Archive for June 2010
Last week, I attended a speech by former Malaysian deputy prime minister and current opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In his public remarks, Mr. Anwar argued – unsurprisingly – that Islam and democracy are not incompatible in Southeast Asia. The arguments he used were hardly new. The Qu’ran is not inherently undemocratic, even if jihadists seek to pervert its injunctions. Malaysia, as well as Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, are powerful examples which suggest that Islam and democracy can coexist quite successfully. Even conflicts in Aceh, Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand, were more a product of socioeconomic factors rather than Islamic-driven terror per se.
Some of these statements lacked nuance. Islam may not be inherently democratic, but many Islamic activists would agree that Islam and democracy are indeed incompatible – the former claims that a ruler’s legitimacy rests with him upholding God’s law, while the latter maintains that it rests with the will of the people. While there are Islamic scholars that seek to interpret religious texts in ways that are compatible with democracy, there are also those that suggest it is not. The incompatibility of Islam and democracy is not just a view shared by crazy radicals, as Mr. Anwar portrayed it to be.
The examples of Malaysia and Indonesia which Mr. Anwar cited are also by no means ideal. Indonesia’s democratic course since the downfall of ex-president and strongman Suharto may admirable in many respects. But there are still several questions about the coexistence of Islam and democracy, including the application of a (some say too broad) anti-pornography law, the persecution of an Islamic Ahmadiyya sect in 2008 which violates religious freedom, and fresh anti-terrorism legislation that could undermine basic human rights (Indonesia’s top counterterrorism chief ruffled feathers last year by suggesting that terrorists flock to Jakarta because its laws were not as beefy as its neighbors like Malaysia). Some of the reforms pursued by its leadership have also been thrown into question recently, particularly after the curious departure of former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.
The situation is even worse in Malaysia, as Mr. Anwar himself knows from his six years in solitary confinement on what some believe were politically-motivated sex and corruption charges, as well as his current trial for sodomy. Draconian security laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) continue to exist, the judiciary is hardly independent, press freedom is virtually non-existent, and simmering religious tensions boiled over last year when almost a dozen churches were attacked in Malaysia over a controversial court ruling on the use of the term “Allah” for God in Malay-language Christian publications. Mr. Anwar called the ‘Allah controversy’ “racist”, but it is also virulently anti-democratic as it displays a profound disregard for the rights of religious minorities. Nor is it the exception – there have been several documented cases where minority marriage and burial rights have been trampled on in the name of Islam.
That these were the best examples Mr. Anwar could muster illustrates the lack of ideal cases to support his hypothesis, which itself needs fine-tuning. Islam and democracy are neither inherently incompatible nor compatible – such a dichotomy is not useful. Rather, Islam can be made compatible with democracy under certain circumstances, one precondition of which is the presence of a capable government or leader willing to make this happen.
Indonesia, despite a brief democratic experiment in the early 1950s, was trapped for decades under the authoritarian rule of Sukarno and Suharto. It was only after a succession of several weaker leaders that the current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono assumed power and has somewhat stabilized Indonesia’s fragile democracy. Malaysia’s current leadership, as Mr. Anwar pointed out, has neither the desire nor will (nor, I would add, the political base) to bring about such a harmonious compatibility. Rather, it is Mr. Anwar’s opposition, which now controls just four of Malaysia’s thirteen states, which has laid out a vision of a multi-religious, multiethnic society, where Muslims can assert their religiosity without impinging on minority rights. The argument can be extended across the Middle East, where remarkably durable oil-rich, monarchic or one party states have maintained an iron grip on power.
Yet Mr. Anwar had no answer to this difficult question of getting around remarkably durable ‘not-so-democratic’ regimes. His request for powers like the United States “to not stand idly by and participate in the charade” if democracy does not come to Muslims, or for leaders “to go” if their people are still deemed ‘not ready’ for democracy after fifty or sixty years of rule, was greeted by rousing applause and loud guffaws but offered little practical utility. Similarly, his belief that U.S. foreign policy over the last four decades had been motivated by the pursuit of Wilsonian ideals for the benefit of all humanity, rather than the interests of the United States, seemed naïve given Washington’s checkered response to humanitarian interventions.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of this unresolved dilemma came when a Malaysian Chinese youth, Daniel Wu, asked Mr. Anwar to assess a policy position of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, whom Mr. Anwar served under as deputy prime minister. Mr. Anwar gleefully responded with a fairly lengthy rant, before telling Mr. Wu that young professionals such as himself ought to join the struggle for reform in Malaysia. As Mr Wu settled into his seat, I overheard him mutter quietly to himself, “I would, but I would be arrested under the ISA”.
