Wednesday, April 30, 2014

India: Urgent Defense Reforms Needed


After years of bungling, India’s next prime minister will need to move quickly on both foreign policy and defense reforms

On April 2, India’s outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, told a conference that: “As a responsible nuclear weapon state that remains committed to non-proliferation, India supports the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world because we believe that it enhances not just India’s security, but also global security.”

Less than a fortnight later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), largely expected to lead the next government, sprung a surprise by declaring in its election manifesto that it will “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it to make it relevant to [the] challenges of current times.”

That was a surprise, because India’s 15-year old nuclear doctrine that decrees “no-first use” of nuclear weapons was put in place by the last BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. If the BJP indeed comes to power and then delivers on its promise, it would mark a major shift in India’s nuclear policy.

Tweaking or changing the course of India’s nuclear doctrine will surely alter India’s foreign policy too. The challenge for the new government will be to balance India’s own national interest with the current – and fast-changing – geopolitical situation in Eurasia.

The outgoing United Progressive Alliance government has had a mixed record on strategic issues. It vacillated between unusual firmness on some issues (the Devayani Khobragade affair with the U.S. for example) but was erratic in dealing with China and Pakistan and sent out mixed signals in its interactions with other smaller neighbors like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh. In several instances, New Delhi failed to deliver on promises made to its neighbors, often putting the local leaders in those countries in awkward positions. For instance, New Delhi, despite its best intentions, could not fulfill two major promises made to Dhaka on concluding a land boundary agreement and sharing the waters of the Teesta river. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina faced a major political embarrassment at home because of New Delhi’s failure to keep its word.

With Colombo too, India swung between two different positions during the vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council, and paid the price by losing considerable ground to China in terms of influence with the island nation. New Delhi’s failure to calibrate events in the Maldives is also seen as a setback for its own clout in the region.

India’s next prime minister – and everyone believes Narendra Modi will be the man, post-May 16 – will need to step up and reboot foreign policy as a priority if India is to regain the influence it had acquired at the turn of the century and even during the first term of the UPA, but which was frittered away by its ineffectual leadership since 2010.

However, a greater challenge awaits the new prime minister. The Indian military is in shambles not least because it is stuck with a largely 19th century mindset, is mostly armed with 20th century weapons, but has a 21st century ambition. The stark mismatch, topped by a risk-averse Defence minister, has left India’s military forces at their lowest ebb in decades.

Two years ago when a letter written by the then Army Chief Gen VK Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found its way into the media, there was much outrage and anger over the state of Indian Army’s preparedness. “The state of the major (fighting) arms i.e. mechanised forces, artillery, air defence, infantry and special forces, as well as the engineers and signals, is indeed alarming,” the General wrote to the prime minister. The army’s entire tank fleet is “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks,” while the air defence system is “97% obsolete,” he wrote. The infantry is crippled with “deficiencies,” while the elite forces are “woefully short” of “essential weapons.” Singh has since joined the resurgent BJP and is hoping to win a seat in parliament when results are declared on May 16.

Since then, urgent steps have been taken to improve the deficiencies in some areas, especially in improving the stock of fresh ammunition. Still, many critical shortages remain unaddressed. For instance, the Army’s light helicopters are more than 40 years old; it has not bought new artillery guns since 1987; it is also short nearly 600,000 hand grenades. The list is endless.

The Indian Navy, too, is short of conventional submarines. Its fleet of diesel-powered submarines is down to a single digit. Submarines in production in Indian shipyards are at least four years behind schedule. The Indian Air Force is down to 33 squadrons of fighter jets against the required strength of 39 squadrons. Its eight-year-old plan to purchase 126 new combat jets is yet to come to fruition, although a contract negotiating committee is currently talking to French manufacturer Dassault Aviation and hopes to ink a mammoth 15 billion dollar deal as soon as the next government gives it the green light. Even then, the first lot of 18 aircraft will enter service only in 2017, and only then if the contract is signed before the end of 2014.

Acquiring critical weapons platform is but one of the facets of defense management. India has been found to be woefully inadequate in reforming its higher defense management structure. A combination of bureaucratic lethargy and cumbersome systems topped by a timid minister has weakened the Indian military alarmingly. The biggest hurdle in the Indian military’s quest for rapid modernization has been the country’s defense minister AK Antony. As a politician concerned solely with preserving his squeaky clean image, Antony has time and again put his personal obsessions above national interest.

His record as India’s longest serving Defence minister (he’s held the post since October 2006) is a clear testimony to this. During his tenure, Antony has already barred or blacklisted half a dozen major international defense firms at the first hint of wrong doing and bribery and has cancelled contracts in the very last stage of the process leaving the three armed forces to battle with shortages and obsolescence.

And so the three services continue to suffer. The new government and its leader will have to urgently press the reset button to put defense modernization on the fast track, equipping the Indian military with the teeth it needs to match India’s ambitions to become an important regional if not global player. The Diplomat

 

 

Reducing Tensions in East Asia


Historical grievances have China, Japan, Korea and Russia at an impasse. How might they move beyond it?

Postwar Japanese have learned an incomplete, selective and contorted narrative about their modern history, and seem unprepared to engage in an uncensored, bare-knuckle debate over their wartime history among themselves; nor are they willing to listen to unrelenting, scathing criticisms of their nation’s past deeds by foreign governments or critics. The Japanese public have watched rudderless politicians come and go for nearly a decade, and they are hungry for more effective leadership. They are also dispirited by the lackadaisical performance of their national economy over the last two decades and are eager for a new strategy for economic revitalization.

It is for these reasons that a significant, if not an overwhelming part of the Japanese public have endorsed the second-term Abe administration with its “soft” sounding nationalist political theme and bold economic policy initiative known as Abenomics. However, they do not want aggressive foreign policy, be it Japan’s own or that of foreign powers, that could rock their boat in the rough waters of international relations. Status quo is what they prefer in Japan’s foreign policy and stability is what they desire in Japan’s foreign relations.

The rancorous arguments and counterarguments among Asia’s neighbors stir painful memories; they raise difficult moral questions that the wartime generations of Japanese have long skirted and their postwar children and grandchildren have not been taught to ponder. They shake the postwar generations out of their political stupor and force them to make tough political decisions at the very time when they want to attend to the urgent task of raising their nation up from its economic doldrums. So, they tend to attribute deteriorating regional relations not to what their prewar and wartime compatriots did or did not do but to what they see as transgressions and intransigence on the part of their neighbors. This sentiment is reflected in changing public attitudes in Japan towards countries like China and Korea.

