All posts by Teoh Jit Khiam

Conflict in the South China Sea: Alternate Futures

“No serious futurist deals in prediction. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.” – Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

Much ink has been spilled over scenarios that may result in a conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It is fair to state that many have been deliberated and reiterated regularly – tensions on the Korean peninsula, clashes or incidents during a freedom of navigation or an intelligence-gathering operation in the South China Sea, or Taiwan declaring independence. This brief and speculative forecast explores four alternatives, within or beyond the South China Sea and occurring on a “spectrum of intent” ranging from premeditated and/or avoidable or unplanned and/or accidental. No matter how or where it occurs, each singular scenario in the table below could act as the fuse to a U.S.-PRC conflict by 2030.

The simple table shown below displays how four alternative futures are generated. For each, the text below in italics for each scenario gives a one-line summary as to the worldview in this possible future. It is followed by three possible signposts that may lead to, or are characteristic of, the imagined future.

Within the South China Sea Beyond the South China Sea
Premeditated, Avoidable Alternative Future A Alternative Future C
Unplanned, Accidental Alternative Future B Alternative Future D

Alternative Future A: High Seas Interdiction

A U.S. resurgence shows as the ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’ concept acquires currency and tangible forms, formal or otherwise, which the U.S. leads or sponsors but China contests. Select U.S. proliferation security or multilateral military exercises in 2020, involving countries beyond Southeast Asia, lose their original intent and gain aspects of informal alliances or unstated treaties revolving around the Indo-Pacific in 2030. Japan joins as a junior member, together with Germany, of the now-renamed “Five Eyes Plus Two” intelligence-sharing group. Regular and predictable joint statements from ASEAN are a thing of the past, as spirited debates and widening interests among its members mar what was once a due formality.

Scenario: A China Coast Guard (CCG) ship attempts to interdict an Indian-flagged civilian vessel inbound for Taiwan, in international waters within the South China Sea. Repeated boarding attempts by CCG boarding parties are frustrated by evasive maneuvers, emplaced concertina razor wires and sandbags, and serious resistance offered by the Indian crew members who employ water cannons and foam monitors. Suffering mounting casualties from small arms fire and the near-certainty of a CCG seizure of their vessel, the captain and chief engineer begin scuttling her, acting under sealed orders from New Delhi. An Australian Navy ship receiving the Indian vessel’s distress call quickly arrives at the scene to pick-up survivors under Chinese protestations. The Americans in turn rapidly converge nearby USN ships, which incidentally include a rescue and salvage vessel in transit to Japan, to secure the site and recover the rumored cargo: sea-launched cruise missiles destined for Taiwan’s German-licensed, indigenously built submarines. Amidst ratcheting tensions between the parties involved, an apprehensive Beijing quietly hastens mobilization for a cross-strait invasion, irrespective of its state of preparedness.

Alternative Future B: A Downed Flight

China’s leaders, confident, yet eager to entrench its self-perceived hegemony, ‘speak softly’ yet signal to officials down below that ‘big stick’ initiatives are “acceptable” to preserve the status quo. A handful of small countries, beholden to Beijing, officially recognize the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), now known as the Eastern and Southern Peace ADIZ, concurrent with China formally issuing a document on its definitions, interpretations, and enforcement. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is no longer a Chinese talking point and is dismissed during regional backdoor meetings as an ‘anachronism’. It is suggested that a revised version be issued via “regional consultations”. China’s Maritime Militia are now equipped with newer and larger boats and are now shadowed by CCG ships during patrols or escort missions at contested fishing zones in the South China Sea.

Scenario: A Taiwanese civilian airliner mysteriously crashes in waters close to South Korea and Japan while attempting to defy China’s newly expanded ADIZ that has now encompassed the South China Sea. Onboard were Taiwanese officials, Japanese diplomats, and media entourage from both countries. Much later, air traffic control voice recordings and open-source data would indicate that the airplane was hailed and shadowed by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighters, and for a short period, its flight path was well within the theoretical tracking and acquisition range of a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer. Salvage, rescue, and naval ships from four countries – China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – converge on the general crash location in order to secure physical evidence and the airplane’s black boxes. Within days, it devolves into serious skirmishes between various parties that include ramming and direct fire, forestalling hopes of the quick recovery of the black boxes. The U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to support joint Taiwanese-Japanese efforts to recover the black boxes. Seoul quickly backs down, but China matches American naval presence in a tense stand-off in the East China Sea.

