Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Another ASEAN Failure

ASEAN's recent summit, which was hosted by Myanmar, this year’s chair, occurred at a crucial time for Southeast Asia. China is engaged in a standoff with both Vietnam and the Philippines—two ASEAN members—involving incidents in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is angry that China moved an oil rig, along with dozens of ships to protect the rig, into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and near the Paracel Islands, which it claims. China has even gone so far as to ram Vietnamese vessels in the area as well as to use water cannons against them. These actions by China triggered significant protests by Vietnamese citizens, some of whom also trashed Chinese-owned shops. Meantime, China is upset that the Philippines has arrested Chinese fisherman for poaching sea turtles in the Sea.
In light of these incidents, this recent ASEAN summit has been compared to the summit that took place in the summer of 2012, when China and the Philippines were engaged in a brouhaha over the Scarborough Shoal, which China eventually seized. Back then, in 2012, the Sino-Philippine dispute basically paralyzed, even fractured, the summit, to the point that the participants couldn’t even agree to a final communique—something that had never happened to that point in ASEAN's history. The major stumbling block was that some members wanted the statement to address the Scarborough Shoal fiasco, while others—notably, Cambodia—refused the idea. A post-hoc 6-point plan was finally drafted and agreed to—with a major assist from Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegwa—so as to save some organizational face.

By contrast, the 2014 summit, and especially the final statement, was championed, in some quarters, as an improvement over what happened in 2012. The Myanmar Times described the final statement as a show of unity. Bill Hayton wrote that "ASEAN took an exceptional stance." According to Carl Thayer, “The statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers was issued as a standalone document and not buried in the longer summary of proceedings. This is significant…. It highlights ASEAN unity on the fact that ongoing developments in the South China Sea are a source of serious concern because they have raised tensions. Even Foreign Minister Marty declared that, "in this case, Asean's state of mind, in terms of rallying around Vietnam in this situation, was instant and immediate."

Yes, in the final statement, ASEAN members did mention the tensions in the South China Sea, expressing "serious concern" at the events there and encouraging all parties to "exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force."

Perhaps this statement is a relative step forward, though it's hardly enough to be useful. Joshua Kurlantzick sums it up best: "At the summit, ASEAN countries more favorably inclined to China and not involved in the Sea, including Cambodia, pressed to make sure that any statement on the South China Sea remained as weak as all the prior statements ASEAN has released."

As evidence, China—widely perceived as the troublemaker in both incidents—was not explicitly mentioned. The statement doesn’t place any blame on China. It doesn’t broach the idea of repercussions in response to further flagrant behavior by any party. It fails to state how ASEAN might go about diffusing tensions in the South China Sea. The only thing the statement did was demonstrate that the organization could temporarily muffle in-fighting enough to take a milquetoast position on a national security of importance to two of its members. Quite frankly, I’m not impressed.
At this point it should be fairly clear that ASEAN's relations with China put the future viability of the organization in serious question. There are two major problems. First, too many ASEAN countries don’t want to anger China, for fear of jeopardizing commercial relations with the economically powerful and attractive Red Panda. Second, several ASEAN members, like Myanmar and Cambodia, have close ties with China and are more than willing to do Beijing’s bidding.
The implications of a reluctant, non-confrontational, divided and passive ASEAN are fairly straightforward. Such behavior gives China carte blanche to wage aggression in the region’s seas. ASEAN risks being bullied and pushed aside by China. Sensing weakness and disunity, there’s a good chance that China might even aim to permanently divide and fracture the organization on China-centric issues. After all, China has already invested considerable time and effort in dividing ASEAN members as a way to protect and further its interests. Should any or all of things happen, ASEAN's prestige and its perceived level of importance will markedly decline. In that case, it will be viewed as an interesting talking workshop and a nascent economic community, but nothing more than that—in short, a low-budget EU, an organization which is far less influential than the collective might of its members would indicate.
We might also see a broader, more lasting consequence emerge from the way ASEAN currently does business. Specifically, if ASEAN doesn’t quickly step out of its shell, it will, in effect, box itself in long-term, limiting its presence and influence in Southeast Asia and throughout Asia. Passive, reactive behavior could easily lead ASEAN down the path of becoming irrelevant on regional security issues, even on issues not involving China. Passive, reactive positions and statements become self-reinforcing over time. They become a pattern of behavior, entrenched. Officials get used to taking weak stances, issuing tepid statements. This becomes the norm, and it’s difficult to break out of this narrow box of thinking and acting.
My hope is that we're not already at this point. Because if we are, then it's difficult to envision how ASEAN could ever be a productive organization on security and defense issues.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Modi's Foreign Policy

The Indian legislative elections have wrapped up and the results were released Friday. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, are the big winners. The BJP won a majority of the seats in the lower house of the legislature (the Lok Sabha)—the largest single-party win in 30 years.