Taking into consideration the passions and the emotions with which Chinese, Korean and Russian people view their relations with Japan, and the impact they have on their leaders’ policy options, what should the Japanese do?

They must face squarely the moral issues their prewar and wartime history raises, take every step necessary to ameliorate the rising regional tension that has its roots in that history, and make every effort possible to resolve peacefully the contemporary disputes over sovereignty claims to the physically small but symbolically significant islets in the regional seas. Moreover, the Japanese must participate in regional dialogue to forge a common vision for the future of East Asia and contain the potentially destructive consequences of regional rivalries. These are indeed formidable tasks, and they will test the wisdom and courage of several generations of leaders, not only in Japan but throughout the region.

Japan and its Asian neighbors need enlightened leaders of moral character and with pragmatic wisdom, and political systems that encourage a free and open contestations of views and opinions among all sectors of their population. They need opinion leaders and mass media that can facilitate a healthy debate on issues of national identity and national interests that do not rely on an artificially created image of an enemy. They need policymakers and diplomats who are guided by pragmatism and who are credible in the eyes of their publics. They need policies that emphasize common interests and international cooperation over divisive approaches to issues and rivalries. And they need intellectual elites who can assist political leaders and foreign policymakers in communicating long-term and broad regional visions rather than short-term calculations and nationalist perspectives regarding their region’s future.

What are the principles that should guide the search for a mutually acceptable, pragmatic solution? First, the conflicting understandings of modern history are unavoidable inasmuch as each nation has its unique historical experiences and sources of inspiration and imagination with which it looks upon those experiences. Only free and open contestations of interpretations of historical events in each country can give its people a full and nuanced understanding of its history and inform a wholesome national identity. An attempt by neighbors to influence the history discourse in any nation, even if well intended, will be hazardous and counterproductive. The best that each nation can do is to share its understanding of its own history with its neighbors through dialogue, in which no country feels slighted, dishonored or threatened.

Second, each country should encourage domestic debate on the contemporary moral implications of their past, uncovering and sharing information on all significant events, not just convenient ones, in their history among themselves and with their neighbors. This is obviously easier said than done, because some revelations are likely to entail legal, political and even personal consequences for contemporary generations. However, any attempt to conceal or downplay the significance of past events and moral responsibilities will delay necessary reconciliations within and between nations, and can do more harm to themselves and to their future generations.

Third, territorial disputes are extremely difficult to resolve, bilaterally, multilaterally, or even through international mediation, because they touch sovereignty claims by states and the outcome may compromise the political legitimacy of contemporary leaders, not to mention a possible loss to the material interests of the disputants. Arguably more important are the symbolic and sentimental values that these kinds of disputes represent. When irredentist grievances have been handed down from generation to generation in a country, they become part of the identity of contemporary generations. The best that can be done under these circumstances is for political leaders to approach the territorial disputes pragmatically and try to prevent the dispute damaging other aspects of relations between their countries, such as diplomatic talks on issues of common concern and economic and social-cultural contacts between their peoples. “Shelving” territorial claims in favor of joint development of resources around disputed islands may be one alternative. The establishment of an ecological park or a joint scientific research base on and around the islands may be another option. A unilateral declaration of the non-use of force for territorial resolution and commitment to the demilitarization of disputed territories may also be helpful in reducing animosities between the countries.

Fourth, with respect to the issue of Japanese leaders’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, they should make such visits not while they are in office but when they are no longer serving in a public capacity, so that the visits indeed will actually be “private.” As long as they are holding public office, claiming that their visits to the shrine are private affairs is just not credible. The Japanese government should hold memorial services at a public, non-religious facility to pay respects to the war dead and other Japanese who have died while serving their nation. Such services may also include prayers for non-Japanese who have suffered under Japanese imperialism and militarism, so that the services will provide an opportunity for Japanese leaders to also offer public apologies, express their remorse, and demonstrate their atonement for the nation’s past inhumane deeds and appeal to the universal yearning for peace. When Japanese leaders offer sincere and genuine apologies in such a venue and in such a manner, foreign leaders should accept the apologies as such.

Fifth, offering apologies and atoning for the past are probably not enough to gain the trust of neighboring countries. Japan should engage actively in confidence-building efforts. Japan, China, Korea and Russia have much to learn from the successful experience of Southeast Asian countries in this regard. In 2015, the Southeast Asian countries will be celebrating the establishment of an ASEAN Security Community. Their efforts to build mutual confidence since the establishment in 1967 of ASEAN as a regional forum for dialogue have paid handsome peace dividends. They have also enabled ASEAN to serve as the core institution upon layers of multilateral institutions designed to promote regional cooperation have been built, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three dialogue forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and the East Asia Summit, the last of which now includes not only the 10 ASEAN member countries and their original dialogue partners of China, Japan and South Korea, but also the United States, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and India. Although ASEAN-centered multilateralism has its limitations and, for example, has not been able to help solve the highly volatile territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the dialogue it has sustained has surely been instrumental in building confidence, preventing conflict, and expanding economic ties among Southeast Asian countries and beyond. They have certainly contributed to the transformation of Southeast Asia from the conflict-riven region that it was at ASEAN’s inception into one heading towards the creation of an ASEAN Community.

Regional tensions and security threats, including the nuclear and missile development in North Korea, the territorial disputes in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan/East Sea are unlikely to disappear any time soon. To avoid potentially destructive consequences, Northeast Asian countries and their Southeast Asian counterparts must build a more effective mechanism for multilateral security cooperation that goes beyond the ASEAN-centered framework. Sadly, the prospects of such a framework emerging in the foreseeable future are rather remote. In the meantime, the U.S.-centric hub-and-spokes system will play an important role in keeping peace and stability in the region. Of course this will frustrate the efforts of some of the regional political leaders to reduce the presence and influence of the United States, but until Japan, China, Korea, Russia, and the United States can find a mutually acceptable framework to address their grievances and conflicting interests, the ASEAN- and U.S.-centered systems need to complement each other in preventing regional tension from reaching the threshold of hostilities. At the same time, the regional powers need to make further progress on economic cooperation, including the establishment of bilateral and multilateral trade and investment regimes to accelerate the process of economic integration. There is no question that such efforts will require mutual accommodation between Japan and its regional neighbors.

