This week around Asia

MFA ‘catfight’, Himalayan standoff

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

Every time a senior hand of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) talks of "my friend", I mentally brace for a "what now?" moment.

In March 2015, writing in The Straits Times, Ambassador K. Kesavapany, the veteran Singapore diplomat, took on his distinguished foreign service colleague Barry Desker for suggesting in another article that Asean integration remains an "illusion".

"With his rich store of 'insider' knowledge, my friend and colleague, Ambassador Barry Desker, has set out a case for believing that Asean has not achieved much in the way of regional integration in the five decades of its existence," Mr Kesavapany began.

Then, he sought to demolish Mr Desker's position with a range of explanations to be optimistic about the 10-member grouping which, as he sees it, is "a work in progress".

Something similar but a lot more dramatic happened this week when Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan took on Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Permanent Secretary at the MFA.

Mr Kausikan's indignation and sense of outrage was triggered by a Straits Times article by Prof Kishore titled Qatar: Big Lessons For A Small Country.

"We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era," Prof Mahbubani had written. "Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly.

"What's the first thing we should do? Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers."

In a Facebook post that got attention around the world - one respected Lowy Institute researcher who read it tweeted about a "secondary catfight in the Lion City" - Mr Kausikan called Prof Kishore's argument "so dangerously misleading that it must be vigorously rebutted even at the cost of offending an old friend".

Mr Kausikan listed a series of incidents where Singapore leaders had stood up to Big Power pressure, including a 1981 incident involving then-Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan and US Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge.

Apparently, Prof Kishore does not remember "or finds it politic to feign amnesia", wrote Mr Kausikan.

Subsequently, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam weighed in on Mr Kausikan's side, speaking in his position as a former foreign minister.

Mr Kausikan, he said, had given a response that "Kishore deserves".

The jousting, which also saw Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, the former Asean Secretary-General offering his views, got worldwide attention, particularly from foreign policy wonks already following the Lee family dispute with deep interest. Some of whom reached out to me seeking to understand what was happening to well-ordered Singapore.

The explanation is simple: Far too many people around the world think of Singapore as a monochromatic place where group-think is the norm. Fact is, within Cabinet and in the bureaucracy, there is intense debate on every key issue and how to craft policy for a particular situation.

Once a decision is taken though, the Republic presents a united face to its people and the world outside.

To that extent, the debate between the foreign policy luminaries, all retired and free to speak out, only reflects the quality of the ideas that are thrown up within the grooves of government.

Was it a catfight? Only to the extent that lions and tigers are referred to as Big Cats.

Himalayan standoff to ease?

An attempt by the Chinese military to construct a road in the Doklam area near the Bhutan trijunction has led to one of the most tense situations on the Himalayan ranges that divide China and India.

The standoff, now three weeks old, has seen both Asian giants push troops to the region and belligerent talk has been heard from both sides.

This file photo taken on July 10, 2008, shows a Chinese soldier next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India's north-eastern Sikkim state. PHOTO: AFP

The strains in the relationship have been so severe that China declined an Indian request for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the ongoing G-20 summit.

What exactly happened?

Bhutan, which claims the territory on which the Chinese wanted to construct the defence class road, calls the area Doklam which China says is part of its Donglang region, and India calls the area Doka La.

Tensions rose apparently after the Bhutanese Army first protested and Indian troops rushed in to support the Bhutanese. The Indians say they had to respond in order to prevent an enhanced threat to a narrow, 20-km wide land corridor that links India's north-eastern states to the mainland.

In a rare show of displeasure, Bhutan has issued a demarche to China to stop its road construction "and refrain from changing the status quo".

China responded by saying the road building was "legitimate". Mr Luo Zhaohui, China's envoy to New Delhi, has said an "unconditional Indian troop pull back" to the Indian side of the disputed boundary is a precondition for meaningful dialogue between China and India.

The issue has been so fraught that for 10 days running, it led the daily briefing of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Now the first signs are emerging that India may be rethinking its tough position.

The respected defence writer Ajai Shukla, a former Indian Army officer, has suggested that "unlike many claims elsewhere, Beijing has an arguable case here".

Likewise, Manoj Joshi, another top Indian strategic affairs commentator, wrote this week that "all the bluster and threats between India and China should not conceal the fact that on the Doklam stand-off, China has a case. Yet, the opacity in the position of all three players - - India, China and Bhutan - confuses the issue".

The border tension comes at a time when China is also uneasy about India's strategic direction, seeing New Delhi as steadily drifting into the US camp and a policy of containment of China. On the other hand, economic linkages between the two Asian powers are steadily rising as well with Chinese investment beginning to move into India significantly.

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