Category: Sea Disputes

Jakarta governor found guilty of blasphemy


The Indonesian court has found Jakarta’s outgoing Christian governor guilty of blasphemy against Islam.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years imprisonment on Tuesday in a south Jakarta courtroom over comments he made regarding what he believed to be the misinterpretation of certain verses of the Quran.

Purnama lost his bid for re-election in an April runoff – after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years – to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan.

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed in Jakarta in case clashes break out between Purnama’s supporters and opponents who have demanded he be dismissed and jailed.

His supporters, for their part, delivered thousands of red and white balloons to City Hall in advance of Tuesday’s court session.

“Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate, but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said Setyo Wasisto, the national police spokesman.

Prosecutors had called for a suspended one-year jail sentence for Purnama on charges of hate speech. However, his opponents believe that is too light. The maximum sentence is four years in prison.

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.

Looking at Jakarta 2017 Governotarial Election


According to a quick count released by several pollsters, the current Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – popularly known by nickname Ahok – and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat gained only about 43 percent of the votes, while their challengers Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno are likely to win with roughly 57 percent.

Though a final result will only be announced in this month May – the quick count has more or less sealed Ahok chances in continuing to govern Jakarta as its Governor.

Analysts are divided on the cause of his defeat – with Western observers largely zeroing on the rise of Islamist. It is undeniable that, Islamist has been extremely successful in injecting the Islamic element in the whole issue, thus invoking a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for Islamic voters to oust Ahok.

However, realistically speaking – Islamist contributed only a part of the bigger socio-political backlash, which we have witnessed on 19 April 2017. It is worth noting that – in late 2014, Islamist did organised a rally against Ahok. The rally garnered a lukewarm response from Jakarta citizens.

Instead, what we see in the recent Jakarta election is a culmination of various genuine socio-cultural and economic dissatisfaction – which over time has been framed as a socio-religio issue by religious and seculars politicians alike.

To begin with, Ahok’s approach and ethics towards the Governorship post sets him apart. As someone who is willing to get down to the streets and listen to people’s grouses, Ahok approach is relatively personal and non-elitist.

In a book titled ‘A Man Called #Ahok Sepenggal Kisah Perjuangan & Ketulusan‘ by Kurawa, the Jakarta Governor is even described by members of his own constituents (Belitung Island) as a charitable personality who would donate money for building Mosques.

Though, in retrospect to the high-spirited and visionary work ethics, he has a distinct form of leadership. Temperamental, brash, outspoken and decisive – these traits characterises Ahok’s approach towards managing people and Jakarta public projects. For the polite and shy society of Javanese and Betawi, his logic of communication, however, may not be in-line with the generally accepted socio-cultural norms. Some have even suggested that his tough talk and Sumatran style has either captivated or appalled people in equal measure.

Secondly, are his policies. Arguably, the slum clearances at the controversial seafront Luar Batang in 2016 – though were popular with the middle class, did not go down positively with the poorer segment of Jakarta inhabitants. The relocation of Luar Batang dwellers which majority comprises of poor fisherman to new locations far away from the seafront has affected the source of livelihood of this group.

It was at this juncture that Islamist group such as FPI (Islamic Defender Front) begun showing solidarity with Luar Batang residents by making the Luar Batang mosque as the rallying point. In April 2016, it was turned into a humanitarian shelter for residents affected by the relocation exercise. Similarly, a controversial FP leader Habib Rizieq visited and handed out Rp 100 million, (USD 7500.00) or (RM 32,579) to residents affected.

This move has broad consequences.

First and foremost, this solidarity raises the plight of Luar Batang’s residents beyond the affected location. The plight equally resonates with the lower-middle income to poor Muslims segments – which already make the majority citizens in Jakarta. More importantly, it raises Islamist group as a credible movement to be fighting what now seems to be Ahok’s perceived discriminative and oppressive policy against Jakarta poor Muslim neighbourhood.

The big break for the Islamist movement came when Ahok is accused of uttering blasphemous insult against a paragraph in Al- Quran. Despite the recording of the incident itself is questionable, it has been widely circulated on Youtube prompting a broad backlash from Muslim community and religious conservatives.

