Category: China

ASEAN may need specialize think tanks on South China Sea dispute

This article will explore the need for specialise ASEAN think tank on South China Sea dispute for two reasons. First, is to ensure a credible production of knowledge on South China Sea dispute. Second, a think tank at ASEAN level – may assist the region in charting its own strategic direction.

The study on South China Sea dispute is multidimensional. The scope goes beyond the aspect of legal, military or the issue of historical waters. It broadly covers the logic of Geostrategic, International Relations, Socio-Political studies and even South East Asia maritime history. Thus to produce a holistic understanding of the South China Sea dispute – a form of combined studies ideally should be explored.

On the contrary, a piecemeal approach may not provide a complete and intellectually balanced discourse. Online discussions on the South China Sea is scattered with various writers offering differing perspective, speculations or at times contradicting views.

Upon establishing, ASEAN Think Tank for South China Sea issue should aim to strategize on two fronts.

FIRST – is to organise a coherent SCS discourse with interrelated clusters. In this context, specialise think tanks on the South China Sea should consist of various sub-discipline headed by experts.

Maritime legal scholar, oceanographers, Chinese and SEA historians, China’s and ASEAN political analysts, diplomats and of course political appointees. Ideally, experts are expected to analyse and brainstorm SCS dispute from various angles. This initiative is done with a final aim of producing an integrated and well synthesise understanding.

This form of arrangement can prepare a think-tank to be at the credible position to advise the ‘best course of action’ for ASEAN. On a side note, given a Think-tank relative independence, experts involved in such institution may offer candid views. Foreign Ministries are at times constraint in making direct commentaries due to diplomatic and protocol constraints.

SECOND – upon instituting, SCS Think Tank must get into advocacy programs. Advocacy initiatives should involve, meeting with key experts, the organising of public foras or the production of journals. By this approach – specialised Think-Tank can play a role in advocating the importance of the issue to the public including their collective rights to the waters.

It is worth noting that, from a recent poll done by Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya (UM), only 38 % of Malaysians are aware of the South China Sea dispute. Those who are not aware totalled to 56%. In this context – what would the statistics be for the broader ASEAN?

It with a hope that this short article shall be the catalyst for further thinking amongst the academic and policy-maker to explore all the possibilities broached.

Thailand and the Philippines to emphasise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea

Duterte and Thailand

Thailand and the Philippines have agreed to emphasise freedom of navigation in the disputed the South China Sea as a core value in securing peace and prosperity in the region.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shared the same stance on the maritime territorial disputes in the area during a joint press conference at Government House Tuesday,  21 March.

They also agreed to push for the completion of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2017.

“Maintaining peace, stability, and security as well as respecting freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea are in the interests of all countries, within and outside the region, as they are fundamental conditions for growth, development and prosperity,” Mr. Duterte said.

Meanwhile, Gen Prayut said Thailand believes the ultimate goal should be for the South China Sea to be the “sea of peace, stability and sustainable development” in order to benefit the region and its people.

The issue of the South China Sea and the bilateral relations between Thailand and Philippines is a complex play.

Thailand last year in September stated that it supports China’s work to “promote peace and stability” in the South China Sea. The statement is considered controversial as it was done hours after the Philippines made public images that it said show China preparing to begin island construction activities on the Scarborough Shoal.

The latest stand made between Duterte and Prayut, however, suggest that Thailand may slightly be inching towards a middle-ground policy on the South China Sea dispute.

Though much is left to be seen. Thailand’s true stand largely depends on its action pertinently in pushing for the completion of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) as soon.

Understanding China’s next move in the South China Sea.

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands

Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands, January 29, 2016. Image Credit South China Morning Post


I will leave the ‘understanding China’s next move’ section towards the end.

However the 11-page summarised press release of The Permanent Court of Arbitration on 12 July 2016 is a watershed.