At this point, Asia analysts and scholars are now scrambling to figure out what a Modi administration means for international and regional politics and security. This is an important matter. After all, Modi will preside over a rising power—a country that’s the 2nd largest in the world, a top 5 economy and a nuclear power—that sits squarely in a strategically important area. To the east is an increasingly aggressive and dominant China, to the west is the chaotic Af-Pak region, and a considerable portion of the country is surrounded by the commercially important Indian Ocean.

Over the past decade, under the rule of the Indian National Congress Party, India’s foreign and security policy has been fairly lethargic. At the turn of the 21st century, India was talked about in the breath as China, as a likely future great power in international relations. Since that time, China has left India in the dust. Its growth, while still solid, has slowed, especially relative to the Red Panda. Its military power is largely reliant on its nuclear capabilities; otherwise, India is a second rate military power.  And in its foreign policy, overall, India has punched far below its weight in the world.

India has taken a back seat to others. It’s effectively let china, along with the U.S., run East Asia. It’s failed to play a meaningful role in Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan are still tense and unstable, and the Kashmir question is still far from resolved. India hasn’t taken up leadership in regional or world bodies. Moreover, its foreign policy has been significantly inward-focused. For instance, India has shown concern for important transnational issues like terrorism in very narrow terms, only to the extent that it is impacted by those issues.

A Modi administration will likely seek to change some of this foreign policy stagnation. The running theme coming out of India is that Modi will attempt to open up India further, orienting the country more outward to the rest of the world. As for what specifically we should expect from Modi, below is my quick take on several topics.

1. The economy will be a major focus for Modi. Word is that Modi will aim to promote economic growth via greater foreign trade and investment. This should be no surprise, as he was elected on a platform to help India’s economy rebound from sub-five percent growth. In fact, markets responded very positively to the announcement of Modi’s win, with India’s stock market and the rupee posting big gains.

2. A country that’s as large and diverse as India will necessarily lean on decentralized politics and policymaking. But it also seems Indian leaders think that this is a key way to stimulate national development. Modi wants to take this a step further. He is a big believer in the idea that states are the laboratories of economic experimentation. It’s one of the reasons, supporters will say, Modi was so successful in Gujarat: he took the bull by the horns and implemented an array of fairly popular and effective policies. Many anticipate his importing this so-called “Gujarat model” to national politics by giving them greater economic freedom and flexibility.

He also plans empower state governments in the formulation and execution of national foreign policy. In particular, according to Sudha Ramachandran, Modi has argued:
states that have special links with other countries, whether due to shared borders, historical links, or cultural commonalities should be consulted in framing policies and crafting strategies with that country. He has spoken of India’s 30 states as partners in his government’s execution of foreign policy and of wanting to entrust them with “the task of forging beneficial foreign relations with at least 30 corresponding partner countries.” 
 3. Japan will become even more central to India’s Look East policy. Already, it’s an important part of of indian foreign policy, as India searches for regional partners who might be willing to balance against China. But in the case of Modi, Japan might hold special meaning. After all, he cultivated years of good ties to Japan while in office in Guajart. Additionally, as Ramachandran claims, “Not only is it a rich non-Western country in Asia, and thus more acceptable to the BJP’s thinking, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own nationalistic and militaristic policies will strike a chord with Modi."

4. It’s possible we’ll observe a more muscular Indian foreign policy, especially with respect to Pakistan and China. On Pakistan, Modi has criticized the Congress Party’s “soft” approach to Pakistani terrorism. In fact, he’s said he’d consider conducting cross border anti-terror activities, without Islamabad’s permission. And on China, there is speculation that Modi might take a tougher line on Chinese incursions into Indian territory.

