Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Controversial Warship to Singapore

The Price of Freedom?

In the next day or so a sleek, futuristic warship painted in newly-applied grey and black 'dazzle' camouflage will push off from a naval dock in San Diego, California, at the start of a voyage that will end in Singapore in about a month.

The USS Freedom, the first of the US Navy's controversial Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to be sent to Asia, is a new class of warship intended - as its name suggests - to operate on the ocean's margins rather in the blue open waters traditionally favored by naval strategists and commanders. The tri- hulled catamaran USS Independence and two other LCSs are also due to be sent to Singapore over the next four years.

While the arrival of Freedom at Singapore's Changi naval base for an eight-month 'deployment' will have no direct impact on naval dispositions or power within the Asia-Pacific region, it is set to serve a wider purpose for the US Navy.

Freedom's formal mission includes conducting "maritime security operations, participat[ing] in international exhibitions and exercises to highlight US strategic intent in the region." However, the less advertised purpose of the vessel's time in Singapore is seen as running the technically troubled warship through its paces as far away as possible from the LCS program's numerous critics within the navy and defence establishment.

LCS supporters will also hope the warship's presence in an albeit ill-defined quasi-operational role will produce a positive public relations buzz around the vessel and the wider program. This latter point is evident from the decision to paint Freedom in a camouflage pattern not used on a major US Navy warship since the Second World War. The 'dazzle' pattern paint job is in essence naval theater as it has no practical military use in the age of anti-ship missiles, autonomous homing torpedoes and intelligent mines. Instead it appears an attempt to enhance Freedom's mystique, while also concealing the dark smudges along the hull from the vessel's engine flues.

'Revolution' or a 'Little Crappy Ship?'
Many observers, not least within the US Navy and defence industry, will monitor and analyze Freedom's progress in minute detail. The LCS program has stirred a decade-long controversy within the navy as to whether it represents a coherent strategic and doctrinal response to the altered needs and priorities of US sea power, or if it merely reflects the need to reduce cut operational and manning costs while maintaining the appearance of a global oceanic presence.

Theory, recent experience against Iranian small boat 'swarm' tactics and economics seem to have to a greater influence dictated the LCS design and purpose than strategic assessment, doctrine or longer-term threat assessments. For at least some of the program's detractors the LCS acronym has, among many other variants, been reworked as 'Little Crappy Ship.'

A total of 52 LCS are now due to be built, reduced in early 2013 from 55, at an estimated cost more than US$25 billion (without weapons systems) and representing around 18 percent of the navy's planned 306-ship fleet by 2030. However, this total may well be further reduced if the present budget 'sequestration' exercise continues to erode US defense spending over the coming years.

LCS's are relatively small, lightly armed, multi-role, helicopter-equipped vessels requiring a far smaller crew - between 40 and 50 core personnel depending on role - than the conventional frigates and mine warfare ships they are intended to replace. The LCS concept is based around an ability to change the ship's mission by quickly installing modular packages to enable the vessel to variously conduct surface warfare, anti-submarine, counter-mine and special forces tasks. However, integrating these systems and providing crews trained in the differing specialised operations has been a major problem for the LCS program and the navy.

While Freedom is a steel mono-hulled ship capable of reaching speeds of up 40 knots, the equally fast tri-hulled Independence is built almost entirely of aluminium, an unusual design choice for a warship due to concerns that the metal fails to provide adequate protection, is susceptible to corrosion and may even burn or melt in a fire.

There is official recognition the LCS would not survive combat against modern conventional naval forces, leaving their primary fighting role to countering insurgents or pirates. The navy's official response is that the LCS project remains a work in progress, and by extension Freedom's deployment is part of this process rather than adding to US naval strength in the Asia Pacific.

If the US Navy's interest in testing the LCS in Southeast Asia seems clear, any advantage to Singapore appears less so when set against the potential diplomatic cost in terms of the country's relationships with nations often wary about its close ties with Western powers. This applies notably to China, where concerns over US 'encirclement' have raised the tempo of nationalist rhetoric - particularly within the powerful military.

Baseless speculation
The US government's intention to send up to four LCS to Singapore was announced by then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in early June 2011. Both Singapore and the US emphasized that the warships' presence at Changi didn't amount to a formal basing agreement, a diplomatic nicety that may have been privately dismissed by close neighbors and China.

