Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 9, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by  Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for vivian balakrishnanCall on Myanmar State Counsellor, Union Minister in the President’s Office and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on 18 May 2016 during his introductory visit to Myanmar [Photo: MFA]

 

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong with President Xi Jinping of China–Engaging China while tilting towards the United States

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.

China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man


October 17, 2017

THE ECONOMIST

China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man

Xi Jinping has more clout than Donald Trump. The world should be wary

Do not expect Mr Xi to change China, or the world, for the better

Print edition | Leaders

Oct 14th 2017

One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

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Two Giants of Asia–Xi and Modi–Friends or Foes

AMERICAN Presidents have a habit of describing their Chinese counterparts in terms of awe. A fawning Richard Nixon said to Mao Zedong that the chairman’s writings had “changed the world”. To Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping was a string of flattering adjectives: “smart, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly”. Bill Clinton described China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, as a “visionary” and “a man of extraordinary intellect”. Donald Trump is no less wowed. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is “probably the most powerful” China has had in a century.

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Mr Trump may be right. And were it not political suicide for an American president to say so, he might plausibly have added: “Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader.” To be sure, China’s economy is still second in size to America’s and its army, though rapidly gaining muscle, pales in comparison. But economic heft and military hardware are not everything. The leader of the free world has a narrow, transactional approach to foreigners and seems unable to enact his agenda at home. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but its leader is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence.

The President of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad. His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao. And whereas Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Mr Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth. His clout will soon be on full display. On October 18th China’s ruling Communist Party will convene a five-yearly congress in Beijing (see Briefing). It will be the first one presided over by Mr Xi. Its 2,300 delegates will sing his praises to the skies. More sceptical observers might ask whether Mr Xi will use his extraordinary power for good or ill.

World, take note

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On his numerous foreign tours, Mr Xi presents himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused and troubled world. Mr Trump’s failings have made this much easier. At Davos in January Mr Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalisation, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved. At least, they thought, one great power was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Mr Trump (then President-Elect) would not.

Mr Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up. His “Belt and Road Initiative” may be puzzlingly named, but its message is clear—hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help vast swathes of the world to prosper. That is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the post-war days of the Marshall Plan in western Europe (which was considerably smaller).

Mr Xi is also projecting what for China is unprecedented military power abroad. This year he opened the country’s first foreign military base, in Djibouti. He has sent the Chinese navy on manoeuvres ever farther afield, including in July on NATO’s doorstep in the Baltic Sea alongside Russia’s fleet. China says it would never invade other countries to impose its will (apart from Taiwan, which it does not consider a country). Its base-building efforts are to support peacekeeping, anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, it says. As for the artificial islands with military-grade runways it is building in the South China Sea, these are purely defensive.

Unlike Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, Mr Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to subvert democracy and destabilise the West. Still, he is too tolerant of troublemaking by his nuke-brandishing ally, North Korea (see Schumpeter). And some of China’s military behaviour alarms its neighbours, not only in South-East Asia but also in India and Japan.

At home, Mr Xi’s instincts are at least as illiberal as those of his Russian counterpart. He believes that even a little political permissiveness could prove not only his own undoing, but that of his regime. The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences. He mistrusts not only the enemies his purges have created but also China’s fast-growing, smartphone-wielding middle class, and the shoots of civil society that were sprouting when he took over. He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, and to keep the commanding heights of the economy firmly under the party’s thumb. All this will make China less rich than it should be, and a more stifling place to live. Human-rights abuses have grown worse under Mr Xi, with barely a murmur of complaint from other world leaders.

Liberals once mourned the “ten lost years” of reform under Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Those ten years have become 15, and may exceed 20. Some optimists argue that we have not yet seen the real Mr Xi—that the congress will help him consolidate his power, and after that he will begin social and economic reforms in earnest, building on his relative success in curbing corruption. If he is a closet pluralist, however, he disguises it well. And alarmingly for those who believe that all leaders have a sell-by date, Mr Xi is thought to be reluctant to step down in 2022, when precedent suggests he should.

