Bilahari Kausikan: 4 Hard Truths about North Korea


May 27, 2017

Bilahari Kausikan: 4 Hard Truths about North Korea

There are no good options, only least bad ones. Unilateral US action will harm US allies in the region and permanently damage trust.

http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/hard-truths-from-hard-nosed-diplomat-bilahari-kausikan-on-us-north-korea-policy

Veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has a habit of speaking truth to power, no matter how hard the truth, or how big the power.

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Singapore’s Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan at The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In a speech reprinted in The Straits Times titled US Military Action Against Pyongyang Could Undermine Trust, he says there are no good options on North Korea, only least bad ones.

Here’s the gist of his argument in four hard truths.

1. Pyongyang is hell-bent determined to develop a long-range missile that can hit the US and no one is going to be able to stop it.

Mr Kausikan writes: “North Korea does not yet have nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the continental US; it has probably not yet weaponised its nuclear devices to make them deliverable by missiles. But Pyongyang is determined to acquire survivable, nuclear-armed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles)… Pyongyang will persist and it will eventually succeed – unless the US and its North-east Asian allies are willing to fight a full-scale war to stop it. I do not think they are prepared to pay the price.”

China doesn’t want war. The United States would like to stop North Korea, but its own options are limited. (See hard truth No. 2) So it’s leaning on China to do so – but China won’t lean on Pyongyang enough to make it stop. It wants Pyongyang to behave better, but won’t want to destroy the Pyongyang regime, fearing that doing so will destabilise its own society.

2. Any US military action against North Korea will come at a heavy price – Asian allies will suffer the brunt of Pyongyang’s retaliation, and trust in the US will be permanently eroded.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and US President Donald Trump spoke by phone on April 5, 2017 – a day after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. PHOTO: AFP

He explains: “Seoul is within range of conventional artillery, and South Korea and Japan are within range of North Korea’s existing missiles. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has warned that North Korean missiles could be armed with sarin, a nerve agent.

“Unilateral military action by Washington would thus impose serious direct risks on its allies at a time when the US itself does not yet face a direct threat. If the US acts unilaterally, it will, in effect, force its allies to immediately bear the very heavy costs of mitigating threats to itself that are still theoretical or putative as far as the US is concerned. This would cause grievous political damage and could permanently undermine trust in America well beyond North-east Asia.”

3.  The US will not sacrifice American cities to save Asian capitals, when North Korea eventually develops a missile that can hit America.

Mr Kausikan writes: “When North Korea has nuclear-capable ICBMs able to threaten the US, the question is bound to be asked – will San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo? Since the answer is obviously ‘no’, Tokyo will have to seriously consider its own nuclear options.

“Japan has the capability to develop an independent nuclear deterrent very quickly and has, in fact, been quietly developing this capability – with American aid and acquiescence – for 30 years or so… The decision will be politically very difficult. But Japanese public opinion has changed very abruptly several times in modern Japanese history, and since the alternative is to accept subordination to China, I believe it is only a question of when and not whether Japan will become a nuclear-weapon state. I do not think the US is eager to see Japan become a nuclear-weapon state. Neither do I think that Japan is keen to become a nuclear-weapon state. But, for both, this will eventually be the least bad option.

“Where Japan goes, South Korea must follow since Seoul is bound to wonder whether it will be sacrificed to save Tokyo.”

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Trump’s America  threatens to go Alone on North Korea–Not possible since its arrogance of power will destabilize North East Asia and undermine regional stability..

The likely result: Japan and South Korea will move out from under the US nuclear umbrella protection and want to develop their own nuclear capabilities. A nuclear arms race may result in the region.

4. Denuclearisation is not an option. Nuclear escalation is more likely. But luckily, mutually assured destruction is not as mad as it sounds.

If regional countries become nuclear powers, will the situation become more volatile? Mr Kausikan says not necessarily.

