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ASIAN (H)

Royalty and religion scupper Malaysia’s ascendency to the ICC

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Author: Prashant Waikar, Nanyang Technological University

On 5 April 2019, the Malaysian government announced its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC). This followed Kuala Lumpur’s accession to the Rome Statute — the treaty which established and governs the ICC — only a month earlier. The withdrawal marks the second time that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has abruptly revoked a pledged commitment regarding an international agreement.

Malaysia's Attorney General Tommy Thomas speaks during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin).

In September 2018, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced the government’s intention to ratify all remaining core United Nations instruments related to the protection of human rights. But after facing significant backlash from conservative Malay-Muslims in both parliamentary opposition and civil society, the government backtracked on the announcement in November 2018. Bizarrely, the Johor royalty led the charge in pressuring the government into withdrawing from the Rome Statute by claiming that the treaty undermined the royal institutions.

The Rome Statute covers four major crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes. Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Idris (popularly known as TMJ) claims that ratifying the Rome Statute allows those who oppose the royalty to construct war crimes accusations in order to have the sultans arrested.

But given that the royals have symbolic rather than executive power, the TMJ’s worries are out of place. The ICC is also a court of last resort — legal proceedings can only begin there after all domestic options are exhausted.

The government has refuted the issue. On 27 April 2019, Attorney General Tommy Thomas explained that under the constitutional monarchy system practised in Malaysia it is the government, not the King, that would be held accountable for decisions relating to war. Referring to the four crimes, Thomas said that they were also far removed from the ‘reality’ of a peaceful Malaysia.

A more plausible reason behind the concerns towards the Rome Statute could be that states which become party to the treaty are expected to subsequently pass domestic bills which are compatible with the legal principles of the Rome Statute. The central principle of the treaty is that no individual can be immune from prosecution.

But Thomas has reportedly said that legal immunity for royalty has long been lost, perhaps since the constitutional amendments during Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister three decades ago. These 1993 constitutional amendments may have curbed many of the immunities but nevertheless, articles 181 to 183 of the Malaysian Constitution explicitly state that charges can be brought against a sitting royal (king or sultan) through a special court for those crimes   allegedly committed in a personal capacity.

Yet therefore, a king or sultan operating in an official capacity still receives prosecutorial immunity. To its critics, ratifying the Rome Statute could provide the government an opportunity to completely remove the immunities. The fact that Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister saw confrontation between the royalty and the government serves as sufficient precedent for some to believe that he may be attempting to still further reduce royal influence.

Since Mahathir grudgingly announced his intention to withdraw from the ICC, opposition to the Rome Statute still appears to have gathered new life among certain quarters. Parliamentarians from the opposition United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party argue that, while the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government studied the prospects of ratifying the Statute, the then attorney general cautioned against doing so.  The BN government at the time had apparently figured that it may contravene the Federal Constitution and that the Council of Rulers would need to be consulted.

However, Thomas pointed out that the former Najib administration did in fact decide that Malaysia ought to accede to the Rome Statute but simply never followed through with it. He claims that the PH government was merely continuing a policy decision undertaken by them. Former prime minister Najib Razak responded by stating that PH should look into why BN eventually refrained from pushing through the treaty’s ratification.

On 4 May 2019, a coalition of Muslim non-governmental organisations, the Gerakan Pembela Ummah, organised a rally to protest the Rome Statute. Estimates of participants range from 1000 to 10,000, depending on who to believe. Most were members of Ummah-linked NGOs, UMNO grassroots members and members of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia opposition party.

These groups, which contain pro-royalists, the political opposition, and some Islamic NGOs, characterise the Rome Statute as an attack, not just against the royalty but against Malay-Muslim rights by extension. To beef up this narrative, Ummah used the 4 May rally to simultaneously criticise the Rome Statute as well as the death of firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim. Whereas Ummah contends that Adib, who died from injuries sustained at the Seafield Temple Riots, was a victim of communal violence, the government’s inquest into his death has thus far suggested that he was mortally wounded after a fire truck backed into him. Ummah argues that the government has sought to avoid holding non-Muslims responsible for a Muslim’s death. Connecting these issues effectively reinforced the discourse that the PH government consistently undermines Malay-Muslim rights.

Despite the rally’s limited magnitude, PH inadvertently handed the opposition the opportunity to once again criticise policies as against the rights of Malay-Muslims.

Claims that PH’s tenure threatens Malay-Muslim rights are clearly driven by political motives, but they have been gaining traction. Similar rhetoric will likely be heard in the months ahead, especially since it seems to be effective in forcing PH to backtrack on its reform agenda.

It would be prudent for PH to engage in deeper consultation with various stakeholders before proceeding with potentially divisive policies such as the ratification of the Rome Statute. At the same time, consultations could also mean the policymaking will be slow and potentially held hostage to other issues.

There is no easy solution but one thing known for sure is that the PH government cannot afford too many backtracking episodes without losing its credibility.

Prashant Waikar is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.



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ASIAN (H)

Voters want India to be recognised as a global force

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Author: Aseema Sinha, Claremont McKenna College 

India’s 2019 elections concluded with the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many observers noted that after the Balakot attacks, foreign policy entered the campaign discourse in an unprecedented way. Modi took credit for the strikes in many of his speeches. References were made to the idea that Modi’s government struck Pakistan ‘in their house’. He specifically asked first-time voters to vote on the basis of these strikes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Kansai International Airport ahead of the start of the G20 leaders' summit in Izumisano, Osaka prefecture, Japan, 27 June 2019 (Photo: G20 Osaka Summit Photo/Handout via Reuters).