Reasons to be fearful

Mr Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4bn Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favourite terms, the “new normal” of Chinese politics. But it is not normal; it is dangerous. No one should have that much power. One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The world’s most powerful man”

South China Sea Dispute: No Solution any time soon


October 8, 2017

South China Sea Dispute: No Solution any time soon

by Bunn Nagara

http://www.thestar.com.my

Image result for South China Sea

 

WHEN a problem clearly becomes hopeless, it may generate one of two opposite reactions – intellectual equivalents of fight or flight. One is to see tremendous hope in the depths of disappointment; the other is to surrender utterly to crushing despondency. Both extreme reactions are equally unrealistic.

The intractable South China Sea disputes with their multiple layers of challenges form one such example.

Bill Hayton of London’s Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) think tank became an authority on the subject with his 2014 book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

Image result for Bill Hayton of London’s Chatham House

As his talk at the Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya on Thursday showed, China’s current claim to most of the South China Sea is of quite recent origin, beginning after 1909.

China was more concerned about the Paracel Islands closer to home, not objecting to France’s claim to the Spratlys in 1933. For much of the time China even seemed unaware of the Spratly Islands.

Beijing began to claim the Spratlys only in 1946. This island group is now hotly contested by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In 2009 China sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General asserting its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters and islands of the South China Sea. Beijing argues that its rights date back centuries if not millennia.

But disputed claims based on little more than assumptions in a hazy and distant past pose problems abroad. Nothing substantive or meaningful can be anchored in international law recognised by all claimants.

For any country to display old maps of questionable origin to support the claims as ancient and therefore legitimate is not enough. That only enlarges the disputes, which is what has happened.

But what have Chinese geographers and legal experts made of Hayton’s revelations? Apparently they have yet to respond, since a Chinese translation of his work is on the way.

Such findings can better inform the disputes, raise the level of debates and encourage more reasonable claims. But that is as far as they go.

New information does not enable anyone – not even Hayton, as he claims – to resolve the South China Sea disputes in a week. That is sheer delusion in full flight mode. Greater familiarity with such disputes would make the many challenges clear enough. But some false hopes still need to be exposed.

The issue of joint development is among them. China has offered to conduct joint exploration and development with other claimant countries, but that has been rejected.

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Apart from the problems of who should pay how much of the costs and receive how much of the profits, any partnership in the spoils of a dispute is no answer. In law, it would already be an admission of another country’s rights over one’s national territory.

Another problem area is the nature of talks itself. Given the multiple claims, should negotiations be multilateral involving all the claimant countries or just bilateral?

Image result for South China Sea--China show of Force

 

China insists on bilateral negotiations only, probably in series as it deals with one country at a time. The general perception however is that only inclusive multilateral talks can be worthwhile.

However, bilateral talks have also been seen as more realistic since the overlapping nature of the claims would get nowhere multilaterally. Too many conflicting disputes with far too many starting points may not see any progress.

But bilateral talks themselves may still go nowhere – each set of talks between two countries cannot proceed without recognising the prior arrangement made in the preceding set of talks involving other countries.

The fundamentally flawed nature of both bilateral and multilateral talks testifies to the surreal nature of ever resolving such disputes. The only realistic assessment of the prospect of successful talks may just be that success is unrealistic.

If all six parties claimed all of the Spratlys, then perhaps a settlement may be reached based on an equitable partitioning of the territory. Alternatively, if each of the claimant states staked a claim on only a part of the area, a settlement may also be reached through an agreed distribution of those parts.

But none of those situations applies. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines each claims only part of the Spratlys, while China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claims all of the island group.

Complicating things further, there are overlapping claims by two or more countries. Worse, there are several areas of overlap by different sets of countries.

