In defence of Mat Sabu’s ‘18-wheeler’ diplomacy

October 1, 2018

In defence of Mat Sabu’s ‘18-wheeler’ diplomacy

by Phar Kim Beng

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Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu has reached a small milestone. He was in New York City between September 23-29, one of the longest trips ever by a Malaysian Defense Minister, and among the few to attend the United Nations General Assembly so soon after his appointment to cabinet.

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The length and the early trip to the United States are key, even if it is his 10th visit in the last four months, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore – during which he emphasised the centrality of ASEAN and the importance of the ‘Mahathir doctrine’ – to his visit to Lebanon in June.

To those not in the know, southern Lebanon is one of those delicate areas where conflicts could erupt at any given time. Malaysian peacekeepers are there to help maintain some semblance of order as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

Malaysians blue helmets have always been deeply respected. Be it in Congo in 1962 or Somalia in 1989, Malaysian soldiers have always been at the forefront of peacekeeping efforts.

Infamously, the book and movie Black Hawk Down got its details wrong. It wasn’t just the Pakistani blue helmets who retrieved the American rangers trapped in the fire fights in the centre of Mogadishu, Malaysians also saved the day.

Tariq Chaudhry, a UN diplomat, has always tipped his hat to the bravery of the Malaysian soldiers.

His doctorate thesis on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation at Cambridge went as far as accrediting the Malaysian armed forces in maintaining the peace in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement in 1995.

Mat Sabu is aware of this glowing legacy. He celebrates them, and is able to hit it off with Dr Mahathir Mohamed precisely because both agree peace is something which Malaysia can do and has done the world over.

Mohamad also believes that wars are a blight on humanity. One should avoid such aggressive behaviors. This is again a position not unlike the view of Mahathir, who also hates wars.


Just yesterday, Mahathir hinted that Malaysia is looking into following Japan’s constitution which prevents the country from entering armed conflicts.

Thus Malaysia has pulled out of the conflict in Yemen – which has now degenerated into a complex humanitarian emergency, where tens of thousands of people have died from dysentery, lack of clean water and medical services. The numbers are greater than the combatants who actually perished armed conflict between the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition.

Preventive diplomacy

Since Malaysia has always had a policy of “active” neutrality starting from the 1960s – a concept enshrined by Malaysia’s participation in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), further reinforced by the late Tun Ghazali Shafie’s concept of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) – our foreign policy has always focused on maintaining peace.

In the same month that Mohamad participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue, he hosted the Malaysia-Australia High Level Committee on Defence Cooperation in Butterworth. Australia is one of the members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) which Malaysian navy and armed forces still treasure deeply.

The next month(in July), Mohamad visited the Farnborough Airshow in the UK, an event which typically hosts the amazing acrobatic Red Arrows. The UK is also a member of the FPDA.

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Given the insistence of the UK of remaining a vital and active player in maintaining freedom of navigation in South China Sea, Mohamad’s trip reassured them that their role in FPDA is deeply cherished.

In July 2018, the minister also made it a point to visit Bangladesh in light of the country’s growing tensions with Myanmar over the influx and mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims, which neither side seems to acknowledge is facing one of the worst humanitarian disasters.

With his trip to Cox’s Bazar, Mohamad is engaging in preventive diplomacy. He is trying to prevent the issue from further enlarging into an explosive issue that can drag ASEAN and South Asia into a structural conflict over the millions of Rohingya facing near-certain death.

Indeed, having strengthened all the necessary pillars in FPDA – by visiting Singapore, hosting the Australia and later the New Zealand delegation, in addition his UK trip – it seems Mohamad is emphasising the backbone of Malaysian defence diplomacy through FDPA.


This is why the trip to Bangladesh happened in August. In that month, Mohamad strengthened the confidence of the Malaysian peacekeepers in Lebanon, and sent a powerful signal to Myanmar that peace and freedom to all must be of paramount importance.

The following month, Mohamad went one step further: he visited the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus with Japan. Japan is critical precisely because the country in 1994, under then Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, created the ASEAN Regional Forum from the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference.

In this particular trip to Nagoya, Mohamad signed an MOU with Japan to enhance mutual humanitarian assistance, civil military cooperation, in addition to strengthening the Malaysian peacekeeping operations in Port Dickson, which has been ongoing since 2005.

It should be added Japan immediately pledged a donation of USD1 million to reinforce peacekeeping facilities. These are all major achievements, as they reflect a strategic continuation of the dialogue and method of cooperation with Japan. How? It was Nakayama who suggested a multilateral forum where all countries in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia could hold annual defence dialogues.

By 2005, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus took place in Kuala Lumpur, with a goal of consolidating the defence diplomacy of ASEAN member states and expanding the ambit of ASEAN’s defence collaboration with external dialogue partners, including China, Japan, South Korea, the United States.

If one observes all of Mohamad’s frenzied activities and trips, including the current one to the US, it is clear that he knows how intricate the defence portfolio has been since the 1960s.

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This is why every single trip can be related to either ASEAN, FPDA, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, and the UN.

The ’18-wheeler’ strategy

I would term this Mohamad’s 18-wheeler defence diplomacy, the metaphorical large truck that he drives taking the previous cargo forward. The precious cargo is of course Malaysian sovereignty, regional equilibrium, and international peace.

And, this is all done in a way to further the parameters of the ‘Mahathir doctrine’, where battle ships should not linger in any parts of the South China Sea unless the goal is to jointly address the effects of piracy.

In this sense, Mohamad’s upcoming meetings with his counterparts in Manila and Malawi deserves more commendations.

Mohamad is trying to stabilise one of the world’s oldest conflicts that go all the way back to 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors first arrived to upend the religious and racial balance of Mindanao and Manila.

One should remember that Mohamad is a humanitarian at heart. He knows that Philippines and Mindanao Autonomous Region are constantly hammered by natural disasters.

Unless Malaysia and Philippines can work together, complex humanitarian emergencies can lead to endemic poverty, and hopelessness, all of which are fuel of terrorism and kidnap for ransom groups, that can spill over into Sabah and Sarawak.

So to his critics in UMNO and PAS who said that Mohamad hasn’t been doing his homework, they must realise that it is they who have been sleeping on the job as the opposition.

PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning head teaching fellow on China and the Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister at UNGA, 2018

September 29, 2018

Malaysia’s Prime Minister at UNGA, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad speaks to 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York (9/28/18) on September 28, 2018. PM Mahathir Mohamad speaks about Rohingya issue, United Nations Development goal at the UNGA 2018.