Is it fair that fishermen whose parents and grandparents have been fishing in the waters around the contested islets cannot continue an activity so essential to their livelihoods because politicians and diplomats elected or appointed to represent their interests cannot find a way to solve the disputes? Is it fair for scientists and environmental experts who have the knowledge and instruments to produce results beneficial to all the countries in the region and beyond are not able to demonstrate their training because their political leaders are unable to reconcile their conflicting claims? Is it fair for future generations to be fed with one-sided views of history and to look unquestioningly upon their neighbors as hostile to their dreams and aspirations and as deserving less respect and less admiration because their parents and grandparents have failed to tamper their nationalist passions and find pragmatic solutions to their disputes? Yes, identities are important and national identities are an important element, but don’t future generations deserve to develop their own identities based on a full and complete account of their nations’ history, its glorious chapters, its humiliating pages, and its shameful paragraphs, as well as opportunities to meet and learn from each other about their views of the past and aspirations for the future?

Tsuneo Akaha Ph.D. is Professor of International Policy Studies and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California. 

Cracks Appear in USA - Myanmar Rapprochement


New legislation signals growing concern over the Obama administration’s Myanmar policy

Recent legislation introduced to U.S. Congress to put conditions on U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military may be one of the first signs of emerging dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s rapprochement policy with the post-junta government.

The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives April 2 by Republican Steve Chabot, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, and Democrat Joseph Crowley. It grows out of concerns that the Obama administration, having begun limited cooperation with Myanmar’s military, is moving too quickly without demanding reforms from Myanmar first. The bill is a modification of similar, earlier bipartisan House and Senate legislation and follows enactment of language in a funding law limiting spending for assistance to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military is notorious for atrocities including destroying villages, using villagers as forced labor, and rape. Other concerns include Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea and continuing government fighting with ethnic minorities.

So far, U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military has been modest. Efforts have included allowing observers during the last two Cobra Gold regional military exercises, human rights talks, and exchanges and workshops on such goals as promoting civilian control of the military. They have also included exchanges with Myanmar military leaders, judge advocate officers, and others on human rights law and law of armed conflict.

In addition, Myanmar was among 10 countries Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel invited to participate in this month’s meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers in Hawaii, the first such meeting to be held in the United States.

Administration officials have publicly cited the importance of working with Myanmar’s military in efforts to foster reform there. “Strengthening the rule of law and promoting security sector reform are essential elements of the reform effort,” State Department Senior Advisor for Burma Judith Cefkin told Chabot’s subcommittee in December.

“Voices from across Burmese society – including civil society, ethnic minority representatives, and members of the government and political opposition – are urging us to engage with the Burmese military and civilian police force to teach new models of conduct that help make the security services a stakeholder in the success of democratic reform,” she said.

“We believe that carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers,” she told the panel.

However, Chabot, in an interview, called it “na├»ve” to think Myanmar’s leaders will be convinced to follow the appropriate path simply by asking them to do so and continuing to “giving them all the goodies without actually requiring them to follow through.”

The Chabot-Crowley bill would tie funding for certain types of security assistance to military and other reforms in Myanmar. It would bar such funding unless the secretary of State certifies that Myanmar has met conditions related to reforming its military, ending military ties to North Korea, opening the process of amending the constitution and opening elections, getting the military out of commercial businesses, and working to end ethnic conflicts.

In addition, the certification would have to show that Myanmar’s army is improving its human rights performance, ceasing attacks on ethnic minority groups, moving to withdraw forces from conflict zones, following cease-fire agreements and signing and implementing a code of conduct.

Chabot dismissed the defense that U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military is limited.

The military, he said, is such a significant element in Myanmar and its government, and its abuses have been so substantial “that having them reform is such a critical element that without that happening, the rest of it really doesn’t matter all that much, when you’re talking about the lives that are actually being affected in Burma.”

“So it’s critical that we insist on the reform of the military and it essentially cleaning up its act and stopping all the human rights abuses, we need to insist on that at every level and that should be a key aspect of our interaction with the government,” he said.

Backers of placing conditions on military cooperation are not asking the administration to ignore Myanmar’s military, which still wields substantial power and influence there.

Keith Luse, a well-regarded former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who has also called for linking military engagement to specific reforms, expressing his personal opinion, has cited the need for the U.S. government to deal with the Myanmar military.

He told a Heritage Foundation session in October that U.S.-Myanmar military relations should be contingent on measurable reform benchmarks including a wide range of human rights issues and ending Myanmar’s military relationship with North Korea.

In addition, though, he said progress and reform in Myanmar “are more likely to accelerate with substantive mil to mil engagement and confrontation, due in part to the disdain often held toward professionals within Burma’s Foreign Ministry by those in uniform.”

“Over the long-term,” he said, “communication exclusively between the United States, others in the international community and Burma’s (so-called) civilian leadership will have incomplete results.”

He also said before proceeding on a long-term plan, Hagel must be fully informed on the Myanmar-North Korea military relationship and on the status of Myanmar’s nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs – “points where the international community has been dismal in expressing interest or concern.”

Luse laid out a list of 10 questions to be answered on this subject, such as which Myanmar military or other projects have involved North Korean technicians and officials, projects or facilities with North Koreans present that have played a role in the development of Myanmar’s missile or nuclear programs, countries that knowingly or not have helped Myanmar’s nuclear and missile programs, and the range of military equipment and weapons provided or in the works to be provided by North Korea to Myanmar.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, called the Chabot bill “a message to the administration that they have not been clear, they’ve not laid out a roadmap — not just to Congress, but to the Burmese – as to what this engagement with the Burmese military is about, what they hope to accomplish with that engagement.”

Murray Hiebert, a senior Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, raised concerns about the bill but acknowledged that it shows a drop in support for the administration policy.

He said the bill’s backers are “trying to constrain something that is so tiny, you can’t even measure it right now.”

He called administration efforts so far “really very minimal,” consisting of talks, mostly on human rights issues and rules of engagement, but no training or weapons sales.

