Monday, February 29, 2016

Australia shows its hand to China with the defence white paper

Kevin Rudd told Hillary Clinton in 2009 that while they needed to integrate China into the world community as much as possible, they also needed to be "preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong". This conversation, leaked by Wikileaks and never denied, exposed the true thinking behind his government's defence white paper delivered that year.  Australia and the US had agreed on a strategy of classic hedging, working towards the best outcome on China while preparing for the worst. And so Australia had decided on a major naval build-up, the then PM told the then US secretary of state.

It was exactly this thinking that led, after seven wasted years, to the Turnbull government plan last week to implement Rudd's vision. Because while the Rudd government's white paper promised a doubling in the size of Australia's submarine fleet, for instance, as part of its build up, Rudd never properly allowed for funding it.

The Rudd plan to pay for the armaments was based on a fantasy in the form of an implausibly vast cost-cutting program. The Defence Department was supposed to cut $20 billion in costs over 10 years to help pay for the dozen subs and 100 combat aircraft. 

It was so implausible that when defence minister in office at the time of the announcement, Joel Fitzgibbon, was having valedictory drinks with his staff as he prepared to leave the post, he asked the assembled group: "Does anybody think they'll get the $20 billion of savings?" The staff, most of whom were defence department officials, burst out laughing.

The moment Julia Gillard replaced Rudd, she tore up his white paper in any case. Her government saw no need for a major build up and started to cut defence spending.

Labor spent six years in office and didn't commission a single major naval vessel. Defence spending as a proportion of GDP fell from 2 per cent to 1.5 per cent, the lowest since right  before World War Two.

It fell to Tony Abbott to pledge to restore the defence budget to the 2per cent level. Now Malcolm Turnbull has delivered a long-term defence strategy that combines Rudd's military vision with Abbott's promised funding.  And not a moment too soon. The sort of China that Rudd feared seven years ago has materialised in the intervening years, looming as the greatest single concern of capitals around Asia.  

The worry is not that China has built a modern navy with as many vessels as the US Seventh Fleet.  It's China's behaviour. In the South China Sea it's built artificial islands on reefs claimed by four other countries, while stalling for a decade on any agreement on a code of conduct with the 10 ASEAN countries. It has built ports and airstrips on the islands and given every appearance of using them as military bases. 

It has physically bullied fishing and other vessels from smaller claimants, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, out of the way, using superior flotillas of coastguard and other government vessels.

Many were reassured when China's President Xi Jinping said in a media conference with the US President Barack Obama in September that "China does not intend to pursue militarisation" of disputed islands.

But all hopes were dashed two weeks ago when satellite images showed that the Chinese had actually placed advanced missile systems on one of the islands.  Two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system were deployed to Woody Island in the past week, part of the Paracel chain which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Strikingly, very few countries have the courage any longer to speak out against China's assertiveness.  In reaction to its latest destabilisation, just three non-claimant states spoke out against China's deployment of missiles – the US, Japan and Australia. The rest have been bought or cowed into silence.

That doesn't mean other nations aren't worried. The year 2014 marked the first time since the Industrial Revolution that Asian countries spent more on arms than European ones. Countries across the region are working towards the best while preparing for the worst.

The Australian decision to strengthen its navy comes at an especially vital moment because the behaviour of all the countries in the region is still being shaped.

Professor Mohan Malik at Honolulu's Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies points out that China's strategic thinkers are counting on the countries of the region going through three phases in response to China's new assertiveness.

He points out that leading Chinese analysts such as Yan Xuetong, Shen Dingli and Shi Yinhong believe that regional countries will soon abandon resistance and move to accommodation of China and then, finally, reconciliation on China's terms.

With the US presidential campaign giving the world a deeply unsettling premonition of a President Trump, it's a key moment for other responsible powers to demonstrate commitment to the rule of law rather than the law of the jungle.

Australia, through Turnbull's white paper, is saying that it will step up. The naval build up would not be big enough for Australia to win a standalone war against China.

But it does increase Australia's heft, complicate the plans of any enemy, and mark Australia out as an important ally in any common defence of the Asia-Pacific peace.

On China's current trajectory of increasingly using brute force against its neighbours, every country will have to make the hard choice to decide its stance. When the Soviet Union challenged Europe, Finland yielded its sovereignty to Moscow on vital matters while Britain stood staunchly opposed. 

The real significance of last week's defence white paper is Australia has chosen not to be a feeble Finland but to be a resolute Britain.     

Peter Hartcher is international editor. sydneymorningherald  Illustration: John Shakespeare


Japan: The Next Major Player in the Taiwan Strait?

In his recent talk with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, China’s Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office Zhang Zhijun reiterated Beijing’s cross-Strait policy. Beijing will continue to uphold the 1992 Consensus, which accepts “one China” but allows strategic uncertainty surrounding its precise definition, resolutely opposes to any form of secessionist activities seeking Taiwan independence and firmly safeguards national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen and her traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) still decline to accept the “One-China” principle of the 1992 consensus, the future of cross-strait relations is fraught with uncertainty. While it is important for the DPP to find “a mutually acceptable mode of interaction between Taiwan and the mainland,”  changes of the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region and the close people-to-people relations between Taiwan and Japan have given Tsai Ing-wen a new opportunity to cooperate with Japan in the cross-Strait issues, which currently involve only Taiwan, China and the United States.

