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.

Should Malaysia publicly announce all reports pertaining to North Korea initiative?

Malaysia North Korea  Puzzle Concept


This article will weigh media reports by Malaysia Home Agencies for the last few weeks on the death of Kim Jong Nam.

On the 20th of March, it has been reported now Malaysian police are hunting for more North Korean suspects over the killing of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the new suspects are in addition to the seven North Koreans already being sought in last month’s poisoning death of Kim Jong-Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport.

Between 14 to 15th of March, Malaysian Home Minister, Zahid Hamidi announced that DNA sample has been obtained from Kim Jong-Nam’s son 5 days ago.

However, the most interesting development came a few weeks prior. It is reported that on 7th March police sealed off the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur to ascertain the number of officials inside. The Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, Nur Jazlan were quoted to have said that the move is to physically identify all the embassy staff who are here. This is reported in all news both online and offline.

Bilateral Relations between Malaysia and North Korea have taken a dip since Kim’s death. Now the lives of 9 Malaysian Embassy staff largely depends on how far this diplomatic impasse can be broken. And press releases from key agencies plays a very important part in this equation.

Hence can non-sanitised public reports or announcement made by local Agencies mitigate the current dismal relations between Malaysian-North Korea? Or can it make worst? 

It is worth noting that, at a heightened level of political insecurity between two countries, statements made by key leaders are crucial and will be closely monitored. What is even more critical is the fact that- public statements can be perceived as a subtle indicator /gesture or intention towards either improving or deteriorating the existing bilateral relations.

There are other factors to be considered if we would further frame the abovementioned question from the Malaysia-North Korea relations context.

Any direct and non-curated announcement will only make  Malaysia’s card to be easily read or misread by North Korea. For instance, there are two things North Korea will likely learn or understand when the Home Ministry announced that the DNA sample has been obtained from Kim Jong-Nam’s son

First – Malaysia is certainly in touch with Jong Nam’s son. For the record, North Korea leadership’s views this political exile family as a threat. Public announcement of contact with this family will only sour the already bad diplomatic relations. 

Second, it gives incentives for North Korea to speculate that Malaysia could return Jong Nam’s body to his son as opposed directly to North Korea. This provides ample motivation for North Korea officials to be even more suspicious, recalcitrant and demanding for Jong Nam’s body per-say during on-going discussions.

The bottom line is – it is wise to follow a good balance approach. We should not be entirely quiet. Instead, we should be Tactful and effective in handling our public communication, especially from Government machinery.

It is also surmised that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Department are coordinating back-door diplomacy.  Hence any hardline statements by Home Agencies or the Police will make an ongoing quiet diplomacy tricky.

In principal, there must be a mutually understood and followed communication policy at the National Security Council level on the issue.  However, this policy should have been designed and agreed early on, to avoid what now seems to be an uncoordinated and less than clever projection of message by various home agencies.

Korea Peninsular Crisis may drag Malaysia into geostrategic turmoil

Analyst observing the development in the Korea Peninsular may agree that the latest Military preparation, between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States, is to an extent – unstable and worrying.

In direct retaliation against the joint US-South Korea military exercise, known as Foal Eagle – North Korea on the 6th of March fired four dry ballistic missiles. Three landed into 350 km (217 miles) from coastal Japan. This is the closest landing yet on a US ally soil.

The US immediately deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea on the 8th of March. While on the 9th, the US up the ante by rejecting a Chinese proposal aimed at reducing tension in the Korean peninsula, saying all previous attempts to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program have failed and there is a need to find “new ways” to engage.

To be clear, this situation has occurred before. Last year in March 2016, in response to US- South Korea similar military drill, North Korea warned that it could use the hydrogen bomb to vaporize Manhattan. The situation soon after cooled down.

However, what is worrying now is the change in geopolitical context comparatively to what we had from 2016.

As one would predict, these involved the newly minted US President Donald Trump who temperament is hard to pin down on and the increasingly unpredictable leadership style of Kim Jong Un’s.

Donald Trump has exhibited tendencies to be literal in his foreign policy execution. While young Kim has shown to be increasingly anxious in consolidating his power in North Korea and broader East Asia. The brazen daylight killing of his stepbrother in one of South East Asia biggest airport exhibits this point precisely.

Given the above, now the valid question is – how much restraint both leaders may have given the enormous complexity that is surrounding them.China may have sensed this when it called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting annual military exercises, to prevent what it called a “head-on collision.”

And what this has to do with Malaysia?

I would not want to speculate a war is looming, hence be described of doing such if the situation turn otherwise, – but for practical reasons, Malaysia needs to study these political trends diligently when it comes to negotiating the release of our Embassy staff. Even with skirmishes that could occur in the region, the nine remaining life in Pyongyang will be in quandary.

Malaysia must equally expedite its back-door diplomacy with North Korea through China. As a member of Non-Align Movement, Malaysia must not be shown to side any countries pertinently from the Western Hemisphere on the issue. I believe as we are speaking, our Prime Minister has begun to move towards that direction.