“It’s engagement basically on human rights issues, now why would we find that a problem?” he asked. He also wondered how the United States could promote democracy, human rights and reform “if we can’t even talk to the most powerful institution in the country.”

The bill’s introduction comes as skepticism is growing about the reality of change in Myanmar, which has led to questions about whether the administration has moved too far too fast.

Although Myanmar has seen significant changes since the end of junta rule, anti-Muslim violence is widespread, fighting with ethnic groups continues, and doubts are rising about political reforms. For example, there is increasing expectation that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be barred from running for president next year.

Chabot said he sees “considerable concerns” by himself and others about the administration’s Myanmar policy and said the strategy has “significant flaws.”

“I think that they have been too hasty and been too willing to overlook all the evidence on the ground that the military, in particular, is not living up to its end of the bargain and as a result, you know, the ethnic minorities and a lot of people on the ground are continuing to suffer, and so I do think that there’s not uniform support for the total Burma policy,” he said.

He acknowledged that progress has been made, and said he would commend the administration on that, “but I think they’ve been way too hasty to allow the military-to-military connections.”

He said there have misgivings from the start about the administration’s policy, that it was “going way too far too fast” without establishing benchmarks so outsiders would know what to measure to determine whether the strategy was successful.

“They kind of gave away the store,” he said, costing them the ability to influence the Myanmar military.

“The administration, rather than establishing standards or benchmarks, their idea has been to keep the strategy very flexible, and I just think that doesn’t work – not with a regime like Burma’s,” he said.

A congressional source who asked for anonymity was more pointed.

He said he thought the administration has declared victory and hoisted the “mission accomplished” banner too soon – and without a policy in place to actually get there.

“You’d think that after the past 12 years we’d learn that in foreign policy, wishing doesn’t make it so,” he said.

Hiebert suggested that there are now more questions about Myanmar policy, particularly in the House, than there would have been two years ago, partly because it is now becoming clear that reforms such as those underway in Myanmar are complicated.

“I think there is, probably, a diminution of support. I think earlier on they gave them … a sort of blank check – you know what you’re doing, carry on – and now people are asking more questions, and it goes beyond the military,” he said.

Steve Hirsch is a Washington D.C.-based journalist who has reported extensively on Western policies towards Myanmar.  

 

 

Why Obama’s Asian tour matters


US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remain the backbone of peace and stability in the region.

Even so, the greater military power and economic weight of countries such as Japan might tempt weaker Southeast Asian capitals to stay on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea, and adopt a less direct and confrontational approach to keeping Chinese behavior in check in the South China Sea.

That would be a mistake. Essential to Beijing’s “divide and rule” strategy is to convince states that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. In reality, Southeast Asian states should realize that as far as China is concerned, the latter’s maritime claims are indivisible.

Known for the creative multilateral diplomacy that only smaller states tend to pursue, it is time that key players within ASEAN push for a Code of Conduct that prohibits the use of force to settle territorial disputes to cover all maritime regions in the Asia-Pacific, and not just the South China Sea.

China’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas are obvious: making good on its claims in the region would allow it an unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the so-called constraints of the First Island Chain; an imaginary line stretching from Northeast China, through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.

But there is more than naval strategy at play. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now committed to the fiction that China is simply restoring the proper strategic and territorial order that has stood for millennia, ignoring the reality that the self-designated middle kingdom is only one of several historic kingdoms and polities with longstanding interests in the region.

In particular, and in its commitment to recreate what the CCP sees as the natural condition of a “greater China”, reclaiming its “historic waters” in the East and South China seas is becoming central to the CCP’s political raison d’etre.

These claims have been reaffirmed as essential elements of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” and figure prominently in various official documents produced by the People’s Liberation Army such as its Defense White Paper.

Importantly, and having been entrenched in state-sanctioned official histories, the “greater China” fiction increasingly shapes the contemporary outlook and expectations of a growing number of Chinese elites as the country’s unregulated media such as blog sites would attest to.

This sense of reclaiming what is a contrived history partially explains why China has become more, rather than less trenchant about its maritime claims even as it is rising in the most benign strategic environment that the country has faced for centuries. After all, no major power questions China’s control over territories that it currently administers in Tibet and Xinjiang, while any military invasion of the mainland would be unthinkable.

Yet, Beijing’s redrawing of its infamous nine-dash line in the South China Sea now includes the Natuna waters, meaning that Indonesia now joins Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei as countries with maritime disputes with China.

This brings us back to Southeast Asian diplomacy. These states have generally remained silent when tensions between Japan and China have arisen in the East China Sea — which suits an already isolated China just fine.

Yet, just as the CCP’s claims in both these maritime regions is part and parcel of its “greater China” concept, Beijing is pursuing the same “talk and take” strategy in both of these seas: ostensibly speak the language of negotiation while entrenching its de facto control over the disputed regions square mile by square mile.

It is time for the key players within ASEAN to realize that every bit of ground, actual or perceived, Beijing makes in the East China Sea will only embolden and steel the resolve of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. In other words, successfully rebuffing Chinese bullying and pushing of the envelope in the East China Sea serves the interests of maritime nations in the South China Sea.

To be sure, China will vociferously reject the notion that one Code of Conduct should apply to all maritime regions in Asia, much less accept that such a unified Code should be binding.

That is beside the point. Like any great power wanting a change to the status quo, Beijing will not relinquish the option of force in resolving maritime disputes. But one can at least win the diplomatic argument, and doing so is largely about getting others on side, and thrusting the burden of justification onto the other side.

If Southeast Asian nations were to get Japan, South Korea and America to support such a unified code — something that is eminently feasible — the onus would be upon Beijing to justify its rejection of such a unified code and maximize the region-wide diplomatic fall out as it goes about doing so.

This might not actually restrain further assertive action by China — but it will raise the non-military cost of such behavior.
John Lee, Sydney |is the Michael Hintze fellow and adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney, non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation.

 

Intolerance across Asia threans Democracy


photo: People from Indonesian Muslim hardline groups hold a banner and placards during aprotest near the Burma Embassy in Jakarta
on May 3, 2013. Reuters/Beawiharta

Alexander Aan, a 32-year-old Indonesian data analyst, was released on parole after 19 months in jail. His crime? He does not believe in God. Mr Aan was arrested in west Sumatra in 2012 after a mob surrounded his office, demanding that he stop using his Facebook account to question the existence of a supreme being. Instead of protecting him under a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, police charged him with blasphemy and inciting others to atheism. A court dismissed those charges, but convicted him instead to two-and-a-half years in prison for seeking to incite religious hatred. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Aan said his case was both a religious and human rights issue in a country still making an uncertain transition to democracy.