It reads that China’s historical 9-dash lines are incompatible with the modern EEZ regime. The technical definition of a natural “island” is equally deliberated.  Rocks, which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life, can’t be granted with exclusive economic zone or continental shelf status. This definition itself is a major blow to China’s claims in the Spratlys.

Despite the above, one should not lose sight on the fact that disputes have also never been purely a legal or technical matter. Features in the South China Sea (SCS) have long taken a deeper socio-political meaning of being symbols of its “Chinese sovereignty”. The inclusion of Spratly and Paracel islands in the “Map of Chinese,” has been the practice of the Kuomintang Administration since 1935. The Communist Party reutilized the map in 1949 as a way to reinforce its claim over the waters.

In this context, political, historical interpretations and emotional sentiments are inseparable. It is likely as others to influence the mindset of the average Chinese citizens and Beijing both in their understanding and approach to the disputed waters.

 Bill Hayton, at Chatham House on July 12 also argued that China’s claim in the South China Sea was always emotional than historical facts. Much of the narratives emerged from the sense of national violation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and with mixed misunderstandings about history with poor translations of foreign maps.

He pointed to a specific historical incident where a Chinese Consular Officer during a fact-finding effort was surprised to find out both Spratley and Paracel are two different islands. This occurred on 26th July 1933 at US Costal Geodetics Institute, Manila – a few months after China discovered French-Indochina had occupied one of the Islands.

First, this incident gives us an insight into the hastiness and ambivalence state of earlier Chinese officials in their pursuit to anticipate other claimant’s move. These factors may have also played a role in China’s wanton claim (9 Dash line) as to ensure that none of the islands in the vast ocean escapes its attention either rightly or wrongly.

Second, which is more critical – this form of spontaneous unverified claims are taught and regurgitated at the national classroom and political system over the decades.

Geography textbooks in China since the 1940’s has made a point to stress the southernmost of Chinese territory which lies at Zeng-Mu Ansha, (James Shoal) which is 1800 km from mainland China. What Chinese students have not been taught, though, is that James Shoal is only 80 km northwest of Bintulu, Malaysia.

Debatable historical narratives are also used to bolster greater maritime claims.  Hainan state media recently reported on the existence of an “extraordinary document” – a 600-year-old book on SCS containing evidence of vital, national importance. Claims are yet to be proven. The book as reported by BBC was “thrown away” due to damage.

Periods of exposure to questionable variations on the South China Sea in the Chinese political belief and education system yielded unquestioning citizens with a sense of self-righteousness and entitlements towards the SCS waters. In other words, the ultranationalist.

Such sentiment has been clear, when The Hague verdict, which sided the Philippines, was announced on 12 July 2016 – Chinese citizens immediately took their condemnation and vitriols to the outcome on Weibo, (Chinese equivalent to twitter). While public protests’ targeting KFC, Apple, and Filipino fruit products also took place in Changsha in Hunan province. Chinese citizen in Australia staged a street protest in Melbourne on 23 of July.

Beijing’s did make an effort to remove a majority of inflammatory remarks on Weibo and censure some protests in China. The Philippines Embassy was also provided with security in anticipation of mob protest.

However what many would not realize is, all these critical events feed subtle pressure and a reminder to Beijing. The ultranationalist citizens it breeds for decades is watching especially those that are active online. Beijing may not have the middle-ground option on this. Any perceived softening of position, on the contrary, will threaten President Xi Jinping’s position in the Communist Party and worst still – fan unmanageable nationalist demands.

Hence any expectations for a change in Beijing’s attitude and interest towards the South China Sea should be toned down. It is never easy to influence with (legal facts/modern history interpretation) when this issue, involves cultivated emotions and political sentiments.

Moving to a geostrategic angle of the case – it is worth to understand that, The Hague verdict has made an impact. It has officially published and documented China’s historical claims including its military/fishing activity in the region as invalid and illegal. China certainly will take the latest decision into its negotiation strategy.