India’s rise in global status has become important for the masses, especially the youth and middle class. Leaders of the BJP are responding to this change — an India with influence beyond its borders has entered the imagination of voters and parties alike. As the recently installed Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted at a public event soon after his appointment, ‘the large majority of people in this country recognise that India’s standing in the world has gone up and … that this is something that matters to them’. Other parties also need to pay attention to this if they hope to design a serious alternative to the BJP.

This may be the first election in India’s 70-year history that global image and foreign policy has figured centrally during a campaign. Modi, together with Home Affairs Minister and party chief Amit Shah, have regularly referred to the ‘increase of respect for India in global forums’ and the recognition of India’s rising status. While there may be some debate about whether India’s soft power has increased with the Modi government, global attention on India’s foreign policies have been key to his successful election this year.

Modi is genuinely proud of his foreign policy achievements. Leaders in foreign capitals have given him unqualified recognition and status. In his 2019 election, Modi capitalised on increasingly globally-linked sections of Indian society, who he noticed were following and commenting on his foreign activities. The Indian diaspora has also been crucial in supporting this.

What international issues featured in Modi’s campaign speeches? A headline focus was on India’s status as having risen on the world stage. On 21 April at a speech in Patan, north Gujarat (away from the large urban populations of central and southern Gujarat), he took credit for ‘India [becoming] the 4th most powerful nation in the world’ and that ‘India’s strength in the world is visible and stronger under me’ with an ‘influential and powerful’ foreign policy.

In many campaign speeches, he often said that ‘at the G20, there were two meetings: one with Russia, China and India, and one with the United States, Japan and India. What was common in those meetings was India’. Reception for this rhetoric was notably high among both urban and rural audiences.

There is reason to believe that two key sections of the Indian population — the Indian middle class and the youth — are more favourably inclined to these claims about India’s global power. The globally-connected growing middle class are increasingly proud of the international recognition that India now receives. They attribute it largely to Modi’s initiative, even though former prime ministers Narasimha Rao’s 1991–1996 and Manmohan Singh’s 2004–2014 foreign policies also played a role.

Research on young, mostly educated professional voters in Madhya Pradesh supports this growing attitude — one interviewee in Vivan Marwah’s research on Indian millennials argued that ‘there is no one else apart from Modi … Nobody would talk about India abroad, [but] now everyone knows about Modi’. Another suggested ‘if you look at India today, F-16s are being made in India because of his foreign visits’. Some of these perceptions may not be factually correct but voters are beginning to regard India’s global power as important to them.

Public opinion surveys usually do not focus on India’s global image, but now researchers need to tailor such surveys to find out if India’s global image has become an element of support for the BJP. What surveys have found so far is that Modi’s leadership is important for voters. Global visits and India’s rising power appears to be increasingly responsible for his leadership approval.

Amit Shah and Modi may have crafted their campaign strategy with this focus on international status not only to divert attention away from economic problems at home, but also because they find that the increasingly connected youth and middle classes are strongly receptive to such messaging. This population reads the Western press over Facebook and Twitter and digitally follow Modi’s visits abroad.

In response, the BJP campaign team crafted a targeted social media electoral strategy, monitoring social media discussions and tailoring campaign speeches accordingly. There is a strong two-way feedback loop between social media reactions and the BJP’s ‘rising Indian power’ campaign strategy.

When we speak of Indian elections we assume that the current Indian voter is the same as the previous election. But the voters and party strategy are both changing. The Indian ‘domestic world’ — the home in Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World — is increasingly being shaped by external forces. India is becoming a country that now, more than ever, requires an open economic and political framework as domestic governance and global ideas rapidly intertwine.

Such a framework needs to recognise that India has achieved global status and that Indian elections are now shaped, to some yet undetermined extent, by global forces. Questions of how and why the domestic ‘home world’ is beginning now to discuss visions of India’s global placement in the comity of nations need to be asked. Perceptions of India’s global presence and of Modi’s foreign engagements have begun to shape both the BJP’s electoral discourse and domestic perceptions of Modi himself. This has resonated among the youth and the middle class, but it may be a more widespread phenomenon than one may first assume.

Dr Aseema Sinha is the Wagener Family Professor of Comparative Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow at the Department of Government, Claremont McKenna College, California.



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ASIAN (H)

Asian Gifts and Premium Show

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Dates: 
Oct 20, 2019Oct 23, 2019

Opening hours: 
0930

Venue: 
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

Location address: 
1 Expo Dr, Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Country: 
China

Organizer: 
Idea Trade Limited

Show URL: 
www.asiangnp.com

Number of exhibitors: 
1350

Major exhibits: 

1. Aromatic Products
2. Arts and Crafts & Decorative Items
3. Fashion Accessories and Apparel
4. Floral Decoration
5. Giftwarp & Packaging
6. Personal Care, Wellness and Toiletries
7. Premiums
8. Consumer Electronics, Gadgets & IT
9. Stationery, Office, Paper Products
10. Other Gifts and Premiums

Show banner: 

For over two decades, Asian Gifts & Premiums Show, one of the four concurrent theme shows of MEGA SHOW SERIES, taking place from October 20 to 23, 2019, has been the most important sourcing showcase for the broadest range of Asian gifts and premiums in Hong Kong every October. The 2019 edition will again present a strong line-up of over 1,350 exhibitors in 1,800+ booths.

