The South East Asian sub-region (SEA) remains an important link in the chain of direct as well as indirect “conflict zones”, beginning on the Korean Peninsula and ending at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, in the Sino-American standoff.
There is no scoring system to keep track of “goals, points, seconds” that could be used to determine which side is tipping the scales in its favor in this strategic game between the two world leaders in the Asia Pacific region as a whole and SEA in particular. The struggle continues with varying outcomes.
An aggregate score for three noteworthy events, connected to SEA’s state of affairs, can be added to this mix and include the agreement between the USA and North Korea to hold a bilateral summit in Singapore; the outcome of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Indonesia, and the triumphant victory by Malaysia’s opposition, headed by 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, in the parliamentary elections.
However, before we look at these events in greater depth, it seems appropriate to make several somewhat general statements.
Only simpletons, riding different types of Euromaidan waves, can think that the sheer appearance of the name of your country in UN’s long lists (or the mere inclusion of clauses in various legislation documents) bestows “an actual right” on you. Technically, yes, the right is yours but in political reality, more often it is not.
Not comprehending this simple truth leads to you “having” not the right (“international”), but a multitude of unnecessary problems instead. The response to simpleton’s genuine indignation “Why us?” is “For a good reason…”.
It is notable that such simpletons can mainly be found in Eastern Europe. The countries in SEA fully comprehend the reach of Realpolitik and rely not on written words but on their ability to maneuver in “the force field” established by a few world players, including the two mentioned earlier.
Still the foreign policy course embarked on by each SEA country (specifically Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia) reveals preferences towards one of the key players,
which is why keeping track of points gained at each subsequent stage of the game, involving either one of the “independent” territories, is not only possible but essential when observing the political puzzle taking shape in SEA and Asia Pacific as a whole.
Thus the solution to a mystery, whose coverage spanned two months, as to where the US and DPRK leaders would meet, was seemingly revealed (albeit with reservations about the added uncertainty caused by American and South Korean led provocations). The summit will be held in Singapore on 12 June, and not in the buildings in the Joint Security Area (separating the participants of the Korean War 1950-1953), which were built expressly for events of this nature.
Singapore is very far from the Korean Peninsula and the first statements, addressing the selection of this location (seemingly agreed upon during the last visit by the Secretary of State Pompeo to Pyongyang), point to simple “logistics” challenges of ensuring the North Korean leader’s arrival and stay in Singapore.
It is one thing to travel to Beijing in an armored train, which has ample room for all the above-mentioned “logistical elements” (members of the delegation, guards, special vehicles and others), but quite another to transport all of this only by air, over a distance of 5,000 km, using most likely outdated air transport, and to a destination with the most pro-American stance in the SEA region. Singapore is strategically important to the US because of its location in the narrowest (several kilometers in length) stretch of the Strait of Malacca, traversed by the largest trade route in the world of critical value to China.
Something prompted DPRK leadership to agree to the US suggestion of holding the bilateral summit in Singapore. And we can not rule out that Pompeo made an attractive offer to the DPRK leader (naturally, in exchange for the promise of nuclear disarmament). Nevertheless, Pyongyang and its backer, Beijing, agreed to the talks in Singapore, which, with reason, is viewed as a key opponent to the success of these negotiations.
In the meantime, China can count the results of its Premier Li Keqiang’s 6-7 May visit to Indonesia, a key SEA country, as a win in its foreign policy scorecard. China is competing for influence in Indonesia, not necessarily with Washington, but with the US allies, Tokyo and Canberra.
This rivalry became quite apparent during the tender auction to build a 750-km high-speed railway between Jakarta and Bandung with a price tag of $ 5.5 billion.
During the auction, involving Japan and CHN, Indonesian leadership solved a fairly difficult political dilemma as to how to ensure their final choice did not offend the economic Asian giant on the losing side.
Indonesia took a risk by naming Beijing as the auction winner, and afterwards Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s President, travelled to Tokyo with perhaps the following message “Fellows, don’t worry. We’ll somehow compensate you for this”.
The author suspects that the delay of more than 2 years in starting work on this project (with “just for show” official explanations) was the result of “political concerns”, but not those of Tokyo but Jakarta itself.
Then, finally, on 8 May, the Xinhua News Agency announced that despite rumors of stagnation, the work on the project had begun. This statement came as a result of an inspection visit to Indonesia by a high-ranking official from China Railway International, responsible for project implementation from the Chinese side. The bilateral agreement on this project was signed as long ago as January 2016.
The announcement to mark the start of the work on the high-speed railway followed immediately after Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Jakarta. The outcome of his negotiations with the Indonesian leadership was “a joint statement”, which included notable mentions of this project’s “continuation and smooth implementation”.
Overall, the author reiterates that this document fully enables Beijing to count the results of the visit to Indonesia by the second highest ranking member of the CHN hierarchy as a foreign policy win.
As for the sensational results of the parliamentary elections in Malaysia, one of the faiful authors of the New Eatern Outlook, Tony Cartalucci was absolute right in pointing out a significant degree of US interference in the course of the election campaign in that country. What could be connected with the same problems of control over the traffic mentioned above, in which Malaysia plays no less important role than Singapore, which was known back in the day as the Malaysian Federation – the predecessor of present-day Malaysia.
There are no obvious reasons to suspect external influences when explaining the sensational results of the parliamentary elections in Malaysia, on May 9. Despite the problems of managing the trade traffic mentioned earlier, this country occupies an equally important position as Singapore, which, at one point, was part of Malaysia.
In May of this year, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s “political father”, returned to power after seemingly retiring “for good” from the post of Prime Minister at the age of 77, 15 years ago. The reasons behind his current electoral triumph lie among the country’s accumulated internal problems. Apparently, Malaysians became tired of bearing witness to corruption within the highest echelons of power in one of the most prosperous “Third World” nations.
Hence, the leading players have few reasons to believe that Malaysia’s “old-new” administration would suddenly change its foreign policy course in the near future. Sure, there’s been statements made by the winner of the Malaysian elections against China for its allegeded recultance to invest in Malaysia, but that’s pretty much it. The present course is quite independent and comparatively neutral in nature. Still, if so desired, one could discern its somewhat pro-American stance, first and foremost in terms of economic ties.
Malaysian leadership has always rejected Washington’s (as well as Tokyo’s) transparent hints to help them manage the notorious “pirate threat” in the Strait of Malacca. Their answer, in short, was probably as follows “We can manage the threat in collaboration with Indonesia and Singapore”.
In conclusion, the author would like to emphasize that the latest events in SEA are indicative of more or less a power balance in the game played by the two world leaders. And we recommend that outside observers pay special attention to the events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula, around Taiwan, as well as the attempts to end the Sino-American trade war before it begins.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region issues, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”