Lowy Institute

The best chance for peace in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines has just noticeably faded.

Members of the Philippine National Police carry a body bag in Maguindanao province, 26 January 2015 (Reuters/Stringer Philippines).

The deadly clash in the early morning of Sunday 25 January between the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police and the local command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in an MILF stronghold in Maguindanao, left five MILF fighters and between 30 to 60 police officers dead and up to eight captured. This is the largest number of police officers killed on duty in Philippines history.

The term 'misencounter', used by both the government and the MILF to describe the clash, seems euphemistically inadequate, as noted by opposition Senator JV Ejercito.

Four different but intertwined elements of the massacre will aggravate its damaging, potentially disastrous, impact on the progress of the peace deal signed between Manila and the MILF command in March 2014:

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  1. The massacre occurred at a sensitive time in the legislative deliberations over the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law. The Basic Law is meant to turn the March 2014 peace deal into a national law, establishing a new, more autonomous, regional government for the Moro Islamic community. This process is already months behind President Aquino's ambitious timeline, which calls for elections to this new regional government to coincide with the 2016 presidential poll and the end of Aquino's single term. With at least two of the 13 senators who co-sponsored the senate version of the draft Basic Law withdrawing their support due to the massacre, further delays are a certainty.
  2. Opposition to the draft law and the 2014 peace deal among local Mindanao politicians (Muslim and Christian) and national legal and political figures was already mounting before the massacre. The massacre will increase the number of politicians at both levels opposed to the peace deal and the Basic Law, and provides them a powerful new emotive rationale for their opposition.
  3. The fact that the slain police detachment was hunting for a known Malaysian terrorist and suspected that this senior Jemaah Islamiyah figure, 'Marwan', and his associate Basit Usman, were hiding out in the house of the local MILF commander, focuses new attention on the multiple personal links between senior personnel in MILF and regional terrorists seeking safe haven in Mindanao. Multiple reports that BIFF fighters joined in the fighting further reinforces recognition of the strong, often familial, connections between the MILF that struck the latest peace agreement with Manila and insurgent groups that reject the deal.
  4. It is reported that the nearby Philippine Army detachment was unable to provide support to the cornered and outgunned police during the 'dusk to dawn' fighting due the stipulations of the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the Philippines Government. This could well undermine support for the ceasefire conditions among local Army and police personnel mourning their fallen peers and smarting from the seemingly one-sided outcome of the clash.

Both the MILF and the Aquino Administration have called for the peace process to continue unimpeded despite this apparent massacre, which stands out even by the violent standards of Mindanao. Many opponents to the peace deal in Manila and in Mindanao will disagree.

The decades-long search for peace in Muslim Mindanao has seen many false dawns and the recurrence of low-intensity war. While the 25 January clash may not, by itself, spoil the latest and most comprehensive peace deal, it will not be easily overcome. The delays to the peace process will put the search for peace at risk yet again. 


Thanks to Hugh White for continuing our debate on the China-Australia FTA and the intersection between Strategic Studies and Economics. Like Hugh, I do not think that 'Australia's economic weight and sophistication is such an irresistible magnet for China that we can dictate the terms of the relationship and compel it to accept without demur whatever strategic positions we choose to adopt'.

Each of the last four Australian governments has felt the tongue-lashings of the Chinese when their positions on various issues differed from those of the Chinese Communist Party (positions Australia was far from alone in the region in adopting). Even as a callow program director at the Lowy Institute, a private think tank, I was castigated more than once by Chinese officials in Australia for demurring against Chinese views. But although China forthrightly pushes back against those with a different worldview, that does not mean it lets such differences undercut Chinese interests.

I agree with Hugh that measuring the benefits of a bilateral preferential trade deal and divining its policy weight against assumed strategic imperatives is fiendishly difficult. But I think Hugh is underestimating the importance of the China-Australia deal for Beijing, for three reasons:

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  1. Leon Berkelmans indicated why the dated and modest estimates Hugh references are no longer a credible guide to the deal signed.
  2. As trade economists remind us every time a trade deal is done, the dynamic gains from structural change to the affected economies are likely to be much greater than the static gains to bilateral trade flows, which are the focus of traditional models such as the one Hugh cites.
  3. As shown by both Japanese and Chinese private sector firms getting the same elevated foreign direct investment ceilings through their respective deals with Australia, the same ceiling first granted to US firms a decade ago in the US-Australia preferential trade deal, the effects of any trade deal cannot be treated in isolation. Rather, each should be seen as part of a much larger whole. This explains why an economy the size of China would bother to negotiate a bilateral deal with Iceland, an economy less than 1% the size of Australia.