Show Contact
Title: 

Marketing Manager

Name: 
Linda Chan

Telephone: 

(852) 27006726

E-mail: 

cs@comasia.com.hk

Mailing address: 

6/F, Skyline Tower, 39 Wang Kwong Road

City / State / Province: 
Kowloon, Hong Kong

Country: 
China



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ASIAN (H)

‘One Country, Two Systems’ — and deep division

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Author: Peter TY Cheung, University of Hong Kong

The massive demonstrations in early and mid-June 2019 against the amendment of an extradition bill initiated by the Hong Kong authorities epitomises the predicament of governance under ’One Country, Two Systems’.

Beijing thought the appointment of a capable administrator in Carrie Lam — rather than the unpopular CY Leung — as the city’s Chief Executive in 2017 would improve the social and political atmosphere in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Occupy Central movement. But the hasty introduction of this bill by the highly self-confident Lam has unexpectedly triggered the worst political crisis since 1997 within months.

The bill aimed to extradite a young Hong Kong man suspected of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan back to the island, but it would also cover jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty, including the mainland.

The lack of a rendition arrangement with mainland China even after the handover reveals the complexity of the legal issues involved and the enormous gap between the Chinese and Hong Kong legal systems. The Hong Kong people were deeply concerned about demolishing the separation of the two different legal systems without sufficient safeguards in carefully crafted legislation.

In the face of growing opposition toward the bill, Lam secured strong support from Beijing and pro-establishment parties to bulldoze the legislation with little consultation by mid-June.

Despite an estimated 1 million marching on 9 June, Lam’s response was a quick reiteration of the original legislative timetable. This prompted tens of thousands into a siege of the Legislative Council building and neighbouring roads on 12 June, resulting in violent confrontations and a shutdown of the government headquarters. In an attempt to quickly disperse angry protesters, police used force at a scale unprecedented since 1997, leading to widespread public outcry.

The government’s refusal to squarely address such popular concerns provoked another massive march on 16 June. An estimated 2 million people condemned the police’s excessive use of force and its designation of the earlier clashes as ‘riots’. They also demanded the immediate withdrawal of the bill and Lam’s resignation.

No Hong Kong leader has provoked such huge protests and clashes within such a short period of time. Marching on a hot and humid Sunday, the people came to voice their vote of no confidence to an unresponsive government. This massive show of people power has created a collective memory of a vibrant community fighting for its freedoms and rights.

Lam’s public apology and suspension of the legislation on 18 June came too late and could hardly save her fall from grace.

The political appointment system introduced by CH Tung in 2002 to enhance the accountability of principal officials has proven to be a failure — so far no senior official has resigned for their political errors since introduction of the bill. Senior officials, fully supported by Beijing, failed to listen to the voices of a wide segment of the community. They also failed to convince the people of the urgency of the legislation, after Taiwan rejected any extradition under such a bill.

Lam has alienated the community with her determination to pass the bill with a legislature dominated by pro-establishment figures that are not reflective of popular views. Their support for her has now become a serious political liability.

Beijing perceives these marches as yet another attempt by the opposition, and even Western governments, to challenge the authority of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and central governments — and ultimately — to destabilise Hong Kong. With tensions growing between China and the United States on various fronts, Beijing does not want this controversy to become another thorny issue.

It is now clear that it is very difficult — if not impossible — for any Chief Executive to walk the fine line between the different constituencies of Beijing and Hong Kong. The political system designed in the Basic Law failed to provide an effective administration that can simultaneously respond to the demands of the people and secure Beijing’s trust.

This bill was not initiated by Beijing, but securing central support in such a high-profile manner has made it impossible for Lam to retract it on her own. On 21 June, thousands of young Hong Kongers blocked the throughways in the Admiralty area, causing traffic disruptions and another shutdown of the government compound. They later encircled the police headquarters for 15 hours. The police were dangerously sandwiched between an increasingly exasperated population and an ineffective administration.

More protests and public defiance may loom on the horizon unless the government takes decisive action to address the latest demands raised by different sectors of the community. This includes the bill’s full withdrawal, not designating the previous protests as ‘riots’ and establishing an independent inquiry into the whole event.

At the core of Hong Kong people’s resistance is their deep concern with their perceived erosion of freedoms and rights and the blurring of the parameters of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. The still unfolding crisis has again demonstrated the mistrust between Hong Kong and the mainland and the challenges in governing a liberal, pluralistic Hong Kong under an authoritarian one-party state.

It will take a new mindset for both the Chinese and HKSAR governments to address these systemic challenges. The ability of the leadership in both places to explore a pragmatic and innovative solution is unclear, especially when Beijing considers the international environment to be threatening.

Dr Peter TY Cheung is Associate Professor of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong.