However, given its vested political and historical interest – the precise gist of ‘negotiation strategy’ here means a strong possibility for China to work around The Hague’s decision instead of working with the decision to achieve a mutual compromise. Various routes exist within the realm of geostrategic. I have explored two most likely options.

New Colonies on disputed waters

The logical route is for China to populate the artificial islands it has built over the years either through tourism or fishing outpost. This possibility is not far-fetched considering how it has turned Woody Island on the Paracel’s as one of Hainan’s sub-district city. Named as Yongxing Dao, the prefecture has a population of 1000 Chinese citizens with its own Mayor – Xiao Jie since 2012.

Similar efforts may be in the pipeline pertinently for the Spratley archipelagos. This form of creating facts on the ground provides potent advantages to China on two fronts. First, by having its population on an island, it provides a legitimate argument for China to provide civilizational needs and security. While the provision of such needs will naturally lead to the establishment of settlements or cities.

Second, by having a slow transmigration process on the disputed islands, especially on the hotly contested Spratlys – China will be able to further entrench its territorial trademark and tangible presence. The concrete presence of citizens will in-turn dampen the incentive for other claimants to press China further. Over a period of time, this strategy only serves to disqualify their claims – albeit artificially.

Al Jazeera on the 22nd of June reported that Chinese cruise ships will regularly bring tourists to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by 2020. The news has been picked from media inside China. This may be an inaugural move towards the broader objective.

Financial Incentives

Providing aid and financial assistance may be another geostrategic approach for China to pursue in South East Asia (SEA). Specifically, China will provide aid and assistance to its close and poorer neighbours such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos in an exchange for their possible support on its SCS policy. This has already occurred and its impact is clearly seen during the last ASEAN 49th ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting. In this instance, Cambodia has been successful in halting a robust joint communiqué on China. It is also worth noting that China did announce a US$600 million in aid to Cambodia to develop the latter’s election, education and health infrastructures on the 15th of July 2016 – just a few days before the official meeting.
China may further pursue this path and attach political conditionalities to needy recipients in ASEAN. What is imperative now is for China to reduce any chances for ASEAN members to exhibit a solid and joint solidarity with the Philippines or follow the same route as the latter did in The Hague. In this context, financial incentives may serve this objective well.


The bottom line is, China is less likely to give up on its projects in the South China Sea given its political, historical and attached sentiments to the issue. ASEAN should understand and work with this.

Second, in my view, the burden to find a middle ground solution must not befall only on Foreign Ministries. Civil Societies in ASEAN countries should take the intellectual initiative to engage in this discourse.

Efforts may take in the formation of independent and exclusive South China Sea Think Tanks. Key experts on Oceanography, Chinese and SEA historians, China’s political analyst, diplomats and of course political appointees should dissect and engage with the issue critically. Second, it is worth knowing that the SCS issue is multidimensional which involve maritime history, legal, geostrategic and socio-political element – hence the exclusivity of Think-Tank discourse on SCS is crucial.

The need to educate the public and concern domestic stakeholders on SCS is a vital subject area, which deserves further attention in ASEAN member states. This is a topic, which I hope to explore further in future articles.

This article was written by Ferooze Ali and has appeared on theSun ON Thursday, August 18, 2016


A neutral name for South China Sea?


A name can project a distinct culture, identity and, more importantly for land and other space resources, a connection to a certain community. Along with maps and scientific stations, it is one of the most visible markers of national presence. Territorial naming at the international level has long been recognised as a strategic tool for creating new facts on the ground. A noteworthy example involves the multiple names and claims for the Antarctic Peninsula, where it is called Queen Elizabeth Land for the United Kingdom, Tierra San Martin for Argentina, Palmer Peninsula, for the United States and Tierra de O’Higgins for Chile.

Closer to our shores, the South China Sea epitomises a similar problem.

