US Foreign Policy:The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies


January 3, 20l9

US Foreign Policy: The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies

https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-perils-of-trusting-america-a-reminder-for-asian-allies

Before its betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, the US had in the 1970s abandoned the trusting Cambodians and Vietnamese to their fate.

 

President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull all American troops out of Syria is yet another chilling reminder that those who believe in pledges and assurances made by the United States do so at their grave peril.

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While his generals and European allies may fret over the geopolitical implications of his capricious move, it is the US-backed Kurdish forces, fighting on America’s behalf against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group in north-eastern Syria, who will bear the brunt of the repercussions.

It is almost certain that Turkey, which has long labelled them as terrorists inciting its Kurdish minority to secede, will carry out its threat to move in and crush them.

Deserted by the Americans who have been funding, training and arming them, the Kurds will pay for Mr Trump’s perfidy with blood. He may have made good on his campaign promise to pull out US troops but, to the Kurds, he has just stabbed them in the back. And they say this openly, in so many words, to the world’s media.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan must be watching this development – which is nothing short of a breach of faith – with great trepidation. So should other economies in the Asia-Pacific region which the US has been courting in its thinly-disguised attempt to contain the rise of China.

Seoul and Tokyo, especially, could not have forgotten that soon after President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, he called off a long-scheduled military exercise between South Korean and US forces – just like that, without any prior notice to Seoul.

Or that he has signaled more than once his aversion to keeping American troops in South Korea. No one can be sure now that he would not, in a moment of impetuosity, announce a US pullout from there as well, via Twitter at 3 o’clock in the morning.

With America’s reliability as an ally being brought into serious question, it is little wonder that Seoul and Tokyo will want to hedge their bets. Hence South Korea’s quickened pace in reaching out to the North, and Tokyo’s signals to Beijing that it is seeking a thaw in their frosty relations.

Meanwhile, thinking Taiwanese are no doubt put on notice of the dangers that await them should they allow themselves to be used as pawns by the US in its bid for strategic dominance over China. How the Trump administration ditched its friends in Syria is a wake-up call like no other.

 

Indeed, when it comes to honouring its promises and assurances, the US has a history it cannot be very proud of – from failing to return islands in the South China Sea seized by Japan from China, as agreed at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, to leaving Hungarians to their fate when Soviet troops moved in to crush their 1956 uprising which the Americans had encouraged.

Vietnam, which Washington has wooed assiduously as a bulwark against Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, should also remember vividly how the US deserted its allies as the Indochina wars wound to a stop in 1975.

No doubt many who have lived through those years will recall seeing television footage of the last US Marine helicopter evacuating Americans from the rooftop of their embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975, amid pandemonium all around them. But a more poignant and shameful debacle had taken place in Phnom Penh three weeks before that.

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In early April, the US, having instigated General Lon Nol in March 1970 to oust Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a coup, decided five years later to abandon Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge forces closing in on the capital, a “bug-out” as then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it.

 

Then US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean had earlier pleaded with his superiors in Washington not to do so but to no avail. He and all Americans were ordered to evacuate on April 12, which he later described as one of the most tragic days in his life, the day “the US abandoned Cambodia and handed it to the butchers”.

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Prince Sirik Matak

 

 

“We had accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” he said in an interview in Paris years later. “That’s the worst thing a country can do. And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”

What happened was that after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, it drove two million of its inhabitants into the countryside at gunpoint. In the end, nearly all of them died from executions, starvation or torture.

But a more stinging indictment of the US action came from Prince Sirik Matak , then Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia.  Ambassador Dean, out of honour and decency, had offered him a ride on the evacuating convoy and, thereafter, asylum. Prime Minister Lon Nol had already fled to Hawaii.

Prince Sirik Matak replied in writing:

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“Dear Excellency and friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

“As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

“But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”

This reply, reportedly circulated and read shamefacedly in the corridors of power in Washington, has gone into permanent record.  Its author was later captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers and killed – some reports said he was shot in the stomach and left to die over three painful days, while another had it that he was beheaded.