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Asian Housewares and Kitchen Show

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Dates: 
Oct 20, 2019Oct 23, 2019

Opening hours: 
0930 am

Venue: 
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

Location address: 
1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Country: 
China

Organizer: 
Comasia Limited

Show URL: 
www.asianhnk.com

Number of exhibitors: 
1200

Major exhibits: 

1. Bathroom
2. Bedroom
3. Cleaning Equipment
4. Home Appliances
5. Hardware, DIY, House Improvements and Maintenance
6. Household Products
7. Kitchen & Dining
8. Pet Care
9. Storage and Display
10. Antique Reproductions
11. Artwork
12. Furniture
13. Garden, Outdoor, Lawn, Patio and Terrace 14. Lighting
15. Rugs, Mats and Flooring
16. Soft Furnishings and Home Textiles
17. Wall and Window Décor
18. Glassware Trends
19. Floral Decoration
20. Ornaments and Interior Accessories
21. Other Housewares, Décor & Home
22. Home Textiles
23. Bedroom textile
24. Carpets & Tapestries
25. Embroidered Products
26. Kitchen & Bathroom Textiles
27. Fabrics
28. Kitchen Appliances
29. Air-Conditioners & Ventilation Equipment 30. Home Cleaning Appliances
31. Electrical Healthcare Products
33. Other Electrical Appliances

Show banner: 

For over two decades, Asian Housewares & Kitchen Show, being one of the MEGA SHOW SERIES concurrent events, has been the key showcase and sourcing hub for Asian housewares & kitchenware in Hong Kong every October. The 2019 edition sets to stage again a strong line-up of over 1,200 exhibitors to present their best offers in 1,600+ booths.

Show Contact
Title: 

Marketing Manager

Name: 
Linda Chan

Telephone: 

(852) 27006726

E-mail: 

cs@comasia.com.hk

Mailing address: 

16/F, Skyline Tower, 39 Wang Kwong Road

City / State / Province: 
Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong

Country: 
China



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ASIAN (H)

China’s ‘social+’ approach to soft power

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Author: Haiqing Yu, RMIT

The term ‘soft power’ — a benign concept used to measure a country’s attractiveness or its ability to influence other countries’ public audiences — has been taken up by Chinese cultural and political elites since the mid-2000s. The term ‘strong cultural power’ gained currency in the 2010s as an alternative characterisation of China’s cultural soft power.

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma: leading ‘massive markets in social media and social commerce’ (Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters).

Counting nuclear arsenals and submarines and measuring GDP and economic growth have been supplemented to some degree by measuring the attractiveness of a country, its culture, values and policies. China’s soft power can take a myriad of shapes and forms. Its instruments include Confucius Institutes, globalised media flagships (including Xinhua and the China Global Television Network), sports, film, educational and cultural industries — all traditionally state-controlled agencies and enterprises.

Increasingly, we have witnessed the accelerating possibilities offered by China’s private sector, particularly its digital and high-tech companies. These have, to some degree, relaxed the limits of Beijing’s efforts to ‘let the world know and understand China from a Chinese perspective’ and build a positive image of China.

Narratives about China’s rise and the ‘China dream’ should now also be understood  in terms of the role China’s private sector plays to expand Chinese presence and influence in the Asia Pacific and globally. Through such private diplomacy efforts, China’s digital enterprises have built up massive markets in social media and social commerce.

This diplomacy has been led by Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, joined by many digital unicorns and high-tech start-ups, including ByteDance (known for Toutiao and TikTok), iQiyi, Meituan, Didi Chuxing and Pinduoduo. These companies help to spread Chinese influence overseas, mostly to countries with large Chinese diasporas. As they become more entangled with global venture capital and stock markets as well as politically and culturally ‘odourless’, they add a ‘social’ dimension and approach to Chinese soft power.

China is not only the world’s largest internet and mobile phone market — with more than 800 million internet users, 98 per cent of whom are mobile — but also the biggest social media and social commerce market. Its social media landscape is incredibly diverse, rich and vibrant. It is also unique in having no space for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, which are all blocked.

Most people have heard of the two pillars of Chinese social media, WeChat and Weibo. WeChat, a social messaging platform, has over one billion monthly active users. Weibo, a micro-blogging platform, has 600 million registered users. Most people have also heard of the two heavyweights in Chinese e-commerce, Alibaba and JD.com. But there are hundreds of competitive Chinese players and apps in instant messaging, social e-commerce, news, entertainment, video and photo sharing, live streaming, gaming and lifestyle networking.

One feature of Chinese social media platforms is that they are all racing to be the all-in-one super-app. On most Chinese social media apps, people can chat, post, shop, transfer cash, hail a ride, book trains, flights and hotels or donate to charity. Approximately 90 per cent of digital financial transactions are made through the two major digital payment platforms that are spearheading the emergence of a cashless society: AliPay and WeChat Pay.

Chinese social media platforms are also pioneering a new type of business model. This model is known as ‘social plus’ (social+). It combines social networking and entertainment in the context of e-commerce transactions. Apart from the WeChat, Weibo and NetEase heavyweights, rising stars like Pinduoduo and Xiaohongshu have enjoyed increasing consumer popularity.

Chinese social media companies are crucial in China’s internationalisation and soft-power initiatives. They follow Chinese travellers and migrants, form local partnerships, and make strategic investments in local R&D facilities and tech startups to expand the Chinese digital ecosystem globally, often in competition (but also in collaboration) with established and emerging international and local players.

