Taiwan-China – a Flashpoint Once More

BBC From Our Own Correspondent, February 19th 2017

 It was not only Beijing, but also Taipei that was relieved by the U.S. president’s decision to continue to policy of one China, respecting Beijing’s insistence that any country that recognises China cannot recognise Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.  After years of being an unresolved by settled situation, Donald Trump indicated that the U.S. might want closer ties with Taiwan and the island suddenly because a flashpoint again that could redefine America’s relationship with Beijing.  At present, Taiwan has a close relationship with China and after a short ferry ride from the Chinese mainland to a Taiwanese island, Humphrey Hawksley sees why.

Old Taiwanese Battle Tanks displayed on a Kinmen Beach


We stood next to an old camouflaged battle tank. A low mist hung across the narrow strip of sea, through which we could just make out the office towers and luxury hotels of mainland China.  “If they attack us here, they’ll only hit a national park,” said Isaac Wang. He’s in his sixties, but as a young soldier he was posted to the Taiwanese island of Kinmen.  “But if we bomb them, they will lose a lot of skyscrapers.”

 He was right because barely two hours earlier I had been over there in the Chinese megacity of Xiamen, driving along its elegant, coastal road lined with palm trees and yachting marinas. Then in a half hour ferry ride, I crossed the unrecognised, invisible and heavily defended frontier that separates communist and authoritarian China from capitalist and democratic Taiwan. 

 Taiwan was split from the mainland nearly 70 years ago in 1949, when communist armies swept into Beijing and the defeated American-backed nationalists fled here. On the mainland, the People’s Republic of China vows to win back the island one day and – in what is known as the One China policy – insists that no government can recognise both itself and Taiwan.

 That threat of conflict has never gone away and has recently been resurrected by President Trump publicly questioning the One China policy. This worries Isaac.

 But, while Washington and Beijing made threatening noises, Xiamen’s ferry terminal bustled with school groups, sports teams and duty free shoppers. Customer-friendly immigration officers stamped papers while travellers chose from a panel of coloured buttons, smiling or frowning faces, to say how satisfied they were with the service. I gave mine top marks.

 There wasn’t a gun or warship in sight.

 “We have 4,000 day trippers on a busy day,” said Isaac enthusiastically. “We are the same people. We have the same language. We eat the same food. We have families on both sides.”

 A few metres away, water lapped at the thick stakes, embedded in the beach to deter Chinese troops coming ashore. Peppered around the landscape were tall concrete posts, some still with three-pronged metal spikes designed to impale invading paratroopers.  The main island of Taiwan is much further east. But Kinmen has always been the vulnerable outpost.

 Isaac divides his time between San Francisco and Kinmen for which he has huge affection. In the 1970s, he worked here as a psychological warfare officer when China carried out routine artillery bombardments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7.30 in the evening sharp, he said.

 He showed me a pile of grey metal shells, stuffed with tightly-rolled paper. Instead of raining down shrapnel, their explosive charges had pushed out leaflets. Isaac’s job was to gather them all up before the islanders read them and were converted to communism.  “They said crazy things like how China had colour televisions and shiny bicycles”, he remembered. “And, of course, they sent over copies of Mao’s Little Red Book.  If anybody was found with one, they were arrested. Taiwan had martial law then, and it was very strict.”

Then on January 1st 1979, the U.S. formally cut ties with Taiwan and recognised Beijing. The One China Policy began and the shelling stopped.  Now, there’s uncertainty again. Taiwan is a sensitive no-go area for China, capable of whipping up discussion of missiles and nuclear strikes in Beijing’s nationalist press, while Taiwan still talks about training for an insurgency that would destroy China in an Iraq-style war without end.

Isaac wanted to show me something that he thought would guarantee none of that would ever happen. He pointed out the site of the last battle in October 1949  when an attempted land invasion was repelled and the once-secret coastal tunnels, hewn through rock, from which high speed supply boats raced against Chinese shellfire to keep the islanders fed. We ended up at a brand-new hotel and duty free shopping mall – a $2.5 billion investment gamble that today’s mainland visitors would keep coming.

The manager took us up to the lavish presidential suite. Next to it was a small conference room specially built for Chinese and Taiwanese officials to have impromptu, secret meetings to sort things out without fanfare.