 “A balance of mutually assured destruction in North-east Asia will not be a satisfactory situation for anyone. But it will not necessarily be unstable – in fact, it may well be more stable than the current situation – and it may be of some small consolation to Washington, Tokyo and Seoul that the implications for Beijing are somewhat worse. A balance of mutually assured destruction will freeze the status quo and is an absolute obstacle to Beijing’s goal – which is implicit in the essentially revanchist narrative of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of China by which the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) legitimates its rule – of recreating an East Asian order with China at its apex.”

For the full article, go to http://str.sg/46xe

The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective


May 21, 2017

The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective

by Gianluca Spezza

PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies, University of Central Lancashire, and founding contributor at NK News

https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017/05/18/real-crisis-north-korea-not-one-you%E2%80%99ve-been-hearing-about

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been in the news a lot lately, with the DPRK testing new missiles and the United States moving a naval strike group off the Korean peninsula. The commentary almost always revolves around strategic issues, especially North Korea’s nuclear programme.

In focusing so narrowly on the country’s military and its leader, Kim Jong-un, however, the debate largely overlooks the North Korean people.

This has two major implications. First, it perpetuates an image of the country that is not in line with reality. In fact, the younger Kim does not enjoy the kind of monolithic influence held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, or his father, Kim Jong-il. Power structures in North Korea began to disintegrate under Kim Jong-il and are now widely ramified. Security apparatuses are no longer under one single point of command; neither are military corps. This is something that the administration of US President Donald Trump seems to be oblivious to, but it should take into account when formulating policy.

Second, and most important, the world’s myopic attention to Kim Jong-un precludes recognition of the nearly 26 million people that live in the country. They represent the true issue at stake, once the current regime – which is living on borrowed time – is gone.

What do we know about DPRK and its people?

Oddly enough, since the early 1990s the international community has accumulated a larger knowledge base on North Korean society than intelligence agencies have ever had on its military. Yet, most media insist on reporting obsessively on the latter. This is shortsighted.

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The Hermit Nation–Kim and his Military Men

The questions we ought to ask instead, if we are to understand where the country is headed, are: What is the current state of North Korea? What do we know about its society and economy? What kind of country will emerge once the regime is gone?

These questions matter, because with each crisis, the possibility of regime change or collapse becomes more real. With that, the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe increases, and neither South Korea nor China are well prepared to respond.

North Korea represents an anomaly, for both aid organisations and experts of international politics. But things are changing.

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For a long time, the country may have deserved its moniker of the hermit kingdom. But today, after 22 years of humanitarian assistance and development, the DPRK is an aid-dependent country, stuck in a paradoxical situation. Its economy crashed in the mid-1990s and never recovered, while its social indicators went from good, to terrible, to decent over the last two decades.

The North Korean development indicators for children’s welfare, as well as immunisation and education, are well above countries with a much higher GDP, but the economy does not reflect this relatively healthy development status. The DPRK produces very little of value, and its people find survival in the black market rather than state-provided jobs.

North Korea, in other words, has the economy of an underdeveloped country, with levels of social development of a middle-to-high income country. It is time to take a look at the country beyond military parades.

How did North Korea get so poor?

Upon the demise of its first leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, the DPRK faced a combination of domestic and international factors that negatively affected all sectors of society and state institutions. External circumstances included the loss between 1991 and 1993 of its main allies and economic partners, the Soviet Union and China. In addition, in 1993, China started to demand payments at regular market rates for oil and fuel, which had until then been provided at very low prices and constituted the main source of energy for the DPRK.

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In this rapidly changing international scenario, the DPRK, which had become heavily dependent on subsided trade with its former communist partners during the Cold War, found itself with no economic safety net. At the same time, the country was hit by a series of droughts and floods, along with a sudden shortage of energy sources. This devastated an agriculture system almost entirely dependent on chemical fertilisers and mechanised irrigation.

With diminishing amounts of food, the effectiveness of the Public Distribution System that regulated the allocation of basic goods decreased gradually, forcing the population to seek alternative means of subsistence. Housewives, factory workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and students alike had to fend for themselves in order to secure food and heating material during winter.