That said, it’s entirely conceivable that this strident rhetoric likely won’t manifest itself in policy. First, the tough talk is part of election politics. Second, once in office, like most leaders, he’ll find it unwise to escalate disputes with fellow nuclear powers. Third, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Manjari Chatterjee Miller makes an interesting point that, for the past several decades, sharp changes Indian foreign policy rarely occur. Instead, there has been a rather remarkable consistency across time in foreign policy, particularly with respect to broad themes and strategies.

5. It will be interesting to see how India’s relationship with the U.S. develops going forward. For almost a decade, the U.S. has had in place a travel ban on Modi because, as chief minister, he was seen as complicit in the infamous 2002 riots in Gujarat, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims. (He’s been cleared of wrongdoing by India’s judicial system, though he has never apologized for the violence on his watch.) The riots, in combination with a particular ideological strain in the BJP, has fostered the belief--among some in the West and Pakistan, but also within India's minority populations--that Modi is a hardline Hindu nationalist.

It was only late last year, once it became clear that Modi was a formidable national political force, that Team Obama began the process of establishing outreach to Modi. More recently, American officials have declared that they’re ready to do business with a Modi administration, saying that “the United States has welcomed every leader of this vibrant democracy, and that a democratically elected leader of India will be a welcome partner.” And today Obama congratulated Modi on his win and invited him to the White House "to strengthen our bilateral relationship." A good start, to be sure, but it remains to be seen whether Modi will hold a grudge against Washington.

There are additional factors we must take into consideration. For instance, the historical relationship between the two countries has been uneven, at times characterized by suspicion and distrust. After all, during the cold war, despite its so-called non-aligned status, India cultivated solid ties to the USSR, America’s arch foe, to use as a bulwark against China.  Of course, it also didn’t help that the U.S. sided with strongly anti-communist Pakistan, India's longtime rival. Once India opened up economically in the 1990s, the U.S. cautiously embraced it, though American ties to Pakistan remained a sore spot, preventing the two largest democracies from establishing dovish relations. George W. Bush tried to advance the relationship further. This was especially evident in the 2005 U.S.-India brokered civilian nuclear deal.
But it’s not only historical factors that are important here, but also contemporary events as well. Arguably, on trade and military and defense and political issues, the relationship is deeper and broader than ever before. There have been state visits and a number of other personal contacts between Obama and outgoing Prime Minister Singh, so we can’t say that India hasn’t received sufficient attention from Washington.

Despite all of this, though, there is the perception among Indian officials that Delhi-Washington relations have regressed under Obama's tenure. India has been willing to buck Washington’s line on pressing issues like the chaos and violence in Ukraine and climate change. Furthermore, the infamous Devyani Khobragade visa row—which included her arrest and a strip search—has been a significant obstacle for both countries to overcome.

There is a silver lining, however. Modi was elected on the promise of economic progress, such as improving India’s job picture and economic growth, which might moderate him and his policy positions toward the world, particularly the U.S. Put simply, economic imperatives—namely, the search for foreign trade and investment—could very well prompt Modi to leave aside personal and historical grudges.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What a Vote for Jokowi Means

Joko Widodo looks on during PDIP party campaign in Jakarta March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta

In the aftermath of Indonesia’s recent parliamentary election, many Indonesia observers and analysts began to rethink the idea that rising star Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he’s known, is primed to dominate Indonesia’s summer presidential election. After all, his PDI-P, which was forecasted to win big in the legislative election because of his affiliation, narrowly squeaked out a victory over Golkar. The so-called “Jokowi Effect” just didn’t happen, at least not to extent that was widely speculated. And if Jokowi couldn’t deliver a decisive win for his party, so went the logic, then his star power was probably overestimated, suggesting that we’re in for a much closer presidential contest than was initially anticipated only several weeks ago.

But as my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman has previously written on this blog, this post-election narrative is likely misguided, for lots of reasons--most notably, that there's no necessary connection between the parliamentary election results and the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. While Jokowi isn't invincible, the truth is that the presidential election is still his to lose. Jokowi's PDI-P has gotten a jump on the other parties by being the first to form a coalition that has enough support to nominate him for president. Moreover, he’s the clear frontrunner in the polls and the most popular politician in the country.

Jokowi's appeal is fairly straightforward. He is young and charismatic, particularly relative to the septuagenarians that at times dominate positions of leadership in Indonesia. His folksy charm and modest dress only enhance his political persona.

