Jihadist Terrorism back in Southeast Asia


August 21, 2017

Jihadist Terrorism back in Southeast Asia

by Zachary Abuza, US National War College

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for Terrorists in Philippines

Within any Salafi-jihadist organisation there lies a debate over strategy: should the organisation target the enemy at home or the one further afield, like Western backers of the government? In Southeast Asia this debate has erupted in recent years. 

The Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) spent years engaging in sectarian domestic conflict before taking up a larger-scale international approach with the 2002 Bali bombings. But that attack was largely at the impetus of Al Qaeda, and from 2003–09 JI only managed to perpetrate roughly one major attack against a Western tourist venue annually. And with each attack, more of the organisation was dismantled.

 

This provoked a debate within JI between advocates of the Al Qaeda line and proponents of a sectarian conflict-based strategy. Neither side prevailed. Despite attempts to bridge the divide and establish a training camp in Aceh, JI splintered in 2010, and became a more or less defunct organisation which was incapable of military operations.

The 2014 emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) revitalised terrorist networks in Southeast Asia. Since 2014, a number of IS-inspired attacks and plots have been perpetrated following recruitment efforts by Indonesian and Malaysian leaders in Raqqa. But the majority of militants from the region still remain preoccupied with the far enemy and with joining IS. An estimated 1000 Southeast Asians have traveled to Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the fact that many traveled with their families, or ceremoniously burned their passports, suggests they had no intention of ever returning.

Many wanted to be part of the caliphate, attracted by IS promises and slick propaganda. Some simply saw themselves as being too weak at present to take on their government back home. Others perceived fighting with IS as a way to burnish their jihadi credentials and gain military skills before returning home to focus on the domestic enemy.

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Groups and cells across Southeast Asia declared ‘bay’ah’ — an oath of allegiance — to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But IS did not recognise any Southeast Asian cell or group until January 2016, when IS referred to Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf as ‘sheikh’, and called on other groups that had pledged ‘bay’ah’ to IS to fall under his leadership. That recognition allowed militants in the region to once again re-orient themselves towards the domestic enemy as they sought to establish a ‘wiliyat’ — a province of the caliphate.

This movement escalated following a mid-2016 video produced by IS central media that called on Southeast Asian recruits to travel to Mindanao or to engage in operations in the region if they could not travel to Syria. The trip to Syria has become more perilous with greater international cooperation among security forces. Hundreds of Southeast Asian recruits had been turned back by Turkish authorities, including 430 Indonesians alone.

The recent success of IS-pledged militants in tying down the Armed Forces of the Philippines for over two months will further attract followers and recruits. Sieging cities on two occasions, they have proven themselves as committed jihadists, willing to take the fight to the Philippine government. Marawi demonstrated the utility of targeting the domestic enemy. That in itself will attract foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and further afield. And with the Philippine military weak and spread thin, more attacks make both tactical and strategic sense.

The pogroms from Myanmar will also provide a new pool of talent to recruit from and networks to penetrate. The ongoing sectarian cleansing against the 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar has led to the deaths of over 600 and the displacement of over 75,000. The situation is growing more dire by the day with some 140,000 living in squalid internally displaced person camps, and over 40,000 others currently displaced by pogroms, much of which have been caused by Myanmar’s security forces.

Indonesian authorities have now broken up two terrorist plots to blow up the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. Recently, an armed militant group, the Harakat al-Islamiyah (HAY), has begun operations against Myanmar’s security forces, at the same time that IS has begun to reference the Rohingya in its (albeit diminished) media. There are signs that HAY is trying to recruit from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, with a surge in arrests of Bangladeshi nationals across the region.

The July 2017 decision by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to ban Hizbut Tahrir is also likely to inflame the anger of Islamist militants in Indonesia. While Widodo is rightfully concerned about conveyor groups — such as Hizbut Tahrir — the ban is likely to put the Indonesian government back in the cross hairs. The Indonesian government’s threat to ban the messaging app Telegram, resulted in the company removing 55 IS channels, another thing likely to incur the wrath of militants in the region and get them to refocus their energies towards the domestic government.

