Philippines sends six Coast Guard vessels to South China Sea

Move to guard Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal

Source: Philippines sends six Coast Guard vessels to South China Sea |

So the Philippine Coast Guard is going to protect Filipino fishing vessels.

There are yachts and fishing boats in any given marina in the US that are more heavily armed than your average Philippine Coast Guard ship. It’s a fairly good bet that the PLA(N) is unfrightened, which suggests that these ships are aught more than a tripwire, a means to provoke an incident.

There will be much to watch in the coming weeks.

Indonesia is Worried about ISIS

ISIL, a Growing Threat in Indonesia?”
Gwenael Njoto-Feillard

East-West Center
September 23, 2014

Lest we develop the impression that concern about ISIL/ISIS is restricted to the Middle East and select western capitals, this paper by Njoto-Feillard, a visiting scholar at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, makes clear that the entire Muslim world is coping with the disruption in the fertile crescent.

Njoto-Feillard suggests that the way to resist the tsunamis of extremism washing through Muslim communities worldwide is to build resilient societies. Those societies, he notes, would involve stronger cooperation between the state and “all elements of Islamic civil society.” Absolutely.

What we wonder, though, is what happens to non-Muslim minorities in a situation like that. Do you marginalize them for “their own good,” because being marginalized in a moderate society is better than being slaughtered in a radical one? Or do you bring them to the table and incorporate them into the process, finding a role for them in society that makes the entire society stronger?


Do U.S. Overtures to ASEAN Matter?

English: A screen shot from this White House v...

President Obama attends a working lunch with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations around the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”
Prashanth Parameswaran
East-West Center
December 13, 2012

As a part of his “grand pivot tour” last fall, Barack Obama engaged with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an effort to rejuvenate ties that had gone fallow for nearly a decade and a half.

While progress was made, as the author of this paper points out, the bigger questions are the continuing relevance of both the U.S. and ASEAN to the futures of the nations in the region. Regional trade ties are supplanting both Europe and the United States in economic importance. The U.S. realistically does not have a lot of diplomatic bandwidth for the region. And in the face of a series of more relevant groupings, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) ASEAN is starting to look dated, much as SEATO became in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam.

All of this complicates U.S. foreign policy, but it plays into the hands of a China looking to define Asia outside the grasp of the United States, Russia, and Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, then, the region is starting to wonder what it needs America for in the first place. Perhaps it is time the U.S. began reassessing our own interests in the region.

Does Thailand Want the US to Pivot?

Thailand guard

Thailand guard (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“After Obama’s Visit: The US-Thailand Alliance and China”
Sasiwan Chingchit

East-West Center
December 4, 2012

The underlying assumption of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy to shift the focus of the U.S. security establishment away from Southwest Asia and Europe to Southeast Asia is that the locals are going to be happy with the idea. A read of Sasiwan Chingchit’s essay, though, makes you wonder.

The author suggests that despite a long friendship with the U.S. that peaked in the early 1970s, Thai attentions and affections have since shifted north, to China. Little wonder: since China backed the Thai economy during the dark days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the money has continued to flow from China and into the Thai economy in the form of loans, direct investment, and plume of tourists that grows by the year. That one Thai in five is ethnically Chinese probably doesn’t hurt. The message is clear: don’t think you’re going to swoop in here and turn us against our new benefactors to the north.

Chingchit makes a fair point, but the elephant in the room should be obvious to any Thai realist: what happens if the price of Chinese friendship gets a little too high?

Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in finding itself caught between two giants. On the one hand, relations with the rising China carry the promise of commercial and economic benefit. On the other, the U.S. presence in Asia stands as a guarantor that limits China’s ambitions to the commercial sphere. Having the U.S. and China at loggerheads on their behalf suits the smaller nations of Asia as the competition between two eligible bachelors suits the coquette.

What happens, then, when the U.S., tired of a low diplomatic return on its security investment, allows the pivot to become a dead letter and leaves Southeast Asia to manage its own fate? The last time the region was without a capable protector it fell under the shadow of Japan’s East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It does not take a surfeit of imagination to see something altogether similar happening again.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and America’s Pivot

How U.S. Can Secure the New East
Zbigniew Brzezinski

The Diplomat

All too often I find myself on the opposite side of an issue with Mr. Brzezinski, but his recent contribution to The Diplomat is deserving of consideration. His feeling: the U.S. should stay out of direct military involvement of conflicts among Asian powers.

While not altogether unique (I hear echoes of Douglas MacArthur), the warning is timely. With our strategic pivot to Asia, the U.S. looks altogether too ready to leap into a fray over the South China Sea, to give one example. In that there are some twenty unresolved border conflicts involving China alone, we may be writing a check the U.S. armed forces could never cash.