Despite hosting a US Navy logistics unit - the 100-strong COMLOG WESTPAC - at the Changi naval base since the closure of the Subic Bay facility in the Philippines in the early 1990s to provision and maintain passing US warships, Singapore's sensitivity over insisting the LCS' presence be viewed as temporary arrangement may reflect concerns over China's growing emphasis on defining and defending maritime territorial claims.

Since the planned LCS deployment was announced in mid-2011, Beijing's willingness to reveal its intention to dominate what it considers its territorial waters based on self-defined boundaries in the South China and East China seas has intensified to the point where a clash between Chinese naval units and those of Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines has moved from unthinkable to plausible.

Singapore's foreign policy has long been based on balancing its relationships between regional neighbors and global powers through a mixture of economic and military ties. Investment, and the willingness to serve as a receptor for often opaquely sourced funds, has helped ease frictions among large and potentially threatening neighbors. This policy has been backed by the creation of the most lavishly equipped military forces in Southeast Asia.

Ties with Beijing are supported by massive investment, while location keeps Singapore out of the immediate area of contention in the South China Sea. Relations with the US, on the other hand, have increasingly been characterised by military and defense links. Singapore has purchased high-end US military equipment for many years, mainly for its powerful air force.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) operates F-15SG Eagle and F-16C/D Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters and KC-135R Stratotankers for in-flight refuelling. RSAF personnel undergo extensive flight and support training in bases across the US, notably in Arizona, Idaho and Texas, and Singapore has also offered consistent if modest support to US-led operations in Afghanistan by providing medical personnel, drone and mortar detecting units and training teams.

Port in a storm
Singapore has no doubt weighed the risks and rewards of hosting the LCS and probably assessed that the presence of warships that are either testbeds or de facto naval avatars - a strategically non-threatening manifestation of US naval power - will not destabilise regional ties or unduly concern Beijing.

However, what may prove more contentious is how Singapore extracts itself from the LCS arrangement if ties between China and the US deteriorate. While the present deal appears limited to Singapore 'hosting' the warships over eight- to ten-month periods at a time the overall agreement appears to extend at least until 2017.

Any change in the naval atmospherics in the region over this period, as seems almost certain given China's recent actions and rapidly expanding warship construction program, may well lead Washington to request a more permanent presence for an LCS squadron and perhaps other vessels. Any such move, however, would place Singapore in a potentially untenable position. To accede to such a request would draw China's ire - and perhaps that of Malaysia and Indonesia as well - while to deny the US access or support would threaten long-term ties with Washington. The presence and fate of warships throughout history have often proved catalysts in triggering or signalling events far greater than the sum of the vessels size or military significance. The loss of the USS Maine in Havana in 1898 led directly to the US Navy presence in Southeast Asia waters, while the arrival of the German gunboat Panther in Morocco's Agadir harbor in 1911 helped push Europe towards war three years later.

The de facto presence of US Navy warships in Singapore on a permanent basis over the coming four years, regardless of the vessels' capabilities and how the administrative details are presented, is set to mark a shift in how Washington's and Singapore's relationship may be perceived by other powers. How such perceptions are managed will prove a key challenge, particularly for Singapore, over the coming years.

(Gavin Greenwood is senior analyst with the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates political and security risk management consultancy.)

Thailand - Bringing insurgency to an end will be a long, hard slog

The media hype in Bangkok surrounding Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's recent meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya sounded as if peace was at hand in Thailand's restive southernmost border provinces where a deadly Malay-Muslim insurgency has festered for almost a decade.

As an ongoing effort to consolidate elected power after 18 months in office, Ms Yingluck and her team are eager to show progress on the spiralling violence in the south. Her counterpart in Malaysia appears equally keen to shore up leadership and stature ahead of polls where his ruling party is expected to continue its downward slide in popularity.

But the hype and expectations the top-level meeting raised for stakeholders in Thailand were misplaced and misguided. Unless the Malay-Muslim ethno-nationalist violence subsides dramatically in the coming days, the Thai prime minister may well have talked to the wrong partners in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong fashion. While cheers and sighs of relief will abound if peace suddenly breaks out, the dynamics on the ground in the deep South suggest otherwise. Peacemaking of this scale typically does not transpire overnight, especially not for an insurgency of this virulence and deadliness where more than 5,300 lives have been lost since the insurgent violence flared up again from January 2004.

To be sure, there is unlikely to be a silver bullet that can solve the insurgency swiftly. Neither a single act of any kind nor a policy or word by any individual is going to put an end to the violence. That applies to Ms Yingluck and her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was reported to have had a hand in negotiations leading up to the bilateral summit and the signing of an agreement between the National Security Council (NSC) and representatives from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). It also applies to insurgent leaders, whose details and profiles are still sketchy, and to Malaysian government leaders who might play a crucial role.

