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South China Sea thoughts?

Discussion in 'Geostrategic Issues' started by SpartanSG, Jul 14, 2012.

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  1. OPSSG

    OPSSG Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte calls on ASEAN countries not to choose sides between China and the United States, all while pursuing his 'independent foreign policy' which involves the Philippines' pivot to China. See: Duterte in ASEAN: Let's exercise 'self-restraint' in South China Sea

    The rise of the pro-China block within ASEAN has occurred with Malaysia and Philippines being prominent members within that have shifted and aligned themselves with Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar as 5 states beholden to China. As many know and I mentioned before politicians like Duterte and Dr M are for sale and China has them in their pocket.

    For China, the view is that current situation in the South China Sea is improving towards greater stability by 2020. This stability is attributed to the common efforts of the countries in the region to make progress on the ASEAN and China code of conduct (COC) to manage the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes. Under the erratic Trump administration, both Brunei and Thailand are countries that are keen to maintain good trade ties with China. This means that within the ASEAN 10, despite the understanding of ASEAN leaders of the need for ASEAN centrality, there are 7 votes to ensure that China’s interests are always considered, leaving Viet Nam increasingly isolated as a voice of concern as an involved party. See: Chinese ship leaves Vietnam's waters after disputed South China Sea surveys

    Chinese vessels are patrolling Luconia, Second Thomas, and Scarborough most often belong to the Shucha II and Zhaolai classes. These vessels are largely unarmed, except for water cannons and small arms, but are much larger than the law enforcement or most navy ships of their neighbors. This makes them ideal for operations that might involve threatening collisions and, if necessary, shouldering other vessels to drive them away without using lethal force. See: Signaling Sovereignty: Chinese Patrols at Contested Reefs | Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

    Meanwhile, a Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned crude oil tanker Green Aura was transiting from Nongyao, Thailand, on its way to Longkou, China, when it was hailed by a Chinese warship near the Scarborough Shoal. On freedom of navigation and collision risk with China’s maritime militia issues see: EXCLUSIVE: Chinese ‘naval warship’ harasses Filipino-crewed ship near Scarborough Shoal and Seeking Clues in the Case of the Yuemaobinyu 42212 | Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
  2. Ananda

    Ananda Well-Known Member

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    OPSSG if I may, I do believe Malaysia being 'friendlier' to China due to other International Investors being bit reluctant recently to Malaysia after 1MB fiasco. However I still not see that Malaysia will be in same league with likes of Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos which are much more depending with China.

    I see the way Philippines and Malaysia tendencies on China policies more to 'oportunistics' behavior, rather than shifting paradigm. There are still too many different 'signs' domestically within Malaysia and Philippines.

    https://amp-scmp-com.cdn.ampproject...ncerned-about-indonesias-new-defence-minister

    This is just as example for Indonesia, which are much less dependency to China compared to Malaysia..still too many opposing sides that make any Policies to China more as 'balancing' between Chinese and Japan/US. After all Japan is still the biggest Investor and despite recent China increase in trade and Investment.. Indonesia still have 'choice' to balance.

    The problem for many SEA nation's, they don't have 'balance' toward China in trade and Investment.
     
  3. OPSSG

    OPSSG Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I would say that Indonesia and Singapore are friendly to China but retain an ability to act in a sovereign manner. Less so with Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines or Malaysia — who do not have enough bargaining power to get really good deals. IMO, real defence capability or capacity gives a country real bargaining power. In ASEAN there are 4 countries that are developing increased defence capabilities and capacity to cope with change — Indonesia, Thailand, Viet Nam, and Singapore.