Alternative Future C: Ethnic Killings

The word ‘China’ in South China Sea is no longer a geographic description but de facto and de jure, with acquiescence by many countries surrounding the body of water via a tacit acknowledgment of China’s dominance. Most ASEAN militaries increasingly field and flaunt China-made planes and ships while occasional forays or extended presence by the U.S. in the South China Sea is indulged by PRC in 2030 as “American nostalgia”. The ASEAN countries that once hosted or trained with the U.S. Military, are terminating or reducing the once welcome presence. One or two are even abiding tour operators featuring excursions at China’s reclaimed “islands” open for tourism. China’s re-tooling of its much-criticized “debt diplomacy” is a great success as countries along its touted ‘string of pearls’ increasingly eschew the World Bank and IMF in favor of Beijing.

Scenario: Ultra-nationalists in a South Asian country carry out the first of a series of deadly attacks against their country’s religious minority by using a political procession – ostensibly to protest a remark by a minority rights activist in an interview – as both cover and rallying point. Unverified reports of mass killings follow claims that security forces failed to protect minority-populated areas or were ordered to stand down. As weeks pass with the country on verge of civil war, U.S. and India announce the dispatch of a combined joint task force to the South Asian country under a humanitarian pretext, pending a UNSC resolution. China denounces the preemptive move as blatant, unwarranted interference in the “internal affairs” of said country. The embattled South Asian government, wary of its giant neighbor, officially requests Chinese “peace-keepers.” Beijing quickly agrees and introduces a UNSC draft resolution of their own. Meanwhile, China rallies its token naval presence in-country and mobilizes reinforcements. The race is on to see who will be first to dictate “facts on the ground” aimed at denying or establishing, for the first time in centuries, a significant Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

Alternative Future D: Embassy Attack

Under domestic pressures, the U.S. voluntarily retrenches from the first island chain to the second and then third in quick succession, revealing to the world that American reach starkly contrasts with its self-professed global aspirations. U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and bilateral military exercises with Southeast Asian countries drop-off precipitously. Seoul and Tokyo turn into regional rivals while the U.S. is unwilling or no longer able to mediate between its squabbling allies. The United States commits to various new initiatives against Beijing, even attempting Russian-style influence operations across the “Great Firewall” and in China’s neighboring countries, seeking to displace or overturn China’s position with minimal resources.

Scenario: The Chinese embassy in a Central Asian country hosted a high-visibility diplomatic reception to celebrate a landmark treaty that enhances China’s influence in Central Asia. The reception comes under a coordinated attack launched by an extremist faction of a political movement banned in China and operating in exile from the U.S. Among the casualties is the second-highest-ranking member of the communist party’s politburo standing committee, reputedly a policy hawk on PRC-U.S. relations. The U.S. embassy is later noted as having delegated attendance to its lowest ranking foreign service officer, the cultural attaché, who left shortly before the attack. The leaders of the political movement, denounce the splinter faction but refuse to condemn the attack, giving fuel to long-standing Chinese claims that the U.S. is “sponsoring terrorism”. China’s state media plays up the “heroic sacrifice” of its “leading comrade”. The Central Asian government refuses Washington’s offers of forensic expertise and quickly concedes to Beijing the lead for investigation and interrogation of the lone surviving attacker. Within weeks, Beijing announces the attack was directed and sponsored by the CIA and vows retaliation at a place and time of China’s choosing.

“Strong opinions, lightly held.” – Institute for the Future

When angels cast pearls, the devil’s advocate plays swineherd. Much of the present-day discourse surrounding the likely chief causes of a future U.S.-PRC conflict has been extensively covered by other parties, thus this speculative foray into grounds less well-trodden. The alternative futures described and its attendant scenarios are considered implausible in the present but the preconditions that may lead to those paths already exist today. Great power ambitions and (mis)calculations of future leaders may entice or force the actors to perceive an advantage or leverage in the conditions as and when they arise. It is hoped that this thought exercise has shed light on unexpected blind-spots that may lead to a wider range of unexpected outcomes that could arise from the actions of the actors as they seek to advance or arrest their waxing and waning fortunes.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

The Malay Annals: History Describes the Present

The Malay Annals, or “Sejarah Melayu” in Malay, are a romanticized history on the rise and fall of the Malaccan Sultanate interspersed with mythical and fantastical elements. To put the text in historical context, it was composed approximately a century after the fall of the Malaccan sultanate, marking the end of the sultanate’s undisputed rule over both sides of the Strait of Malacca. The oldest version is dated approximately two centuries after the end of the Ming Dynasty’s short-lived maritime Pax Sinica that extended from East Asia to the tip of the Indian sub-continent.