Compounding all the above issues and framing it as a form of Islamic struggle – Islamist group such as FPI and FUI (Indonesia Ulama Council) in November 2016 organised a public demonstration attended by nearly 50,000–200,000 people demanding for Ahok’s resignation and trial. In December, another rally was held in Central Jakarta, which attended by an estimated 200,000 people.

Demonstrations in late 2016 provided a strong ripple effect towards Jakarta April 2017 Governor’s election.

These culminations of events opened window of opportunity for Muslim moderate politicians, which in this case – Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno to jump into the Islamist bandwagon and packaged their campaign in line with the broader grouses. Clear contrast can be seen in campaigning style. Ahok focused on policy, while Anies and his allies focused on religion. Another Indonesian political heavyweight – Prabowo who himself is a military and nationalist-oriented leader is reported to have sided with the Islamist through endorsing Anies and Sandiaga candidacy.

These strategies paid well when Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno as we know it won the Jakarta Gubernatorial election in April 2017.

In a nutshell, there are two key take away facts worth noting from all these development.

First, notwithstanding how successful the Islamist movement was in framing the anomaly that is Ahok – the major successors that took the Governor’s office – has ironically not been anyone from the Islamist movement. As a matter of fact, it is the two moderate and secular politicians, who happened to be Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno.

This leads us to a second conclusion, that is, the preoccupation with the rise of Islamist Indonesia and the downfall of religious tolerance narrative – has only provided a partial understanding of the political dynamics. I would argue that the recent development has not shown any clear indication that the “rising Islamist element” could compromise Indonesia’s established religious, social and political tolerance, in the long-term.

Instead, the clear fact is – the issue of religion and race can be utilised as a convenient but impactful force to discredit leaders in Indonesia. Moreover, given the success in April 2017, such strategy may be employed again in the future. I suspect Jokowi given his liberal political outlook may face a similar challenge with his 2019 Presidential re-election.

On Ahok’s side – his downfall could possibly be traced to his failure to understand the finer nuances of Indonesia socio-cultural politics. In this context, he should have understood that his actions rightly or wrong have the possibility to be taken out of context, if he in the first place, does not tread his style of communication tactfully.

His future with Indonesian politics will largely depend on how he makes amends with the grass-root segment in Indonesian politics. He still has a sizeable support and sympathisers in both Jakarta and Belitung. Now, all that he needs is to reassure the broader voters that he would not positively approach his public and political work as he did previously.

The above article has appeared earlier in The Malay Mail Online 2 May 2017 with a different title. The content, however, remains the same.

Ahok concedes Jakarta election to Baswedan


Jakarta’s incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) has conceded defeat in the race to become the city’s new governor. This is after unofficial quick count results showed a former Indonesian education minister, Baswedan taking the polls.

Analysts are divided on the cause of his defeat – with Western observers largely zeroing on the rise of Islamist sentiment in Indonesia. However, the rise of Islamist is part of the broader socio-political issue, which has impacted Ahok’s Governor post.

Despite his popularity with middle-class Jakartans for his efforts to stamp out corruption and make the overflowing polluted city more livable, his upfront manner and evictions of slum communities could have alienated many in the city of 10 million.

The final straw, which may have broken the camel’s back, came when he was perceived to have ridiculed a passage in the Holy Al-Quran. Though the recording itself is questionable, it has been widely circulated on Youtube prompting a broad backlash from Muslim community and religious conservatives.

Baswedan, a highly educated Muslim moderate, is seen to have capitalised on the backlash against Ahok by courting the support of conservative religious leaders and figures on the radical fringe who opposed electing a non-Muslim.

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.

Israel’s proxy in the South China Sea


The arms race amongst the South China Sea (SCS) claimants will be seeing an increase. Report by IHS Analytics estimated that SCS coastal nations’ collective defense spending could likely jump between $435 billion in 2015 to around $533 billion by 2020. China’s increased assertiveness in the waters of South China Sea has largely sparked this security dilemma. Other claimants may need to develop the capabilities that will allow them to at least,  defend their territorial claims in the region.

The source of arms imports varies. Though the US may be the leading provider in the region, there are other emerging arm suppliers.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report showed that Russia may account for 93 percent of the deliveries to the Southeast Asian nation, which included eight combat aircraft, four fast attack craft and four submarines armed with land-attack missiles.