President of Malaysia Mahathir bin Mohamad gave his speech at The United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday at 11:45 am, (28-9-18) on September 28, 2018 — and it could be one of his most important speeches yet.

Live streaming of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad Speech to the UN General Assembly 9/28/2018.

#MahathirMohamad #Speech #UnitedNations

The following is Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s speech at the general debate of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York

Madam President,

1. I would like to join others in congratulating you on your election as the President of the Seventy-Third (73rd) Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

2. I am confident with your wisdom and vast experience; this session will achieve the objectives of the theme for this session. I assure you of Malaysia’s fullest support and cooperation towards achieving these noble goals.

3. Allow me to also pay tribute to your predecessor, His Excellency Miroslav Lajcak, for his dedication and stewardship in successfully completing the work of the 72nd Session of the General Assembly.

4. I commend the Secretary-General and the United Nations staff for their tireless efforts in steering and managing UN activities globally.

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5. In particular, I pay tribute to the late Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the UN from 1997 – 2006, who sadly passed away in August this year. Malaysia had a positively strong and active engagement with the UN during his tenure.

Madam President,

6. The theme of this 73rd Session of General Assembly, “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies” remains true to the aspiration of our founding fathers. The theme is most relevant and timely. It is especially pertinent in the context of the new Malaysia. The new Government of Malaysia, recently empowered with a strong mandate from its people, is committed to ensure that every Malaysian has an equitable share in the prosperity and wealth of the nation.

7. A new Malaysia emerged after the 14th General Election in May this year. Malaysians decided to change their government, which had been in power for 61 years, i.e., since independence. We did this because the immediate past Government indulged in the politics of hatred, of racial and religious bigotry, as well as widespread corruption. The process of change was achieved democratically, without violence or loss of lives.

8. Malaysians want a new Malaysia that upholds the principles of fairness, good governance, integrity and the rule of law. They want a Malaysia that is a friend to all and enemy of none. A Malaysia that remains neutral and non-aligned. A Malaysia that detests and abhors wars and violence. They also want a Malaysia that will speak its mind on what is right and wrong, without fear or favour. A new Malaysia that believes in co-operation based on mutual respect, for mutual gain. The new Malaysia that offers a partnership based on our philosophy of ‘prosper-thy-neighbour’. We believe in the goodness of cooperation, that a prosperous and stable neighbour would contribute to our own prosperity and stability.

9. The new Malaysia will firmly espouse the principles promoted by the UN in our international engagements. These include the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability. It is within this context that the new government of Malaysia has pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights. It will not be easy for us because Malaysia is multi-ethnic, multireligious, multicultural and multilingual. We will accord space and time for all to deliberate and to decide freely based on democracy.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speak during the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. NSTP/Video Grab UNWeb TV


Madam President,

10. When I last spoke here in 2003, I lamented how the world had lost its way. I bemoaned the fact that small countries continued to be at the mercy of the powerful. I argued the need for the developing world to push for reform, to enhance capacity building and diversify the economy. We need to maintain control of our destiny.


11. But today, 15 years later the world has not changed much. If at all the world is far worse than 15 years ago. Today the world is in a state of turmoil economically, socially and politically.

12. There is a trade war going on between the two most powerful economies. And the rest of the world feel the pain.

13. Socially new values undermine the stability of nations and their people. Freedom has led to the negation of the concept of marriage and families, of moral codes, of respect etc.

14. But the worse turmoil is in the political arena. We are seeing acts of terror everywhere. People are tying bombs to their bodies and blowing themselves up in crowded places. Trucks are driven into holiday crowds. Wars are fought and people beheaded with short knives. Acts of brutality are broadcast to the world live. Masses of people risk their lives to migrate only to be denied asylum, sleeping in the open and freezing to death. Thousands starve and tens of thousands die in epidemics of cholera.

15. No one, no country is safe. Security checks inconvenience travelers. No liquids on planes. The slightest suspicion leads to detention and unpleasant questioning.

16. To fight the “terrorists” all kinds of security measures, all kinds of gadgets and equipment are deployed. Big brother is watching. But the acts of terror continues.

17. Malaysia fought the bandits and terrorists at independence and defeated them. We did use the military. But alongside and more importantly we campaigned to win the hearts of minds of these people.

18. This present war against the terrorist will not end until the root causes are found and removed and hearts and minds are won.

19. What are the root causes? In 1948, Palestinian land was seized to form the state of Israel. The Palestinians were massacred and forced to leave their land. Their houses and farms were seized.

20. They tried to fight a conventional war with help from sympathetic neighbours. The friends of Israel ensured this attempt failed. More Palestinian land was seized. And Israeli settlements were built on more and more Palestinian land and the Palestinians are denied access to these settlements built on their land.

21. The Palestinians initially tried to fight with catapults and stones. They were shot with live bullets and arrested. Thousands are incarcerated.

22. Frustrated and angry, unable to fight a conventional war, the Palestinians resort to what we call terrorism.

23. The world does not care even when Israel breaks international laws, seizing ships carrying medicine, food and building materials in international waters. The Palestinians fired ineffective rockets which hurt no one. Massive retaliations were mounted by Israel, rocketing and bombing hospitals, schools and other buildings, killing innocent civilians including school children and hospital patients. And more.

24. The world rewards Israel, deliberately provoking Palestine by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

25. It is the anger and frustration of the Palestinians and their sympathisers that cause them to resort to what we call terrorism. But it is important to acknowledge that any act which terrify people also constitute terrorism. And states dropping bombs or launching rockets which maim and kill innocent people also terrify people. These are also acts of terrorism.

26. Malaysia hates terrorism. We will fight them. But we believe that the only way to fight terrorism is to remove the cause. Let the Palestinians return to reclaim their land. Let there be a state of Palestine. Let there be justice and the rule of law. Warring against them will not stop terrorism. Nor will out-terrorising them succeed.

27. We need to remind ourselves that the United Nations Organisation, like the League of Nations before, was conceived for the noble purpose of ending wars between nations.

28. Wars are about killing people. Modern wars are about mass killings and total destruction countrywide. Civilised nations claim they abhor killing for any reason. When a man kills, he commits the crime of murder. And the punishment for murder may be death.

29. But wars, we all know encourage and legitimise killing. Indeed the killings are regarded as noble, and the killers are hailed as heroes. They get medals stuck to their chest and statues erected in their honour, have their names mentioned in history books.

