Kim’s legitimacy

In the past few days, the United States and the Asian neighborhood have once again been abuzz with the recent bellicose rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. Some, like the editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, think that North Korea’s saber-rattling is a result of paranoia common to many authoritarian regimes. Most, on the other hand, think that the current escalation is merely an exercise of tactical brinkmanship on Pyongyang’s part. The general analysis is that this is just a way for the North Korean regime to test the mettle of the newly-installed administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and to consolidate its bargaining position in order to leverage for foreign aid. I generally agree with this prevailing view, but my opinion has a slightly different nuance.

North Korea is unique in the sense that it is probably the only country in the world that experiences famine after undergoing industrialization. It started out with an economy much bigger than South Korea’s during the early post-war period, but its government stubbornly pursued Songun, or military-first policy, at the expense of building adequate infrastructure that could have facilitated growth in the agricultural sector and in other industries. Making matters worse, the Democratic People’s Republic shunned post-war international trade and, during the 1970s, lost access to credit after it defaulted on its enormous foreign debt, much of which were used to fund the regime’s many wasteful white elephants. Deprived of a steady source of foreign exchange, North Korea has been treating foreign aid as a form of income since then.

This is why the regime of the late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il used the country’s nuclear weapons program as a leverage to gain aid, cleverly escalating tensions every now and then to extort concessions from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. There is no doubt that his son, Kim Jong-un, sees saber-rattling as a way to gain “income” too, and that part of the reason behind the on-going provocations is to do exactly that.

However, as I have consistently stated on this blog, the main motivation of Kim Jong-un– or more accurately the ruling clique that props him up, which is reportedly led by his uncle Chang Song-taek–  seems to be slightly different from that of his father’s. More than leverage for aid, the goal seems to be the consolidation of the boyish dictator’s two-year rule. This probably explains why Kim went ahead with his satellite launch in March last year despite the fact that doing so entailed the cancellation of a generous American offer, painstakingly negotiated by his Foreign Ministry just the month before, of 240,000 tons of grains.

Political scientists would often tell us that to remain stable, regimes need political legitimacy, which is usually derived from sovereign mandates. For autocratic countries, identifying sources of legitimacy is tricky, since there are no elections. In North Korea, for instance, being a Kim is not an automatic basis of legitimacy.  Kim Jong-il had to prove his worth: He worked as a senior official for ten years before succeeding his father, yet he still had to face at least one coup before he could consolidate his rule during the first few years of his term. In contrast, Kim Jong-un never had the experience his father had prior to taking the reins of government, and so it is likely that his legitimacy in the eyes of the ruling elite has not yet been established. More that that, the ruling elite can only prop up the Kim dynasty for so long; sooner or later it would have to come up with something to reinforce its legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people, in the same manner that the Chinese Communist Party has taken to fanning nationalist flames to justify its rule.

Unlike his grandfather the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, who hyped his wartime exploits, and his father Kim Jong-il, who encouraged popular mythology about his birth, Kim Jong-un seems to be humanizing his position to endear himself to his people. For instance, he has been regularly seen delivering speeches, sporting his gorgeous wife, and smiling in public– things his aloof predecessors never deemed worth doing. As he tries to reach out to his constituents in an apparent attempt to win genuine mandate, he seems to see the need to unify his subjects by invoking a foreign threat, and to show the ruling elite that, despite his smiling demeanor, he is as tough as his forebears. This seems to be his idea of gaining political legitimacy and keeping the elite in check and, as we shall probably see in the next few months, it is not without great cost. The question is, are people in Pyongyang buying it?

Umwelten and the Sabah crisis

The mind, neuroscientists say, operates in a very small subset of the world that its eyes are able to see. This subset forms a restrictive cognitive environment that makes it extremely difficult for the mind to understand the wider world; in other words, a set of biases that makes the mind myopic. This subset is called the Umwelt.

Professor Randy David once wrote that those who live in an Umwelt are, in a way, color-blind– and usually unaware of it.

There is no doubt that the biggest security issue facing both Malaysia and the Philippines, even eclipsing the South China Sea disputes, is the escalating situation in the disputed region of Sabah. And perhaps the biggest bar to a proper resolution of this conflict is the inability of all the actors involved to think beyond their respective umwelten.

There is, for instance, a nationalist Umwelt: a world where advancing the interest of the nation-state, no matter how costly and destabilizing, is the ultimate value. We see this in Malaysians who think that their government’s response to the crisis has been weak and in Filipinos who think that their government’s failure to support the invasion is an act of treason. There is also the historical Umwelt, which insists that events of the past should still be the arbiter of present disputes, despite the fact that realities on the ground have changed. We see this in those who still cling to old titles to claim territories, oblivious to concepts like sovereignty and values like the right to self-determination. Still, there are those who live in an academic Umwelt that sees little value in the modern international system based on nation-states, emphasizing identities that precede modern national boundaries instead.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Benigno S. Aquino III seem to live in a restrictive Umwelt, too– one that does not compromise the concept of sovereignty or state authority. Prime Minister Najib, for instance, doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the political realities that compel Manila, a government friendly to his, to request access to Sabah on humanitarian grounds. For him, the crisis is strictly a police issue for Malaysia. Similarly, President Aquino doesn’t see the importance of giving the so-called sultan an opportunity to save face. He only sees the Muslim leader’s insubordination.

Resolving the Sabah crisis requires understanding all these umwelten– that is, understanding where the different actors are coming from. We should take note of all the cultural issues involved, and understand and appreciate the history behind the dispute. But, as columnist John Nery said, history can only go so far. At the end of the day, we will have to act in accordance with present realities.

We can of course argue how arbitrary the current national boundaries are, and how older identities are more enduring than modern nationalities. But realistically, these current boundaries and nationalities are here to stay, and the only way to resolve international disputes is through the framework of the current international system, which recognizes these geo-bodies and nationalities, not old kingdoms and identities.

We can also argue all day about the merits of the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah, but the following realities will not change:

Firstly, that despite its long history and the Philippine government’s recognition of its importance to the Moro people’s cultural identity, the Sultanate of Sulu is not a juridical entity, much less a sovereign one. It cannot maintain an army, since militias are prohibited under Philippine laws, and it cannot defy the Philippine government and press an international claim by itself.

Secondly, that Sabah is not merely a piece of private property but a territory whose people have been granted the right to self-determination. While the United Nations-sponsored commission that found that the Sabahans desired to federate with Malaysia in 1963 may have been questionable to the Philippine and Indonesian governments then, the fact remains that Sabah has chosen to be part of the Malaya-Singapore-Sarawak federation and that the people of Sabah see themselves today either as Sabahans or Malaysians and not as Filipinos or Sulu subjects.

Thirdly, that historical titles usually mean next to nothing in international law– otherwise, Spain and Portugal should own the world– and that, finally, there is a clear distinction between sovereignty and ownership: the former trumps the latter. And while the Philippines has legislated its sovereignty over Sabah, Malaysia exercises actual sovereignty.

However, despite the inherent weakness of its claim to Sabah, domestic considerations make it extremely difficult, if not in fact impossible, for the Philippines to drop the claim. This is a practical reality that Malaysia should understand, just as Manila understands that Kuala Lumpur will never cede its sovereignty over Sabah.

Similarly, both Malaysia and the Philippines should understand that the Tausugs, the former subjects of the old Sultanate of Sulu, will always see Sabah as part of their homeland. No amount of Philippine admonition or Malaysian crackdown would change this. In this regard, therefore, the nation-state configuration must be flexible enough to accommodate extra-political nuances that are cultural and historical in nature; for given the fact that the Tausugs have historically been a warrior people, any attempt by both states to force their orientation on them will only result in sustained violence. This is why the current crackdown by Malaysia on the Tausugs in Sabah, assuming it is true, is dangerous for Kuala Lumpur– if Prime Minister Najib is not careful, this might become for him what the Jabidah Massacre was to Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1970s.

It will be best for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments to break out of their respective umwelten and understand the nuances of the current realities. Good faith between the two Southeast Asian powers is important, as this would create wiggle room for both to end violence in the immediate term and to solve the dispute in the long term. This, not nationalism, is what patriots on both sides should be fanning.

The situation in Sabah is obviously a Malaysian police issue, and there is nothing the Philippines could do but to call on Kuala Lumpur to respond to the Sulu intrusion in a proportionate manner, and to treat Filipinos in Sabah humanely. President Aquino is paying a steep political price domestically for recognizing this. But while he should remain stern towards the self-proclaimed sultan for provoking this crisis, he should also be flexible enough to allow his group a face-saving way to withdraw from Sabah.

On the other hand, while it is understandable for Prime Minister Najib to show his resolve in defending Malaysian sovereignty against the self-styled sultan’s followers, he should also appreciate President Aquino’s political will and help the President minimize the flak he’s getting from Filipino nationalists. For starters, perhaps he should exercise restraint in deploying the armed forces at his disposal, and grant Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s request to send a Philippine humanitarian team to assist the Tausugs in Sabah.

It would be unfortunate if the Prime Minister would exploit the situation to strengthen the Barisan Nasional’s position ahead of the coming general elections in June at the expense of the Philippines. That would be a myopic path that could lead to long-term instability in the Sabah-Sulu corridor, something that would not be in the interest not only of Malaysia and the Philippines but also of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in general.

Finally, once the fighting has subsided, the Philippines and Malaysia should pro-actively seek ways to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Perhaps Secretary del Rosario and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman should meet and issue a joint communique expressing their intention to, once and for all, put a closure to the Sabah dispute. Perhaps a joint exploratory committee should be formed to determine a framework on how both countries can address all issues concerned, leading to a final treaty on the Sabah dispute that would address the grievances of the heirs of the Sultanate without violating the Sabahans’ right to self-determination.

I’m sure there are sober, creative minds among Filipinos, Malaysians, and Sabahans that can come up with a win-win solution. I myself have some vague ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself for now.

Tubbataha and the Philippine-American alliance

The grounding of the American minesweeper USS Guardian in the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea is stoking emotions in the Philippines. It has put both the American and the Philippine governments on the spot, and has given anti-American activists plenty of ammunition.

The incident is just the latest in what the New York Times has described as a “string of embarrassments” for the American military in the Philippines. A couple of weeks ago, both Manila and Washington drew flak for the discovery of a US drone off Masbate. In the Filipino activist’s mind, that incident evoked images of America’s drone warfare in Pakistan, despite assurances from both governments that the drone had in fact been unarmed. Much earlier, a Malaysia-based American government contractor was alleged to have dumped thousands of liters of untreated domestic waste from a US Navy ship near Subic Bay, alarming environmentalists.

While a full accounting of all facts surrounding the circumstances of the Guardian‘s grounding has yet to be made, the initial reports have been disturbing. Under Philippine laws, the waters around the Tubbataha are off-limits to navigation, except for purposes of scientific research or tourism. The Tubbataha Marine Park’s management claims that it has warned the Guardian against sailing through the protected waters, but the minesweeper ignored these warnings, telling the Park’s authorities to take their complaints to the American Embassy instead. When the Park’s Marine Rangers tried to board the ship as per protocol, the Guardian shifted into battle mode, intimidating the Rangers away. An apologetic spokesman for the US Navy said this was merely a result of miscommunication.

These reports have stoked anger among Filipino activists, along with demands from leftist politicians to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States. Put in context, this emotional backlash is understandable. Firstly, the Tubbataha Reefs are the crown jewel of Philippine marine treasures. Protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the Reefs are a national symbol akin to the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, or the Grand Canyon in the United States. Secondly, the American military’s environmental record in the Philippines has not been stellar. Calls for a clean-up of the toxic waste that American military personnel left behind in former US installations in Clark and Subic, for instance, were never heeded by Washington, and, as far as I know, the victims of those wastes have yet to be properly compensated.

The Filipino psyche seems to have contradictory attitudes towards the sensitive issue of American military presence in the Philippines. On one hand, Filipinos are arguably very pro-American in their political and cultural orientation, and, much to the disappointment of nationalists, see the United States as the only indispensable guarantor of Philippine sovereignty. This explains why, historically-speaking, Philippine foreign policy has generally been aligned with that of the United States, and Filipino leaders– especially those whose legitimacy is shaky, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo– often see it useful to project that they have Washington’s blessings. On the other hand, like the Japanese, Filipinos view their relations with the United States, particularly the VFA, as inherently skewed. Seeing American presence in his country as a legacy of colonialism, even minor incidents involving Americans usually evoke memories of American mistreatment of the Philippines– from the Philippine-American War through the subsequent American colonial period, the Bell Trade Act of 1946, and the dumping of toxic wastes in Clark and Subic– in the Filipino’s mind.

Perhaps recognizing the effects of the Tubbataha incident on Philippine sensibilities, American Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas has issued a public apology on Friday, reinforcing earlier apologies issued by various officials of the US Navy. But while the Philippine government has acknowledged these acts of contrition, its agents, particularly the provincial government of Palawan and the Tubbataha Marine Park authorities, remain adamant. Even President Benigno S. Aquino III, whose administration has welcomed increased American presence in the Philippines amid tensions with China, appears irked, judging from the way he has asked incisive questions.

Meanwhile, leftist activists and politicians, driven by their chronic contrarianism against any Filipino government and their dogmatic hatred of the United States, have castigated the Aquino administration for its level-headed reaction to the crisis. For them, the President should have condemned Washington as strongly as he had condemned Beijing for its incursions into Philippine maritime territories. While this extreme view is probably isolated in the Philippines, both Manila and Washington would do well to recognize that an honest-to-goodness investigation that would reasonably address all concerns is of utmost importance. Needless to say, any perceived whitewash on the part of either government could potentially damage the Philippine-American alliance.

Obviously, the alliance is important not only for the Philippines, who sees America as a hedge against an increasingly threatening China, but also for the United States, who needs the foothold that the Philippines provides for its announced “pivot” to East Asia to be meaningful.

President Aquino would understandably be compelled by domestic considerations to push for an independent investigation of the Tubbataha incident. This should cover the reason why the minesweeper ventured into the protected Tubbataha waters, whether its captain culpably obstructed the work of the Marine Park Rangers, and the extent of the damage incurred on the Reefs. Should the result of this investigation warrants, the captain of the ship must be held accountable, and the United States should properly compensate for the damage its minesweeper has incurred on a Philippine national treasure. After that, both sides should constructively explore ways to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Ambassador Thomas, on the other hand, must convince his government that, as an ally, the United States must help President Aquino by cooperating with the investigation and respecting its findings. Failure to do so could make it difficult for the Philippine government to defend the VFA domestically, and perhaps make it easy for China to drive a wedge between the two allies.

The onus is, on one hand, for the Aquino administration to demonstrate that it can properly balance the country’s national interest of protecting the Reefs against its strategic interest of keeping its alliance with the United States strong; and, on the other hand, for the American government to demonstrate the extent of its respect for Philippine sovereignty.

In an editorial last week, the Inquirer has argued that, should the United States opt not to cooperate with any investigation, the Philippines should mobilize the international environmental lobby, including its American offshoots, to force Washington to cooperate. I see no reason why this should not be done. Still, it should not have to come to that. Ultimately, the bedrock of Philippine-American alliance is good faith and confidence between Manila and Washington, the maintenance of which is in the interest of both countries.

On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.

It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.

Pyongyang’s fireworks

Many students of international politics have gotten so used to North Korean missile testings they merely reacted to this week’s missile launch with what amounts to an academic shrug-off: They took note, but only a few tried to make sense of the development. After all, there already is a default narrative for every North Korean rocket launch: It’s a way for the regime to seek attention and gain leverage to extort aid.

But I think this week’s missile testing deviates a bit from this default narrative. This time around, the regime in Pyongyang has a different motivation, and the rocket launch’s implications could prove to be much more significant.

Basic political theories tell us that regimes need legitimacy to remain stable, and that unlike democratic regimes, which gain mandates through electoral victory, dictatorial regimes like China and North Korea have uncertain sources of legitimacy. The regime in Beijing, for instance, draws its legitimacy from either its performance on the economic front or its ability to secure national interests– hence, it tends to beat nationalist drums at the expense of countries like Japan and the Philippines whenever it sees its legitimacy challenged. In North Korea’s case, Kim Il-sung drew his legitimacy from his semi-fictional wartime exploits; while his son, Kim Jong-il, made the defense of his father’s legacy, along with the defense of the country’s sovereignty amidst threats from “evil countries” like South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the bedrock of his mandate.

In an international conference of Korean studies specialists I attended in Manila earlier this year, one European academic correctly pointed out that the new regime of Kim Jong-un would sooner or later have to identify its preferred source of legitimacy. He suggests that the regime could choose from either a performance-based mandate or a legacy-based mandate. The former is similar to the Chinese model, and is very risky, since the current regime’s ability to deliver the North Korean people’s economic needs is questionable. The latter, on the other hand, requires the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty and an emphasis on continuity. It looks like the boyish dictator Kim Jong-un has opted for this safer track.

The perpetuation of the Kim dynasty requires pandering to pomp and symbolisms. North Korea is currently celebrating the centenary birth year of its founder, Kim Il-sung. Decades ago, the regime has promised 2012 to be Year of Prosperity– the year when the country would finally achieve prosperity and national strength. A successful launch of a space satellite is the best way to celebrate this milestone. Pyongyang had hoped that the spectacle would beat patriotic drums, remind the impoverished North Koreans of the greatness of the Kim dynasty, and hopefully make them forget the looming winter famine. This week’s missile launch, therefore, is essentially a badly-needed fireworks display.

In short, while seeking international relevance in order to gain aid had been the late Kim Jong-il’s motivation when he launched his rockets during his time, Kim Jong-un’s motivation this time around is to strengthen his domestic legitimacy in order to consolidate power.

To be sure, the clique behind Kim Jong-un, led presumably by his reportedly powerful uncle Chang Song-taek, had to weigh the value of this grand fireworks display against its geopolitical implications. And I suspect it wasn’t an easy choice.

Firstly, South Korea and Japan are in the midst of their respective election campaigns. While South Korean front-runner Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly Grand National Party) has distanced herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative track, she may now be inclined to move to the right, quashing any hopes for reviving the now-discredited Sunshine Policy. In Japan, on the other hand, the rocket launch further emboldens right-wing politicians like Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto of the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (JRP), and the presumptive Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Now, there’s nothing new with the Saenuri in Seoul and the LDP in Tokyo aggressively seeking to isolate the North Korean regime in various international fora. But what’s new this time around is that the typically sober Obama administration could be compelled to turn hawkish towards Pyongyang. This is because, as a couple of Japan specialists have correctly pointed out, the successful missile testing has put American military interests, if not the United States itself, within the range of North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). No longer would Washington use North Korea as a bargaining chip over Japan; North Korea has become a mutual core national security interest for both countries. Further, this has given the United States, and its allies Japan and the Philippines, greater incentive to push through with the reportedly planned East Asian missile defense system, which China has unsurprisingly questioned.

Finally, last week’s missile testing was an in-your-face defiance of Beijing, which had earlier told its junior neighbor, in an unusual but unmistakably firm tone, not to go ahead with the planned missile launch. The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, would likely be pressured by the Beijing elite to whip Pyongyang a bit in order to rein it back in. Afterall, China could ill-afford a disobedient puppet, especially now that Myanmar has just escaped Beijing’s orbit.

On Morsi’s second coup

Regular readers of this blog would know that among my favorite approaches in analyzing politics is to identify the power poles that drive different political actors, and to frame major developments based on the struggle among these poles.

In the run-up to the 2011 Tahrir Revolution in Cairo, for instance, I described four power poles trying to outmaneuver each other in Egypt: the military-intelligence clique, personified by generals Omar Suleiman and Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, that had dominated the country since the fall of the monarchy; the forces of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s family, who wanted to anoint Gamal Mubarak and eventually supplant the military’s grip on the nation’s politics and economy; the loose coalition of liberal pro-democracy groups that include major figures like Mohammed ElBaradei; and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose vast grassroots organization is unparalleled in the country.