Image result for Malaysian Isis

Further, there are several hundred terrorism suspects in Southeast Asian prisons, including over 200 in Indonesia alone. Most will be released in the coming years, and they will be unlikely to travel. And though Indonesia touts its de-radicalisation program, it is not compulsory and its prisons have long been key nodes of recruitment and indoctrination.

The loss of the caliphate has led to a shift in attention back to the domestic enemy in Southeast Asia. Until a militant Salafist group emerges from the embers of IS, the more distant enemies will recede in the strategic thinking of Southeast Asian militants.

 

Zachary Abuza is Professor of National Security Strategy at the US National War College. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense, National Defense University, or the National War College. Follow him @ZachAbuza.

 

Human trafficking: Malaysia moves out of US’ Tier 2 watch list


June 28, 2017

Human trafficking: Malaysia moves out of US’ Tier 2 watch list

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for state department human rights reports 2016 Malaysia
Human Rights–More needs to be done

 

Malaysia has moved out of the “Tier 2 watch list” in the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP).

“Countries on the Tier 2 list are countries that do not fully meet the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.”

However, being on the Tier 2 watch list subscribes to the same definition above, in addition to having a significant increase in the absolute number of victims and failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to prevent human trafficking, among other yardsticks.

“The government (of Malaysia) demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Malaysia was upgraded to Tier 2.”

The government demonstrated increasing efforts by expanding trafficking investigations, prosecutions and convictions,” the TIP report states. However, the report noted that efforts to protect victims of human trafficking were “largely inadequate”.

It noted that newly implemented laws to shelter victims while providing free movement and right to employment were flawed due to bureaucratic delays.

“Of the 1,558 victims identified, the government conducted only 106 risk assessments and ultimately granted six victims work visas and 12 special immigration passes for freedom of movement. An additional 28 victims were approved for freedom of movement, but delays in obtaining required passports from their home countries meant that they either had returned home or remained waiting at the end of the reporting period,” reads the report.

The report urged Malaysia to improve on the implementation of laws related to human trafficking and to smoothen the process to allow victims freedom of movement and employment. The TIP is a diplomatic tool by the US, used to engage with other governments on methods to tackle human trafficking. It is published annually.

Malaysia was placed on the “Tier 2 watch list” between 2010 and 2016, save for 2014 when the country was placed on the “Tier 3” list, alongside countries such as North Korea and Libya.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has criticised the report for having whitewashed Malaysia’s poor to mediocre record on combating human trafficking for the second year in a row.

“The reality is that Malaysian officials identify very few victims compared to the numbers present in Malaysia. Foreign workers from Southeast and South Asia are debt-bonded and controlled, and the government’s efforts to shelter and care for victims is really sub-par and marred by bureaucratic red-tape,” Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson (photo), said in a statement today.

Robertson said Malaysia only needs to look next door to Thailand to see how to run an effective shelter system. Yet, the government was instead busy outsourcing its responsibilities to NGOs and then dragging its feet on providing the funding needed.

However, he said, in adopting that approach, Malaysia was aligning with the poor practices of Cambodia in dealing with trafficking victims.

“Malaysia has also made no effort to untangle wholly different concepts of ‘people smuggling’ from human trafficking in Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law, leaving frontline officials with a buffet line choice of whether to designate a person as an illegal immigrant or a trafficking victim.

“Not surprisingly, effective identification of trafficking victims falters in all but the most obvious cases, and the Malaysian anti-trafficking efforts stumble at the first hurdle. Amendments to the law in 2015 to create an inter-agency committee are far from sufficient to deal with the larger problems the law creates,” Robertson said.