Interestingly, however, archived web-based reports from 2008 to 2016 suggested – Israel may have already joined the list of arms suppliers to the region. This is worth further deliberation.

In 2014 – Philippines news outlet PhilStar Global reported the agreement by Philippines Government to purchase three ELTA air radar from Israel Aerospace Industries worth PH2.6 billion. The air radar will be utilized to monitor naval activities in the South China Sea waters.The following year in November 2015, Israel Defense, a credible Defense portal reported that – EXTRA (Extended Range Artillery Rocket) missile system has been purchased by the Philippines naval force since early 2015. Manufactured by Israel Military Industries (IMI systems), the rocket is reported to be highly accurate within a 150 km range. The system is placed within the contested waters of South China Sea.

In February 2016, SIPRI reports also showed the purchase of 20 Israel’s EXTRA by Vietnam. The whole system as reported by Reuters in August 2016 has been moved to 5 bases within Vietnam’s Spratley Islands.

Narrowing this into China-Israel defense cooperation – it is worth knowing Israel’s sales to China from the late 80’s up to the early millennium reached close to USD4billion.( Israel is China’s second-largest foreign supplier of arms (after Russia). China has purchased a broad array of military equipment and technology, including communications satellites.

One of the prime outcomes from Israel-China defense relations is China’s PLA fighter jet Chengdu J10 (Vigorous Dragon). J-10 is reverse engineered after Lavi jet fighter with the help of Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers. Both fighter jets share many similar avionic elements. With nearly 240 J-10 aircraft in active service, the aircraft has been utilised extensively in the South China Sea.

For the record, Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI) is owned by the Israel government through its Ministry of Defense.  Shimon Peres, which is the former President of Israel, is the founder of IAI in 1953 (

The same is for Israel Military Industries Systems (IMI systems), which is fully owned by the Israeli Government through its Ministry of Defense. Production of military equipment is channelled largely to Israel Defense Force (

This proxy involvement of Israel Government in the South China Sea through its military sales raises four areas of concern and perhaps potential discourse in the future.

First and foremost is the provision of weapons by Israel, which has been questioned morally for its military activities. Israel has for decades flout international condemnation and demand to cease its land grabbing policies in Palestine.

Second is – Israel provision of weapons to the biggest recipients in the region, which has the audacity to ignore international norms and escalate the SCS conflict. China, which is the obvious recipient, has benefited much from IAI’s Lavi to J-10 technology transfer efforts and – ever since, has also been operating the aircraft actively in the controversial waters of SCS.

June this year, two J-10 as reported by Reuters has been involved in an unsafe air maneuver with a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea.

The third factor that needed to be considered is the moralistic and humanitarian issue. What is the moral stand of other ASEAN countries to Israel indiscriminate use of military technology in the Middle East? As food for thought, the Israel military technology utilised by certain ASEAN members might possibly be used against innocent women and children in Gaza.

In this context, ASEAN Secretariat through its ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights needs to raise this issue with the respective members that have and might plan to purchase military technology from Israel.

The fourth and perhaps a potent factor to contemplate is the reaction of Muslim countries in the South East Asia region. Malaysia and Indonesia are traditionally the two strongest Israel critics on the latter’s military policies in the Middle East.

In this circumstance, what would the hypothetical reaction be, once these facts become common knowledge in these respective countries? Specifically – the use of Israel’s military enhanced equipment both air and sea by China to assert its already perceived unfair demands in SCS?

Admittedly, these areas of discourse are still preliminary, and will take years for it to be widely discussed. Singapore possesses Israel’s technology for decades and the political reactionary to such knowledge has been quiet.

Hence it largely depends on how grass root leaders frame or think tanks urgently broach the abovementioned information into political sentiment or a form of discussion-worthy issue. However what is worth to be reminded, when it comes to this stage of complex entwinement of Israel, South China Sea, and Human Rights issue – diplomatic sensitivities should be practice sparingly by ASEAN.

Not too long ago in 2012, ASEAN former Secretary-General, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan warned the South China Sea disputes might risk into becoming the next ‘Palestine of Asia’. This statement may hold some water at this contemporary time– and hence deserves a little more attention now.

This article also appeared at The Palestine Chronicle (a Washington based Palestine Advocacy News)

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