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Will China and USA further escalate tension in South China Sea?

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South China Sea (SCS) is emerging a hotbed of tension between China, the economic and military power of Asia and its sea neighbors of the Asia Pacific region. Following military activity by China which claims its authority over the zone, tensions between China and its northern maritime neighbours continue to dominate developments in the SCS but further unresolved disputes add to the dangerous atmosphere because no side is ready to back down and seek genuine reconciliation, while US super power opposes Beijing and supports its neighbors.

China has issues with ASEAN as Philippines, Japan and Vietnam are been wooed by USA to fight China as part of President Obama’s Asia Pivot agenda. US military role in the region in support of China’s neighbors further complicates the tension. July 12, 2016, marked a turning point in the long-standing disputes over the South China Sea. After more than three years of proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body in The Hague, a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued a widely anticipated decision in a case the Philippines brought in 2013 to challenge China’s maritime claims to most of the contested waterway.

The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—have become increasingly wary of Beijing in recent years and have clearly supported resolving the region’s disputes through the mechanisms of international law. Were China to make aggressive new moves, it would deepen their sense of alienation, encouraging them to strengthen their militaries to further balance against Beijing. The Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has signaled that he is interested in pursuing a more conciliatory approach to Beijing and has held out the possibility of resuming negotiations with China over resource sharing in the South China Sea. If Chinese President Xi Jinping accepts Duterte’s offer, he might be able to reach a deal with Manila that allows China to continue to claim some rights to resources in the far corners of the South China Sea.

As expected by many, the tribunal ruled in Manila’s favor and China rejected the tribunal’s decision, since Beijing, a signatory to the convention, has long opposed the proceedings and had warned that it would not abide by the judgment. China believes Washington has played its role in getting the judgment against China’s position over the SCS. USA and its local partners can avoid a dangerous escalation, and encourage China to abide by the ruling. China responds with increased belligerence.

China insists that it has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, and the tribunal did not rule on their rightful ownership. But by declaring all of the Spratlys’ features to be reefs or rocks, it significantly limited the claims China can make to the surrounding water and airspace. Under international law, China’s outposts in the Spratly Islands should be considered isolated enclaves floating in a part of the ocean that is in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, since they lie within 200 nautical miles of that country’s territory. And Beijing cannot use the Spratlys to justify any claims to the surrounding waters.

The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on almost every count, declaring nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the region invalid under international law, bringing a substantial amount of new clarity to a number of contentious legal issues and has set precedents that will affect the law of the sea for years to come. The tribunal held that all the territories in the contested Spratly Islands are reefs or rocks, not islands. That distinction matters, because under UNCLOS, reefs cannot generate a claim to the surrounding waters or airspace, and rocks can serve as the basis for only a small maritime claim of 12 nautical miles. Islands, on the other hand, generate a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone; states can also assert additional rights based on the extent of the continental shelves that underlie them.

The tribunal found that China had conducted illegal activities inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and thus completely invalidated China’s claim that it holds historic rights to the South China Sea through its “nine-dash line,” a sweeping cartographic projection that encompasses as much as 90 percent of the waterway. Chinese vessels, the tribunal ruled, had fished where they shouldn’t have, and had prevented others from fishing and extracting petroleum within the zone. The tribunal also censured China’s construction of artificial islands in the region, which it determined had caused severe environmental damage and heightened geopolitical tensions.

The tribunal’s ruling that the Spratlys do not constitute islands under UNCLOS complicated Chinese position and closed off another opportunity for Beijing to save face and destroyed China’s ability to justify its expansive claims to the South China Sea in legal terms. As speculated, China has rejected the legitimacy of the Philippines’ case and the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear it since Manila first brought its complaint in January 2013. Beijing has decried the tribunal’s decision as illegitimate, and it will certainly not abandon its outposts in the Spratlys or return the sand it used to manufacture them to the seabed. In fact, in the wake of the ruling, China landed civilian aircraft on some of those outposts, presumably to demonstrate that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Since the tribunal rejected China’s claims to historic rights in the waterway entirely, Beijing now must either continue to reject the tribunal’s ruling wholesale or offer the Chinese public a fresh explanation of why its rights still stand—a tough approach, since Chinese leaders have long stuck to exactly the narrative that the tribunal rejected. The line was first unveiled by the Republic of China in 1947 and was adopted by China’s Communist rulers after they took power in 1949. Chinese officials have never explained the nine-dash line’s precise legal meaning, but they have repeatedly claimed that it demarcates an area from which China can extract resources.

China can be stubborn. Beijing knows for sure, as being veto members USA would not think of a war with China. It could also apply new domestic laws to the areas it controls. However, China’s actions would be deeply worrisome for neighbors and would demonstrate that Beijing is uninterested in playing by the rules of the international order. China’s withdrawal from the UNCLOS convention would suggest not only that Beijing intends to ignore the tribunal’s ruling but also that it does not want to be bound by the many other maritime rights and provisions that UNCLOS enshrines and that govern the free use of the global commons. USA is not a party to the convention to observe its provisions.

Although the tribunal dealt a blow to China’s maritime claims—its rights to water and airspace and its authority to conduct certain activities there—it did not rule on China’s claims to sovereignty over territory in the South China Sea, which are beyond the scope of UNCLOS. For that reason, Beijing can rightly argue that its sovereignty over the contested reefs and rocks it occupies has not been affected. It cannot legally continue to declare military zones in the water or airspace around the reefs it occupies, nor can it do so more than 12 nautical miles from the rocks it controls. But if Beijing emphasizes sovereignty claims instead of maritime ones, it could draw criticism from the West.