30. There is something wrong with our way of thinking, with our value system. Kill one man, it is murder, kill a million and you become a hero. And so we still believe that conflict between nations can be resolved with war.

31. And because we still do, we must prepare for war. The old adage says “to have peace, prepare for war”. And we are forever preparing for war, inventing more and more destructive weapons. We now have nuclear bombs, capable of destroying whole cities. But now we know that the radiation emanating from the explosion will affect even the country using the bomb. A nuclear war would destroy the world.

32. This fear has caused the countries of Europe and North America to maintain peace for over 70 years. But that is not for other countries. Wars in these other countries can help live test the new weapons being invented.

33. And so they sell them to warring countries. We see their arms in wars fought between smaller countries. These are not world wars but they are no less destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, whole countries devastated and nations bankrupted because of these fantastic new weapons.

34. But these wars give handsome dividends to the arms manufacturers and traders. The arms business is now the biggest business in the world. They profit shamelessly from the deaths and destruction they cause. Indeed, so-called peace-loving countries often promote this shameful business.

35. Today’s weapons cost millions. Fighter jets cost about 100 million dollars. And maintaining them cost tens of millions. But the poor countries are persuaded to buy them even if they cannot afford. They are told their neighbours or their enemies have them. It is imperative that they too have them.

36. So, while their people starve and suffer from all kinds of deprivations, a huge percentage of their budget is allocated to the purchase of arms. That their buyers may never have to use them bothers the purveyors not at all.

Madam President,

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37. In Myanmar, Muslims in Rakhine state are being murdered, their homes torched and a million refugees had been forced to flee, to drown in the high seas, to live in makeshift huts, without water or food, without the most primitive sanitation. Yet the authorities of Myanmar including a Nobel Peace Laureate deny that this is happening. I believe in non-interference in the internal affairs of nations. But does the world watch massacres being carried out and do nothing? Nations are independent. But does this mean they have a right to massacre their own people, because they are independent?

Madam President,

38. On the other hand, in terms of trade, nations are no longer independent. Free trade means no protection by small countries of their infant industries. They must abandon tariff restrictions and open their countries to invasion by products of the rich and the powerful. Yet the simple products of the poor are subjected to clever barriers so that they cannot penetrate the market of the rich. Malaysian palm oil is labelled as dangerous to health and the estates are destroying the habitat of animals. Food products of the rich declare that they are palm oil free. Now palm diesel are condemned because they are decimating virgin jungles. These caring people forget that their boycott is depriving hundreds of thousands of people from jobs and a decent life.

39. We in Malaysia care for the environment. Some 48% of our country remains virgin jungle. Can our detractors claim the same for their own countries?

Madam President,

40. Malaysia is committed to sustainable development. We have taken steps, for example in improving production methods to ensure that our palm oil production is sustainable. By December 2019, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard will become mandatory. This will ensure that every drop of palm oil produced in Malaysia will be certified sustainable by 2020.

Madam President,

41. All around the world, we observe a dangerous trend to inward-looking nationalism, of governments pandering to populism, retreating from international collaborations and shutting their borders to free movements of people, goods and services even as they talk of a borderless world, of free trade. While globalisation has indeed brought us some benefits, the impacts have proven to be threatening to the independence of small nations. We cannot even talk or move around without having our voices and movement recorded and often used against us. Data on everyone is captured and traded by powerful nations and their corporations.

42. Malaysia lauds the UN in its endeavours to end poverty, protect our planet and try to ensure everyone enjoys peace and prosperity. But I would like to refer to the need for reform in the organisation. Five countries on the basis of their victories 70 over years ago cannot claim to have a right to hold the world to ransom forever. They cannot take the moral high ground, preaching democracy and regime change in the countries of the world when they deny democracy in this organisation.

43. I had suggested that the veto should not be by just one permanent member but by at least two powers backed by three non-permanent members of the Security Council. The General Assembly should then back the decision with a simple majority. I will not say more.

44. I must admit that the world without the UN would be disastrous. We need the UN, we need to sustain it with sufficient funds. No one should threaten it with financial deprivation.

Madam President,

45. After 15 years and at 93, I return to this podium with the heavy task of bringing the voice and hope of the new Malaysia to the world stage. The people of Malaysia, proud of their recent democratic achievement, have high hopes that around the world – we will see peace, progress and prosperity. In this we look toward the UN to hear our pleas.

I thank you, Madam President.


Israel’s Prime Minister at  UNGA,  2018


Iran’s President Addresses UNGA, 2018

9/11–Al Qaeda Won?

September 12, 2018

9/11–Al Qaeda Won?

Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, the terrorists have definitively won the battle for the American mind.

“9/11 was a defining moment in the history of war and terrorism, but it was also the first attack conceived for and executed through the means of digital connection. It was to the internet what the Challenger explosion was to cable television, an event defined by the arrival of the way it was related, an act of war suited to technologically enabled mass storytelling and media saturation. The Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan once predicted that World War III would be a “guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” 9/11 was the beginning of that war.”

This year marks the 17th anniversary of 9/11, an awkward number offering an awkward amount of hindsight. The day is not quite memory, not yet history. Subsequent events during those 17 years—not only the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also the arrival of the smartphone and social media—have transformed its significance.

9/11 was a defining moment in the history of war and terrorism, but it was also the first attack conceived for and executed through the means of digital connection. It was to the internet what the Challenger explosion was to cable television, an event defined by the arrival of the way it was related, an act of war suited to technologically enabled mass storytelling and media saturation. The Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan once predicted that World War III would be a “guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” 9/11 was the beginning of that war.

T.E. Lawrence, who turned himself into the pop culture icon Lawrence of Arabia, was the great innovator of guerrilla information war in the 20th century. His best-known platitude held that “[t]he printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern commander.” His autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom provides the fine details of how he came to that understanding. Lawrence was sick, and in camp, in the sweltering heat of his fly-ridden tent, when it occurred to him that Carl von Clausewitz and the other great military theorists of earlier eras would have considered the war he was waging unwinnable. The Arab forces could not destroy the enemy, take the major strongholds, or break the courage of their opponents, which was how the great generals of the past had defined victory. The insight crept up on him: What if those definitions were all wrong? What if, instead of winning the war by the traditional definitions of victory, the definition of victory changed? “[A]s I pondered slowly, it dawned on me that we had won the Hejaz war,” Lawrence writes. “I brushed off the same flies once more from my face patiently, content to know that the Hejaz War was won and finished with: won from the day we took Wejh, if we had had wit to see it.” He didn’t need to win. He just needed to decide he had won and convince the world. The struggle was to change the definition of victory, to change the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves.