    Without capability, a country can easily become a client state with less scope for freedom of action. Under the Trump Administration with an ‘America First’ policy that rejects the TTP, ASEAN members can no longer hope even for American leadership from the back (of the prior administration).
    I waited about half a year before I was willing to say Malaysia is ‘beholden to China’ and having ‘shifted’ (viz a viz Western countries and the US in general) but I also accept your perspective. Your prediction may be more accurate in 2019, but my prediction will be more accurate by 2021 to 2022, as this is a long term trend. Unlike Indonesia with a huge domestic market, Malaysia is an exporter in a middle income trap and losing ground as FDI destination of choice when compared to Viet Nam or Indonesia. Dr M needs China’s investments to fight his domestic enemies and be seen as delivering growth, at any price, as a long term trend. See:
    11 projects that show China’s influence over Malaysia

    IMHO, Dr M is also asking and getting price reductions for Najib’s deals but asking for unimportant concessions, to deliver a quick political win. For example:

    • China and Malaysia resumed construction of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project in peninsula Malaysia on 25 Jul 2019 after a year-long suspension and following a rare agreement to cut its cost by nearly a third to about US$11 billion; and
    • the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link, headlines say RM1.77 billion or 36 per cent less,
    when the concessions are all made by Malaysian parties. The headlines say Malaysia gets a better deal but the reality is small changes in the margin for both China and Singapore. Behind these headlines are deals to reduce the level of Malaysian corruption or profits. Malaysians have to ask themselves, how much Chinese and Singaporean investments were held back for the period of renegotiations with the Malaysian Government, just for the Malaysians to sort out their internal disagreements for their cut of the deal.

    In late Sep 2019, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in front of the UN General Assembly that India has now “invaded and occupied” Kashmir and Jammu. In response to Mahathir’s comments, on October 21, a major trading body in India called for its members to stop purchasing palm oil from Malaysia. The decision from Indian palm industry leaders to shroud a fundamentally economic debate in nationalist rhetoric is a clear example of using nationalism to promote a trade agenda and sets a dangerous precedent that threatens any leader who might call out an economic superpower for violations of international law. In the case of Palm oil, China is the only viable export alternative for Malaysia (to India).

    Dr M knows that Chinese ships are parked in Malaysia’s disputed EEZ. See my prior post, where he is quoted as saying Malaysia has to be subservient: “... we have to accept the fact that China is a big power... We don’t go around trying to be aggressive when we don’t have the capacity... In the past we use to send to China gold and silver flowers every year as a symbol of our being practically, well, subservient to them.”

    The littoral mission ship deal, signed in 2017 at a revised contract price of RM1.047 billion (US$254 million), has underscored China’s rising status as a key player in the arms market in Southeast Asia. After some negotiations, China is supplying Malaysia with warships with a ‘price reduction’ (but it is via cutting out the Malaysian middle man). China’s arms sales to ASEAN members will grow — giving them even more influence. This is a clear trend with Thailand buying VT-4 tanks, VN-1 armoured vehicles, an S-26T submarine and a Type 071E landing platform dock too. See: Thailand to acquire amphibious ship from China
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
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  4. StingrayOZ

    StingrayOZ Well-Known Member

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    Dr M and Duterte have different priorities, the see China as a potential for change or at least support.
    I worry about Thailand. The situation is difficult.
     
  5. OPSSG

    OPSSG Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Easy to understand why the Malaysians and Pinoys have chosen Dr M and Duterte at the ballot box but they have to be prepared for the consequences. These two are in the politics of looking for scape goats to look good before their domestic audience. Once these two were elected, their need for China’s support naturally arises due to their domestic politics. Given their lack of desire to properly raise, train and sustain their respective armed forces and that magnifying disputes in the South China Sea is not in their interest, their ‘shift’ towards China is expected. Without the proper naval capability, they also lack options and have to accommodate China in a manner that makes outsiders wonder about their capability or capacity to defend their sovereignty.

    For Thailand, we just have to wait and see — how the Chinese arms sales translate into influence.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
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  6. Ananda

    Ananda Well-Known Member

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    Agree, Thailand defense procurement seems not entirely due to Chinese Influence. Based on What media put (bit difficult to find english Thai sources), seems being influence on two thing:

    1. After latest Military Coup (and continuity of Military Dominance on present Administration), Thai's military and defense relationship with West was 'bit' sour.
    2. They are looking for bargain. Seems looking on latest Thai's defense procurement (except Gripen), many comes from sources that provide bargain (Ukraine) plus relative 'easy' Financing package (China).

