Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay

July 17, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay

by Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho / Khmer

Navy personnel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12. Reuters


The recent 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Singapore saw progress on the South China Sea issue. This demonstrates the importance of ASEAN as a regional anchor and the viability of ASEAN centrality in the midst of geopolitical change, in spite of the regional grouping’s obvious weaknesses and limitations, write Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho.

The 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings in Singapore from July 30 to August 4 was generally hailed as a success. Most notably there were no reported delays in the issuance of its joint communique this time round.

This was unlike in previous instances when the joint communique was delayed as a result of seemingly intractable issues, especially the South China Sea disputes. At the ASEAN-China Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), progress was also made with regard to the South China Sea issue – ASEAN and China agreed on a single draft text to negotiate the Code of Conduct (COC). This text will form the basis for future COC negotiations.

Admittedly, such seemingly positive developments do not mean that most obstacles facing ASEAN have been cleared. There remain big questions about the role of ASEAN in the regional architecture and whether ASEAN can continue to play a central role in this regard.

In the midst of the tumultuous geopolitical changes taking place all around the world, ASEAN continues to be the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative Asean and to improve its relations with external partners.

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HE Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

The South China Sea disputes remain the litmus test of ASEAN’s centrality and unity, given the potential for the disputes to divide the group. While ASEAN is by no means perfect, a Southeast Asia without ASEAN would likely be in worse shape.

At the start of the annual ASEAN-China PMC, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan announced that the foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries and China have agreed to a draft document that will form the foundation of negotiations for a South China Sea COC. He described it as “yet another milestone in the COC process”.

Even so, Mr Balakrishnan sought to manage expectations by cautioning that negotiations are far from over, and that the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have not been resolved as the COC “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”. It should be noted that Singapore had been the country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations for the past three years, during which Mr Balakrishnan had worked tirelessly with his Chinese counterpart to enhance Asean-China relations, notwithstanding Singapore-China relations going through rough patches in those years.

One of the largest concerns observers have raised is the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape, as a result of major power politics. US-China trade frictions continue to spiral, with no end in sight.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been giving assurances of US interest in the region, such as the $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives for Asia announced before his visit to Southeast Asia, as well as his announcement in Singapore on the US plan to provide $300 million in funding “to reinforce security cooperation throughout the entire (Indo-Pacific) region”.

This notwithstanding, US commitment to upholding the current regional order remains in doubt, especially given President Donald Trump’s protectionist streak and tendency to question the utility of US alliances.

ASEAN has had its share of troubles. Several have questioned the viability of the group’s prized centrality. The South China Sea disputes and the issue of the Rakhine state in Myanmar, with ASEAN’s apparent lack of unity in the former and reported inability to address the latter, have raised doubts about ASEAN’s capabilities to address tough issues.

This has given rise to questions about its centrality. However, that is not to say that all is lost. As the AMM has demonstrated, ASEAN is still well in the game, even if obstacles remain.

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ASEAN is the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative ASEAN and to improve its relations with external partners. So being united in common purpose, having an acute sense of  destiny  and  being strong in resolve to preserve regional peace and prosperity, that is the foundation of ASEAN centrality as its move forward into the next 50 years beyond.

In the future, ASEAN’s role as the anchor of the region will become even more important. Despite the greater possibility of US retrenchment from the region, as well as China’s continued growing influence, ASEAN will need to ensure it is steadfast in ensuring its centrality in the region.

The South China Sea will continue to assume significance in ASEAN, given its potential to divide the group. In spite of some claims that ASEAN has a very limited role in the South China Sea disputes, given the fact that only four of its members are actual claimants, ASEAN will need to step up to the plate to ensure its collective interests are respected when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, and to ensure that these do not escalate into full-blown conflict.

In this regard, the AMM has always been addressing this problem, though it is not without its hiccups particularly in 2012 when no joint communique was issued due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Notably, however, the following year saw the joint communique issued with a reference to the South China Sea. Since then, the disputes have been a feature once again in the AMM joint communiques, with the latest one highlighting the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text.