The term Lawrence gave to this kind of semantic warfare was diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It was a battle for the stories people tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of the stories that people tell.

We had to arrange [our soldiers’] minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men’s minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the battle passed there in the back; then the minds of the enemy nation waiting the verdict; and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle.

Diathetics is an extension of guerrilla warfare, in the sense that it is used by the weaker force against the stronger and uses the lines of communication against those who have laid them down. The sabotage of lines of communication turns the greatest strength of the more powerful force—the ability to convey information and materiel across distance—into vulnerability everywhere along the line. Rather than sabotage the lines of communication along the periphery, diathetics sabotages the network at the center, the source of the meaning being communicated.

Osama bin Laden understood diathetics instinctively and explicitly. “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods,” he told Mullah Mohammad Omar in a letter in June 2002. “In fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.” The front is cultural, the conflict over narrative.

The power of diathetical warfare increases as the means of mass communication expand. We are in the middle of the greatest expansion of mass communication in human history. Social media and the smartphone, with cameras, were not yet ubiquitous in 2001. But cable news had long before erased the distinction between news and entertainment. Reality television as a genre had just been invented. The internet had very recently become commonplace in the American home. 9/11 was the first news event that happened to everybody at once. It did not matter how distantly removed you were from Manhattan or the Pentagon; because of the instantaneous communication network, you were at 9/11 if you were at a screen. The events of 9/11 were inseparable from their recording.

The cultural front opened by 9/11 keeps widening, and the terms of the struggles along those fronts, as each new technology opens them, are almost impossible to recognize immediately. In 2015, Jeff Giesea published his famous essay on memetic warfare in the NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications. Despite its immense influence—it predicted, and possibly shaped, Russian techniques of disinformation in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, and Giesea went on to run significant elements of Trump’s election campaign—the essay’s key insight has not really been dealt with seriously. Russian meme factories achieved, with minimal expense and no direct violence, their country’s deepest foreign-policy aims: a sharp decline in U.S. influence in the world, the endangerment of the post-World War II alliances of the liberal order, and the humiliation of the notion of human rights. There has been no retaliation.

Memetic warfare is only the latest element of the diathetical struggle that has been ongoing since the arrival of the internet. The cultural front is along every point of the network—television, the press, movies, songs, sermons, advertising, and social media. Everything that gives meaning is a battleground. Diathetics is the rearrangement of the enemy’s mindset by spectacle and the means of its consumption. This is a new kind of war and a deeply confusing one. Confusion is its purpose. The problems of assessment are substantial. The line between what is military and what isn’t has blurred, and the cultural front seems ridiculous, beneath the dignity of the military and totally beyond the purview of soldiers anyway. Memetic wars, wars of popular culture, are ridiculous. That does not alter their effectiveness. A reality television star with the world’s most elaborate comb-over has helped achieve Russian foreign-policy aims.

Even to look at 9/11 as a work of culture, to investigate its significance, is fraught in itself. The occasion is sacred, suitable for solemn reflection. Real people really died. But as painful and grotesque and offensive as it may seem, if you want to understand America’s current vulnerability, you have to look at 9/11 as a show. It is a war show that the United States lost and continues to lose.

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Begin with a basic question: Why the Twin Towers? Before 1993, U.S. counterterrorism agencies did not consider the World Trade Center a likely target. They worried about water systems, transportation networks, and military installations. The World Trade Center was not a beloved or culturally important structure like the Empire State Building. It featured a pair of large, banal skyscrapers.


Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was the first to recognize the towers’ potential as symbols within a spectacle. He would have seen them first in the company of Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind sheik who preached in a mosque in New Jersey. From his neighborhood, the towers rose up across the waters, totems without faces. They were little more than objects of substantial mass.

Mass death was always at the core of Yousef’s vision for a terrorist act. After his arrival in New York, he initially cruised through neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, looking for ways to murder Jews in significant numbers. But he simply could not find a target of the necessary scale. Originally, Yousef wanted to flood the towers with cyanide, to convert them into death camps in the sky. The bomb used in the 1993 attack was constructed of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil but Ramzi Yousef also explored lacing the bomb with poison. A judge in his case assumed he had used sodium cyanide but that it had burned off from the heat of the explosion. But there was no forensic evidence Yousef ever managed to find the poisons he desired. Generally, his craftsmanship was poor: The cyanide burned off from the heat of the explosion. (Eventually, on 9/11, the towers came to resemble nothing so much as the smoking towers of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; the attack possessed from its inception the quality of a pocket Holocaust.)

It’s easy to forget that until 1993, until the World Trade Center was a target, terrorism and assassination and guerrilla warfare stood in direct antithesis to slaughter on an industrial scale. The specificity of the target had been at the heart of political murder for nearly a millennium. The original assassins were Ismaili Muslims, who killed rulers rather than armies. The capitalists and fascists and imperialists led subservient masses into meaningless death; the terrorists knew whom they killed. The essential nature of the propaganda of the deed was that it waged war against those responsible for the system rather than those who suffered under it. Russian anarchists believed that insurrectionary acts against the ruling classes would bring about revolution, but their targets were, as a rule, individuals. (There were exceptions, such as the bombing of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona in 1893, but they were rare.) Carlos the Jackal targeted OPEC leaders and the people who ran Zionist organizations. The forces of guerrilla warfare attached a strategic as well as a symbolic value to individual life. Their smaller numbers meant they could not waste themselves except at a high price.

Yousef saw that the World Trade Center’s brute scale, its sheer bulk, expressed better than any other building the banal dominance of modernity. His letter to the New York Times after the 1993 bombing explicitly described it as an attack from “the fifth battalion in the Liberation Army,” and the political movement to which he was an inheritor belonged to the Russian anarchists, Lawrence of Arabia, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, the June 2 movement in Germany, and Carlos the Jackal. It is essential to understand the necessary framework for guerrilla informational war: To wage diathetics, you have to belong to the culture you hope to distort, and you have to hate that culture at the same time. Diathetics can only be waged both inside and outside a culture; to know what effects a spectacle will have, you have to comprehend the context into which it will be received.