A Changing Strategic Environment in the Asia-Pacific

Since the Obama administration announced its “pivot”—later termed the “rebalance”—to the Asia-Pacific region in 2009, the United States has focused on strengthening and modernizing its alliance with Japan. The new Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation (“the Guidelines”), which was announced in April 2015, has reinforced alliance cooperation without preset geographical limits and enabled “seamless and effective” alliance responses to security threats. Japan’s enactment of two new security bills later that year has also expanded the scope of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF)’s activities overseas and broadened the areas in which they can operate. This enhancement of Japan’s defense posture allows Japan to play a greater role in the regional security, which seems to create a strategic environment from which Taiwan could benefit in managing ties with Beijing.

That said, to what extent the United States and Japan will cooperate in the event of a Taiwan Strait contingency so far remains ambiguous. Although the Guidelines and the security bills signal an expansion of Japan’s military role abroad, they did not explicitly mention the areas of alliance cooperation have extended to the Taiwan Strait. How much Taiwan can actually benefit from these changes of strategic situations thus sees limitations. Instead of sitting and waiting for a more favorable international environment, the Taiwan government can take the initiatives to turn the tide in its favor.

The Taiwan government can capitalize on a growing cordiality between the Japanese and Taiwanese people to make Japan a bigger player in the cross-Strait issues. It is hoping that with a deep affinity with the Taiwanese people that is formed in the Japanese society, a pro-Taiwan momentum will emerge. Along with the help of Taiwan-friendly bipartisan caucus in the Diet, the strong force of public opinion can press the Japanese government to adopt a more active response to a Taiwan contingency.

Based on the reasoning, the new Taiwan government’s Japan policy can be two folds. First, the policy can encourage frequent people-to-people exchanges between Japan and Taiwan to increase positive views of Taiwan in the Japanese society. Currently, a regular people-to people exchange between the two sides is underway. On bilateral visits, the most recent data released by Japan Tourism Agency showed that Taiwan, following China and South Korea, is the third favorite destination among Japanese travelers. It is worth noting that while the number of the Japanese tourists to China and South Korea has been declining since 2010, the number of Japanese visitors to Taiwan each year has grown. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau also reported that Japan was the most favored destination for Taiwanese travelers in 2015. Continuous people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and Japan have benefited people’s positive impressions toward each other. According to a 2011 survey released by Taipei Economic & Cultural Representative Office in Japan, 67 percent of Japanese respondents expressed that they felt close to Taiwan, which was 10.8 percentage points higher than in 2009. The same survey also showed that 91.2 percent of the respondents reported that the Taiwan-Japan relations were on good terms. Increasing favorable views on Taiwan can help generate a strong force of public opinion in Japanese society, which can influence the Japanese government in crafting its Taiwan policy.

In addition to building a pro-Taiwan momentum in the Japanese society, the Taiwan government should be in frequent contact with Taiwan-friendly bipartisan caucuses in the National Diet in Japan. Because lacking an understanding of the complexity of the cross-Strait relations, the Japanese public’s positive sentiments for the Taiwanese people may not automatically turn into people’s active support for Japan to play a greater role in the cross-Strait issues. According to a 2015 survey conducted by The Genron NPO, when the Japanese public was asked if they support the use of American force in a military conflict between Taiwan and China, public opinion in Japan is divided: 28 percent would support the deployment of U.S. forces and 25.1 percent oppose it. Significantly, 45.9 percent of the Japanese people said they “don’t know.” In the same survey, a relevant questions asking the likelihood of a conflict between China and Taiwan, a sizable one third of the Japanese people answered they “don’t know” either. The poll results indicate that while more than a simple majority of the Japanese people feels close to the Taiwanese, the Japanese public is still unfamiliar with the cross-Strait issues. To effectively convey Taiwan’s political appeals, the Taiwan government also needs to rely on the Taiwan-friendly bipartisan caucuses, which have better understanding of the cross-Strait issues and can directly put pressure on the Japanese government.

In fact, the exchanges between the caucuses and the new Taiwan government are in progress. In a meeting with Tsai Ing-wen on January 27, Keiji Furuya, chief executive of the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council (“Nikkakon”) said that the caucus will support Taiwan in its efforts to participate in the second round of the TPP negotiations. Even during the presidential campaign, Tsai Ing-wen visited Nikkakon in Japan to emphasize the importance of strengthening the Japan-Taiwan relations.

Instead of managing the relationship with Japan at only the official level, Taiwan has been maintaining a close non-governmental, working-level relations with Japan. Against the backdrop of a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance and an expanded Japan’s defense scope, Taiwan can provide incentives to make Japan play a greater role in the cross-Strait issues. Taking advantage of a pro-Taiwan momentum in the Japanese society can be a way to effectively pressure the Japanese government to support Taiwan in its political appeals.

Emily S. Chen is a Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution, a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Center for the National Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations at Stanford University


Ritualism and the erosion of human rights

Just because states sign up to human rights conventions, it doesn’t mean they will follow them. Often it’s the exact opposite. 