Malaysia’s failure to prosecute lambasted

He also lambasted the Malaysian government’s failure to prosecute Malaysian officials for their involvement in the Rohingya smuggling camps, which he said was a testament to odious impunity to commit trafficking abuses, and demonstrates a fundamental lack of political will by the Malaysian government.

“It’s a joke to say that ‘investigation is continuing’ into the Rohingya cases when, for all intents and purposes, the investigations have finished in Malaysia and Thailand.

“Corruption of Malaysian officials, failures to identify victims, overcrowded shelters, moderate reforms not yet implemented – these are all indications of a problem still not fully addressed.”

Thus, he said, it is no exaggeration to say the section on Malaysia undermines the credibility of the TIP report. Robertson urged the US Congress to call Secretary Tillerson up to Capitol Hill and demand for an explanation.

“Progress can constitute many things, but calling a move from near zero to 10 percent still means that you’ve got 90 percent of the way to go – a fact which seems to be lost on whoever decided to upgrade Malaysia’s ranking to Tier 2.

“In fact, some of the justifications for ‘progress’ in Malaysia’s record are as clear as mud, and would be laughable if the rights issues at hand were not so serious,” he added.

ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump


May 1, 2017

Today's WorldView

by Ishaan Tharoor

ASEAN Chair and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte to meet Donald Trump in Washington DC

Over the weekend, the White House announced that President Trump had invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for a visit to Washington, following what was deemed a “very friendly conversation” over the phone between Trump and his counterpart in Manila.

Despite the close ties between the United States and the Philippines, the move surprised Trump’s critics and allies. In his 10 months in power, Duterte has become one of Asia’s most controversial leaders. He has presided over a vicious drug war that has seen thousands killed by extrajudicial hit squads — encouraged, say critics, by Duterte’s explicit orders. Last week, a Filipino lawyer filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court, accusing Duterte and 11 other Filipino officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity. (Duterte has shrugged off the filing and said it will not deter his campaign.)

The complaint takes into account the killings of 9,400 people stretching back to 1988, when Duterte became the Mayor of the southern city of Davao and began making his reputation as a tough guy willing to do anything to crack down on crime. “The situation in the Philippines reveals a terrifying, gruesome and disastrous continuing commission of extrajudicial executions or mass murder,” read the complaint. An estimated 8,000 people have been killed since Duterte became President last summer (2016).

None of this seemed to faze the White House. In the readout of the phone call, the only mention of Duterte’s astonishing record of violence seemed to be a positive one. It said that the two leaders “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world.”

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did his best to evade the thrust of the question when asked on ABC’s “This Week” if human rights were no longer a concern for the Trump Administration.

“Absolutely not,” responded Priebus. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get.”

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

Mourners carry the coffin of a person shot dead by unidentified gunmen north of Manila on April 8. (Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency)

The importance of securing strong Filipino support in dealing with North Korea is highly debatable. But administration officials indicated that the overture to Duterte may be part of a broader and much-needed mending of fences.

“The White House statement could be seen as implicit support, but perhaps is better understood as offering common ground for engaging with Duterte,” said Natalie Sambhi, a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Center in Australia, to The Post.

U.S.-Filipino relations took a turn for the worse last year, Duterte’s first in office and the final one for Barack Obama.

“The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs,” reported my colleagues. “Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to ‘go to hell’ and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for ‘son of a bitch’ or ‘son of a whore’ when addressing the then-U. S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a ‘colorful guy.‘ ”

(Obama is hardly the sole target of Duterte’s notoriously salty language: He used similar words for Pope Francis, too, and has sparked global headlines with rape jokes, admiring references to Adolf Hitler, boasts about mass killing and an insistence at one point that he would eat the livers of suspected terrorists. Even Trump was on the receiving end: “Donald Trump is a bigot, I am not,” Duterte told the Associated Press last year.)

