Will Vladimir Putin Be Kingmaker in the South China Sea?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

In his geopolitical judo match with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been scoring points lately. A year ago, who would think that his one-time nemesis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a key NATO member, would apologize for downing a Russian warplane near the Syrian border? Who would expect Erdogan to call on him at the Kremlin, hat in hand, for economic and political support?

This is no longer the Erdogan who vehemently denounced the Russian adventure in the Syrian battle theatre. Putin had entered the fray not so much to smash the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but to prop the sagging fortunes of his bloodstained ally, Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad, who is an abomination to Erdogan.

Today’s Erdogan is the survivor of a recent coup attempt and now he is waging a brutal and sweeping purge of the Turkish military, the police, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the academia and the media — to the consternation of human rights-conscious Western governments and the United Nations. For support for his draconian methods, he has turned to Putin, who is now making the most of Erdogan’s contrition.

Putin’s streak of good luck began in August 2013 when US President Obama dithered on what to do with Assad, as the latter was caught using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. A year earlier, Obama had drawn a “red line,” proclaiming dire consequences on Assad if he dared use chemical weapons; the red line had been crossed but Obama was loath to do anything that would draw the US deep into the Syrian civil war. Yet something had to be done, or the US would lose face. Russia proposed a compromise: Assad would give up all of his chemical weapons. Everybody agreed and Putin’s global stock skyrocketed.

Now he is about to get into a deal with the US to coordinate military operations against the Jabhat al-Nusra, self-renamed Jabhat al-Fatah al-Sham but still regarded as the Syrian franchise of Al-Qaeda. This deal will further legitimize Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war.

To think that this is happening while Russian cyber hackers are suspected of trying to help Donald Trump, an unabashed Putin worshipper, defeat Hillary Clinton, Putin’s sworn enemy, in the US presidential elections! Without his asking for it, US media have lionized him as a key player in the rough and tumble of American politics.

Even the Brexit vote has proven to be heaven’s gift to Putin. A European Union (EU) weakened by the departure of the United Kingdom is wont to be less severe in hitting Russia with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and its Ukrainian caper. A diminished EU may not be so coherent in its response to Putin’s saber rattling at the de facto border between the Russian-annexed, heavily militarized Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.

A few days ago, Russian forces claimed they had repulsed a Ukrainian terrorist attack on Crimea, raising anxieties that Putin was fabricating a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine using troops and heavy weaponry already massed at the border. Most experts believe, however, that Putin is just propagating a fear of Russian invasion as leverage in future international negotiations over Ukraine. But in the hearts of the peoples of Ukraine and Eastern Europe he has succeeded in sowing fear.

Closer to home, who would have thought that Putin would be a major beneficiary of the ruling by the international tribunal that put the lie to China’s hyperbolic claim to the South China Sea? For many months, which must have been an eternity to Chinese leaders, Russia made no statement on the controversy — for or against the Chinese position.

In some circles, Putin’s silence was misread as a way of Russia taking sides with Vietnam, an old ally, and the Philippines against China. A China-based journalist, Mu Chunshan, has pointed out that China and Russia may have a relationship that has “some characteristics of a comprehensive strategic partnership,” but they are not allies. Neither has a treaty obligation to come to the other’s aid in case of war. Mu also cited longstanding Russian fears of Chinese expansionism.

At least one Philippine publication instantly jumped on Mu’s careful, non-committal analysis and over-interpreted it to mean that when push came to shove, Russia would side with Vietnam and the Philippines against China. That was wishful thinking.

Not long after the international tribunal laid down its ruling, Beijing triumphantly announced that China and Russia would be holding naval exercises in the South China Sea in September. China brandished the agreement as proof beyond doubt that Russia was on its side of the controversy.

Apparently the agreement was hastily reached in response to the ruling at China’s urgent behest. In the end it is just another naval exercise, an act of military showmanship, but China badly needs one that involves Russia at this time.

Why did it take Putin so long to come out on the side of China? Because Putin loves to see people twist in the wind. Thus even today Erdogan is twisting in the wind, not sure whether Putin has really reconciled with him and has forgotten about the downed Sukhoi. I have news for Erdogan: Putin has a long memory.

As to China, Putin knows very well that China needs him more than he needs China in the new Cold War between the global East and West. You can imagine him sitting smugly in the Kremlin smiling to himself over the thought that at any time he wishes, he can to a great extent help China become undisputed emperor of the South China Sea, in spite of the US Navy.

He can do this by selling to China his cutting edge sea-based cruise missiles, but he is not doing that yet—because that will be his leverage if he needs to negotiate a grand deal with the US.

Meanwhile, he sells to India first generation weapon systems more sophisticated than those he is selling to China. Clever geopolitician, this Vladimir Putin.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Ramos’s Mission to China: Not to Settle a Dispute but to Repair Ties


Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos speaks to journalists during a trip to Hong Kong

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos speaks to journalists during a trip to Hong Kong, China after the Hague court’s ruling over the maritime dispute in South China Sea, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Fidel V. Ramos, the 12th president of the Philippines, recently flew to China in his role as special envoy for the 16th president, Rodrigo R. Duterte. His mission, according to early news reports, is “to resolve the dispute following an international tribunal’s ruling against China’s claims” to some 90 percent of the South China Sea.

That is not a realistic expectation. It will probably take decades before the dispute can be resolved. What Ramos will immediately try to achieve has to be a lot more modest. He needs only to break the ice that has grown thick between the two countries.

If there is a Filipino negotiator who has enough international prestige, experience and savvy to open a dialogue with the Chinese government and lead it delicately toward a long-term and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship between the two countries — it can only be Ramos.

For Ramos is arguably the best of the 15 presidents that the Philippines had before Duterte. When he took over from the administration of Cory Aquino, the Philippine economy had been crushed by the impact of at least half a dozen coup attempts, and the country suffered chronic power failures due to neglect of the energy sector. He fixed these problems and launched a period of economic boom by reforming and liberalizing the economy.

He was a peace president. He sought and secured peace agreements with military rebels and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The final peace agreement between the Ramos government and the MNLF was facilitated by Indonesia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and is widely regarded as a major legacy of the tenure of Ali Alatas as foreign minister. It remains the only effective peace agreement covering Muslim Mindanao up to this day.

Later Ramos opened negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction of the MNLF. That process was maintained after Ramos completed his tenure and has been ongoing for almost two decades.

Since 2001, he has regularly traveled to China, being an initiator of and an eminent participant to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a high-level platform based at Boao, Hainan where leaders of government, business and the academe from 20 Asian-Pacific countries discuss crucial regional and global issues. His network of China contacts must be wide and deep.

This will not be the first time that he deals with a Chinese government that has territorial and sovereignty issues with the Philippines. In response to a Chinese attempt to take Philippine-held Mischief Reef by stealth in 1996, he launched high-level dialogue with President Jiang Zemin, followed by a regional diplomatic initiative that eventually culminated in the signing of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea several years later.

This time he will be dealing with a different China. No longer punctilious about its peaceful rise as a world power, this is a China that has ferociously defied the ruling of an international tribunal on its hyperbolic claim to almost all of the South China, and has already managed to reduce Asean to meek silence on that issue. This is a China that has exponentially expanded and modernized its military establishment, whose military officials talk cockily of their willingness to wade into “inadvertent confrontation” with the US Navy.

Indeed, this is a China that has been sending bombers, fighters and other military aircraft to fly over contested maritime territory in the South China Sea. Notable among these aircraft is the H-6K, a long-distance bomber, which, according to Chinese publicity, is capable of threatening Guam, a US island territory with a military base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Since 2010 or maybe even earlier, China has been sending flotillas of fishing boats, at least some of them manned by government-sponsored militia. These are escorted by armed coast guard ships deep into the East and South China Seas. China has been carrying out this expansionary tactic in contested waters in the China Seas as well as in undisputed territorial waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. Probably the idea is that if the affected countries were lulled into tolerating these stealth invasions, they could acquire some kind of legitimacy.

Even more alarming are the recent cyber attacks of apparently Chinese origin on computers at the Philippine Department of Justice and those of the international law firm that represented the Philippines in the Hague litigation. At about the same time, a hacker group that claimed to be based in China took over the computers at two of Vietnam’s biggest airports and the official website of the Vietnam Airlines so that they displayed visuals with captions that insult Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue.

It is just possible that these hackers are playing the same role that the militia-cum-fishermen have assumed in the South China Sea. They are civilians, private groups serving an expansive, aggressive government policy, who can be disowned when the government stands accused of their aggression.

This, then, is the China that Ramos is dealing with — no longer the gentler, more reasonable China of 1996 that was personified by the simpatico President Jiang Zemin, but a pugnacious, bellicose China smarting from a recent international humiliation. No wonder many voices have been raised in the Philippines and Vietnam against his going to China to negotiate. Vietnamese observers have frantically warned that Ramos is walking into a trap, citing a 1974 incident when South Vietnam was negotiating with China when a Chinese force invaded a South Vietnam-held island in the Paracels.

But Ramos is not afraid to negotiate — even with a saber-rattling China. He has friendships all over China, and I am sure he believes in the natural decency of the Chinese people. On the other hand, as a young lieutenant in Korea in 1952, he successfully led a Philippine expeditionary platoon against a Chinese force in honorable combat — so displays of military strength do not impress him.

Moreover he knows in his heart that China needs a deal as much as the Philippines does. The Philippines needs help to exploit its own exclusive economic zone, and it wants Chinese financing to refurbish its infrastructures. China needs to recover lost international prestige by partnering on a mutually beneficial basis with the very country that brought it to court in The Hague. And China needs to show the world, especially its smaller neighbors, that a territorial and sovereignty dispute does not foreclose its entering into fruitful collaboration between equals.

Such a deal is very much possible. Ramos will go for it. Meanwhile, settlement of the dispute can wait for as long as a generation or two.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at jamilmaidanflores@gmail.com.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio