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Singapore resets China ties

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | September 20, 2017

The visit by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to China (Sept 19-21) will be keenly watched in Delhi. It is no secret that over the years Singapore has significantly influenced the Indian discourses regarding China. Although the bamboo curtain lifted a long time ago, India’s ‘China watchers’, aside a clutch of noble exceptions, rely largely on second-hand knowledge, and Singapore being the West’s outpost, became a watering hole for think tankers speculating on the ‘takeaways’ from China’s rise.

Coincidence or not, Singapore-China relations also went downhill through the past 3-year period – similar to the trajectory of Sino-Indian ties under Modi government. The common factors were rather striking: Singapore was the only ASEAN country – like India in the South Asian region – to urge that China should “fully respect” the South China Sea arbitration award in June last year (although the island state, like India, was not party to the territorial dispute); Singapore too has been disdainful toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative; Singapore cozied up to Taiwan; and, Lee departed from the wise policy of striking a careful balance between China and the US laid down by Lee Kuan Yew, to embrace the US as geopolitical ally.

Thus, Lee’s visit to China signals a significant adjustment in Singapore’s strategic posturing, riveted in the recent years on the US’ ‘pivot to Asia’. While receiving him in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the strengthening of political trust and the consolidation of bilateral relations are not only in mutual interests but also will benefit peace, stability and prosperity of the region and globally.

All this may come as disappointment to pundits in India who are wedded to the belief that Singapore shares their adversarial mindset toward China. On the contrary, Singapore realizes that the containment strategy against China has become a relic of history and the smart thing to do is to re-engage China. In some ways, it’s the old political adage, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’  In an exclusive interview with Xinhua news agency on Friday Lee expressed willingness to see Singapore as a hub for Chinese business and headquarters of some Belt and Road projects, based on its advantages in finance, transportation, trade and services.

Through the past 3-year period, China began engaging with Malaysia as a key interlocutor for the BRI in the ASEAN region. The message was loud and clear in the Chinese investment ($7.2 billion) to develop Malacca as a new deep-sea port rivalling Singapore. China also unfolded big plans to expand relations with Malaysia. It has committed to import goods worth $2 trillion from Malaysia over the next five years (a nearly eight-fold jump from 2016 imports over that period), invest up to $150 billion in the country and offer 10,000 places for training in China. During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China last December, deals worth $33.6 billion crystallized.

China hopes that Lee’s visit provides an opportunity to canvass its bid for the prestigious 360 kilometere long high-speed railway project connecting Singapore with Kuala Lumpur (which will cut travel time to about 45 minutes.) Premier Li Keqiang raised the topic upfront with Lee on Tuesday at their meeting in Beijing. From Lee’s initial remarks, Singapore takes a positive view of the Chinese bid.

Another point of interest for China will be that Singapore is assuming the chairmanship of the ASEAN next year. Beijing appreciated that last month at the ASEAN conclaves, Singapore played a lead role to promote the finalization of a code of conduct between the grouping and China regarding the South China Sea. Conceivably, China sees Singapore as a bellwether within the ASEAN.

Lee’s visit to China comes before the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (October 18) and Trump’s state visit to China in November. Lee is due to visit the US in October. From all appearances, Singapore appears to be inserting itself into the ‘new type of big-power relations’ reshaping the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific while also positioning itself at a crucial juncture of political transition in the Chinese leadership.

Singapore is well clued in traditionally on the alignments within the Chinese leadership. Interestingly, amongst other top Chinese leaders, Lee is meeting the Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wang Qishan. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan visited China in June after which he disclosed that the two countries have agreed to work together on the Belt and Road Initiative. This was followed by a meeting between Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit during which cooperation within the framework of BRI figured. Clearly, there has been a build-up toward Lee’s visit to China, which is taking place after an unusual hiatus of 3 years.

September 20, 2017 Posted by | Economics, Timeless or most popular | , , | Leave a comment

A ‘new normal’ in South China Sea

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | August 16, 2017

India’s ‘Look East’ policy, which shifted to ‘Act East’ under the Modi government circa 2015, may now have to quickly shift again – to, say, ‘Watch East’. It will be on the one hand a judicious shift in tune with the rapid stabilization of the ASEAN’s relations with China and on the other hand a cathartic experience insofar as the rapid flow of events in the south-east Asian region holds some useful lessons for Indian diplomacy.