While paying lip service to stopping human rights abuses, leaders in the Asia-Pacific are rejecting basic freedoms and reinforcing their own power, eroding human rights and flouting the very international agreements they are parties to.

Prosecutions for the crimes of lèse majesté and sedition have dramatically increased in the past two years in Southeast Asia. As a means of maintaining power, countries such as Thailand and Malaysia are clamping down on freedom of expression.

Since the May 2014 coup in Thailand, extraordinarily long sentences have been imposed on those convicted of lèse majesté, such as the 30-year sentence given to 48-year-old Pongsak Sriboonpeng in 2015. Accused are held in secret military detention. It was reported that, prior to the military coup, only two people had been prosecuted for lèse majesté, but this figure had risen to 56 by August 2015. Even the United States Ambassador to Thailand was investigated for the crime.

Despite a promise in 2013 to repeal their sedition law, the Malaysian government has instead increased prosecution of the crime, with dozens charged since that promise was made. In 2015, Malaysia passed amendments to the sedition law, raising the maximum punishment from three years in prison to seven and 20 years. The amendments also prohibit  those who make or circulate an electronic publication from accessing any electronic device; by doing so, cutting that person off from communication.

The goal of these lèse majesté and sedition laws is to restrict freedom of expression in order to keep power, by repressing any opposition to the current regime.

Further north, China still practices torture although it has officially renounced it, and its human rights defenders still disappear into arbitrary detention. Thailand hands out decades-long sentences under the loose accusation of lèse majesté, or showing leaders disrespect. While appearing to soften sedition laws Malaysia has actually toughened them. Hundreds of asylum seekers fleeing drastic conditions are detained indefinitely in horrific conditions by Australia, the country to which they fled in hope, which claims to be one of the compassionate democracies of the world.

There is an increased lack of respect for human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, including in Australia, amid a growing trend for governments to reject the implementation of rights, even if a country is party to human rights instruments and is obligated to respect and protect those rights.

A consistent trend running through this is the desire of governments (and individual officials) to maintain their power. The rejection of rights occurs through a variety of means, from failing to apply existing laws that do respect rights, to a lack of willingness to introduce laws or policy that uphold rights.

Some Asia-Pacific countries subscribe to the argument that their culture will be eroded through implementing human rights; that human rights are a Western construct being imposed upon their culture. This argument is usually applied to particular human rights, such as women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from torture – freedoms and rights that would upset the current power balance and nothing, really, to do with culture. It is all to do with entrenching the power of the ruling elite, a motivation that is becoming more prominent throughout the region.

China has taken steps towards the elimination of torture, with the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that confessions extracted through torture are not admissible evidence, and 2011 and 2014 amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law intended to enhance defendants’ rights and outlaw torture. In practice, though, torture still takes place, with one prosecutorial investigator telling me in confidence and in blatant euphemism that ‘we still lean on suspects’.

In 2015, the UN Committee Against Torture confirmed that China is still actively carrying out torture and ill-treatment of suspects. This includes the arrest and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, who are often kept incommunicado, leaving their families without knowledge of where their loved ones are or if they are even still alive.

Torture is used specifically as a form of power, and combines with the high levels of corruption in China – a crime also directly about power. China is actively seeking to combat corruption, but the desire to combat torture seems far less pronounced.

Australia continues to be highly criticised for its treatment of asylum seekers, held in off-shore detention centres. Reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the UN Committee Against Torture reveal ill-treatment and torture of detainees. However, the horrific findings of the reports have not led authorities to take action, instead the Australian government’s response has been to protect its power, claiming that ‘Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN’.

This raises the question of the status of the respect for the rule of law and human rights in these countries. For example, if the Chinese Supreme Court and the Criminal Procedure Law outlaw the use of torture, why is it still being used? If Australia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the Refugee Convention, why are asylum seekers being tortured and ill-treated?

The answer lies in a process Professor Hilary Charlesworth terms ‘ritualism’. Charlesworth defines ritualism in this context as ‘a way of embracing the language of human rights precisely to deflect real human rights scrutiny and to avoid accountability for human rights abuses’. States go through the motions of ratifying human rights treaties and being reviewed by UN committees, or promising to uphold human rights, but never truly follow through with actions that sustain human rights.

Alternatively, states that are not parties to human rights treaties, such as Malaysia or China, neither of whom is a state party to the ICCPR, are under no obligation to implement rights that are not customary law. However, these states give the pretence of upholding rights, but again, without following through.

All of these actions are a form of ‘ritualism’, designed to appease critics, rights advocates and the masses, all the while holding on to their hold on power. It is clearly time that we all stop being ‘appeased’, before we find all our rights have been eroded.

Dr Melanie O’Brien is a post-doctoral research fellow in the TC Beirne School of Law and researcher in the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, at the University of Queensland. Photo by Hani Amir

This article is a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s premier website for policy analysis and discussion.