Lawrence was a prime example of an inside-outside man and so was Yousef. Yousef was not a good Muslim: He drank, womanized, never prayed, and never fasted. Almost everyone involved in the 9/11 conspiracy was stuck between the West and Islam. On Sept. 10, 2001, Mohammad Atta checked out of his hotel in Boston, rented a car, and drove with one of his co-conspirators, Abdul Aziz al-Omari, to Portland, Maine, where they shopped at Walmart and ate at Pizza Hut. No one knows why. Like salesmen in town on business, the Saudis left in Boston tried to call for prostitutes but didn’t end up hiring any because the prices were too high. Al Qaeda’s ideology was Islamist, but its techniques and ideas were Western.

After the 1993 attack, the symbolism of the World Trade Center took on a significance far beyond itself. Various dreams of its explosion scattered like a billion dark seeds over the global soil. “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” Biggie Smalls rapped. Because it had survived, the center became a point of pride for U.S. counterterrorism officials. After his capture, when Yousef was transferred on an FBI helicopter to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan for trial, the SWAT team took off his blindfold as they were flying down the Hudson River. “You see, it’s still standing,” one SWAT member said, indicating the World Trade Center.

“It wouldn’t be if we had had more money,” Yousef answered, shrugging.

In September 2000, New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had its 20th anniversary party in the Windows on the World banquet room. For al Qaeda, and for Islamist terrorism generally, Yousef’s career opened more than a possible target; it revealed the tantalizing possibilities of ambition against ambition, the scope of terrorist acts that matched the scale of the targets. This blaze of originality found fulfillment through two much duller men: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was Yousef’s maternal uncle, and bin Laden.

Mohammed had a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and had lived in the Philippines, Bosnia, and Qatar. He had traveled widely and conceived of the rejection of modernity as a calamity of the sky. Planes, like skyscrapers, were miraculous, inhuman, unnatural, and an affront to tradition itself and to the traditions of any people or creed—both tool of and symbol for the radical decentering of modern life. Originally, Mohammed imagined a version of his earlier Bojinka plot, in which he wanted to take 10 planes, one commandeered by himself, to the United States and make “a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all of the women and children passengers.” Yousef’s strike on the World Trade Center altered his ideas.

Sometime in the middle of 1996, Mohammed met with bin Laden at Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, and brought a portfolio of schemes, most of which involved a combination of planes and U.S. targets. For two years, Mohammed and bin Laden worked through the conspiracy in all its grand detail. These negotiations were similar in scope to those between a director and a producer: a compromise between the grandiosity of vision and the certainty of accomplishment. Bin Laden became the biggest celebrity after 9/11, but his prominence had little to do with his real role in the attack, being neither instigator nor creator nor performer. The audiences needed a supervillain, an evil genius. Somebody’s face had to be on the firing range targets. A face had to be on the urinal cakes.

Atta was simply an executor and had no role in the imagination of 9/11. His face suited the blankness of the act, though. His roommates in Hamburg recalled that he found the ordinary conversation of crowds unbearable: “Chaos, chaos,” he muttered at a screening of The Jungle Book as the crowd chatted before the show. For his meals, he would take whole boiled potatoes, skin them, smash the potatoes into a mound, and then for a week consume the cold potatoes, leaving the fork in the mound when he put the mess back in the refrigerator. The only trait that anyone recalled about Atta was that he was organized and punctual. Yet he left the Comfort Inn in Portland at 5:33 a.m. for a 6 o’clock flight and made it through security just 15 minutes before takeoff. He nearly missed the appointment for his own death. Stage fright.

From the moment the first plane hit the first tower, the level of recorded information about 9/11, as an event, was unprecedented. Those closest to the event itself were, in a sense, those most removed from its meaning—distance being one of the defining attributes of informational guerrilla war. In the case of 9/11, the people who knew what was going on with the most clarity were those living farthest from the event itself. Bin Laden, in the mountains of Afghanistan, wanted to watch the scenario unfolding live. Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, his chief video technician, couldn’t manage a strong enough signal. They listened on the radio instead, to the BBC’s Arabic service, with some 50 of bin Laden’s men.


The heroism of the first responders was that they went into the catastrophe with all that they did not understand. “I think the entire world knew more than we did,” Jules Naudet claimed in his 2002 documentary, 9/11, following New York City firemen on the day of the attack. “We didn’t have a clue what was going on outside our lobby.” The tower itself was a meaningless eye in a hurricane of meaning. The most extraordinary scene in the whole of 9/11 is the firemen arriving at the tower and opening an elevator. The people inside, escaping, look annoyed. For everyone else, the world had changed. For them, it was still an ordinary day full of ordinary bullshit, such as being stuck in elevators.

The fact that 9/11 was a media event was even clear to those in the towers at the time. Stephen Tompsett, a computer scientist attending the Risk Waters conference at the Windows on the World restaurant, emailed his wife, Dorry, from his Blackberry: “Watch CNN. Need updates.” Even to those in the towers when the planes hit, what mattered was on television. Greg Trevor, in the public relations office on the 68th floor, saw fire and glass tumbling outside the window. When his phone rang, he picked it up.

“Hi, I’m with NBC national news,” the voice said. “If you could hold on for about five minutes, we’re going to put you on for a live phone interview.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t. We’re evacuating the building.”

“But this will only take a minute.”

“I’m sorry, you don’t understand. We’re leaving the building right now.”

“But, but, this is NBC national news.” Didn’t he understand? This was no affiliate. This was network.

By 8:51 a.m., Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show declared: “We wanna go live right now and show you a picture of the World Trade Center.” The second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03. That day, cable news achieved its fulfillment as a format, mimicking traumatic memory. The clip rolled over and over. A smoking tower. A plane flying into a tower. The clip rolled over and over, with new clips added, fantasies spiraling from fantasies, commentaries piling up, voices crashing into voices. Television lurched into collective mind, creating the event by playing and replaying, working and reworking, the moving image.

The manager of a Duane Reade drugstore just north of the World Trade Center said on the day of the attack: “The only thing I sold today was cameras. Within an hour of the first initial hit, we sold 60 to 100 cameras.” Rather than hit the location of mass media—midtown Manhattan—the 9/11 attackers chose to strike within viewing distance. A terrorist act without spectators is meaningless. Its triumph is in its recognition, and, even more, the size of its triumph is the size of its recognition. Recognition requires a slight distance.

The view was worth more than any public statement: the sweeping cords of the Brooklyn Bridge, the icon of American will and know-how, the achievement of the once impossible, a bridge more than a mile long, the beginning of American greatness, containing in its history all the strangeness of America, ending in catastrophe inveigled in desolation.

Then, from the top of the tower, in imperfect focus because of the range, the grainy image of a man tumbling through the air, leaping into death, discontinuous, twisted, senseless, angelic, tormented. No one could fathom him.