China might now choose to flout the decision more explicitly by deepening its de facto control of the area, declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, unsettling many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Chinese forces could attempt to intercept a US ship or plane as it conducts a freedom-of-navigation operation, raising tensions between Beijing and Washington.

China has issues with Japan. There is a continual stream of events that all sides use to test the others’ resolution, with a dangerous possibility of the tension turning violent at any moment. The Chinese organised a large fishing fleet to visit islands which the Japanese claim and call the Senkaku. Japan lambasted the Chinese for sending the fishing fleet, and pointed out that they were supported by Chinese government ships. The joint presence of commercial and official Chinese vessels on such a large scale is something new. China is aggravating the situation. China appears to be asserting its right to protect its interests by mobilising fishing vessels during the summer fishing season, escorted by official vessels. Also in a recent development in a gas field in the East China Sea near the midway line between China and Japan, China installed naval vessel surveillance radar on its exploration platform. This, too, is an arbitrary move that cannot be overlooked. Beijing is steadily aiming for de facto control as fait accompli. The same tactic has been employed in the South China Sea.

Chinese sources blamed Japanese intransigence for much of the tension that has arisen with China in recent years over islands in the East China Sea. For years, Japan has refused to acknowledge it has any territorial dispute with China, which has basically shut the door to finding a peaceful solution to their sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japan) through diplomacy and dialogue.” “Japan has tried to blame China for the deteriorating situation in the region, accusing it of unilaterally seeking changes to the ‘status quo’. But it was Japan that did that by ‘nationalizing’ some of the islands in 2012, betraying the acquiescence reached by leaders of the two countries in the 1970s and subsequently maintained that the dispute should be shelved.”

A recent cyber attack in July by Chinese sources on computer system of Vietnam Airline has been condemned by Vietnamese leadership. The computer system was hacked. In addition, for a day, the screens displaying flight information at Hanoi’s and Ho Chi Minh City’s international airports were taken over and displayed derogatory messages about Vietnam and the Philippines regarding their dispute with China over South China Sea.

Although the South China Sea disputes have deep historical roots, they have flared up in recent years because China’s growing military capabilities have meaningfully improved Beijing’s ability to press its claims. If China goes further by deliberately flouting the ruling or withdrawing from UNCLOS, it could destroy the maritime order it has already damaged.

Satisfying as the tribunal’s decision may be for Manila, all parties now have a strong stake in ensuring that the situation doesn’t escalate. The judgment sets a significant legal precedent: the principles that guided the tribunal’s decision are now part of international law, and countries must embrace and reinforce them if they want others to uphold them in the future. The USA and like-minded countries around the world should continue to declare their support for the legal process, calling on China and the Philippines to abide by it without taking a position on the underlying sovereignty disputes. USA should make clear that it will investigate the implications of the decision for its own island claims.

If China does not begin construction at Scarborough Shoal, there will be ample room for cooperation between China and its neighbors and between Beijing and Washington. The wider world is looking on with some concern and it is putting a lot of the blame on China. The New York Times said that the waterway is too strategically important and the disputes too complex for the competing claims by China and five other countries Yet, provocations continue, raising questions about “China’s commitment to the rule of law and heightening fears of a wider conflict”.

Observation

World needs and seeks peace even as many top military nation is trying to disturb peace and tranquility by all possible means. US led western military forces are after energy resources and energy routes of Arab nations and Afghanistan; China and USA are complicating SCS normalcy; Israel is bent upon destroying peace and prosperity of Arab nations, especially Palestine, killing them by fake pretexts and denying them sovereignty. Palestinians keep dying just like Kashmiris because the colonialist India and Israel keep killing Muslims as their major policy.

Advanced terror techniques are being employed by fascist, imperialist and colonist nations against weak nations. They have converted may Muslim nations into enslaved peoples without freedom.

USA should be committed to acting responsibly. US officials should work closely with their Chinese counterparts, encouraging them to negotiate with the South China Sea’s other claimants, particularly the Philippines, and to make progress on a binding code of conduct with ASEAN, a long-sought multilateral agreement that would create a strict set of guidelines for behavior in the South China Sea. A code of conduct would likely also freeze the waterway’s political and territorial status quo, helping China reassure its neighbors that its long-term intentions are not threatening.

USA and China should also press ahead with the confidence-building measures they agreed to at June’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, to reduce the risk of an accidental clash between them. That would help each demonstrate to the other and to the region that neither wants to see a great-power conflict over the South China Sea.

Whether or not China move forward to secure cooperation with its neighbors is difficult to forecast right away; similarly, will USA let the region return to normalcy also remains to be seen.

Of course, resolving the current showdown in SCS peacefully and legally would be in everyone’s interests.

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Southeast Asia

Thai universities must look beyond ranking

Rattana Lao

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National University of Singapore

Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.

Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.

The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.

This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.

The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.

Should we be concerned about this?

Yes, and no.

Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?

This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.

Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.

But ranking is not everything.

Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”

These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.

Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.

For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.

While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.

Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.

TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.

This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.

A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.

Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.

A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff

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Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Southeast Asia

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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