Nonetheless, land reclamations and militarisation on features in disputed areas of the South China Sea continue, and ASEAN will need to address this issue sooner rather than later – possibly a tall order given the current geopolitics surrounding the disputes, particularly with the desire of most ASEAN claimant states to maintain good relations with China, the biggest claimant of all in terms of size, military prowess and economic clout.

Despite the issuance of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text, it remains unknown when the COC will materialise, especially with the mutually-agreed timeline on negotiations not made public. This is why ASEAN needs to continue to work assiduously to manage the South China Sea disputes and contain any rising tensions.

In light of the ongoing geopolitical flux in the region, ASEAN will increasingly be the anchor of the region’s architecture. The past week’s AMM and related meetings in Singapore have reflected this crucial role that ASEAN plays for the wider region, even beyond Southeast Asia.

Without ASEAN’s efforts, major powers would likely have a much easier time dividing the region over matters such as the South China Sea. Moving forward, ASEAN must continue to proactively work at ensuring its centrality, and to make sure that external countries see value in ASEAN taking the driver’s seat.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses and limitations of ASEAN, it is the onus of the ASEAN member states and community to continue to work closely to ensure that the region remains a core feature of the regional architecture.

Henrick Z. Tsjeng and Shawn Ho are Associate Research Fellows with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

Malaysia’s May 2018 General Election and Foreign Policy

August 8, 2018

Malaysia’s May 2018 General Election and Foreign Policy

by Thomas Daniel

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Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 433

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: August 7, 2018
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Binding: Electronic
Pages: 2
Free Download: PDF
Thomas Daniel, Analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, explains that “In Malaysia’s May 2018 elections, foreign policy appears to have been a significant part of the campaign…but  the claim that foreign policy was a major deciding factor in Malaysian elections is still a bit of a stretch “

The 14th Malaysian General Elections (GE14) held in May saw the then main opposition alliance of Pakatan Harapan, together with an allied party from East Malaysia, win a surprising 121 of 222 Parliamentary seats, allowing them to form a simple majority government. Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is once again leading the nation at the age of 92. The Barisan Nasional coalition, which ruled from even before independence, now sits on the opposition bench alongside the Islamist party PAS, while Barisan’s election allies from Sarawak in East Malaysia already have left the coalition to form an independent block of their own.

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What role did foreign policy play in Malaysia’s recent elections? Foreign policy by itself has rarely been an issue in Malaysian elections. Some external observers might consider this odd for a nation whose prosperity depends significantly on regional and international trade and peace. Domestic issues – the economy, social dynamics, internal peace and security – have always been dominant concerns of the Malaysian electorate. Where foreign policy matters have popped up, they are limited to rather specific issues, often the flavour of the day. Traditionally, politicians from both sides of the divide have often – and rather flippantly – attempted to use Malaysian involvement or positions on global and regional affairs against each other as a smear tactic. For the most part however, foreign policy as a subject has largely been a domain of the few – policymakers, diplomats, academics and other practitioners.

At first glance, in Malaysia’s May 2018 elections, foreign policy — both directly and indirectly — appears to have been a significant part of the campaign – driven mainly by Pakatan Harapan. A large part of this has to do with former Prime Minister Najib Razak himself and the fallout from the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

After vast sums of money initially linked to 1MDB which were deposited in Najib’s personal accounts turned out to be a ‘donation’ by a Saudi royal to Malaysia channelled directly to the former Prime Minister, there was chatter amongst Malaysians on the nature and impact of such ‘donations’ by friendly countries and what countries could be considered as ‘allies’ of Malaysia. This led to further conversations on whether non-alignment and neutrality was still a central tenet in Malaysian foreign policy and on the extent of Malaysia’s involvement in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, including even whether Malaysia was a silent participant of the Saudi offensive in Yemen.