    Still Thai's seems keeping 'balance' with continues defense relationship with US, altough from what I see a 'bit' reduce compared what they used to have (can be wrong on that, since more difficulty to read english source on Thai's defense).
    In sense so far don't see 'yet' changing policy paradigm on Thai's international policies. China does promissed and provide increasing Investment and Trade..However so does Japan and other existing Thai's foreign investors.

    The 'high profille' potential investment with China is the potential 'Kra' Isthmus Canal which many in Thai's believe it will cut traffic between Indian Ocean to Pacific. In turn they hope will translate to provide 'hub' business for the Kra's port that they are going to build with the cannal.

    Still from some business analysts, by passing Malaca's straight still not provide enough financial insentive on building cannal in Kra isthmus/peninsula. Thus, beside Kra, I still not see something that are significant enough that China can offer to Thai's to make them changing their policies paradigm.

    West need to take bit of reality that current Military dominated regime will stay for some time, due to strong suport from Royal Family toward military backed administration.
    They have to engage this regime more if they want to 'balance' rising Chinese influence.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
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  7. OPSSG

    OPSSG Super Moderator Staff Member

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    1. Kra Isthmus at its minimum is only 44 km (27 miles), but the height of the interior mountain chain is 75 m (246 ft), which means they need to go by a longer route, making it more costly. This will also affect the return on investment which needs to be recovered by charging canal fees to make the 102km (63 miles) project viable over the long term. Thus far, Chinese and Thai entities signed a memorandum of understanding in May 2015 to advance the project, according to the online magazine The Diplomat, despite denials of official government involvement at the time. China notoriously uses purportedly private Chinese companies to run government-funded infrastructure projects. The China-Thailand Kra Infrastructure Investment and Development company, based in Guangzhou, China, and Asia Union Group, headed by former Thai Premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, signed the agreement. In addition, a feasibility study was completed in 2016.

    2. Security analysts are worried construction of the canal could divide the country into two and, because of its location, increase tensions in southern Thailand. The waterway would create a geographic split between Buddhist regions and mainly Muslim provinces in the south. “The construction of the Kra Canal would further exacerbate the volatile region, creating further divisions within the country,” Rhea Menon, a researcher at Carnegie India, wrote in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Diplomat. Before talking about technical and engineering challenges to build the canal, I suspect that the human and project security issue may be insurmountable. Estimated to take 10 years to build, what can go wrong? This is an area with an unhappy and significant Muslim population and for the project to succeed, it needs to support for over a long period — longer than a term of any elected Thai administration. Further, importing tens of thousands Chinese workers to stay in this economically deprived area does not look like a great idea. Not sure of the scale of bomb attacks targeting these Chinese workers or the build route and construction sites that will occur.

    3. When attacks occur, will the Thai Government response create more resentment? If the response is not swift, will the Chinese investors pass the costs onto Thailand for delays? The Thai Government is not noted for their competence in handling the restive South of Thailand. Plus a 1 to 5 year delay will make a huge difference in cost of building and canal fees. China’s focus is typically on geopolitical value of overseas projects rather than their economic value, according to a May 2017 report in the Diplomat, an online magazine, by Hong Kong-based journalist Spencer Sheehan. “China’s drive to build its political influence in Africa and Asia through infrastructure has resulted in faulty power plants in Botswana and loss-making railway projects in Laos,” he wrote. Poorly selected and poorly executed projects also increase the chance that a debtor nation will default on the loans by China and cede control of the assets to China, Sheehan explained.

