Category Archives: Asia

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.

United We Stand: Mahathir’s Resignation

At one o’clock local time on the 24th of February, Malaysia’s 95-year-old Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, shocked the world by announcing his resignation. The two-time Prime Minister is the single most powerful post-independence political figure in Malaysian history, and his resignation has thrown the country’s political future into turmoil as all sides struggle to react to the news.

Not only was Mahathir Prime Minister from 1998-2003, but he was also a founding member of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO); a component of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that led the government from independence in 1957 until it was finally superseded in 2018 by the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Not incidentally, Pakatan is led by Mahathir’s long-time Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was ousted from UMNO in 1998 after a falling out with Mahathir. Anwar’s subsequent journey through the political wilderness is itself an amazing story of persecution, incarceration, and a determined return to power, which may have something to do with Mahathir’s surprise move yesterday.

Power Play

The drama between Anwar and Mahathir goes back to the then-Deputy Prime Minister’s rising ambitions in the late 1990s. Having risen to prominence partly due to his stringent Islamic politics, Anwar’s increasing popularity among the majority Malay voters began to strain the relationship with his boss. When the Asian Financial Crisis rocked the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, Mahathir took a controversially unconventional approach. He pegged Malaysia’s currency, the Ringgit, to the US Dollar and severely restricted its fungibility on world markets. Though the move was ultimately the right one for Malaysia’s economy, Anwar’s vocal opposition to it finally destroyed his relationship with Mahathir.

Sensing that Anwar was using his criticism not just to fight Mahathir’s currency policy but to build a political coalition against him, Mahathir reacted with surprising fury. He ousted Anwar from his position and from UMNO, charged him with sodomy – a move designed to hurt his standing with Malays – and jailed him under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a successor to similar laws enacted during British rule and conceived as powerful but necessary tools for fighting a longstanding and very effective Communist insurgency. The ISA’s use as a political tool against Anwar cast a shadow over Malaysian governance until 2012 when the ISA was repealed and replaced by two other laws ostensibly written with greater accountability in mind.

Mahathir finally felt prepared to retire from politics in 2003 once Anwar was safely in prison. However, Mahathir did not go quitely into a post-political life. Through his influence in UMNO, Mahathir first maneuvered to place Badawi — and unlikely candidate — in the Prime Minister’s post before later turning against him in favor of Mohammad Najib bin Razak, scion of a political family and son of the country’s second Prime Minister. Aside from these maneuvers, there were constant declarations from Mahathir himself opining on all manner of subjects. His statements had a tremendous impact on UMNO’s leadership in particular, constraining their freedom of action and bending the party to his will despite his status as a private citizen.

Najib, a compelling politician in his own right, began to exert himself more independently than Mahathir was comfortable with. Public disagreements between the two occasionally caused concern within UMNO, especially as Anwar’s leadership of a series of opposition coalitions began to erode BN’s dominance of Malaysian politics even as he served a second prison term for new charges of sodomy starting in 2015. When emerging details about the massive 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal began to implicate Najib himself, Mahathir again intervened boldly.

Bersatu

Translated from Malay, “Bersatu” means “united” and was the short name Mahathir selected for an entirely new political party he would use to take on Najib. Though the party drew some prominent defectors from UMNO, it appeared to have the narrow political goal of saving Malaysia from Najib’s corruption by replacing him with Mahathir. To accomplish this, he made a pact with Pakatan, presenting Anwar as the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy and promising to pardon him if they successfully contested the 2018 general election. With pressure mounting from 1MDB, Pakatan managed to win a substantial majority in the parliament. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, BN was no longer in power. Mahathir assumed duties as the country’s seventh Prime Minister on the 10th of May 2018. Anwar was pardoned and released on the 16th and Najib was arrested for corruption in July.

Though their victory seemed complete, there were cracks. As part of the deal with Pakatan, Mahathir was supposed to serve temporarily until some undefined milestone would signal the ascendance of Anwar to the post of Prime Minister. Though both men talked openly about this inevitable transition and their personal reconciliation at the time, Mahathir’s remaining in the position for nearly two years may have exacerbated distrust between them going back to 1998. These well-known animosities have led to speculation that Mahathir’s resignation today may have had more to do with holding onto power than relinquishing it. According to the popular Malaysian newspaper, The Star, a “well-placed source within Bersatu” alleged that Mahathir’s resignation was the result of an internal split over whether to remain in the Pakatan coalition. Leaving the coalition would have likely forced the King to allow Anwar to form a new government, a move Mahathir ostensibly opposed.