The 1MDB saga itself was a major part of the campaign against the Najib and his ruling party. Various local investigations into the scandal had cleared him of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the financial irregularities of 1MDB continued to be investigated by authorities in seven countries – including the United States. This further eroded the credibility and reputation of both the government and its associated institutions in the eyes of the Malaysian electorate, which came to see them as damaged goods when articulating Malaysia’s interests and reputation on the global stage.

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Another major foreign policy factor was the nature of the Malaysia-China relationship, and perceived notions of the influence that the latter has over the former. It became part and parcel of the campaign against Najib and his party. A key driver here was the rapid and staggering rise of investment and acquisitions by Chinese companies – both private and state-linked – in Malaysia. Foreign direct investment from China, which stood at RM4.8 billion in 2013, surged to nearly RM21 billion by the end of 2016. It now encompasses diverse sectors like construction, real estate, manufacturing, ports and power generation facilities. Concerns remain over how much of the money coming in were investments, and how much were in fact loans for various projects, and if the previous government was honest to Malaysians about the nature of such transactions.The fact that Chinese companies or capital can be seen in almost every major ongoing or planned project in Malaysia unnerved many – especially the average man-on-the-street. The purchase of majority stakes in several key Malaysian companies which are household names in Malaysia by Chinese interests did not help the perception.

1MBD related scandals come into the picture once again as some of these deals include the purchase of investments and assets previously owned by the wealth fund, which helped the troubled company meet its debt payments. The allegation that China helped bail out the troubled Malaysian sovereign fund and by extension the Prime Minister thus making him beholden to China, possibly compromising Malaysia’s national interests, was a popular narrative amongst the anti-Najib camp.

Despite the above mentioned issues, the claim that foreign policy was a major deciding factor in Malaysian elections is still a bit of a stretch. The campaign for the GE14 might be one where certain aspects of foreign policy and external relations played a role – at least more than previous elections. However, they are issue-specific, or in this case, personality-specific, and driven primarily by a domestic undertone. The ‘foreign policy’ approach used by the opposition when speaking about these issues ultimately relate back to local narratives that the electorate holds dear – the price of living, the future of their children, and to an extent, national prestige. Additionally, the manifestos released by the contesting parties also barely touched on foreign policy. There were, at best, vague remarks on continuing or restoring (depending on who the author was) Malaysia’s reputation and record within global institutions.

Nevertheless, moving forward, policymakers and campaign managers need to take into account that foreign policy issues could become a more common fixture in Malaysian political campaigns. The signs, despite being faint, are there. Conversations about Malaysia’s relationship with China and the Saudi Arabian royal family, for example, persist in a post-GE14 Malaysia both amongst politicians and voters. The situation becomes ever more pertinent when one takes into account that Malaysia has a combination of a relatively high internet penetration rate and coupled with an active social media presence amongst its connected citizenry.


Foreign Policy: China can’t be selective on the Law of the Sea

August 7, 2018

Foreign Policy: China can’t be selective on the Law of the Sea

by  Tuan N Pham, Yokosuka (Japan)

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Last May, Washington disinvited Beijing from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the South China Sea run counter to the pursuit of free and open seas. Like RIMPAC 2014 and 2016, China dispatched a spy ship into the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to monitor the world’s largest international maritime exercise.

And just like the past two exercises, Washington did not object to the Chinese ship’s presence — which is not the response received from Beijing when US and other navies conduct similar activities in China’s (claimed) EEZ. Instead, more often than not China admonishes the offending nation for violating its claimed territorial sovereignty and sometimes even harasses the military units themselves.

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Read On;

While not unprecedented and not in violation of international law, the spy ship’s deployment into the United States’ EEZ reminds the world that China is a rising power that is willing to fully leverage its interpretation of maritime rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This underscores Beijing’s selectively choosing the parts of UNCLOS that it likes and ignoring or reinterpreting the parts that it does not like or finds inconvenient for its national interests. Beijing clearly understands its own maritime rights, but it does not necessarily tolerate and accept the same rights for others.