Besides the claims, claimant countries have also occupied various islands, outcrops and underwater features. Vietnam has some 30 military outposts on them, far outnumbering all the others which have 10 or fewer outposts each.

Backed by enormous resources, China has lately been the most ambitious in its scale of construction and land reclamation on the features it occupies. It has also rejected international legal hearings.

International law does not accept historical claims based on assertions, however vocal. Critics say that China avoids international hearings because it may lose by basing its claims on history alone. However, China says that such disputes centre on national sovereignty, and tribunals such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected its claims last year have no authority to decide on issues of national sovereignty.

To add still more colour and complexity, Taiwan’s claims have been subsumed by China. Since China already claims Taiwan as a province, Taiwan’s claims are also China’s.

This leaves Taiwan in an uneasy position. Even as it wants to assert its own individuality, it is comforted by China’s embrace in its claims to outlying territory.

The other player that is not actually in the game is the US. When the Philippines once relied on it for backing if not outright protection in staking its claims, there are now serious second thoughts.

Unlike claimant countries including China, the US has no claim to any territory in this region. In one sense that makes it neutral in overseeing order on the high seas.

However, in another sense it means an asymmetrical relationship where the US may not go very far in protecting a country’s disputed claims over another’s. At the same time, the US has a very large economic stake of its own in maintaining healthy relations with China.

That explains US actions being limited to “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops), which see its vessels plying through waters that China has declared as its own.

These are only symbolic and temporary gestures challenging China’s own rhetorical assertions and presumptions. And that is just how they have been treated. Hayton argues that countries in South-East Asia should be more assertive in making their own historical claims as China does, since they have been using the South China Sea for millennia.

However, use of waterways by a country’s nationals in their passage (unlike occupation) may not equate to that country’s sovereignty over the waterways in international law.

Besides, sovereignty may be claimed only by nation states, and those of today’s South-East Asia did not exist centuries or even decades ago. Meanwhile state entities like Champa, Majapahit and Sri Vijaya are no longer with us .Such challenges make any resolution of the South China Sea disputes most unlikely even in a month of blue moons.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

 

ASEAN: Dealing with China is a difficult and challenging balancing act


ASEAN: Dealing with China is a difficult and challenging balancing act

by Dr. Munir Majid*

http://www.thestar.com.my

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WHILE they should not be negative about China, ASEAN member states should not however surrender their sovereign rights or abdicate from their commitment to greater regional integration in South-East Asia.

Alas, one or two ASEAN states have completely sold out. Others are measuring cost and benefit of deeper involvement with China, trying to balance and hedge. Another one or two try to show they have options without particularly wanting to antagonise the rising global power.

The need to protect what is yours, usually hard-earned, is not just about abstract sovereignty or about the protection of international law, extremely important though they may be. The rule of law is without fail the most significant foundation of human society, domestic or international. There are nonetheless real interests and rights also involved.

Next month the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (Yusof Ishak Institute) in Singapore will be holding a seminar on how over the past decade Chinese banana industry practice of “shifting plantations” has transformed and depleted Mekong borderlands, mainly in Laos.

The vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used to maintain monoculture production pose serious health risks to workers and the surrounding environment.

And “…. after 6 to 10 years of producing fruit on cleared farmland, the (Chinese) company usually abandons it for another plot once factors such as soil depletion and pest infestation begin to lower yields.”

Laos has since last year issued a ban on new banana plantations, but the shifting plantation practices have spread to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. When will they learn their lesson?

In Malaysia there is a big debate on the East Coast Rail Line which in itself is no bad thing. The China-funded project however has to be watched closely to ensure there is no financial stress to Malaysia’s national finances, that there is Malaysian involvement in the sub-contracts, and that what is delivered is of high quality and suitably maintained.

The RM55bil project is huge. The government of Malaysia has to be transparent on how the financing is going to be managed on its balance sheet.

An official statement said 30% of the project will be contracted out to Malaysian companies. My business friends tell me only 15%. Which is which?

Malaysian engineers say there continues to be great difficulty in getting ASEAN engineers admitted to practise in the country, despite the fact there is the Mutual Recognition Agreement on Qualified ASEAN Engineers. Engineers from China however get their work permits handed out en bloc.

This kind of favouritism – at the expense of loudly proclaimed ASEAN integration no less – should not be practised just because the Malaysian government may want to run up contracts with China.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s official visit to Washington earlier this month is a good signal that Malaysia has not just bought into China. There will be a balance to promote the national interest.

While it may appear Malaysia had given away more than it had gained from the visit, the invisible hand is protection of the trading relationship with America, much too valuable for the country to be left to the caprice of Donald Trump’s blinkered view on international trade.

This kind of balance however has to be continuously worked at. American businesses will have to up their game in countries such as Malaysia in ASEAN, and not ride on Trump’s attack on trade to open sales and investment opportunities. In that game, China with its financial resources, institutional arrangements and government which can deliver what it commits to without domestic complication, will win hands down otherwise.

Even in India – with which China does not have the best of relations – China is working hard to get two high speed rail (HSR) projects, from Mumbai and Chennai to Delhi respectively. This is despite the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR project (which cuts the 316 mile journey from eight hours to about three) going to Japan, as confirmed during the Japanese prime minister’s visit earlier this month.

Balancing act

Singapore’s travails in its relations with China in the past year is a good example. The island republic took a principled stand on the efficacy of international law when the law of the sea tribunal dismissed Beijing’s South China Sea claims in July last year. China took this as an affront.

The spew of vituperation followed. Singapore was the little red dot. Its armoured personnel carriers were detained in Hong Kong on their way back from Taiwan. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not invited to the Belt and Road Forum last May.

In sum, Singapore was perceived as veering towards the US in its desire to ensure Washington’s continued commitment to the region.

Balance is not easy, especially when one pole is distracted and the other is totally focused. There was even a first time public debate in Singapore pitting former senior foreign ministry officials on two sides of the argument whether a small state should behave as a small state and not take a position on matters that do not directly involve it, such as the South China Sea territorial claims. A university professor was even expelled from the country.

Anyway, the Singapore Prime Minister was in China this week to mend fences. Balancing is difficult. It is a continuous effort. It takes at least three to clap and be focused. When the US is out of it, the conduct of the diplomacy becomes more tricky. It is no wonder a number of ASEAN states have tipped China’s way, and some others are looking like they may go that way too.

The balancing act is not an easy one. It can come out as playing both ends against the middle if not actively and skillfully managed.

Indonesia, however, has shown it can stand up for its rights in relation to China and not wait on America to give it succour.

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The Indonesian Navy Ships

Indonesia’s renaming in July of its portion of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea has displeased China, but this leading ASEAN country has been quite cool, calm and collected in playing its hand.

It contends Indonesia has every right to rename its territorial waters, the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. China has demanded that Indonesia revoke its position.

The Chinese Foreign Minister stated on August 25: “The China-Indonesia relationship is developing in a healthy and stable way, the South China Sea dispute is progressing well… Indonesia’s unilateral name changing actions are not conducive to maintaining this excellent situation… (it is) a complication and expansion of the dispute, and affects peace and stability in the region.”

Indonesia has never accepted China’s concept of its “traditional fishing grounds” and therefore of its extended rights over almost all of the South China Sea. It clearly does not accede to the fait accompli which has been the outcome of Beijing’s South China Sea strategy.

While standing by its right to rename its internationally-recognised EEZ, Indonesia stated it would adhere to International Hydrographic Organization procedures by submitting its proposal wherein all member states, including China, will be consulted.

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This of course is precisely what China does not want. Its whole diplomacy on the South China Sea is premised on primacy and exclusivity – the rest of the international community out, only China and ASEAN and its claimant member states. The emphasis shifted from ASEAN as a whole to the member states separately as China’s rise picked up.

Now Indonesia has set the cat among the pigeons by proposing to take its renaming of the southern reaches of the South China Sea to a formal international audience in line with international practice.

What Indonesia has shown is that adept and subtle diplomatic initiatives can make options available to states in situations which may appear to be hopeless.

Of course it can be argued Indonesia is a middle power which is better able to stand up for its rights. But even Singapore has shown the importance of taking a stand. It may have gone through a small baptism of fire, but there is a respect in the end even if the future relationship has to be continuously worked at.

The main argument about ASEANs that the whole is greater than the parts or, if it does not hang together, it will hang separately. A couple of its member states have shown even alone – and ASEAN states will have to act alone as well – they can make a difference.

When states start out to ingratiate, they will end up grovelling, with their nose rubbed in the sand, and their shirt taken off their back.

*Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid is Visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Malaysia’s Foreign Policy is Clear and Consistent


September 17, 2017

Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman: Malaysia’s Foreign Policy is Clear and Consistent

by Anifah Aman

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COMMENT | I refer to the comment article written by Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), who also heads the Policy and Strategy Bureau of PPBM, entitled All that glitters is not gold in US-Malaysia relationship which was published by Malaysiakini on 15 September 2017.

I noted Rais Hussin keen interests on the conduct of Malaysia’s foreign policy. As Rais Hussin would appreciate, Malaysia’s foreign policy is clear and consistent. Malaysia continues to pursue an independent, principled and pragmatic foreign policy, with the overarching thrust to safeguard its sovereignty and national interest as well as to contribute meaningfully towards a just and equitable community of nations.

The conduct of Malaysia’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by the principles of respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and non–interference in the affairs of other nations, peaceful settlement of disputes, peaceful co–existence and mutual benefit in relations.

Therefore, I am perplexed to discover inaccurate and false narrative in his comment article, and wonder whether Rais Hussin was being deliberately obtuse. As such, I am compelled to address the inaccurate and false narrative, point by point as below:

1. Malaysia has entered the orbit of Chinese influence both commercially and militarily. On any given week, many illegal Chinese fishing vessels cruise along the coasts of West and East Malaysia.

As a small nation that relies heavily on international trade, Malaysia has no choice but to have relations with all countries in the world. As threats to peace and security become more complex, Malaysia has no choice but to work together with all countries in the world.

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Increased economic and investment activities between Malaysia and China were the result of globalisation and the law of supply and demand. Likewise, increased activities in the sphere of security would include closer military cooperation. It should in no way be construed as a sign that Malaysia has entered the orbit of Chinese influence. Malaysia has similar relations with many other countries, including the United States of America, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Singapore, etc.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agencies (MMEA) will arrest any fishing vessels that conduct illegal fishing activities in Malaysia’s maritime areas. MMEA vessels and aircraft, as well as vessels and aircraft belonging to the Malaysian Armed Forces conduct routine patrol and surveillance of Malaysia’s maritime areas. Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted only sporadically, and therefore it is completely untrue and utterly erroneous to suggest that Chinese fishing vessels cruise along the coasts of West and East Malaysia on a weekly basis.

2. More oddly, the Foreign Minister Anifah Aman has allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, with the most recent berthing taking place just before Trump met Najib in the White House. The very act of allowing Chinese submarine to break into Malaysian waters, all without the formality of conducting a joint exercise, suggests that Malaysia is now a quasi-alliance of China that is willing to listen to Beijing at every turn. Thus, how can the US-Malaysia relationship serve as a building block of a stronger international maritime order?

It is true that Chinese warship and submarine made a port call at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in early September 2017. That was not the first time that Chinese military vessels make a port call at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and would not be the last.

Military vessels from numerous countries including the United States of America, Australia, Japan, France, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, etc., have made port calls to various Malaysian ports, including at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and will continue to do so.