China's trade diplomacy seems to be following Deng Xiaoping's maxim to 'cross the river, feeling for the stones.' As shown by the Korea and Australia deals, China under Xi Jinping is signing broader and deeper trade deals with larger trading partners.

Through the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership process, China is now also in serious negotiations with its largest regional trading partner, Japan. And President Xi's embrace of the decade-old Free Trade Agreement for the Asia-Pacific idea indicates China is willing to consider trade talks with its largest national trading partner, the US. Lastly, China's trade deals with European Free Trade Area members suggest that China has 'felt the stones' towards trade talks with the European Union, China's largest collective trading partner.

Undoubtedly, Japan, the US and the EU will look at China's commitments in the China-Australia FTA as a minimum standard to be much improved upon, given their greater economic weight and sophistication.

Economic interests and strategic ones are both important, and these interests certainly do intersect. But in the case of the China-Australia FTA, I think Hugh understates the deal's economic importance to China and overstates the intersection between China's global economic interests and regional security interests. He also overstates the prominence of these regional security interests in this intersection.

Economics does explain the China-Australia FTA better than Strategic Studies.

Photo by Flickr user Alexander Kesselaar.


Thanks to Hugh White for responding to my post on the China-Australia free trade agreement (FTA). Hugh lays out three options for interpreting China's decision to go ahead with the FTA despite the Abbott Government's pro-Japan and pro-US stances. I am not an Option 1 believer ('Beijing doesn't really care much about these strategic/political issues, and their importance is outweighed by the economic value to China of the FTA and the diplomatic value of a warmer relationship with Australia'), as Hugh suggests.

Rather I think Option 4 — China's primary motivation for signing the trade deal with Australia is its global (not regional) trade diplomacy strategy aimed at domestic structural reform – is the most compelling. In this case, China is telling the truth when it says its foreign policy is primarily driven by the domestic concerns of a developing, previously centrally planned, economy in rapid transition.

Australia is the fourth developed economy to sign a preferential trade deal with China in 2014, following after Iceland, Switzerland and South Korea. More are on the way. These four were preceded by deals with Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Not only is China under Xi Jinping increasing the number of trade deals with advanced economies, the scope of these deals, as we can see with the Australian and Korean FTAs, is increasing.

For me, the China-Australia deal is motivated more by China's global trade diplomacy aimed at domestic economic goals than it is by the regional strategic order in East Asia and Australia's perceived position in this order in relation to China and the US. I imagine the same is true for Australia as well.

If Option 4 is the best explanation, this is a good sign for the regional security order and a strong caution against over-interpreting the scope and effect of regional strategic competition. If the Abbott Government is an Option 4 follower, then the China-Australia trade deal is even more of a coup than advertised, and is the sign of a mature, not adolescent, Australia in Asia.

Photo by Flickr user gp1974.


We've all heard of Mythbusters, the TV program that tests whether common assumptions are based in reality or myth.

The conclusion of negotiations for the China-Australia FTA, President Xi Jinping's elevation of Australia-China relations from the strategic partnership (agreed during the Gillard prime ministership) to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and the agreement by Japan, Australia and the US on the sidelines of the G20 in Brisbane to jointly develop submarine technology definitively bust two long-held myths about Australian foreign policy and its Asian engagement project.

Yet these magically combined myths have been busted before, only to reappear as major underlying assumptions to much of the commentary on Australian strategic and foreign policy under Prime Minister Abbott.

The first myth is the partisan one that Liberal governments and prime ministers are less able to manage relations with East Asian states than Labor ones. Michael Wesley did a masterful job debunking this myth in relation to the Howard years in The Howard Paradox. From his earliest, understandably tentative, days as leader, Abbott, a confessed foreign policy non-expert, has faced a similar barrage of at times caustic commentary about alleged Asian faux pas and the assumed damage they were causing to Australia's relations with key East Asian states.

Yet, just over a year into its first term, the Abbott Government can claim to have gone faster and further than the Howard Government in deepening relations with the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore, with the new Jokowi Administration offering opportunities to include Indonesia on this long list.