The Chinese argument on the (non)permissibility of military activities in the South China Sea is counter to the US position that coastal states have the right under UNCLOS to regulate economic activities in their own EEZ but do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in it.

Beijing contends that military activities (such as intelligence surveillance reconnaissance flights, maritime survey operations, maritime collection operations and military exercises) on the high seas and in EEZs are unlawful based on the legislative spirit of UNCLOS and on UNCLOS’s requirement that the high seas be used only for peaceful purposes.

US legal scholars and diplomats have counter-argued that military activities have been a recognised lawful activity on the high seas and EEZs under customary international law and are preserved under Article 58 of UNCLOS. The international community by and large agrees with Washington — only 27 states concur with Beijing’s interpretation of UNCLOS, while the majority of states (over 100, including all permanent United Nations Security Council members other than China) hold Washington’s position.

Former president Fidel Ramos, 88, the Philippines’ envoy for talks with Beijing hopes to improve ties with Beijing that have soured over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

That  said, there is another perspective worth mentioning for additional context. Just as China conveniently demands that other nations observe its domestic laws when it instructs ships in its EEZ to leave, China is simply following other nations’ domestic laws when it conducts surveillance in those countries’ EEZs. Granted, although China’s laws in this regard are illiberal while most other countries’ laws are liberal, the principle being observed arguably may be the same.

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The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning steaming forward the South China Sea. —AFP

Nevertheless, as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines, Beijing may have no choice but to eventually address the inconsistency between its demands of other nations and its own actions. It can either adjust its standing approach or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its EEZ. The former is more likely, while the latter carries more risks (and eventually costs) in terms of the legal validity of its own maritime sovereignty claims, international credibility and world standing.

Regionally, continued ‘do as I say and not do as I do’ will exacerbate the growing concerns among its nervous neighbours about China’s ‘benevolent’ rise and will cast increasing scepticism on its sincerity and commitment to comply with the ASEAN Code of Conduct guidelines to handle maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Globally, this inconsistency will undercut Beijing’s carefully crafted and cultivated international image as a defender of global trade and will undermine its strategic goals of promoting its geopolitical influence abroad and displacing the Western-oriented world order with one without dominant US influence.

Beijing has begun incrementally and subtly adding nuance to its legal and diplomatic positions at various diplomatic, academic and media forums. Beijing now appears to not necessarily object to intelligence-gathering operations and military exercises in China’s EEZ per se; rather, they object to the scope, scale and frequency of these activities. They also seem to no longer view such activities as intrinsically unlawful under international law but rather as threatening to China’s peace and security as well as destabilising for the region.

Despite these efforts, at the end of the day, Beijing is conveniently disregarding UNCLOS and accepted international norms to support its own national interests and complement its strategic narratives. This is counterproductive, since Beijing needs the international community to believe that its commitments to uphold international law are sincere and credible — especially in the maritime trade realm on which its growing economy relies. Similarly, the world needs a rising China to be a responsible global leader respectful of the rule of law and compliant with global norms.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.

Trump’s Psychopathology Is Getting Worse

July 4, 2018

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Happy Fourth of July 2018 to all American Friends, Associates and Readers of this blog–Don’t let President Donald J. Trump spoil your day. America is still the beacon of Peace and Hope for the world today–Din Merican

Trump’s Psychopathology Is Getting Worse


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Most pundits interpret the US president’s outbursts as playing to his political base, or preening for the cameras, or blustering for the sake of striking future deals. In fact, Trump suffers from several psychological pathologies that render him a clear and present danger to the world.

NEW YORK – Seemingly every day now, US President Donald Trump escalates his policy and personal attacks against other countries and their heads of state, the poor and the weak, and migrant families. Most recently, Trump has championed the heartless separation of migrant children from their parents. Though public outrage may have forced him to retreat, his disposition to attack will soon make itself felt elsewhere.