    4. Who will bear the risk for delays and cost over runs to a project (that may only be marginally economically viable)? If the canal fees is too high, shipping companies can simply elect to go by the Straits of Malacca, which charges no canal fees. In this respect, I note that Panama Canal fees are being reduced due to the current US-China trade war and competition from Suez Canal. Further, China often pushes for political deals that lack transparency in the contracting process and give its state-owned enterprises exclusive bidding rights to projects, which contributes to poor management. In Kenya, Chinese companies delivered the high-profile Standard Gauge Railway to connect Kenya’s largest port city, Mombasa, to its capital, Nairobi, at a cost of US$5.6 million per kilometer, which was roughly triple the international standard and four times the original estimate, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

    5. In Feb 2018, this unpopular Thai Government has brought the Kra Canal proposal back to life. To be precise, it has ordered a study on a project it has officially renamed as Klong Thai. The new name is presumably a minor celebration of the new eternal Thai-ness campaign, Thai Niyom Yangyuen. A study may be in order, but all it can do is update the literally hundreds of studies, papers, recommendations and proposals of the past 341 years. The reality is that the Kra Canal by any name is Thailand’s phoenix for modern times.

    6. Unless you are a Chinese investor pushing for this, do the rest of the Thailand look keen to defer other spending for 10 to 15 yrs to fund this US$30 billion or more canal? The canal plan also features the creation of a US$22 billion special economic zone that includes building cities and artificial islands to bolster Thailand’s infrastructure in the region, the Nikkei Asian Review reported. Thailand would then incur almost double the original debt burden to bring the project to fruition.

    7. Worldwide, Chinese projects are notorious for putting environmental concerns second to Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions. The canal project could hurt Thailand’s tourism industry and damage its fisheries. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, the deputy dean of the fisheries faculty at Kasetsart University, raised concerns over the impact on tourism and environment if a canal was dug as proposed. The proposed route will pass some tourist attractions in the South, including Phuket and Krabi. The proposed canal route would run past tourist areas in the Andaman Sea that generate about 40 per cent or almost 2 trillion baht of the total revenue from the tourism industry. A local opponent of the canal project, Admiral Jumpol Loompikanon, a deputy permanent secretary at the Defence Ministry, said the country needed to balance geo-politics and geo-economics. Jumpol, a Royal Thai Navy spokesman and a member of the marine and coastal resources strategy panel, added that judging from the past he was worried about disputes arising between super powers and neighbouring countries. He cited the conflict over the Spratly Islands between China and the Philippines. He said it was difficult for security agencies to decide whether to pursue the project because more comprehensive information was still needed. Concern that Chinese control of the project could erode Thailand’s sovereignty is widespread, however, even if engineers determine it to be technically feasible. The history of the Panama and Suez canals shows, despite the advantages of a canal, one country’s funding of its construction on the territory of another country usually leads to the spread of significant influence by the first country.

    8. “In theory, the Kra Canal could benefit India and the region by taking pressure off the overcrowded Malacca Straits,” a senior Indian naval commander told the Business Standard, an Indian English-language daily newspaper, in April 2018. “In practice, there’s reason to worry about what Chinese involvement in this project will mean for the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.” Moreover, China would predictably militarize the canal, the senior Indian naval commander told the Business Standard. China militarized many of its infrastructure investments in the Indo-Pacific, despite repeated denials of its intentions and ongoing activities to build military facilities and install military equipment on such sites. Prime examples include the artificial features China built in recent years in the South China Sea, replete with air and naval bases, and various dual-use port projects from Gwadar in Pakistan to Djibouti in Africa for which China is using sovereign debt traps to gradually usurp control.

    9. Bangkok’s relations with Singapore, KL and Jakarta “will figure prominently in its decision over whether to follow through with the project,” according to a November 2017 analysis by Stratfor, a digital publication that provides a geopolitical intelligence platform. China will benefit the most from such a canal because it will build it and control it, most observers and analysts agreed. Although China is likely the only investor that could bring the project to life, according to Stratfor, “it has kept its interest in the new waterway as quiet as possible to avoid jeopardizing its ties with other countries in the region.” See: Canal Conundrum | Indo-Pacific Defense Forum
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2019
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  8. Ananda

    Ananda Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for thorough assesment on Kra's Canal project OPSSG. I admit to look more on financial feasibility of this project, rather on Securities issue that might arise.

    Building Suez Canal and Panama Canal means provide substantial alternative distance saving route to southern tip of Africa and South America. While Kra's canal only provide detour that not really substantial in range. The canal at most only provide 2 days (some argue up to 3 days) saving compare to Malaca strait, which don't see it can justified commercial investment. Thus only 'political motive' investment can justified that.