Indonesia has earned a reputation for relative tolerance. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, 90 per cent of whose 240m people are Sunni Muslims, is a pin-up for those seeking examples of moderation. Barack Obama, the US president, in his 2010 speech in Jakarta cited “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics”.

But in Indonesia, and other ostensibly moderate Asian nations, there are signs such tolerance is eroding. In Indonesia, Christians have been widely targeted, with some 430 churches attacked, burnt or closed in the past decade. In 2005 the Ulama Council ruled that the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect had deviated from Koranic teachings. The government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono responded by banning Ahmadiyah from spreading its faith. Predictably, attacks intensified, most notoriously when a mob of 1,500 beat three Ahmadi men to death in western Java in 2011. The atrocity was captured on video, but the perpetrators got light sentences. Save for pious calls for restraint, the government stood resolutely on the sidelines. Benedict Rodgers, author of the report “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril”, says Mr Yudhoyono, a supposed force of religious moderation, has “been neither a force nor particularly moderate”. Thankfully, three candidates running to replace him as president have pledged to protect religious minorities.

Malaysia, where Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism have long coexisted reasonably peacefully, is another example of hardening ideology. Although Islam is the state religion, Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious thought. That did not prevent a court in October from ruling that non-Muslims were forbidden from using the word “Allah” to refer to God. Many bibles, using the borrowed Malay word, write “Allah” to refer to the Christian deity. Even Japanese superheroes are not safe. In March a translation of the Ultraman comic was banned for referring to the cartoon character as Allah, a use that the home ministry said could “confuse Muslim youth and damage their faith”. Malaysian civil rights activists see this as part of a creeping Islamicisation deliberately egged on by politicians seeking to shore up their electoral base.

Intolerance spares no faith. Muslims themselves are under threat in Myanmar, where sectarian violence has driven tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes. Some of the attacks have been led by Buddhist monks.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, once said his greatest challenge was “creating a secular state in a religious country”. The majority Hindu nation, with its large Muslim minority, is of course no stranger to communal violence. But the organs of state have, by and large, sought to uphold a religiously blind civil code. Even under the supposedly staunchly secular Congress party, however, there has been a worrying intrusion on people’s beliefs. In December India’s Supreme Court issued a judgment criminalising homosexuality. This year Penguin withdrew a book on Hinduism after its contents were challenged in court by Dina Nath Batra, an 81-year-old retired headmaster and member of a far-right Hindu group. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Wendy Doniger, the author, blamed a law that merely required the plaintiff to prove her book had “outraged religious feelings”. She recalled that in 1999 the Bharatiya Janata party, then in government, put Mr Batra in charge of a project to “saffronize” school textbooks by removing offending passages dealing with the caste system and the eating of beef. The BJP may well return to power after elections conclude on May 12.

Of course, there are worse examples of intolerance in Asia. In Pakistan anti-blasphemy laws have been used to terrorise religious minorities, particularly Christians. Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab, was assassinated for opposing such laws, a crime that made his murderer a hero in some quarters. China’s Communist party does not tolerate organised religion outside its control.

That is why it is so pressing that more open states with a history of moderation defend openness and tolerance. The evidence is that they are not doing a good enough job. In a region as religiously and ethnically complex as Asia, that spells disaster. Financial Times

 

Singapore’s History Wars


As we move towards 2015, a year that will mark Singapore’s 50th anniversary as a nation, a battle over the past of that country is slowly gaining steam.

The increasingly frail health of Lee Kuan Yew, the man depicted in the establishment histories as the ‘father of Singapore’, is making this battle more important for both sides.


The People’s Action Party (PAP) is heavily invested in ensuring that their story remains the story of Singapore. And key to that story has been the framework provided by the two-volume autobiography penned by Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister from 1965 to 1990 and still today a member of the Singapore Parliament. The Singapore Story and From Third World to First established the base for the story, upon which have been laid down layer upon layer of hagiographic books such as Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World and One Man’s View of the World, together with Lee’s ‘collected works’ — The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew: Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues 1950–1990 and 1990–2011.

The Singapore press — entirely state-controlled — has been a necessary participant in this exercise, giving these histories acres of attention, calculated to leave Singapore and the world with a very positive image of a man who has in fact enjoyed a rather chequered reputation both domestically and regionally. Further, as with Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping, the history presented in Lee’s collected works is intended not only to perpetuate memory of the individual but also to bolster the legitimacy of the party that he led. Cadre histories such as Men in White have cemented the PAP into this story.

However, the history as presented by the PAP party-state is now being subject to unprecedented querying and interrogation. In part this has been facilitated by a weakening of the absolute power of the PAP, while the imminent demise of Lee is not unrelated. Civil society groups are also re-emerging from the destruction wrought upon them by the PAP in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, a new generation of Singapore historians is beginning to sieve archival and oral history materials, finding stories that do not gel with the accounts fed to them through state history. New alternative histories are thereby emerging, alongside more critical blogs.

One of the most sensitive of the issues recently brought to prominence through this new history is Operation Coldstore, a police action conducted in 1963 prior to the creation of Malaysia, a state within which Singapore was soon to be incorporated. This action — planned jointly by the decolonising British and Lee Kuan Yew — eviscerated the Singapore Left through the arrest and detention of more than 130 individuals and allowed Lee to dominate politics on the island.

A recent set of volumes in English and Chinese, edited by some of the Coldstore detainees, reveals the degree to which this was as much an effort to remove Lee’s political opponents as a security operation. The volumes’ suggestion that the PAP under Lee could only survive through British assistance in eliminating his opposition brings into question much about PAP rule over the last 50 years. Responses from some establishment defenders have been scathing of the volumes and their conclusions, while state-controlled media has simply ignored the books and associated launch activities.

The 1987 round of detentions of ‘Marxist’ Singaporeans through Operation Spectrum under the Internal Security Act has also attracted renewed historical attention, with detainees such as Teo Soh Lung penning an account of her detention and continuing to write of her experiences.