The Liberal Party's traditional focus on bilateral relationships over regional bodies has continued under the Abbott Government, and Abbott's critics argue that, with the geopolitical situation in East Asia becoming more uncertain, this focus is having damaging consequences. But in fact these uncertainties provide more opportunities for Australia to forge closer relations with major powers, and Abbott is well placed to take advantage of them. The Abbott paradox is in full swing.

The second strategic myth is that closer relations with the US, to which the Liberals are seen as being more prone than Labor, are detrimental to Australia's key relationships in Asia. Australia's Asian engagement policy would benefit from a more 'autonomous' and 'independent' relationship with the US and its ally Japan, it is argued.

The most sustained and inaccurate criticism of the Abbott Government's foreign policy is that closer relations with Japan and the US will undercut relations with China, with Beijing likely to impose costs on the bilateral economic relationship. The exact opposite now seems to have occurred, with the signing of the historic Japan-Australia FTA earlier this year clearly an important late-term stimulus to the decade-long China-Australia trade talks.

It seems Chinese and Australian policy makers are better able to separate economic policy benefits from strategic policy concerns than many of us commentators.

Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Coch.


When Shinzo Abe led the LDP to a landslide lower house election in late 2012, excitement in and outside of Japan about an abnormally productive period in Japanese politics featuring a strong, popular and reformist prime minister was palpable.

The 18 May 2013 cover of The Economist depicted Abe as a flying super hero; Abe's opinion polling was at Koizumi levels (the last Japanese prime minister to spark such excitement). The LDP-led coalition's second thumping of the dispirited Democratic Part of Japan in the Upper House elections in July last year (an election which also saw a fracturing of the opposition on both the left and right of the resurgent LDP), further strengthened Abe's hand and hopes for his administration.

Abe was popular within the LDP and faced no clear rival (unlike Koizumi a decade earlier), the LDP coalition controlled both houses of parliament and faced a weak and disorganised opposition, and Abe and his cabinet had strong public backing aided by an economic upturn.

Abe has spent some of this unprecedented political capital to pursue tough economic reforms (joining TPP negotiations, the trade deal with Australia and hiking taxes) and security reforms (setting up the National Security Council, passing the new state secrets law, easing bans on arms exports, reinterpreting Article 9), and to politically reinforce his revisionist views on Japanese wartime history by visiting Yasukuni shrine.

Coming into the second half of his second term as prime minister, Abe's political position shows signs of weakening; we may be seeing a return to the frustrating 'normal' of Japanese politics.

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The economy is softening after the effects of the fiscal pump-priming and ultra-loose monetary policy pass through, and the challenges of structural economic reform are starting to bite. The much-needed increase in the value-added tax is causing sharp short-term economic pain. The time to turn back to Japan's nuclear reactors (that accounted for about a third of power generation before the Fukushima disaster) has arrived

Abe and his cabinet are seeing their high and resilient poll numbers start to sag, and with it comes the inevitable calls for Abe to circle the wagons and focus on support for local economies and not structural reforms. Within the LDP, Ishiba Shigeru's challenge to Abe is growing. In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Abe was forced to give Ishiba a portfolio that will allow Ishiba to strengthen his local political networks, the key to political success in Japan. And the dispirited, fractured opposition is recovering from its double thumping and beginning to act appropriately. The opposition successfully pressured Abe to dump two newly promoted female cabinet ministers, one for the misdemeanor offence of handing out hand-fans to supporters.

Abe's ability to traverse the world as Japan's leading statesman and his ability to expend political capital pushing through reforms are both under challenge. Good for Australia that the trade deal with its largest source of investment from Asia and its second-largest export market was concluded in Abe's extended honeymoon period. This period may well be over. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CSIS.


The ongoing student-led demonstrations in Hong Kong, which oppose China's undemocratic framework for the 'selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage', are similar in cause, focus and likely outcome as the 2003 mass demonstrations against the then attempts to implement Article 23 of the Basic law.

The anti-sedition act aimed at fulfilling Article 23, which was withdrawn after the 1 July 2003 marches, states that 'The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government…'.

As in 2003, the present attempt to fulfil the conditions of the Basic Law under the 'one country, two systems' formula has led to hundreds of thousands of supposedly non-political Hong Kongers to protest in the centre of the city. Also similar to 2003, the primary and existential cause was Hong Kongese fears that the Central Government in Beijing was deepening the 'one country' part of this formula and eroding the two systems, by restricting Hong Kong's freedoms and undercutting its liberal tenets. Tenets that find expression in the acceptance of peaceful political protest.