    Off course, if China financing it Thailand as you put will have to bear the debt burden that have 'questionable' commercial return. Make it very hard to justified. Unless China wiling to take 'Investment loss' for the price of 'independent defense' access.

    Still, Thai's as you put will split their country in Budhist and Moeslem parts, with the Canal. This will create situation that are potentially more volatile than what Philipines faces in Mindanao. Perhaps the Moeslem insurgence will let the canal builds, and then attack and harass it after that to force Thai's in giving political solution to them. Not a pretty scenarios for Thai's.

    Anyway, if Thai due go ahead on the project with Chinese backing, then I do see it as sign changing paradigm of Thai's policy to Chinese influence. Because it's a project that are more to the need of Chinese Geopolitical needs, then Thai's commercial justification.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
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  9. OPSSG

    OPSSG Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks for your comments. Let me expand on my point:

    1. Finlandization is the slow process by which one powerful country makes a smaller neighboring country abide by the former's foreign policy rules, while allowing it to keep its nominal independence and its own political system. The reason Finland engaged in Finlandization was primarily to survive. On the other hand, the threat of the Soviet Union was used also in Finland's domestic politics in a way that possibly deepened Finlandization (playing the so-called idänkortti, "east card"). Finland cut a deal with Stalin in the late 1940s, and it was largely respected by both parties—and to the gain of both parties—until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    2. I would say that China has achieved its goals in round 1 (in the period from 2012 to 2016) with regard to its actions in disputed waters off Vietnam and the Philippines. China's highly effective use of 'white ships', as strategy to manage its maritime disputes with its South China Sea neighbours and island building in the South China Sea, results in a win for China. IMHO, the process of Finlandization (in the 2017 to 2021 time frame) has started for two ASEAN countries like the Philippines and Malaysia (viz a viz a rising China). Instead of using a hedging strategy, they have started the process of Finlandization. In this regard, there are 2 relevant updates on the Philippines and Malaysia for the start of their journey:

    One, on 3 Dec 2019, the Philippines welcomed veteran diplomat Huang Xilian as China's new ambassador to the country. Huang said he was "very honored and grateful" to serve in the Philippines, where he felt "back at home." "Since I was a little child, my families have kept telling me that the Philippines which faces China across the sea is our relative with close kinship and cultural bond. Therefore the natural affinity with the Philippines has grown in my heart," he said. Huang likewise expressed his "astonishment" over achievements seen in the Philippine under the Duterte administration. "Neighbors wish each other well, just as loved ones do to each other (see: Chinese new envoy promises to keep boosting Sino-Philippine ties - Xinhua | English.news.cn). Since President Duterte took office, the Philippines has made impressive achievement at various areas.... I have every reason to believe and expect that the country will achieve greater strength and prosperity in the coming years and decades," he added. IMO, the improved relations between Manila and Beijing came after President Duterte failed to enforce an international tribunal ruling back in 2016.​

    Two, on 2 Dec 2019, a defence White Paper was tabled in Dewan Rakyat that aims to revamp the Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) and transform the country’s defence through more comprehensive means. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said several committees would be formed by the government in order to ensure the reform of Malaysia’s defence industry is achieved as planned. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu told a press conference later said that he would propose that the country’s military spending be set at one per cent of the country’s annual GDP. “This was also agreed upon by the opposition MPs in the Dewan Rakyat today (yesterday),” he said. Last year, Malaysia’s GDP stood at US$354.35 billion (RM1.48 trillion). The government had increased the Defence Ministry’s allocation from RM13.9 billion this year to RM15.6 billion next year (See: NST and DWP Tabled and Approved - Malaysian Defence). Mohamad Sabu also addressed the concerns of several quarters and gave an assurance that the DWP would not compromise defence secrets or the country’s sovereignty. In explaining this point, he said there was a difference between the DWP and the existing National Defence Policy (NDP). “The DWP is an open document containing the direction and priorities of defence for a period of 10 years, from 2021 to 2030, spanning the 12th and 13th Malaysia Plans.“As the DWP is an open document, it is accessible to the people.” The 90 page document, however, lacked details on the value of funding needed, details on assets and other specifics on Malaysian defence. Former defence minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein (BN - Sembrong) questioned the general information listed in the White Paper.​

    3. Not sure if the SCMP article on Malaysia even makes sense, as Malaysia’s defence spending is projected to be very low in the 2022 to 2031 time frame (round 3 & 4)SCMP: Great power rivalry a worry as Malaysia unveils first defence white paper. More troubling to me is Malaysia’s in-direct support for a Hamas rocket engineer Dr Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh to operate with impunity in KL (who was assassinated on 21 April 2018 near his residence in KL). In 2019, Malaysia also witnessed a series of successive visits by high-ranking delegations from Hamas, indicating the growing ties between these two parties. Hamas’ most recent visit to Malaysia came under the chairmanship of its former head of office, Khaled Meshaal. The program was crowded with meetings between Hamas’ leaders, the Malaysian government and opposition political leaders, in a rare scene among the movement’s visits to various countries. See also: Hamas considers Malaysia its gateway to Asia and Malaysia to open embassy to Palestine.

    4. In Dec 2019, the Philippine government is supposedly trying to verify — the presence of an aerostat on Mischief Reef. The presence of an aerostat mounted radar enhances China's ability to monitor the Spratly Islands and the surrounding waters. This eye in the sky increase the range for Chinese surveillance systems, including seeing every activity in Philippine-occupied features. It seems as if the Philippine government appears to be always the last to know on what's happening in its own backyard. In reality, they are turning a blind eye for as long as possible (See: ImageSat Intl. on Twitter). Without a capable navy this Finlandization process is inevitable. In the past last 5 years, Pinoys were gifted 3 C-130s (to restore their fleet to 4 aircaft) and 3 Del Pilar class ships by the Americans but only 1 of each still works. The BRP Gregorio del Pilar is out of action until mid-2020 (since hitting a reef in Aug 2018). Until the US Coast Guard helped the Pinoys in Oct 2019 to troubleshoot and repair routine engineering issues of the class, the BRP Andres Bonifacio was not properly maintained, with 5 of the 6 fire fighting pumps not working.

    5. But the term Finlandization does not suit Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, as these are just client states of China without the ability to choose an independent foreign policy for themselves. In contrast, the Philippines and Malaysia are in the process of making an active ‘China choice’ in their respective policies — giving China a guarantee of 5 out of 10 votes within ASEAN by the 2022 to 2026 time frame (see: Building stronger ASEAN-China relations in new era - The Jakarta Post). Without the Americans serving as an effective counter weight or effective leadership by Indonesia as the de facto leader of ASEAN, a ‘China Choice’ is only a matter of time for more ASEAN countries. For example, Dr Mahathir, as Malaysia’s PM visited China twice (August 2018 and April 2019); sang praises about the BRI at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing; successfully renegotiated ECRL, a signature BRI project; and brought back Bandar Malaysia (Read more at Commentary: A change of heart? Under Mahathir, Malaysia makes bold move to embrace China). Given the unresolved maritime tensions (including at Ambalat, the Straits of Malacca and in the South China Sea) between Indonesia and Malaysia, it is no surprise that Malaysia would choose to grow closer to China.

    6. Given the above, I revised my view to 2032 to 2036 (round 5), as period where a miscalculation by one party can occur. During that time, we will look back at 2019 and realise how calm it was, where China was still in 2nd gear. And it is clear that claimant states have started planning to have a response plan for a range of contingencies relating to conflict arising from the South China Sea.

    7. In contrast to the Philippines and Malaysia, I foresee three ASEAN countries that may continue using hedging as their strategy in the 2027 to 2031 time frame (round 4), namely, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia — by being more friendly and growing their ties with the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians, the Indians, the Japanese and the Koreans, where appropriate. Not sure about how to classify Thailand or Brunei, at this time, as they seem not to fit either classification.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2019 at 7:55 AM
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