It is highly doubtful Mr Trump read the letter before he ordered the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Or that he would care to.

• Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times.

 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2018,  with the headline ‘The perils of trusting America: A reminder for Asian allies’

The World George H.W. Bush Made


December 3, 2018

The World George H.W. Bush Made

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Bush -1 was kind, decent, fair, open-minded, considerate, lacking in prejudice, modest, principled, and loyal. He valued public service and saw himself as simply the latest in the long line of US presidents, another temporary occupant of the Oval Office and custodian of American democracy.”–Richard Haass

What happens in this world is the result of what people choose to do and choose not to do when presented with challenges and opportunities. The 41st US president didn’t always make the right choices, but his administration’s foreign policy record compares favorably with that of any other modern leader.

 

CAMBRIDGE – I have worked for four US presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, and perhaps the most important thing I have learned along the way is that little of what we call history is inevitable. What happens in this world is the result of what people choose to do and choose not to do when presented with challenges and opportunities.

I worked for and often with Bush for all four years of his presidency. I was the National Security Council member responsible for overseeing the development and execution of policy toward the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. I was also brought into a good many other policy deliberations.

Bush was kind, decent, fair, open-minded, considerate, lacking in prejudice, modest, principled, and loyal. He valued public service and saw himself as simply the latest in the long line of US presidents, another temporary occupant of the Oval Office and custodian of American democracy.

His foreign policy achievements were many and significant, starting with the ending of the Cold War. To be sure, that it ended when it did had a great deal to do with four decades of concerted Western effort in every region of the world, the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the deep-seated flaws within the Soviet system, and the words and deeds of Mikhail Gorbachev. But none of this meant that the Cold War was preordained to end quickly or peacefully.

It did, in part, because Bush was sensitive to Gorbachev’s and later Boris Yeltsin’s predicament and avoided making a difficult situation humiliating. He was careful not to gloat or to indulge in the rhetoric of triumphalism. He was widely criticized for this restraint, but he managed not to trigger just the sort of nationalist reaction that we are now seeing in Russia.

He also got what he wanted. No one should confuse Bush’s caution with timidity. He overcame the reluctance, and at times objections, of many of his European counterparts and fostered Germany’s unification – and brought it about within NATO. This was statecraft at its finest.

Bush’s other great foreign policy achievement was the Gulf War. He viewed Saddam Hussein’s invasion and conquest of Kuwait as a threat not just to the region’s critical oil supplies, but also to the emerging post-Cold War world. Bush feared that if this act of war went unanswered, it would encourage further mayhem.

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Days into the crisis, Bush declared that Saddam’s aggression would not stand. He then marshaled an unprecedented international coalition that backed sanctions and the threat of force, sent a half-million US troops halfway around the world to join hundreds of thousands from other countries, and, when diplomacy failed to bring about a complete and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal, liberated Kuwait in a matter of weeks with remarkably few US and coalition casualties. It was a textbook case of how multilateralism could work.

Two other points are worth noting here. First, Congress was reluctant to act on Saddam’s aggression. The vote in the Senate authorizing military action nearly failed. Bush, however, was prepared to order what became Operation Desert Storm even without congressional approval, given that he already had international law and the United Nations Security Council on his side. He was that determined and that principled.

Second, Bush refused to allow himself to get caught up in events. The mission was to liberate Kuwait, not Iraq. Fully aware of what happened some four decades earlier when the US and UN forces expanded their strategic objective in Korea and tried to unify the peninsula by force, Bush resisted pressures to expand the war’s aims. He worried about losing the trust of world leaders he had brought along and the loss of life that would likely result. He also wanted to keep Arab governments on his side to improve prospects for the Middle East peace effort that was to begin in Madrid less than a year later. Again, he was strong enough to stand up to the mood of the moment.