What can the United States do to address the perception of its waning power in Asia? The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had a distinguished panel of Asia experts last month — Richard Armitage, Michael Green and Ernest Bower — to discuss this issue. The lengthy transcript was released earlier this month, and I have distilled their important insights into various categories below.
Before delving into specifics though, let me say that this perception of U.S. decline is a contested one. There are some who see a steady erosion of U.S. influence in the region. But there are also other indications — including several polls — which show that nearly all Asian nations surveyed believe U.S. soft power has actually increased the most relative to other countries over the past decade.
Nevertheless, these are some of the key prescriptions these experts suggested during the course of the proceedings:
Trade policy: The administration needs a strong trade policy in order to succeed in Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good start, but progress must be made on roping more countries into the TPP and getting the free trade agreement with South Korea finalized.
ARMITAGE: If you’re going to play in Asia, you better have a trade policy. If you don’t have a trade policy, you haven’t got openers, and until we get that squared away in this administration, it’s going to be more and more difficult for us to take a meaningful role in the lives of our Asian friends.
BOWER: We need to have a trade policy. The TPP is a fair start but we’ve got to go beyond that and be much more aggressive with our trade policy. I think passing the KORUS this year is absolutely fundamental to our credibility in Asia, and then working to bring other ASEAN members into the TPP, if that’s going to be our structure, is very important.
Diplomacy: The United States must energize its diplomacy and diplomats in Asia and illustrate is willingness to be part of the region’s developing security architecture. Both Mr. Bower and Mr. Armitage were amazed by the quality of Chinese diplomacy in the region relative to that of the United States.
ARMITAGE: I have been astonished by the alacrity, the speed, the agility, the dexterity of Chinese diplomats in Asia. And we’re still doing business the old way and they’re out running around taking pages out of our old book. No longer are they promoted for party purity or seniority; they’re promoted for ability, and they’re doing a hell of a fine job for their nation, and we have to do the same. We’ve got to really put a priority on our diplomats.
BOWER: I would echo the secretary’s comments…I don’t know where this new class of diplomats came from, but they’ve done a great job. They’re leading with their ears in Southeast Asia. They’re out working the channels…America needs to be part of the regional security architecture that’s being formed in Southeast Asia right now, and we’ve got to be very clear about our interests there.
Naval Power: With China becoming more assertive in dealing with territorial disputes at sea, the United States ought to send a clear message about its strong naval power in the region to reassure its allies.
ARMITAGE: We’re going to have to assure that everyone realizes that we realize that this is primarily a naval service theater, and although soft power is respected in most parts of the world, hard power still has a place in Asia, and unless we demonstrate that we realize that this is a naval service theater and use our assets and position our assets accordingly, then it’s going to add to the perception that our power is somewhat on the wane.
GREEN: I’m most worried about naval, to be honest. The QDR says we should have 300 and I think 13 combatant vessels. At the current – as I understand it; Rich would know better – at the current building rate we’re aiming, in 10, 20 years we’ll have 200-something, 210. So that’s the piece of the three – we can do trade. If we have the political will we can do it. We can see progress in the debate of ideas in Asia. Naval power is the one where there is a sort of physical and budgetary limitation that’s going to force us to think pretty hard about allied capacity, priorities. You can see, even in the Navy – the Department of the Navy, the new maritime strategy says we’re going to focus on Southwest Asia and East Asia. So those are the kind of strategic choices we’re going to have to make.
China: As I’ve written before, the Obama administration initially struck a far too conciliatory note in its relations with China. While U.S.-China cooperation on a variety of issues is both necessary and desirable, Washington must also stay true to its ideals.
ARMITAGE: My own view is we got off on the wrong foot in dealing with China. To give China a break on human rights, to give China a break on human freedoms, is going to feed the perception that China is inevitably the coming power and we’re a little fearful of standing up for those things we have traditionally stood up for. So if we’re going to play this game and make a point to all the nations of Asia, we’re going to have to make sure we protect our ideals across the board in our discussions with China.
