Book Review: ‘War Porn’

August 10, 2016

Review: ‘War Porn’ Widens the Field of Vision About the Costs in Iraq

A Storm over the South China Sea

July 11, 2016

A Storm over the South China Sea

by Rear Admiral (rtd) K. Thanabalasingham

Image: China’s continued military build up on contested islands in South China Sea is boosting risk of conflict

COMMENT: I have followed closely the developments over the South China Sea (SCS) in the first half of this year and feel that things are not moving in the right direction. For starters, China has strengthened, militarised and fortified its positions in various locations of the SCS and is continuing the process.

Malaysia’s First Rear Admiral K. Thanabalasingham

China’s installation of the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile system and radars in the Paracel Islands and its fortification of positions elsewhere, like in the artificial island it has created from a shoal/reef in the Spratly Islands, have contributed to increased tensions in the region.

The arrivals and departures of Chinese military aircraft from this island have further aggravated the situation. China is also conducting naval exercises and manoeuvres, while last week a Chinese daily stated in an editorial that China must prepare for “military confrontation” in the SCS.

China has conducted exercises with its fishing fleets with a view to robust defence of its vessels to avoid arrest and detention by foreign forces. The six claimant states in the SCS, namely Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all have overlapping claims but very recently a new dispute has arisen between China and Indonesia over Natuna Island’s territorial and EEZ (exclusive economic zone) waters.

A number of incidents have occurred in the island’s waters between Chinese fishing vessels and Indonesian patrol vessels. China’s contentious nine-dash-line claim has soured feelings between China and the Asean claimant states and Indonesia.

The problem with China’s nine-dash-line claim (a U-shaped boundary that loops down from Taiwan as far as Indonesia’s Natuna Islands) is that it completely ignores the legitimate claims of the coastal states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China has ratified Unclos, but with certain specific reservations by which it expects exemption from certain decisions or rulings by some authorities. Furthermore, China is claiming 12 nautical-mile territorial waters around its artificial island, which is contrary to Unclos.

US-China bone of contentention

An artificial island has no rights, according to Unclos. This has become a bone of contention between the United States and China. I do not wish to dwell too much on the ongoing spat between super-power rivals in the SCS.

The US disputes China’s nine-dash-line claim because the US says it has the freedom of navigation in the sea and air over all international waters and air spaces. On this issue I must say that I have not come across anywhere where China has stated that freedom of navigation will be hindered or denied.

China is very business-minded and it would not be in its interest to restrict or prevent freedom of navigation. However, we now have to wait and see what China does in the future, especially after the Arbitration Court’s ruling.

In June this year, a meeting took place in China between Chinese and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. At the end of the meeting the ASEAN bloc issued a strongly- worded statement on ASEAN’s concerns over recent developments in the SCS region due to China’s activities.

Within 24 hours ASEAN withdrew the statement, with the explanation that each member nation would issue its own statement. It would be difficult for all 10 ASEAN members to issue a strongly-worded and unified statement on China’s actions in the SCS.

It is easier for the ASEAN claimant states and several others to have a unified and common stand. In the case of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, they have had long-standing economic and trade ties with China, which has invested heavily in these countries. Some of these countries, if not all, would not want to jeopardise their trade and investment links. Hence China still has leverage.

Taiwan’s claim in the SCS is almost identical to China’s. However, Taiwan has taken a different approach by proposing the SCS Peace Initiative, whereby all parties shelve their maritime disputes, abide by Unclos and explore joint development of maritime resources.

Regrettably, I do not see this proposal making any headway without China’s participation and concurrence. The majority of the countries of the world have accepted the One-China policy.

The anticipated ruling by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12 (tomorrow) on the Philippines’ claim against China will no doubt create further tensions, whether the ruling is in Philippines’ favour or not.

China has repeatedly stated that it does not recognise this court’s jurisdiction and will therefore not abide by its decision. A decision in Philippines’ favour could possibly worsen tensions and cause other repercussions. Will the other ASEAN claimant states resort to the same measure as the Philippines? Currently an air of uncertainty prevails over the SCS.

K THANABALASINGAM is Rear Admiral (Rtd) and he was the first Malaysian to take over as Chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN).

South China Sea: China reminds The United States not to take sides

July 7. 2016

South China Sea: China reminds The United States not to take sides

by David Brunnstrom, Reuters


FILE - In this April 28, 2016, file photo, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a foreign ministers' meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Beijing.

© AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) FILE – In this April 28, 2016, file photo, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building…

China’s Foreign Minister spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by telephone on Wednesday ahead of a key international court ruling on China’s South China Sea claims and warned Washington against moves that infringe on China’s sovereignty, Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Xinhua said Wang Yi repeated China’s rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Arbitration in a case the Philippines has brought against China’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, calling it a “farce” that should come to an end.

The court, based in The Hague, is due to give its ruling on Tuesday, raising fears of confrontation in the region. U.S. officials say the U.S. response should China stick to its vow to ignore the ruling could include stepped up freedom-of-navigation patrols close to Chinese claimed islands in what is one of the world’s business trade routes.

In the call initiated by Kerry, Wang “urged the United States to honor its commitment to not to take sides on issues related to sovereign disputes, to be prudent with its actions and words, and not to take any actions that infringe upon the sovereignty and security interests of China,” Xinhua said.

Wang said that regardless of the tribunal’s ruling, China would “firmly safeguard its own territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime rights and firmly safeguard the peace and stability,” it said.

Wang also said that relations between China and the United States were generally on a sound track and that the two sides should further focus on cooperation while properly managing their differences.

The U.S. State Department confirmed that Kerry had spoken by phone to Wang.

“The two discussed issues of mutual interest. We are not going to get into the details on this private diplomatic conversation,” State Department spokeswoman Gabrielle Price said.

China has been angered by U.S. patrols in the South China Sea in recent months and on Tuesday launched what the Defense Ministry termed “routine” military drills there.

On Tuesday, Beijing sought to downplay fears of conflict in the South China Sea after an influential state-run newspaper said Beijing should prepare for military confrontation.

U.S. officials say they fear China may respond to the ruling from The Hague by declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, and by stepping up its building and fortification of artificial islands.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sandra Maler)


South China Sea sovereignty –A Matter of Regional Concern

June 9, 2016

South China Sea sovereignty –A Matter of Regional Concern

Bonnie Glaser says the Shangri-La Dialogue, where nations queued up to express their concerns over Beijing’s actions, was another missed opportunity to shore up relations.

In what was perhaps the only extemporaneous remark made by China’s PLA representative at the Shangri-La Dialogue this past weekend, Admiral Sun Jianguo (孫建國) said that his bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts – 17 in all – were “warmer and friendlier” than those he held last year. Sun claimed to have received fewer questions during these meetings on the South China Sea. He insisted that trust had increased since the last dialogue. If Beijing really believes its behaviour over the past year has led to greater confidence that China’s rise will be peaceful and will not come at the expense of other nations, then China and its leaders are truly autistic.

A succession of defence leaders and delegates at the dialogue voiced concern about China’s uncertain intentions, its island building and military activity in the South China Sea, and its rejection of the pending ruling by the UN arbitration case filed by the Philippines. One after another, they called for a rules-based international order and for all countries to abide by prevailing international norms and laws.

Defence Ministers from the US, India, Malaysia, Japan, Britain, France and Canada raised pointed concerns about China in their remarks. “The uncertainty of China future’s trajectory is arguably the main driving concern about possible military competition now and in the future,” said Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian cautioned that “if the law of the sea is not respected today in the China seas [sic], it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, the Mediterranean or elsewhere.” In a thinly veiled reference to China, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar warned the forum that the “shared prosperities and the enviable rate of growth” that the Indo-Pacific region has enjoyed “over past decades will be put at risk by aggressive behaviour or actions by any one of us.” Chung Min Lee, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told Sun in the Q&A session that “many Asian countries don’t trust China” because of its “aggressive” posture in the region.

It is undeniable that China’s uncompromising stance on sovereignty and territorial issues, combined with a dismissive attitude towards international law, aggressive interference with foreign fishing vessels, extensive land reclamation on tiny reefs, and rapidly growing coast guard and navy have created enormous anxiety in the region and driven many countries inside and outside Southeast Asia closer to the US. This is what Secretary of Defence Ash Carter meant when he charged that China is erecting a Great Wall of isolation.