The towers fell, and a great white spume poured through the city, swallowing the faces, covering all the cameras in an omnivorous white fade. The screens went blank.

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Diathetical warfare is a struggle for meaning. In the case of 9/11, that struggle began instantly, and it continues to this day. The terrorists manufactured, as they intended, a spectacle of interrelated images. These were created not just by traditional media but also by individuals sharing media over the internet. In 2001, the majority of Americans didn’t have the internet, and it worked by dial-up connection. Most press organizations had just opened digital venues. Nonetheless, 9/11 revealed the new media in all its world-consuming power: instantaneous communication as a basic fact of life. The first critical reaction to 9/11 took place on United Airlines Flight 93. Its passengers were the first Americans to grasp that terrorism itself had changed, that the strategy of simply waiting quietly for others to negotiate was no longer available. “I know we’re all going to die,” one passenger, Thomas Burnett, told his wife. “There’s three of us who are going to do something about it.” Todd Beamer famously declared, “Let’s roll,” before he died living up to its meaning.


The misinterpretation of 9/11 began before the smoke had cleared. At Booker Elementary School, President George W. Bush, informed of the catastrophe, continued to read The Pet Goat like a boy waiting to be told what to do. His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, held up a sign in big block letters so that the press wouldn’t notice: “Don’t say anything yet.” Bush read along, the students slowly enunciating each word: “A girl got a pet goat.” His flummoxed face was defeat itself. “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” he told the press later, using the one word he could not afford to use. Then he turned bin Laden into an outlaw from the movies: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” Bush and bin Laden were raised on the same shows. Bin Laden’s favorite show as a boy was Fury—the story of an orphan child who is the only one who can ride a wild stallion and who saves guest stars from trouble episode after episode. What could be better for him than to be as beautiful and free as an Old West outlaw wanted dead or alive? Did he not dream of being an untamable thing?

But it would be foolish to blame America’s diathetical defeat on Bush’s casual incompetence or bin Laden’s narrative instinct. Diathetical warfare uses the collective storytelling system against its creators. That’s what makes it so hard even to perceive. The goals of diathetics remain the goals of guerrilla warfare. The first aim is to provoke a massive overreaction. The larger goal is to reorient the behavior of the enemy, to alter the mindset to a state of despair and counterproductive reaction.

The massive overreaction was inevitable given the brute size and scope of the media and the collective unfamiliarity with its effects. Perspective becomes impossible in an environment of media saturation, or, rather, perspective is irrelevant—9/11 could not be just another act of war any more than the O.J. Simpson trial could be just another case. Distortion is at the heart of the disaster. In 2001, heart disease killed 700,142 Americans, accidents killed 101,537, and influenza killed 62,034. Sugar is vastly more dangerous to public safety than terrorism. In hindsight, 9/11 was not the most important historical event that year. In a hundred years, 2001 will be remembered for the launch of the 3G network in Japan and the entrance of China in the World Trade Organization—the advent of an instant global communications network and nascent Chinese power were both events with much more long-term consequences than what we call 9/11. Even to mention these facts seems distasteful, as if I’m missing the point. That size of meaning is the core victory of the diathetic effect. “Everything changed on 9/11” is the one thing everyone can agree on. A victory for the United States would have been for nothing to have changed.

Diathetics works. For the cost of the lives of 19 terrorists, al Qaeda sparked the global war on terrorism, with its subsequent $2.1 trillion cost and the loss of thousands of American lives. More importantly, they changed the way America thought of itself and the way the world thought of America. They made powerful people believe that the war against Islamist terrorism, a technologically incompetent fringe hiding in caves in the most remote locations in the world, presented a threat comparable to the fascist war machines of World War II. They convinced America that the only way to protect itself from this threat was to suspend civil liberties. Seventeen years later, America is stumbling back from the Middle East, believed by its own people and by the rest of the world to be a defeated occupier. The Taliban is still a force in Afghanistan. The central proposition of radical Islamist movements since Jamal al-Din al-Afghani—that Islam was anti-modernity—was proved to everyone’s satisfaction. The consequences of these changes in mindset were vast, elaborating themselves in ways that would have been inconceivable to bin Laden or to anyone else.

Why did America tell itself such a disastrous story about 9/11?

At the core of the failure was American exceptionalism, the assumption, which in my experience no American escapes entirely, that what happens in the United States matters more than what happens elsewhere. American exceptionalism is a form of political myopia, making perspective nearly impossible, even among the most educated.

The legacy of World War II was also decisive. The military narrative of the liberation of Europe was less important than the story of the reconstruction—America’s overwhelming might underpinning a liberal order. The Bush administration dreamed of a war of liberation, a war against fascism, a war to build liberal democracy, just the kind of war their fathers had waged. The neoconservative fantasies were plugged into images borrowed from documentaries of Europe from their childhoods. From that fantasy, they were able to conjure whatever arguments were needed, even though the struggle against al Qaeda was not even against a state, never mind a system of government.

The concentration of energy that drew itself around 9/11 emerged from so many more deeply rooted American narratives, too: the glorification of war in and of itself, the need for redemption from Vietnam, cop shows and blockbusters and the single-minded structure of their storytelling—good guys kill bad guys. As the former CIA agent Amaryllis Fox put it in her viral video: “You are the empire, and we are Luke and Han.” Straight racism and simple xenophobia contributed, too.

Notice that some of these narratives are shallow and ignorant and some of them are real and substantial. Some belong to the educated elite. Some are lowest common denominators. Some are fictions; some aren’t. None of those distinctions matter—diathetical warfare preys on the whole of a collective mythology, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. When Bush said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”—a perfect statement from al Qaeda’s point of view—the phrasing emerged out of movies he had seen and books he had read and conversations he had heard.

The museum commemorating the events of 9/11 is a more durable failure: It looks like a Holocaust memorial, which is exactly what Ramzi Yousef intended. The face of Mohammad Atta is nowhere; therefore it is everywhere. A quote from Virgil’s Aeneid—“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”—has been inscribed on the wall. The dreams of the terrorists are fulfilled: Their victims have given them entry into history.

To this day, the border guards at John F. Kennedy International Airport face all day, every day, a sign that calls for them to remember 9/11. Nothing could define U.S. diathetical defeat more completely.

Walmart sold 116,000 flags on 9/11. In Iraq, key chains appeared with pictures of the Twin Towers crumbling soon after. A friend of mine returned from Iraq with a poster of bin Laden riding a unicorn with a Kalashnikov rifle in each hand. That poster, not the position U.S. forces hold in the Baluchistan hills, is the reason that victory is impossible in Afghanistan.


