Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.


Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.


Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.


The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.


Labour Regimes in Vietnam and China: Parallels and Contrasts

I have previously written about the labour relations crisis in China. Vietnam makes an interesting comparison to the Chinese situation, both for the broad similarities of the labour history of the two countries and because, beneath the surface, there are a host of subtle differences.

As the rural migrant workforces that have fuelled the economic development of both countries become increasingly organised and assertive, the question of if and how they may be effectively represented becomes increasingly urgent. In some cases, Vietnam may have a substantial advantage.

Central Unions

Both China and Vietnam have strong central unions with a monopoly on official labour representation, the All-China Union of Trade Federations (ACFTU) and the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) respectively. Both are trying to drive up membership. Both are also limited by national leaderships which fear empowering grassroots movements, especially labour. Thus, unions are formed in collaboration with management and initially staffed with management appointees, typically the director of human resources.

To quote one VGCL official, approaching workers directly “would infringe the rights of the employer.” Although the Vietnamese Labour Code suggests that Vietnamese unions may form organically and apply for VGCL membership, in reality, Vietnamese officials attest that only unions founded under the VGCL umbrella will be considered legitimate.

As in China, foreign-invested companies in Vietnam frequently defy their legal obligation to establish a union branch, although joint-venture companies may sometimes inherit a pre-existing union and have to put up with it. Vietnam, however, has one significant advantage over China: a central Ministry of Labour which takes a role in all labour disputes. Whereas in China, labour disputes are funneled through progressive levels of mediation and the courts under the auspices of local government, Vietnam has a central responsible authority.

Thus, the Ministry of Labour is a structural ally of unionization, and sometimes has better leverage in forcing companies to live up to their legal obligations. Local Labour Departments in industrial zones often set up union branches on their own initiative, since they find it much easier to settle a strike in an enterprise with a union than without one. The VGCL claims that its membership now includes 50 percent of the workforce in the foreign-invested sector. One interesting phenomenon is the policy in some localities such as Dong Nai Province for unions to send “directive working staffs” to companies refusing to set up unions, either overtly or covertly, to encourage the workers to set up their own union branch. It is questionable whether this is the beginning of a grassroots approach to labour representation, but it certainly bears further study.

Enterprise Unions

There are, in theory, provisions in the Vietnamese Labour Code which would lend increased legitimacy to workplace unions, as detailed by scholars Anita Chan and Irene Norlund. Whereas enterprise unions in China depend on enterprise funding, and often management salaries, Vietnamese unions should subsist on union dues and government funding. Vietnamese labour law expressly forbids the union from exercising management functions, i.e. becoming an arm of human resources as often happens in China. Vietnamese workers also have the theoretical right to self-organise, as new unions must only notify the government, not seek approval from it.

In reality, although Vietnamese union members contribute 2 percent of their wages as union fees, and despite the labour law, many enterprise union presidents are paid by their company, due to VGCL funding shortages. While unlike China, workplace trade union elections are the norm in Vietnam, most candidates are managers and sponsored by management.

Structural Advantages

Labour enjoys several kinds of structural advantage within the Vietnamese party-state compared with its Chinese equivalent. First and most obviously, the VGCL is a smaller organisation with only three levels of organisation to deal with. The chairman of the VGCL is a minister and a Central Committee member, reflecting the historical importance of the union to the Vietnamese party. The VGCL also enjoys considerable leverage with the Ministry of Labour, which is even more pronounced at the local department level.

Not only is there significant overlap between VGCL and Ministry of Labour functions, their departments often share personnel. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Director of the Labour Department is also deputy head of the local union, while his counterpart in Hanoi is head of the Hanoi union. While some interpret the close cooperation between the VGCL and the Ministry as union subordination to the state monitoring apparatus, it should be recognised that, in a system of labour rights that depends heavily on state legislation and enforcement, this close relationship confers enviable structural leverage on the VGCL.