The crisis caught many North Koreans by surprise, and it was aggravated by economic mismanagement. It should be noted that the Public Distribution System did not collapse altogether, but the degree of functioning of the system varied between different provincesBetween 1994 and 1998, GDP declined by almost half. This, in combination with the progressive dysfunction of the PDS, severely reduced access to food, medications, and primary goods, leading to a famine and to the general deterioration of the population’s ability to withstand further calamities.

The economy: China dominates

Today, it is safe to say that, in effect, China runs North Korea’s economy. Chinese currency is widely used in the unofficial markets that have mushroomed around the country since the crisis of the mid-1990s.

China gets the lion’s share of trade with North Korea and provides the bulk of its food and energy. Luxury items, if and when they manage to come into the DPRK, do so from across the border region of Yanbian or Chinese ports.

To be sure, North Korea does have a few economic niches, but these too are largely influenced by China’s presence. The DPRK’s significant mineral resources are almost exclusively exploited by Chinese companies, and Chinese visitors make for the majority of customers in North Korea’s trade fairs and Special Economic Zones.

In other words, simply by looking at the economy of North Korea, one could surmise that as long as China is there to support it, the country could muddle along with no substantial changes for a very long time. A look at North Korean social indicators, however, offers a different perspective.

Demography is destiny

The key indicators of a country’s state of health and future prospects are its social statistics, particularly those on demographics. According to combined data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in Pyongyang, the World Bank Institute, and the UN gathered in 2008, and data by UNICEF gathered in 2014, the DPRK’s average population growth rate for 1990-2004 was 0.9 percent, or equivalent to that of upper middle-income countries. The same data provide trends for 2004-2020 that place growth at 0.4 percent, or equivalent to that of high-income countries.

At the same time, North Korea’s birth rate dropped to 16 per 1,000 people in the late 2000s – the level of middle-income countries – whilst the fertility rate is slowly approaching the levels of most Western countries. It sits between parity – two children, which is the minimum requirement for a population to continue replacing itself over time – and one child or none per couple, which is deemed not enough to avoid extinction in the long run. The latter is where Germany, Italy, and most EU countries are at present.

What does this mean for the future of North Korea?

If we read population increase as an indication of economic and social stability, the DPRK looks further removed from the so-called “failed states” it is often compared to – like Somalia, Yemen, or South Sudan – which are all on the verge of famine (or, in the case of parts of South Sudan, already experiencing it). North Korea is in fact undergoing the same “cradle crisis” that characterises advanced countries, from Japan to Germany.

However, the same statistics, viewed from the standpoint of overall death rates and infant mortality rates suggest the DPRK is right there with low-income countries. Its average death rate is as high as 11 per 1,000 people, and rates of infant mortality that have not yet fully recovered from the 1990s crisis.

This has a number of implications: North Korea doesn’t have the problems that South Korea has at the moment, with an increasingly aging population placing stress on the social welfare system. As a matter of fact, the DPRK welfare system has been simply downsized and slowed to a minimum since the 1990s. Today, North Koreans live on average six to eight years less than South Koreans and about nine years less than the Japanese.

In Malthusian terms, this means that the government has less to worry about in the short-term. Considering the chronic economic stagnation, most North Koreans alive today could well get old before they even have a chance to elevate their economic status.

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At the same time, with a slow but steady recovery from the famine and the crisis of the mid-1990s, the DPRK seems to have reached a level of relative social comfort at which most middle-to-high income countries stop having enough children for the maintenance of native population. At this stage, they will slowly begin to fade out unless they adopt open immigration policies – an option that is unpopular in South Korea and Japan, and next to impossible in the DPRK.

If the trend continues – and the figures from 2008 and 2014 suggest it will – North Korea may one day run out of people to maintain its workforce. That would be one more reason for the regime to push towards reunification. While its rival state south of the demilitarised zone is also growing older, it is still twice as populous, and immensely richer by comparison. Still, if nothing changes at the economic level, any effort of reunification will require the equivalent of a mini-Marshall Plan for the entire peninsula.

