Obama’s Pivot to Asia Policy: It’s a Solid Double

September 16, 2016

Obama’s  Pivot to Asia Policy:It’s a Solid Double

by Jeffrey Bader, Brookings Institute


On rare occasions, international issues are resolved by a dramatic, decisive development. Much more often, progress is incremental. As United States President Barack Obama has said, an administration hits more singles and doubles than home runs. This has certainly been the nature of the United States’ recent achievements in Asia.

Image result for Obama and Susan Rice in Laos

Unlike the Middle East, which is in seemingly permanent turmoil and crisis, or Europe, whose unity and institutions are threatened, Asia is economically dynamic and generally stable. It is the fastest growing region in the world, the home of many of the companies and much of the technology driving the global economy, and the source of hundreds of billions of dollars in trade and investment.

Obama believed US interests lay in deeper engagement in a part of the world marked by success stories rather than failed states, much as throughout US history its deepest overseas ties have been with a prosperous and dynamic Europe. That has meant neither lazy affirmation of the region’s status quo nor efforts at destabilising transformation. It has required the right balance in dealing with a China whose growing economic, military and political strength is viewed with anxiety by many of the region’s peoples and as a potential strategic rival by the United States.

Obama’s policy towards China has built on the efforts of every presidential administration since Richard Nixon and is grounded in several fundamental principles. These include accepting the increased influence of a China that plays by international rules, building an extensive network of connections with Chinese elites and ordinary people, and providing assurance to the region of the enduring nature of the US’ security commitments. The US also aims to maintain a formal framework of multilateral cooperation encompassing the United States, China and various regional states.

Major achievements have included the establishment of democracy in Myanmar; the US’ decision to join the East Asia Summit and begin efforts to turn it into a significant regional security forum; and the measurable strengthening of security relationships with Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations.

Image result for obama and china

Obama with Putin and Xi –What’s next with the next POTUS?

With China, Obama has taken steps to improve cooperation and transparency, along with measures to strengthen the security of the United States and its regional allies. The United States and China have concluded military-to-military agreements designed to avoid incidents on the high seas and in international air space. The Obama administration has worked with China to successfully freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program, place caps on greenhouse gases and halt cyber theft of US companies’ intellectual property.

Image result for obama and duterte

The United States has also ramped up its naval presence in the South China Sea and, for the first time, comprehensively laid out its principles there — which were largely validated by the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the China–Philippines dispute. It has overseen a transfer of some of the US’ most advanced naval and air force systems to the Pacific, and it has reaffirmed US defence assurances to Japan covering Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea challenged by China.

With President Obama having just held his last official meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there are two principal challenges to the generally positive trajectory of US policy towards Asia.

The first is the continuing difficulties in managing and reacting to China’s rise. Will China address territorial conflicts peacefully in the South China Sea, cooperate in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, build a normal relationship with Japan and manage its differences with Taiwan? Will China work towards a politically sustainable trade and investment regime and dismantle nationalist and mercantilist policies that encourage other countries to erect retaliatory barriers and decrease global prosperity?

Message to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton–Bungle Asia at your own peril

China, not the United States, will answer these questions, but the kind of relationship that the United States has with China will help shape the answers. Neither an American policy of containment nor one of isolationism will produce the desired outcomes to these challenges. None have been resolved during Obama’s time, but he has made ample progress and laid out a realistic and balanced framework that the next president would do well to heed.

The second is the domestic mood in the United States. Casual proposals by Donald Trump to allow Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, to abandon US alliances if its partners don’t pay their ‘fair share’, and to impose 45 per cent tariffs on China would individually and collectively undo the achievements of President Obama and his predecessors.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) negotiations, a signature achievement of Obama’s Asia policy, may be a casualty of American domestic politics. If Congress doesn’t approve the TPP this year then approving some form of the TPP will become a priority for  the next administration. Otherwise, people in Asia who have long looked to the United States as an essential partner may conclude that its interests do not include them.

Jeffrey Bader is a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton Center, Brookings Institute. From 2009–2011, he served as special assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs at the National Security Council. 

This article was first published here on Brookings.


Indonesia: Reassessing ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ (Poros Maritim Dunia)

September 7, 2016

Indonesia: Reassessing  ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ (Poros Maritim Dunia)

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