China’s technological capitalists — the CEOs, senior managers, scientists and engineers of the new technology sector — are the face of the newfound power of the digital economy. The mobile, wealthy, networked and English-speaking Chinese middle and upper classes are the representatives of the new digital China. These corporate players, social media users and social commerce ‘prosumers’ help to spread the Chinese digital sphere of influence across the Asia Pacific region where there is a large Chinese population, and increasingly along BRI routes.

An openness to and an enthusiasm for technological development, digital lifestyles and the social+ business model is largely responsible for China’s present-day reputation as innovative. The private sector, represented by digital and high-tech companies, has been making more effective inroads into unknown and difficult terrain than the traditional tools of China’s soft power. China’s private and digital sectors are in effect supporting a social+ approach to soft power.

A social+ approach to soft power is not without obstacles, however. China’s infamous censorship regime and its record in co-opting the private sector have led to concerns, especially in the West, about freedom of speech and possible security risks. This underpins contemporary debate over the ‘authoritarian threat’ or ‘digital authoritarianism’ that digital China could present.

Chinese social and digital platform capitalists have quietly drummed up business sales and market shares outside China. They represent both the opportunities and challenges of China’s social+ approach to soft power in the digital era. How to present a benign image of Chinese digital civilisation in the face of the malign mirror-image of Chinese sharp power is a challenge for these digital capitalists. How to balance economic imperatives with the political demands of both national and local powers in domestic and international markets are further challenges — ones which are unavoidable for any serious player in the global digital economy.

Haiqing Yu is an Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum QuarterlyChinese realitiesVol. 11, No. 2.



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Japan should mediate in the Persian Gulf

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Author: Mari Nukii, Japan Institute of International Affairs

Tensions between Iran and the United States are escalating rapidly. Japan has good relations with all countries at odds with each other in the Middle East, putting it in a favourable position to mediate efforts for avoiding war in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran, 12 June 2019 (Photo: Reuters).

In 2018, the US Trump administration announced plans to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — and apply maximum pressure on Iran until it acquiesces to twelve demands. Iran rejected these demands, which include terminating ballistic missile development, accepting unrestricted inspections of nuclear-related and military facilities, and ceasing support for ‘terrorist organisations’.

Iran has so far not agreed to talks, adopting a policy of ‘strategic patience’ — abiding by the nuclear agreement and garnering favourable international public opinion while waiting for the Trump administration to leave office. Still, the US government’s two-stage resumption of economic sanctions on 7 August and 5 November 2018 dealt a heavy blow to the Iranian economy. Iran’s currency has fallen to less than one-third its previous value. The inflation rate has risen to about 40 per cent.

Impatient with an Iran that refuses to surrender, hard-liners in the US administration have ramped up the pressure since April. On 8 April, the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist organisation — the first ever case of the United States assigning such a designation to regular military forces. The US Department of Defense and the CIA reportedly opposed the policy course for fear of attacks against US forces deployed throughout the Middle East. But Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton pushed it through.

In an effort to reduce Iran’s petroleum revenues, the United States on 22 April ended waivers that had let eight countries — Japan among them — buy Iranian crude oil without facing US sanctions. 5 May then saw a security team centred around Bolton dispatch the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike force and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf, as well as Patriot missiles. Scepticism is high over the purported rationale for the military build-up: alleged collusion between Iran and al-Qaeda, as well as Israeli intelligence of apparently imminent attacks on US forces by Iran-backed militias.

There is now no one left within the Trump administration ready to block the anti-Iranian hard-liners and disputes in the Middle East are intensifying. Incidents that are too convenient to be mere coincidence continue to occur. For example, on 12 May, four ships, including two tankers from Saudi Arabia, were attacked off the coast of the UAE. US officials immediately denounced the attacks as the work of Iran. An assessment made by a Norwegian insurance company strongly suspected IRGC involvement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on 8 May responded to US pressure by announcing that Iran would partially suspend its compliance with the JCPOA. If the other JCPOA signatories failed to fulfil their obligations with respect to financial transactions and crude oil trading within 60 days, Iran would begin phasing out its adherence to other obligations. Though Iran’s response can be seen as a restrained one, the United States levelled new sanctions targeting iron, aluminium and copper trading.

When it was reported on 13 May that the Pentagon — on orders from Bolton — had put together a plan to dispatch an additional 120,000 US troops, Trump publicly ruled out war, stating that he only wants to negotiate with Iran’s political leaders. Trump’s statement sparked speculation about a possible rupture between Bolton together with Pompeo — the most rigid hard-liners against Iran — and Trump. During a press conference at the start of the 27 May Japan–US summit, Trump expressed his hopes for Japanese mediation.

Meanwhile in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that his country had no intention of going to war but would respond if attacked. To avoid an accidental clash in the Persian Gulf the Iranian government appears to be desperately seeking out a channel of dialogue through several routes — one of those being Japan. For his part, Trump could gratify his ego and those of his supporters by avoiding war and becoming the first US president since the Iranian Revolution to meet directly with an Iranian counterpart.

Japan presently enjoys good relations with both countries and could offer the most suitable setting for mediation. During the Japan–US summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed mediating and was, in mid-June, the first Japanese prime minister in 40 years to visit Iran. On the same day as when Abe met Khamenei, a Japanese tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Although the United States quickly blamed Iran for attacks, Iran firmly denied it and Japan also refrained from making a quick conclusion.