Documented evidence suggests that prior to the name South China Sea (SCS), the surrounding waters were described with various names, including Champa Sea or Sea of Cham, East Sea, or Luzon Sea. Ancient Chinese empires such as Western Zhou and Qing dynasty named the widely contested sea territories as “South Seas”.

The name “South China Sea” came to be used officially in 1947, during the time of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government. The change of name was accompanied by technical claims to the seas through China’s new map and its “eleven-dash line” which later was changed to “nine-dash line”. In principle, the “nine-dash line” are barriers and exclusive territorial claims by China, which covers the majority of the South of China waters including those areas that have been claimed by other neighbouring countries. Here it is worth noting the nine-dash line has no legal significance in international maritime law which only recognizes the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) regime of respective states.

For nearly 68 years to the present day of 2015, this specific dogma and technical claim has remained constant and China’s economic prosperity together with its corresponding increase in military power has become a drive for the latter to be emboldened with the SCS policies. Hence, one sees a more deterministic approach by China within the past 15 years with regular military intrusion by sea and air. The issue, if one would look close enough, has been by and large the product of unchecked and uncontested unilateral naming of disputed waters by China and its dogma from the very beginning.

The usage of the SCS label has encouraged China’s stand to permeate slowly both at the domestic and international levels specifically, affecting most Asean members. At the domestic level, it made the SCS to subtly be equated to the exclusive dominance of China in the surrounding sea territory. In the international arena, it provided China with a quiet but legitimising power to continue roaming the disputed waters and launch military operations. The South China Sea label has seemingly put the Chinese slowly-but-surely military activity under the radar.

It took between 28 and 41 years for Asian states to realise China’s seriousness in SCS claims when the latter captured Paracel Islands from South Vietnamese armed forces in 1974 and the killing of 70 Vietnamese naval officers by the Chinese in 1988 near Spratly Islands. In a nutshell, the largely zero response to China’s geostrategic move in 1947 has created a strategic impetus to China to continue to solidify its South China Sea territorial claims and military projects. So much so, to a point where now, the move by contemporary China appears to be unstoppable and heading towards a protracted form of conflict.

The damage has been done.

In an effort to mitigate and find a middle ground in the disputed waters, there is a need for smaller countries, particularly Asean member states, to include a finer strategy in its overall diplomatic approach. One of such involves the need to consider alternative names to an already entrenched “South China Sea”. The seas in the disputed territory can be changed into a neutral name, which reflects a collective sharing of water territories among close neighbours. Various names have been suggested to reflect this, such as the “Southern Seas” or “Asian Sea”.

Here the point is to lobby and change SCS into a universally acceptable name that will make any future Chinese military action to be perceived as outrightly intrusive, absurd and in direct violation of international waters regulation. It is worth realising that, after 68 years, it will be of no surprise if the above mentioned strategy is met with strong opposition by China. Moreover, some Asean countries may be hesitant to take such an approach, given the block’s strong economic relations with China and the pacifist ideals largely practised. However, it is important to consider this softer and subtler policy as part of Asean’s long-term plans, in view of China’s increasing military assertiveness.

The tackling of this invincible form of problem is just as important, if not more, than the tangible part of the issue (China’s warship and jet plane incursions/building of artificial islands). This involves getting a hold on the perception and the underlying beliefs which are providing the impetus for Chinese leaders, policymakers and military generals to be brazen in their claims and actions.

What impact can the abovementioned strategy give? While it’s not possible to provide a definite answer, there are two prominent examples where unchallenged unilateral renaming of territory is likely to be followed by policies of occupying the space. The Islamic State’s (IS) renaming of territories in Iraq and Syria as the Islamic Caliphate is corresponded with its violent action of grabbing Syrian and Iraqi territories.

Secondly, the unilateral renaming of the West Bank in Palestine into “Judea” and “Samaria” by Israel and its unrelenting military operations to gobble up as much space. It is not my intention to distastefully equate China with IS or Israel, since the political motivation and historical background of all described actors are different. Notwithstanding this, what is crucial is the logical sequence to follow after territorial renaming, which may be worth looking at.