The way forward will have to involve key players from the two main sides of the conflict, state authorities and the insurgents, along with appropriate mediators. Timing cannot be rushed. The sequence of steps to be taken must be well-designed and somewhat methodical, yet flexible. Riding roughshod and raising expectations for a one-stop solution in one fell swoop are unlikely to be successful.

So far, neither the state nor the insurgents have shown unity and reliable, unified command and control on the ground. For the role of the state, the Yingluck government deploys the NSC to do its main handiwork in the face of the army's 4th Region, the Internal Security Operations Command, and other non-government security personnel, including the rangers and border patrol police. Although inter-agency conflicts are common everywhere, the handling of the southern insurgency requires a unified chain of command for peacemaking efforts to be effective.

On the other hand, counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy and tactics have to be sharper and smarter in design and implementation. Intelligence gathering has been abysmal overall. The failed insurgent raid against a marine barracks on 13 Feb was an aberration based on suspect information from an earlier interrogation. The wanton, daily violence by the insurgents suggests that few, if any, of them have been flipped (ie persuaded to work for the authorities). Why has a nine-year COIN flipped so few? Security officers operate in relative darkness of intelligence and thus their death toll and related casualties mount.

Accordingly, there has to be civilian oversight and control of the army. The PM's message must be clear to army officers that they will be taken to account for their actions. Otherwise the culture of impunity will prevail, further aggravating the sense of injustice and simmering grievances of Malay Muslims in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla. Evidently, based on reports from the 13 Feb raid, it was the impunity of state authorities at the Tak Bai protest in October 2004 that has fuelled the insurgency, drawing new recruits and radicalising them. The government's two-pronged approach must be a firm COIN on the one hand, accompanied by control of security services, and a peace drive on the other, based on the reality that negotiations and political accommodation are the only way out of the southern quagmire.

The insurgent leadership also has to demonstrate some unity of command and a connection to its foot soldiers on the ground. The BRN-Coordinate, a more radicalised and militant splinter group, is conventionally said to be the main operational arm of the insurgency. Yet there has been scant evidence to indicate its chain of command and whether the top commanders are intent and authorised to enter into peace talks. Teasing out the leaders, their political objectives, their command, control and connection to insurgents on the ground takes time.

So it will be unsurprising if the NSC's signatory partner ends up unable to curb the violence in the days ahead. In a sense, the insurgents will need to streamline, organise and articulate what they consider as their initial achievable endgame. Being able to perpetrate violence at will brings them no lasting and concrete political accomplishment.

An environment of mutual trust and confidence-building to reach a certain comfort level is thus paramount. Without a sense of trust, not much substance will be discussed. Engendering this environment to come up with enabling conditions for a negotiated settlement would typically require an outside mediator and interlocutor. Here is where Malaysia is involved.

The Malaysian government's cooperation is indispensable. However, northern Malaysian, especially Kelantan and Terengganu, is the stronghold of the opposition Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS). These are the areas where Malay Muslims in Thailand have sought refuge. The Thai government must also reach out to opposition politicians, including the other two main opposition parties, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. The opposition parties, under the flagship Pakatan Rakyat, are expected to do well at Prime Minister Najib's expense in the coming polls.

But beyond the PAS, Malaysia does not have the right broker profile. Rarely do countries with internal conflicts end up with next-door neighbours as honest brokers. Thai popular perceptions of Malaysia are that the country is too close to the Malay-Muslim insurgents. If a broker must come from within the region, Indonesia offers a better profile and proven experience. While Malaysia was instrumental in arranging the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, Indonesia directly dealt and concluded a peace agreement with an Aceh ethno-nationalist movement. In Papua, where a more Islamicised separatist movement has rumbled, the Indonesian authorities are making inroads. Papua certainly is nowhere near what Aceh resembled.

Thailand's southern insurgency is not the only remaining major internal conflict among the founding members of Asean. The way ahead can only derive from a negotiated compromise. The consensus from numerous studies calls for greater administrative autonomy, not fundamentally different from what was agreed in Aceh and Bangsamoro, well short of any semblance of secession. Enabling conditions in an environment of mutual trust are necessary. The Thai government has to sustain its intent and resolve and control its overweening army and other security outfits. The insurgents need to demonstrate a correlation between political objectives and the perpetrated level of violence. An honest broker from outside can assist in providing a platform and holding hands. The cold reality in Thailand's deep South is that no one party can win completely and have it all.