Local Departments of Labour (DOLISA) often seem to be more proactive in representing labour interests than their union equivalents. One local Department of Labour official asserted that since the VGCL does not provide much support for collective bargaining, the Departments of Labour end up counselling workers on how to negotiate for concessions beyond the legal minimums. One HCMC Department of Labour official, Nguyen Thi Dan, has not only created workshops for workers on labour rights, but has been conspicuous in advocating the workers’ positions at the scenes of numerous strikes, where workers defer to her rather than to the workplace unions that consistently ignore their interests. One could say that in a Western sense, Vietnam has no unions but has a powerful state-sanctioned worker advocacy group.

Role of Unions Contested

While it is legally possible for the VGCL to move into a genuine collective bargaining role, the organisation places little emphasis on developing this capacity, with little training or support provided, especially to workplace unions. Vietnamese unions in the foreign-invested sector continue many of the traditions of their predecessors in the state sector, using union budgets to provide sports and entertainment as well as wedding and funeral bonuses, one union president claiming that there is no other way to attract members.

One tactic used to control unions in both countries is for management to cultivate a set of workers with exceptional benefits and ensure that these workers form the core of the union, while transferring anyone who criticises the company to dead-end positions. Workers at one shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City attested that the enterprise union had thrown their petitions over management labour violations “in the trash can.” Effective worker organisation is difficult to achieve because organisers tend to be victimized even while the state capitulates to worker demands. Occasionally, the enterprise union may successfully mediate a dispute, as in one tailoring company where the union asked management for disciplinary action against an abusive manager and asked workers for calm.

Dispute Resolution

While China has made the legal mechanisms for resolving labour disputes a going concern, Vietnam’s equivalent structure is all but non-functional. Numerous sources attest that enterprise conciliation committees have seldom heard cases. Informal bargaining and wildcat strikes seem to be the two pillars of the extra-legal reality that industrial relations has taken on. Strangely enough, this may be a positive sign.

In Vietnam, the legal procedure for redressing violations of labour law presumes collective representation by the trade union filing the grievance, which in other circumstances would constitute an improvement on the Chinese process. The procedure calls for the grievance to be dealt with first by the enterprise conciliation council, and then by a regional Arbitration Council, or the labour court. Having exhausted these avenues, the trade union can decide, with the support of the majority of its members, to call a strike. In practice, the workplace unions are usually too well controlled by management to initiate the grievance, and the workers know that the “employee” representatives on the conciliation council are managers.

Only in Ho Chi Minh City does there appear to be some progress, where 84 collective and 1118 individual cases had been heard between 1995 and 2006, largely because the local Department of Labour does not wait for a complaint but intervenes as soon as it hears of a problem, sometimes from managers eager to head off a strike.

Among foreign-invested enterprises with unions, less than 50 percent have signed collective agreements, according to VGCL figures. The issue seems in some ways redundant, since the collective agreements that are signed seldom exceed legal minimums, while other concessions were made through informal negotiation. Even when contracts are signed, management often does not honour the terms, and does not have clear policies on basic matters such as raises, bonuses and sick leave. The labour code violations of foreign-invested factories in Vietnam include the familiar arsenal of illegal overtime, short pay and intimidation.

Creative Response to Strikes

Strikes in Vietnam elicit an intriguing official response. The Ministry of Labour attempts to persuade management to meet workers’ demands, while the local VGCL branch persuades the workers to return to work. Most strikes in Vietnam are short, many stoppages being short enough they are not reported as strikes, with the Department Of Labour usually intervening to persuade employers to give in to worker demands. The VGCL consciously embraces the role of mediator, working with the employer to maintain industrial harmony. In contrast with China, there is seldom any direct police action against protesters in Vietnam, although this has changed somewhat in the past few years.