The Japanese mediation attempt unfortunately faced harsh sabotage from groups who don’t want Iran and the United States to improve relations. But Japan should not give up its efforts. One possible approach would be to, at the 28–29 June Osaka G20 summit, discuss how to de-escalate the tensions in the Persian Gulf and to protect the safe oil supply route. Also, Abe could try to persuade Trump not to provoke Iran. And, if he really desires a direct negotiation with Iran, then he should be cooperating with the JCPOA signatory countries and main importers of Iranian oil, such as India, Turkey and South Korea.  The US maximum pressure policy on Iran seems to be exacerbating the situation.

Given that Japan imports 90 per cent of its petroleum from the Middle East, this is an issue essential to both the peace and security of the Persian Gulf and the stability of the Japanese economy. By demonstrating a firm commitment to supporting the Iran nuclear deal and respecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, Japan will also send a clear message of opposition to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Dr Mari Nukii is Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), Tokyo.

A version of this article was originally published here in JIIA’s Strategic Comments



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ASIAN (H)

Southeast Asia’s plastic waste problem

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Author: Danny Marks, City University of Hong Kong

Seventy-five per cent of globally exported waste ends up in Asia. But since July 2017 — when China began to ban imports of plastic waste — Southeast Asia in particular has become a dumping ground for wealthier countries’ waste. After China’s ban, the amount of plastic waste imported to countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia more than doubled.

Fishermens’ boats are seen at a beach covered with plastic waste in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam, 4 June 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

As the amount of foreign waste accumulates and resentment grows among local populations, Southeast Asian governments are beginning to refuse to act as the world’s dumpsite. Both Malaysia and the Philippines recently announced plans to return waste from Western countries that had improper labelling. Malaysia and the Philippines have already returned waste to Spain and South Korea, respectively. Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam recently restricted plastic waste imports, with a complete ban planned for in the coming years.

Do these return shipments and restrictions signal that waste management is changing and improving in the region? Yes and no. There is increasing awareness of the environmental and social problems of waste — particularly plastic. As highlighted in a report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, across Southeast Asia waste is causing tainted water, failed crops and respiratory illnesses. Fish are ingesting plastic. Dead whales are turning up in Thailand and Indonesia with many kilograms of plastic in their stomachs. These various factors contribute to the recent refusals or restrictions in accepting additional waste from high-income countries.

On another positive note, the Basel Convention — a treaty governing global movement of hazardous waste — was amended in May 2019 to make it illegal for unrecyclable plastic waste to be exported to developing countries without their consent. But the United States, the world’s biggest plastic waste exporter, is not a party to the convention and the new rules will not take effect until 2020. The Convention’s proponents hope that the changes will force high-income countries to address their own waste problems, rather than avoiding them by saddling developing countries.

Less positively, some Asian countries still do not have strict restrictions on waste. Indonesia still permits the importation of plastic waste to support industrial operations. Statistics reveal that the amount of plastic waste and scrap the country imported in 2018 jumped by 141 per cent.

A lot of waste is also illegally entering Southeast Asian countries. An audit found that almost one-third of waste imported into East Java, for instance, was labelled as paper scraps despite actually being illegal scrap plastic. This means that these piecemeal bans could have counterproductive effects. For example, Indonesia’s waste processing is worse than in many other places but, as the NGO Balifokus projects, the country will soon become the largest importer of waste.

A larger problem is that the changes that are needed to drastically improve these countries’ plastic management have yet to occur. Single-use plastic consumption is still worryingly high in these countries. And comprehensive bans or taxes, such as on single-use bags, are few to non-existent. Voluntary measures have often been promoted, but they still have limited effectiveness. Thailand, for example, still uses around 200 billion plastic bags each year.

These countries’ waste management is also woefully inadequate. Recycling rates throughout the world, but especially in Southeast Asia, remain low. In many places there is no separation of household waste. Littering remains pervasive. At the household and community scales, inadequate infrastructure contributes significantly to the plastic pollution problem. Rubbish bins are often too small, uncovered and infrequently collected. 

Many Southeast Asian dumpsites are unprepared to deal with the burgeoning volumes of plastic waste. Of Thailand’s 27.8 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, at least 27 per cent was improperly disposed, including via open dumping. Much of this plastic ended up in waterways, then flowing into oceans. More than half of Indonesia’s landfills are open dumpsites. In these sites, waste is piled improperly — increasing the risk of floods, fires and trash avalanches. This has led to deaths in the Philippines, Indonesia and India.

Some waste is also illegally incinerated, releasing toxic gases that harm human health. Policymakers in Southeast Asia have yet to prioritise waste management. They need to significantly invest in improving waste infrastructure and facilities.

If Southeast Asian countries no longer accept waste from high-income countries, where will the waste go? Only 9 per cent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled. Western countries have few easy solutions to deal with plastic waste, as it is often too costly for them to recycle it themselves. Unlike China, they cannot readily convert waste into new products.

Ultimately, manufacturers need to make products that can be better recycled. But some materials, such as plastic wrap film and composite materials, cannot be reprocessed easily. Western countries must also find ways to reduce their consumption of single-use plastic. The good news is that Canada is leading the way — earlier this month the country announced that it will ban a number of ‘harmful’ single-use plastic products by 2021.

Dr Danny Marks is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.