The writer is Associate Professor of International Political Economy and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Indonesia - Interfaith Dialogue Is Not Enough

From Tuesday until Friday, Indonesia is hosting an interfaith conference of Asian Christian and Muslim leaders, jointly held by the Indonesian-based International Conference of Islamic Scholars (ICIS), the Indonesian Bishops Conference (KWI), and the Indonesian Church Association (PGI). The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the Christian Conference of Asia also support the gathering.

This interfaith dialogue, for sure, is not the first to be held in this country. There have been numerous interfaith initiatives and meetings across the archipelago aimed at airing tensions and establishing interreligious harmony.

Despite frequent meetings of Christian and Muslim leaders, however, the question still remains: why is religious violence, including anti-Christian campaigns in some areas of the nation, still continuing? What went wrong with previous Christian-Muslim dialogues?  
There are a number of reasons why such interfaith dialogues have so far had only little success in overcoming religiously-inspired conflicts.

First, many, if not most, interfaith dialogues are merely formal, ceremonial conversations, often taking place in luxurious hotels. As a result, with few exceptions, such interfaith meetings are a waste of time and money, and little more than “feel-good talk-fests” that do not fully grapple with real problems of interreligious relations and intergroup tensions on the ground. Worse yet, the meetings usually only involve “moderate factions” of both religions, and do not engage with the “real actors” of religious violence: the extremists.

Strengthening the moderates, while at the same time marginalizing the militants, is not the best strategy. In order to become successful, such interfaith meetings must bring leaders of conservative-militant groups of both sides to the negotiating table. This does not have to be an official gathering, but can also be a series of informal meetings. In many cases, such an informal approach is more productive than the formal one. Cases of interreligious violence across the globe, from Mozambique to Northern Ireland and Maluku, have ended in peace after a series of regular, untiring interfaith engagements involving opposing groups.

This is the essence of dialogue: an ongoing communication process to understand thoughts, minds, worldviews, teachings, systems of belief and philosophies of life of other communities. Dialogue should be a cultural bridge to tackle deadlock, to enhance mutual awareness, to foster joint activities and even to transform relationships between members of conflicting groups. An effective communication tool to create mutual understanding and mutual trust among warring parties, an interfaith dialogue, as professor of interreligious dialogue at Temple University’s Leonard Swidler reminds us, requires commitment and willingness to seek other truths, not to force our truth onto others.

The forms of religious dialogue vary: ranging from joint appeals by high-level religious leaders for an end to fighting, to attempts to develop mutual understanding and the recognition of shared values and interests, to grassroots efforts to encourage repentance and promote reconciliation. These types of ongoing, healthy and constructive dialogue can function as a way to move from the perspective of, in Milton Bennett’s terms, “ethnocentrism” to “ethnorelativism.” To achieve such quality, one needs more than, and must go beyond, a formal interfaith huge conference. 

The second reason why interfaith meetings tend to fail is the inability of participants to diagnose real issues facing conflicting groups. Many, perhaps most, people think cases of religious clashes are mainly rooted in non-religious factors.

ICIS secretary general Hasyim Muzadi, for instance, said in the Jakarta Globe that part of the agenda of the current interfaith conference is to address conflict, tensions and intolerance involving Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. This, according to him, is deeply rooted not in religious fanaticism, but in socioeconomic and political interests. In other words, the conflict is more about “greed” than “creed.”

This kind of reasoning — looking at the political economy of conflict — has been dominant since the rise of so-called modernism or secularism. Religious moderates, liberal skeptics and secular-minded scholars and policymakers have shared and echoed this argument, albeit for different reasons and objectives. While the “secularist-liberals” dismiss the positive function of religion, dubbing it as a pre-modern, undemocratic, intolerant and violent worldview, the religious moderates think of it in opposite terms: a source of peace, justice, tolerance and democracy.

However, looking at interreligious conflicts worldwide, one will find that such cases are about more than merely political economy. In large part, radicalism is not even rooted in poverty. And it is worth noting that many poor people in this country and other parts of the world do not share extremist views. And many poor areas in this nation have no record of communal violence whatsoever.
Conversely, as a recent study by Dutch scholar Martin van Bruinessen shows, Islamic radicalism and militancy in Indonesian is an urban middle class phenomenon.

Accordingly, those concerned with interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding need to stop focusing on poverty and economic issues — because such frameworks are not only unfair and biased but also, for the most part, misleading.