“Trump needs to understand how important face is to China,” said Isaac. “If you give face, pay respect and compliments, and keep the deal-making under the table, you can do business. If you don’t, it can end in blood.”

Isaac Wang Centre as a young officer

Isaac Wang on Kinmen in 1978 centre above and below in 2017

Isaac Wang




The Philippines — How China Plans to Win the Asia-Pacific

2Q==The Philippines, has found itself in the eye of the storm after China took over traditional Philippine fishing grounds about a hundred miles off its west coast.  In 2014, Chinese Coast Guard crews pounded them with water cannon and ordered them to leave.  China has since occupied the area known as Scarborough Shoal, despite the Philippines having a defence treaty with the United States, should it come under attack. Humphrey Hawksley has been to the fishing village most affected and discovered that beyond the high-level diplomacy things were not exactly as they seemed.  

BBC  From Our Own Correspondent March 3rd 2017


His black hat is emblazoned with the slogan TRY!. He wears a sleeveless bright purple T-shirt. His eyes are narrowed from the sun’s glare, his skin leathery after a lifetime at sea.  Muscles bulging, he’s a big man, too big really for the small motorcycle and side car which he calls Team Monster and with which he now makes ends meet by taking passengers here and there.

Jurrick Joson is standing at the end of a dirt track road with shacks and small stalls on one side and the gently lapping West Philippine Sea on the other. The water stretches off in a mix of bright tropical blues and murky greys towards a place, about a day’s sail away, called Bajo de Masinloc or Lower Masinloc. It’s a triangular chain of reefs and rocks with a large lagoon inside, named after Jurrick’s northern Philippine home town. Generations of his family have earned their living fishing there.

“I am so angry,” he says, his eyes flitting between his motorcycle and the sea. “If I had a gun, I would have fought them. If America supports us, we should go to war with them.”

Visibly shaken, Jurrick says he still has nightmares about the day three years ago when his fishing boat was buzzed by Chinese helicopters, threatened by armed men in speedboats and blasted with water cannon.

“This powerful jet of water smashed into my boat,” he says. “Then it hit me directly and I was thrown into the sea. I tried to scramble up and they hit me again. It was as if they really wanted to kill me.”

Jurrick managed to cling on and pull himself to safety. The Philippine fishing boats retreated and since then China has occupied the reef, arguing that it lies within Chinese territorial waters.  These waters are also known as the South China Sea, and the fishing ground as Scarborough Shoal. Last year an international tribunal at the Hague ruled that China had violated international law and that there was no legal basis to its territorial claims.

But so far that has counted for nothing. Despite having a defence treaty with the United States, the Philippines was  told that  America would not go to war with China over a fishing reef. It does raise the question among many Filipinos of exactly when the USA *would* step in and resist China’s bullying behaviour. 

But, the way things unfolded for Jurrick may show the style in which China plans to unseat America as the prevailing power in the Asia Pacific region. 

First, in October, knowing his country was outgunned, the new, bullish President Rodrigo Duterte flew to Beijing to cut a deal: Chinese investment in exchange for his keeping quiet about Scarborough Shoal. Next, a Chinese official suddenly appeared in Masinloc itself, all smiles and handshakes, and invited members of the local fishing association to visit China — all expenses paid.

The chairman, Leonardo Cuaresma, a slight, bespectacled man, tells how they were shown around a marine research ship and a hi-tech fisheries center and sent on the bullet train from southern China to more meetings in Beijing.  At the end of the tour, China put in an offer to buy all of Masinloc’s fish.

“I don’t know if we can trust them,” said Leonardo thoughtfully. “But we might have to.”

Then, Jurrick got word that it was safe to work again around Scarborough Shoal. In fact, President Duterte wanted the fishermen out there. Jurrick was unsure at first, unable to shake off his nightmares. But the day I saw him he had just come back from a week’s fishing there. He glanced affectionately across to his boat, moored at the water’s edge. Wide bamboo stabilisers stretched from a long canoe-like hull, painted in yellows, greens and blues, all lashed together with ropes and wires.  From a bygone age, you could see it was no match for Chinese fishing technology or for that matter its water cannon. 

