Sunday, April 18

What if two elephants fight?   


Malaysia has territorial waters over part of this Sea. — Asia Maps: Perry-Castañeda Map Collection

THE world’s wise men (so-called) have been talking in Anchorage, Alaska. I remember that name. In March 1971, I was in the airport there. It was freezing. The plane that I had boarded at Chicago bound for Iowa had been diverted to Anchorage because of the heavy snow at Waterloo airport. My niece, Tilley Bunseng, had been waiting for me there since the morning.

Okay, that was exactly 50 years ago. By coincidence, and a digression, sorry.

Now for a more important matter. The current news is about the talks held on Thursday last week in Anchorage between representatives of two powerful nations in the world: United States of America (USA) and the Republic of China (China).

Why did they choose a frigid place? Did they anticipate heated arguments, is that why?

According to the AFP, “these talks, two months into the Biden administration, were set up as an exchange of views, and no agreements or pacts were expected”. However, media people were hearing and watching open exchanges of views between the conferees without being filtered. Hot and cold, diplomatic norms set aside. If I ‘exchanged views’ with my neighbour in that style, it would be called a fight.

The Americans did not mince words about their concerns over China’s growing political control in Hong Kong, its threats against Taiwan, and its treatment of the Uighur in Xinjiang. The Chinese rejected the criticisms. Through the medium of the Xinhua News Agency, they made it clear to the Americans that ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity are major issues of principle’, reminding Washington not “to underestimate the Chinese people’s will to safeguard national dignity and legitimate rights and interests”.

Both sides sticking to their guns! No compromise on core interests, insists China. You behave, says USA!

How shall Asean countries behave?

Where do we in the Asean countries stand in this sort of situation? We are waiting for the Code of Conduct that China promised to produce in 2021 in regard to our future relationship with the Republic. Meanwhile, what does all this waiting time bode for the member countries, as a group or as individual states? How can we tell the big countries what to do, both still on a trade war footing? Our dilemma is: which side shall we choose? To use the cockfighting term: which side to tui or to play pahi with? Or can the Asean countries afford to stand by without siding with either of the big countries? Before that, we must remind ourselves that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets badly trampled.

War against the virus 

There was no joint communique issued at the end of the talks. So we have not the benefit of knowing the main points of agreement, if any, between the parties. Although the reporters had heard of ‘agreement’ on common issues such as the climate change, I would have also loved to hear if the leaders meeting in Anchorage had a plan to combat and finish off the coronavirus. Nothing specific.

Get rid of that nine-dash line

What about the problem of claims and counterclaims by the countries over the South China Sea? It would have been good to hear of a joint declaration by the big powers in terms of China withdrawing the nine-dash line. As my country is inside that loop, you cannot blame me for feeling unsafe, despite the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) under the Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the suit by the Philippines against China in July 2016. In that case, the PCA recognised the Philippines’ claim to parts of the Spratly Islands. Million-dollar question: does China recognise it too?

If the big powers are really concerned, it is vital that they initiate talks on the South China Sea soon. Agenda: to recognise and respect the sovereignty of each of the countries bordering the Sea, by erasing or removing that dash line! The guarantee by the USA and China in this regard will ensure peace in this part of the world for a long time to come.

Joint development of the sea 

Why don’t the two big powers finance the development of the natural resources found in the entire area on a joint basis, so that all countries having stakes there will benefit? That is a much better alternative to bitter quarrels over a common waterway.

Peace, not war

In the 21st century, the big nations should be the first to acknowledge that no one wins in a war, and to learn that huge powerful empires have fallen because of wars. The Great Roman Empire fell, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and nearer home, the Majapahit empire – all fell because of wars.

In the past, the USA used to act like the Sheriff of the world. The Americans should work in partnership, rather than as rivals, in the development of this part of the world. It is said that there are rich resources in the South China Sea. Instead of fighting over control of this area, China and the USA (along with its QUAD allies – Australia, Japan, India) should show the way in terms of exploiting (developing) the resources for the benefit of all the world at large.

All patrols of the Sea can be conducted jointly with China and the other countries there to catch only the pirates, only the smugglers (including drug smugglers), and only the terrorists. After all the parties have agreed just who the pirates, smugglers, and terrorists are, of course!

Climate change 

My guess is that the talks in Alaska might have included a serious global issue, namely, climate change. This is one issue on which both China and USA should be on the same page. After all, both are big producers of carbon emissions. In the Iban language there is a saying ‘Ular mantuk, ular nyipang’. Roughly, this means: the snake that bites must provide for its own antidote. The serious impact of the climate change on the lives of the rest of the world need an urgent solution than the grandstanding as to who is the greatest in the world.

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