In the case of Christian-Muslim conflicts in some parts of West Java, for instance, one needs to take into account the rivalry between Christian evangelicals and Muslim hard-liners who compete for largely the same souls: migrant workers, urban populations and street children. Conservative-militant Muslim groups have contributed to the exacerbation and escalation of interreligious tensions, but hard-line Islamists are not the only agents of conflict.

Some Christian evangelical groupings, many of which have been supported by American-based evangelist churches and organizations, also have played crucial roles. As reported by International Crisis Group, US-based evangelical groups that supported “Christianization” and missionary activities in Indonesia included the Joshua Project, Partners International, Frontiers and the Campus Crusade for Christ.

The harsh competition between Muslim hard-liners and Christian evangelicals, and insensitive proselytization efforts by both groups, has indeed led to violent conflicts between religious communities. Moderate religious leaders need to pay attention to — and find productive ways to solve — the increase of Islamic vigilante groupings and various like-minded alliances that have become a public order menace as well as aggressive Christian proselytizing in Muslim strongholds.

The future of interfaith and Christian-Muslim relations in this country will depend on the serious, positive collaborations between actors in both state and society.

The ongoing religious clashes and tensions in large part are due to the failure of the government and state authorities to bring perpetrators to justice and to prevent or effectively prosecute incitement and intimidation committed by radical groups against religious minorities.

As long as the ruler remains silent, the social drama will continue. 

Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Sulu-Sabah Saga

Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, in the southern Philippines, is in Manila ailing and undergoing dialysis. Meanwhile hundreds of his followers are lying low in the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. Having arrived there by swift boats, they intend to stay there for keeps, unless the sultan recalls them.

Sabah once clearly belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu. To the sultan and his followers, that has not changed. The government of Malaysia isn’t amused. In defense of its sovereignty over Sabah it would deport the “intruders” from Sulu, using armed force if needed.

It’s sad that the claim of the Sulu Sultanate to Sabah has come to this. A monkey wrench in the relations between the Philippines, of which Sulu is a province, and Malaysia, of which Sabah is a state. The butt of mindless assertions by grandstanding politicians, pundits and hecklers.

To me it’s sad that Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, is now an ailing, angry old man. I remember him as healthy, forbearing and in good humor. I talked with him for most of a day in 1988 — I’m sure it was 1988 because my son Jamaal was born early that year and Jamalul was pleased to have him as his namesake.

Jamalul confided that the lease money that Malaysia paid regularly was something like a curse: there wasn’t much of it and so many members of the royal clan claimed a share of it and there was no pleasing them. He said he was considering negotiating for a substantial lump sum that could make a difference to the lives of his followers and being done with the sultanate’s proprietary rights to Sabah. He said nothing about sovereignty rights.

I haven’t seen him since that interview. Since then he has changed his mind. He has every right to do that. I only hope he has not fallen prey to political interests seeking to disrupt the peace process brokered by Malaysia between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government of the Philippines.

The Philippine claim to sovereignty over Sabah is no joke. It has a documented legal basis. In 1685 the Sultan of Brunei gifted sovereignty over Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu for the latter’s help in defeating what would have been a successful rebellion. In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu signed a document “leasing” Sabah to a British company for a sum to be paid in perpetuity. Over the years, the British government succeeded the company and was in turn succeeded by the Malaysian government as administrator to Sabah, which had meanwhile become a state of Malaysia.

According to Malaysia, the word “padjak” in the document meant “to cede,” and on that basis it exercised sovereignty over the territory. But it continues to respect the proprietary rights of the Sultan of Sulu over the territory; that’s why it keeps paying the Sultanate money that the latter, interpreting “padjak” differently, considers “rental” for the use of territory over which it had sovereignty. That “sovereignty” has been passed to the Philippine government.

The dispute has led to convulsions of history: a bungled Philippine plot to invade and annex Sabah, and a secessionist rebellion in Mindanao helped at its launching by Malaysia. Between the Philippine government and the secessionists, there have been peace talks and agreements, the latest having been brokered, ironically, by Malaysia — but the controversy survives.

I don’t know how the issue will be resolved. I trust the two governments will settle it through diplomacy or adjudication, while considering the wishes of all concerned, including the Sultan of Sulu and the people of Sabah — otherwise neither government deserves to be part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that calls itself a politico-security community.

Neither should ignore the Sultanate. It once helped shape the history of the region. It deserves some respect even today.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer with interests in literature, philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language and writing consultant for the Indonesian government.