This article written by Ferooze Ali appeared in News Straits Times, Malaysia 13 June 2015. 

Examining into China’s Yuan devaluation and ASEAN

After China’s central bank devalued the yuan by nearly 3% against the US dollar for the third time in three days, it was finally eased on Friday (14 October 2015) after yuan was raised against the US dollar by 0.05%. This may signal that the rows of aggressively weaker fixings have ended for now.

The main argument of this recent ‘managed float approach’ has been to counter China’s strengthening of yuan and its corresponding weakening of trade globally. It is worth noting that Industrial production, investment and retail sales data for July 2015 were weaker than expected, while at the weekend figures showed Chinese exports tumbled 8.3% in July, their biggest drop in four months. After a string of weakening output growth figures going back to last year, the authorities have come under intense pressure internally to address the slowdown with a dramatic policy shift.

A teller counts yuan banknotes in a bank in Lianyungang, China, August 11,

A teller counts yuan banknotes in a bank in Lianyungang, China, August 11,

Though the Chinese Government has stated the recent move as a one-off, this created unease amongst China’s major trading partners or exporting countries and regions, which has been China’s main traditional competitors. Here the immediate logic is – China’s devaluation will lead to a lower yuan value which could boost China’s export but reduce the usage of the currency worldwide.

Countries in ASEAN is worth examining within this context as this region has been China’s major competitor for exports and destination for yuan’s expenditure.

Singapore will be one of the most vulnerable to a decline in the yuan as their exporters have the highest exposure to China in Asia, according to Barclays Plc, Standard Chartered Plc and Mizuho Bank Ltd. Mr Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking suggest “We will definitely see downward pressure in, say, the Purchasing Managers’ Index readings on new orders and new export orders, which, in turn, will have an impact on Singapore production and export figures,”

The yuan’s devaluation would likely add further woes to Malaysia’s ringgit. Apart from creating intense competition for Malaysian exports, Chinese devaluation of yuan will further destabilize investor’s confidence on Malaysia’s economic performance specifically on its exports and trade balances. The ringgit has slumped 13 per cent in 2015 as the oil-exporting nation grappled with weak crude prices and a political turmoil involving the main leadership in the country. Equally Malaysia closest neighbor – Indonesia- has its rupiah declined to 10.5 percent.

As for other ASEAN countries such as Cambodia – the concern is on the country’s extreme reliance on US dollar usage. This would be bad for Cambodia as it means that it cannot devalue its own Riel. Secondly, Cambodia risks pricing itself out of the market as a result of the rapid rise in wages, especially in the countries key garment industry that has not been matched by increases in productivity.

Chinese tourist numbers could also be impacted with yuan devaluation as it would make foreign travel more expensive especially to ASEAN countries, which has been the natural destination for tourism such as Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and emerging tourist market in CLMV countries.

The devaluation of yuan also couldn’t come at a worse period given the potential decision from the US Fed’s to increase its interest rate in the future. This, in turn, will likely further reduce FDI in ASEAN countries with foreign investors being slightly more picky in selecting markets.

Taking all the burgeoning external economic problems faced by ASEAN, it is no surprise that the analyst has also previously predicted on the likely of a currency war. Each country will soften up their currencies to push respective exports abroad. Nikkei Asian Review on August 12 reported the phrase “currency war” which started to gain traction among Southeast Asian market players after the devaluation. However, with the latest move by the Chinese Government to increase yuan’s value to a 0.05% against US dollar, this theory is quashed – at the moment.

However, the deeper lesson is – the devaluation of yuan has definitely raised the panic threshold among major currencies in Southeast Asia in looking for options to mitigate any impact.

This has not been the first time and neither it would be China’s lasts in terms of yuan devaluation. Apart from creating the immediate problems to ASEAN as witnessed recently, other far-reaching socioeconomic consequences including the dramatic decrease in the domestic economic performance are to be expected.