That week’s work earned Jurrick ten times more than ferrying passengers on his motorcycle. In recent years, he had been unable to provide for his wife, Melinda, and their four children. It got so bad that Melinda had to get work as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia where she is now.

“I had lost all my confidence,” he said, his lip quivering as he ended his story. “I am a fisherman. It is who I am.  Now that I can do that again, Melinda can come back and we can live as a family.”


America’s Antagonism is a Hindrance to Peace


In conversation with Perfecto Yasay Jnr, foreign secretary of the Philippines which has carried an abrupt change of policy under President Rodrigo Duterte.  Until recently, the Philippines was one of America’s most steadfast American allies in Asia with a defence agreement dating back to 1952.  It is now trying to lessen its reliance on the U.S. by forging closer ties with China – even though four years ago China attacked Philippine fishing boats with water cannon to drive them of traditional fishing grounds known as Scarborough Shoal.

HH:- What would trigger the Mutual Defense Agreement?

Yasay:- If China intruded into our territory to carry out their Nine Dash Line policy and say that the Philippines is theirs.

HH:- They did that with Scarborough Shoal, didn’t they?

Yasay:- Scarborough Shoal is not part of Philippine territory. It is part of our Exclusive Economic Zone.  The MDA does not come into play unless our public vessels are attacked by China .

HH:-  Civilian vessels don’t count?

Yasay:-  No.

HH:-  Is America’s current antagonistic tone towards China a help or a hindrance?

Yasay:-  It is a hindrance. America’s intention in pursuit of its international policy tries to get us involved in whatever quarrel they have with China.

HH: What is exactly is your foreign policy now?

Yasay:  It is mandated by the constitution to promote an independent foreign policy anchored on paramount national interest. The difference now is how it is practiced.  We have been somehow conditioned to think we are the little brown brother of America.  This has not been good for us.

HH: So, how is it changing?

Yasay:-  Our MDA was brought about when there were fears that communist China and the Soviet Union were going to influence the rest of Asia. So, we have an agreement that an attack on the Philippines would be deemed an attack on the United States and vice versa. Now, we have no more threats of being invaded by aggressive countries. So, if the U.S. feels it would like to have a presence here in Asia and would like us to engage ourselves in, for example,  joint patrols with them, we don’t feel that would be in our national interest  because of the realities on the ground here.  The joint patrols are based on that old fear that China remains a threat and we don’t like that because it’s provocative.

HH:- Is you economy at a stage when you wouldn’t want to halt it over some sovereignty dispute?

Yasay:- That’s correct, specifically we do not want to have it halted over the disagreement on sovereignty rights on our special economic zone.

HH:-  If your relationship with China really blossoms what impact would that have?

Yasay:- With goodwill and trust we would be able to discuss openly these remaining (sovereignty) issues, maybe without resolving who owns what.  We can engage in joint exploration, opening up the area so on and so forth.

HH:- When you say that to the Americans how do they react?

Yasay:- The Americans have not been used to this kind of approach.  In my initial contact, meeting the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, they were taken aback. I felt embarrassed and to a certain extent insulted when I articulated this.  One person said:  “To Hell! If you want to do this alone, then do it alone” and walked out on me.

No Prospect of Sino-U.S. War


Illustration from Washington Times

In conversation with Dr Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, Hainan.  On this issue, Dr Wu is exceptionally close to the Chinese leadership. He  also heads the Washington D.C-based  Institute for China-American Studies with offices in the heart of the capital’s think-tank neighbourhood. I met him there.

HH  Will there be a conflict?

Wu Shicun: I don’t think so

HH: Why not?

Wu Shicun: China is the largest developing country in the world. The U.S. is the largest developed one.  Both are permanent members of the UN security council. These two countries have obligation to work together to safeguard peace and stability for the international community. I don’t think the US and China will go to war. In this regard I am confident and optimistic about that.

HH:- Then how will it work?

Wu Shicun:- In order to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea area the U.S. should keep its commitment to taking no sides over the sovereignty issue particularly the Spratly Islands and Nansha Islands. That is the first. Second, the U.S. should convince the Chinese people that it has no intention of using the South China Sea dispute to contain China. And third, the U.S. should keep restraint in conducting intelligence gathering activities very close to China’s coast that poses a  threat to China’s national security.

HH:-  And China?