Within its text are key passages describing the Malay worldview of their relationship with the Sinic empires, specifically the Ming dynasty. The interactions cited within afford a remarkably contemporary frame of Malaysia’s current foreign policy towards China, its status as regional power and an emerging superpower, as well as Beijing’s claims towards almost the entirety of South China Sea. Selected texts from the Malay Annals reproduced in this article are drawn from Dr. John Leyden’s translation published in 1821 and are presented in the order as they appear in the Leyden manuscript.

“Sit atop the mountain and watch the tigers fight” – Chinese saying


Then, it was reported in the land of China, that Raja Suran was advancing against them with an innumerable army, and had arrived at the country of Tamsak. The raja of China was alarmed at hearing this intelligence, and said to his mantris and chieftains, “If Kling Raja approach, the country will be inevitably ruined; what method do you advise to prevent his approach?” Then, a sagacious mantri of China said, “Lord of the world, your slave will fall on a device.”


King Suran is described in the text as a true descendant of Alexander the Great. At this point, there is no mention yet of the Malays or Malay lands, only that King Suran set forth from India intending to conquer China. The king of China, upon learning of King Suran’s approach, appreciated this new danger and consulted with his court. One of his ministers contrived a plan to deceive King Suran regarding the distance of China from India with the use of rusty needles and aging sailors. The ruse succeeded in deterring King Suran from invading China.

What is striking is that the Malaccan sultanate perceived the need for another great power to balance and counter the hegemony of the Ming dynasty. When the Trump administration recently announced that the U.S. explicitly considers the PRC’s territorial claims in South China Sea as illegal, it merely elicited a decidedly neutral statement couched in non-committal language from Malaysia. Malaysia’s foreign minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, stated, “Malaysia looks forward to continuing the discussions to conclude an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that would encompass elements which reflect the rights and interests of all parties.”

It should be noted that Malaysia conducts, with little to no domestic fanfare, far more bilateral military exercises of substance with the U.S. than with PRC. A recent standoff between China’s state-owned and military vessels with a Malaysian-chartered Panamanian-flagged drillship and several U.S. Navy ships did not even make the local news cycle in Malaysia. In other words, while Malaysia may loudly proclaim strict neutrality or assign tensions solely to ambitions of superpowers, at best, Putrajaya, the seat of Malaysia’s federal-level government ministries, quietly aspires for U.S. alone to do the heavy lifting. At worst, it hopes that an American presence gives considerable pause to China’s assertive ambitions, sans a hint of Malaysian participation.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles” – American saying


Then the raja of China sent to Palembang, to Raja Sangsapurba ten prows, to ask his daughter in marriage. They brought with them as presents three bahars of gold, and a great quantity of articles of China. Along with them one hundred male Chinese slaves, and a young Chinese of noble birth; a hundred female Chineses; all to convey the raja’s letter to Sangsapurba. They reached Palembang, and delivered the letter of the raja of China, in the most respectful manner, in the hall of audience.


King Sangsapurba is represented by the Malay Annals as the first Malay king who also laid claim as a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. His appearance in the Annals suggests that the Malays drew heavily from Hindu cosmology (Shiva possibly) in that he was hinted as a sort of demi-god, being deigned to descend from the heavens in order to rule over the Malays. Upon receiving the proposal for the hand of his daughter from the king of China, Sangsapurba consulted with his retinue. They concurred that Palembang, Sangsapurba’s capital, would be at great risk should the proposal be refused and, at the same time, counseled that there was no greater king than the king of China.

While there are historical accounts of Chinese vessels operating around Malay territory for centuries, it would be Zheng He’s famous treasure fleets that would leave an indelible mark and distinct impression on the Malaccan sultanate. The above passage informs readers that the sultanate was more than aware of the proximity of the Chinese mainland to Malacca. Additionally, with the appearance of several large multi-masted ships crewed by hundreds, the Malaccan sultanate understood that the fiat of the Ming Dynasty would not, and could not, be denied. Thus, the Ming dynasty records duly noted visits by Parameswara, the founder of the Malaccan sultanate, and later of his successor, to the Ming capital to receive gifts from the Ming emperor as acknowledgment of their legitimacy as rulers of the Malacca city-state.