There is also a need to seek a quid-pro-quo solution even though a crime has been done in KLIA 2. Malaysian law must be applied without compromise. However, the process itself must not be projected in a way that suggests Malaysia is punishing and shaming the state of North Korea as the accomplice.

Instead, it must be on the singular nature of the crime that has been conducted. From a broader perspective, this may help smoothen our diplomatic process of saving our people in Pyongyang.

The above article has appeared earlier in New Straits Times 13 March 2017 with a different title. The content however, remains the same.

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)

Indonesia considers renaming ‘South China Sea’



Joko Widodo official visit to the Natuna’s EEZ


JAKARTA — In a bid to assert its sovereignty, Indonesia will seek to change the name of the South China Sea to the Natuna Sea in the area within 200 nautical miles (370km) of its Natuna Islands, which have seen clashes between government vessels and illegal fishermen, said a senior official.

Mr Ahmad Santosa, the Chief of Task Force 115, an agency combating illegal fishing, said late Wednesday (Aug 17) the proposal will “be given to the United Nations”.

“If no one objects … then it will be officially the Natuna Sea,” he was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. The plan would involve renaming the sea surrounding the Natuna Islands, which lie to the north-west of the Indonesian part of Borneo, within Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Under international maritime law, states have the right to exploit resources in their own EEZs. The islands’ mayor, Mr Hamid Rizal, said the change was aimed at helping people to understand that section of the waters around the Natunas belongs to Indonesia, and to help fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Indonesian waters.

The government of President Joko Widodo has taken a hardline stance against illegal fishing, partly driven by the need for Indonesia to show its neighbours, including China, that it is in control of its vast territory of 17,000 islands.

Commenting on why Jakarta has moved to rename the waterway, Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute told TODAY: “Indonesia’s key considerations include the protection of its sovereignty, preservation of its territorial integrity, curbing the rise in illegal fishing in the waters around the Natuna Islands, and responding to deep-seated nationalist sentiments in Indonesian society. From Indonesia’s perspective, renaming the South China Sea to the Natuna Sea removes all doubt that the waters surrounding the Natuna islands belong solely and unambiguously to Indonesia.”

Tensions between Jakarta and Beijing have escalated in recent months as Chinese fishing boats have clashed with Indonesian government vessels.

China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea were dealt a blow last month by an international tribunal that ruled that Beijing had no historic rights to the resources within the waters.

Unlike several of its South-east Asian neighbours, Indonesia has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea and does not contest ownership of any territory there. But Beijing’s claims overlap Indonesia’s EEZ around the Natunas.

Indonesia marked its Independence Day on Wednesday by sinking 60 foreign ships seized for fishing illegally in the country’s waters.

Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said the ships were sunk at eight locations across the Indonesian archipelago. She has organised the destruction of more than 200 illegal fishing boats since 2014.

Ms Pudjiastuti stated on Wednesday that “we do see at the moment the deterrent effect”.
“I think it is already quite a strong message” to foreign countries and their fishing fleets, she added.

Besides sinking the ships, the Minister also held a groundbreaking ceremony for a detention centre for illegal fishing. The building will have a capacity of 300 to 500 people, and it is estimated to be finished before the end of this year.

Mr Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based analyst with Concord Consulting, told TODAY there is no reason why Indonesia cannot rename the waters. However getting an international recognition is a different matter. “The Philippines tries to do the same with what it calls the West Philippines Sea but common usage continues to refer to (it as) the South China Sea.”

Dr Mustafa of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute added that while China is likely to see this move as an act of provocation, the name change is unlikely to result in an outright naval confrontation.

“This is because both China and Indonesia are mindful of deepening economic engagement in their bilateral relations,” he said.

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


I’m not a dictator- Najib


najib and mahathir

Prime Minister Najib and Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir.


Firing at his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that he was not a dictator and does not intend to be one. He was speaking at the opening of Tangga Batu Umno division’s assembly in Bandar Hilir, Malacca, 13 August.

Najib said he could “easily be prime minister for more than 22 years” if he had retained an old Umno rule requiring challengers to the president to first obtain 56 nominations from divisions before they could qualify. This is an apparent jab to the senior statesman Mahathir who had ruled Malaysia for two decades from 1981 to 2003.

Najib, who is also Umno president, reportedly pointed out that under his leadership, the amended 2009 Umno constitution was done to empower 100,000 grassroots members to vote in party elections compared to an estimated 2,500 delegates in previous polls.

Najib’s administration has come under increasing domestic pressure to be transparent in the 1MDB dealings. The pressure has compounded further since last July when the US Department of Justice federal filed civil complaints seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than $1 billion in assets associated with 1MDB.

To this end, Mahathir has been at the forefront in demanding the removal of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib from the administration due to the fiasco.

On 14 August, it has been reported that Mahathir’s former political secretary Matthias Chang together with a local state assembly person filed another class action suit in the United States against individuals linked to 1MDB.