Looking back, the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s award of 12 July 2016 on the South China Sea (SCS) has turned out to be a turning point, opening a new page of cooperation between the ASEAN and China. A fair amount of ground has been covered in the past year with the hotline at foreign ministry level to manage maritime emergencies, the operationalization of the observance of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and the framework of the Code of Conduct in the SCS. Sourabh Gupta at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington sums up:

  • In fact, every member of Asean, with the exception perhaps of Singapore, yearns for the success of Asean-China political relations – but not at the inadmissible cost of having to capitulate to Beijing’s unilateral and non-conforming sovereign rights claim to oil and gas resources in their respective exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea.
  • The current easing cycle, rather, will lend itself to a period of strategic calm in this critically important waterway. Without an agitated local claimant on whose behalf it can claim to be intervening to uphold the stability of the South China Sea, the US has few other tools at its disposal to assert its relevance and authority in this body of water other than to endlessly navigate its length and breadth.

No doubt, the announcement in Manila on Wednesday of a new “modus vivendi” or a new “way to get along” is in sync with the trend outlined above by Gupta. It appears that there has been a diplomatic breakthrough between the Philippines and China. “The Chinese will not occupy new features in the South China Sea nor are they are going to build structures in Scarborough Shoal,” Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana told lawmakers in Manila on Tuesday. Cayetano also said the Philippines was working on a “commercial deal” with China to explore and exploit oil and gas resources in disputed areas of the SCS with an aim to begin drilling within a year. (Reuters )

To be sure, when the “frontline state” that is Philippines leaves behind standoffs and brinkmanship with China, something has fundamentally changed in the SCS. There are lessons here for other countries having territorial disputes with China. The Philippine approach under President Rodrigo Duterte is strikingly similar to India’s under the leadership of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – “compartmentalizing” different templates of the relationship with China whereby hugely beneficial economic engagement is possible without forfeiting the prerogative to uphold national security interests.

The East Asia Forum has featured a riveting analysis of Duterte’s policy by Prof. Aileen S P Baviera at the University of the Philippines, who writes,

  • By de-linking economic relations from management of the disputes, Manila can benefit from Beijing at a time when sustained high growth and investor confidence in the Philippines coincides with a massive investment drive by China as part of BRI… Duterte’s China policy shift also reduces disagreement within ASEAN over the handling of the disputes.

Of course, the success of the policy also depends on China. To quote Baviera, “China would have to downplay nationalist emotions and restrain military adventurism. This could give Duterte breathing space both for repairing relations with China and reorienting the US alliance towards more convergent objectives.”

Ironically, Duterte’s new thinking bears striking similarity with the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s policies toward China. Yet, Duterte’s political personality happens to have more in common with Prime Minister Modi than with Manmohan Singh. Like Modi, Duterte is also a strongman populist. Both thrive on polarizing domestic politics and both pursue controversial approaches to social problems. Neither can claim to have a sophisticated understanding of international affairs. But where Duterte leaves Modi miles behind is in his pragmatism to eschew confrontation and megaphone diplomacy to leave the territorial disputes as a stalemate and instead maximise the economic benefits of the China relationship .

These are early days, but according to reports from Hanoi, the Spanish drilling ship, which has been prospecting in the disputed waters in in Vietnam’s Block 136/3 last month, has left the area after pressure from China. Interestingly, according to reports citing a “diplomatic source with direct knowledge of the situation”, Hanoi’s decision to suspend the drilling followed the visit of a Vietnamese delegation to Beijing.

The big question is whether the tidings from Manila and Hanoi presage a “new normal”. Though the Code of Conduct between China and the aggrieved members of the ASEAN is not yet a done deal, a future order of the SCS based on international rules and norms seems a near-term possibility. The Global Times newspaper carried on Tuesday a “preview” of what a future SCS order might look like – based on principles of “equality”, “balance” and “openness”. Read it here.

August 16, 2017 Posted by | Economics | , , , , | Leave a comment

American civil war is good for world peace

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | March 22, 2017

The civil war in Washington between President Donald Trump and his detractors shows no signs of abating. Every day becomes a fresh start in the fighting. The latest salvo has been Monday’s hearing at the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee where the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey acknowledged the existence of an on-going investigation by his agency over suspected Russian interference in the US presidential election with hacking to help the then Republican candidate Trump win the White House.