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The 2003 demonstrators focused their political voice against the deeply unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose support for the anti-sedition law was seen as capitulating to, or conniving with, Beijing to make Hong Kong a region more closely administered by authoritarian China. The current Chief Executive, the equally unpopular Leung Chun-ying, is feeling the brunt of the present student-led demonstrations and the earlier 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace'. This is mainly because of Leung's endorsement of China's plans to ensure that the nominating committee for the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage is neither broadly representative nor reflective of democratic principles.

The 2003 demonstrations, the loss of Tung Chee Hwa's legitimacy in Hong Kong and his utility in Beijing were key factors in his resignation in early 2005. The present demonstrations could well see Leung Chun-ying not finish his five-year term that ends in 2017 for similar reasons. However, unlike in 2003 when the anti-sedition law was withdrawn, Beijing is not likely to withdraw its framework for ensuring that Hong Kong's Chief Executive will be chosen from a very short list of Beijing-approved candidates.

The similarities between the present demonstrations and those in 2003 show that the 'two political systems in the one country' formula is unworkable. One is a liberal system seeking true democracy and one is authoritarian where liberal thought and democracy are anathema.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, the system that hundreds of thousands came out to defend in 2003, and today, will likely continue to be eroded. As for China's plans to uphold the one-country two system model for democratic Taiwan, the likely outcome of the ongoing demonstrations are another nail in an already very well sealed coffin.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlos Barria.


Hugh White's latest post immediately reminded me of three things: my admiration for Hugh's ability to spark debate; an Interpreter post I wrote on the same topic 18 months ago; and the fact that I frequently agree with Hugh's analysis of the situation and disagree with his conclusions.

Hugh poses the questions of whether China is being 'dumb' by provoking Japan toward a more 'normal' defence policy, and sets up a dichotomy that assumes Chinese provocation of Japan is aimed at undermining Japanese confidence in and commitment to the US-Japan alliance: either China stops trying to undermine the US-Japan alliance, which leaves US strategic weight in Asia largely intact as the principle limit to Chinese ambitions, or it undermines the US-Japan alliance, in which case Japan replaces America as the major balancer of Chinese power in Asia. Which would Beijing rather deal with? I think they'd probably prefer Japan, Hugh says, concluding that therefore China is not being dumb.

Yet the answer to Hugh's question of whether China is being 'dumb' by provoking Japan may very well be 'yes'.

China's provocations in the East China Sea certainly are supporting Japan's less abnormal defence policy. However, Japan's changes are not aimed at replacing the US as a balancer of Chinese power in Asia but rather helping to support America's continued role as the primary balancer. Rather than the White-envisioned US-Japan split in the face of a more aggressive China, there is a growing unity, with Japan stepping up to play a more active alliance-based role. The Abe Administration's reinterpretation of Article 9 to include the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense is primarily motivated by Japanese alliance responsibilities and the upcoming revisions of this very treaty, as well as Japan's role in the US-led regional ballistic missile defense system.

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Likewise, Japan's developing strategic partnerships with Australia, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and others parallel US developments with these countries. In the case of Australia it is being done explicitly to bolster the US-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship. The Abe Administration's loosening of arms export bans will also allow Tokyo to play a more active and central role in US-Japan and US-led multi-partner weapons systems' developments, and will allow Japan to export its indigenously developed arms. Changes to Japan's planned military capabilities, particularly the expansion of its Aegis-capable fleet, also are consistent with Japan seeking greater security through a stronger alliance with the US and not outside it.

Certainly, policy-makers and the wider security community in Japan are worried about the US strategic position in Asia and the rising threat from China (and North Korea). Yet, all the steps taken by Japan so far are either driven by or fully consistent with a stronger US-Japan alliance with Japan playing a more active role.

Photo by Flickr user US Navy.


Prime Minister Abe's carefully crafted speech to the Australian parliament gave credence to Prime Minister Abbott's much tut-tutted claim that Japan is Australia's best friend in Asia. The historic speech also clearly helped dispel one doubt about Prime Minister Abe: that he was unwilling to address Japan's World War II past and the pain it caused. Rather, to the surprise of some, Abe started his speech with direct reference to exactly this. 