He has executive experience as a mayor in Solo and a governor in Jakarta, which means he knows how to manage and oversee a bureaucracy. Jokowi has a track record of getting things done. Among other things, his administrations have made impressive progress in improving Indonesia’s infrastructure and access to health care, resisting corruption, and fostering a better business climate.

Furthermore, Jokowi seems to have deftly infused his campaign and political career more generally with a personal touch and flair, as he’s demonstrated a good ability and willingness to connect with ordinary citizens of all walks of life. His visits to Indonesia’s poor areas, local businesses and government offices, reaching out to people, are clear examples of such behavior.

These qualities have breathed new life into the presidential election, generating a sense of excitement within Indonesia. And certainly, they give hope to Indonesians who would like to see change in national politics. As a newcomer on the national political scene, many citizens see his ascension as a sign that Indonesia will begin to shift away from a political system dominated by cloistered, corrupt insiders.

There has been one problem, however. Jokowi has been awfully vague and cryptic about his political beliefs and vision. At bottom, nobody, including Indonesian experts, really has any idea what he stands for and the kinds of policies he’s likely to pursue. This has left him open to criticism and questions, on a number of fronts.

Is Jokowi secretive? Why is he so reluctant to reveal specifics about his political agenda? Is he simply an empty suit? Perhaps Jokowi is beholden to senior level big wigs in the PDP-I, such as party chief Megawati Sukarnoputri, and thus he really doesn’t control his political platform?

Over the weekend, likely as a way to fend off some of the aforementioned rebukes, Jokowi penned a piece for Kompas, an Indonesian news source. I’m not sure he accomplished a whole lot, though. It's short on specifics and dabbles in fuzzy concepts like character, morals, culture and attitudes. On Twitter, analyst Sidney Jones offered a sharp critique, arguing “bad piece by Jokowi in today's KOMPAS. devoid of substance, kneejerk nationalism, outdated Sukarnoism. Needs to do better, and fast!"

My guess is that Jokowi doesn’t have anything up his sleeve, so to speak. Instead, he’s simply playing it safe, being ultra-defensive in his campaigning. He knows victory is his, as long as he doesn’t commit any major gaffes. As a result, for the most part, he’s resorted to giving oratorical and written bromides and pithy statements in public.

On a general level, we can speculate whether this type of opaqueness and vagueness is good for democracy and democratic elections in particular. The short answer is no. More information is always better. It allows citizens to make better, more confident decisions at the ballot box. Additionally, there is a normative component here as well. Citizens have the right to know what political candidates know and think and believe.

All of this applies to Indonesia today. All of that said, however, there is a subtle, hidden upshot here, one that shows how far and how fast Indonesia’s political system has traveled. In my view, the rise of Jokowi speaks to a confidence vote in favor of Indonesia’s political institutions. Why? Indonesian citizens are secure enough in their country’s political and judicial and economic institutions to take a chance on him. These institutions are developed enough, durable enough to withstand an inexperienced candidate taking the leadership mantle. Put another way, the presence of increasingly competent and interdependent domestic institutions reduces the risk that Indonesian citizens will take by voting for Jokowi for president.

Absent strong domestic institutions, I suspect, Indonesian voters would not be so willing to take their chances on a raw, green candidate to serve as the highest elected official in the land. In such a case, voters would probably look for someone more tethered to the state, someone who’s a safer bet to uphold the political, social and economic status quo.

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the current domestic institutional landscape causes people to vote for Jokowi; instead, what I am saying is that it sits in the background, providing an important context under which voters deliberate about and make decisions on political candidates.

Quite frankly, this is one—though not the only—reason that former Indonesian military officials have played a big role in Indonesian politics post-1998. Voters have opted for people with ties to the state, those with a vested interest in order and stability, to guide Indonesia during the country’s transition to democracy, a time of uncertainty and change. At this point, however, with Indonesia's transition nearing completion, its institutions fully formed and functional and the political process seemingly stable, citizens are now considering a wider pool of political candidates for public office.

Soon enough, what Jokowi will find is that Indonesia’s institutions will outline the boundaries under which he'll operate. Of course, this means that his ability to reconfigure the entire political system in a more progressive direction, as some wish, is not especially strong. Meantime, though, this also means that Jokowi can’t run roughshod over existing institutions, undermining democratic laws and norms and taking the country in a retrograde path.