The tensions saw Duterte publicly drift toward China. In a speech in Beijing last year, he told his Chinese audience that “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He has inked billions of dollars of deals with China, Japan and other countries in the region. As my colleague Emily Rauhala wrote earlier this year, Duterte is playing an opportunistic game, wooing all whom he can as part of a new “independent” foreign policy. But, as Rauhala noted, his efforts fly in the face of public opinion and the country’s political establishment, which largely backs the United States and is wary of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Duterte is shown the way by Chinese President Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2016. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

The other lens through which to view Trump’s invitation to Duterte is that of the American President’s apparent penchant for strongmen. While the European Union called for an investigation into the referendum last month that conferred vast new powers upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan on his victory. He also hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a coup-plotting former army man whose regime carried out a ruthless crackdown on Islamists and dissidents. No matter the geopolitical scenario, Trump seems to have a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent.

“If Duterte were not immune as Head of State, he would be barred from admission into the United States,” noted John Sifton, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, in an emailed statement. “Existing U.S. laws and policy prohibit visas and entry to persons against whom credible allegations of gross human rights abuses have been made.”

Sifton goes on: “The invitation is an abomination, just as Trump’s invitation to Sissi was an abomination, and although his personality traits would seem to make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself. By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs,’ Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.”

Gauging The Hudud Thing in Malaysia


March 14, 2017

Gauging The Hudud Thing in Malaysia–Political Islamism out of UMNO’s desperation

by Rashaad Ali

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/03/08/gauging-support-for-islamic-law-in-malaysia/

Image result for The Hudud Thing in UMNO's Malaysia

The Desperate Godfathers of Hududism in Malaysia–UMNO’s Najib Razak and PAS’Hadi Awang

The 18 February 2017 rallies both for and against the bill to amend the 1965 Criminal Jurisdiction Act, known as RUU 355, have opened yet another political and social schism in Malaysian society. RUU 355 began as a private member’s bill by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) President Hadi Awang and seeks to raise the penalties for certain crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of sharia courts in Malaysia.

Public opinion appears divided on the issue, as the continued politicisation of religion takes precedence over authentic religious debate on the matter. Some see the bill as a facade for the eventual entry of hudud — Islamic — laws into the country. PAS held the rally in support of the bill, which drew a reported 20,000 people, while the counter rally was organised by the non-governmental organisation Bebas and drew a much more modest crowd of around 200.

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Hudud –The  Political Hypocrisy of  It All

Support for the bill is significant enough. Various surveys, including one conducted recently amongst university students, indicate Malay-Muslim support for the amendment and for the implementation of Islamic laws. The pro-RUU 355 rally emphasises this and the numbers indicate some level of moderate success for PAS — mobilising 20,000 odd people for a rally is no small feat.

But as the subject of this bill is central to the party’s aims, larger numbers could have been expected. This suggests a difficulty in appealing to urban folk and that mobilised supporters from other, more remote parts of the country account for the majority of the turnout.

Image result for zaid ibrahim dapThis Guy does not  know where he is coming or going in Malaysian Politics–UMNO to PKR to DAP and what next?

The counter rally, held at the same time but at a different location to the PAS gathering, better demonstrates the mood regarding the bill. While the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) was critical of the bill when it was first announced, it eventually distanced itself from the counter rally completely. The only DAP name who attended was Zaid Ibrahim, and that was in his individual capacity rather than as a party member.

The DAP’s absence is unsurprising as the issue puts it in a difficult position: the DAP may not support the bill, but attending the counter rally would cement the perception that they are an anti-Malay and anti-Muslim party. The discourse surrounding this issue has been very black and white; support for the bill is seen as a Muslim’s religious duty, while opposition to it is deemed vehemently anti-Islamic.

The general public’s low attendance at the counter rally suggests that the issue was not significant enough to take to the streets in numbers. For Malay-Muslims, the fear of reprisal for attending a rally seen as anti-Islamic is a significant factor in keeping people away. It appears easier for the pro-RU 355 rally to draw Malays, as the narrative is more populist, keeps with a conservative Islamic position and is supported by major Malay parties like the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and PAS.