Alas, some doubts are harder to dispel than others, as shown by Sam Roggeveen's initial thoughts on Abe's speech and the coverage of Abe's visit prior to his arrival. Sam and Hugh White both worry that closer Japan-Australia relations mean Australia is somehow at risk of siding with Japan against China, given the worsening strategic rivalry between the two Northeast Asian neighbours, or of being dragged into a Japan-China war. I am sure many in the Ukraine or Georgia who waited in vain for Western military support may disagree with this logic.

This durable doubt mistakes convergence of interests for commonality of interests. As Abe makes clear in his speech, his main reason for pursuing a free trade agreement with Australia is structural reform of the Japanese economy. This is not the main reason Australia signed onto the deal. Similarly, even if Ian Buruma is correct and Abe's strategic and defence policy reforms are mainly driven by a growing (and rational) fear of China and desire to counterbalance it, Australia and many others can still seek opportunities to strengthen relations with Japan and get more out of Japan even if they do not share these same fears or counterbalancing goals.

Clearly, Australia can benefit from closer defence-technology cooperation with Japan which Abe's relaxation of arms exports facilitates.

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The UK realised this and signed a defence cooperation agreement with no existential angst about moving closer to war with China. Likewise, Abe's more forthright advocacy of adherence to international law when dealing with territorial disputes and Japan's enhanced support for maritime surveillance capacity-building in Southeast Asia are very much in line with long-standing Australian policy goals that were developed without primary consideration of China.

Friendships, special relationships and skilful diplomacy are built upon the recognition of convergence of interests and beliefs. This is different to a commonality of interests and beliefs, and such a convergence does not have to imply required future action. I would hazard that the burgeoning of the China-Australia relationship, despite the huge differences between the two states, is testament to this distinction.

If one accepts that Australian officials and politicians can do their job and realise this difference, it is hard to see how the steps taken by Japan and Australia to foster closer security ties is putting Australia or the Australia-China relationship at any greater risk. Forgoing such opportunities with Japan for doubts that deserve to be dispelled would be an opportunity lost and would raise questions in Japan about how good a strategic partner Australia really is.

 Image courtesy of pm.gov.au.


If Prabowo Subianto does win tomorrow's presidential election in Indonesia, most if not all of Asia's elected democracies will be led by realist conservatives who triumphed over candidates less associated with this political position.

From Netanyahu and Modi in West Asia to Park, Abe and Ma (less so) in Northeast Asia, Aquino and Najib in Southeast Asia, and Abbott and Key in Oceania, the territory covered by this political trend is truly continental. Modi, Abe, Park and Najib are also stronger conservative nationalists than their party predecessors (Vajpayee, Fukuda, Lee and Abdullah respectively). The same trend is noticeable among East Asian non-democracies with Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping seemingly more conservative and nationalist than their predecessors. The coup in Thailand is clearly inspired by conservative and nationalist goals and forces. Will the next generation of Vietnamese Communist Party leaders in 2016 follow suit?

The diversity of Asian societies and political systems and the fact that there are few if any exceptions (I cannot think of one) simply adds to the power of this political phenomenon and the need to try to understand it better beyond looking to the unique intricacies of each state.

Alas, Occam's Razor explanations do not help much. 'Kicking the incumbents out' is not persuasive because Key and Ma have served beyond their first electoral terms, while Park and Najib are from the same ruling party as their predecessors. Mohdi, Aquino, Abe and Abbott, on the other hand, are new. Similarly, the 2008 global financial crisis has not had a uniform political effect even in its North American and European heartlands; its putative political effects in Asia are even harder to divine.

Looking from India eastwards, I would hazard that the worsening external security environment is a contributing factor to the trend and one that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In Northeast Asia in particular, conservative rule seems to be the norm, with the rise of the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan to power followed quickly by its political demise, and both the right-leaning Kuomintang in Taiwan and the Grand National Party and its successors in Korea well into their second terms after each losing the two previous ones. Economically, Northeast Asian countries have small state sectors (measured by share of GDP and total public sector employment) and tax takes, with limited welfare state systems, suggesting a regional conservative economic consensus.

A group effort might bring a clearer understanding of this trend. It would be great if Interpreter readers could comment from their own points of view on explanations for, exceptions to and disagreements with this trend, using the comments thread below.