Japan: After resolving the Futenma basing dispute, the US and Japan should move on to jointly addressing a set of broader challenges, including the rise of China and climate change.
ARMITAGE: You may have noticed a 10-ship flotilla of China, including two submarines, being very active in the Miyako Straits for the first time in that size. They’re humiliating Japan right now. They’re making the point they can go where they want and do what they want. They’ve done the same thing to Indonesia and Malaysia, and unless we can engage our Japanese friends in a discussion of these issues and wither Chinese blue-water capabilities, and to what end, then we’ll fall farther and farther behind.
GREEN: We need, I think at some point, to transition to a broader strategic dialogue about what we do about the rise of China, as Rich suggested, about overseas development assistance where together the U.S. and Japan, with other new OECD DAC member states like Korea really should be shaping the rules of how you do good foreign aid at a time when China is pumping tons of money and undermining the traditional approaches of overseas development assistance…In climate change, Japan is the most energy efficient country in the world, and our discussion to date has been about capping greenhouse gas emissions. And Prime Minister Hatoyama’s ambitious, frankly unrealistic targets don’t do it. If you’re talking about numerical promises, it’s about China and India. But if you’re talking about technological solutions, you can’t get there without Japan. So we need to think about how we frame cooperation and Japan needs to think about what real comparative advantage it brings to these challenges, and it brings a lot, much better if that’s built on a security relationship and a basing arrangement that is enduring, that shows the alliance is going to continue playing the fundamental role it plays in Asian security.
Taiwan: As I’ve said before, the US needs to continue its commitment to Taiwan’s defense as enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act, even as China and Taiwan continue to enhance economic relations. Cross-strait rapprochement can only proceed in a balanced and equitable way with a strong Taiwan capable of defending itself.
GREEN: You saw a lot of press about retaliation which didn’t materialize from Beijing, but you also saw a very clear signal that the Chinese side would be really unhappy about so-called sophisticated arms sales, which means F-16s. So you won’t be disappointed because I think later in the year Taiwan will be back in the news and this tough issue – and, by the way, I think we should go ahead with that sale because the delta, the gap in air capabilities is just growing at an alarming rate, and to dissuade Beijing from considering force as an option, I think we need to provide the necessary equipment to Taiwan. But I’m not in the government so what I care doesn’t matter. It’s going to come up. I think you’re going to see Taiwan back in the press quite a bit towards the end of the year, I would bet.
India: There is a strong basis for developing the U.S.-India relationship, there are several bureaucratic and strategic hurdles that need to be overcome.
ARMITAGE: The question they have – and they’ve been putting it to all of us, I’m sure, in various ways now – is whether this administration and the United States views India through a balance-of-power lens or rather just a functional lens of climate change and environment and things of that nature, given the fact that from their point of view, India looks 360 degrees – Nepal, Burma, Ski Lanka, Pakistan, Tibet – and sees China.
There is a wild card. You notice the Indians and the Pakistanis are speaking again at high levels – it’s a good thing – but every day Indians, Pakistanis and Americans live with the fear that the Kashmir group, LeT, is liable to do another big strike on Mumbai or Delhi or somewhere and then we’ll be off to the races. My personal view is that’s a ticking time bomb. So while the relationship is slowly edging its way to a better place and you don’t hear as often the cry from the Pakistani military that Kashmir is in our blood, and you don’t hear the same cries from India, we’re all hanging on whatever LET does, and that’s not a good position to be in.
GREEN: I would argue, in the U.S.-India relationship is that there is no senior official – meaning undersecretary above – who owns this relationship and is dedicated to it the way Nick Burns and others were when this transformation of the relationship happened a few years back, and we’re suffering for that.
Vietnam: There is significant room for developing this emerging relationship across a broad swathe of issues.