None of this is to say that Bush always got it right. The end of the Gulf War was messy, as Saddam managed to hang onto power in Iraq with a brutal crackdown on Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south. A year later, the Bush administration was slow to respond to violence in the Balkans. It might have done more to help Russia in its early post-Soviet days. Overall, however, the administration’s foreign policy record compares favorably with that of any other modern US president or, for that matter, any other contemporary world leader.

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One last thing. Bush assembled what was arguably the best national security team the US has ever had. Brent Scowcroft was the gold standard in national security advisers. James Baker was arguably the most successful secretary of state since Henry Kissinger. And with them were Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Robert Gates, Larry Eagleburger, William Webster, and others of standing and experience.

All of which brings us back to George H.W. Bush. He chose the people. He set the tone and the expectations. He listened. He insisted on a formal process. And he led.

If, as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head, it also flourishes because of the head. The US flourished as a result of the many contributions of its 41st president. Many people around the world benefited as well. We owe him our collective thanks. May his well-deserved rest be peaceful.

Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Euphemisms in geopolitics


November 29,2018

Euphemisms in geopolitics

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International relations is premised on a handful of theoretical frameworks. They explain how nations relate with one another and provide an understanding of human events that take place around the world. The most familiar of these frameworks is the realist paradigm. Realism is easy to grasp – states behave rationally, and are calculative and egoistic. Realism obscures any state behaviour based on morality.

It is time for Malaysia to articulate its own narrative to describe the reality of geopolitics. We should call a spade, a spade. I applaud Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad for his speech at the recent UN general assembly when he called for nations to recognise Palestine and “stop Israel’s blatant atrocities”. Mahathir did not say “aggression” or “hostility”. Contrary to realist euphemisms, Mahathir re-introduced unambiguous truisms on the world stage. Up till then, the US narrative had dominated, especially since the notorious “undemocratic” 2000 election. What we need now is an alternative global dialogue. The views and aspirations of the developing and third world nations should be given a prominent platform.

The current ambivalent narrative is really an apology for an underlying reality. To put it simply, the ongoing discourse detailing global conflicts has been accepted as normal, even sophisticated. The following are common phrases we read on a daily basis explaining regional unrest. “Pushing back against Iran’s regional ambitions” is one example that appeared in a recent Washington Post article. It described America’s “pushing back” strategy, and Iran’s “ambition”. Another is the headline in a leading Asian weekly. It reads “The China Threat Cannot Be Ignored”. This refers, obviously, to the so-called China “threat”.

Mass media and the academia are overflowing with realist overtones in analysing world politics. We can accept, to a certain degree, that the media uses catchy headlines to attract readership. However, these realist concepts (ambition and threat) hide reality. The world of analysis has instead been dominated by US parlance. A more poignant narrative has to be re-introduced which includes the words “imperialist” and “imperialism”.

21st-century international relations is characterised by fear and distrust. This has resulted in a feeling of insecurity between states. China, for example, invokes feelings of trepidation for many countries in the South China Sea region. Its rapidly expanding navy is considered threatening to many regional states. This feeling is exacerbated by China’s bold economic designs such the Belt and Road Initiative.However, since there is no world government, when one nation accumulates power other countries feel insecure. As a result, they are compelled to do the same. What emerges is a “security dilemma”.Classic realism accepts this as a fait accompli. There is no issue of whether it is right or wrong. It just is. Describing such a situation as a “dilemma” suggests a mood of predicament and difficulty. Due to this security dilemma, all countries are in a state of political conundrum.

The current debate on the international stage suggests constant tension between the powerful and the less powerful, i.e. an asymmetric dilemma. There is tension between equal powers as well, a symmetric dilemma. However, the narrative always avoids what is really at play: abject bullying.Global geopolitics reflects states’ behaviour based on fear, reputation and national interest.