Jokowi’s rise has been compared to that of America’s Barack Obama. Overall, the comparison isn’t nice and neat. But regarding my point above, the comparison is very apt.

American liberals and independents, tired of a decade of war and a sagging economy under George W. Bush and his Republican Party, took a chance on a rising star, a freshman Senator, from Illinois. If you recall, U.S. Republicans and conservatives decried his candidacy and eventual election. They criticized his “extreme liberal” ideas and proposed policies and his brief tenure in politics, arguing that the U.S. public was making a huge gamble in electing Obama as America’s 44th president. But the reality is that the gamble was not nearly as large the American right suggested, and most U.S. voters knew that in 2008.

Of course, it’s very questionable whether Obama really is a radical liberal. But if he is, America’s entrenched domestic institutions have prevented him from taking the U.S. in a far left direction. Sure, on health care, Obama did score a victory for liberals. But on a host of other issues, both domestically and internationally, his administration looks more like his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, than the one led by Jimmy Carter. Push back from Congress, interest groups, and public opinion has ensured that Team Obama doesn’t stray too far, either to the right or left, from the political center.

This same picture will play itself out in Indonesia. Once elected, Jokowi will be bound, to varying degrees, by a web of Indonesian domestic institutions, thereby minimizing the risk of his supporting or drafting particularly radical policies. Voters can take comfort in that.

Going forward, the bigger issue will be whether Jokowi expresses any frustration at the limitations on his ability to influence the political and policymaking process in line with his interests and beliefs. After all, this is something Obama, a former political neophyte like Jokowi, quickly discovered in his first term as president and has had to cope with since then.

*NOTE: A version of this piece has been published by Strategic Review. You can find it here.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Insights from My Undergrad Students

The current semester at Saint Xavier University, where I'm teaching as an adjunct professor, is wrapping up. Final exam week, which is next week, is all that's left. This spring semester I taught a course called "World Politics," basically, an introductory level course on international relations. It's been a fun experience. It's been particularly rewarding, as a former SXU grad myself, to come back to campus to teach the current crop of SXU students.

One of the fascinating parts of teaching--at least for me--is learning about the beliefs and views and interests of students. And that has been true this semester. For the most part, I found out my students held fairly conventional American views on hot topics like al-Qaeda, the Arab Spring, Japanese foreign policy, and so on. And as expected, given the considerable news coverage here in the States, they were very interested in Russia's adventures in Ukraine. I'd estimate that at least a quarter of my class wrote term papers on contemporary Russian foreign policy, and all of these papers addressed various aspects of Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, much in line polling data, my students didn't see the point of the U.S. getting heavily involved in the hostilities between Kiev and Moscow.

What stood out to me was my students confidence in America's ability to rebound from its apparent international political malaise. Such confidence is surprising, on a number of levels. First, they really didn't voice much faith in Obama, Congress or Washington more generally. (Maybe they do espouse such confidence in them, but it wasn't expressed in class.) Second, most Americans in general lack confidence in the American politics and have doubts about the direction that the U.S. is headed. And there's the elephant in the room: For the past decade, the U.S. hasn't given Americans, or foreigners for that matter, many reasons to be confident in its policies. Two failed wars, a weakened U.S. internationally, economic collapse, political gridlock and dysfunction, a divided body politic, among other things, have eroded trust in and approval of Congress, the American president, U.S. political parties, the American democratic system, and U.S. policymaking.

I suspect their thoughts on this issue are rooted in a few different things. First, for my students, the so-called Millennials, U.S. world dominance is a natural fact of life, something they have been born into, grown up with and are now fully accustomed to. It's probably difficult for them to conceive of a world in which the U.S. is not the clear top dog. After all, their coming-to-age political moment was likely the dual invasion and occupation of two distant foreign countries--overseas adventures only an overwhelming military power could even attempt to carry out.

Additionally, I think that their views about China play a role here. My students understood that China is on the rise, narrowing the power gap between itself and the U.S. But they didn't see China as a looming danger or threat to American national security. Why? On the one hand, they viewed China as a regional power and a commercial giant, one that is unable to match America's military dominance in the world, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. On the other hand, my students didn't see China's rise to peer competitor status with the U.S. status as something guaranteed to happen in the future. I got the sense that they viewed China's prospects much like we now view Japan's so-called rise in the late 1980s: a product of exaggerated fears, worst-case assessments and bad analysis.