Translated today, Malaysia would unlikely initiate or risk direct action to contest incursions by China’s Coast Guard or the People’s Liberation Army Navy into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Unlike Vietnam, which could fall back on a long history of resisting Chinese invasion and occupation to rally its people in the face of overwhelming numbers and odds, Putrajaya seems to accept that it would likely be fruitless to contest regular incursions by China. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, then speaking as prime minister, affirmed the long-held precept in late 2019 during an interview discussing China’s maritime claims, saying, “We watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive.”

“The measure of clothing against yourself” – Malay saying


The sago was then brought before the raja, and the raja of China asked how it was made. Tun Parapati Puti replied that it was made by rolling it up into grains, and that the raja of Malacca had sent him a grain for every person in his dominions, till the prahu had been loaded, for so great is the number of the subjects of our raja that it is impossible to count them. The raja of China said, “of a truth the raja of Malacca is a powerful raja, his subjects are in truth very numerous, and no wise inferior to mine. It will be very proper for me to connect myself with him.”


The Malaccan sultanate would not have easily accepted the conceit of being in the thrall of the Ming dynasty. The above passage indicates that the sultanate sought a level footing as either an equal or a near-peer to the Ming dynasty. It may have likely been aimed at placating the domestic audiences within the palace, seeing that as it was successive Malaccan rulers that regularly paid court to the Ming emperor rather than the other way around. Unsurprisingly, the above passage cites the marriage of the “Ming princess” Han Li-Po to Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca as a mark of high esteem by the king of China.

The annals also describe an unusual event which further buttresses the Sultanate’s desire for equality or near-peer status. Shortly after the above passage, the text reveals that the king of China was “seized with an itch of the whole body”. Upon consultation, it was discovered that this itch could only be cured by “drinking the water which has washed the feet and face of the raja of Malacca.” An emissary was dispatched from China to the Malaccan court to apply for said healing waters. The bodily itch subsided after it was applied as prescribed. The king of China pledged that the king of Malacca would no longer be required to pay obeisance at the Chinese court thanks to this miraculous cure. In this, the third and final leg of Malaysia’s diplomatic stance towards China is revealed.

So long as China is willing to acknowledge or publicly confer a near-peer status to Malaysia, “give face”, and support inconsequential initiatives sponsored by Putrajaya, the latter will not rock the boat. Former Malaysian foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, reiterated the point in late 2019, citing that bilateral ties were that of “friendship based on civilization”. It is not a new stance and was first iterated by Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Razak in 1974, who followed in the wake of Nixon’s ground-breaking visit in 1972, by stating Malaysia’s ancient ties with China. On a more cautionary note, this story from the Malay Annals may not bode well for Malaysia’s Sinic minority should future events transpire that are detrimental towards Malaysia’s maritime claims.

“It’s the same ol’, same ol’ situation” – Motley Crue

To place the historical context of the Malay Annals in modern perspective, at the peak of Pax Sinica under the Ming dynasty, Zheng He’s treasure fleet carried out counterpiracy operations near Palembang, Sumatra, and instituted regime change in Colombo, present-day Sri Lanka. Just as it was then and today, a superpower’s reach that meddled in regional politics and exuding a somewhat condescending attitude would have likely triggered internal resentments that needed to be addressed or tamped down in favor of expediently and profitably managing their kingdoms’ generally unequal relationship with the Ming dynasty. The encounter between the Ming dynasty and Malaccan sultanate resulted in a foreign policy primer encapsulated by these key passages in a classical Malay text that is still assiduously cultivated by modern-day Malaysian diplomats and public officials.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

Taiwan: Between a ROC and a Hard Place

Taiwan is currently in the midst of an identity crisis. The island nation desires to retain its official Republic of China (ROC) designation while half-heartedly nursing an unconsummated claim to the mainland. Instead, it is relegated to the status of “Chinese Taipei.” This diplomatic ambiguity does the island-state no favors in coaxing, much less obtaining, formal recognition as a sovereign country. It does even less to distinguish Taiwan, at least in diplomatic terms, from mainland China. To be sure, the thought of coexisting side-by-side with another Sinic-based polity is nigh heresy in Beijing. There is probably no higher political transgression than to loudly entertain the very idea of an independent Taiwan within Zhongnanhai, the headquarters for the Communist Party of China (CPC), which also serves as China’s central government.