I take issue with the concept “national interest”. Given the current state of international politics, we should be reading more about imperialism as a motivating factor. National interest is the kid gloves that academia and diplomats love to wear. The ongoing Yemen war illustrates my point.We are made to believe that the humanitarian disaster in Yemen is the result of a Sunni-Shia conflict among Muslims. However, it is more complex than that. It is not just about petty Muslims fighting over sects. Since September 2014, the civil war between the Houthi rebels in the north and the Yemeni government has escalated into a free-for-all onslaught by several players. The Arab coalition, made up of nine countries, the US, UK, France and Iran are involved in a proxy war over Yemen. What began as an internal civil war exploded into a complicated web of international intrigues, lies and imperialist aggression.

The Yemen war is not only based on religious grievances. The narrative has failed to highlight economic and political issues. Realism has sustained the discourse which highlights phrases such as “fighting for freedom”, “liberation of the true Islam” and national interest. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos and launched several attacks on Houthi rebels whom they consider infidels. But this situation does not justify billions exchanged in arms sales between US-led bullies and the coalition of Arab states. The US and Arab bombing campaigns in Yemen have created a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations recognises this but till now remains emasculated. Trade sanctions on Iran are another act of imperialist bullying.US imperialist designs are clear in the events following Donald Trump’s exit in May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal).

This resulted in the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran. It was engineered to cripple its economy. European, Japanese and South Korean companies who are heavily invested in Iran are very dependent on the U.S financial system. So they are in a dilemma over whether to pull their businesses out of Iran or face the wrath of Trump.Earlier this year, Japan needed to “seek exemption” from the US in order to continue importing oil from Iran. The tables are turned now as a former imperialist power (Japan) has to seek permission from a neo-imperialist superpower (the US). Japan was worried because putting the brakes on all Iranian oil exports would result in a loss of around 165,481 barrels per day.In August, Iran’s investment contracts with European, Japanese and South Korean banks were suspended. The US had obviously denied Japan’s request. While China and Russia are still committed to their deals with Iran, the rest have halted their interaction. This is classic imperialism at work. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, yet the US threatens others who continue to uphold JCPOA. Not only is Iran’s access to foreign financial services and facilities targeted, nations who are committed to business deals with Iran are also punished. Financial strangulation has become the imperialistic arm of US power politics.In July, Malaysia reaffirmed support for the JCPOA. Predictably, on September 14, the US treasury imposed sanctions on a Thai aviation company (My Aviation Company Ltd, Bangkok) which was acting on behalf of Iran’s Mahan Air.

The US claims the latter was ferrying troops and supplies into Syria. Mahan Travel and Tourism is based in Malaysia.In response to Trump’s recent bellowing to the UN Security Council (when he said Iran would “suffer consequences”), Mahathir declared that “smaller nations like Malaysia will suffer”. He said “we have no choice and if you do not obey them, they will take action on your banks and currencies”.

It is clear that Malaysia now joins an elite list of nations that are the object of US imperialism.While I offer no concrete solutions to the growing economic and financial war waged by the US, I suggest we re-evaluate how we look at current affairs. The inter-connectedness of the global financial system is the new imperialistic “soft power” weapon. Trump has proven to be the heavy-handed emperor. He has successfully manipulated credible powers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, punishing them for remaining in the JCPOA.Trump is the embodiment of a new archetypical leader popularly referred to as the “strongman”. In reality, the US has reached the pinnacle as an imperial power, par excellence. What Lenin wrote decades ago is now a reality: capitalist competition has transformed into a monopoly; a monopoly of trade, commodities, services and most crucially, ideology.

“Decoupling the US from Asia”


My Friends,
I am baffled why my good friend Larry Moy’s commentary titled “Decoupling the US from Asia” has been blocked.  I find nothing nothing wrong with it.  I am  now posting it, as an act of defiance as I resent anyone who attempts to deny me of my right promote freedom of  expression. Let me find out find out the problem, fix it and come back to you, Larry.—Din Merican

“Decoupling the US from Asia”

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<
<I’ve tried to post this in your blog column “Decoupling the US from Asia”. Looks like I’m completely blocked from your blog. Good living and good luck, my friend. It has been a great pleasure knowing you. If you would like to do one last of my post to your blogt the recent summits of the ASEAN and APEC forum, Mike Pence played the role of “teleprompter Trump”, gave up America’s Asia game plan for 2019. And it won’t be pretty for policymakers, markets or investors in the most dynamic Asia-Pacific economic region. Expect Trump to double down on the trade war with China.