The Tahrir uprising was a genuine, spontaneous display of People Power that removed the Mubarak forces from the equation. In its aftermath, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood became the only credible power poles, with the disunited hodgepodge pro-democracy groups relegated to the sidelines. The ruling generals seized power in a silent coup, but were forced by the international community to facilitate a transition to democracy. When parliamentary elections were unsurprisingly won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals laid down a series of roadblocks designed to delay the transition and keep powers to themselves. By the time the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi became the first duly-elected civilian president of the country, the generals had already suspended parliament, usurped legislative powers, and left presidential powers undefined and subject to the whims of the military junta. I thought Morsi would become a lameduck president. I was wrong.

President Morsi proved to be a formidable, and daring, politician. Taking advantage of an embarrassing military blunder that killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers in September, the President’s political operators steered the national conversation towards the view that the military has become so busy with politics it has neglected its primary duty of securing the country. He then sacked all senior generals and replaced them with officers more amenable to civilian rule, restored the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and reversed the military junta’s decrees that clipped his presidential powers. It was President Morsi’s first coup, and it took the world by surprise. The President has been ruling Egypt by decree since then.

Now, two months later, President Morsi has pulled a second coup, this time against the country’s judiciary. In a series of controversial decrees, the President has declared his powers, along with the Constituent Assembly, which is writing Egypt’s constitution, to be outside the judiciary’s jurisdiction, until a new constitution is promulgated. In other words, President Morsi has declared that not only are his powers absolute, they are beyond reach, too.

One important context to President Morsi’s decree, now characterized by the Western press as a power grab, is that the Muslim Brotherhood seems to view the judiciary not as an independent branch of government but as an institution that has been infiltrated by pro-military and pro-Mubarak forces. This is understandable, considering that it was the Supreme Constitutional Court that, upon prodding by the military junta, arbitrarily dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament prior to President Morsi’s election earlier this year. The same court had been scheduled to rule on a petition to dissolve the Constituent Assembly next week, and the President must have feared a court-ordered dissolution of the Assembly, hence he preempted it. The Assembly’s dissolution would have taken the Egyptian transition back to scratch.

Not surprisingly, President Morsi’s maneuver has enraged the various pro-democracy and anti-Islamist groups. Professional associations of lawyers, law professors, and judges have condemned the President’s attempt to curtail the judiciary’s independence, while activists have once again taken to the streets. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized its own rallies to support the President, leading to occasional clashes between the protesters. This has resulted in another round of Egyptian instability that has spooked investors, leading to, among others, the plummeting of the country’s stock market.

Now, back to the quadri-polar paradigm mentioned above. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Revolution has prodded Egypt’s power poles to align themselves on the basis of an emerging political cleavage between Islamism and anti-Islamism. Obviously, the current configuration is tilted towards the Islamists. On the other hand, two of the weaker power poles mentioned above, the pro-democracy groups and the remnants of the pro-Mubarak forces, provide some limited form of checks and balance against the Muslim Brotherhood. The other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military, is lurking in the background and may not be willing to join the fray anytime soon, although it remains to be the wild card.

President Morsi’s decree has reinvigorated the pro-democracy groups. They have formed a loose entente called the National Salvation Front, with Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a darling of the Western press, as its leader. While they could barely muster enough crowds for their pre-planned rallies weeks before the President’s so-called power-grab, they are now mobilizing some of the biggest rallies Egypt has seen since 2011. Still, they remain without a firm machinery that can coordinate political strategy. Their extremist position– they refuse to negotiate with President Morsi unless he rescinds the decree, yet they are not offering any counter-proposals to address some of the concerns that led the President to promulgate the decree in the first place– would render them irrelevant.

In contrast, President Morsi’s coup has been meticulously crafted. As Professor Nathan Brown has noted, the decree includes some carrots for several political actors: An extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term, which the non-Islamist Assembly members have asked for; a re-trial of several officials involved in the violent attempt to infiltrate the Tahrir protests in 2011, which is designed to placate some activists; and compensation for the families of the so-called martyrs of the Tahrir Revolution. Moreover, President Morsi’s timing is perfect: He has just won some accolades for successfully brokering a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, softening the effects of his anti-judiciary decree in the international community.

American politicians, like Senator John McCain, have come out with a strong condemnation of President Morsi’s second coup, going so far as to call for the withdrawal of American aid to Egypt. But the Obama administration has adopted a softer tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely asking President Morsi to re-examine his decree and hear what the Judiciary has to say. The President has obliged, inviting judges for some small talk, but he still didn’t budge in the end.

Somehow, the leaders of the judiciary have shown some weakness by conceding that, indeed, they have no jurisdiction over President Morsi’s acts of sovereignty, a vague concept that is somehow akin to what are known in democracies like the Philippines and the United States as political questions. This soft stance is probably a result of the calibrated diplomacy conducted on President Morsi’s behalf by Vice President Mamoud Mekki, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, and Prosecutor-General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud– themselves former judges who used to figure prominently in the resistance against Mubarak’s efforts to subvert the judiciary during his regime. For his part, President Morsi has announced that his decree is merely temporary and is designed solely to ensure an efficient transition, although very few are convinced.

The only thing that could derail President Morsi is an intervention by that other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military. But my take is that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have already forged some sort of agreement, where the troops would stay in the barracks as long as the present dispensation keeps the military’s economic clout intact. There’s a similar arrangement in Thailand between the royalist military and the Thaksinite forces, who are erstwhile sworn enemies, so it’s not at all unlikely. Further, I suspect that the Egyptian military as an institution is seeing a generational changing of the guard: The old generals are giving way to younger officers who are willing to cede political power to the civilians, if only to move the nation forward.

Of course, I don’t know the Egyptian military enough to confidently say that these are not merely unfounded speculation; but it’s reasonable to say that the generals would have little incentive to confront the Muslim Brothers for now, especially since, thanks to the Gaza-Israel ceasefire, President Morsi has the confidence of the American government as well as the support of Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been showering Cairo with aid as part of Ankara’s attempt to cement its influence in the region.

Some years from now, students of politics would examine the remarkable emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the pre-eminent power pole in Egypt; and they will see a disciplined and meticulous strategy of being engaged in the democratic space, knowing how to take advantage of auspicious situations, employing carrots to rein in some actors to prevent them from reinforcing a competing power pole, cultivating some political capital in the international arena, and keeping a rival power pole at a safe distance.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is winning, and would continue to steer Egypt’s transition. The question now is where it would take the Egyptian transition. Would the Brotherhood build the theocracy it has long dreamed of, or would it emulate its new patron, Prime Minister Erdogan?

Things are getting uglier in Syria

After four days of marathon negotiations, the different Syrian opposition groups have finally agreed to form a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A moderate Islamic cleric, Maath al-Khatib, has been elected president of the coalition. This is a minor achievement for Qatar and the United States, which, along with many others, have been pushing the fragmented Syrian opposition to get its acts together. One wonders, however, if this is a tad too late.

When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year, the international community anticipated an awesome Arab version of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s. The turn of events, however, proved to be a disappointing regression from good to ugly: The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while relatively peaceful, took longer than usual, with the military and, eventually, the Islamist hi-jacking the gains of the revolution. The protests in Libya, on the other hand, resulted in a bloody civil war that almost left the country in tatters. Syria, so far, has been the ugliest episode: Almost two years after the initial pro-democracy protests, the country is still in a protracted civil war, at times threatening to explode into a wider, regional conflict.

There’s one important difference between Libya and Syria. The erstwhile autocratic regime in Tripoli had generally been isolated, which made it easy to mobilize international support for an American-led multilateral intervention in support of the Libyan uprising. In contrast, Syria sits at an important geopolitical crossroads, and how things end in Damascus would affect the interests of major regional powers like, among others, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.

President Assad’s regime is a reliable ally of the Iranian theocracy. Despite his Arab nationalism, the Syrian dictator’s father had sided with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Damascus has been helping the Iranians smuggle arms to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In return, the ayatollahs in Tehran are lending their all-out support to the embattled Assad regime, thereby fueling the Syrian armed forces, which the dictator has unleashed on his own people. Undoubtedly, the ayatollahs see the Syrian uprising as a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli-American axis.

Turkey’s interest, on the other hand, is to preserve Syrian stability. Syria’s unraveling could complicate Ankara’s main source of insecurity, the Kurdish insurrection in the Turkish south. Ankara fears that a power vacuum in Damascus could lead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in the Syrian north, which could in turn coalesce with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq. This could embolden the Iraqi Kurdistan to secede from the currently very weak Iraqi state, absorb the Syrian Kurds, and eventually form a Greater Kurdistan, which would of course be an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Taking his “zero-problems” (with Turkey’s neighbors) policy to heart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pursued friendly ties with President Assad in the last few years. It was Ankara’s overtures that revived President Assad’s international legitimacy, which had been greatly diminished by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. When massive pro-democracy protests broke out last year, Ankara initially supported President Assad, but eventually changed course when his regime embarked on a bloody crackdown. Prime Minister Erdogan has since realized that supporting the Syrian dictator would cost Turkey the political capital that he has been patiently cultivating in the Middle East. Turkey is now among those supporting the Syrian opposition, although it’s apparently bent on managing the pace of the civil war.

As for Russia, it maintains its only overseas military base in Syria, and would naturally have the incentive to oppose, or water down, any anti-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council. This makes any multilateral intervention difficult, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly ruled out imposing a similar aerial embargo that it had imposed on Libya last year, unless the United Nations endorses it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition had been hopelessly fragmented. The Turkey-based Syrian National Council tried to pose as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the international community, but its leaders have been living in exile for years and are arguably out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. As a result, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist groups has stepped in to fill the vacuum in the Syrian opposition, raising alarm bells among many observers.

Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group composed of Syrian extremists and mujaheddins from all over the Muslim world, has been leading the charges against President Assad’s forces, according to reports by the Washington Post. The core of this group is said to be President Assad’s own Frankenstein: Syria has cultivated an Islamist terrorist network that Damascus unleashed on American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and the anti-Syria political opposition in Lebanon; and now, these same Sunni terrorists are going after the Assad regime, which, for them, represents Shiite heresy.

Allegedly supported by leading Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Al Nusra has reportedly recruited an impressive corps of multinational fighters. The last time mujaheddins of different nationalities have been seen fighting together was during the American-supported Islamist resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And as the secular Free Syrian Army suffers from declining ammunition due to lack of Western support, many opposition fighters have desperately turned to Al Nusra, giving the jihadists a significant amount of popular support.

It’s in this context that the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey have pressured Syrian opposition groups to get their acts together. And now that they finally have, the ball has returned to these Western powers’ court; they must now act decisively. The prospect of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist regime taking over Damascus and its massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons has infinitely raised the stakes.

Why Trillanes is the wrong man

In Manila, President Benigno S. Aquino III’s appointment of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as his back-channel negotiator with Beijing during the Scarborough stand-off earlier this year has back-fired spectacularly, and the administration is now drawing flak. A doyen of Philippine journalism, who should probably retire, has called the President’s back-channeling a reckless adventure, while one deranged blogger is saying that the Philippines has ceased to be a sovereign state due to the episode.

This blog disagrees with these rabid critics, of course. There is nothing wrong with back-channeling when dealing with a foreign power on something as serious as the Scarborough stand-off. In fact, it’s a fairly common practice of statecraft: It allows nations, in times of crisis, to test waters, send feelers, and thereby explore every possible way to resolve conflicts, even as they parrot an official line. There was, however, something seriously wrong about choosing Senator Trillanes to be the President’s back-door point man.

For starters, Senator Trillanes isn’t exactly known for his trouble-shooting abilities. In fact, it appears that he’s more of a trouble-maker: As a Navy commander in 1999, he allegedly rammed a Chinese fishing boat on waters around the Scarborough Shoal, causing a minor diplomatic ruckus with the People’s Republic. Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon had to convince his friend and fellow Japanese speaker, Vice Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs Wang Yi, that the collision was an “accident.” Beijing grudgingly accepted an apology from the government of then President Joseph Estrada, but demanded compensation from Manila, which the latter rejected. The potential fray was averted only after the Chinese-Philippine Chamber of Commerce offered to provide compensation.

Neither is the junior senator known for his tactical skills. His laughable coup attempts against the Arroyo regime were certainly not a showcase of strategy. I mean, really, taking over a posh hotel, and with only a handful of M16s and grenades? At least Arturo Tolentino brought crowds when he camped at the Manila Hotel back in the Eighties.

Sure, his come-from-behind election to the Senate in 2007 was indeed a coup, but that success was more because of the prevailing  national hatred for Arroyo than of Trillanes stratagem. Just look at how pathetic his attempted putsch against Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile was, and you’ll see how naive he is. As the Inquirer asked in an editorial, how can anyone expect him to know where the levers of power in Beijing are, when he doesn’t even know where the levers of power in Manila are?

Thirdly, he’s not a team player. Rather than complementing the efforts of the official point man, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, the senator stabbed him in the back. He called the Secretary a war-monger for taking the only rational track for the Philippines: Speaking forcefully against Chinese incursions and strategically raising the profile of the country’s military alliance with the United States, while insisting on multilateralizing the dispute. Worse, according to notes written by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, he even tried to sow intrigue by apparently pushing for Secretary del Rosario’s replacement by Liberal Party President and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III.

Fourthly, he can’t keep his mouth shut. Rather than taking his qualms with Secretary del Rosario’s efforts to himself and just try to make wiggle room to allow more flexibility in crafting Manila’s position, the senator, according to Ambassador Brady’s notes, allegedly told the Chinese about his reservations with the Secretary’s policies, how the Philippines is too weak to enforce its claims on the Scarborough Shoal, and how “nobody in the Philippines cares” about the disputed shoal. These have exposed divisions within the Philippine side, and gave the impression that the Philippine stance is so weak all Beijing has to do is to wait for Manila to succumb to pressure, rather than to negotiate a way out. Thanks to the senator, the Chinese must have realized they don’t really need to pay for spies in the Philippines.

And despite all these, Senator Trillanes has the gall to say that his back-channeling efforts have resolved the crisis. That he had convinced China to pull most of its ships out of the shoal. Excuse me, but this is bullshit.

The formula for ending the stand-off was made neither in Manila nor in Beijing but in Washington, the capital of the country which Senator Trillanes wanted out of the equation. And the DFA, not the popmpous senator, was the one involved in establishing channels in these negotiations. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell prodded both sides to simultaneously pull-out of the Shoal to defuse tensions. Both sides agreed. Unfortunately, in a glaring misstep, Secretary del Rosario made the deal public, enraging Beijing who, in order not to appear weak to its domestic constituents, denied the agreement.

Beijing has since recalled most of its ships, but not before installing ropes supported by buoys to seal the Shoal’s inner lagoon to make sure no Filipino ships could enter it. The People’s Republic has practically established possession of the area. And Senator Trillanes’ calls this a success?

Being a back-channel negotiator, says former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. He knows what he’s talking about.  As Director of the National Security Council, he was part of the administration that successfully facilitated the defection of a ranking North Korean official and warned the United States of a terrorist plot to ram jets into major American buildings six years before 9/11. All these were accomplished quietly, but are now narrated in Trustee of A Nation, the comprehensive biography of former President Fidel V. Ramos written by that old Southeast Asian hand, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, with whom this blogger has the pleasure of corresponding.

“Negotiations should be held as a state secret. Under no circumstances should it be revealed. Only certain people must be allowed to know about it and agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs must not be compromised,” says General Almonte.

In other words, the back-door point man must keep his mouth shut and complement, rather than obstruct, the efforts of the official actors. These are exactly the things Senator Trillanes did not do. And President Aquino wants him to remain back-channel envoy?

China has unleashed a mad genie

Following the unprecedented inclusion of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the official Chinese baselines map, Beijing sent a flotilla of six maritime vessels in the disputed waters to challenge Japan’s possession of the disputed territory last Friday. The flotilla left on the same day, but its deployment was reminiscent of the stand-off between China and the Philippines earlier this year. Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, called it an “invasion.”

Meanwhile, massive and violent anti-Japan protests continue to sweep major Chinese cities, threatening Japanese nationals and business establishments. The protests, endorsed by the semi-official Chinese media, have an unmistakable imprimatur from among the higher-ups in Beijing. The Chinese government itself has been scrapping official contacts with Japan, and linking such cancellations to the simmering territorial dispute. All these, according to China, are consequences of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s “reckless” decision to “nationalize” the Senkaku Islands. In short, Japan provoked China.

This is far from the truth, of course. The Chinese know that Prime Minister Noda’s “nationalization” of the islands was in fact done in good faith. The Japanese government was merely preventing the ultra-nationalist (and anti-China) Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands from their private Japanese owners. Governor Ishihara wanted to build structures on the island that would have ruffled more Chinese feathers; Prime Minister Noda was trying to prevent a potential crisis, and he thought Beijing understood. In fact, some academics are pointing out that the Chinese had actually been sending signals that the Noda government’s efforts to outbid Governor Ishihara are acceptable to Beijing. But apparently, something has changed.

Just like the anti-Philippine jingoism in Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese government’s encouragement of anti-Japan sentiments is driven by domestic considerations. Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chongquing kingpin Bo Xilai, has just been convicted of murdering a British national. Also, in the midst of the once-in-a-decade power transition in Beijing, President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, has gone missing. These developments have focused public attention  on the Communist Party (CCP) elite, which has suddenly found itself at risk of being the subject of public scrutiny. The party elite needed a distraction.

Once again, Beijing is playing a dangerous game. Chinese resentment of Japan is deep and bitter, thanks in part to Japan’s failure to fully atone for its long history of atrocities against the Chinese people.  Many Chinese believe that  old scores with Japan have yet to be settled, and, with their new-found confidence driven by their country’s rise, they believe that the time is ripe to settle these scores, and to get even with their Japanese neighbors. This is exactly the point of the Global Times’ recent editorial.

Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are like a mad genie. The CCP has unleashed the genie; now, it might have difficulty bringing the genie back into the bottle. The smarter people in Beijing know that, when the dust of the leadership transition settles, China would have no choice but to manage its dispute with Japan and stabilize the bilateral relationship. Hence, the need to prevent the genie from going out of its master’s control.

Unfortunately, the smarter people in Beijing have yet to consolidate their control over policy-making. The jingoistic actors, among both the party and the increasingly powerful and independent People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are wrestling for influence, too. This explains the mixed signals China has been sending.

Last Friday’s development, for instance, was an unmistakable manifestation of this power struggle: The hawks, emboldened by China’s victory in its stand-off with the Philippines earlier this year, sent six maritime vessels to the Japanese-controlled waters off Senkaku; but cooler heads prevailed in having the flotilla recalled. They knew the risks of engaging Japan in a maritime stand-off: Unlike the Philippine Navy, which is arguably the weakest navy in the region, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces is the biggest Asian navy. But just the same, the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Administration, one of the “nine dragons” identified by the International Crisis Group as having the most to gain by stirring up China’s territorial disputes, has threatened to send a couple of ships back this Sunday.

This uncertainty will limit the wiggle room for both Beijing and Tokyo to manage the situation, which means that we have yet to see the worst of this crisis. While this blog is ruling out any military confrontation, economic skirmishes between the world’s second and third largest economies are likely. China certainly has the ability to hurt Japan economically, and there already are calls in Tokyo for the government to prepare for the worst.