Harvest Of Sorrow: The Tragedy Of Bauxite Mining In Malaysia - the problem began when Indonesia, suffering from its own bauxite problems, banned the export of the aluminium precursor

Harvest Of Sorrow: The Tragedy Of Bauxite Mining In Malaysia - the problem began when Indonesia, suffering from its own bauxite problems, banned the export of the aluminium precursor

An environmental and humanitarian disaster is occurring in Malaysia. The specter of avarice, embodied in the bauxite trade, is slowly but surely destroying the land and poisoning its people as the weak and ineffective local government stands by and allows it to happen. International outcry is conspicuous by its absence, as the cheap availability of aluminium is much more critical to the worldwide bottom line of multinational corporations than the suffering of farmers half a world away

In a nutshell, the problem began when Indonesia, suffering from its own bauxite problems, banned the export of the aluminium precursor almost two years ago. This created a tremendous vacuum in the worldwide bauxite market. It caused significant problems for the enormous aluminium industry in the People’s Republic of China – the producer of fully half of the world’s aluminium supply lost its main source of bauxite overnight. Into this abyss Malaysia rushed headlong. The country’s before inexistent bauxite industry awoke, and exports of the ore increased exponentially in order to fill the maw of China’s aluminium monster. In 2015 Malaysia shipped more than 24 million tons of bauxite, up from a paltry 126,830 tons the year before. And, after failing to learn from Indonesia’s experience and to enact adequate regulations, pollution in and around the area increased exponentially as well. The Malaysian state government of Pahang, the ground zero of the country’s bauxite production, was overwhelmed – the Lands and Mines Office had only eighteen employees for covering the whole state, but zero hope of getting out in front of the rush. Finally the government came to its senses and enacted a temporary moratorium on mining bauxite, but, by all accounts, it may prove to be too little, too late.

The area most damaged by irresponsible and unregulated mining is Kuantan, a city in Pahang. The city is caked with red bauxite dust. The rivers and streams run red with it. Locals have been inhaling the mix of toxic heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium, for over a year. They’ve been drinking it in their water and eating it in their food. Breathing problems and headaches have been common since almost Day 1 of mining. Children can’t play outside because the air pollution is too strong. It’s too early for cancers to be diagnosed, but those are certainly on the horizon.

What have the local farmers received for their troubles? At first, it seemed like a great deal – RM100,000 (US$23,762.92) in down payments for allowing illegal miners to mine their lands goes a long way for a poor farmer who may only make a few thousand ringgit per year. The miners promised more, lots more, if the ore was good. The palm trees, which had previously supplied the farmers’ livelihood, had to be felled, but they believed the money they’d make on bauxite would more than make up for it.

What the illegal miners didn’t tell their victims is that their land would be unusable for growing crops after they were done mining it without the proper rehabilitation procedures. Bauxite mining releases chromium into the soil, which negatively alters the germination process, and inhibits growth of roots, stems, and leaves, and that harms the overall output of plants that are able to grow and take root. As pointed out by Professor Jamal Hisham Hashim, a research fellow for the UN, “rehabilitation isn’t likely, especially not by illegal miners”, leaving most farmers without their livelihoods for decades to come.

In addition, Malaysia’s illegal miners exploited a loophole in the already weak mining laws to keep farmers in the dark: on plots smaller than 250 hectares, no environmental assessment detailing the potential harm to the land is required. As a result, the likelihood that any of Pahang’s farmers, most of which operate on just those sorts of plots, would possibly know of the devastating effects mining would have on their land is vanishingly small.

It’s not as though any Malaysian law would have stopped the miners, though, as lax enforcement by an understaffed state government branch doomed the undertaking from the start. According to sources in the state government, each and every mine in the Felda Bukit Goh oil palm plantation is illegal. The only sanctions the ineffective Lands and Mines Office has been able to carry out is against individuals operating heavy equipment or trucks in the area on the off-chance that they are found. Pahang’s Chief Minister Adnan Yaakob says, despite several attempts, not a single illegal miner has been arrested.

What the illegal miners could not have known, but might have expected after ravaging Indonesia’s land, is that the government would step in and call a three-month time out in mining. The farmers are now doubly the victims. Unable to use mining land for palm oil farming, the ban has put a stop to any lucrative mining activities there as well, stopping royalty payments to the landowners in the process.

As the ban goes on, the inviolate laws of supply and demand inexorably grind the future of the already exploited farmers into the blood-red dust. Scarcity of the ore leads to an increase in the price of what ore there is on the market, so when the ban expires in mid-April, the pump will be primed for an exploitation of the now idle mines on a scale like never before seen. At current rates of extraction, Malaysia’s bauxite reserves will only last for a scant five years.. That, however, is not the worry of the illegal miner who has already violated the land and people. “This [moratorium] is a blessing in disguise for the players,”laments Yaakob. “If I were them, I would enjoy this moratorium period.”

All in all, the disaster to the land and its people is complete. “Greed and corruption, coupled with poor regulations and enforcement, have led to an environmental disaster,” points out Kuantan’s PM Fuziah Salleh. “This environmental catastrophe will take years to rehabilitate.” The government is working towards implementing marginal safety improvements to prevent further contamination, like barriers around wharfs to prevent bauxite from falling into the bay and a closed conveyor system that may be in place after 1-1/2 years, but none of this offers much help to farmers that have been taken advantage of so far. The federal government is drawing up more regulations, but the burden of enforcement remains upon the state and its eighteen overworked employees in the Lands and Mines Office.

And the land and the people that work it will be victimized yet again by the greedy miners in pursuit of their filthy red lucre.