Taipei squandered the opportunity to break free of the cross-strait ambiguity in 1989 at the height of the June crackdown by Beijing when Western powers and China’s citizens recoiled from the death toll and sheer violence unleashed at Tiananmen Square. Had Taipei formally declared independence then and there, it would have established a credible precedent. Though the move was unlikely to garner immediate recognition, Beijing would not have been able to overturn it without risking further internal instability or throwing an ill-equipped conscripted army into a complex cross-strait invasion. Today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a far cry from its Maoist iteration of the past, and China’s citizens are mainly in line with an ethnocentric-based nationalism that was mostly absent during the Mao and Deng years.

There is But One China 

Half of this problem lies in Taiwan’s retention of the moniker Republic of China and its widely ignored, but constitutional, claim to the mainland. Both are legacies bequeathed to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek, who himself aspired to rule over a unified China. Both remain points of contention on the international stage. Additionally, the CPC threatened a kinetic form of “Chinese Reunification” after Taiwanese “desinicization” (sic) efforts. Thus, while denied use of “ROC” outside of Taiwan, its official existence and unresolved mainland claim indirectly serve Zhongnanhai’s narrative — at least for its domestic audiences — that the peoples on both sides of the strait yearn for “reunification.”

Repudiating both would buttress Taiwan’s position as standing apart from China rather than being perceived as a failed pretender for the throne. The present uncrowned King of Greece is a royal consort to the British Queen, a gentle fate to be sure. Trotsky suffered far worse: an icepick to the head. And it conforms with the first leg of the Shanghai Communiqué by resolving Kissinger’s “constructive ambiguity” that there is but one China. It is this re-framing of perspective that Zhongnanhai possibly fears more than a formal declaration of independence bearing the name “ROC.”

Mandate of Heaven

Repeated questioning – or is it discrediting? – of CPC’s one-party rule via the simplistic narrative of “Communism vs. democracy” does Taiwan no favors. While it might score points with pundits and politicians in the U.S. and Europe, it has by far failed to secure formal recognition from governments there. And how does one ascertain legitimacy without a ballot? The fact that more than a billion Chinese citizens pay taxes with and save in renminbi emblazoned with Mao’s face, strongly suggests they deem CPC to be “legitimate” for practical purposes. And what is money but, as Geoffrey Ingham of Cambridge University advocates, “a system of social relations based on power relations and social norms”? It can be argued the moment Germans burnt reichsmarks for heating or used them as wallpaper, marked the beginning of the end for the Weimar Republic and heralded the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler. Such a shift has yet to take place on the Mainland.

Some would argue that Taipei should ungrudgingly acknowledge the CPC’s mainland legitimacy under the “Mandate of Heaven”, a political justification used since ancient times to justify the rise or fall of Chinese emperors. It was even enthusiastically adopted by foreign conquerors such as the Mongols and the Manchus that established the Yuan and Qing dynasties, respectively.

Recalling the titular characters romanticized in the famous Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Taiwan is somewhat reminiscent of Liu Bei in his opposition to Cao Cao. The former, a warlord claimant to the imperial throne and a supposed heir to the Han dynasty circa 1-2 CE, contended with the latter who controlled the emperor Xian of the eastern Han dynasty. Present-day Liu Bei, rather than emulate his historical predecessor, should instead render unto Cao Cao what is Cao Cao’s.

Contrasting the “Mandate of Heaven” rule with pluralistic political participation, which denies such divine intercession, would serve better in advancing the cause for a separate, yet distinct, Sinic-based polity. Taiwan’s recent success at averting the coronavirus pandemic, sans WHO membership or a highly centralized rule enabling mass mobilization with minimal resistance, merely affirms such.

Taiwan, in the long run, cannot expect other countries to buy into its present stance when it cannot convince itself, much less its audience across the strait, that an independent Taiwan is not merely an “old wine in a new bottle”. Otherwise, Taipei would do better to negotiate a far less ambiguous future under “One Country, Two Systems”. Ultimately, a raison d’etre for independence would first necessitate the cognitive deportation of the highly monolithic Chinese philosophical and political worldview, mainly colored by Confucius and Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, back to the mainland where it truly belongs.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.