True, no smoking gun was produced by Comey, but his testimony implied that investigations are continuing. We may expect that many more such hearings are in the pipeline. A “big grey cloud” has appeared out of nowhere, as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes put it. The cloud will lift only if the various inquiries going on conclusively absolve Trump or, alternatively, if Trump leaves office, whichever comes first.

Such inquiries have a way of mutating, while moving ponderously, slowly in the cesspit tank. Comey admitted that it is difficult for him “to give you a timetable as to when it will be done.” Then, there is also a sub-plot – Comey himself is under investigation by the US Justice Department.

The next big day will be March 28 when two colorful personalities in the US intelligence system during the Obama administration – the ex-director of national intelligence James Clapper and the ex-CIA director John Brennan – will appear before the House panel. Both were instrumental in the January assessment that the Russians had interfered in the US presidential election in an attempt to benefit Trump. Clapper has a proven record of lying under oath, while Brennan is Barack Obama’s poodle. Trust both to resort to innuendos against Trump and mates, hitting them in the loins where it hurts. (Watch it “live”.)

To my mind, this is about the appropriate time to begin pondering about a world sans America. That is to say, an international system where America has taken “time out”. Is it a good thing to happen? Well, it is already having some salutary effect on the international climate. The global tensions have noticeably eased. If it was commonplace during the Obama era to discuss a potential war between Russia and the US, including a nuclear war, no one wastes breath over such things anymore.

A good case can be made that if the American civil war continues to be fought as savagely by the country’s elites as it has been so far, and if the fratricidal strife continues for another 4 or 8 years — ideally, through the entire Trump presidency — it will be a great boon for the world community. Never again will Americans be able to be preachy that the world cannot do without them. And the ruling elites in countries such as India will also get accustomed to a life without America.

Clearly, America’s “exceptionalism” is getting exposed as total sham. Second, the longer the civil war continues, the less possibility there is for US military interventions abroad. Quite obviously, we saw last week that China could prevail upon the US to be “cool-headed” and not to go to war with North Korea. It seems to me that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared relieved to agree with the Chinese that there is no option but to continue on the diplomatic track vis-à-vis the North Korea problem.

Again, some degree of predictability is appearing in the US-China relationship, since the last thing Trump wants now is a conflict with China. For us Asians also, it is singularly gratifying that there isn’t going to be a war in the region. This is what the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said earlier today at a media briefing in Beijing:

  • During Secretary of State Tillerson’s stay in China, the two sides arrived at a clear consensus on ensuring a sound development of China-US relations at a new starting point in the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. It should not be interpreted as a victory for any party. It is just the right way for China and the United States, two major countries, to get along with each other. Non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation summarizes the reason for the steady growth of China-US ties in recent years and is worth carrying forward and being further developed. We would like to enhance communication, mutual understanding and mutual trust with the US so as to properly handle differences, expand bilateral, regional, and international cooperation, and elevate China-US relations to a greater height at a new starting point.

The comfort level in Beijing is palpably rising. Finally, there are some other good signs, too, which are not visible to the naked eye but are no less important. In the civil war conditions in America, with so much dust and noise in the air in Washington, and such poor visibility all around, Trump is quietly able to do a few things on the side, which he had promised to do.

A good friend of mine who watches Syria and Iraq through binoculars 24 x 7, wrote to me a couple of days ago that Trump is doing some incredible things out there in the neighborhood where she lives. Let me succinctly paraphrase her assessment:

  • Trump has in fact prioritized the fight against terrorism. He is doing this quietly… The CIA has completely turned off the arms spigot to rebels in Syria and the US is bombing Al Qaeda and its allied groups now – something that Obama avoided (and tried to stop Russia/Syria/Iran from doing.) Equally, Trump is bombing the Al-Qaeda in Yemen too. And in Iraq, Trump is standing by while the Iran-trained Hashd ash-Shabi is annihilating ISIS in western Mosul and cutting off their route to Syria. Obama, on the contrary, had refused to let the Hashd fight in many of these battles. Trump now has not only given the go-ahead, but we have now seen the Iraqi Air Force participate in anti-ISIS bombing raids into Syria. Simply put, if the Obama administration’s policies only had led to the rise of the ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, Trump is actually fighting them and, importantly, he is allowing US’ regional foes – Iran and Iran-supported militia groups, in particular – to fight them unimpeded.