This is the real North Korean conundrum: The country has faced challenges it is hard to imagine any other regime surviving: famine, floods, droughts, economic collapse, energy shortages, sanctions, and leadership changes. This has left a North Korea that is a mass of contradictions.

Few consider that the country making headlines for its nuclear technology has a basket case economy, but also one of the highest literacy rates in the world. There is no other country with such low economic indicators that can at the same time build and at test nuclear devices and achieve universal literacy, while still being aid-dependent.

Is aid the answer?

To explain the North Korean anomaly, we have to look at the nature of aid itself with three key questions: What is aid? Why is aid provided? Is it accomplishing what it is supposed to?

From an economic perspective, we can think of aid as a measure of socioeconomic welfare, like the one used for families and individuals, but on a much bigger scale. Welfare policies are supposed to work as a safety net in times of emergency – fostering growth and preventing recession when families and individuals go through hardships. At any rate, welfare is conceived to be a temporary measure and aid doesn’t come for free.

Aid represents an extension of foreign policy from donor states to recipient nations. Donors and international organisations expect recipients to correct their course and adopt policies that move them towards a free market economy, and adherence to international treaties on human rights, environmental protection and sustainability.

North Korea has become chronically dependent on aid since the mid 1990s. Yet, it has remained impervious to outside pressure for change. When it shows any degree of compliance with international norms, it does so only in fields where its interests converge with those of international organisations. Education and environmental protection are two examples.

On the other hand, North Korea has no relationship with global economic bodies like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. It makes no concessions on the issues of nuclear proliferation and allows no inspections from human rights organisations. But its population does require foreign assistance in order to survive.

The socioeconomic emergency that swept the country between 1995 and 1999 was rooted in a combination of political, climatic, structural, and geopolitical factors. By 2005, the government declared the food emergency to be over and asked a number of NGOs – but not UN agencies – to leave. Nevertheless, the country has continued to rely on foreign assistance, just as the UN agencies at work in the DPRK kept monitoring a situation that requires periodical emergency assistance, year in-year out, in combination with development programmes.

If North Korea were a family, or an individual who has been in need of aid for 22 consecutive years, would this be considered normal? It’s unlikely. Yet, aid needs to reach the people of the DPRK on a yearly basis or a new humanitarian emergency may break out, according to the UN.

There is a consensus among humanitarians that as the North Korean people have no say on their government policies, they should not be the ones suffering the consequences. Therefore, the international community has responded with aid. However, a look at what North Korea has become since 1995 reveals that aid has not made North Korea strong enough to stand on its own.

This is the most pressing problem with North Korea, aside from its periodically aggressive military posture. The country needs aid because what once was a functioning infrastructure for a command economy, in which the state plays the primary role, has ceased to exist. More than this, it needs important economic and political reforms. Currently however, North Korean politics withhold economic restructuring and growth. At the same time, aid agencies and donors tend to look at technical issues and do not tackle the lack of political decisions that could steer the country away from perpetually looming humanitarian disasters.

 A new approach?

Aid has been invaluable in pulling the country out of the humanitarian catastrophe of the mid-1990s, and it has helped North Korea maintain decent levels in development indicators such as health and education since then on. But aid cannot help the country provide a decent standard of living on its own for its people. That can only be done through political reform.

The real political story about North Korea today is that the “Stalinist fortress” – the impenetrable polity devoted to hardline communism – is no longer Stalinist, nor a fortress. North Korea scholars and South Korean government experts concur in saying that Kim Jong-un holds a fraction of the power that his father and grandfather wielded.

The elites that have emerged from two decades of black market activity are aware that there are only a few obstacles to a reunification that could see them prosper, while lifting millions of North Koreans out of poverty. These factors are their “political guilt” (for they contributed to keeping the country in a state of repression over decades), and the risk of losing whatever wealth they have accumulated.

If the United States and South Korea could agree to leave some of these families in power, providing them amnesty, they could ask in return for a soft removal of the Kim family, and open the door for a gradual economic rebuilding of the country. Financial incentive, or the lack thereof, in North Korea is the key issue. The average annual income in North Korea is a little below $1,000. In the South, it is over $30,000. No amount of foreign aid can ever bridge this difference.

Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details


May 11, 2017

North Korea and South China Sea and the Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details

by Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.–Munir Majid

THE Chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the ASEAN community pillars as well as its other integration projects.

ASEAN leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.

The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter ASEAN from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his comic and infantile antics.

Of course, China is nowadays not as close to North Korea as “lip and teeth”, which was how Mao Zedong put it in 1961, but still…

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Thus it was that the Chair of ASEAN for this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had this telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump when he expressed the regional grouping’s concern as well as hope for restraint in the Korean Peninsula, and got invited to meet his opposite number – some would say his political double – in Washington.

The fact that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha also was invited in a separate call to come to Washington gives the impression that these invitations are for ASEAN countries with whom the US has formal defence arrangements.

According to the Philippines media, Duterte will not be going. But if he does, it is to be hoped he will carry the ASEAN card with him as well.

And if Duterte brought his common law wife along, there is no doubt it would sit well with Trump. Both revel in the unconventional.

Certainly Duterte has had no cause to call Trump the “son of a whore” just as Trump does not find particular offence in Duterte’s anti-drug warfare in the Philippines.

If they came to discuss the South China Sea issue, however, it would be interesting to see who would outdo the other in double-talk.

For ASEAN there would be great interest in whether the South China Sea would be discussed and what kind of representation Duterte would make. He could only make a representation on behalf of the Philippines, if he could make clear what exactly is Manila’s position.

Duterte’s South China Sea opacity – or more accurately obfuscation – might actually endear him to Trump who is a master of the art. So it could be expected there would be some good coming out of a meeting between the two Presidents, particularly for Duterte and the Philippines.

While Trump has been sitting in Washington like some kind of emperor of a Middle Kingdom with all these foreign leaders coming to pay homage, the solution to the South China Sea disputes and China’s claims, however, lies in Beijing.

So in the Chairman’s statement after the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, there was a safe distance between paragraph 7, where there was reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the settlement of disputes, and the section on the South China Sea (paragraphs 120 to 121) where there was absolutely no such reference, of course.

There was not a squeak on the ruling devastating to China by the Law of the Sea Arbitration Tribunal last July.

Instead, the leaders trotted out the usual asinine hope for a Code of Conduct by the middle of the year which has been long overdue since the Declaration of Conduct of 2002. And even tried to celebrate the imminence of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which has been in existence in many places.

It is as if, right on cue, they have no idea how to move forward. ASEAN leaders must stop this charade. If they do not want to cross China – a perfectly understandable predisposition – they should at least come up with ideas on how to found a long-term cooperative solution. Why has ASEAN always got to wait on China?

There are many ideas out there on how to convert the South China Sea from an area of contention to a zone of cooperation. One involves turning the Spratlys into an International Marine Peace Park.

More than the undoubted oil reserves, the South China Sea is a huge source of fish for the entire region. About two billion people depend on it for their protein, and a not inconsiderable number for their livelihood. Over 12% of total world annual fish catch comes from the South China Sea (valued at US$21.8bil).

With all their talk about a people-centric ASEAN, should not the leaders get their officials and experts to look into making a proposal which would turn the South China Sea into a zone of cooperation to sustain the harvest of fish? Even Israel and Jordan could do so – under the 1994 peace agreement which created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

In a new e-book, Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines notes: “The eggs and larvae that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands as well as the Sulu Sea. The Spratlys are the breeding ground for fish in the South China Sea.”

ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.

Apart from clear concern over the tension in the Korean Peninsula, there was again too much self-satisfaction in the chairman’s statement of the 30th ASEAN Summit. On strengthening the secretariat and ASEAN organs, for instance, the leaders were happy with the progress made by the High Level Task Force. But exactly what progress and in which direction? They did not say.

On the study to update the ASEAN Charter, they agreeably noted the direction from Ministers “for a precise and cautious approach taking into account the views and positions of all Member States.” Does this mean no change in the ASEAN Charter for the next five years? Ten years?