Wu Shicun:- China as the owner of the South China Sea islands and as the largest coast country of the South China Sea should respect the freedom of navigation enjoyed not only by regional countries but also the whole international community in accordance with international law. Second, China should be prudent when it comes to island construction facilities which go beyond defensive needs. And third,  China should not declare an Air Defense Identification Zone as it will undermine mutual  trust between China and the U.S.. China now feels no security threat so China doesn’t need to announce it.

HH:- How do you think U.S. policy will change with the new administration.

Wu Shicun:-  I hope the U.S. will adjust its South China Sea policy. It has gradually changed its policy from neutrality to limited interference, then active interference. I hope the next administration will commit to a regional neutral stance.

HH:- What deal could the U.S. make with China that could be acceptable to settling this dispute.

Wu Shicun:- It would be with our president Xi Jinping new model  of major power relations – mutual respect and no confrontation and no conflict. It is important to respect China’s  sovereign rights and maritime interests and for China to respect freedom of navigation enjoyed by the international community.

HH:- Can China continue to expand its military power in the Asia-Pacific without the U.S. withdrawing partially at least from that region.

Wu Shicun:-  I don’t think China has intention to create a void or emptiness there. China now needs to safeguard its sovereignty and uphold its national security. I don’t think the U.S. will pull out because the U.S. has political, economic and military interests there.

Time for Asia to Give the Lead in Europe

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn walks towards his Nissan Qashqai car as he leaves Number 10 Downing Street after holding talks with Prime Minister Theresa May. © AP

Five months after Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, the “Brexit process” appears even more complex, fraught and challenging than initially envisaged. Of greatest concern is the absence of a cohesive, U.K. negotiating policy, due to damaging rifts in the cabinet of Prime Minister Theresa May and a lack of pre-referendum preparation.

The picture emerging among diplomats in London is of paralysis gripping a government floundering in the face of hundreds of urgent decisions required to determine Britain’s future relationships with the EU and the world. The Institute for Government, a think-tank with close ties to the Civil Service, recently described the Brexit workload as “unsustainable,” criticizing the government’s approach as “secretive” and lacking a “publicly visible direction.”

 Beyond the question of London’s negotiating strategy, one vital issue is how Britain’s post-EU business environment might evolve following a deal made with the Nissan Motor group after Carlos Ghosn, chief executive, met May in September. Ghosn publicly warned then that if the company was to continue investing in Britain it would need compensation for any negative impact from Brexit.

A month later, Nissan announced that it had gained assurances from the British government and would be investing for the long term at its Sunderland plant in the north of England, building its popular Qashqai and X-Trail SUV models there. About 7,000 jobs would be guaranteed.

May hailed the decision as a vote of confidence in Britain’s continued openness for business. But the assurances that Nissan received are shrouded in secrecy. Under EU regulations, the government is banned from offering state aid or financial assistance to businesses at least until early 2019, when Britain’s EU membership is expected to end. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has begun an investigation to find out exactly what Nissan has been promised.

Numerous critics of the government’s stance say the Nissan deal sets a precedent that could lead to demands from other multinational companies. Big business could “point a gun at the government’s head” to secure similar assurances, they argue.

The Nissan affair has left a bad taste about foreign investors among the British public. It also raises the question of whether the government plans to maintain the flow of inward investment with a series of furtive deals involving public money after the U.K. leaves the EU. “First the threat, then the bargain, and finally, an expensive handshake behind closed doors,” said Aditya Chakraborty, an economics commentator, in the liberal Guardian newspaper.

Many companies have invested in Britain at least in part because it provides a relatively liberal trading gateway to Europe through its EU membership. Without that investment incentive, the U.K. needs to come up with another unique selling point. So far it has failed to do so.

The U.K.’s attempts to reach out to future trading partners have been met with cool responses peppered with conditions. May was way down the list of foreign heads of government to be telephoned by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, ranking 11th, and it was not one of her ministers but the flamboyant leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who met Trump shortly after the Nov. 8 U.S. election.

The British prime minister also came back empty-handed from an early November visit to India because it was overshadowed by the issue of visas. India wants freer entry to the U.K. for its workers and students. Britain concedes this will be difficult because immigration and employment access for foreigners were key reasons behind the voters’ decision to leave the EU.