As for non-Muslim participation, it appears this issue is neither relevant nor attractive enough to drag would-be participants out of bed in the morning. They can hardly be blamed as many voices from the pro-RU 355 camp constantly state that the amendment will not affect non-Muslims.

Although this amendment does not mean that non-Muslims are suddenly going to be tried under sharia law, having two legal systems for two different groups of people brings the notion of equality before the law into question. For a multicultural country that should seek to be inclusive instead of exclusive, these amendments are not helpful, especially when considering the knock-on effect it will have on the country as a whole.

Past cases of overlapping jurisdiction between sharia and civil courts, such as conversion cases or burial rights of non-Muslims indicate that the separation of the courts is not clearly defined. While the bill aims to raise the penalties for certain crimes under sharia law such as murder and theft, some constitutional experts argue that these crimes fall strictly under the purview of federal, not sharia, law. This bill exacerbates an already highly polarised society divided along racial and religious lines.

It is also another episode in the overall Islamisation trend happening in Malaysia that directly and indirectly affects all groups in society. Various incidents in the past few years point to how religious relations in the country can easily sour. A church was forced to take down its cross display in 2015, there have been recent issues with the usage and distribution of paint brushes containing pig bristles and there is now moral policing of dress code at government buildings.

The issue is complicated further because it is primarily for political rather than religious purposes. Putting aside PAS’ ambition to see this through, the bill is an obvious affirmation of the party’s own religious credentials. In the current climate, this helps to regain the trust of its core supporters, which also explains why the UMNO has jumped on the bill’s bandwagon. It helps the UMNO bolster its image at a time when the administration has suffered a dip in popularity. The timing of this issue is also convenient, as elections are due to be held by 2018.

As it stands, it would not be surprising if the bill passes next month when it comes to parliament. Opposition members who oppose the bill are likely to be absent from the vote for fear of being branded anti-Islamic. If the amendment passes, the biggest concern is whether it will worsen existing racial and religious polarisation in the country. Given the political dimension of the bill and the looming general election, a more inclusive Malaysia is not yet on the horizon.

Rashaad Ali is a research analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published here on RSIS.

 

 

APSIA Conference 2017 Keynote Address by Singapore’s DPM


March 5, 2017

Image result for DPM of Singapore

APSIA Conference 2017 Keynote Address by Singapore’s DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at LKY School of Public Policy

COMMENT:

Geo-Politics, Disruptive Social Developments and Technological Change: Has the Game Changed? Yes, that is easy part of the answer.  How we wish that life is simple and outcomes are predictable. But it is not. I  have been grappling a few questions. I asked myself questions like What has changed? How it has changed?  What is driving the change?What this change means to us in Asia.

China, North Korea, Islamic and Christian evangelism, terrorism and so on are making the headlines.I  also see increasing polarisation and the need for understanding and rebuilding trust. I expect our politicians to reconnect with people they are mandated to serve and  want leaders to lead with integrity, honesty and hope. Listen to DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam for some insights.–Din Merican

 

 

Saudi King Salman’s Mission to Malaysia, China and Indonesia


March 4, 2017

What Saudi King Salman wants from his tour of China, Malaysia

Ignore the theatrics, the multibillion-dollar investment deals and even the uncertainty over US hegemony – when the leader of the House of Al Saud is in town, Iran, Islamic State and ultra-conservatism are never far from the surface.

By James M. Dorsey

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2075774/what-saudi-king-salman-wants-his-tour-china-malaysia

The spectacle of Saudi King Salman’s tour of Asia is matched by its significance. Attention has focused as much on his 1,500-strong entourage and their 459 tons of luggage – roughly the weight of two Boeing 787 Dreamliners – as it has on expectations of billions of dollars in investment.