Alternate Channels of Representation

The VGCL has evolved a number of alternate means of representation and labour advocacy which bypass the ineffective workplace unions. The VGCL-run labour newspapers, especially the national Lao Dong (Labour) and Ho Chi Minh City Nguoi Lao Dong (Labourer), can provide an alternate channel for worker grievances. Workers can tip off the papers to abuses and impending disturbances in person, in writing or via 24 hour hotline, and the newspaper will send investigative journalists. These papers sort, analyse and publish grievances, as well as he causes of strikes. They have some freedom to criticise ineffective government monitoring and sanctions, as well as harmful industrial practices such as maintaining shell companies.

With independent budgets based on advertising, staffed by young journalists responsible for discrete areas who know the workers’ conditions and backed by a loyal readership, these papers can effectively facilitate conversations between workers, government and industry. This public forum not only puts pressure on the union and government to act, but moves the issue of labour rights into the realm of public input and debate, a conversation that may be the most direct and effective link between workers’ concerns and official action.

International Support

Unlike Chinese unions, Vietnamese unions may also join international unions and accept international donations. In China, distrust of “foreign interference” has all but eliminated the possibility of unions gaining support and experience from international counterparts. Vietnam, by contrast, sees improved labour practices as a means of attracting investment. The VGCL has been able to take advantage of the anti-sweatshop movement and emerging international standards, for example by collaborating with Social Accountability International with funding from the US State Department to improve labour standards, simultaneously urging factories to apply for SA8000 certification. The “foreign” nature of these standards is not seen as outside interference nor is it a cause for debate. If anything, these efforts constitute a new kind of effort to expand market access and investment.

The VGCL notably also permits its constituent regional and industrial organisations to engage with international labour organisations. Several of the industrial unions have taken the opportunity to connect with international unions in corresponding industries. While VGCL officials have made it quite clear that “propaganda… about independent/multi-labour unions, apolitical labour unions, labour unions fighting for economic goals etc.” is to be resisted, this political boilerplate has not deterred it from productive engagement.

The VGCL, and particularly the National Union of Industrial Workers, has been able to translate its freedom to associate with international unions into both a knowledge of international labour issues and considerable freedom of action. The VGCL delegation to an International Garment, Textile and Leatherworkers’ Federation workshop which proposed negotiating a Southeast Asian framework agreement with Pou Chen, the largest footware production company in the world, was able to immediately pledge participation without consulting with higher authorities. The head of the delegation was vice president of the NUIW.

The VGCL and Ministry of Labour have benefitted from the technical assistance and training provided by the ILO and international unions, although this does not filter down to workplace unions. Corporate codes of conduct originating overseas seem to be gaining ground enforcing labour rights in Vietnam where the VGCL is not. Third party international monitoring of labour practices is increasingly common. In all of these areas, the VGCL and Ministry of Labour have shown themselves politically able to both accept foreign assistance and use it pragmatically to enhance their own domestic programs and goals.

Rights Awareness and Labour History

Rights awareness on the part of migrant labour has been identified by several authors as a key distinguishing factor of the Vietnamese workforce. Taiwanese managers interviewed in Vietnam spoke of Vietnamese workers’ high awareness of labour rights and “democratic consciousness,” the ease with which they stage protests and the impossibility of applying the same harsh methods as they themselves had previously used in China.

Anita Chan and Hong-zen Wang claim a measurable difference between rights awareness of Vietnamese and Chinese workers, including awareness of maximum legal work hours and minimum wages. More importantly, not only were the Vietnamese workers aware of their rights, but indicated that they would strike if significant amounts of illegal overtime were required. Chinese laws regarding maximum hours and working conditions are generally honoured in the breach until a precipitating event causes the workers to strike.

This difference in worker awareness may come down to history. In China, the ACFTU was suppressed for many years due to intra-party conflict, and labour was never more than a tool for Party policy. In Vietnam, unions and labour remained strong and were a core element of the communist party’s strength and appeal throughout the French and American wars.

Expanding Basis of Action

A tripartite study between the University of Warwick, the ILO and the Vietnamese Ministry of Labour, published in the Journal of Industrial Relations, scrutinises the root causes of labour disturbance in Vietnam and has come up with something interesting.