China is wary about committing to major British infrastructure projects after May questioned its involvement in a nuclear power station project. She delayed the deal by two months before approving it, at the same time tasking the security services to examine China’s involvement across all of Britain’s critical infrastructure plans.

 Within the EU, attitudes to the U.K.’s departure vary. But French President Francois Hollande has said that Britain must pay a price for leaving so that other member states can see that leaving would be painful for them, too.

Turning point

Britain’s decision to leave the EU marks a turning point in a post-World War II experiment that saw a small trading alliance, designed to prevent future European conflict, grow into the economic and political institution it is today. Among its many achievements, the EU provided a democratic beacon for former communist bloc countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But it is now showing deep fractures, with political parties across the 28 member states stating their unease about being governed from Brussels. Several have said that they, too, want to take their countries out. Some, notably in Denmark, France and Hungary, draw their support from a growing brand of right-wing nationalism that contradicts EU values.

Ten years ago, many global regions were examining the EU as a system of largely free trade and shared values to which they might aspire. That is no longer the case, and it appears that — in a reversal of economic muscle — guidance is now flowing to Europe from Asia.

After Beijing issued an unusually blunt warning over May’s hesitancy on the nuclear power project, Britain has returned to its previous line that it is looking forward to a “golden era” in its relationship with China, with which it had earlier agreed an investment of $50 million in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, becoming the AIIB’s first major Western founder member. Chinese companies, meanwhile, have announced significant investments in the U.K., including a $250 million investment in a London riverside property development project.

Enter Japan

In September, the Japanese government took the unprecedented step of publishing an open memo entitled: “Japan’s Message to the U.K. and the European Union.” The statement laid out criteria for a healthy business environment as Britain negotiated its path out of the EU.

The letter carried something of a patrician, mentoring style, its tone reminiscent of a referee’s pep talk to sports teams heading onto the pitch to do battle. Tokyo in its memo reminded both sides that Brexit risks major disruption to the world economy, advised them to act responsibly, and warned that the process needed to be cooperative, transparent, seamless and free of unpleasant surprises.

The 15-page statement included detailed recommendations on the thorniest of Brexit issues, including the need for the U.K. to accept foreign workers, customs-free trading arrangements across the English Channel, and harmonization of regulations and standards.

Much of this contradicts Britain’s referendum instruction to the government to “take back control” of the country. But it is an outsider’s clear and apolitical outline of the conditions needed to create the best business environment. It also marks a reversal of modern tradition — an Asian government telling Europeans countries how to behave.

Today’s Europe is defined by the EU’s moves to act as a higher regional authority — and growing resentment among member states over Brussels’ perceived highhandedness. The system before that was largely based on the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia — not signed by England, the main forerunner of the U.K. — which declared Europe to be a collection of sovereign states balanced under international law with a principle of noninterference in each other’s domestic affairs.

There are echoes here of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and of the way that East Asia as a whole conducts its business, with high levels of economic entwinement but no regional power instructing sovereign states on how to govern their people.

With Britain prompting a weakening of the European project, and the continent’s increasing reliance on trade with Asian powers, Europe might do well to examine more closely the Asian formula as it shapes its path to the future. Japan’s letter reminds both the EU and Britain that they are laying the foundations for the creation of a new Europe.

Humphrey Hawksley is an Asian specialist and former BBC Beijing bureau chief; his next book, “Asian Waters, America, China and the Global Paradox,” will be published in 2017.

International Law even more Crucial

Major powers tend to reject international law when rulings run counter to their interests insisting that the distant courts carry no jurisdiction. China rejected a Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in July and clings to expansive claims in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines. China’s response mirrored US rejection of a 1986 International Court of Justice ruling against US support for rebels in Nicaragua. “With these stands, both China and the United States weakened a crucial element of international law – consent and recognition by all parties,” writes journalist Humphrey Hawksley for YaleGlobal Online. Disregard for the rule of law weakens the legal system for all. Hawksley offers two recommendations for renewing respect for international law: intuitional overhaul so that the all parties recognize the courts, rejecting decisions only as last resort, and governments accepting the concept, taking a long-term view on balance of power even when rulings go against short-term strategic interests. Reforms may be too late as China organizes its own parallel systems for legal reviews and global governance, Hawksley notes, but international law, if respected, remains a mechanism for ensuring peace. – YaleGlobal