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ASIAN (H)

The history of securitisation in Xinjiang

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Author: Hasan H Karrar, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Two developments in Xinjiang are being felt across Central Asia. The first is the internment of around one million Xinjiang Muslims — mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs — in what can only be understood as forced cultural assimilation. The second is the outbound flow of capital and technology from China through Xinjiang by way of so-called continental bridges and economic corridors. Although the bridges and corridors idea predate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has since been brought under President Xi Jinping’s signature plan for global connectivity.

Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Huocheng County in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 3 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

Itinerant traders had shuttled goods between Xinjiang and neighbouring countries since the 1980s, but the numbers of such traders continue to drop. Following the BRI, localised border trade has been eclipsed by Chinese corporations and state-owned enterprises directing investment to distant locales. While the BRI is held up as a win–win by Beijing and by countries eager for investment, it inevitably entails other countries entering into long-term — and complex — relationships with China that can extend beyond economic cooperation and diplomacy.

A long view of Chinese–Central Asian relations helps to illustrate, in particular, how Beijing’s approach to internal security actually stemmed from its economic policy and regional diplomacy. This is evidenced in three significant shifts on internal security in Xinjiang in 1988, 2001 and again in 2005.

The first of these shifts appeared towards the end of the 1980s. When that decade began, China was turning the page on the Cultural Revolution. Although there had been isolated unrest in Xinjiang in the early 1980s that fractured along a Han–Uyghur line, for the Chinese leadership the question was over how to integrate Xinjiang — an infrastructure-deficient region — and Xinjiang’s Muslim populations into the development and modernisation envisioned by Deng Xiaoping. This was described in official parlance as a matter of ‘nationalities work’ (minzu gongzuo). It was not a security question.

The Cultural Revolution years had also seen an escalation in hostility between China and the Soviet Union, resulting in thousands of localised border skirmishes. In 1982 there was the first hint of rapprochement, and on 16 November 1983 regional cross-border exchanges resumed when the Chinese took delivery of Soviet-made trucks at Khorgos. This was regulated barter trade; in 1983 it totalled US$24 million and was a confidence-building step between the Cold War antagonists. Xinjiang Muslims remained insulated from these initial contacts.

The earliest suggestion indicating a shift in thinking on internal security appears to date to 27 August 1988, when the Xinjiang Daily reported that separatist elements abroad were undermining China’s national solidarity. This was likely a reference to Central Asia; between 1986 and 1988, border trade went from the purview of provincial authorities to county and prefectural officials. Consequently, border trade boomed. By now perestroika had also reached Central Asia and there was little to stop ideas at the border. Put differently, within half a decade cross-border trade had led to concerns over internal security.

The concern over separatists dovetailed with Beijing’s caution following the independence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, along or just beyond the border with Xinjiang. In the 1990s the emphasis shifted from ‘nationalities work’ to ‘nationalities problem’ (minzu wenti).

In relations with Central Asia, Beijing was aided by the Shanghai Five grouping whereby, in 1996, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan implemented confidence-building measures along their mutual borders. By 1998, the Shanghai Five grouping took up regional security cooperation and, with the addition of Uzbekistan, became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. These multilateral frameworks provided a mechanism for coordinating security. They also offered a shared lexicon, notably through the ‘three forces’ threatening SCO members: terrorism, separatism and extremism.

The second shift on security in Xinjiang appeared after 11 September 2001. Beijing began to ascribe instability in Xinjiang to transnational forces operating out of Afghanistan, also running amok in Pakistan’s border areas and southern Central Asia. Uyghurs were said to have been fighting alongside the Taliban (and were later said to have fought in Central Asia, Pakistan and Syria).

In a landmark declaration on 11 September 2002, following lobbying from Beijing and Washington, the United Nations added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to its list of terrorist organisations. Doing so ascribed a rigid organisation structure to Uyghur resistance to Chinese state policies, which had previously manifested across a very broad spectrum. ETIM now became a legitimate label and those accused of being within its ranks were seen little differently to al-Qaeda or its associated franchises around the world.

The third shift occurred in 2005, after Uzbek security forces fired on protestors in Andijan on 13 May, killing hundreds. In the wake of international condemnation, Beijing threw its support behind the embattled Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. The SCO demanded the dismantling of a US military base in Uzbekistan, effectively beginning the rollback of the US security presence in Central Asia. After Andijan, Beijing was in a stronger position to set the narrative not just on internal security but also on regional security, tacitly supported by its Central Asian neighbours. It continues to enjoy this support.

This is not to say that Central Asian states have been passive recipients of a security framework imposed from China; on the contrary, use of categories such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ have periodically allowed Central Asian leaders to quell opposition. Still, large-scale internment of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang appears to have generated wariness across the border.

As new regional developments unfold, Central Asia has little leverage on China. Economic exchanges, which appeared insignificant in 1983, today add up to heavy Chinese investment in Central Asia’s energy sector, resource extraction and infrastructure development. Central Asia finds itself inextricably dependent on China.

Dependency on China is also on display in Central Asia’s informal entrepôt bazaars, where every year billions in Chinese-manufactured goods are re-exported to Russia, and from which the Central Asian elite extract the rent that helps them stay in power.

How much can these states hope to influence Beijing? Probably very little, and as the latest of the Silk Roads travels beyond Central Asia, countries drawn by all that China has to offer should consider the turns such paths can take over the long term.