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“Trump’s paranoia is translating into heightened geopolitical tensions. Traditional allies, not accustomed to dealing with US leaders with severe mental defects, are clearly shaken, while adversaries appear to be taking advantage. Many of Trump’s supporters seem to interpret his shameless lying as bold truth-telling, and pundits and foreign leaders tend to believe that his bizarre lashing out reflects a political strategy: — and 

Most pundits interpret Trump’s outbursts as playing to his political base, or preening for the cameras, or blustering for the sake of striking future deals. We take a different view. In line with many of America’s renowned mental-health experts, we believe that Trump suffers from several psychological pathologies that render him a clear and present danger to the world.

Trump shows signs of at least three dangerous traits: paranoia, lack of empathy, and sadism. Paranoia is a form of detachment from reality in which an individual perceives threats that do not exist. The paranoid individual can create dangers for others in the course of fighting against imaginary threats. Lack of empathy can derive from an individual’s preoccupation with the self and a view of others as mere tools. Harming others causes no remorse when it serves one’s own purposes. Sadism means finding pleasure in inflicting pain or humiliating others, especially those who represent a perceived threat or a reminder of one’s weaknesses.

We believe that Trump has these traits. We base our conclusion on observations of his actions, his known life history, and many reports by others, rather than as the finding of an independent psychiatric examination, which we have previously called for, and call for again. But we do not need a complete picture to recognize that Trump is already a growing danger to the world. Psychological expertise tells us that such traits tend to worsen in individuals who gain power over others.

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To justify his belligerent actions, Trump lies relentlessly and remorselessly. In fact, according to a Washington Post analysis, Trump has made over 3,000 false or misleading claims since taking office. And, the Post notes, his lying seems to have escalated in recent weeks. Moreover, Trump’s confidants describe him as increasingly likely to ignore any moderating advice offered by those around him. There are no “grownups in the room” who can stop him as he surrounds himself with corrupt and bellicose cronies prepared to do his bidding – all of which is entirely predictable from his psychology.

Trump’s wild exaggerations in recent weeks reveal the increasing severity of his symptoms. Consider, for example, his repeated claims that the vague outcome of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un constitutes an end to the nuclear threat posed by Kim’s regime, or his blatant lie that Democrats, rather than his own policies, caused the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the southern border with Mexico. The Post recently counted 29 false or misleading statements in a mere one-hour rally. Whether intentional or delusional, this level of persistent lying is pathological.

Since Trump actually lacks the ability to impose his will on others, his approach guarantees an endless cycle of threats, counter-threats, and escalation. He follows any tactical retreat with renewed aggression. Such is the case with the spiraling tit-for-tat trade war now underway between Trump and a widening circle of countries and economies, including Canada, Mexico, China, and the European Union. The same is true of Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from a growing number of international agreements and bodies, including the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and, most recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council, after it criticized US policies towards the poor.

Trump’s paranoia is translating into heightened geopolitical tensions. Traditional allies, not accustomed to dealing with US leaders with severe mental defects, are clearly shaken, while adversaries appear to be taking advantage. Many of Trump’s supporters seem to interpret his shameless lying as bold truth-telling, and pundits and foreign leaders tend to believe that his bizarre lashing out reflects a political strategy. Yet this is a misunderstanding. Trump’s actions are being “explained” as rational and even bold, whereas they more likely are manifestations of severe psychological problems.

History abounds with mentally impaired individuals who have gained vast power as would-be saviors, only to become despots who gravely damage their societies and others. Their strength of will and promises of national greatness entice a public following; but if there is one lesson of this kind of pathology in power, it is that the long-term results are inescapably catastrophic for all.