Even on the tension in the Korean Peninsula, they did not make any specific suggestion on what could be done. Another attempt to revive the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme that first started in 2003? Play tough and kick North Korea out of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum which North Korea had joined in 2000?

With so many matters covered in such general terms, the Chairman’s statement at the end of ASEAN Summits is becoming more and more superficial. ASEAN leaders must give clear leads with some details on one or more of the issues to show they are on top of them and wish to see a meaningful end result.

ASEAN Limps to a Filipino Gala


May 1, 2017

ASEAN Limps to a Filipino Gala

by Philip Bowring@www.asiasentinel.com

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Anybody wondering what useful came out of the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit in Manila over the weekend may read this brief communique. The answer is clear: very little besides what appears to have been quite a party.

  1. We, the Heads of State/Government of ASEAN Member States, gathered for the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila on 29 April 2017 under the Chairmanship of the Republic of the Philippines with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World,” which envisions an integrated, peaceful, stable and resilient ASEAN Community that actively takes a leading role as a regional and global player in advancing political-security cooperation, sustainable economic growth and socio-cultural development in Southeast Asia and in the world.
  2.   We engaged in productive and fruitful deliberations reflective of our commitment to renew the aspirations and the enduring values of the ASEAN Founding Fathers, in adherence to the purposes and principles enshrined in the Bangkok Declaration which launched ASEAN in 1967 and the ASEAN Charter and to realize the six thematic priorities selected by the Philippines as ASEAN’s main deliverables for 2017, the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN, namely: (a) A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN; (b) Peace and stability in the region; (c) Maritime security and cooperation; (d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth; (e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and (f) ASEAN: a model of regionalism, a global player.

Or they could read the 124 paragraphs of additional waffle about lofty goals and such as ending smuggling, piracy and other evils and fears about situation, such as North Korea about which ASEAN has no role to play. Or they could cheer the acknowledgement of the “Role of the Civil Service as Catalyst for Change,” a document oozing with the self-congratulatory spirit of so much of the group’s pronouncements.

A more entertaining and doubtless more accurate flavor of the meeting was the priority given in the Philippines media to congenial aspects of the events. President Duterte managed to be on his best behavior, dressing in a manner his fellow leaders would regard as appropriate and not delivering swear words or gratuitous insults. Even his kowtow to China was delivered in phrases which did not especially offend the Vietnamese and others wanting a stand against China’s annexation of the South China Sea rather than pitiful retreat in the face of promises of Chinese riches.

The main theme as far as the local media was concerned was it showed the Philippines was the best big party organizer in the 10-nation group. The highlight was the “ASEAN Fiesta” attended by 800 guests and featuring ethnic dances, folk and chart-topping music, and with the ASEAN leaders all attired in newly-designed barongs based on Mindanao tribal patterns and receiving Philippine mahogany trays designed with folk dancers or colorful birds.

But the brutal facts underlying ASEAN in the year it turns 50 are that such political cohesion as it had at times continues to fray. Inertia and indecision on the part of Indonesia, the region’s biggest nation, must carry much of the blame despite President Joko Widodo’s international standing and interest in the maritime and archipelagic issues. Indonesian wavering makes it easier for China to keep ASEAN divided on the sea issue, again retreating into pious statements about a Code of Conduct.

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Blame for ASEAN’s lack of standing too resides with the dubious reputations of some current regional leaders, notably Duterte himself, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha. Contrast this with the days of Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto and Mahathir Mohamad.

Regional cooperation on the economic and social fronts has not been set back by political divisions so far. However, it is hard to see any new initiatives or much progress in making a reality of existing free trade agreements despite minor improvements in some areas of cooperation. A more forthright approach to real fears about protectionist threats by the new US President Donald Trump, who stunned the association by inviting Duterte to the White House at some future time, would also have been appropriate at a time when Trump is apparently entering the dangerous territory of mixing trade with security issues.

Trump has wrecked Asian unity by cancelling US participation in the TransPacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact negotiated by his predecessor, whose main if unspoken aim was to keep China out of it.

Asia’s American Foreign Policy Menace–Donald J. Trump


May 1, 2017

Asia’s American Foreign Policy Menace--Donald J. Trump

by Brahma Challaney*@www.project-syndicate.com

*Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

It is conceivable that Trump could flip again on China (or North Korea). Indeed, Trump’s policy reversals may well turn out to be more dangerous than his actual policies. The need for constant adjustment will only stoke greater anxiety among America’s allies and partners, who now run the risk that their core interests will be used as bargaining chips. If those anxieties prompt some countries to build up their militaries, Asia’s strategic landscape will be fundamentally altered.–Brahma Challaney.

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US President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy – based on tactics and transactions, rather than strategic vision – has produced a series of dazzling flip-flops. Lacking any guiding convictions, much less clear priorities, Trump has confounded America’s allies and strategic partners, particularly in Asia – jeopardizing regional security in the process.

To be sure, some of Trump’s reversals have brought him closer to traditional US positions. In particular, he has declared that NATO is “no longer obsolete,” as it supposedly was during his campaign. That change has eased some of the strain on the US relationship with Europe.

But in Asia – which faces serious security, political, and economic challenges – Trump’s reversals have only exacerbated regional volatility. With so many political flashpoints threatening to trigger violent conflict, the last thing Asia’s leaders need is another strategic wild card.

Yet, in Trump, that is precisely what they have. The US President has shown himself to be more mercurial than the foul-mouthed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte or the autocratic Chinese President Xi Jinping. Even the famously impulsive North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un seems almost predictable, by comparison.

Perhaps the most consistent feature of Trump’s foreign policy is his obsession with gaining short-term advantage. In one recent tweet, he asked why he should label China a currency manipulator, when the Chinese are working with the US to rein in North Korea. Just days earlier, Trump had called the Chinese the “world champions” of currency manipulation.

That tweet may offer additional insight into Trump’s Asia policy. For starters, it highlights North Korea’s sudden emergence as Trump’s main foreign-policy challenge, suggesting that the strategic patience pursued by former President Barack Obama could well be replaced by a more accident-prone policy of strategic tetchiness.

This reading is reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence’s claims that the recent low-risk, low-reward US military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan demonstrate American “strength” and “resolve” against North Korea. Such claims reflect a lack of understanding that, when it comes to North Korea, the US has no credible military option, because any US attack would result in the immediate devastation of South Korea’s main population centers.

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North Korea is ready for war, but it may be prepared to make a direct deal with President Trump if conditions are right. Right now, it is a war of nerves–Din Merican

The Trump administration’s current strategy – counting on China to address the North Korea challenge – won’t work, either. After all, North Korea has lately been seeking to escape China’s clutches and pursue direct engagement with the US.

Given the bad blood between Xi and Kim, it seems that Trump’s best bet might be some version of what he proposed during the campaign: meeting with Kim over a hamburger. With the North Korean nuclear genie already out of the bottle, denuclearization may no longer be a plausible option. But a nuclear freeze could still be negotiated.

Trump’s reliance on China to manage North Korea won’t just be ineffective; it could actually prove even more destabilizing for Asia. Trump, who initially seemed eager to challenge China’s hegemonic ambitions, now seems poised to cede more ground to the country, compounding a major foreign-policy mistake on the part of the Obama administration.

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Of all of Trump’s reversals, this one has the greatest geostrategic significance, because China will undoubtedly take full advantage of it to advance its own objectives. From its growing repression of political dissidents and ethnic minorities to its efforts to upend the territorial status quo in Asia, China constantly tests how far it can go. Under Obama, it got away with a lot. Under Trump, it could get away with even more.

Trump now calls China a friend and partner of his administration – and seems to have developed a fondness for Xi himself. “We have a great chemistry together,” he says. “We like each other. I like him a lot.”

That fondness extends beyond words: Trump’s actions have already strengthened Xi’s position – and undercut his own – though Trump probably didn’t realize it. First, Trump backed down from his threat not to honor the “one China” policy. More recently, Trump hosted Xi at his Florida resort, without requiring that China dismantle any of the unfair trade and investment practices that he railed against during the campaign.