What worries me about Mr. Brzezinski’s advice are telltale signs that Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor has some reasonably large blind-spots in Asia. In describing the strains between India and China, for example, he is oddly silent on the matters of Tibet, the Himalayan republics, and Sino-Indian territorial disputes. Instead, he isolates Pakistan and India’s naval power as the core points of contention.

He suggests getting too close to India would open the door for Russia in Central Asia as America would be “distracted.” All of this, of course, assumes capability that it is unclear lies within the grasp of Putin’s Kremlin and that China and India would sit idly while it happened.

More disturbingly, Brzezinski seems blind to the calculation of the Asian nations who on the one hand are concerned about China’s growing power, but on the other hand want to profit from deep engagement in its rise. Walking this fine line would be served elegantly by drawing the U.S. into the “bad cop” role in Asia, allowing Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines to play off the US and China against one another to their benefit.

He concludes:

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on mediation, conciliation and balancing and not on military engagement in mainland Asia.

A fine sentiment, but allow us to suggest an alternative formulation.

Ultimately, the United States’ geopolitical role in the new East will have to be based on a careful calculation of our interests, a recognition that, paradoxically, our power and influence in the region may best be served by engagement at a distance.

China’s appetite for regional and global influence far exceeds its current and projected capabilities. A true realist might suggest giving China enough rope to make its own noose.

Is Vietnam the Prussia of the 21st Century?

“The Vietnam Solution
Robert D. Kaplan
The Atlantic
June 2012

Blick auf Hanoi

Blick auf Hanoi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan has spent the last two decades on the ground of the world’s trouble spots, hunting for the untold stories of the conflicts that happen on the edges of globalization and what the US defense establishment calls “The Long War.” His worldview is divorced from both the Pentagon and the Ivory Tower, cleaving more closely to a ground-level perspective that we hear and read all too little.

Kaplan began his post-9/11 writings focused on failed states and non-state actors and how those two created not just an opening but a need for the U.S. to step in and change things. With his recent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Kaplan began to shift his attention to the emerging great power politics in Asia, and in the June edition of The Atlantic, Kaplan turns full-face toward China.

Coming just as China is starting to flex some muscle in the South China Sea off of Vietnam’s shores, Kaplan’s article offers a view of the Middle Kingdom from Hanoi. It is not a nice view, given China’s growing diplomatic aggression, but it is for Vietnam not a new one: the Vietnamese, Kaplan points out, have been maneuvering against the Dragon to maintain their independence for a millennium.

They have done this because they have become adept at playing regional power politics to keep the Chinese from squashing their country out of existence. Kaplan dubs Vietnam “The Prussia of Asia,” and as I am halfway through Christopher Clark’s superb Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, the point rings true. Vietnam has learned to play a Clausewitzian game as well as anyone in the region.

The article is excellent, and my only quibble is that Kaplan did not ask the hardest question: whether Vietnam’s domestic politics and the direction its economy is taking will allow it to resist being drawn into China’s orbit. This is a non-trivial question for those of us watching the South China Sea. Vietnam remains the wild-card for both sides. But, reading this article, it is clear that this is exactly how Hanoi would like to keep things.

Mines in the South China Sea

“Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas”
Scott C. Truver
U.S. Naval War College Review
Spring 2012

Strategists focus heavily on the aerospace aspects of China’s “access denial” strategy, thinking about how ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and attack aircraft could effectively seal the US Navy out of the Western Pacific. But another weapon remains that could have a similar effect in a much lower intensity conflict: sea mines.

Drop a few dozen cheap and low-technology magnetic mines around the Paracels or Spratleys, sit back, and watch the fireworks. It is an illustration that China has plenty of arrows in its quiver that could prove costly for Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and the U.S. to address, one that demands an equally asymmetric strategy.

ASEAN-China Documents Series, 1991-2005

This PDF book compiles some important primary sources on the evolution of the relationship between China and ASEAN over the past two decades. China has attempted to interpose itself into ASEAN, and the effectiveness of that ongoing effort, will determine whether Southeast Asia becomes a regional power in its own right, or whether it simply becomes another sphere of influence wherein China, India, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. play an updated version of The Great Game.

ASEAN Annual Report, 2007: Becoming One ASEAN

Flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Image via Wikipedia

An update on how Southeast Asia is addressing its longstanding divisions in order to form an effective diplomatic power bloc. In the past, ASEAN has been largely a commercial and economic arrangement.

But as China and India rise, ASEAN will take on an increasingly important political role, and if the nations can effectively resist the “divide and conquer” approach that Chinese and Indian diplomats will inevitably employ, the region could become a critical national security bloc as well.

The report is here.