China and the US Undercut International Law for Their Narrow Interests

International law requires the consent of all parties, but China and the US reject when decisions cross short-term strategic interests
Humphrey Hawksley
YaleGlobal, 17 November 2016
Rule of law? Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not press China’s Xi Jinping on the international court ruling on Scarborough Shoal; China’s stance mirrors US rejection of a 1986 international court ruling that favored Nicaragua

LONDON: Flutter over the surprise visit to China by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte may soon fade. But his abrupt and public dismissal of the United States in favor of China has weakened the argument that international rule of law could underpin a changing world order.

The issue in question was the long-running dispute between China and the Philippines over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal, situated 800 kilometers southeast of China and 160 kilometers west of the Philippines mainland, well inside the United Nations–defined Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

Despite a court ruling and Duterte’s cap in hand during his October mission to Beijing, Philippine fishing vessels still only enter the waters around Scarborough Shoal at China’s mercy.

The dispute erupted in April 2012, when China sent ships to expel Filipino fishing crews and took control of the area. The standoff became a symbol of Beijing’s policy to lay claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea where where it continues to build military outposts on remote reefs and artificially created islands in waters claimed by other nations. Lacking military, diplomatic or economic muscle, the Philippines turned to the rule of law and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. A panel of maritime judges ruled China’s claim to Scarborough Shoal invalid in July this year. China refused to recognize the tribunal from the start and declared the decision “null and void,” highlighting the complex balance in the current world order between national power and the rule of law.

Beijing’s response mirrored a 1986 US response to Nicaragua’s challenge in the International Court of Justice. The court ruled against the United States for mining Nicaragua’s harbors and supporting right-wing Contra rebels. The United States claimed the court had no jurisdiction.

China’s response on the South China Sea ruling mirrors a
1986 US response.

With these stands, both China and the United States weakened a crucial element of international law – consent and recognition by all parties.

The Western liberal democratic system is being challenged, and confrontations in Asia and Europe, as in Crimea and Ukraine, replicate the lead-up to the global conflicts of last century’s Cold War. As Nicaragua and Central America were a flashpoint in the 1980s, so Scarborough Shoal and South China Sea are one now. Other flashpoints are likely to emerge as China and Russia push to expand influence.

Western democracies being challenged by rising powers have a troubled history. The 1930s rise of Germany and Japan; the Cold War’s proxy theaters in Vietnam, Nicaragua and elsewhere; and the current US-Russian deadlock over Syria are evidence that far more thought must be given in the deployment of international law as a mechanism for keeping the peace.

The view is supported, on the surface at least, by Russia and China who issued a joint statement in June arguing that the concept of “strategic stability” being assured through nuclear weapons was outdated and that all countries should abide by principles stipulated in the “UN Charter and international law.” Emerging power India, with its mixed loyalties, shares that view. “The structures for international peace and security are being tested as never before,” says former Indian ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, author of Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos. “It is everyone’s interest to re-establish the authority of the Security Council and reassert the primacy of law.”

The United States makes a similar argument, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently speaking about the “peaceful resolution of disputes, the right of countries to make their own security and economic choices free from coercion…. guaranteed by international law.”

The origins of international law go back centuries, and its main instrument today is the 1945 UN Charter. Among its many objectives is to establish conditions under which international law can be upheld.

Many insist that the international legal system is biased towards the West.

The problem is that too many governments insist that the international legal system is biased towards vested interests of the West, indicating urgent need of an overhaul.

UN judicial mechanisms suffered damaging blows to credibility in two recent examples.

The 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS was designed to keep shipping and trade routes open, but failed in the Philippines case because of China’s outright rejection of its application even though China was among the early signatories.

The International Criminal Court was set up in the Hague in 2002 to try crimes against humanity.  But in October, three African governments – South Africa, Burundi and Gambia – announced plans to quit the ICC. Gambia described it as the “International Caucasian Court,” intended to target Africans, complaining that at least 30 Western nations, had committed war crimes against independent sovereign states since the ICC’s creation with none indicted.

The United States weakens its own support for upholding law by refusing to ratify either UNCLOS or the ICC.

