Seeking that 18th camel

There is this desert fable about a wealthy Arab who bequeaths 17 camels to his three sons, with instructions that the eldest be given half the lot, the middle son a third, while the youngest is to get a ninth as his share.

Upon his death, unable to find a way to distribute the inheritance without cutting healthy animals in half, the boys approach a wise old man who asks them to bring the camels to his home.

There, the old man adds his own camel to the lot and, suddenly, a solution is available. The oldest would get nine, the middle boy, six and the youngest, two. Thereupon, the wise one withdraws his own animal and sends the lads away.

As Asia confronts the multiple challenges that loom in 2016, it will need the wisdom of that ancient Bedouin to manage the issues before it. It does not look as though that will be easily available.

The contest over territorial claims and the rivalry between the United States and China are set to worsen at a time when economies are slowing. In many nations, internal security is under strain amid an escalating threat of terrorist violence.

As more and more boulders are being rolled into China's path with the strengthening US network of alliances, China's resolve to hold on to what it has grabbed, or controlled, is getting stronger. Unable to articulate a compelling normative vision of Asia that is acceptable to the region, its actions instead spread such a sense of insecurity that it serves to coalesce all sorts of disparate forces.

This then serves to feed back into Beijing's insecurities.

Just look at last week's test flight into the newly constructed airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, an area also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Both ASEAN states instantly protested but there was little either could do to stop it.

The US State Department expressed concern. Now, it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will respond in the months ahead.

With the November presidential elections looming, any perceived weakness over China could dent the Democratic Party's chances of retaining the White House. Yet, it would not be prudent for the US to raise tensions.

In any case, it is not at all clear that the US, beyond herding a widening band of skittish Asian nations into a loose paddock, has a clear strategy. It did conduct a dramatic Freedom of Navigation Operation (Fonop) in disputed waters last October, enraging China.

But it also confused everyone by suggesting that the Fonop was done under the right of innocent passage, which comes close to recognising Chinese sovereignty over the islands.

A letter from Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to Senator John McCain that came to light this week provided the definitive clarification on that manoeuvre.

It asserted that the destroyer USS Lassen had sailed inside the 12 nautical mile zones of a number of countries, including China, and that it had done so without prior intimation to the nations involved.

The operation "involved a continuous and expeditious transit that is consistent with both the right of innocent passage, which applies only in a territorial sea, and with the high seas freedom of navigation that applies beyond any territorial sea", Mr Carter wrote. So, it was both Fonop and innocent passage!

Meanwhile, China continues to build and test runways that can take all types of aircraft except the Space Shuttle.

If the Chinese continue their construction projects, "you can imagine a network of missile sites, runways for their fifth-generation fighters, and surveillance sites", Admiral Harry Harris of the US Pacific Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee last September. "China would have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario, short of war."

But China has not been the only one constructing in the South China Sea. A Japanese defence paper published on Dec 22, which raised concerns about Chinese manoeuvres in the East Sea, also noted that in the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan had all built runways on land features they control in the South China Sea.

"All these countries have (now) done facility maintenance and development. Reports suggest that Vietnam has recently conducted reclamation work," it added.

To be sure, not all is gloom. The China-Taiwan summit in Singapore was a stunning development. The Japanese outreach to South Korea in late December and Seoul's promise to desist forever from bringing up the issue of comfort women have been no less a diplomatic coup, even as nationalists in either country express dissatisfaction.

The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea have also met in Seoul lately.

Elsewhere in Asia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has risked tremendous political capital with a major outreach to Pakistan. He is also sending his National Security Adviser (NSA) to China for strategic consultations.

That China visit had to be postponed for two weeks because of a major terrorist strike on a forward base of the Indian Air Force, blamed on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group in Pakistan, underscoring how there are plenty of vested interests seeking to stymie normalisation of ties.

A Chinese spokesman's revelation that the NSA visit was not related to the boundary question is, in some ways, a positive thing: It indicates that Asia's tectonic plates are in close touch at very high levels on a number of security issues.

But all these contacts are but straws in the wind for now. And they could blow either way; for instance, the Japan-South Korea rapprochement was seen by many as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acting against his instincts to oblige Washington, which is aware that Beijing sees Seoul as a potential weak link in the US alliance system.

For the foreseeable future, therefore, a sense of drift is the order of the Asian day.

Surely, the assertive behaviour China has displayed since 2008 is the principal reason for the unease. But to portray the mainland as an expansionist power, hell bent on upsetting the status quo on the strength of its bulging sinews, is to miss the insecurities that drive Chinese actions.

As Beijing's power and influence have risen, so too has the perception that the benign environment in which it flourished is being deliberately altered in order to block its path. China is critically dependent on the Indian Ocean but fears that the US is coordinating with India to check its access.

Its other major fear is that in the event of a crisis, its nuclear submarines, particularly its SSBNs, will be sitting ducks in the shallow pond that is the South China Sea, as they emerge from their bases to move towards the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The often-intrusive US surveillance around its exclusive economic zone makes it feel helpless and angry.

"It is bad enough that you come to my window and peer in," a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army told The Straits Times last year. "But if you also want to read the combinations of the locks on my safe, I have a major problem."

So, it is also entirely possible that China is working to a plan. Once it feels sufficiently confident that it has consolidated its grip on the South China Sea, it will probably attempt the diplomatic outreach to present a more benign face and, indeed, even move on a Code of Conduct with ASEAN states.

To an extent, let's face it, it has already succeeded with its strategic goals in the South China Sea. Possession, they say, is 90 per cent of law. As Ms Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Centre in Washington, put it: "By building something out of nothing, China has harvested many things."

A presidential change of guard in the Philippines could provide the opportunity for China to repair that bilateral relationship, even if some senior Chinese officials privately think Manila is too far down the road with its current approach to facilitate an easy reversal.

The North Korean hydrogen bomb test pushes Beijing, Pyongyang's only ally, closer to Japan and South Korea. Besides, China and India, and several other significant Asian states, have much to think about together as they face a common enemy: terror threats from radicalised Muslims.

All these threats will need trust and adjustment of positions, sharing - and innovating solutions.

For now, though, the 18th camel looks elusive. There is no shortage of wise men in the region. Only that the lads are not willing to bring the camels to them.

This article was first published on Jan 8, 2016.
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