There will be NO BREAKTHROUGH with the Trump-Xi meeting in Argentina at the end of this month, if there would be a meeting at all. For the “trade war” is not about trade. Trump wants a total submission of China. He wants total dominance over China. He wants China to be an obedient lapdog.

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N

o one with any understanding of trade will believe that the $505 billion of goods China sent to the US in 2017 means Beijing ripped off American workers by that same amount. Pence’s October 4 “we-will-not-stand-down” China speech suggested 2019 could get even worse for Beijing and Asia. His November 17 comments – “The US will not change course until China changes its ways” – came with fresh warnings of new taxes on Chinese goods. In other words, “we want your total surrender first” . Pence’s assurance that “we’re here to stay” could mean a brutal 2019 for Asian stocks, export growth and epic volatility in currency markets.

Trump’s biggest misstep was believing Xi Jinping, a nationalist strongman, would buckle. The delusional idiot didn’t realize that the current group of Chinese leaders were all Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution era, toughened with nationalism. Just as Trump maintaining his deplorable base requires him looking resolute, Xi’s legitimacy in Communist Party circles relies on projecting Chinese strength. The Chinese leaders have decided to dig in for a protracted trade war, determined to go back to the poor days, rather than surrender to Trump.

 

Bowing to the hate-tweeter-in-chief isn’t an option for a Chinese president aiming to be in office long after the Trump era. China is prepared to go down in ruin with the US (兩敗俱傷). Xi believes that time is on his side. He doesn’t have to stand for reelection. He can wait out Trump.Trump may be thinking he is winning the “trade war” so far, but he is not. Besides tariffs on Chinese goods, which is actually taxes on American businesses, what other major weapons does he has?

So far, Xi’s team has pulled punches in its responses but the retaliations were pretty restrained. And Beijing has a rich selection of weapons, such as start dumping its $1.3 trillion of Treasury debt holdings, slamming the dollar and sending US interest rates skyrocketing. Sure, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Any step that reduces the spending power of US consumers is bad for China’s ability to grow at 6.5%, but it would surely get Trump’s attention.

 

China could also impose exit taxes on US goods; make it harder for Chinese tourists to visit America and slow the flow of students dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at US universities. China could clamp down on work visas for American executives and corporate licenses; doing surprise tax audits, inspections of US airlines, hotels, restaurants and adding new logistics bottlenecks that halt the flow of vital supplies; Trademarks could be revoked, or new taxes imposed. Capital controls could be imposed to impede the operations of US investment banks on the mainland. China could restrict export of rare-earth to completely disrupt the high tech industry in the US.. .But China has not done any of these. As Xi put it on November 17, “confrontation, whether in the form of a hot war, cold war or trade war, will produce no winners.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked the question on the mind of every Asian leader at last week’s ASEAN summit: What to do when they’re forced to choose between Trump’s America and Xi’s China? I believe this is a when and not an if question, and 2019 is the year decisions are due. Good luck with any balancing act.

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore


November 17, 2018

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore

by mergawati zulfakar

http://www.thestar.com.my

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IT is an ASEAN homecoming for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the summit hosted by Singapore. The last time he attended an ASEAN Summit was in Bali 15 years ago where then Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave a tearful farewell speech.

This week at the 33rd ASEAN summit, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister again as he sits down next to another female leader who he has been critical of in recent weeks.

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And because of ASEAN’s way of doing things, the seating arrangement will be done in alphabetical order – which means Dr Mahathir will be seated next to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his Address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, Dr Mahathir blamed Myanmar authorities, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, for closing their eyes to the fate of Muslims in Rakhine state who were being murdered and forced to flee their homes.