“International law has a double face,” says Keyuan Zou, professor of international law at Lancashire University. “On the one hand, it serves the rule of-law. But on the other it is used as an instrument to pursue national interest. In the latter sense, power politics plays a big role.”

China exhibits disdain for existing international order
by planting seeds of
a parallel system.

As China becomes richer and more confident, it exhibits disdain for the existing order by planting seeds of a parallel system. It has announced its own International Maritime Judicial Center to counter the Hague tribunal’s Philippines hearing.  It created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to compete with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and similar institutions. It unveiled its One Belt One Road initiative to secure trade routes and supply chains far from its borders and hurried to build outposts around South China Sea islands and reefs while the Permanent Court of Arbitration conducted its review.

Then in July it tore up the balance between law and power, rejecting the tribunal’s South China Sea ruling, and power became supreme.

Duterte, reacted first by warning of a “bloody confrontation” over Scarborough Shoal. The United States backed the Philippines, supported the tribunal’s finding and challenged China’s resolve by sailing warships through the waters in Freedom of Navigation operations.

Duterte’s bravado did not last long. He back-pedaled, acknowledging that the Philippines $294 billion economy could not withstand hostility from China’s $11 trillion economy. He flew to Beijing and came away announcing that he had struck his own deal over Scarborough Shoal while winning $13.5 of trade and investment agreements from China. Most significantly, he declared that his country’s future lay with China and not with its traditional ally.  “America has lost,” he stated coldly, in a grim marker.

The United States promotes international law as the level playing field on which smaller nations need not make such black and white choices, as they had to during the Cold War, of deciding which of two larger rivals to support.

Many weaker nations such as Moldova, Cambodia and Singapore watch closely and hope the Philippines story does not become a trend.

To achieve that, two steps are required: First, the institutions of international law must be overhauled so they are recognized by all parties and rejected only as a last resort. Second, governments must accept the concept of international law in the balance of power even when it might go against their short-term strategic interests.

The cold reality of global politics exemplified by Duterte’s decision shows that such an overhaul might not be possible and, in short, warns about a repeat of history whereby a dominating hegemonic power holds threatening sway over regional vassal states.

Evidence of this came within weeks of Duterte’s Beijing visit. China stated unequivocally that the situation with Scarborough Shoal was unchanged: It remains Chinese sovereign territory, and satellite pictures show Chinese Coast Guard ships still patrolling there.
Humphrey Hawksley is formerly the BBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief and author of The Third World War: A Novel of Global Conflict. His next book Asian Waters: America, China and the Global Paradox will be published in 2017.

Recognise Trump-Farage Success


Today is as good a day as any for Liberal Democracy to stop deriding the masterminds of the Trump and Brexit victories as stupid, malicious and misguided. Leadership is an amoral activity practised with skill by Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi each of whom were dismissed by the establishment in their early campaigns as ‘an excitable little man’ and ‘a seditious fakir’. They went on in different ways to have significant impact on all our lives. Now, the discontent of tens of millions has risen to dangerous levels to which the ruling establishment appears to have been oblivious. Through democratic mechanisms, the leadership of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage has opened a safety valve and they feel, for the moment at least, that their voice is being heard. Societies without that safety valve create movements like the 2011 Arab uprising and the 1917 Russian revolution.

Brexit has uncovered a frightening vacuum of clear thinking among the main political players. Labour has lurched back into its Marxist tendencies. The Conservatives veer towards xenophobic nationalism. The Scottish Nationalists want separatism. The European Union refuses to discuss the mildest of reform even as right-wing racism becomes a bigger and bigger vote winner. And Britain’s Liberal Democrats conjure up an image of Nero and Rome. They are leafletting about pot holes while the values which bear their name are shredded ballot box by ballot box.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we pay tribute to all those who gave their lives for the values of Liberal Democracy. It is as good a day as any, therefore, for the Liberal Democrats to get off their butts and ramp up their game because right now, in Britain, they are the only show in town. First up, for their referendum campaign on Brexit negotiation results they need to specify reform in the EU, too, if they are to achieve that referendum and then win it. It’s not rocket science, but spell it out without sub clauses. And second, come up with a slogan to match ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ and shout it from the roof tops. We need to know what Liberal Democracy stands for.