*Hariette Darling is originally from London, has a BA in Economics and currently resides in Singapore while working as a freelance environmental risk researcher for a local consultancy and runs a blog on Daily Kos.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

South China Sea missiles: The Woody Island media circus explained


Last week I wrote a piece for Asia Times on the peculiar response of the PRC and, for that matter, US Navy brass to a Fox News report that the PRC had deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea.

Nobody was eager to make a big deal out of it. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi was clearly nonplussed by the fuss, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  spokesperson dodged the issue for three days running.  The US military leadership showed little inclination to blow up the story, not even China hawk US Pacific Command maestro Admiral Harry Harris who said the reports, “if verified” would be a bad thing.  Finally, Admiral Swift, in charge of Pacific Fleet ‘fessed up that it was a case of same old same old: HQ-9 missiles had been deployed to Woody Island at least on two previous occasions without saying “Boo.”

I opined the “story” was much ado about nothing.


A statement by the White House China guy explains why the whole story was, for lack of a better term, flapdoodle.

Here’s the relevant report from Reuters:

The White House on Friday urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to extend his pledge not to militarize the disputed Spratly Islands to encompass all of the South China Sea.

Dan Kritenbrink, President Barack Obama’s top Asia advisor, issued the call at the end of a week in which China and the United States have sparred over Chinese deployment of missiles, fighter planes and radar on islands in the contested strategic waterway.

Xi had pledged during a US state visit last September not to militarize the Spratlys archipelago, which is claimed by Manila and Beijing, but US officials have since said they see military intent in China’s building of air strips and installation of radar there.

Friction has increased over China’s recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets to Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain. It has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

“We think it would be good if that non-militarization pledge, if he (Xi) would extend that across the South China Sea,” Kritenbrink told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re going to encourage our Chinese friends and other countries in the region to refrain from taking steps that raise tensions.”

First of all, judging by Kritenbrink’s statement, the PRC made no undertakings of any kind about not “militarizing” the Paracels, a clutch of islands near the Chinese mainland that, although in the South China Sea, have been a center of PRC military activity for decades and are not related to the Spratlys, that sprinkle of atolls and crappy new man-made features out in the middle of the South China Sea sorta toward the Philippines.

So when Xi Jinping showed up for his state visit in September, the spirit was clearly “don’t escalate over the Spratlys.”  The Paracels & Woody Island were apparently in the “business as usual” category.

For that matter, Xi did not “pledge” not to militarize the Spratlys; he simply said the PRC didn’t intend to militarize them, an inclination that he, given the US freedom of navigation operation frenzy, really has no need to follow.

But anyway, Kritenbrink’s statement gives a good indication that the Obama administration had drawn one of its famous “red lines” around the Spratlys, not the Paracels.

Therefore, when the western media blew up over the missiles on Woody Island, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s response was to the White House and Admiral Harris was, understandably, WTF?  The terms of discussion had been, “don’t militarize the Spratlys”; they weren’t “curtail your routine military deployments in the Paracels.”

With the don’t militarize any of the South China Sea call, I don’t think Kritenbrink’s seriously thinking, Hey, Wang Yi, you should make a major unilateral concession on the Paracels and abandon your facility on Woody Island just because of the ruckus from the Fox News report, isn’t that how your diplomacy works, huh?  No?  It’s more like, Hey, our credibility with the PRC took a hit thanks to some Fox story, time to make lemonade out of this lemon, can’t say every media outlet in the West reported this wrong, all we can do is run with this PR wise and call for non-militarization of the Paracels.

Which might have been the motive of the DoD leak anyway.  Who knows?

Anyway, a couple of unwelcome points here.

First, despite the assertion that Commeez are craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazie, the PRC runs a tight diplomatic and military ship on the SCS issue.  It’s a core interest, everybody else hates them for what they do down there, they’ve gotta be extra careful to avoid getting suckered into responding to some provocation and giving the US an opening to upgrade their alliances and dump more equipment into the region.

The DoD, on the other hand, has China hawk factions fighting against less China-hawky factions and the entire DoD going at it with the White House when the Obama administration is less than eager to turn the provocation/escalation cranks and maybe even entertain the insane idea of listening to the State Department and John Kerry on Asia policy.  On top of that, in the least-reported stories of the pivot, you’ve got aggressive DoD hawks reaching out to their buddies in the think tanks and various military and diplomatic establishments and media outlets both inside the Beltway and down Asia way to amplify the anti-China message and drive policy at home — in the Obama administration on the civilian side — as well as abroad.

Like when somebody leaks commercial satellite footage to Fox to try to blow up President Obama’s carefully-scripted ASEAN conference.

The Pentagon is not completely in control of its China policy and it shows.

TL;DR.  Pentagon China hawks are craaaaaaaaaaaaaaazee.  Attention should be paid.

And finally.


Wang Yi was right when he accused you of “hyping” the story.  It was a BS leak to Fox News & it looks like everybody ran with it completely context free & without checking with the US Navy brass or the Obama White House, let alone the Chinese.

I know you are roundly abused by a callous and detestable Communist regime that harasses reporters and assistants and denies the access that the world’s premier access journalists expect and require.  And I think the response might be, completely understandably, to impose the most negative narrative available on China news stories both as a matter of principle and as a tactic to create — with the prospect of more friendly coverage down the road — some conceivable leverage in future negotiations.