Prime Minister Abe's historic speech at last week's Shangri-La Dialogue focused regional and global attention (and Chinese ire) on Abe's desire for greater and more proactive Japanese security engagement in Southeast Asia. The International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Voices series provides a useful caution on the domestic hurdles facing Abe's pursuit of this strategic rebalance.

But Japan is also in the midst of an economic rebalance towards Southeast Asia. This rebalance is sharper, and has some key differences to Abe's security shift. First, Prime Minister Abe is a minor figure; second, Japan's domestic situation is the primary driver, not a constraint; and third, the economic rebalance could well have a greater and more positive impact on Southeast Asia than the security rebalance.

Japanese investors are moving more money out of the demographically declining Japanese market and putting a larger share in Southeast Asia. But China (and India), despite their larger market sizes, are not the beneficiaries of these outflows. The rising cost of labour in China, not the rising tensions in the East China Sea, explain Japan's economic rebalance away from China. In 2013 alone, the six largest Southeast Asian economies (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand,  Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines) received 2.5 times more FDI inflows from Japan than China received, and 11 times more than India received. Q1 2014 figures show an even sharper differentiation, with Southeast Asia's big six receiving more than four times as much Japanese FDI as China and 20 times more than India.

When it comes to portfolio outflows from Japan, the figures are even starker. According to a 19 May report in the Edge Malaysia newspaper by Bank of America Merrill Lynch researchers (not online), since 2010 there has been a net outflow for Japanese portfolio investment from China and a surge of inflows to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia now accounts for 7.2% of Japanese overseas equity holdings, up from 4.3% in 2010, while China's share has fallen from 1.3% in 2010 to 0.7% at the end of 2013. Japanese bank lending to Southeast Asia is also growing much faster than Japanese cross-border lending to China.

While America's rebalance to Asia is seeing greater progress on the security side than the economic one, Japan is experiencing the opposite.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Unity, at least for the group photo. (REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun.)

History neither repeated nor reversed itself at the ASEAN Summit last weekend when it came to the South China Sea disputes. Three preliminary judgments can be made with an eye for ASEAN's future centrality in relation to this issue.

1. ASEAN and its host state clearly learned from its historic 2012 failure, due to internal divisions over the South China Sea, to issue a joint communique. Even before all the leaders had arrived in Myanmar's capital for the Summit's opening dinner,  ASEAN foreign ministers released a joint statement expressing 'serious concerns over the ongoing developments' in the South China Sea. As Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Shanmugan noted, not issuing such a statement 'would have further dented ASEAN credibility'.

ASEAN as an institution and Myanmar as a host evaded the worst outcome. In fact, for Myanmar, the intense focus on the South China Sea disputes may even have reduced the Summit media horde's interest in more sensitive domestic issues like the treatment of the Rohingya.

2. The divisions within ASEAN over approaches to the territorial disputes between half of its members (including the three most populous) and China in the South China Sea mean ASEAN is increasingly sidelined when it comes to this core interest for the region. The joint statement places its hope in all parties respecting international law and the glacial negotiations between China and ASEAN on a Code of Conduct. Departing Indonesian President Yudhoyono, attending his last Summit, offered the nascent and amorphous ASEAN Political Security Community as a wider regional dispute-settlement mechanism. Even the largely boilerplate ASEAN statement was achieved only after the foreign ministers' meeting was extended by an hour and it was agreed that no specific country or 'ongoing development' be mentioned.

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For the Vietnamese Government, with large anti-China protests flaring and China's largest offshore oil rig in waters it sees as Vietnamese, this will not be reassuring. Same for the Philippines, which saw the Chinese gain de facto control of Scarborough Shoal after, according to the Philippine interpretation, welching on an American-mediated agreement for both sides to withdraw. For Hanoi and Manila, Chinese 'facts on the ground' are real, and hopes for a Code of Conduct that China will agree to and abide by are not.

If ASEAN had wanted to stay relevant to these concerns, it could have: (a) noted that China's recent actions are not consistent with the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea; (b) given ASEAN's stamp of approval to the Philippine case against China over this maritime dispute in the South China Sea as a way of bringing international law to bear and/or (c) provided public support to the draft Code of Conduct that has circulated within the confines of ASEAN for months. No such proactive steps, which certainly would have triggered a Chinese verbal barrage, were taken.