To be sure, economics is high on the Saudi leader’s agenda. Salman is looking at both strategic investments in Asia as well as Asian investments in the kingdom that will help it diversify its economy and strengthen ties to China and major Muslim nations in an era of uncertainty about the United States’ place in the world.

Yet Salman’s geopolitical concerns go far beyond whether the US remains a reliable guarantor of regional security. Saudi Arabia is locked into a global battle with Iran for dominance in the Muslim world. For the Al Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling family, the struggle with the Islamic republic is existential in nature.

A policeman prepares his patrol car ahead of Saudi King Salman’s visit to Bali. Photo: AFP

Iran not only represents an alternative form of Islamic rule that recognises a degree of sovereign legitimacy and was established by a popular revolt. It also has assets the kingdom lacks that are key to sustaining regional hegemony: a large population, a huge domestic market, an industrial base, a battle-hardened military, geography, and a deep-seated identity grounded in a history of empire.

An epic battle

The epic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being fought not only on the international and Middle Eastern stage but domestically in Muslim and non-Muslim nations that span the globe. Saudi Arabia’s soft power effort, possibly the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has aligned itself neatly with Muslim governments that opportunistically play politics with religion and Muslim communities that embrace Saudi-style Sunni ultra-conservatism in lieu of feasible alternatives.

Singapore’s bid to outshine Hong Kong with Saudi Aramco bid is a pipe dream

Saudi King Salman with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

China may not have a seriously sizeable Muslim community, yet the lure of ultra-conservatism has made its mark among Hui Muslims and Uygurs alike. Chinese concern about the impact of ultra-conservatism coupled with Iran’s strategic advantage has shaped Chinese policy even if Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and commercial partner as well as a military ally.

President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the Middle East last year, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, saw the signing of billions of dollars’ worth of agreements with Saudi Arabia and a ten-fold expansion of trade with Iran over the next 10 years. The significance may go far beyond commerce as Chinese interests align more with Iranian interests than those of Saudi Arabia.

From Riyadh, Xi went to Iran to become the first foreign leader to do so following the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Saudi leaders could not have been pleased.

Back to the future: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Middle East visit … and his Middle Kingdom dream

Xi’s determination to gain a first mover advantage in Iran at a time that Saudi Arabia was seeking to increase rather than reduce the Islamic republic’s international isolation suggested that more than commerce was at play.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: AFP

Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric, however, did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria – with Chinese support for President Bashar al-Assad – to Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil.

“Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times. Religious affinity is not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary rather than a sectarian power.

Consequently, China remains reluctant to clearly articulate its strategic interests or intentions in the Middle East and North Africa beyond its drive to secure resources, investments and people, and expand its influence through economic ties and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network. As a result, China’s strategic dialogue remains focused on free-trade agreements with the six-nation, Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rather than the forging of broader strategic partnerships that go beyond economics.

China has also long sought to tread carefully in its for now limited military contacts.

China was, for example, slow to engage in its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that started in secret in 1985, five years prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In a deal that was only disclosed three years later, Saudi Arabia in its first weapons deal with China bought in 1985 for US$3.5 billion 36 Chinese CSS-2 East Wind intermediate range ballistic missiles even though they were known to be highly inaccurate in conventional use.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is driven around in a golf cart by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: AFP

The deal said much about the attitude of Saudi Arabia towards China. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a way to counter Iran’s missile strength that in a twist of irony was built on Chinese technology and design, and as leverage to persuade the US to be more forthcoming with weaponry that had offensive capabilities. In a further indication that China was making only limited inroads and that Saudi Arabian arms purchases remained focused on Western suppliers, Saudi Arabia – even while engaged in a massive weapons buying spree – waited 30 years to acquire a more up-to-date Chinese missile system, the DF-21 East Wind ballistic missile.