In response to the new histories being penned on the Left, the PAP is employing state media and particularly television to depict the threats which it says the Singapore state faced. Responses from the revisionist historians suggest that the PAP is simply using these programmes to validate its actions against the Left over this period.

Perhaps most threatening to the PAP story is a suggestion, now gaining traction, that Lee Kuan Yew deceived all of the people of Singapore in 1957. While in most administrations a lying politician would not warrant even a yawn, the PAP is demanding more from its parliamentarians, with the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asserting that he would dismiss from the parliament anyone who had lied to the Singaporean people.

It appears now, from recently revealed documents, that Lee Senior ought to be subject to this sanction. Australian and British documents both affirm that during his visit to London in April 1957 Lee Kuan Yew colluded with the British in arrangements to preclude detained Leftists of his party from competing in upcoming elections. After returning to Singapore, Lee publicly stated that these restraints were imposed by Britain, that he was opposed to them, and that the PAP must fight to counter them. Such apparent chicanery does not sit well with PAP history of itself as a squeaky clean party.

The PAP’s reticence in terms of revealing its historical cabinet decisions is also attracting some attention. Following urging by the opposition Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang that the Singapore government should release to the public cabinet records 30 years old or more, Lawrence Wong, Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Communications and Information, closed off the discussion by stating that ‘such an open policy may not necessarily lead to better outcomes’. Again, the power that derives from maintaining a monopoly on key historical sources has been underlined.

History has always been a sensitive topic in this island republic, and been almost fully controlled by the PAP. The alternative history writing now occurring reflects the resurgent influence and appeal of the Left within Singapore, represented in Parliament by the new seats won by the Workers’ Party. This new history is proving to be a key tool by which the monolith of PAP narrative and thereby the party’s arrogated legitimacy is being queried. Such questioning will prove to be an essential element of the political pluralism towards which Singapore is now moving, even if this direction is not everyone’s idea of a good thing.

Geoff Wade is a Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.


 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Myanmar (Burma) Making the Next Asian Miracle


Myanmar: Making the Next Asian Miracle

Myanmar’s reforms are lifting the economic outlook for one of Asia’s economic laggards as indicators show prospects for an economic boom.


For decades, Myanmar was the regional basket case as irrational policies, isolationism and domestic conflict wrought havoc on the economy and society. At independence in 1948, the outlook seemed bright. The country had one of the best education systems in the region, it was integrated with world markets through the port of Rangoon, and possessed ample natural resources and a sufficiently well-functioning administrative system. All of these advantages were spoiled during decades of authoritarian rule. Resources degenerated over decades of stagnation — particularly through declining quality of education and infrastructure — leading to falling productivity.

Economic reforms in Myanmar were actually initiated before the country’s political reforms. And while many of the early economic initiatives primarily served to enrich cronies through fire sales of state assets, there were also important policy shifts. Even before the 2010 elections, macroeconomic policies had improved. A key indicator of improved management is the stabilisation of inflation below 10 per cent since 2008–09. This is a marked achievement in a country where spells of rapid price increases used to be the norm.

Infrastructure developments during military rule largely served strategic purposes, and wasteful investments expanding railways to remote upland areas have given no sustained economic return. But there were improvements in physical infrastructure developments in the decade before 2010 as focus was shifted to improving the main north–south corridor and links to markets in neighbouring countries.

Administrative barriers to both domestic and international trade remain, but abolition of the restrictive trade regime and unification of the exchange rate in 2012 have produced impressive export growth. Resource-based commodities, primarily natural gas and minerals, are leading Myanmar’s trade growth. The country’s location between the expanding economies of China, India and mainland Southeast Asia not only provide opportunities for transit trade but are also advantageous for supplying these resource-hungry markets with commodities.

The rural economy is going through a rapid transformation as exports of rice, beans and other agricultural commodities expand. Rice exports more than doubled in 2013, primarily fuelled by cross-border trade with China, and are set for more rapid growth this year. Rural development is not only benefiting from new opportunities in agricultural exporting, which had been prohibited for decades, but also from important policy shifts giving farmers freedom to decide which crops to grow. Rural credit remains scarce but expansion of state credit to farmers at favourable rates has increased. Land law reforms may provide additional relief as farmland will be eligible as collateral, opening up for increased private credit to the agricultural sector.

It will be essential that policymakers focus on spreading the benefits of growth across the population. Inclusive growth, alleviating widespread poverty and improved welfare, will build support for economic reforms and may also lay the foundations for solving the country’s long-running domestic conflicts.

Essential investments in healthcare and education will only be possible if the government is willing to commit a substantial share of its revenues from exports of gas, oil and minerals to the social sector. This would be a dramatic change from the past, when income from extractive industries was used to fund the bloated armed forces, the construction of the new capital, Nay Pyi Daw, and other projects of limited social benefit.

Remaining weaknesses in macroeconomic management are also a threat to long-term developments. Sustained inflows of foreign investment, export revenue and foreign aid risk making the overvaluation of the kyat permanent, and should be managed carefully. A short decline in the currency value in the second half of 2013 provided important relief to exporters. But there is no indication that the authorities will continue to bring down the strong currency, due to fears of a return to the hyperinflation that was common in the past. The currency rate continues to constrain the development of manufacturing, and, while this obstacle remains in place, efforts to set up industrial zones will be futile given Myanmar’s cost disadvantages compared to the main East Asian production bases.

Still, the reforms to date have led to a convergence of growth rates in Myanmar to the East Asian average. If remaining weaknesses are addressed, there is scope for further acceleration and that would turn Myanmar into the latest Asian economic miracle.

Anders Engvall is a research fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘On the edge in Asia’.




 

Democracy or No Democracy, Free Press Is Under Attack Across Asia


Across Asia, the news media confronts unprecedented threats. In recent weeks, three Hong Kong journalists have been attacked, one of them almost fatally. Self-censorship there and in Taiwan — where journalists work in the shadow of an authoritarian giant — is rising, according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reporters are, in principle, freer in democratic India. But more and more, politicians and corporations have taken control of media companies, often through surrogates or front companies, and used them to advance sectarian interests. A detailed investigation in Caravan magazine last year revealed how Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries — the new owner of one of the country’s biggest media empires, Network18 — had enabled propaganda for Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, and right-wing discourse in general. A leading television anchor at CNN-IBN subsequently denounced on Twitter the “evil out there” that is “silencing independent journalists.”