We should not remain immobilized by fear of a future disaster. A leader with dangerous signs of paranoia, lack of empathy, and sadism should not remain in the presidency, lest he commit devastating damage. Any appropriate measure to remove the danger – the ballot box, impeachment, or invocation of the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment – would help restore our safety.

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The world is pushing back in the South China Sea

July 4, 2018

The world is pushing back in the South China Sea

Tuan N Pham, Yokosuka

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In recent weeks, there have been several commentaries reporting a temporary new norm in the South China Sea (SCS) — realpolitik’s triumph over moralpolitik and the rapid decline of regional US soft power. But current developments suggest otherwise. Years of ill-advised US acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS appear to be over for now.

There indeed seems to be a new norm emerging in the SCS. But it is more reflective of the new muscular US National Security Strategy and US National Defense Strategy that call for an embrace of strategic great power competition with China than of a decline of US influence in the region.

Many countries are now firmly pushing back against Chinese unilateral expansionism in the SCS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declared that he was ready and willing to go to war with China over SCS resources. A prominent Taiwanese think tank has proposed leasing Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island to the US military. And at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States, India, Vietnam, France and the United Kingdom all spoke strongly against China’s assertive and destabilising actions in the SCS.

These words are being backed up by actions.

Washington disinvited Beijing to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the SCS run counter to international norms and the pursuit of free and open seas. US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and presence operations in the SCS continue, and US defence officials are reportedly considering a more assertive program that could include longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese facilities.

London and Paris have joined Washington to challenge Beijing in the SCS. Both have conducted naval operations in the SCS to put pressure on China’s increased militarization of the disputed and contested waters.

Vietnam continues the modest expansion of its outposts in the Spratly Islands. With the latest construction at Ladd Reef, Hanoi has made small and incremental upgrades to 21 of its 49 outposts in recent years. The construction work also underscores a new facet of Vietnam’s military doctrine in the SCS — the employment of a maritime militia that will emulate China’s maritime militia, which China uses to enhance its presence and operations in the contested waters without provoking a military response from other countries.

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Layang Layang–Malaysia

Malaysia — like Vietnam and the Philippines — is embarking on a military buildup to better protect its maritime claims and interests in the SCS. Kuala Lumpur recently announced that it would upgrade its naval aircraft as well as purchase ship-based naval helicopters. The enhanced naval aviation capabilities are intended to support an ongoing comprehensive modernization of its surface fleet.

The aforementioned commentaries on the SCS also repeat some familiar Chinese perspectives on US FONOPs and US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that require some US perspectives for a more balanced understanding of the issues.

US FONOPs are an important expression of and are recognised by international law. The purpose and intent of US FONOPs are clearly laid out in US policy, and all operations are meticulously documented and published every year. On the whole, US FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims in the SCS, not competing sovereignty claims; do not discriminate against particular states, but rather focus on the claims that individual states assert; are deliberate in nature, but are not deliberate provocations; and contest unilateral restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight rather than accept rhetoric.

US ISR operations — which are conducted inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) — are lawful under customary international law and Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning steaming forward the South China Sea.

The Chinese argument on the permissibility of military activities in EEZs is counter to the US position. The United States believes that while coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, they do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.

Beijing contends that military activities — such as ISR flights, maritime survey operations and military exercises — on the high seas and in EEZs are unlawful according to UNCLOS, and that it is a requirement under UNCLOS that the high seas are used only for peaceful purposes, despite itself doing exactly the opposite.

Beijing’s interpretation of UNCLOS is a minority position held by 27 states, while the vast majority of states (over 100, including all permanent United Nations Security Council members other than China) do not hold this position.

The region and the world have come to the realisation that Beijing’s actions in the SCS are dangerously undermining the extant global order that China itself has benefited from. Other countries must now be more assertive to encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will be further emboldened to expand and accelerate its campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year.

Tuan N Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.

South China Sea: US Criticism of China’s Actions increasingly strident and dangerous

June 29, 2018

South China Sea: US Criticism of China’s Actions increasingly strident and dangerous

by Mark J Valencia, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Criticising China for its actions in the South China Sea has become quite common in US foreign policy commentary over the past few years. Recently, the criticism has become ever more strident and dangerous. In some instances it even borders on ‘yellow journalism’ — namely journalism that is based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration — which is something that has prodded the United States into war in the past.

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A Navy official says the USS John S. McCain has sailed close to a Chinese man-made island in a freedom of navigation operation in the disputed South China Sea. (Na Son Nguyen/AP Photo)

Some commentators in Washington trumpet the China threat. They use information about Chinese construction on features in the South China Sea to bolster their campaigns to convince the Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to US interests there, particularly freedom of navigation. Accompanying these concerns are a spate of proposals for aggressive US military action to challenge China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea.

Those in the US foreign policy community who warn of a China threat are finding resonance with some members of Congress and the Trump administration. On 3 May 2018, the White House announced that there would be ‘near-term and long-term consequences’ for China’s so-called ‘militarisation’ of the South China Sea.

Sure enough, a flurry of anti-China actions followed. On 23 May, the Pentagon announced that it had withdrawn an invitation to China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise — the world’s largest multinational military exercise.

The Pentagon followed this four days later with a two-ship freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. The exercise violated China’s regime of required prior permission for warships to enter waters that China claims as its own.

US commentators and empathetic politicians are throwing every accusation they can at China to encourage and justify the need for a US response. They accuse China of being assertive and aggressive, violating the 2002 ASEAN–China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), not conforming to international rules and norms, militarising the features in the South China Sea, generating instability and threatening freedom of navigation.

Let’s examine the strength of these allegations.

China’s efforts to protect what it sees as its sovereign territory and resources against rival claimants in the South China Sea have indeed been both assertive and aggressive. But so have the actions of Vietnam as well as US naval activity in response to China’s actions. China has demonstrated relative restraint vis-a-vis provocative US FONOPs and US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea.

In other claimants’ eyes China has violated the DOC. But other claimants like Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have also violated the self-restraint provision of the DOC by continuing their own reclamation and construction activities after the 2002 agreement. The Philippines, by filing its complaint against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also violated what China considers to be the most important DOC provision of all — the commitment to resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations involving only the countries directly concerned.

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U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson

China and the United States do not agree on what many of the international rules and norms are or should be. The United States wants to strengthen the status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. China believes it is being constrained by the existing US-led international order that favours a system developed and sustained by the West. China wants respect for its status and interests, and seeks to bend the system to its benefit just as the United States did during its rise.

‘Militarisation’ also means different things to China and the United States. To China, its placement in the South China Sea of what it perceives to be defensive weapons does not constitute militarisation, while the United States is clearly militarising the region with its forward-deployed troops, assets and patrols.

The United States maintains that its FONOPs in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation in the region for itself and others. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so during peacetime.

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U.S. Carrier Strike Group (USS Theodore Roosevelt) Patrols The South China Sea

The United States conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom of navigation for its ISR vessels and aircraft. In so doing it makes frequent reference to UNCLOS, which it has not ratified and thus has little credibility interpreting to its own benefit. China objects to what it perceives as US abuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ to its military advantage, and its use of intimidation and coercion to enforce its interpretation.

The United States is overreacting in the South China Sea and this response is likely to be counterproductive. If the United States steps up its naval confrontation in the South China Sea, China may well respond by denying future US Navy port visits, further enhancing its military assets on the features it occupies and increasing its close-in observation of future US FONOPs and ISR probes.

Some US analysts and politicians appear to be trying to goad the United States into military action in the South China Sea even though there is no threat to US core interests there. It is indeed the job of the US defence and intelligence community to plan for worst-case scenarios. But objectivity, fairness and balance — the supposed ethics of independent analysts — are increasingly hard to find in analysis of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Mark J Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China.

A more detailed version of this article first appeared here in the IPP Review.