The remarks by Sun, deputy chief of the People Liberation Army’s joint staff department, contained nothing reassuring. He staunchly defended China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, and attempted to shift the blame for rising tensions there onto the US and the Philippines. Absent was any mention of President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) pledge – made publicly in Washington last September – to not militarise the Spratlys. Sun didn’t even attempt to soothe anxiety by reiterating Chinese intentions to use the reefs in the disputed waters primarily for the provision of public goods, such as search and rescue. His call for countries to “address the reasonable concerns of others while pursuing their own interests” rang hollow. While other defence representatives tabled concrete proposals to promote cooperation, Sun failed to offer anything hopeful other than a vague assertion that China has no hegemonic ambitions and that Xi’s China Dream is consistent with the dreams of other countries in the region. His insistence that China has been a victim of aggression and invasion by its neighbours in the South China Sea over the past decades probably didn’t win any sympathy.

Sun delivered his speech in a booming, shrill tone that seemed designed to intimidate the audience while assuring listeners in China that the PLA would defend Chinese national interests. For the second year in a row, he did not respond directly to any questions put to him, opting to read only prepared remarks. Once again, Sun’s performance left the impression that China could not care less about others’ concerns and will stay the course in the South China Sea regardless.

China missed another opportunity to listen to the region, assuage concerns about Chinese intentions, and signal willingness to find common ground to advance security and stability in the region.

Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC


The Morning After: Australia, Japan, and the Submarine Deal that Wasn’t

June 8, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 346 | June 7, 2016

The Morning After: Australia, Japan, and the Submarine Deal that Wasn’t

by Nick Bisley and H. D. P. Envall

Barely had the visiting Japanese submarine, JS Hakuryu, departed Sydney Harbour on 26 April than Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced to the media that Australia’s future submarines would be built by the French contractor, DCNS Group. A week prior to Turnbull’s announcement, the news that Japan had finished last in the tender process began to leak from the Cabinet’s National Security Committee. Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani expressed “immense disappointment” at the decision and said that he would be seeking an explanation.

Australia’s experience in replacing the Collins submarines, which are set to be mothballed over coming decades, has been a story of serial missteps — bureaucratic, political, and diplomatic. Initially, the new submarines were to be designed in Australia and built in Adelaide, South Australia. Prior to the 2007 election, then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson announced that you could “bet London to brick” that, under a Liberal-National government, the submarines would be built in Adelaide. This persisted through two Defence White Papers and the 2013 national election. In 2009, the Labor government led by Kevin Rudd had announced its decision to acquire 12 next generation submarines.

These were “to be assembled” in South Australia, with the design and construction to “be undertaken without delay,” although the huge ambition of the project led some to describe it as akin to a moonshot. This goal was reconfirmed in 2012 and again in 2013 under the Labor government led by Julia Gillard.

Upon its election in late 2013 the Liberal-National government led by Tony Abbott appeared to be steering the program toward Japan. In keeping with its belief that government should not prop up industries that couldn’t stand on their own, the government began to pursue what came to be known as “Option J.” From mid-2014 intense media speculation had focused on the feasibility of Japan building a reconfigured version of its Soryu-class submarine. The idea was prompted by the remarkably close relationship that Abbott had established with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and strong advocacy of Abbott’s senior national security adviser Andrew Shearer for a closer strategic link to Japan.

It was widely believed in Canberra that the two leaders had a “gentleman’s agreement” on the submarines. Australia would get cutting edge boats at a competitive price, Japan could begin to get into the lucrative business of international defense contracting, and it would cement the strategic ties between the two American allies. Submarines would consummate the “virtual” alliance. In August 2014 then Defence Minister David Johnston gave the first official hint of this when he refused to rule out any options regarding submarine acquisition. In November, he essentially said that the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) was not up to the task, rhetorically asking “you wonder why I wouldn’t trust them [ASC] to build a canoe?”

For reasons largely of poor diplomatic management, however, the two parties allowed their more aspirational hopes for a major strategic relationship to get ahead of the complex realities of the biggest defense acquisition in Australian history.

Australia’s domestic politics provided the first reality check for Option J. Abbott’s leadership had been questioned by his dire polling and in a suddenly called leadership challenge, he was desperate to get support from the Liberal members of parliament to ensure he remained party leader. The future submarine project had long been viewed as a much needed boost for the depressed South Australian economy. By raising the possibility of an overseas build, Abbott had exacerbated these problems.

South Australian Liberal politicians forced Abbott to give them something to take to their constituents in return for their support. This led to the hastily established “competitive evaluation process” that would open up the project to other bidders, including other international players. And it was here that things started to go awry. By some accounts, the Abbott people communicated to Japan that the “evaluation process” was essentially window-dressing and that the deal would still go their way provided they could build or at least assemble in South Australia. When Abbott was ousted by Turnbull, the personal commitment of the Prime Minister’s office was removed and the competitive process became a genuine competition.

The second reality check came as Option J’s strategic dimension was exposed to greater scrutiny. From the outset, key policy makers and analysts argued that the project should be decided on technical issues alone. Others pointed to the potential strategic risks of locking Australia into a long-term relationship with Japan and the implications of this for the country’s links with China. Whether this was a realistic fear was much debated in Australia, even as the question of whether the deal offered any substantial strategic benefits was mostly overlooked. Indeed, it remains unclear what strategic benefits a submarine tie-up would bring Australia beyond those already delivered by the two countries’ current strategic partnership.

Ultimately, the Australian government determined that the Japanese bid was not competitive on technical grounds. These related both to questions about submarine specifics and to serious concerns about Japan’s lack of experience on such projects, a fear that Japan’s approach to the tendering process seemed to confirm. Nor was it confident, if media reports are to be believed, that the Japanese government (outside leadership circles) was itself especially enthusiastic about the project.

So, if the submarine deal was too much of a wild night out for Australia and Japan, what can be expected of bilateral relations the morning after? To the extent that the strategic partnership has lost some momentum, this has occurred largely through Australian clumsiness, which has been distinguished by procrastination, vacillation and some incautious diplomacy. Indeed, Japan’s lack of enthusiasm reflected division with the country’s defense industry as well as a late realization that, on such a big, politically fraught project, Australia might not be the ideal customer.

Over the longer run, the partnership is unlikely to suffer greatly. Their strategic closeness of recent years has been prompted by the growing alignment of their strategic interests, something which has been strengthened by China’s aggressive approach to regional diplomacy. Both countries also continue to share close relations with the US through their respective alliances.

Where the two differ is in the immediacy of their strategic circumstances: these are more acute for Japan, given its territorial dispute with China, meaning that its need to cultivate strategic partners beyond the US is greater than Australia’s. This offers Australia something of a bargaining advantage in their emerging partnership and suggests that Japan, with few suitable alternatives, will likely persist in cultivating the relationship. Moreover, Australia’s decision to boost its submarine capabilities is very much in Japan’s strategic interests, regardless of the supplier. Accordingly, although both countries may be feeling somewhat seedy at present, the hangover should not last too long.

About the Author

Nick Bisley is Professor of International Relations and Executive Director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He can be contacted at H. D. P. (David) Envall is a Research Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University, Canberra, and an honorary associate at La Trobe University. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington

APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.


For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111

The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

February 25, 2016

 Number 335 | February 24, 2016


 The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

By Marvin Ott and Derek Maseloff

President Obama’s invitation to ASEAN leaders to join him in California was the latest initiative in a strategic contest between the U.S. and China to shape the future of Southeast Asia. That contest has political and economic elements but it includes an important–even core–security dimension. Defense/security ties between the U.S. and Southeast Asian states run the gamut from minimal (Laos) to intimate (Singapore) to full treaty alliance (Philippines).

These relationships have also been remarkably dynamic as U.S.-Vietnamese ties wax and those with Thailand wane. Burma/Myanmar has moved from distant and hostile toward a potential, but still uncertain, strategic entente. In all this protean complexity Malaysia stands out as particularly intriguing.

Malaya–and then Malaysia–gained independence via amicable negotiations with its former colonial overlord, Great Britain. The U.S. was a friendly, but marginal factor in Malaysia’s security equation during the first two decades of independence. The advent of the Mahathir era (1981-2003) brought a new and paradoxical tone to U.S.-Malaysia relations.

Mahathir, animated by a idiosyncratic anti-colonial zeal, seemed to go out of his way to irritate Washington with invective that portrayed America as at once arrogant, a bully, and, if not anti-Muslim, something very close to it. Yet while flagellating U.S. diplomats and political leaders he allowed security relations (defense and intelligence) with Washington to grow and prosper. The same was true when it came to U.S. corporate (particularly technology) investments in Malaysia.

The force of Mahathir’s personality and the length of his tenure left a durable imprint on Malaysian perceptions of America which were reinforced by the post-9/11 invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The easy cordiality between Kuala Lumpur and Washington of the first two decades was replaced by a steady diet of public rancor. From a strategic perspective, Mahathir’s anti-American posturing came without serious cost because Malaysia faced no critical security threats for the three decades following the Vietnam War.

A different, almost mirror image, played out in Malaysia-China relations. During the early years of Malaysian independence China was seen as a mortal threat given Maoist support for the Malaysian communist insurgency of the 1950s and early 1960s and for Sukarno’s attempt to dismember Malaysia (1963-5). But by the 1980s Deng Xiaoping had set China on a course of normal state-to-state relations and rapid economic development. China, for Mahathir, had the additional virtue of being Asian and not America

The Malaysia that Mahathir bequeathed with his retirement, and that Najib Razak inherited upon becoming Prime Minister a few years later (2009), was overtly friendly toward China and equally overtly suspicious of the U.S. Malaysia took considerable pride in having been the first ASEAN government to normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1974. That agreement is particularly resonate because it was negotiated by the current Prime Minister’s father.

But by 2009 the strategic landscape in Southeast Asia was changing rapidly and profoundly. The dramatic growth in China’s maritime military power coupled with Beijing’s undisguised territorial ambitions in the South China Sea rendered Kuala Lumpur’s security orientation increasingly out of sync with reality. China’s determination to enforce the 9-Dash line as a sovereign boundary meant that Malaysia would–if China’s view prevailed–have to give up its own extensive maritime claims.

It was hard to have any doubt on this point when Chinese naval and paramilitary flotillas began making regular appearances at James Shoal in the extreme south of the South China Sea–where they removed Malaysian markers and challenged the right of offshore oil rigs there to operate without Beijing’s approval.

All this is within 50 miles of the Malaysian coast and well within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone . About a third of the Malaysian government’s annual revenue derives from the oil and gas sector–much of it within the EEZ. In July 2014 an oil consortium announced the discovery of a major natural gas field 90 miles off the coast of Sarawak.

The Najib government has responded with a classic hedging strategy. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has gone out of its way to celebrate a “special relationship” with Beijing. Malaysia has carefully avoided public criticism or confrontation regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. There have been no Malaysian analogs to Indonesian seizures of Chinese fishing boats or the Philippines’ legal case against China before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

Kuala Lumpur has earned public praise from Xi Jinping for its “quiet diplomacy approach” and the Malaysian and Chinese militaries have engaged in a growing menu of joint exercises and consultations. But there is little doubt that Najib understands the implications of Chinese ambitions and methods. He also understands the critical importance of the U.S. as a counterweight to China.

Najib once quipped that U.S.-Malaysian defense cooperation was “an all too well-kept-secret.” No longer. During Barack Obama’s 2014 visit to Kuala Lumpur (the first by an American President since Lyndon Johnson) the two governments formally characterized their relationship as a “Comprehensive Partnership.”U.S. Navy ships visit Malaysia regularly and the two militaries maintain a demanding schedule of joint exercises–both bilateral and multilateral. They include jungle training in Malaysia with U.S. Special Forces and Malaysian participation in the largest annual U.S. multilateral exercise in Asia–Cobra Gold in Thailand.

Dozens of Malaysian Armed Forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments. Credible reporting indicates that U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft are operating out of a Malaysian Air Force Base on Labuan Island on the southern edge of the South China Sea. Dozens of Malaysian armed forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments.

The Malaysian Defense Minister has publicly expressed the hope that the U.S. will help train Malaysian Marines to be stationed at a new base in Sarawak. The two countries navies cooperate in counter-piracy operations in the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.

U.S. expertise and equipment have been enlisted to assist Malaysia in the long agonizing effort to discover what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight lost over the southern Pacific. Early this month Malaysia announced a deal for 6 attack helicopters–the largest purchase of U.S. military equipment in 27 years. But perhaps the most graphic evidence of the new tone in the security relationship occurred 3 months ago when news footage showed the US. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, standing on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier underway in the South China Sea–and standing next to him with a broad smile on his face was Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Defence.

About the Author

Marvin Ott is a Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins University. He can be contacted at Derek Maseloff was a Research Assistant, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a student at Cornell University. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

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