From a long-term perspective, perhaps there is a need for ASEAN to continue seriously with its single currency/ economic union project. This could be one of the possible measures to soften drastic fiscal actions by economic giants such as China and the US to the region. Here the reliance of Southeast Asia as a single economy and currency could help not only in mitigating immediate financial impact but also raise the confidence level of foreign investors on the robustness of the system and reduce any panic factor – which has the potential to plunge a single state economy overnight – The Asian Diplomat.

48th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting and South China Sea – How Productive?


It has been interesting to look at the development of South China Sea (SCS) issue within the second and third quarter of 2015. More so during the recently concluded 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting. Below are some events worth recapping back.

On the 3rd of August 2015, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin stated the disputed South China Sea should not be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur. The issue according to China is a bilateral problem.

Notwithstanding China’s warning, on the 4th of August, new reports suggest that ASEAN members will go ahead with the South China Sea talks and the ministers will push towards the “Declaration of Conduct,”(CoC) that would provide a set of rules to avoid conflict in the contentious sea. Philippines is also considering to echo the call of United States for a halt to island-building work, military deployments and other aggressive actions that may raise further tensions in the disputed waters.

Rewinding a few weeks prior to this, the meeting in Tianjin, China – arguably can be seen as an ASEAN diplomatic breakthrough after both China and ASEAN finally agreed to proceed towards the establishment of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea territorial disputes. This is considering how China has been dragging its feet on the CoC discussion for years.

The climax ended when ASEAN wound up its meetings on the 6th of August and came out with a final communiqué, which mentioned “some members had serious concerns” about land reclamation in the South China Sea. While according to a senior Southeast Asian diplomat, most members of the 10-nation bloc pushed hard for a “united, comprehensive” statement on the South China Sea despite pressure from Beijing.

For a few analyst of us, the statement where its reads “some ASEAN members had serious concerns” instead of “all ASEAN members” in the communiqué is frustrating and may still indicate the peculiar old fractured ASEAN.

There is a need to re-think. If we would dissect the recent ASEAN Kuala Lumpur meeting a little deeper – some positive development exists.

For once, if we examine the determinism displayed by the entire of ASEAN members in Kuala Lumpur on SCS – one would notice a degree of solidarity and coherence on a scale that has not been seen prior. This is in stark contrast if we would compare to the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia, 2012- where the issue is totally avoided by the host. The latest South China Sea development seems to bring ASEAN to a new level of realisation on the issue at hand and with this, the need to cooperate constructively towards a practical solution. Interestingly Cambodia – ASEAN close ally of China – has also begun to change its stance slightly from avoidance to agreeing with Malaysia’s in expressing hope for a code of conduct to come into force. In Singapore – May 2015, Cambodia Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for national defence Tea Banh said the code, which Asean members are negotiating with Beijing, could guarantee the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.

Hence taking all the above into consideration – can the South China Sea issue be a blessing in disguise for ASEAN in terms of encouraging a stronger cooperation and a sense of togetherness?

It is still early to say or speculate but the newfound synergy can potentially be used as a catalyst towards boosting a more robust and proactive relationship between ASEAN members. ASEAN technocrats and organisational experts should cease the moment in studying the mechanics of the internal SCS communication flow and how it has produce a seemingly coherent and unified agreement across majority member states.There is a need to observe the internal coordination between ASEAN Officials and Ministerial level on SCS. The key here is- to identify how SCS as a shared concern is framed and conveyed between respective officials.

Once this is understood and documented, a SWOT analysis could be done to determine the rationale behind some of the successes and what could potentially be improved in the future.

It is exciting to observe how ASEAN will further develop its policies on SCS as a regional organisation. Nevertheless at this juncture, it seems the unfolding development in SCS has also provided a rare chance for ASEAN to conduct a case study and discover the synergy it may need – in continuing to be productive and defend the interest of South East Asia block.