Understandably, this whole imbroglio has left the Noda government with no choice but to drop all efforts at conciliation. A weak response to any Chinese attempt to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands would doom Prime Minister Noda’s administration (although it’s already doomed in the first place, but that for another blog entry). Meanwhile, the five candidates for the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which looks set to regain power when elections are called this year, are trying to outdo each other in calling for a more hawkish position vis a vis Beijing. One of them, Nobuteru Ishihara, is the son of the anti-China Governor of Tokyo and a long-time friend of President Aquino of the Philippines, who also has no love lost for the Chinese. Another one, Shinzo Abe, is the most hawkish of all credible Japanese politicians at present. One of the two would become Japan’s next Prime Minister.

I was wrong on Egypt

Around three months ago, I predicted that whatever the outcome of the presidential election that time, Egypt would remain under military rule. The logic was simple: The military, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had successfully consolidated power prior to the polls. The Council had the Supreme Court dissolve the Parliament– dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood– on technical grounds, granting the ruling generals the power to legislate. The president’s powers, on the other hand, were loosely-defined, giving the junta the ability to diminish the presidency. I thought Mohammad Morsi would be a lameduck president.

It had seemed that the only viable option for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood then was to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the ruling generals, which I thought would not have yielded much result since the Muslim Brothers would have to negotiate from a position of weakness. I was wrong.

It took only one embarrassing failure on the part of the military for President Morsi to outmaneuver the ruling generals. Sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed in a security breach along the border in Sinai last month, exposing the army to widespread criticism. The prevailing opinion in Cairo at that time, which no doubt were either crafted or encouraged by the Brothers’ political operators, was that the military had been too busy meddling in politics that it had neglected its real job, which was to secure the nation. The imbroglio had zapped the Council’s political capital.

Sensing an auspicious opportunity, President Morsi decisively launched a daring civilian coup. He sacked the head of the Council, Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who had been acting as Egypt’s de facto head of state prior to the President’s inauguration; the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Sami Anan; and the heads of the army, air force, and navy. These senior generals were replaced by officers widely perceived to be more amenable to civilian rule. The President also reversed the Council’s decrees that limited his powers, and, in a stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court, restored the Parliament, which had been writing Egypt’s constitution before its dissolution.

The speed with which President Morsi completed his coup took the Middle East, Washington, and all concerned capitals by surprise. But the biggest surprise was the fact that there was hardly any resistance from the military. To be sure, some kinks were ironed out: All the generals forced into retirement were decorated with national honors and retained as presidential advisers. But for an institution so used to substantially controlling Egypt’s government and economy, the Egyptian military’s meek acceptance of civilian rule was surprising. Some analysts suggest that it signaled a generational changing of guards in the Egyptian armed forces: The younger officers are more willing to cede power to a civilian authority and go back to their barracks, if only to move the nation forward.

What does this mean for Egypt? Well, despite this blog’s liberal leanings, I’ve always argued that letting the generals steer Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition was the way to go, if only to maintain stability. This early, President Morsi is already being implicated in the massive, violent protests against the West over an inconsequential American film that disrespects Islam. Does this signal the track President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers would take for Egypt?

Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the beneficiary of the revolution– and the subsequent silent coup— that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak last year. It has outmaneuvered its sworn enemy, and is now holding the key to Egypt’s future. But how would it dispense the enormous powers it now has? Has the Brotherhood matured enough to effectively govern a modern society, or is it still stuck in its medieval beliefs that are incompatible with democracy? Would it go the way of Erdogan’s Turkey, or would it eventually tread the path of the Ayatollahs in Tehran?

Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

In the aftermath of that spectacular failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué on its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Foreign Minister had the gall to accuse the Philippines and Vietnam of “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” Pretty strong words. But as one newspaper said in its editorial, this was a “dishonest account.” In other words, a lie.

Taking the ASEAN communiqué hostage of their bilateral issues with China must mean that Manila and Hanoi had insisted on including words representing a consensus of sorts that was not in fact reached in the meetings. But this was not the case. Manila merely insisted that the discussions on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and the EEZ dispute between Vietnam and China be reflected for the simple reason that they were in fact discussed. No more, no less. Isn’t the joint communiqué supposed to document what transpired in the meetings?

It’s true that Manila and Hanoi tried to raise their territorial disputes with China in the Phnom Penh meetings. Why wouldn’t they? The point of these multilateral gatherings is precisely to discuss regional issues, be they bilateral or multilateral in nature. Other parties also raised issues like the Korean nuclear crisis, for instance. Heck, even Cambodia raised its territorial dispute with Thailand. But did Manila and Hanoi try to turn ASEAN into a tribunal? Far from it. The two countries’ rationale was merely to discuss the issues and to explore ways to eventually resolve them, not to resolve them pronto. Indeed, the Philippines and Vietnam didn’t make the resolution of their disputes a pre-requisite for their acceptance of a communiqué.

The fact of the matter is, if one country can be blamed for the failure of ASEAN to issue that communiqué, it should be Cambodia. This blog won’t mince words: The Cambodians acted as Chinese proxies.

To recall, the task of drafting the joint communiqué had been delegated to a committee of four Foreign Ministers: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Secretary del Rosario’s view was that the communiqué should reflect the discussions on the South China Sea. The others didn’t find this unreasonable, and they were able to prepare the draft relatively smoothly.

But the rub is this: According to an account by Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong repeatedly met his advisers upon receiving the draft communiqué, and thereafter “rejected language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise.” Bower further claimed that substantiated reports by those present in the meetings indicate that “Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors.”

In other words, the Cambodians consulted their Chinese friends first before expressing their disapproval of the wordings of the communiqué, and they didn’t even make room for compromise. Even after the Philippines agreed to an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”, the Cambodians didn’t budge. Now, who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

“The host should have played a bigger role, but he didn’t,” an anonymous ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. But why would he? China has been lavishing Cambodia with high-profile economic and military aid– even the gleaming Peace Palace where ASEAN meetings were held was built with Chinese funds. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who takes orders from whom.

Now, analysts in different capitals are pointing out that the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué undermines ASEAN as a bloc, and therefore works for China’s favor in the long term. I agree. But more than that, the failure at Pnom Penh represents an immediate and concrete strategic victory for China that many are not discussing.

Unknown to many, ASEAN has reportedly finished a draft containing possible elements of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea. The contents of this draft have not been revealed, but, according to Prof. Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, there is reason to believe that the draft code includes binding dispute-settlement mechanisms, which means that it could bind China against acting with impunity in the South China Sea, as it has been doing lately.

The problem is that without a joint communiqué to hail the drafting of the code as a diplomatic milestone, the draft would not have any official recognition and can therefore be easily dismissed by China as a useless white paper. Had the draft been enshrined in the communiqué, it would have been the news, not the discord between Cambodia and the Philippines; and China would have been put under pressure by world opinion to agree to the said code of conduct.

“Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation,” says Professor Kemmerson.

Clearly, this has been a case of China employing its divide and conquer strategies, thanks to its friends in Phnom Penh. Indonesia is now scrambling to control the damages, dispatching its top diplomat to neighboring capitals to seek consensus. But one can bet that as long as the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus remains, China, though its proxies, will always be successful.

Miscalculation in Manila

That’s how the Philippine Daily Inquirer describes the Philippines’ move to withdraw its ships, purportedly due to a typhoon, from the disputed Scarborough Shoal last week.  It’s now apparent that the Chinese side has no intention of reciprocating Manila’s move, and that the status quo ante will not be restored anytime soon.

Instead, the Chinese have used the typhoon to strengthen their already overwhelming presence in the Shoal. Citing the need to assist the Chinese fishing boats in the area amid bad weather, Beijing deployed another vessel, increasing the number of its ships in the Shoal and leaving Philippine officials flabbergasted. Most observers agree that Manila may have overestimated Beijing’s desire to de-escalate.

Philippine officials may probably be forgiven for misreading China’s intentions. After all, both sides had agreed on a re-positioning of their vessels last week in an apparent attempt to de-escalate. It certainly is in China’s long-term geopolitical interest to see an end to the months-long stand-off. The smarter people in Beijing know that China’s assertiveness in Scarborough is squandering the gains of painstaking diplomatic efforts to project a peaceful rise, and is alienating the Asian neighborhood enough to make Washington’s strategic “pivot” successful. Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always call the shots.

But what’s probably unforgivable is Manila’s recklessness. There appears to have been no attempt to negotiate the pull-out, probably in adherence to Manila’s stubborn position of resolving the stand-off multilaterally instead of bilaterally. It appears that Philippine officials blindly thought that China will reciprocate a Philippine withdrawal– their only basis being nothing but the premise that it also is in China’s long-term interest to end the stand-off.  Apparently, no thought was given to China’s domestic political dynamics and how they are currently shaping Beijing’s policy. How dangerously naive.

The lesson of this episode is that, again, Manila should strive to understand how Beijing works. It appears that policy-makers there remain myopic; they still see the Scarborough dispute as a convenient ploy to divert their domestic constituents’ attention away from the ruling party’s shenanigans. This is a dangerous game on China’s part, as it could lead to an adverse situation for the Communist Party if it’s not played well.

As I have said in a previous post, how China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. As things stand, Beijing’s hawks appear to be winning that debate. If so, Manila should brace itself. The next battle will be the Recto Bank, where Philippine companies are set to drill for natural gas soon. That area is a vital core interest for the Philippines, whose expanding economy is bound to create greater demand for energy in the immediate future.

Military rule will remain in Egypt

All eyes are on Cairo now as two of the country’s presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, have simultaneously declared victory in yesterday’s presidential polls. But whoever wins the presidency, Egypt would likely remain under military rule.

The election is arguably the culmination of the decades-old war between the Islamist Brotherhood and the military clique, which has been ruling the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since Mubarak’s ouster last year. For all intents and purposes, the two institutions represents the only credible power poles in Egypt: The military, aside from being the guarantor of the nation’s security and political stability, controls a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has a formidable grassroots support that makes it the only credible threat to the military’s political power.

Between the two, the military has the obvious upper hand. Having hi-jacked last year’s people power revolt through a silent coup, the generals of the Council have been dictating the terms of the post-Mubarak transition. Through the whole machinery of the government, the ruling generals appear to be moving mountains to ensure General Shafiq’s victory. But even if the former Air Force Marshall fails to win, the Council can still retain power by making the Brotherhood’s candidate a lameduck president.

Earlier, the ruling generals had the Parliament dissolved by the Supreme Constitution Court on technical grounds. The said Parliament had been writing a constitution, which would have defined the powers of the president vis a vis the Council. But now that the Parliament has been dissolved, legislative powers has reverted back to the Council, which means that the Council will now be the one to define the powers of whoever would be elected as president. If the Islamist Morsi becomes president, the Council would certainly make his office practically toothless.

As if these are not insurance enough, a case has been filed before the Supreme Constitution Court questioning the legality of the Brotherhood itself.

As I see it, therefore, the Brotherhood’s only options now are either to cut a power-sharing deal with the Council or to mobilize massive street protests. But I suspect that any protest actions would likely fizzle out since the Brotherhood has reportedly lost some public support following concerns about its reckless introduction of Islamist bills in the previous Parliament. Moreover, the Justice Ministry has recently declared that military and intelligence officers could again arrest civilians, hinting that the Council is willing to flex some muscles in order to nip massive protest actions in the bud.

Cutting a deal with the ruling generals, meanwhile, would be a pragmatic option, but it would not yield much tactical advantage. The Islamists would have to negotiate from a position of weakness, which means that the Council– unless prodded by the United States, which is unlikely at this point– would only allow few concessions to the Brotherhood, if at all. Moreover, cozying up to the generals might alienate the conservatives among the Brotherhood’s ranks.

In short, more than a year after risking their lives in a people power revolt in Tahrir Square, the Egyptians will now have an empowered military clique ruling alongside a toothless president and without a parliament. This arrangement will likely stall, or even reverse, the country’s democratic transition; but it will also guarantee a predictable regime that would maintain whatever is left of Egypt’s, and the entire region’s, stability.

The ball is now in China’s court

Finally, a face-saving opportunity to end the tense stand-off at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Last Friday, citing bad weather conditions, President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the two remaining Filipino ships in the area, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol craft and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel, to pull out of the disputed waters. The President’s order followed an earlier pull-out by both China and the Philippines from the shoal’s inner lagoon, which was seen by observers as an attempt by both sides to de-escalate tensions.

President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson says the withdrawal is a unilateral decision meant to ensure the safety of the Filipino crew, and that China has nothing to do with it. But Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters last week that the Chinese had also agreed to withdraw their ships from the disputed waters, hinting that a deal of sorts had actually been reached.

So far, however, there’s no sign that the Chinese would honor this supposed agreement. While the Chinese Embassy in Manila has lauded the Philippines’ withdrawal, it was mum on the question of whether Beijing would follow Manila’s lead. This is despite the fact that Manila’s pull-out has given the Chinese government the opportunity to also withdraw around thirty of its maritime surveillance ships from the disputed waters without losing face to its nationalistic domestic constituents.

Yesterday, Malacanang reiterated that it is waiting for China “to honor its commitment” to pull its flotilla out of the shoal. In other words, Manila was sending Beijing a message: We’ve done our part, now do yours.

Obviously, ending the Scarborough stand-off is a necessary tactical initiative for the Philippines, which has very limited military options. But this is so with Beijing too, for different reasons.

China’s firmness on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off has alienated several Asian capitals, thereby squandering the gains of almost a decade of delicate “peaceful rise” diplomacy. To say that China’s soft power has been weakened by the stand-off is an understatement; Asian countries are now beginning to gravitate further towards the United States, which has publicly stated that it intends to remain as a Pacific power. Japan, whose ruling party used to have pro-Beijing leanings, for instance, has chosen to re-affirm its alliance with Washington, while Vietnam is practically laying the welcome mat for America’s Seventh Fleet in Cam Ranh Bay.

Clearly, to repair the damages to China’s image in the region, it’s necessary for Beijing to reciprocate Manila’s goodwill.

Needless to say, the restoration of status quo ante—that is, making the Scarborough Shoal free of government ships from both sides pending the completion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea disputes—should be a win-win solution not only for both the Philippines and China but also for the region as a whole.  But would Beijing see it this way, or would it find Manila’s withdrawal an opportunity to cement its newfound control over the disputed shoal?

How China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. Surely, the rest of Asia is watching closely.

China’s fishing boat aggression


When a state projects its overwhelming military might against another state in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, it’s called gunboat diplomacy. But when a state uses not the traditional military warships and jets but a supposedly harmless flotilla of civilian fishing crafts, it’s a fishing boat aggression.

In the Scarborough Shoal, it was the encroachment of Chinese fishing boats into the Philippine Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which prompted a reaction from Manila, that led to the current tensions between the Philippines and China. The role of these private Chinese fishing boats in the escalation of tension in disputed areas is indicative of the new pattern being employed by China in asserting its claims.

In 2010, a Chinese fisherman rammed his boat on a Japanese Coast Guard ship on the waters around the Senkaku Islands, causing a row between China and Japan. In 2011, on the other hand, Chinese fishing boats inflicted damages to oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s EEZ.

This is how Beijing’s fishing boat aggression works: Purportedly Chinese civilian boats will venture into the other country’s EEZ. When patrol boats of that country try to apprehend them, maritime patrol vessels from China’s Fisheries Bureau (under the Ministry of Agriculture) will suddenly appear to secure the Chinese boats, often resulting in a stalemate. China would then reiterate its so-called “inalienable right” to the disputed waters, and insist on a bilateral negotiation to resolve the stand-off.

As the stand-off drags, China would then flare up domestic nationalist sentiments by demonizing the rival claimants, like Japan and the Philippines, through its controlled media. This is then followed by economic pressures like the restriction of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, the cancellation of tourist travels to the Philippines, and the dumping of Philippine banana exports in China. Finally, China would rattle its saber by making bold pronouncements of its willingness and capability to defend its territory militarily, just as it dismisses suggestions to resolve the disputes through mechanisms under international law. Meanwhile, Chinese fishing boats continue their activities, ignoring all protestations.

Obviously, China is employing this new strategy for two reasons. Firstly, Beijing wants to show that the disputed waters are indeed traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen, in order to buttress its “historical claims” to the said maritime territories. Secondly, by using vessels from the Fisheries Bureau instead of, say, the Coast Guard, the Chinese side is trying to dodge accusations of aggressiveness by characterizing its activities in the area as being civilian in nature.

We have to acknowledge that the Chinese fishermen believe their government’s claims that the disputed waters are really Chinese territory, of course. But it cannot be denied that these fishermen know the danger of venturing into those disputed waters. Without the Fisheries Bureau’s backing, it’s less likely for these Chinese fishermen to risk chartering through these disputed waters. In other words, the boldness of the fishing boats to rummage the disputed waters stems from the protection given by the Fisheries Bureau.

Are these Chinese fishermen merely engaging in private economic expedition, or are they playing accomplice to China’s assertive policies in the disputed waters? It’s difficult to tell. But what’s apparent is that the weight of pressure that China employs whenever stalemates arise due to these fishing boats is indicative of the aggressive nature of Beijing’s South China Sea policy.

Clearly, Beijing is using these supposedly private fishing boats as a tool to advance its claims in the disputed waters. This fishing boat aggression is here to stay, and China’s rival claimants should know how to deal with it.

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China plays a dangerous game

There is an emerging analysis among students of Chinese politics that the heated rhetoric coming from Beijing regarding its stand-off with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal is a ploy to divert the country’s attention away from the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng scandals that have rocked the Communist Party (CCP). Apparently, the party brass deem that this diversion is vital to stabilize the political situation in the midst of the on-going delicate baton-passing between President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping.

The CCP has long used nationalism, along with economic gains, as a pillar to support its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, as well as to distract them from its domestic political abuses. This explains why Beijing is encouraging its state-run news agencies to beat the nationalist drums at the Philippines’ expense, with several newspapers seriously advocating war with Manila. According to some friends in Beijing, the ploy has succeeded; the Scarborough stand-off is now the talk of the town, and the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases are now old news.

Obviously, Beijing’s leaders believe that the Philippines would be a convenient target of nationalist sentiments since, unlike Vietnam or Japan, it doesn’t have the ability to threaten China back. “This is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back,” says The Comparativist, a Hong Kong-based blog.

But the bullying could go overboard, and if it does, there would be more headaches for China’s leadership.

We have to understand that there are jingoistic actors in China who genuinely believe that the Filipinos must be ejected from the Scarborough Shoal by force. Among them are some conservative officers in the navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Hainan-based civilian maritime authorities, and even local governments. Can Beijing control these actors? Let’s hope it can, because the on-going state-encouraged nationalist outrage could embolden them to engage in highly provocative actions in the disputed waters. Indeed, they may even construe the saber-rattling from Beijing as a cue for them to do just that.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider the fact that there currently is a small armada of vessels belonging to China’s civilian maritime authorities floating on the waters around the shoal. The local government of Masinloc has reported that these ships are preventing Philippine fishing boats from entering the shoal’s inner lagoon. The Philippine government has advised the said boats to just carry on with their fishing. What would the Chinese ships do should a single, ballsy Philippine fishing boat insists on entering the lagoon? Given the nationalist uproar in China, it’s not hard to imagine that a Chinese sailor there might decide to either fire warning shots, fire at the boat, or sink the boat.

Now that would be a provocation at par with the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. The world would construe it as cold-blooded murder. It will surely result in an overwhelming international condemnation of China, totally undoing years of delicate efforts by Beijing to project a “peaceful rise.” It will likewise begin the process of pushing almost all Asian countries into the American orbit, hastening the success of Washington’s “pivot” to the East. Heck, it might even spark a regional arms race that could strain the resources of the region and, ultimately, of China itself.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, despite its weakness, would be forced by domestic considerations to respond. The United States, on the other hand, would be compelled by the Mutual Defense Treaty to back it up. Perhaps the Seventh Fleet would sail west of Luzon, just to send a message. If it ever reaches that point, the CCP would have to back down– and lose face in the midst of overwhelming nationalist outrage.

On Clinton’s ‘hands-off’ declaration

Some lawmakers in Manila are upset with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They should know, however, that a declaration of American neutrality in terms of the competing claims in the area is in fact more beneficial to the Philippines.

The American position on the Scarborough crisis, as articulated by Secretary Clinton in yesterday’s Philippine-American ministerial dialogue in Washinton, is actually more nuanced than the supposed neutrality that these lawmakers—and the Daily Tribune— are trying to paint. While Washington does not take sides on sovereignty issues; it has declared that it is against the threat or the use of force, and is in favor of a multilateral approach, in solving the Scarborough crisis. It has also reiterated that it will honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and that it will commit itself to building a “minimum credible defense posture” for the Philippines.

China’s actions in the shoal these past eighteen days have made it apparent that its strategy is to gain control of the territory through bullying tactics, as opposed to the Philippines’ desire to resolve the stand-off through a rules-based mechanism. China also insists that the Scarborough issue is a bilateral matter that must not internationalized, but the Philippines thinks otherwise. By calling for a “collaborative and multilateral diplomatic process” to resolve the stand-off, therefore, Washington has basically adopted Manila’s stance.

Of course, by saying that it will abide by the MDT, the United States is merely being strategically ambiguous, since that treaty does not have an ‘automatic retaliation’ clause. Obviously, Washington intends to keep its options open. This should not be a source of concern for the Philippines, however, since strategic ambiguity also characterizes the American position on Taiwan. Indeed, in the event of an actual armed attack on any Philippine vessel in the shoal, the Americans will surely come to the Philippines’ aid, just as they will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion from the Mainland. They just have to. Not doing so would make the United States appear unreliable in terms of honoring its treaty obligations, which will surely spook the four other treaty allies in the Pacific and turn away Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the other Asian countries that the Americans have been trying to win over.

So, when militant leftist congressman Neri Colmenares said that Secretary Clinton’s declaration could embolden China “to start a limited war in the shoal just as it did to Vietnam,” we know that he’s just being, well, a typical militant leftist. This statement, which is a stark contrast to his Bayan Muna Party’s earlier demands for the US to stay off the territorial disputes, reinforces the perception that for the militant left, things are often a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The truth of the matter is that a shooting war in the Scarborough would be more probable had the United States declared support for the Philippines’ sovereignty claims to the shoal. Such a declaration would validate the suspicion held by many Chinese citizens that the Philippines is merely acting as a proxy for the supposedly vicious American agenda of encircling China and containing its rise. The hawks in Beijing– like General Luo Yuan and the Global Times, for example– could in turn use this to further fan nationalist flames, which would extremely limit the wiggle room for the Chinese government to make compromises with its Philippine counterpart. This would make it very difficult for both sides to diplomatically manage the on-going stand-off.

Clearly, despite these lawmakers’ concerns, the Philippines has been able to get the minimum American support it needs. Its negotiators, however, could have done better in pressing for greater American assistance in terms of upgrading the country’s terribly dilapidated armed forces. But that’s for another blog entry.

Manila should try to understand how Beijing works, too

When China prevented the Philippines from apprehending illegal Chinese poachers caught pilfering endangered marine life in the Scarborough Shoal— in clear violation of Philippine and international laws— it probably thought that the militarily-weak Philippines would meekly submit and call it a day. But as an American expert on Asian affairs said, Beijing has clearly underestimated Manila’s resolve.

For sixteen days now, Philippine and Chinese vessels are in a stand-off in the Scarborough, and neither side is showing signs of blinking. The military power asymmetry between the two sides is beyond obvious. China has an overwhelming advantage. The Philippines, however, knows how to play its cards.

Manila is holding its ground by keeping its ships in the Scarborough while simultaneously rallying international support for its cause and intensifying its military alliance with the United States. Under the circumstances, these are the best insurance to at least maintain the status quo as the Philippines tries to elevate the dispute to international tribunals.

It is true that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still reluctant to take a collective stand on the crisis because of their deep economic ties with China, but that doesn’t mean that they are not concerned. Indeed, they have expressed these concerns through Track II diplomacy, and I’m sure that the smarter people in Beijing know that they, along with the world, would condemn China should it unleash its vastly superior navy on the Philippines. Gone are the days when might is right.

The smarter people in Beijing know, too, that taking the shoal from the Philippines by force would push almost all Asian countries to the American orbit. It will intensify the alliances between America on one hand and Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia on the other. It could make Vietnam an American ally, and Singapore, along with other ASEAN states, very friendly to the United States. It will totally undo a decade of efforts by China to rein in these Asian states through its “peaceful rise” overtures, and shift the region’s balance further towards Washington.

The Philippines, on the other hand, stands to gain tremendously by merely holding its ground. The longer the crisis drags and the tenser it gets, the more leverage Manila gains in, firstly, negotiating its way to get more military concessions from the United States, which will be pressured by public opinion to acquiesce, and, secondly, trying to rally the world into forcing China to bring the matter before international courts, where Manila stands to win.

Should the Chinese try to end the stand-off by firing the first shots, the United States will be forced to honor its treaty obligations and defend the Philippines. It won’t be different from what would happen if the Chinese invade Taiwan. Washington wouldn’t dare? It would, especially in an election year; and with world opinion supporting it to boot. The smarter people in Beijing know this, too.

Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always get to see their views become official policy. With too many different power poles and loose definition of where the lines between these poles are drawn, China’s policy-making can be unpredictable. The smarter people in Beijing form probably just one of these poles; the other poles can be either too myopic to see the dynamics of long-term balance-of-power realpolitik or just too jingoistic, or both.

Indeed, if we believe Gordon Chang, who says that the conservatives in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have gained too much leverage in Beijing’s policy-making circle, or the International Crisis Group, which says that purely domestic maritime agencies struggling for a say on the dispute in their efforts to protect their turfs have been steering China’s actions in the South China Sea; then we shouldn’t expect China to be always rational in dealing with this crisis. Japan realized this painfully when it became a target of China’s soft economic sanctions due to a similar stand-off near the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2010.

In order to avoid dangerous miscalculations, therefore, the Philippines should strive to understand the nuances of Beijing’s domestic politics and bureaucracy, and calibrate its actions accordingly. President Benigno S. Aquino III should include China hands — long-time Beijing resident and journalist Chito Sta. Romana comes to mind, for instance — in consultations and discussions on how best to deal with the Scarborough crisis.

North Korea needs a satellite

So soon after agreeing on a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American food aid, the North Koreans are again making what appears to be a complete u-turn: They will launch a satellite into orbit next month. While, as Pyongyang insists, a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile testing, both use the same technology. The proposed launch, therefore, could in fact be a violation of the spirit of last month’s Leap Day Deal.

Not surprisingly, the Asian neighborhood is abuzz: South Korea is condemning its northern neighbor for this latest provocation, the Philippines is seeking US help in monitoring the North Korean rocket, while Japan is thinking of shooting that rocket down. The United States has said it might hold off the food aid. Even China, Kim Jong-un’s only ally, is reportedly peeved. What’s with the North Koreans?

The initial reaction of most analysts is to say that this is just another example of North Korean deal-breaking. Remember the cycle of North Korean negotiations we have discussed in the previous blog entry? The late Kim Jong-il was good at cutting a deal and then breaking it after getting what he had wanted. This time around, however, Kim Jong-un has not even laid his hands on a single American grain yet. Obviously, he needs the 240,000 tons of US food, which would prevent a looming famine, badly enough to agree on a deal with the Americans. Why then is he risking a cancellation of the food aid by insisting on going ahead with the satellite launch?

Well, first of all, I think Kim Jong-un is not really the one calling the shots in Pyongyang. In fact, I don’t think policy-making there is being conducted by a single authority. Like most other countries, North Korea, especially in this fragile post-transition period, is not a monolithic actor. There are different power centers with competing intentions. There are those who are keen on ending the country’s isolation, while there are those who don’t see the wisdom of dealing with foreign powers. What makes this worse is that Kim Jong-un and his regency are probably too inexperienced– and they just haven’t consolidated control yet– to coordinate these competing visions and harmonize them into one consistent policy.

Indeed, it could even be that the Foreign Ministry officials who had sought the Americans out last month are not even aware of the plans to launch a satellite, which were most likely pushed by military officials. Between these two competing elites, it is the army that has greater leverage over Kim Jong-un and his handlers, of course. And for them– and this is probably shared by Kim Jong-un and his regent Chang Song-taek too– launching the satellite is so vital to the stability of the regime it actually trumps the need for American food aid.

The symbolism of a satellite launch on the eve of the centenary birthday of North Korean founder and eternal president Kim Il-sung is very important for the regime in Pyongyang. The said regime had long promised 2012 to be the year for North Korea to finally achieve strength and prosperity. Therefore, it must have an extravagant display of prosperity by pulling off nation-wide celebrations, and of strength by pulling off a successful launching of a communications satellite. The regime is clearly aiming to raise the morale of the impoverished North Korean people with these symbolic rituals. Indeed, I suspect that this eccentric regime thinks that its legitimacy in the eyes of its people depends a lot on this satellite launch.

As for Kim Jong-un, his legitimacy as a leader in the eyes of the North Korean elite, and therefore his ability to consolidate power, would probably depend a lot on this satellite launch, too. As I have said in a previous post, keeping the North Korean elite in check requires doing something, well, spectacular.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay

When North Korea announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s putting a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American offer of 250,000 tons of food, the mainstream media called it a breakthrough. Some thought it a sign that the new North Korean leadership wants to return to the negotiation table again, or that the moderate factions are gaining the upper hand in Pyongyang. I think it was merely another ploy to gain short-term concessions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the announcement as a “modest first step in the right direction.” She didn’t say where exactly this right direction leads to, but if she thinks it’s a negotiated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, I’m afraid she’ll be very disappointed. The fact of the matter is that the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons. At least not through diplomacy.