Certainly, those unwilling to toe the corporate line risk punitive action.

Late last year, Hartosh Singh Bal, one of the most intrepid journalists in the English language press, was forced out as political editor at Open magazine. The newsweekly’s industrialist owner complained that Bal was making too many “political enemies.” Evidently, that’s no longer a problem: Last week, Open ran a puff piece about Amit Shah, Modi’s closest consigliere, who is charged with ordering extrajudicial killings and is presently out on bail.

Cynicism about the Indian media is growing fast, and with good reason. Its deliberate omissions border on the unconscionable. Hundreds of young men have been blinded, sometimes permanently, by pellet guns fired at them by Indian security forces during protests in India-ruled Kashmir, but detailed reports on these and many other atrocities have yet to make the front pages of Indian newspapers, let alone to strain the vocal chords of unfailingly strident TV anchors. In fact, as Caravan also revealed, many of the prominent reporters covering Kashmir have long been stenographers for Indian intelligence agencies, zealously vending disinformation.

If anything, the media is even more diversely menaced in Pakistan. India’s neighbor is home to some of the world’s bravest journalists, partly because the range of threats they confront is so broad — from the many spooks of a murky security establishment to feudal strongmen and assorted fanatics eager to kill in the name of one sectarian cause or another. Nearly 30 Pakistani journalists have been murdered in the last four years, including Saleem Shahzad, whose oft-confessed fear that elements within the Pakistani state would assassinate him was subsequently confirmed by the Barack Obama administration.

In the multipronged onslaught on Pakistan’s fourth estate, “TV stations have been bombed, film crews targeted and most news establishments work from behind concrete bunkers,” the novelist Mohammed Hanif wrote recently in the Guardian. “Media owners and executives go around in bomb-proof SUVs and accompanied by dozens of armed guards.”

Such protection no longer seems adequate. A few weeks ago, a car carrying Raza Rumi, a respected commentator and author, was raked with machine-gun fire. His driver was killed. Last week, unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most visible journalist in recent decades.

Mir was shot six times but survived. He and many other journalists have fingered the dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence. In response, the Ministry of Defense threatened to shut down his employer, Geo TV. A section of the Pakistani media even defended the ISI, accusing its critics of being Indian agents.

Plainly, the urge to cater to power infects Pakistani “journalists” no less than it does Indian ones. Like the valley of Kashmir, Pakistan’s independent-minded province of Balochistan hosts an everyday regime of murder, kidnapping and torture that is systematically disregarded by the national media. Hanif broke a disgraceful silence last year with a short book titled “The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are,” which describes six cases of Baloch men kidnapped by Pakistani security forces.

Quietly accumulating one devastating fact after another, its few pages gain an extraordinary power. Take, for instance, these sentences:

In the last week of November 2011, Qadeer Baloch, a retired UBL employee from Quetta, did something that no grandfather should have to do. He held his four and a half year old grandson’s hand and took him to see his son Jalil Reki’s mutilated bullet-riddled body and made sure the kid got a good look at it.

Hanif has consistently decried a culture of impunity that is enabled by the media’s apathy, if not complicity. He has also warned how these entwined evils steadily creep in from the atrocity-rich borderlands to the uncaring heartland. “Even in the darkest of times,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination.” Yet journalistic institutions, pressured by political, military and commercial interests, increasingly seem too frail to oblige. The responsibility falls, frequently and unfairly, on such individual dissenters as Hanif, whose courage and integrity make them all the more vulnerable in these dark times.

Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.

 

Rise of China Dampens Local Squabbles Between Australia and Indonesia


John McCarthy was Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia when militia lobbed Molotov cocktails into his embassy in Jakarta, physically assaulted him in Sulawesi and shot at his car as he drove across Dili. “It didn’t actually hit the car,” McCarthy told me, playing down the 1999 shooting encounter, which took place in the midst of bloody pogroms after the independence of East Timor. “It was just a sighting of a fellow taking aim and firing his gun.”


The bullet may not have hit his car but the former ambassador to Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington speaks with authority when he says Australian naval incursions, phone-tapping and related diplomatic furores have sunk the Australia-Indonesia relationship to its lowest point since 1999. Equally, when he says the relationship has the potential to recover quickly - because much bigger strategic imperatives are at play - it's a good time to sit up and take note.

The rise of China and China’s muscle-flexing on its maritime periphery are altering the strategic calculus of all nations across the Asia-Pacific. The force of rising China is acting to push Jakarta and Canberra closer together (and both of them closer to Washington) even as domestic political “irritants” are pulling them apart.

Indonesia has had a vexed relationship with China since new republics were established in both nations within three months of each other, in 1949. While sticking to an ostensible policy of "non-alignment", Sukarno steered Indonesia towards Beijing and his replacement, Suharto, swung hard the other way. Now in the democratic era, with presidential elections due in July, Indonesia’s foreign policy neutrality is under strain again.

Most pointedly, Indonesia’s policy of non-alignment is being challenged by armed Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels contesting the right of Indonesia to detain Chinese fishermen in the Natuna Islands region, which lie west of Singapore and 2000km south of mainland China. This year, in response, Indonesian leaders have broken with their tradition of public reticence to voice concerns.

In February, one day after a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warned China against attempting a repeat of the Air Defence Information Zone which it established last year in the East China Sea, prompting protests from the US, Japan and Australia. “We have firmly told China we will not accept a similar zone if it is adopted in the South China Sea,” said Natalegawa.

The same month the commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), General Moeldoko, returned from visiting Beijing to advise he would increase air, land and maritime forces around Natuna in order to “anticipate possible infiltration as a result of instability in the South China Sea”.

And last month a senior defence strategist, Commodore Fahru Zaini, warned against China’s "map warfare", as others have called it, by which China is hardening previously amorphous claims to a vast expanse of the South China Sea. "China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters,” he said. “This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters.”

This series of public comments shows that Indonesia has altered its public stance if not its underlying strategy. “I would characterise this as the public expression of undeclared policy on China,” says Greta Nabbs-Keller, who wrote her PhD thesis on Indonesia-China strategic relations and is director of a consultancy called Dragonminster.