 

In an interview conducted the same week in New York, the Prime Minister made it clear that Malaysia would no longer lend its support to Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya. He remarked that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” and he had lost faith in her.

For years, it was taboo for ASEAN leaders to even mention the word “Rohingya” during their meeting, skirting the issue by using words like Muslims and Rakhine state, bearing in mind ASEAN’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

But the situation became worse, and it is understood that Malaysia started raising the matter during the leaders’ retreat as recent as three years ago.

“The leaders’ retreat is where they can raise any issue but it will be unrecorded. But when we saw no serious efforts from Myanmar, Malaysia started using ‘Rohingya’ at official meetings,” said an official familiar with the issue.

“Obviously, Myanmar didn’t like it. It was an affront to them. We all know this is beyond the red line for them but we did it,” he added.

And Suu Kyi, who has been attending these summits, showed her displeasure. “You could tell from the body language and all that. She did not like it,” said an official.

At the ASEAN summit, the 10 leaders would normally pose for a group photo holding hands and giving their best smiles to the international media.Even former Prime MInister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak felt uncomfortable, telling his officers it was awkward.

So how would Suu Kyi handle someone who has lost faith in her? Would she care enough to find time and explain to a leader who once fought hard for Myanmar to be a part of ASEAN despite the world condemnation against the military regime that curtailed her freedom?

As for Dr Mahathir, the rest of ASEAN must be looking to him, wondering what he would do next.

“What else is Malaysia doing after such strident statements by the Prime Minister?No ASEAN country in recent times has singled out the leader of a fellow AASEANean country especially on the United Nations platform,” said an official.

When Dr Mahathir says he no longer supports Suu Kyi, what does he mean exactly? Suu Kyi is a legitimate leader who is still popular among her people.

“What is it that you want to do when you make that statement? What message are you sending? “How do you translate it through Malaysia’s foreign policy,” asked an observer.

“Malaysia must realise there could be some repercussion over such remarks. It may affect not only relations with Myanmar but also other ASEAN countries because “we are like a family”.

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open”.–Mergawati Zulfakar

An official admitted that any statement deemed critical of leaders of another country could diminish any measure of trust that remains between Malaysia and Myanmar.

“In ASEAN or even Asia as a whole, face saving is very important. You do not humiliate, you don’t admonish if you want to maintain relations and some form of trust,” the official said.

Going tough on the Rohingya issue started in Najib’s time. Is Dr Mahathir’s speech at UNGA an indication that the current Government is not compromising and will take an even tougher stance on this issue?

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open.

Mergawati Zulfakar –merga@thestar.com.my

ASEAN — finding middle path in the US-China conflict


 

November 9, 2018

Opinion

ASEAN — finding middle path in the US-China conflict

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Despite local uncertainties, the region must be bold in shaping its own future

For almost a decade, the basic strategic issue for Southeast Asia has been how to respond to the changing dynamics of the Sino-American relationship as it enters a new phase of heightened long-term competition.

The U.S. and China will not quickly or easily reach a new modus vivendi. Southeast Asia will have to navigate a prolonged period of unusual uncertainty.

U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea has emerged as something of a proxy for their competition. Strategically, the situation is a stalemate. China will not give up its territorial claims and the deployment of military assets. But neither can China stop the U.S. and its allies operating in the area without risking a war it does not want because it cannot win.

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The Trump administration has given the 7th Fleet more latitude to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Japan and other U.S. allies are beginning to push back against China’s claims. The U.S. has signaled its intention to conduct even larger shows of force. This raises the risk of accidental clashes. Still, that risk does not at present seem unacceptably high.

A premeditated war is improbable. China will feel it must fight only if the U.S. supports Taiwan independence. This is unlikely. If an accidental clash should occur in the South China Sea or elsewhere, both sides will probably try to contain it. The Association of Southeast Nations ought to be able to cope with situations short of a U.S.-China war. ASEAN has previously managed far more dangerous circumstances. But this will require greater agility, unity and resolve than ASEAN has shown recently.