For the North Korean leadership, nuclear weapons are a vital insurance. The regime in Pyongyang believes that the country would become vulnerable to aggression by the United States and its allies if it gives up these weapons, and it has at least two precedents as basis for its fear: Iraq and Libya. Both countries gave up their nuclear programs after a combination of intense sanctions and diplomacy. Later on, Iraq was invaded by the United States while the Americans helped topple the Qadaffi regime in Libya. For the North Koreans, these are not mere coincidences.

Moreover, nuclear weapons give Pyongyang the leverage to negotiate its way to get food, oil and other forms of assistance from the international community. So much for Juche. This is why the cycle of all negotiations between North Korea and the rest of the world has always been the same: Pyongyang rattles its nuclear sabre, the international community prods Pyongyang to give up its nukes through offers of aid, Pyongyang yields empty promises and token concessions, the international community gives aid, Pyongyang again rattles its nuclear sabre, and so on.

For years, the message that the international community has been sending to Pyongyang is that building more nuclear weapons is the surest way to be able to feed its citizens and maintain its million-man army. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations are guilty of sending this message when they appeased the late Kim Jong-il.

It would be naive to think then that the new leadership in Pyongyang is willing to compromise its nuclear deterrent through negotiations. The real reason why North Korea agreed on a moratorium is because the country is in the midst of preparations for a grand and pompous nation-wide celebration of the centenary birthday of the country’s Founder and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung; therefore, it needs vital resources. Moreover, since the regime had declared 2012 as the national Year of Prosperity, it can ill afford another famine. But, again, make no mistake: North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.

The United States, South Korea, Japan and other stakeholders must realize that spending too much political capital on denuclearization talks is not the best option. Indeed, zealously pursuing denuclearization in past negotiations have merely propped the regime in Pyongyang up. The inconvenient truth is that denuclearization will never happen unless through force. Unless the world is willing to use force, a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies should re-examine their strategy in any future negotiation. While they must remain publicly committed to denuclearization, their real focus must shift from persuading the North Koreans to give up their nukes towards merely preserving the status quo and making sure they won’t share their nuclear technology with terrorist organizations and other rogue states. Such a shift in focus would make the parties less likely to give too much concessions to the regime in Pyongyang, but it requires policy-makers to be more creative in coming up with effective ways to contain the nuclear crisis within North Korea.

Will Israel attack Iran?

Last Monday’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama at the White House was not as tense as expected. It even appeared that the two leaders were able to arrive at some sort of a middle ground. Just the same, the meeting didn’t produce any assurance that Israel wouldn’t attack Iran. On the contrary, the President uttered words that the Prime Minister had clearly wanted to hear: That Israel has the right to do as it sees fit in order to defend its sovereignty.

Israeli leaders insist that if they don’t attack Iran soon, their opportunity to prevent the Islamic Republic, the President of which has long been calling for the destruction of Israel, from acquiring nuclear weapons would permanently disappear. Israel doesn’t want Iran to be able to enrich uranium. This for them is the red line– the point that calls for exercising the last resort, which is the use of force.

Continue reading “Will Israel attack Iran?”

Ma’s re-election and Taiwan’s future

It’s almost a consensus among most observers that the re-election of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jou means continued cross-straits stability, as he would certainly follow up on his policy of forging greater economic integration with the Chinese Mainland. Some, however, think that, on the contrary, a second term for President Ma could in fact result to greater instability characterized by intense Chinese pressure on Taiwan to yield to a number of demands.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an advocate for Taiwanese independence, had clearly wanted to reverse President Ma’s pro-China policy; although its standard-bearer, Tsai Ing-wen, framed her campaign on socio-economic issues that resonated well with the ordinary Taiwanese. For his part, President Ma argued that continued friendship with the Mainland is more conducive to development. Tsai called this view naive, saying closer integration with the People’s Republic is dangerous.

Not surprisingly, both China and the United States supported President Ma’s candidacy. There is a variety of factors behind America’s support for the President, the most important of which is the fact that the United States cannot afford any complications in China-Taiwan relations at this time. Despite their recent attempts to assure their Asian allies of support on the South China Sea dispute and to reach out to Myanmar, the Americans are still trying to co-opt China into the international order by seeking its assistance in a variety of multilateral initiatives.

The reasons behind China’s support, on the other hand, is quite obvious. And indeed, these reasons form the premise of the arguments of those saying that President Ma’s re-election could mean instability in the status quo of China-Taiwan relations.

The stability of the said status quo is contingent on a 1992 consensus, forged by the Communist Party of China and President Ma’s Koumintang (Nationalist Party), stating that both sides acknowledge that there is only one China, to which Taiwan belongs, although both sides are free to define what that one China means. In short, both sides agreed to shelve any discussion on the political status of Taiwan to the back-burner. President Chen Shui-bian rejected this consensus and pushed for independence during his eight-year term, leading to a very unstable China-Taiwan relationship, but President Ma reversed him, allowing Taiwan to forge economic ties with Beijing without jeopardizing its political status, as agreed upon in the 1992 consensus.

Closer economic integration between the two Chinas means that Beijing, being the larger economy, could gain greater leverage over Taipei. This leverage, coupled with the perception that the Mainland-born President Ma is accommodating to Beijing, could encourage China to abandon the 1992 consensus and raise the issue of Taiwan’s political status with the government in Taipei. This could mean pressuring President Ma to agree to a formal cross-straits negotiations on a One China, Two Systems formula. Such a formula would almost certainly lead to Taiwan becoming a special administrative region of China just like Hong Kong and Macau, something that, according to polls, most Taiwanese reject.

Even if Beijing doesn’t immediately push for a One China, Two Systems formula, some observers think that the Mainland might still pressure Taiwan to succumb to a number of demands in the short term. In an essay on this week’s issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, for instance, University of Southern California (USC) Associate Professor of International Relations Daniel Christopher Lynch argues that, with China’s expectations raised after President Ma’s re-election, “Beijing might call upon Taiwan to stop purchasing weapons from the United States, phase out its institutionalized military ties with Washington, and formalize the 1992 consensus into law.” Professor Lynch admits, however, that such demands would not “appear on the immediate horizon, partly because China itself is currently tense with anticipation of this year’s coming leadership transition.”

Indeed, I don’t think any pressure from China on Taiwan to take their relationship to the next level would come during the duration of President Ma’s second term. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is set to succeed President Hu Jintao this year, would most likely need all the time and political capital he can get to consolidate his hold on power, so he would therefore be busy with domestic affairs. But one can never really tell. In light of the alleged rise in the influence of the conservatives among the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the aftermath of the recent power struggle between President Hu and former President Jiang Zemin, and its perceived link to the dramatic change of China’s East Asia policy from one characterized by “peaceful rise” to one of assertiveness, one can no longer discount the distinct possibility that perhaps going hard on Taiwan would be a requirement for the next Chinese president to consolidate power.

Therefore, without jeopardizing the gains made from the normalization of cross-strait economic ties, President Ma must be prepared for any Chinese pressure, should it come. As Professor Lynch wrote, nothing less than the future of one of Asia’s most advanced democracies is at stake.

Dear Leader says goodbye to earthlings

The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-il, has passed away. His seventeen-year “enlightened” rule will be commemorated in a grand state funeral scheduled next week. The government has now called on the North Korean people to “loyally follow” the Young Leader at the Forefront of the Revolution, Kim Jong-un, as he leads the country towards the 2012 Year of Prosperity.

Except that he won’t really lead the country to prosperity, of course. And this is not only because, as anyone can point out, it’s impossible for the seclusive and impoverished pariah state that is the Democratic People’s Republic to attain prosperity in the immediate future; it’s also because the Young Leader would not lead North Korea at all. Or at least not yet. The man to watch is not really Kim Jong-un but his uncle, Chang Song-Taek.

It is true that the twenty-six year-old Kim Jong-un has been groomed to take the place of his father and to continue the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty, but it remains to be seen if he actually has what it takes to solidify his rule. Surviving in the reclusive political system in Pyongyang– a system that rewards only those who are shrewd, ambitious and ruthless– is not a walk in the park.

Kim Jong-il was a heartless and ambitious man who had been groomed to succeed his father, the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, since his childhood; while Kim Jong-un, the third son of the Dear Leader, was chosen by his father practically at the last two minutes of his rule and only because the father had no choice– the first son was deemed too effeminate and the second, the one caught trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport, rather eccentric. Kim Jong-il had ten years of running the day-to-day business of his father’s regime before he assumed power in 1994. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, was made a general only in 2009, after his father suffered a stroke. Kim Jong-il had always been the epitome of ruthlessness, the Western-educated Kim Jong-un not very much. And the thing is, even the highly-prepared Kim Jong-il needed three years to consolidate his rule after assuming power– he had to face two attempted coups.

Whether or not the Young Leader would survive depends heavily on the Kim family’s ability to firmly inspire loyalty and fear among the ruling elite, and doing this is something few observers would say the Young Leader is capable of. I suspect, then, that this task now falls on the shoulder of Chang Song-Taek, the shadowy and powerful husband of Kim Jong-il’s favorite sister. Chang has a considerable power base he has consolidated through the years. He had been considered a threat by Kim Jong-il, who had him put on house arrest in 2003, only to be released through the intercession of the Dear Leader’s sister. Since then he had been unstoppable, and by last year he has been able to take the Young Leader under his wing. An analyst for Korea Institute of Defense calls him ” the bridge from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.” In effect, he has been acting, and would continue to act I bet, as a regent of sorts for the Young Leader.

Very little is known about Chang, but for him to be able to rise to the position he is in now, I suspect he has the ambition, shrewdness and ruthlessness required by the North Korean political system. The question is whether he intends to continue perpetuating the Kim dynasty or create a dynasty of his own. The only certain thing is that, in order for him to maintain power, he would have to keep the ruling elite in check. And in North Korea, the best way to do that is to do something, well, spectacular.

Seoul knows this, which is why it has placed its forces on red alert. Tokyo, Beijing, Kremlin, Washington and other concerned capitals know this very well too. North Korea is indeed in for some interesting times.