But just be careful.  People might forget it’s “sh*t journalism to punish China” and only remember the “sh*t journalism” part.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The Shocking Truth About MH370 – Analysis

In early March 2014, the world was captivated in a way never seen before by the news of a missing Malaysian Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, MH370. The last voice contact with the flight crew was early morning 8th March somewhere over the South China Sea, just over an hour after take-off. Soon after the plane disappeared from Malaysian Air traffic Control radars, but was tracked shortly after flying over the Malay Peninsula, and tracking across the Andaman Sea.

MH370 was a Boeing 777-200ER, which had 227 passengers and 15 crew members aboard that night. This disappearance of the aircraft has led to one of the largest and longest searches in history for the aircraft, which is still going on today in the Southern Indian Ocean, the most probable place authorities believe that plane went down.

MH370 is not the only aviation mystery. There have been a long line of aviation mysteries, many which still have not been solved today. One of the most famous cases that have attracted a lot of speculation was flight 19, a group of 5 TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945. A PBM Mariner flying boat that went searching for the lost planes also disappeared.

Charismatic Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, mysteriously disappeared in the Pacific while on a round the world flight in a twin engine Lockheed Electra 10E. In 1956, a fully nuclear armed B-47 Stratojet disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea and was lost without a trace. In 1962, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation flight from Travis Air Force Base in California to Saigon disappeared without a trace after a mid-air refuelling over Guam. In 1979, a Boeing 707-323C transporting valuable paintings disappeared mid-flight between Tokyo and Rio de Janerio and was never found.

However, some aircraft have disappeared by design. In 2003, a Boeing 727-223 was stolen in Angola from the airport, took off and has never been seen again.

All the above cases have not been solved and led to speculation and conspiracy theories ranging from the plausible to the extra-terrestrial explanations.

Yet time has allowed similar cases to be solved when someone stumbles across wreckage or other artifacts from these besieged flights. Such a case included a South American Airways Star Dust aircraft that disappeared in 1947. It took 50 years to solve this mystery when glacial ice in the Andes melted, exposing the aircraft wreckage. More recently, the remains of Air France Flight 447, were only found two years after it disappeared.

However the search area for the ill-fated MH370 is hundreds of times more expansive than flight 447.

As the events of March 2014 panned out, several things became clear.

The first thing exposed by the MH370 tragedy was the ad hoc haphazardness of the Malaysian Government. The early responses of the government were heavily criticized for uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory approach to the disaster. The chief spokesman for the Malaysian Government Defence Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein was criticized for his smugness, evasiveness, sometimes condescending attitude, and delay in providing information to the families of MH370 passengers and public.

It took Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak a week before he appeared on television after the plane vanished. This delay made Malaysia appear very unprofessional to people who were not familiar with the political culture of Malaysia.

The families and relatives of the missing were particularly critical of the search operation. Critical time was lost searching for flight MH370 in the South China Sea. Voice370 representing the families of the passengers accused the Malaysian Government of a cover-up. The families and relatives of the passengers, mainly Chinese nationals, were angered by the coarseness of an English language text message “we have to assume beyond all reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and all those on board haven’t survived”. This led to Chinese protests outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.

After more than a year since the disappearance of flight MH370, criticism still persists about Malaysian Airlines safety issues which were found wanting. Malaysian Airlines has performed very poorly financially, since the disappearance of MH370, the shooting down of MH17, and boycotts by Chinese that brought a reported 50% drop in tourists compared to the previous year.

The Malaysian Government’s poor response to the MH370 disappearance showed up both the lack of transparency and the dismal state of the Malaysian media that has been shackled for years. Ministers and public officials were not used to the scrutiny the international media put them under.

The second issue was the poor coordination between civil and military authorities. This was not unique to Malaysia, the same problem purportedly occurred during the 911 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Although Flight MH370 was detected by Malaysian military radar crossing the Malay Peninsula soon after the final voice communication to Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control, it took civil authorities a number of days before they moved the search from the South China Sea to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean. Vietnam also expressed concerns that Malaysia was not forthcoming with new information and cooperative.

This leads onto the third issue of international defence capabilities and cooperation, which appear very poor out of this disaster. MH370 must have come up as a radar signature across Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. According to reports, it was only after MH370 had disappeared 9 days that the Thais informed the Malaysians that they had picked up an unidentified flight crossing the Malay Peninsula. According to Indonesian authorities no unidentified flight was ever picked up on radar, which hints that either the system wasn’t being used or MH370 very skilfully flew along the boundaries of the radar detection area of Indonesia.

This raises questions about actual ASEAN military surveillance capabilities.

Given that military authorities may be hesitant to disclose the extent of their respective early warning radar systems, The Mail suggests that air defences may not be what they are supposed to be.

The delay in sharing vital information with Malaysia shows the poor state of defence cooperation within the region.

The fact that a large modern airliner could just disappear has been met with much disbelief, leading to a number of conspiracy theories.