A frontal assault

Ultra-conservatism – which complicates communal relations, changes policies towards minorities, and alters local culture as well as Saudi efforts to forge an anti-Iranian military alliance – loomed even larger in Malaysia and during the current Indonesian leg of Salman’s tour. In Malaysia, a supposedly pluralistic nation that bans Shi’a Islam, ultra-conservative Islamic scholars legitimise the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling party, raising concerns about a more intolerant society despite its multi-ethnic composition.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian Parliament Speaker Setya Novanto in Jakarta. Photo: EPA

The state of Johor’s straight-talking Sultan, Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Sultan Iskander, didn’t mince words last year when he decried what he described as creeping Arabisation of the Malay language. He insisted that Malaysians use Malay rather than Arabic words when referring to religious practices and Muslim holidays.

Mahathir versus the sultan: How Chinese investment could sway Malaysian election

In a frontal assault on Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, Ibrahim advised his people who “If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the Sultan said.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bogor, West Java. Photo: AFP

Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been reluctant to become too involved in a 41-nation, Saudi-led military alliance headquartered in Riyadh that officially was created to combat political violence and the Islamic State (IS). Many fear the alliance is also intended as a military bloc against Iran that would also bolster Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen – where it is fighting Houthi militia and loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Salleh, allegedly supported by Iran.

Ultra-conservatism

Saudi influence was nonetheless evident when Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein last year, to the consternation of his ministry’s civilians, agreed to let 300 Malaysian paratroopers participate in a 20-nation military exercise in the kingdom. Malaysia currently has up to 100 military personnel and C-130 Hercules transport planes in Saudi Arabia that provide the alliance with logistical support.

The Indonesian military, like its Malaysian counterpart, regularly trains with Saudi officers to counter IS. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi policy analyst with close government ties, described last year’s exercise as a preparation for possible Saudi military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

King Salman and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Critics in the ministry were taken aback when Hishammuddin obliged them weeks later to endorse Saudi funding for the King Salman Centre for Moderation (KSCM). Under the auspices of the ministry’s think tank, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MIDAS), would seek to counter jihadist messaging in Southeast Asia. An internal ministry memo said MIDAS had a “strategic interest to be collaborating with various institutions internationally particularly from Saudi Arabia”.

A joint communique at the end of Salman’s visit described political violence as the most important issue discussed between the king and Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib backed Saudi concerns about Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and called on the Islamic republic to respect the sovereignty of regional states.

The two leaders also announced the establishment of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), a collaboration of Saudi and Malaysian defence institutions as well as the Muslim World League, a prime Saudi vehicle for the propagation of ultra-conservatism. It’ not clear if KSCM and KSCIP are separate institutions.

An Indonesian honour guard waits for the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at the presidential palace in Bogor. Photo: AFP

In Indonesia, a country that prides itself on its tolerant interpretation of Islam, Saudi-style ultra-conservatism is similarly making itself felt. Major Islamic organisations with a history of opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative world view that governs the kingdom, see Shiites, who constitute 1.2 per cent of the population, and Iran as threats to national security. A former deputy head of Indonesian intelligence goes as far as describing Shiites as the foremost domestic threat to national security.

The plight of Chinese Indonesians: distrusted in Jakarta, forgotten in China

Saudi media reported that King Salman hoped during his visit to lay the ground for the opening of more Arabic-language Islamic schools in Indonesia. They said the king would also be increasing the number of scholarships available to Indonesians for study in Saudi Arabia. Many of those who return after completing their studies are imbued with Saudi-style ultra-conservatism.

All in all, Salman’s Asian official visit-cum-holiday is likely to reverberate far beyond the billions of dollars in economic and commercial agreements he signs. The visit also solidified cooperation between Asian nations and Saudi Arabia in the fight against IS. This, despite the fact that IS and the kingdom have the same ideological roots, even if the jihadists accuse Saudi Arabia of having deviated from the true path of Islam. At the same time, the tour could also well embed sectarian aspects of Saudi’s Arabia’s epic struggle with Iran ever deeper in the social and political life of the continent’s Muslims.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies