US vessels in the South China Post. Source: Wikimedia
Despite the optimism about regional economic growth, expressed in the form of the new Asean Economic Community, this weekend’s summits in Malaysia will probably be best remembered for political discord and looming disputes that threaten to cast a long shadow over the region.
While US President Barack Obama said that countries should stop building artificial islands and militarising the South China Sea, China shows no intention of abiding by his words.
“For the sake of regional stability the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarisation of disputed areas,” Obama told a meeting between the United States and the 10 Asean leaders.
But China insists it has undisputed sovereignty over most of the a claim that overlaps with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines and non-Asean member Taiwan.
China has been transforming reefs in the Spratly archipelago into artificial islands and has built airfields and other assets on them.
China’s intentions appear to threaten the freedom of navigation in a waterway through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually.
Obama praised Asean’s work to create a code of conduct for the South China Sea “including the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight” but the bloc has so far failed to find a united voice with which to confront its giant northerly neighbour.
Washington has been more assertive. Earlier this month, US B52 bombers flew near China’s artificial islands, signalling US determination to challenge Beijing over the sea.
But the summit has ended and no progress on the dispute appears to have been made, which must be seen as a victory for Beijing.
On Sunday, China announced it would continue to build military and civilian installations in the sea.
“Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defence and for the protection of those islands and reefs,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told the media in Kuala Lumpur.
China planned to “expand and upgrade” the civilian projects on the islands “to better serve commercial ships, fishermen, to help distressed vessels and provide more public services”, Liu said, adding that China rejected the notion that it was militarising the sea.
“This time, in a very high-profile manner, the US sent military vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s islands and reefs,” Liu said.
“This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation and the purpose is to test China’s response.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak could be forgiven for being momentarily distracted during these discussions as he has been forced to play the convivial host at the least opportune time of his career.
Indeed, the Asean summit may well be remembered by some Malaysians for a corruption scandal dogging the host and his government’s crackdown on civil liberties.
Razak, who told Obama that he was “committed to reforms,” is accused of transferring nearly US$700 million from a government-owned development fund into private bank accounts.
The fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, is under investigation in Malaysia, the United States, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Switzerland. Opposition leaders in parliament filed a formal no-confidence vote against the prime minister last month.
Najib has responded with a campaign of intimidation. In July, he sacked a deputy prime minister and the attorney general who had been investigating him.
In February, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim started serving a five-year sentence for sodomy, which his supporters claim is politically motivated.
“[Since the scandal broke] things have gone a bit out of control,” said opposition MP Charles Santiago. “I think the government is feeling the heat, especially the prime minister. So to avoid attacks against him and further criticism of his rule, he’s putting the pressure on civil society groups.”
Human Rights Watch reported in October that the Malaysian government was using vaguely worded laws to critics. The report said the practice began to intensify after the 2013 election in which Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition lost the popular vote but held on to a majority in parliament.
“President Obama and other world leaders visiting Malaysia right now are meeting a prime minister who is leading a charge against civil society critics, using draconian laws to haul them into police stations and courts for their comments to the media, on Facebook or on Twitter,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that a full-fledged crackdown on free expression is underway, trying to silence those criticising government policies and of course the massive 1MDB corruption scandal.”
The Sedition Act, a colonial-era law that Najib pledged to repeal in 2012, has been rolled out repeatedly in recent months. He has strengthened it and used it to target everyone from political cartoonists to parliamentarians.
Eric Paulsen, executive director of the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty, was arrested and charged last February under the Sedition Act for a tweet he posted criticising a government agency that issues sermons for Malaysian mosques.
“We are talking about, in 2015, somebody can spend a few years in jail, basically for a 100-letter tweet,” he said. “It is a very jarring notion.”
Paulsen said the application of the law was having a significant impact on people’s willingness to speak out.
“You just never know,” he said. “There’s always a sword hanging over you. I have to be much more careful these days. My tweets and my press statements have definitely toned down. There is a chilling effect, no doubt about it.”
All these negative stories are very much off-message, with Asean leaders hoping the media agenda would be dominated by news of ever-closer economic integration. Unfortunately, as ever, the frailty of the region’s political leaders has overshadowed more positive stories.