Some claim that the aircraft was hijacked by North Korea over the sea for the new technologies that Boeing 777 has incorporated within the plane. A US science writer Jeff Wise, who regularly appears on CNN postulated that the aircraft flew north rather than south into the Indian Ocean and landed in Kazakhstan. Other theories put forward include the United States shot down the plane to prevent a drone shot down by the Taliban over Afghanistan with secret technology in the cargo bay, didn’t get into the hands of the Chinese. A variation on this theory is that the aircraft was forcibly taken to a US base on the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia, where the crew and passengers are captives.

Conspiracy theorists put weight on the fact that 20 employees of a semi-conductor company Freescale Semiconductor developing components for hi-tech military weapons and navigation systems were on board MH370. Their disappearance according to some could have been the result of stealth technology this group had been working on. Alternatively others have proposed that the disappearance of these engineers allowed a member of the Rothschild family to secure sole ownership of an important patent.

Still more theories speculate the plane’s disappearance was about a life insurance scam, the plane was captured and exchanged for MH17 which was shot down over the Ukraine, later in August 2014, the plane was cyber-jacked electronically, and the plane was abducted by aliens.

Even though fragments of MH370 found on Reunion Island and have been confirmed as parts of MH370, there are some who claim that the pieces are fake, and one of the above conspiracy theories hold.

Debris found washed up on a beach along the East Coast of Thailand last month was suspected of being parts of MH370, until this was discounted by aviation authorities in Bangkok.

The initial suspicion on the disappearance of MH370 was related to two passengers using false passports. This indicated a possible hijacking. The turn flight MH370 made over the South China Sea and around Indonesian territory appeared to support this deliberate act. News breaking out that the co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid had allowed passengers into the cockpit during a previous flight also made this theory appear plausible.

The phone call Fariq was reported to have tried to make over Penang even adds more weight to the MH370 disappearance being a deliberate act. However upon investigation of all the passengers and crew, no links to terrorism was ever made with anybody on the flight. This only exposed a lapse in security as the two passports of the passengers involved where actually on the Interpol database, but not checked by Malaysian Immigration.

This doesn’t count out a disturbed member of the crew having a ‘death-wish’ and using the flight to commit suicide. The captain could have locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit and proceeded down to the Southern Indian Ocean and take the whole plane to a deep ocean grave. This scenario happened on a Silk Air flight some years ago where the captain lost his savings on the stock-market and committed suicide, and with Egypt Air flight 990 where the co-pilot committed suicide by diving the plane straight into the sea.

The latest explanation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATAC) suggests a power failure, which probably disabled avionic systems where the plane would have flown on auto-pilot until fuel was exhausted, where it would turn into a spiral nose dive going straight into the Southern Indian Ocean. The rebooting of the ACARS system which transmits engine data to the ground suggests a power failure. The lithium batteries in the cargo hold could have been a source of that fire which disabled electronic systems, vital to control and manage a sophisticated aircraft like a Boeing 777. Lithium batteries have caused fires on aircraft before. This is what happened to a South African Airways flight in 1987.

The crew and passengers may have been disabled through hypoxia, where the plane flew on autopilot. This could have been a similar scenario to the Helios Airlines Flight 522 crash in 2005, where two jets were scrambled and the pilots saw all the passengers incapacitated, when the flight eventually crashed after it ran out of fuel.
However this explanation doesn’t explain the apparent deliberate flight around Aceh, where MH370 avoided Indonesian radar. This would have to be a carefully planned part of the flight. This scenario points to a purposeful act, and MH370 could have been a hijacking gone wrong, something like Ethiopia Airways Flight 961, where the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea in 1996.

Although it was confirmed pieces of wreckage washed up on Reunion Island where part of MH370, what happened and the whereabouts of the fuselage and remains of the passengers and crew still remain a mystery. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan said that the search effort will now have to retrace some previously searched locations due to the complexity of the ocean surface and possibility the wreckage may have been missed. The search has been extremely hazardous resulting in a loss of the deep water sonar which hit an underwater volcano and sank to the bottom of the ocean a few weeks ago.

A French team is currently developing another theory of what happened to flight MH370 based upon the piece of wreckage washed up on Reunion Island, which was found in an unexpected location in relation to the targeted search area. Another report expected to be released by the Malaysian Government on the 2nd anniversary of the plane’s disappearance may incorporate this theory in the report.

The shocking truth about MH370 is that we don’t really know what happened on that night of 8th March 2014, how the flight ended, and what became of the passengers and aircraft. Everything the authorities have said is pure speculation. The black box data recorder holds all the secrets to the doomed flight. This needs to be recovered before the truth can be known with certainty.

Even with all the technology we have today, the Earth is larger than we think. Satellite photography, the US ability to identify any missile launch on the face of the Earth, aviation procedures and protocols, and defence surveillance around the globe failed to notice and find a rogue aircraft, even post 911.

Ideas are needed and resources allocated to help prevent this scenario ever happening again. However almost two years after the disappearance of MH370, nothing has been put in place to enable the tracking of rogue aircraft, should they deviate from flight plans and procedures.

The solutions exist and are in practice. Over the vast region of Hudson Bay, radar blind spots are covered by approximations using flight plans, GPS, and broadcasts under an Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADSB) system. Such systems are not operating within South-East Asia and Indian Ocean. The MH370 tragedy indicates that the skies over the region are not being watched closely at all. This lack of diligent surveillance has made the search for MH370 the most costly in history.