Therefore, it is clearly a fallacy to equate the recent docking of Chinese military vessels as a sign of Malaysia quasi–alliance with China.

Military vessels undertake port call at foreign countries to replenish supply, provide shore leave to the crew after long period at sea, as well as to undertake minor maintenance. Port call by foreign military vessels also contribute to local economies.

With regard to the procedure, any foreign military vessels planning to make port call at Malaysian ports, including at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, must submit such request to the Government of Malaysia through diplomatic channels. Such request would be considered by the relevant Malaysian agencies before being submitted to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, for final approval.

It is also timely to state at this juncture that Malaysia upholds the supremacy of the rule of law. Malaysia believes that international law is the equaliser amongst states, regardless of their political, economic or military power. All countries must work together to ensure peace and stability, as well as maritime order.

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3. Fourthly, Malaysia did nothing monumental with regards to ASEAN and the East Asian Summit in 2015 when Putrajaya was the chair of both entities, except holding grandiose and well-choreographed meetings as a public relations stunt.

4. Yet, 2015 was the year when China’s militarisation of the South China Sea began in earnest.

5. If Malaysia couldn’t contain the situation in the South China Sea and North Korea, why should one believe that without chairing Asean and the East Asian Summit, Malaysia could wield even more influence?

Malaysia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015 was well–regarded by many countries. Malaysia’s constructive approach on various issues including the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula (and North Korean nuclear issue) was well-received.

Malaysia has done admirably in advancing discourse on these issues, taking into account that ASEAN works on the principle of consensus, and as chairman, Malaysia is merely a facilitator.

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Malaysia’s policy on the South China Sea is clear and consistent. Throughout its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015, Malaysia has impressed upon all countries the need to ensure peace, security and stability and to avoid the threat or use of force, as well as to avoid activities that could escalate or complicate situation. Malaysia further stated that recent activities have eroded trust and confidence amongst parties. Malaysia also called on all parties to ensure non–militarisation in the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s principled and consistent position was well–received and well–accepted, and reflected as agreed texts in various documents issued during Malaysia’s chairmanship including the various chairman’s statements, joint communique of Asean ministerial meeting, etc. The texts were also used in various documents during Laos chairmanship in 2016.


ANIFAH AMAN is Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Malaysia’s Grand Poobah’s Chequebook Diplomacy in Washington DC


September 15, 2017

Malaysia’s Grand Poobah’s Chequebook Diplomacy in Washington can be strategic, admits Ambassador Emeritus Dennis Ignatius

www,malaysiakini.com

 

COMMENT | Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent White House soirée has brought Malaysia an unprecedented level of scrutiny and negative publicity. All major US newspapers, for example, unanimously panned the visit, highlighting the inappropriateness of inviting someone linked to an ongoing Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation (into 1MDB-related money-laundering charges).

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Najib’s Chequebook Diplomacy–Helping America Great Again impresses Donald J. Trump

It is a measure of just how far his reputation has fallen internationally after once having been feted everywhere as a reformist and moderate Muslim democrat. It is also a reminder of how little all of this really matters in a world dominated by realpolitik and the pursuit of strategic advantage.

Certainly, Najib himself didn’t appear to lose too much sleep over all the bad press. For him, the visit was clearly about positioning himself for the next elections and burnishing his credentials as a well-respected international leader able to run with some of the most powerful leaders in the world.

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Taken together with earlier high-profile meetings with President Xi Jinping, King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the meeting with Trump, as well as Britain’s Theresa May, lends credence to Najib’s narrative that under his stewardship, Malaysia has become “a rising star” and a “global player.”

While the urban crowd and opposition supporters will no doubt shake their heads in disbelief, it will play well with Najib’s rural base, effectively neutralising the 1MDB issue, arguably Najib’s most troublesome political challenge.