The authors argue that Vietnamese workers have ceased to be satisfied with pressing their legal rights, which the state is no longer capable of enforcing, and wish to pursue their interests. While VGCL interpreted the demands of 30,000 workers striking in Ho Chi Minh City for a pay rise and better working conditions as being mainly a request to increase the minimum wage, these authors argue that they missed the point. The Director of the Wage and Salary Department at the Ministry of Labour, by contrast, acknowledged that the strike had nothing to do with minimum wages but with actual salaries. A VGCL official in Ho Chi Minh City acknowledged to the press that reasons for strikes have expanded to include shorter working hours, bonuses and even better food, in contrast to the previous situation where strikes generally revealed employers who were in breach of the Labour Code.

In this situation, the government must choose between continuing to support workers and suppressing them. The same trend can be seen in the fact that although the majority of strikes in Vietnam occur in foreign companies, and wages are usually the main issue in dispute, the foreign sector pays nearly twice as much as the domestic equivalent. Workers are clearly concerned with more than their subsistence needs.

A 2006 Labour Code revision recognised the distinction between rights-based and interests-based disputes. Following recent strike waves, the Ministry of Labour and VGCL acknowledged the need to shift from ad hoc actions to quell labour disputes to strengthening collective bargaining. For the VGCL, unfortunately, this means developing bargaining capacity at levels above workplace unions, despite government pressure to improve representation at the workplace level. The VGCL may well fear providing the extremely effective but anonymous leadership of the wildcat strikes with a public platform for organising workers.

A Pillar of State Legitimacy

Managers imported from the PRC to work in Taiwanese factories in Vietnam not only noted the marked difference in the power of factories to violate labour laws, for instance through illegal overtime, but attributed it to a proactive attitude on the part of the government. One said, “In China, we had to work much longer, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 am… In Vietnam, you cannot force workers to work after 10:00 pm. Why is there such a difference? The government. The Chinese government wants to make money and therefore just neglects workers’ rights.” Likewise, the VGCL’s struggles with the government have been widely reported, giving it significant credibility, while the ACFTU cannot hope for such ideological autonomy.

One explanation is that labour is a key pillar of state legitimacy in Vietnam to an extent that it never was in China. The Vietnamese Communist Party takes a much more sanguine attitude toward worker protest and its possible political implications than their Chinese counterparts. The Vietnamese government has historically perceived strikes in foreign companies as an opportunity to intervene and thus demonstrate its pro-labour ideological commitments. One author even goes so far as to suggest that the 1997 strike wave was a public relations exercise provoked by the government.

Vietnam’s Potential

Vietnam has the mindset at the tools to create one of the first really sound labour regimes in the region. To do so, it will have to overcome its inborn fear of genuine grassroots representation, but there are comparatively few other major obstacles to overcome.

East Asia: Stories About Conflict and Identity

East Asia is the centre of world economic growth, a region whose budding international cooperation over the past decade provoked talk of a new regional order governed by mutual respect among states. All the players understand that any large-scale conflict in the region would invite an economic disaster that could collapse the whole house of cards.

Consider just one choke point. The Malacca Strait carries over a quarter of the world’s sea-transported oil supplies and over 60,000 vessels per year. It is impossible to even begin to trace the impact of an ongoing disruption of that trade route. That is before we consider intra-regional trade through the South and East China seas and the impact of trade embargoes that war would inevitably bring.

It appears that serious interstate conflict is an irrational course for every player in East Asia as viewed from regional and global economic perspectives. And yet, we can’t stop worrying about it. As the song goes, why can’t we be friends?

Enmity and Identity

Nation states are, above all, ideas. Defining, spreading and demarcating national identity is always a contested process and one that depends on the stories told about other identities. It is on this level that the popular nationalism of modern East Asia operates. To understand this in historical context, it may be helpful to go back to a similar period in European history, the age of national consolidation.