With the present search only planned to continue until June this year, the shocking truth about MH370 is that the relatives and loved ones of the people on MH370 may not get closure for two or three generations to come.

Authorities are now beginning to return to some of the original hypothesized theories to explore the MH370 disappearance further, such as a flame out or rogue pilot scenario similar to the Andreas Lubitz case where he deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus A320-211 into the French Alps. The questions about whether the pilot deliberately turned off the transponder over the South China Sea will probably be open to debate once again.

The mystery of MH370 may only be finally put to rest in the later part of this century, and this may only happen by accident.


Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis

What the Jakarta attacks mean for the year ahead


Those behind the attacks in Jakarta on 14 January desperately hoped to emulate the 13 November attacks in Paris. This time they fell far short. The attackers, contrary to initial impressions, were entirely locally organised and failed at almost every level. Four innocent lives were lost but they had clearly hoped to take many more.

Although ready to give their own lives they were ill-prepared, ill-equipped and had not properly thought through their plan of attack. Their crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were ineffective, killing only the bombers themselves. It is hard to imagine what the attackers realistically expected to achieve when they deployed in the middle of Jakarta that January morning.

Even before the attacks, awareness of the danger posed by the globalising impact of so-called Islamic State (IS) radicalisation in the region was high. Since December, Indonesian police had been acting on information that IS supporters linked to Syrian-based Indonesian IS leader Bahrun Naim were planning an attack. Through December and January a number of Naim’s associates were arrested and several planned attacks interrupted. As the more expert and better prepared militants were taken out of the picture, it was left to a ‘B team’ of locally organised amateurs to step in.

The elite police counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88 (Densus), deserves much credit not only for its rapid response to the attacks, but also for containing the threat in the weeks and months prior. Sustained success and development of capacity since the 2002 Bali attacks has positioned Densus well to deal with the new threat.

Yet there remains much to be concerned about. It is probable that more than 500 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to live and fight for IS. As the fight against IS in the Middle East turns into a long war, its influence across Indonesia and Southeast Asia will continue to grow.

Whether due to a spirit of rivalry or some more complex alchemy, Jihadi extremism of all kinds — not just support for IS — is on the rise in the region. Recent reports suggest that the old Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network has now recovered to a force comparable to its pre-Bali attack period, with around 2000 committed militants.

Even among those who unambiguously support IS, rivalries threaten to increase recruitment as factions compete to launch successful attacks. The longer IS maintains its ‘caliphate’ in the Middle East, the greater the numbers that will be drawn into the gravitational pull of this unprecedented Jihadi brand. Not even al-Qaeda in its heyday had the drawing power that IS now exercises.

All four of the January attackers visited the prison island of Nusa Kambangan in the weeks leading up to the attack. There they sought the blessing of charismatic IS supporter Abdurrahman Aman. One attacker, Sunakim (alias Afif), was a former detainee, having been arrested in 2010 and sentenced to a seven year jail term for his role in a terrorist training camp in Aceh. Bahrun Naim himself was arrested the same year and sentenced to two and half years on charges of weapons possession. Since previous attacks in Jakarta in July 2009, there have been more than 40 similar cases of clear recidivism by former terrorism detainees.

Plans to place influential detainees in isolation cells suggest that authorities are finally responding to the threat posed by Indonesia’s large population of detainees convicted on terrorism charges in its overcrowded and notoriously porous prison system.

Several hundred of those currently detained on terrorism charges will be released in the next few years. The government has recently announced legislative reform targeting IS supporters. But new laws alone will not be able to contain the threat posed by recycled militants. And attempts to pass and apply new legislation that is seen to be overly draconian risk a backlash that compounds current problems.

IS, for all its drawing power, is presently unpopular in mainstream Indonesian society. Those who support it are seen as being guilty of sedition. The January attacks strengthened this sentiment. But IS is a formidable machine. It is led by expert marketers and strategic planners who exploit popular attitudes to turn the young against the establishment.

IS supporters portray themselves as the true champions of the global Muslim ummah (community). They will exploit any miscalculation by authorities cracking down on extremism. As IS faces a year of great military challenges in the Middle East, it will continue the campaign it began last year of outrageous attacks on soft targets and exploiting its notoriety to feign potency.

The first ever attack in Southeast Asia in the name of IS saw poorly-constructed IEDs and low-power non-automatic weapons deployed by ill-prepared amateurs. Future attacks — and they will certainly come — may well see the use of military assault rifles of the kind uncommon in Indonesia but plentiful in the neighbouring Philippines. They are also likely to see more expert direction and organisation in orchestrating attacks.

One of the key lessons to take from the 13 November attacks in Paris is not to underestimate the enemy. A principal organiser, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is now thought to have been involved in four of the six terrorism plots thwarted in France in 2015. Prior to Paris, Abaaoud and his motley gang of associates, most of them known to the authorities for petty crimes, seemed pathetic figures and were all too easy to dismiss.

Indonesians are generally well-prepared to face the challenges ahead. But those challenges are likely to get much more serious in the coming year.

Greg Barton is professor of global Islamic politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute and co-director of the Australian Intervention Support Hub (AISH) at Deakin University and the ANU.