The summit with Trump boosted Xi’s image at home ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress later this year, where Xi may manage to break free from institutionalized collective rule to wield power more autocratically than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It also indicated the Trump administration’s tacit acceptance of China’s territorial grabs in the South China Sea. This will embolden China not just to militarize fully its seven manmade islands there, but also to pursue territorial revisionism in other regions, from the East China Sea to the western Himalayas.

Trump believes that “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” owing to his relationship with the “terrific” Xi. In fact, his promise to “Make America Great Again” is antithetical to Xi’s “Chinese dream” of “rejuvenating the Chinese nation.”

Xi’s idea, which Trump is unwittingly endorsing, is that their countries should band together in a “new model of great power relations.” But it is hard to imagine how two countries with such opposing worldviews – not to mention what Harvard University’s Graham Allison has called “extreme superiority complexes” – can oversee world affairs effectively.

It is conceivable that Trump could flip again on China (or North Korea). Indeed, Trump’s policy reversals may well turn out to be more dangerous than his actual policies. The need for constant adjustment will only stoke greater anxiety among America’s allies and partners, who now run the risk that their core interests will be used as bargaining chips. If those anxieties prompt some countries to build up their militaries, Asia’s strategic landscape will be fundamentally altered.

ASEAN Leaders are concerned about rising tension over North Korea


April 30, 2017

ASEAN Leaders are concerned about the rising tension over North Korea

by Mergawati Zulfakar@www.thestar.com.my

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ASEAN leaders are worried that the rest of Asia will be the first to be hit and suffer from the fallout from a potential nuclear war if the current tension in the Korean peninsula is not contained.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte painted a bleak picture of what would happen in South-East Asia if there is war in the Peninsula.

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“ASEAN leaders are extremely worried that there seems to be two countries playing with their toys. And they are playing with dangerous toys.The United States must be prudent and patient. We know you are playing with somebody who relishes letting go its missiles. I would not want to go into his mind because I don’t know what is inside but this is putting Mother Earth on edge. One miscalculation of any missile, one that hits somebody will cause a catastrophe,” he told a press conference after chairing the 30th ASEAN Summit.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was among the leaders who attended the summit.

Duterte also revealed that he would be talking to US President Donald Trump on the phone and he would convey ASEAN’s fear on war potentially breaking out.

“Am expecting a call from President Trump tonight. Who am I to say you should stop it. But I would say ‘Mr President, please see to it that there is no war because my region will suffer immensely’. The first fallout would be Asia and ASEAN. Very near, very dangerous,” he said when asked if ASEAN leaders discussed the Korean Peninsula situation at the summit.

Region’s leaders: (From left) Najib, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Nguyen, Duterte, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith taking a photo together at the 30th Asean Summit in Manila. — AFP

ÄSEANs ‘Leaders: (From left) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha,  Vietnam’s Nguyen,  President Duterte (host), Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila. — AFP.

Duterte, who made his debut as ASEAN chair this year, also sent a clear message to other ASEAN countries that the Philippines will be a “much friendlier” neighbour to China, especially in the contested South China Sea.

In the Chairman Statement issued at the end of the ASEAN Summit here yesterday, a proposed reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes has been taken out from the South China Sea section, a move seen by some senior ASEAN officials as silencing an international arbitral court backing Manila’s claims in the area.

The move has puzzled some diplomats as the Philippines under former President Benigno Aquino III had lobbied hard at ASEAN meetings to voice strong opposition to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

“After strong criticism against China, the Philippines now sounds like it is pandering to China,” said a diplomat.

An ASEAN official said the draft of the statement with the changes was only issued late Friday night and member states have given their input yesterday.

“But as chair, the Philippines can include what they want in the final statement, but as in past statements it must reflect the views of all ASEAN leaders,” said the official.

Duterte, in a recent interview, had said there was no point pressing China to comply with the arbitral ruling and it was not an issue at the summit.

The Chairman’s Statement also said the leaders reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities such as land reclamation and militarisation that may complicate the situation.