BOWER: The current issue is the South China Sea, the one that really makes them – you know, keeps the Vietnamese up at night and, you know, that’s also an American interest and it’s also a Southeast Asian interest.I think we should do it in a broad way. I think we should emphasize the trade relationship, the security relationship. People-to-people ties is a great opportunity with Vietnam and it’s one that I think we have the vehicles to do this – the Vietnam Education Fund and some others. We should really emphasize that. And, lo and behold, the Vietnamese also have a lot of common interests with us on transnational issues. You know, Prime Minister Dung really cares about climate change, and the Mekong is a big issue, you know, and Hillary Clinton at the State Department has recognized that. And I think one of the best things we’ve done in terms of engagement in Southeast Asia is this Mekong Initiative that Secretary Clinton has kicked off. And that’s a good core opportunity for U.S.-Vietnam engagement.
Indonesia: There needs to be more courage on Washington’s part in order to solidify a partnership with this important nation, particularly in the area of mil-to-mil relations.
BOWER: It’s clear that this administration sees Indonesia as the equivalent of what India was to the Bush administration. It’s the big country – it should be one of the BRIC countries, really – fourth-largest country in the world, a big country that you could get right. And I think we’ve got to go ahead and… break some glass a little bit on the Indonesia relationship…I think it’s time to be a little more confident in American policy in Indonesia, to be honest with you. I will use, as an example, our military – mil-to-mil policy. We have been mincing around having the tail wag the dog on our Indonesia relationship for over a decade over the East Timor and the Aceh issues, and we have got to normalize our mil-to-mil relationship with Indonesia, and I think somebody has got to go up and look Sen. Leahy straight in the eye. know he’s got the appropriations lever on the State Department but we should really have a White House-driven strategy to go up there and say, for national security purposes, this is a relationship that’s really important to us, and we can get it right.
Much has been written and said about the potential for Indian military power to play a greater role on the world stage, and perhaps check China’s expanding capabilities in the future.
But at a conference I attended earlier this month at the American Enterprise Institute, several Indian experts seemed rather dubious about New Delhi playing this role in the short term.
Among the challenges mentioned:
Domestic and regional constraints
India faces several daunting domestic and border challenges within its own neighborhood that may prevent it from thinking more globally – including the unresolved issue of Kashmir, an increasingly grave Maoist threat, Islamic terrorism from Pakistan, and unresolved border issues with China which broke out in war in 1962. Beijing’s effort to beef up its presence in South Asia is also seen as challenging Indian dominance there. Here’s what Princeton University’s Shivaji Sondhi told me when I asked him about the prospects for a greater global role for India:
Not in the next five to ten years in terms of hard power. At most, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean will be the outer limit, because India is surrounded by an arc of hostile states. With its diverse and multiethnic nature, it is useful to think of India as a stronger version of the European Union, ten years behind China.
The Lack of Strategy
Second, according to Sunil Dasgupta, co-author of the upcoming “Arming Without Aiming” (which is on my reading list), India’s military modernization remains, and likely will continue to be, an a-strategic pursuit of new technology with little vision. He listed a whole host of problems that New Delhi faces, including:
- Little political guidance from the civilian leadership to the military: This is true even on the general issue of what India’s major goals should be. Even the Indian navy, which is often assumed to be the most forward thinking institution within India’s military, does not see itself as more than a “naval blockade” vis-à-vis Pakistan.
- Lack of organizational and institutional reforms: The need to reprioritize resources is never addressed, what is addressed is the procurement of new material, thus making modernization merely an exercise in linear expansion.
- No legitimate and transparent procurement system: As a result, purchases are often ridden with scandals, corrupt, delayed and highly politicized. India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is also “a failed organization that is ideologically corrupt”, but there has not been an honest attempt to put it under public scrutiny.
Third, Walter Ladwig of Oxford University pointed out that even India’s two current major military doctrines – Cold Start (which focuses on winning a quick war against Pakistan) and Two Front War (with China and Pakistan) – face serious problems. If New Delhi cannot muster the strength for these narrower scenarios, how can it be expected to have capabilities for broader ambitions? Some of the specific and significant shortcomings cited were massive material shortfalls, manpower shortages, inter-service competition and un-coordination, and the lack of engagement with the concepts among the political leadership. Ladwig concluded powerfully:
For the foreseeable future, the ideas of Cold Start and the Two Front War remain more aspirational than achievable.
Those are some pretty hefty challenges for Indian military modernization. And that suggests to me that while we should encourage India to play a greater role in the world, we ought to be equally attentive to the limits of its reach, rather than just blindly projecting our aspirations onto it.