China has been put on notice that the harder it pushes its territorial claims the more Indonesia will stretch its famously malleable policy of non-alignment in the opposite direction. "I explained that we are a sovereign country, we will protect our territory, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty,” Commander Moeldoko said this month, recounting his earlier exchanges in Beijing.

Like Australia, Indonesia’s policy is to engage with China wherever and whenever it can, including welcoming Chinese investment, while strengthening regional ties and pushing back when China’s demands are deemed unacceptable. It’s a hedging policy that will wax and wane with China’s actions, especially around the Natuna Islands.

Last week 20 Asia-Pacific nations including China, the US and Indonesia signed a code of conduct to improve communication to prevent naval encounters accidentally erupting into conflict. The code was proposed a decade ago, by Australia.

Former ambassador McCarthy says this is the kind of constructive response to evolving strategic imperatives that should force Jakarta and Canberra to transcend the domestic issues that regularly flare between them.

“You could argue that we could have a reversion in our relationship with Indonesia to the sort of pattern that was extant in the 1960s and 1970s,” says McCarthy, referring to an era when global and regional strategic concerns trumped local political ones. “I think you could see a reversion to this as tensions increase in the East China Sea and South China Sea," he says. “We have to concentrate on serious issues which reflect national interest rather than play games, with the Australian side showing how tough we are and the Indonesian side allowing national sensitivities to weigh too heavily."

John Garnaut is Fairfax's Asia-Pacific editor.


 

Monday, April 28, 2014

African-Americans and the Philippine-American War


As President Barack Obama , the first African-American president, visits the Philippines this week, this may be a good time for both Filipinos and African-Americans to acquaint themselves with an often-forgotten part of the historic Philippine-American war (1899-1902), which transformed the United States into an empire and a global power.

I refer to the quizzical role played by African-American soldiers in the war of conquest and empire, and their curiously ambivalent attitude to the proclaimed mission of “taking up the White Man’s burden” and civilizing Filipinos.

 

The English poet Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” in his famous poem that urged America to take the Philippines. The poem opens with these lines:

 

Take up the White man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go bind your sons to exil
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

 

According to the historian Barbara Tuchman, ”The poem, published in a two-page spread by Mclure’s Magazine, was quoted across the country within a week, and quickly reconciled most Americans to the expenditure of bullets, brutality and trickery that soon proved necessary to implement it.”

It has also been suggested by other writers that Kipling’s poem helped in rallying volunteers for the US campaign of conquest in the Philippines. Many volunteered eagerly because of the opportunity it afforded for an adventure in the vast Pacific Ocean.

How did black Americans (African-Americans is now the preferred term) react to the idea of taking up the white man’s burden?

It’s not an idle question to raise because in 1898, the United States had just surmounted a costly civil war just three and a half decades earlier, a war mainly fought on the issue of slavery and the emancipation of black Americans.

Several history books on the Philippine-American War and US history provide revealing information about the role played by African- Americans in the war. I’ve come across them while doing research for a book I’m writing on the Philippine- American War.

These source materials provided invaluable insights and information about black-American attitudes to the war and to the major policy battles that ensued after the US annexed the Philippines for $20 million in 1898.

One major source material is David J. Silbey’s book A War of Frontier and Empire (The Philippine- American War, 1899-1902). In one key passage, he wrote:

“The sending of African-American soldiers to the Philippines created the deepest of ambiguities. Soldiering had long been a valuable and valued career path for African-American men cut off from most other economic and career pursuits.

“The African-American community fought zealously to protect that path, and reacted furiously to slights, perceived and otherwise, on the vigor and valor of African-American soliders.

“The result was that African-American units were sent to the Philippines and that a few African-Americans were promoted to officer ranks.

“Once they were in the Philippines, the African-Americans found disturbing parallels in the relationships between the Filipinos and the white soldiers. It was an easy step for white soldiers, steeped in 19th century’s easy racism, to bring patterns of behavior abroad.

“The difficulties were profound for African-American soldiers; their duty was to fight against an enemy with whom they had some sympathy; and live among people becoming victims of the same ‘diabolical race hatred’ that they experienced at home.”

In his highly praised A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn provides the following information:

Four black regiments were sent to the Philippines. Many of the black soldiers established rapport with the Filipinos, and they were angered by the term “nigger” used by white troops to describe the Filipinos.

The Filipino rebels often addressed themselves to “the colored American soldier” in posters, reminding them of lynchings back home, asking them not to serve the white imperialist against other colored people.

An unusually large number of black troops deserted during the Philippine campaign.

Some deserters joined the Filipino rebels. The most famous of these was David Fagan of the 24th Infantry. He accepted a commission in the insurgent army and for two years, he wreaked havoc on American forces.

In his book, Smoked Yankee and the Struggle for Empire, Willard Gatewood reproduces and analyzes 114 letteres written by black soldiers to African-American newspapers in the period from 1898-1902.

One soldier wrote in 1899: “Our racial sympathies would naturally be with the Filipinos. They are fighting manfully for what they conceive to be their interests. But we cannot for the sake of sentiment turn our back upon our own country.”

Another black soldier wrote in June 1901 to an Indianalpolis paper: “This struggle on the islands has been naught but a gigantic scheme of robbery and oppression.”

Back home in America, African-American leaders, including prominent church leaders agitated against the American war on the Filipinos. Some joined the Anti-Imperialist League that was organized and led by such luminaries as the philosopher William James, the writer Mark Twain and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Most of the black press opposed President Mckinley’s Philippine policies.

A meeting of Boston black citizens and leaders adopted a resolution in July 1899 that they sent to the president, and protested “the unjustified invasion by American soldiers in the Philippine Islands.”

The senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Henry M. Turner, called the campaign in the Philippines “an unholy war of conquest” and referred to the Filipinos as “sable patriots.”

Zinn reports that the period of the Philippine-American war coincided with a time of intense racism in the US. In the years between 1889 and 1903, on the average, every week, two Negroes were lynched by mobs – hanged, burned, mutilated. The Filipinos were brown-skinned, physically identifiable, strange-speaking, and strange-looking to Americans. To the usual brutality of war was thus added the factor of racial hostility.

I bring up this subject with no thought of laying on President Obama “a black man’s burden.” To the contrary, I offer this as a salute to the African-American soldiers who came here to our country over a century ago.

Yen Makabenta