Dr Hasan H. Karrar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He is author of The New Silk Road Diplomacy: China’s Central Asian Foreign Policy since the Cold War, University of British Columbia Press.

A longer version of this article originally appears in the next edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly Chinese realities Vol. 11, No. 2.



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Identity politics aren’t going anywhere in Indonesia

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Authors: Adri Wanto and Leonard C. Sebastian, RSIS

During his first term, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was repeatedly accused of being anti-Islam. To counter the accusations, Jokowi chose traditionalist Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Ma’ruf Amin’s main contribution has been to negate the use of identity politics based on religion against Jokowi. Ma’ruf Amin is a spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia. But the choice of Ma’ruf Amin has greater political ramifications.

A woman stands in front of a police's barricade after a riot outside Indonesia's Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) headquarters following the announcement of election results in Jakarta, Indonesia, 24 May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

Over his first term, Jokowi faced protests from hard-line Islamic groups for his close relationship with Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta sentenced to two years prison for religious blasphemy. Jokowi also banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a group that supported an Islamic caliphate. Jokowi’s anti-Islam stigma resulted in a swathe of conservative and hard-line Islamic groups giving their support to rival presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

A long-standing cultural and theological divergence between moderate traditionalist Islamic groups (Sarungan) and hard-line conservative Islamic groups (Cingkrangan), influenced by Wahhabi–Salafi interpretations, have escalated into the electoral and political domains. The incumbent’s camp associated itself with the Sarungan groups, while in contrast Cingkrangan groups had been drawn by default to Prabowo.

The official result released by the General Election Commission on 21 May 2019 confirmed that President Jokowi won the election with 55.5 per cent of the votes against Prabowo’s 44.5 per cent.

Jokowi’s victory occurred because of his sweeping support among the Sarungan groups of the Muslim community in Central and East Java, while Prabowo performed well in the regions of West Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi where the Islamic discourse is dominated by the Cingkrangan groups. Due to hostilities by Cingkrangan-aligned factions towards minorities in provinces with significant Christian populations such as in North Sumatra, North Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia as well as in Hindu-dominated Bali, Jokowi also gained the majority vote in these regions.

Despite Jokowi’s double-digit landslide victory, Prabowo is claiming ‘massive cheating and irregularities’ and supporters are calling for a so-called ‘people power’ movement. Consequently, Prabowo supporters clashed with security forces in Jakarta. They set fire to a police dormitory and vehicles, eight protestors were killed including three teenagers and over 700 were hurt in the ensuing street violence over 21–22 May 2019.

The outbreak of violence after the release of the official election results has to be understood within the context of growing polarisation in Indonesia’s Muslim society, especially between Sarungan and Cingkrangan groups.

The internet provides an unprecedented breadth of resources in interpreting Islam. The growth of its use among Indonesian Muslims has increased the dissemination of various forms of Islam. Indonesian Muslims now have access to diverse opinions on Islamic thought from numerous and often spurious sources. In the past, Muslims would observe fatwas from Mujtahid, authoritative scholars who exercise independent reasoning (ijtihad) in interpreting Islamic law, either from NU or Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia after NU. Now, through the internet, any individual is able to become a freelance Mujtahid. The internet has challenged the rigorous reasoning and established hierarchies of formal Islamic institutions in Indonesia.

Over the past two decades, the use of the internet for religious preaching has been hijacked by hard-line, conservative and often informal Islamic groups. The defining characteristic of these conservative groups is their literal interpretation of Islam. According to Hadith, for instance, Muslim men should wear trousers slightly above the ankle (‘Cingkrangan’).

But by contrast, Sarungan groups emphasise ‘the process’ of reaching fundamental understandings of the Quran. Sarungan groups use the method of ta’wil as the means to harmonise Quranic meaning with their own doctrines, contending that an esoteric or metaphysical understanding of the text proves to be better practice, rather than interpreting it literally.

For Sarungan groups, isbaal (below the ankle garments) is a matter of ijtihad. The majority of scholars agree that it is not forbidden (haram), unless the motivation is borne of arrogance. These Sarungan groups are based on formal Islamic education (pesantren) and are characterised by their wearing of sarongs in daily life, similar to the attire worn by Ma’ruf Amin.

These two groups now dominate Islamic political discourse in Indonesia. The Sarungan groups are known as ardent advocates of Islam Nusantara, a distinctive blend of Islam that has undergone interaction, contextualisation, indigenisation, interpretation and vernacularisation within Indonesia’s socio-cultural milieu.

Islam Nusantara is a product of Islamic theology promoting moderation, compassion, anti-radicalism, inclusiveness and tolerance. On the opposite spectrum are the Cingkrangan groups that emphasise theology inspired by Salafi–Wahhabi fundamentalist movements.

During the 2019 election, Islam in Indonesia experienced commodification, where religion was exploited for political campaign purposes by both sides of the presidential race. The contestation between the Sarungan and Cingkrangan groups during the campaign has now made religion a source of disunity for Muslim society in Indonesia.

The consequence of using religion for campaign purposes, starting with the 2014 election, means that religious identity politics is here to stay, with divisive and debilitating consequences for Indonesia’s future.

Adri Wanto is an Associate Research Fellow of the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Associate Professor Leonard C. Sebastian is the Coordinator of the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, the University of Canberra.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.



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