 

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The most obvious manifestation of increased Sino-American competition is U.S. President Donald Trump’s “trade war.” Trade is the means; the objective is strategic competition. China accuses the U.S. of using trade to hamper its development. China is not wrong.

Although attention has focused on the tit-for-tat tariffs, the more significant aspect is new U.S. legislation to limit technology transfers to China, which sets new rules that future administrations will find hard to change.

Trump’s attitude toward China is no aberration, but reflects a bipartisan view — widely shared in business as well as politics — that the U.S. has been too accommodating to Beijing. Whoever succeeds Trump will likely stay tough on China.

The Trump administration has often been described as isolationist, but this is a distortion. Rather, it believes that this is an era of great power competition and is determined to compete robustly, with a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism, and a return to “peace through strength.”

China has misread the implications of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 by believing its own propaganda about the U.S. being in irrevocable decline. It missed the souring mood of U.S. business toward China, mainly over intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. These concerns are shared by businesses in other developed economies, which support Trump’s goals although they may disagree about his methods.

President Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech a year ago abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s approach of “hiding light and biding time.” But his main focus was domestic. Xi said China’s new “principal contradiction” was between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” This poses a fundamental challenge. Unless those needs are met — which will require immense resources — Communist Party rule could be at risk.

To find a new growth model, the party must balance control and market efficiency. An enhanced role for markets implies a loosening of control.

It remains to be seen what Xi will do. So far he seems to have opted for stronger control, and may have sharpened the problems he faces.

The Belt and Road Initiative is as much about this domestic challenge as China’s global ambition. The BRI exports the old growth model based on state-led infrastructure investment. The BRI buys time to find a new balance between the market and the party.

But the BRI rests on the foundation of U.S.-led globalization. Can it succeed if the world turns protectionist? China may well be the main loser if that global order frays. China cannot replace U.S. leadership. An open international order cannot be based on a largely closed Chinese model. BRI partner countries are pushing back, including in Southeast Asia, and implementation will be problematic.

China is not happy with every aspect of the post-Cold War order based on U.S.-led globalization. China wants its new status acknowledged. But Xi has championed and profited from globalization. The trade war is now hurting China and slowing growth. China may seek to become more self-sufficient technologically, but this will take time while the pressures are immediate.

Some have speculated that there may be opportunities for ASEAN if foreign companies shift production from China. This is possible. But doing so is easier said than done and no one will forgo the Chinese market. ASEAN members must also resist temptations to act as a backdoor into the U.S. for Chinese companies.

A prolonged trade war and concerns that China may have compromised the security of supply chains, are likely to upend existing supply links. This could seriously complicate ASEAN members’ efforts to move up the value chain, for example if U.S. groups relocate business back to America. In response, ASEAN must attract higher grade investments by improving infrastructure and skills, and assuring investors their technology is secure.

Low labor costs and a potential market of 700 million consumers are no longer sufficient to make Southeast Asia an attractive investment destination. The attitude of ASEAN members toward China and the extent to which they are beholden to it are likely to become important considerations in investment decisions.

Image result for asean leaders gathering 2018

BALI, Oct 12 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has lamented ASEAN for not fully tapping its potential as an economic powerhouse, despite having abundant resources and a consumer market of nearly 700 million people.

ASEAN needs to move decisively to hedge against long-term uncertainties, while taking advantage of available opportunities.

Reforms such as the removal of non-tariff barriers and harmonization of ASEAN’s approach toward services and labor mobility could help make Southeast Asia a common production platform. Member states meanwhile should implement plans to upgrade skills and infrastructure. But internal political changes in some member countries could undermine the goal of closer economic integration. Unfortunately, ASEAN has, in recent years, become too timid for its own good.

 

 

Ambassador A Large Bilahari Kausikan, a former Permanent Secretary at Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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