Meanwhile, Tillerson is likely to visit Moscow on April 12. As the saying goes, dogs bark but the caravan moves on. The world community cannot possibly ask for more.

Indeed, there will always be disgruntled elements – Brits and Germans, for example. But that is perfectly understandable. They realise that Trump regards them as a lower form of life – worse than leeches or bed bugs. They dearly want Trump to lose in the civil war, and lose very quickly. Without America to lead, they are afraid they might lose their gravitas in world politics. For us, Asians, that is not a bad prospect, either. Hopefully, the curtain is coming down on the “West”, as we knew it in modern history.

March 23, 2017 Posted by | Militarism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South China Sea Dispute: How Russia Could Help China Win in The Hague

From left: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj during are photographed before a plenary meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC) in the Reception House of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

© Sputnik/ Ramil Sitdikov
Sputnik | May 4, 2016

The Kremlin could one day regret any US detachment from the South China Sea, American geopolitical analyst Tim Daiss insists. Are Washington’s efforts truly aimed at maintaining the freedom of navigation in the region or is it part of Obama’s plan to write the rules and call the shots in the Asia Pacific region?

Russia’s opposition to internationalizing the South China Sea dispute and the US deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea has promted deep concerns among American geopolitical analysts.

Moscow’s support for Beijing has put the US plan to pressure China into making concessions on the maritime dispute in the South China Sea at risk. On the other hand, India’s decision to side with China on the issue has caught Western observers by surprise.

“China and Russia have agreed on the need to limit US influence in the Asia Pacific Region. On Friday, following bilateral talks in Beijing Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi expressed opposition to the US deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea and also said that non-claimants should not take sides in the dispute over maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea,” American geopolitical analyst Tim Daiss wrote in his Op-Ed for Forbes.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has repeatedly stated that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved by the parties directly concerned, while outside powers should refrain from interfering.

A joint communiqué of the 14th Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China singed on April 18, 2016, reads:

“Russia, India and China are committed to maintaining a legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). All related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this regard the Ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS, as well as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Guidelines for the implementation of the DOC.”

South China Sea claims map

South China Sea claims map (© Photo: Wikipedia/Voice of America)

The statement coincided with reports that Beijing is seeking Moscow’s support over the South China Sea court battle with the Philippines in the Hague.

Nearly three years ago, the Philippines, backed by America, filed a lawsuit against China in the Hague International Tribunal Court. In October 2015 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague confirmed that it would hold a hearing on the matter. The hearing is expected to take place in May or June 2016.

“China is lobbying Russia for support in opposing international court proceedings launched by the Philippines over the disputed South China Sea,” South China Morning Post reported April 20.

Beijing has reason to believe that Moscow can provide it with juridical assistance to solve the problem, Alexander Shpunt of Russia’s Regnum media outlet suggested.

Shpunt called attention to the fact that on April 20 Moscow won the Yukos case in the District Court in the Hague; a Dutch court overturned an award of $50 billion to former shareholders of the now defunct Yukos oil company that Russia had been ordered to pay by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2014.

The journalist continued that Lavrov’s notion about “outside parties” in the South China Sea dispute is a direct reference to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that will soon hold hearing on the Philippines’ complaint against China.

This is the issue of utmost importance for Beijing that Moscow has outplayed the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Shpunt emphasized.

However, according to Daiss, Beijing is the major troublemaker in the region that plans to outwit its “much smaller Asian neighbors.”

“Who knows what the future holds geopoliticaly?” he wrote, adding that “the Kremlin could one day regret any US detachment from the South China Sea.”

Like many other Western observers Daiss remained silent about the fact that China’s Asian neighbors are also involved in controversial building activities in the South China Sea region, while, for example, Taiwan’s constructions in the Spratlys are located outside any claimed Taiwanese exclusive economic zone.”Of the six countries claiming an interest in the Spratlys, only Brunei has failed to construct structures, mostly on stilts, on more than 40 of these islets and reefs. Yet the western media again focuses exclusively on [China’s] ‘aggressive’ reclamation and building activities,” Australian lawyer James O’Neill wrote in his article for New Eastern Outlook.