Najib’s grand strategy

Beyond the optics and the controversy over 1MDB, the visit also revealed a side to Najib that will surely drive the opposition to further despair: he is proving to be a far better strategist than he’s been given credit for.

He has parlayed the powers of his office and all the levers of state control at his disposal to successfully play off both China and the US to his advantage.

It might be recalled that he deliberately pivoted to China after his falling-out with the Obama Administration.

In Beijing, last year, he complained about foreign meddling, of being treated unfairly, of being lectured to by Western powers. In not so many words, he went on to contemptuously dismiss the US and other Western powers as has-beens with no future in Asia and hinted about a new strategic partnership with China.

It appears that Washington, already alarmed at China’s growing clout in the region, quickly got the message. Washington will now play along to get along.

Furthermore, with a more amoral (some would say unscrupulous) occupant in the White House to do business with, and with Beijing beginning to get too demanding (as witnessed by the unravelling of the Bandar Malaysia deal), Najib might have also seen the need to recalibrate the balance between the US and China.

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Playing the China-US Hedging Game

Better relations with Washington will now give Najib more room to manoeuvre. It will also allow Najib to undercut opposition criticism that he is too close to China.

He has thus put both Washington and Beijing on notice: be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you. It is, in fact, the global application of his domestic political approach: as he once told Chinese Malaysians, “If you show support [for UMNO-BN] we have no problem giving more… if not, difficult lah.”

Though it is still too early to predict how all this will turn out, no other prime minister has displayed such a flair for big power gamesmanship as he.

Buying his way to respectability

In order to demonstrate to both the US and China that they have much to gain both strategically and economically by being supportive of his administration, Najib has resorted to a form of chequebook diplomacy hitherto only used by rich and powerful countries – promising contracts, investments and big-ticket purchases in exchange for support and endorsement.

With China, Najib generously granted PRC corporations billions of ringgit in infrastructure contracts, even favouring PRC contractors over our own.

He has also earned the undying gratitude of President Xi by wholeheartedly embracing the latter’s One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative, dismissing concerns about the viability and lack of transparency of many Obor projects.

And under his watch, Malaysia made its first purchase of defence equipment from China.

In Washington, Najib opened his chequebook once again promising to buy more than RM42 billion in new aircraft for Malaysian Airlines (MAS), RM300 million in fighter jets for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), and to direct RM12 billion to RM16 billion in new investments from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Kazanah Nasional to US infrastructure projects.

He also promised to “persuade” AirAsia to switch from British-made Rolls Royce engines to American-made GE engines.

No doubt, this was all music to Trump’s ears, a small contribution to making American great again.

American officials, of course, deny the visit will have any impact on the DOJ investigations but does anybody really believe that Najib would have made all those expensive promises simply to make Trump feel good?

After this, expect European and Japanese salesmen-politicians to come knocking at our doors with hat in hand and high praise for Najib on their lips. For so long as there’s money to be made, inconvenient issues like human rights and good governance will not be allowed to get in the way.

Cost of Najib’s generosity

The downside, however, is that Malaysia’s already beleaguered opposition, as well as its human rights defenders, can now expect no sympathy or moral support from the US and other democracies.

Najib has neatly turned the tables on his detractors; far from isolating him internationally, he has now marginalised them at home.

Worse still, the nation will have to pay a heavy price for Najib’s extravagant chequebook diplomacy.  We are already heavily indebted to China; now we will be driven into even greater debt with billions of new borrowing to pay for Najib’s Washington promises.That the government of a cash-strapped developing country, which has had to impose a new tax (GST) on its own hard-pressed and long-suffering populace just to stay afloat, would offer such an extravagant economic boost to one of the richest economies in the world is both unprecedented and mind-boggling.

DENNIS IGNATIUS, a former Malaysian ambassador, firmly believes that we should put our trust not in the leadership of politicians but in the sanctity of great institutions – our secular and democratic constitution, a democratically-elected parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press and a government fully accountable to the people. He blogs here.

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