Malaysian politics is now at a crossroads. With Bersatu officially out of Pakatan, nearly a dozen Bersatu officials have resigned along with Mahathir. Though this would typically be a strong signal Anwar will finally achieve his dream of becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister, the King this afternoon announced Mahathir would continue as “interim Prime Minister” until a new one can be chosen. This is an odd decision considering Anwar remains the leader of the largest party in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister (Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) is a legitimate politician in her own right. What happens next will be an intense interaction between the King, Anwar, Mahathir, and various factions within Bersatu and Pakatan.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Engulfing Natuna: Indonesia and the 9-Dashed Line

Last month, a small fleet of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard began fishing the waters of the Indonesian island of Natuna, making it the latest center of tension in the South China Sea. Natuna and the exclusive economic zone around it sit very close to the infamous 9-dashed line China claims as its maritime boundary in the region, raising the risk of confrontation over where Beijing decides it can send its trawlers. Though Indonesia denies it is a South China Sea claimant, Jakarta is discovering the South China Sea controversy may claim Natuna anyway.

Origins of the Dispute

Though territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new, the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1986 codified an array of customary international laws regarding maritime boundaries. While this solved a great many problems, it created others. One of those was the need for China (and others) to establish their baselines in the South China Sea. China did this by reviving an old map featuring nine dashes in a line extending far to the south of Hainan Island, the now infamous 9-dashed line.

The South China Sea is now one of the world’s most heavily disputed areas. No fewer than six states have overlapping claims on all the resources within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from their UNCLOS-defined baselines. Not only does the 9-dashed line put China at odds with all of these claimant states, the ambiguity of using a dashed line as an international boundary enables Beijing to flexibly interpret its claim, including the EEZ around Natuna.

Claims in the South China Sea that affect NatunaShortly after the Chinese flotilla arrived in mid-December, Indonesia registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador. The response from Beijing provided no legal argument, saying that their fisherman “have long been active in the area.” This, however, is not the first time Jakarta faced problems with Chinese encroachment. Since October 2014, the administration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has sunk well over 500 foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Most of those were destroyed in spectacular controlled explosions broadcast on the internet to maximize their deterrent effect.

Though, the vast majority were not seized near Natuna, nor were most of them Chinese. Still, Beijing has been careful to avoid triggering Indonesia’s inherent right to self-defense through the use of tools like the Chinese Maritime Militia, a fleet of civilian craft that operate in a coordinated manner to disrupt and intimidate non-Chinese shipping. The ambiguous status of the Maritime Militia protects it from military responses and instead pits it against coastal law enforcement agencies that are less well-equipped to deal with them. The deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard – rather than the Maritime Militia – from the outset of the Natuna drama suggests Beijing does not believe ambiguity will protect it from Indonesian reprisals.

Jakarta’s Natuna Response

The Indonesian response was substantial despite being slow to gather. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply from Beijing on January 1st the Jokowi administration increased naval patrols in Natuna on January 3rd. Then it dispatched two additional warships followed by four F-16 fighter aircraft to Indonesia’s brand-new military base on the island. By the time of Jokowi’s visit on the 8th, where he delivered a defiant speech in defense of Indonesian sovereignty, Natuna was host to the F-16s and seven warships, more than double its usual complement.

Though China withdrew its flotilla to the boundary of Natuna’s EEZ on January 9th, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister, Mahfud MD, announced the Navy would sustain increased patrolling for a time. Additionally, in a move that echoes the ambiguity of China’s Maritime Militia, the Indonesian Fisherman Association sent some 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to deter further incursions. Though it is not clear exactly how this will work or how effective this type of response will continue to be in the future, for now, Jakarta has made the point that it does not take incursions into its waters lightly. That it did so without regional partners suggests this will not be the last time China attempts to push the limits.

ASEAN Leadership

Many observers believe a strong Indonesian response will stiffen the resolve of other claimant states to stand up to China. Still, that kind of unity on South China Sea issues has been elusive at best. China adopted a divide and conquer strategy early on, insisting on negotiating disputes bilaterally. Beijing wields its economic power as a foreign policy tool, granting or withholding commercial assistance in accordance with its priorities. As this element of Chinese influence grows, so, too, does its impact and effectiveness on its rivals. The strategy has been successful thus far. ASEAN has been unable to agree on a declaration regarding the South China Sea and still hotly debates a less muscular “code of conduct.”

Indonesia is the largest ASEAN member state in almost every measurable way. While its leadership in the region is real and significant, Natuna is not even a unifying issue within Jokowi’s government. While he and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi focus on the sovereignty of Indonesia’s EEZ, the powerful Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, downplays the issue and frames it as an economic one. Prabowo’s rhetoric when he ran for President against Jokowi positioned him as a virulently anti-Chinese candidate. His transformation illustrates the sensitivity of this issue to domestic politics.

Indonesia, like every other South China Sea claimant state, must determine how to defend its sovereignty against an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Bandwagoning with other ASEAN member states is clearly not an option. Balancing behavior and alliances with regional and global powers can help prevent the situation from escalating to armed conflict. Still, both are problematic for the island nation with a defiantly independent tradition. In Natuna, Jakarta elected to employ a show of military force as a deterrent, and it worked…this time. However, Beijing has proven adept at applying all its elements of national power to achieve its goals. As the 9-dashed line creeps forward and the South China Sea dispute threatens to engulf Natuna, Jakarta will find its military power stretched in ways it is not designed to operate.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.