.

“All of this is going to change when I am President,” he said. “America is going to be strong again. America is going to be a reliable friend and ally again.”

As President, he would ensure the defeat of ISIS as a major foreign policy goal. “I have a simple message for ISIS: Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must, as a nation, be strong and resilient. They’re going to be gone.”

The presumptive nominee also pledged to rebuild America’s military and the national economy – two vital pillars of a peaceful and secure world. “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military. Our military dominance must be unquestioned,” he said. “We are also going to have to change our trade, immigration and economic policies to make our economy strong again – and to put Americans first again.”

After criticizing the “reckless, rudderless and aimless foreign policy” of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump outlined a more coherent international vision.

“Our foreign policy goals must be based on America’s core national security interests,” he said. He pledged to defeat radical Islam in the Middle East and to focus on stability in the region, not nation-building. Recognizing the differences America has with China and Russia, he also vowed to “seek common ground based on shared interests.”

“My goal is to establish a foreign policy that will endure for several generations centered on prioritizing America first. Under a Trump Administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s prepared remarks can be viewed here: https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-foreign-policy-speech

China’s Lancang-Mekong Diplomacy


April 2, 2016

China’s Lancang-Mekong Diplomacy

by Dr.(Tan Sri) Munir Majid

http://www.thestar.com.my

HE Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Minister attached to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Office

AT the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Hainan recently, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang offered the five ASEAN countries along the Mekong river that attended it with China, US$11.5billion in loans and credit for infrastructure and other projects.

There was no time frame on disbursement and there was no indication on how the facilities would be distributed among Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, who were all well represented at the meeting. Li acknowledged how the countries involved were all “family.”

The Lancang-Mekong Co-operation Framework was launched in November 2014 in Myanmar at the 17th China-ASEAN Summit. At the time US$20bil in loans had been offered for the construction of roads, ports and railways – all much needed particularly by the less developed ASEAN countries.

The Dachaoshan dam is a key hydropower source for China – and a major barrier on the Mekong for Thailand and other down-river countries on Mainland Southeast. (File photo by AP)

The occasion in Myanmar provided a measure of relief to China following suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011. Of course, underlying or overhanging all these substantial offers of financial largesse, are even the more massive promise of what is to come from the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the Silk Road Fund, all of which would result in greater use of the yuan and a Co-Prosperity sphere centred on Beijing. This is not to mention huge bilateral contracts and loans with individual ASEAN countries, including Malaysia’s.

With the piling up of all this money, it is scarce wonder there is a gravitational pull of countries in the region towards China. The extent of it, however, varies depending on need and pride. There is thus a self-fulfilled divided ASEAN without China having to do anything overt about it.

Like individuals, some countries may sell their soul for money. Others may even trade territorial integrity.As in a family, the promise of money is sometimes linked with good behaviour and obeisance of the patriarch.

The diplomacy of relations with China among countries  on mainland Southeast Asia – despite the brave front of ASEAN unity and ASEAN centrality – is thus rather murky, with a lot of mutual suspicion. So it might be said China has it made. However, China is undermining its economic attraction through its statements and actions supporting its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

Miscalculation

There seems to be a miscalculation on how far China can go but still have ASEAN countries eating out of its hands and gawking at its financial promise. Even if there are domestic political considerations for China’s harsh and inflexible stand, there equally is this self-belief now in China’s economic – and military – weight.

The difference between China in 2002, when it signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the direction to negotiation of a Code of Conduct, with ASEAN as a whole, and China in 2012, when it hounded the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal, is that China had become bigger and stronger in the 10 intervening years.

Suddenly China wants to negotiate only with claimant ASEAN states bilaterally, not ASEAN as a whole. Negotiation on the Code of Conduct has dragged on and on. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is being impressed on China by Singapore, representing ASEAN, to cover both naval vessels and coast guards in territorial waters as well (The CUES as signed by 21 countries in 2014 including China and the US covered the high seas and the Exclusive Economic Zone).

Even this has so far not gained any traction with China.Meanwhile China has turned seven uninhabitable atolls in the disputed sea into artificial islands with proclaimed 12-mile territorial sea rights.

There is an expectation Scarborough Shoal would be next. American – or any – freedom of navigation operations (FON ops) are denounced as violating China’s territorial integrity, an advance on the already extensive historical and traditional rights to the South China Sea as defined by the nine-dash line.

The South China Sea is being militarised. Landing strips for fighter jets have been constructed and surface-air-missiles are in place. The US has responded with the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group.

Territorial rights

We must defend our territorial rights, the Chinese masses demand. The Americans have increased tension by their aggressive actions, the Chinese Foreign Ministry proclaims.Have we got to believe all this? Just look at who took what actions and at their sequence. We cannot be blind to the facts and to become senseless because of repetition of untruths.

ASEAN must show it cannot be bought. That it is not without principles and is not spineless. That, exactly, it will defend its sovereignty and integrity – which it does so well with one another in the process of integration –- against all comers.China may be overplaying its hand.

An article in Khmer Times of Cambodia, widely seen as the most pro-China of ASEAN states, observed last Wednesday in an article entitled “Shared-River-Shared-Future” (perhaps in keeping with Chinese dialectics to obscure what it has to say): “China may need to readjust its foreign policy approach towards Southeast Asia, particularly in regard to the South China Sea disputes.

Clearly, China’s approach towards the Mekong countries is more effective than its approach towards the South China Sea.” The incident this week, reportedly well within Indonesian territorial waters in Natuna, shows that China’s claims are expansive and threatening – and are not confined to potential clashes between the US and China alone.

They seriously affect ASEAN states, in this case even a non-claimant state.After an Indonesian patrol boat had detained eight Chinese fishermen and their trawler found fishing in Indonesian territory, at least one Chinese coast guard vessel rammed the Chinese boat to try and free it.

A similar incident happened three years ago. An Indonesian patrol boat was forced to release detained Chinese crew fishing in its waters when confronted by China’s armed maritime law enforcement vessel.

This time Indonesia is not taking it lying down. Despite China’s request that the clash be kept quiet (“Don’t tell the media, we are friends after all…”), there was a strong and very public Indonesian reaction. China’s Charge d’affaires was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta to receive a stiff protest. Instead of apologising China’s Foreign Ministry loudly claimed that the trawler was operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” when attacked and harassed by the Indonesian patrol boat.

Provocative

This only raised the temperature with Indonesian observation that “…China’s actions were especially provocative and fitted a pattern of becoming more assertive in the waters.”

Indeed a senior Indonesian official was particularly irked by China’s claims to “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and made this strong observation: “It’s very fake, ambiguous, in terms of since when, since what year does it become historical, traditional.”

Of course with 5,000 years of Chinese history, it is a bottomless pit everyone else could fall into.Every country, especially ASEAN member states, should rise to the breathtaking magnitude of China’s claims. Indonesia, not a South China Sea claimant state (something ASEAN non-claimant states sometimes carry as a badge of honour), was ensnared by the nine-dash line.

There could be other ramifications of China’s reach into history and traditions.What ASEAN must do is to confront together the real issues of China’s claims, and not to pussy-foot around them. It should not be blinded by China’s promise of riches, as they will come at a cost, and unless they are willing to pay that cost.

ASEAN should also not try to pretend the South China Sea problems are problems of the claimant states alone, much less a matter between just the US and China. ASEAN is very much in the mix.