3. At the same time that President Aquino and Foreign Secretary Del Rosario were not being reassured in Myanmar, they were getting reassurance elsewhere. Philippine and American troops (along with 100 Australian participants this time around) were in the middle of the 30th annual Balikatan ('shoulder-to-shoulder') exercises, practicing the amphibious defence and recapture of remote offshore islands. Furthermore, both Japan and the US have officially singled out the danger of Chinese actions in the South China Sea, noting that they are part of a consistent and destabilising set of actions by China in its maritime disputes in East Asia more widely, and have repeatedly endorsed the Philippines' decision to take its dispute with China to an international legal tribunal. Reassurance sought and gained.

ASEAN was created to help individual Southeast Asian states manage relations with major extra-regional powers and to reduce the influence of major powers in Southeast Asia through united action. The 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea has been held up as an exemplar of this approach. But since these heady days, ASEAN has been increasingly unable to live up to dual purpose when it comes to the South China Sea. The ASEAN Summit in Myanmar did nothing to alter this trend.


There is a good chance that history will repeat itself at this weekend's ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. This could be bad for ASEAN claims of unity and centrality, and for the fraying credibility of the ASEAN-brokered 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as an effective diplomatic means to manage the territorial disputes between China and five ASEAN member states in these troubled waters.

In 2012, with Cambodia as host, the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed for the first time in ASEAN history to issue an end-of-meeting joint communique, with the Philippines in particular (the weakest Southeast Asian state with a South China Sea claim, and one that has faced the most persistent Chinese coercion) incensed that Cambodia refused to include reference to the dispute in the rejected draft communique. Many suspected that Cambodia's close and asymmetric relationship with China was behind its un-ASEAN refusal. 

A post-AMM period of intense shuttle diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa led to a six- point statement on the regional grouping's position on the South China Sea that helped wipe some egg off the ASEAN face. But to the angst of those who support ASEAN centrality, the Philippines then took its growing dispute with China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea rather than waiting for the 2002 Declaration to be transformed into a legally binding Code of Conduct, as was first hoped in 2002.

This time around, the stakes are higher.

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Vietnam and China are embroiled in a serious dispute over the towing of a Chinese oil rig (with naval and air cover provided) to a position the Vietnamese claim is on their continental shelf, and the Philippines and China are in dispute over Ayungin Shoal and the recent arrest of 11 Chinese sea turtle poachers by the Philippines in waters close to Palawan, which China claims. China’s oil rig actions and the blocking of supplies to Philippine troops on Ayungin Shoal clearly contravene the spirit and letter of the 2002 Declaration.

An ASEAN Summit brings together the leaders of the ASEAN member states. If they follow in the footsteps of their foreign ministers in 2012 and fail to come out with a Summit statement that addresses the tensions and Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the cracks could be too wide and deep to paper over again. The lack of a statement, or one that is viewed as too soft by the under-pressure Philippine and Vietnamese leaders, will likely encourage these states to further sideline ASEAN in their approach to their territorial disputes with China. They could also seek support together, and look to major external powers which share their concerns about Chinese actions in East Asia's disputed waters.

Pity Myanmar (another ASEAN member state with a  close and asymmetrical relationship with China) its hosting duties.

Photo by REUTERS/Romeo Gacad.


If, as expected, Australia and Japan sign a defence equipment agreement today, this should be seen as a normal and welcome development in the bilateral relationship (as ASPI's Peter Jennings notes) and certainly should not lead Australia to seek some kind of 'counterbalancing' reaction in Australia-China security relations. That would definitely be putting the cart (security agreements) before the horse (strategic trust) at a time when China's increasingly coercive maritime behaviour in the East and South China Seas is undermining that very trust in China's strategic intentions and security actions.

Why is this normal?

  • Japan recently signed a similar agreement with its first ever Western alliance partner, Great Britain, and is developing closer defence trade ties with France, among others. Australia is joining the lengthening queue.
  • This agreement would be the third functional agreement between Japan and Australia under the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation following on from the 2010 cross-servicing agreement and the 2012 information-sharing one. Regional reaction to both was appropriately muted.
  • Japan and Australia face similar fiscal and defence industry problems that could be partially addressed by such an agreement.

Why should there be no connected Australia-China 'deliverable'?

  • Canberra did not feel the need to react to the two earlier functional agreements under the 2007 Joint Declaration or the Declaration itself with immediate, Australian-initiated institutional advances in Australia-China security relations.
  • Chinese officials consistently argue in regional fora that enhanced strategic trust must come before enhanced regional security cooperation; the confidence must come before the confidence-building measure. This is a prudent approach to foreign and security policy which the recent Australia-Japan security agreements reinforce, as does the comparative lack of such agreements between Australia and China.
  • If Australia's promotion of Australia-Japan and Australia-China security agreements and arrangements are based upon some type of balancing idea, Australia would place itself in the middle of the Japan-China strategic rivalry. This extraordinary new approach would be against Australian interests and against the natural and normal tendencies of our very different relationships with both of these major powers.

philippines-indonesia relations ASEAN China

At least one long-running maritime border dispute in Southeast Asia is heading towards peaceful settlement.

On Monday, the Indonesian and Philippine foreign ministers announced that the two countries had settled their maritime border dispute, with a boundary treaty likely to be signed when President Yudhoyono visits the Philippines in May. This maritime border agreement follows a 5 February agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia to provide Filipino fishing vessels passage through Indonesia's exclusive economic zone to key fishing zones in international waters.

As reflected by the extremely minimal coverage of this story even within the Philippine press, regional and global attention is focused on the disputes in the South China Sea between China and Southeast Asian states.

Yet relations between maritime Southeast Asian states and ASEAN's ability to speak with one voice on the disputes between China and ASEAN members in the South China Sea have long been constrained by the large number of intra-mural maritime territorial disputes. Finding political solutions to these disputes would remove both constraints. The Philippines and Indonesia have made a good start.

Photo by Flickr user tylerray.

8 of 11 This post is part of a debate on Japan-China relations

My thanks Rob Ayson for responding promptly to my post on Japan and Japan-China relations. Rob says my post reaffirmed his worries about Australia’s management of the relationships with Japan and China. But in turn, Rob’s piece reaffirmed the worries I expressed about his original post.

I have called these concerns the 'Three Overshoots':

1. The concern about 'annoying China' and the consequent judgments about necessary (not one example mentioned) versus unnecessary (Rob's focus) annoyances would help China set the terms for Australian foreign policy. It would provide China much greater influence than other powers whom Rob Ayson does not worry about annoying.

This point is particularly important because it is well known that Chinese diplomats and public figures frequently express public annoyance on issues other states would choose to ignore, from the content of film festivals and book fairs to private think tank reports and the local management of torch relays. If it becomes clear that avoiding China's annoyance has become a central consideration in Australia's foreign policy, one would imagine that such extraordinary diplomatic behaviour may become even more marked.

2. As I noted in my original post, the two cases of unnecessary annoyance Rob Ayson counsels against do not seem to be issues of Australia standing up to or pushing back against China.

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Prime Minister Abbott’s reference to Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia is both true and very much in line with standard, decades-old Australian diplomatic language about Japan. The fact that Abbott reiterated this language in reference to Japan-Australia relations and an invitation for the Japanese prime minister to visit Australia bilaterally (something that has not happened since Prime Minister Koizumi) should not be noteworthy or annoying.

As for the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue’s opposition to 'coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo' in the East China Sea, it is China itself that has fulminated most about recent Japanese unilateral actions. This TSD declaration could be as much use to China as it is to Japan, or perhaps even more, given that China is not a TSD member. Rob's suggestion that Australia should seek to express such normal diplomatic language only in larger regional forums that include China would prove difficult, as China routinely quashes any such discussions in forums it is a member of, or in those over which it has leverage. Just ask ASEAN.

3. Rob Ayson (and Hugh White in the opinion piece Rob cites) over-interprets the Australian language on Japan and the scope and purpose of the Japan-Australia security partnership. Australia has never stated that it is an 'all-weather best friend of Japan'. Rather, Australia has emphasised that Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia. I do not see how this is anywhere close to an unconditional alignment with Japan.

This tendency for overemphasis echoes earlier cautions from Hugh White that Australia should 'press the pause button' on its alliance with Japan, an alliance that neither Tokyo nor Canberra is aware of or working towards.

Looking at these three overshoots together, I fear that Rob Ayson has set the bar on what he deems 'unnecessary annoyance' of China so low that, in reality, he is counseling for what he says he opposes: making the avoidance of annoying China the starting point of Australian foreign policy.

Photo by Flickr user maxful.