There was nothing about the configuration of languages or cultures in medieval Europe to suggest that modern France or Spain or Britain would emerge as unified countries. These territories were divided by multiple languages and cultures, political allegiances and historical enmities. In each case, these differences were suppressed by a hegemonic culture, language and historical narrative in an attempt to create sameness from difference. There was a time when French was a minority language within the area of modern France, and, like Castillian Spanish and English, it was a matter of deliberate policy to extend the domain of the language of the central power. The violent suppression of Gaelic and Welsh in Britain is particularly well-documented.

At the same time, there were border areas that changed hands numerous times over the era of national consolidation- Alsace, the Aland Islands, Sardinia. There remain territorial disputes in Europe today, thankfully no longer contested by violence for the most part. But during the era of national consolidation, these disputes were very convenient for the countries involved. National identity could be shored up over and against hostile states and by the common enterprise and experience of warfare.

It is in light of this experience that the abiding narratives of national enmity within East Asia can be understood as more than just fixation upon the scars of history. This is, in essence, Asia’s era of national consolidation. It is not that there weren’t nations in Asia before- but since the end of colonialism, they have been re-invented as European-style nation states.

We can see the insecurity of early European state identities mirrored in East Asia. In the case of Indonesia, the persistence of dissent in the form of secessionist movements became clear when political liberalisation allowed the effective expression of dissent in the 1990s. Against the movements among the populations of Papua and Aceh for independence, the regime has mustered not only military force, but narratives of “unitary” statehood versus national disintegration.

The colonial borders seldom conformed to historical or ethnic realities. For example, four formerly Thai provinces are in Malaysian hands due an unequal treaty between Thailand and the British. Many Southeast Asian governments, as with postcolonial states in many parts of the world, are internally driven by the challenges of state legitimacy.

We can also see that, as in Europe, narratives of international conflict arise from the need to assert historical identity over and against rival states. Let’s look at Southeast Asia. For the Viet linguistic majority, the national narrative stems from the history of resistance to Chinese invasions and the attempt to construct a national identity and maintain sovereignty distinct from Chinese culture. China annexed Vietnam for almost a millennium, and tried several times to re-conquer it after a successful rebellion. Both Thailand and Vietnam have histories of rivalry and expansionism at the expense of the surrounding states, generating still more conflict narratives. Almost all East Asian states have a repertoire of latent narratives related to historical conflicts, which vanish into the background while relations are good but are quickly brought forward when relations sour.

It’s easier to understand the role of historical conflict narratives in forming national identity by substituting the names of the ethnicities involved for the names of the states. The history, for example, of Sino-Vietnamese conflict is very short. The history of Han-Viet conflict is much longer, while other ethnicities in Vietnam played different roles in this conflict, one of which was to be subjugated under Viet expansion.

For China, the central narrative has been that of the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, especially the West and Japan. Every schoolchild in China learns about this, and the Party education system places the history of the Party in this context, as a force fighting to reclaim the dignity of China. Because this period was marked by territorial concessions to a number of other powers, the idea of territorial integrity holds a special place in Chinese nationalism- and nationalism itself is the de facto successor to Maoism as an approved State ideology.

Conflict narratives emerge to prominence following an inciting incident, but while governments may make use of them, they cannot always control them. The intrusions of Chinese vessels into waters around the Spratlys has led to mass nationalist protests against Chinese imperialism in Hanoi, on which the authorities sometimes tried to crack down. Popular protests in China in 2005 over Japan’s bid for a Security Council seat were likewise met with attempts by the Communist Party to contain them. It seems that governments neither completely identify with conflict narratives nor wish them to become excessively influential in national discourse or international relations. That said, it may be too late to address these problems when conflict erupts.

Still, the central point remains that every story about historical conflict in the region carries political weight and emotional power because the stories themselves are totems and bulwarks of national identity- and no conflict is more enduring or heated than one in which identity is at stake.

The Sinocentric Region

Conflict narratives are not the only stories in play. One of the most powerful narratives for a rising China has been the idea of historical Sinocentric Asia.