9/11 exposed, more than any other event, the fundamental vulnerability of the United States, which was not at its borders but within its culture. The vulnerability lies within the greatest glory of American life, its explosive variety of expression, its sanctity for the freedom of the press, its movies and debates and sermons and songs and advertising, its bottomless need for drama, its constant invention and reinvention of itself. The conditions that made that vulnerability possible have only intensified over the past 17 years. The fracturing of media, the expansion of the scope of information, the role of screens in our lives—these have all increased exponentially. The rise of social media and the smartphone means that the diathetical battlefield is more dominant than ever.

The biggest vulnerability the United States faces in the diathetical struggle is that it refuses to recognize its vulnerability. The effects of social media have become apparent, but the U.S. government, the media, and the tech sector have shown exactly no will to defend themselves from the consequences. Controlling social media is a matter of national security. Those in power in the United States are simply too old to see it. That control will have to be in the hands of elected officials. The creators of the vast networks along which guerrilla informational war has been waged have shown, over and over again, that they possess no loyalties beyond their financial interests. There are few patriots in Silicon Valley, at least insofar as patriotism conflicts with self-interest. Values are not scalable.

Meanwhile, it is inevitable that other countries will engage in their own cultural operations against the United States. The logic is impeccable: Why attack U.S. soldiers and diplomats if you can attack the State Department? Why attack the State Department if you can help elect a president who won’t bother to hire anyone at the State Department? Eventually countries friendly to the United States will have to participate. If they don’t, only America’s enemies will. Already, in its tariff war, Canada has targeted individual districts on the basis of their political representatives. Why not start using social media to exert the same pressure? If U.S. opinion, and hence U.S. power, is for sale and cheaply, Canada will have to buy. The behavior of the United States is simply too integral to its national interests. Why wouldn’t anyone do the same?

Diathetical warfare is the battle for hearts and minds, not other people’s but our own. The only real defense against guerrilla informational war is clarity, the rarest and most precious of victories. That struggle involves humility and self-awareness—commodities perpetually in short supply and in deteriorating condition. The campaign for clarity requires more strength of purpose, more perseverance, more intelligence than bombing. No wonder it is so rarely undertaken.

Stephen Marche is a novelist and essayist who lives in Toronto. His most recent book is The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the Twenty-First Century.

ASEAN’s Role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

June 28, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 425

ASEAN’s Role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Ever since US President Donald Trump announced the Indo-Pacific strategy at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in November, 2017 at Danang, Vietnam, the leaders from of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have been anxious trying to figure out what it really means and to understand the possible long-term regional implications.

Eight months have elapsed and the US has not yet come out with detailed strategic and operational plans, except for some outlines. The US State Department views the Indo-Pacific strategy in an all-encompassing way, which includes security, economic, and social aspects. The Defense Department’s version, however, puts more emphasis on strategic matters. Both share key commonalities of an ideal Indo-Pacific region that must be free from any coercion, open for free and competitive trade, abide by rules of law and universal principles. Emphasis is also placed by both on commercial governance as well as high-quality investment in infrastructure and connectivity.


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At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore  Defense Secretary General James Mattis reiterated that ASEAN centrality remains vital to the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore, Defense Secretary General James Mattis highlighted four pivotal elements of this strategy. First, it has to do with the maritime commons, which requires capacity and capabilities building in naval and law enforcement. It is aimed at improving monitoring and projection of maritime borders and interests within the region. Second, it is about expanding interoperability and establishing a network of allies and partners working together to increase mutual trust between militaries and economies. Third, it aims at strengthening the rule of law, civil society and transparent governance, promoting sustainable economic development. Finally, it foresees an increasing role of private sector in promoting development and finance institutions to be “better, more responsive partners.” Transfer of knowledge and technology with end-to-end solutions would also be front and center to this approach without abandoning economic sovereignty of recipient nations.

The essence of US Indo-Pacific strategy has been aptly summarized by General Mattis, who called it a subset of the US broader security strategy: “Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” he declared. Indeed, the Pacific Command, which oversees security stretching both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has changed its name to the Indo-Pacific Command.

During the informal meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue, Gen Mattis praised the group’s consensus-making process, which aims to avoid confrontation. He reiterated that ASEAN centrality remains vital to the success of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Over the past months, Australia, Japan, and India, which are democratic allies of the United States, have also put forward their visions of Indo-Pacific strategy. They comprise similar features to the US concept, emphasizing an international rules-based order and norms, transparency, governance, maritime security, and infrastructure. Furthermore, they also pinpointed ASEAN centrality as a driving force for forging closer cooperation in the region.

However, Japan and India also have broadened the Indo-Pacific’s geographic footprints to include not only the two oceans — Indian and Pacific — but also the two continents of Asia and Africa. Obviously, as major Asian economies, they would like to connect the Asian continent and business opportunities with Africa, which has enjoyed impressive growth over the past two decades.

As ASEAN has been accorded a higher profile by major powers, the 10 member-states are also under constant pressure to respond to their clarion calls and prove their mettle. Given the rapid shifts of the regional and international environment, ASEAN has to be more proactive and adopt forward-looking positions on key transnational issues such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, extremism, and cyber security. Most importantly, it must ensure that no one nation should be allowed to dominate the region. This appeal comes at the time when ASEAN is building up its regional security architecture, reliance on its existing security mechanism, and security partnerships.

For the time being, only three countries — Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam — have expressed their individual opinions about the perceived role of ASEAN in the overall Indo-Pacific scheme. Obviously, as the group’s biggest economy, Indonesia has been the leading voice on the Indo-Pacific concept. In 2013, former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa proposed that ASEAN and its dialogue partners committed to peace-building and non-use of force to further prevent conflicts in the region, but received lukewarm support. However, the government under President Joko Widodo has decided to revive the idea again after Trump’s announcement of Indo-Pacific with a new emphasis that rebranded Indonesia as a maritime power.

To ensure continuity, Jakarta is working closely with Thailand, the upcoming chair of ASEAN. Bangkok will coordinate all ASEAN positions and prepare a report for the members next year. At the 32nd ASEAN summit, the leaders discussed the Indo-Pacific concept but did not come up with any position. In the chairman’s statement, it simply said that ASEAN looked forward to further discussing the new concept.

Granted the lack of details from Washington, ASEAN senior officials quickly filled the gap. They have already discussed and exchanged notes on points of convergence that need to be included in the ASEAN Indo-Pacific version. These are some of elements: free and open, rules based, complementary, ASEAN-led mechanism, ASEAN centrality, connectivity, infrastructure, inclusiveness, and not involving a third party.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based ASEAN diplomats have been informed by the US State Department that the details of US Indo-Pacific would soon be available. President Donald Trump is scheduled to take part in the 13th East Asian Summit in early November in Singapore. He expects to outline the contour of the Indo-Pacific strategy himself.

Despite President Trump’s decisions to revoke several of the international commitments and cooperative frameworks of his predecessor Barack Obama, including the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), he has maintained existing programs and activities related to US-ASEAN bilateral cooperation. With continued strong bipartisan support, Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be value-added to further strengthening the US interoperability and networks of security partners in the region.

All in all, it is incumbent on ASEAN to reach out to the United States, Japan, India, and Australia to ascertain that all proposed elements are synergized and most importantly, the emerging broader strategy would place ASEAN in the center.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University. He can be contacted at

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The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

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Fighting Piracy on the ASEAN Seas

March 16, 2018

Fighting Piracy on the ASEAN Seas

by Tai Wei Lim

Almost half of the world’s pirate attacks happen in Southeast Asia. Among the most common locations for attacks is the Strait of Malacca, where tankers carry oil from the Gulf region to China, Japan, and South Korea, and via Singapore’s refineries.

As piracy becomes more prevalent, collaboration across the ASEAN region is more necessary than ever.

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Ever since oil was discovered in the Gulf area in the 20th century, the maritime route from the Gulf region to East Asia passing through the Strait of Malacca has been the most important passageway for East-West global trade. A recent increase in piracy incidents highlights the need for effective ways to ensure the security of oil shipping in the region.

Malacca Strait, Choke Point for Oil Shipping

The Persian Gulf region supplies about a third of the world’s oil and fulfils most of the major Northeast Asian countries’ (China, Japan, and South Korea, or CJK) oil needs. Oil makes up a large percentage of the Gulf region’s exports overseas and constitutes the crucial backbone of the Gulf economies.

Traveling between Sumatra (to the west of the Strait of Malacca) and the Gulf of Thailand/Malay Peninsula, oil tankers carry their precious cargo to refineries in Singapore for processing. Singapore’s oil refineries on Jurong Island, west of the main island, are some of the largest in the world.

Forty-one percent of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2003 occurred in Southeast Asia.

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Alternative routes exist, but they add a couple of days to the trip. The fact that the Strait of Malacca is such a convenient, thus popular, route also makes it a choke point for oil shipping.

Oil from the Gulf area destined for Northeast Asia is transported through places like the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea before reaching its destination. Besides adverse natural conditions, tankers also run the risk of encountering manmade dangers like piracy.

Forty-one percent of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2003 occurred in Southeast Asia. Pirates operate using small boats and skiffs that are fast and can hide easily in littoral zones. They use small arms for speedy operations, which include kidnapping for ransom, stealing oil from ships, robbing crew members, stealing cargo, and even stealing entire ships and repainting them for sale. Although tankers are only one of the categories of ships targeted by pirates, the oil they transport accounts for very real strategic stakes.

Efforts to Secure Maritime Trade

Since WWII, the US has widely been credited as the security guarantor of Pacific maritime trade, with its 7th Fleet based in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. The Americans were engaged in an alliance with Japan in the 1960s and kept the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) open for trade. The US was considered a benign superpower, welcomed by countries to keep regional and global trade going.

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More countries have developed an interest in Maritime Southeast Asia in recent years. The US and Japan have been lobbying for the opportunity to increase naval presence and to have direct patrols in the region. India has a naval fleet at the mouth of the Andaman Sea, just before it extends into the Strait of Malacca.

The Indian Navy is watching and extending its influence in the Strait of Malacca not only in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, but also on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are geographically close to Southeast Asia. As for the Chinese, they have organized naval drills with their Malaysian partners in the Strait of Malacca.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has resolved to manage piracy in the region and is making important collective efforts to do so. When all the navies of Southeast Asia work together in tasks like patrolling, they constitute a formidable force that can deter piracy.

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The Malacca Straits Coordinated Patrol (MALSINDO) is reflective of such efforts to use joint resources to repel piracy. MALSINDO was started by the littoral states in the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, in 2004. It is complemented by the “Eye in the Sky” (EiS) mechanism, which is one of the most sophisticated air-based patrol systems in the region.

ASEAN has resolved to manage piracy in the region and is making important collective efforts to do so. The circle of states and countries involved in anti-piracy activities is now expanding. Since naval personnel from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore gathered in 2008 to start the Malacca Strait Patrols Information System, Thailand has also begun participating in air patrols.

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In addition to short-term mitigation measures, funding should also be allocated to training that leads to the long-term professionalization of maritime police units. For instance, the Malaysian government has contributed funds to the World Maritime University and the IMO International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) to expand the infrastructure of these institutions. It has also dispatched officers to study at the schools.

Preventing a New Surge in Piracy

The latest statistics indicate that rates of piracy and armed robberies at sea went up again in 2017. According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre, possible factors include complacency among crews and a decrease in surveillance by littoral countries, but the overall situation is much improved when compared to the 1990s.

Pirates, for their part, are also becoming more sophisticated in their operations. They have evolved from generic groups of criminals to vast webs of operatives with specialized skills. Some of these specialized roles include counterfeiters, informants embedded in shipping companies, ship brokers, robbers, and middlemen who assemble all the stakeholders (and, of course, the pirates themselves).


These pirate teams are small and can carry out surgical operations. After they transfer the stolen goods onto their own vessels, they ship the goods to other port cities, sometimes with fake documentation, to sell them.

Anti-piracy measures are one area of policy on which almost all nations in the region can agree. All of the countries benefit from the mitigation of strife, as well as increased maritime safety. Success in anti-piracy efforts can also lead to the region taking on more responsibility in global maritime security.

So far, each ASEAN country has been able to proceed with its anti-piracy contributions according to its own national needs and at a pace that it is comfortable with. That ASEAN is a collective that seeks consensus is one of its strengths. The problem of piracy in the Strait of Malacca is too large for any single littoral state to resolve. As piracy continually reinvents itself, it takes all the stakeholders working together to combat this problem in one of the world’s most congested spaces.

Tai Wei Lim is an adjunct research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

This was written for Asia Global Online, a publication of the Asia Global Institute, at Hong Kong University.