What lies at the root of this double-standard approach? And is Washington really “trying to keep the sea lanes open in the name of freedom of navigation for any and all countries” as Daiss claims?

Apparently, US President Barack Obama’s latest Op-Ed in the Washington Post could shed some light on the matter.

“Today, some of our greatest economic opportunities abroad are in the Asia-Pacific region, which is on its way to becoming the most populous and lucrative market on the planet,” Obama wrote.

“Of course, China’s greatest economic opportunities also lie in its own neighborhood, which is why China is not wasting any time,” he noted referring to Beijing’s New Silk Road initiative.

“Instead, America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around,” Obama stressed.

Given this, it becomes clear that what Washington is truly interested in is not the freedom of navigation “for any and all countries,” but its dominance in the region.

Read more:

All for One: How Russia, China, India Will Solve South China Sea Dispute

‘They Said No’: China Denies US Aircraft Carrier Entry to Hong Kong

What is Really Going on Behind the Curtains in South China Sea?

May 5, 2016 Posted by | Economics, Timeless or most popular | , , , , | Leave a comment

Good News, World! You Can Stop Worrying About the South China Sea!

By Peter Lee | China Matters | January 23, 2016

There has been a concerted campaign to depict the South China Sea as an indispensable artery for commercial shipping and, therefore, a justifiable object of US attention and meddling.

This flagship of this effort is invoking the “$5 trillion dollars” worth of goods that pass through the SCS each year. Reuters, in particular, is addicted to this formula.

Here’s seven Reuters news stories within the last month containing the $5 trillion figure:

China Says South China Seas militarization depends on threat

China seeks investment for disputed islands, to launch flights

China defends South China Sea reef landings after Vietnam complaint

Philippines files protest against Chin’s test flights in disputed sea

China again lands planes on disputed island in South China Sea: Xinhua

Filipino protestors land on disputed islands in South China Sea

South China Sea tensions surge as China lands plane on artificial island

What interests me is that these seven articles reflect the work of six reporters and seven editors (seven to six! Glad to see Reuters has a handle on the key ratios!) in five bureaus and they all include the same stock phrase. How’s that work? Does headquarters issue a ukaz that all articles about the South China Sea must include the magic $5 trillion phrase? Does the copyediting program flag every reference to the South China Sea omitting the figure? Or did the reportorial hive mind linking Beijing, Manila, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and Sydney spontaneously and unanimously decided that “$5 trillion” is an indispensable accessory for South China Sea reporting?

I guess it’s understandable. A more accurate characterization of the South China Sea as “a useful but not indispensable waterway for world shipping whose commercial importance, when properly exaggerated, provides a pretext for the United States to meddle in Southeast Asian affairs at the PRC’s expense” is excessively verbose and fails to convey a sense of urgency.

The kicker, of course, is that the lion’s share of the $5 trillion is China trade, and most of the balance passes through the South China Sea by choice and not by necessity. … Full article

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering | , , , | 1 Comment

CNOOC, Chevron sign production sharing contracts

Xinhua | 2013-01-17

BEIJING – China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has signed two production sharing contracts with Chevron China Energy Company for two blocks in the South China Sea, a statement said.

CNOOC Limited, a subsidiary of CNOOC — the country’s largest offshore oil and gas producer, said in the online statement late Wednesday that the two blocks, Block 15/10 and Block 15/28, are located in the Pearl River Mouth Basin in the east part of the South China Sea.

According to the terms of the contracts, Chevron will conduct 3D seismic data surveys in the two blocks during the exploration period, in which all expenditures incurred will be borne by Chevron.

CNOOC is allowed to take up to 51 percent of interest in any commercial discoveries in the blocks, the statement said.

“We are very pleased to become a partner with Chevron again and hope this project achieves commercial discoveries soon to create economic returns for both companies,” said Zhu Weilin, executive vice president of CNOOC Limited.

January 17, 2013 Posted by | Economics, Malthusian Ideology, Phony Scarcity | , , , , | Comments Off on CNOOC, Chevron sign production sharing contracts