In this system, Asian power structures were defined by a relationship with Imperial China, held together through tributary trading missions. It is on this history that the frequent Chinese claim of inherent benevolence toward the region and peacefully moral cultural leadership rests. While this is easy for neighbouring countries to accept at certain times, certain kinds of Chinese actions can cause them to remember other aspects of this history.

The ideal of benevolent Confucian hierarchy and leadership by persuasion formed the ideological facade of the Sinocentric system, while in practice China regularly invaded neighbouring countries including Vietnam and Korea, annexing both at various points.

China’s current participation as one state among equals in the international system is historically exceptional. How far, many ask, will China go in trying to re-establish its traditional hegemony in the region?

Why Are We Still At Peace?

In an atmosphere where stray fishing trawlers generate mass protests and months of international hostility, where conflict narratives lurk under every stone, the remarkable thing is that somehow, the region has managed to go so long without full-scale war, something often lost on security commentators.

All states in the region have experienced existential crises within the past six decades, whether through interethnic tensions, civil war, secessionism, invasion or revolution. This has led to a strong collective norm among states that says, in effect, problems between states come second to problems within states.

Respect for the sovereignty of other states and non-interference in their internal affairs is the basis of East Asian regional diplomacy, manifested in the Indo-Chinese Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence in the 1950s, which in turn greatly influenced the Fundamental Principles of ASEAN. These include:

1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

It is under this normative framework that the ASEAN nations of Southeast Asia have slowly built up a new structure of regional institutions over the past decade. ASEAN Plus Three (APT), a consultative body which includes China, Japan and South Korea, the security-focussed ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the China-ASEAN Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) are but a few examples. Vietnam, a former enemy, is now an ASEAN member. China’s process of global integration began with experience as an ASEAN observer, to the point that many credit ASEAN with socialising China to multilateral institutions.

It is largely down to this direction in regional politics that conflict has been effectively contained to this point. However, there are signs that China in particular may regard this normative structure as a safety net it no longer requires. Chinese refusal to come to terms over recent events in the Spratly and Paracel island disputes has caused previous warm relations to chill.

Defence Relationships

Asia is marked by a strange network of military interactions, which defies expectations of a deterrence-based security order. Many states in the region seem to have given themselves political space through an approach that is neither non-alignment nor single alignment, but a balance of alignments. Counter intuitively, this seems to increase, rather than decrease, the perception of security of individual states.

The United States, of course, has various levels of security relationships, including military-to-military, with most countries in the region beyond its overt security commitments to Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. China has fostered military relationships with South Korea, India, Vietnam and Japan among others, and describes these relationships as “strategic partnerships” and “mutually beneficial strategic relationship[s]”. Japan has recently signed a maritime security agreement with the Philippines. Vietnam has also developed security ties with Singapore, and is looking for a closer defence relationship with the United States. The 1971 Five-Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) between Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand was conceived to allow Australia and New Zealand to assume the United Kingdom’s traditional role as security guarantor for Malaysia and Singapore following the withdrawal of British forces. It provides for peacetime joint training exercises, which have recently been expanded in frequency and scope, and for “consultation” in the event of a threat to Malaysia or Singapore.

This network of defence relations typically puts a premium on knowledge and familiarity. With so many doors kept open and a relative lack of ironclad commitments, there is substantial flexibility in the configuration of power.

However, still the most important defence relationships in the region are those of the United States. Its military presence in the region, especially taken together with with the forces of its regional allies, is by far the strongest even now.

Stories About the Future

The story rising China tells about itself is of rebuilding its historical and natural pre-eminence in Asia. The story ASEAN tells is of cooperation and peaceful economic advancement. The story that Western security pundits tell is of conflict. Before we take that conflict to be inevitable, we should be aware of the sense of historical enmity that has been driving conflict, and the countervailing forces that have, thus far, prevented it. It is never about territory. It is about what the territory signifies for the peoples involved on the level of historical identity.

Full Sourcing Available upon Request


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