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'PH failed to detect signs that led to Marawi' – expert

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The Marawi crisis 'is a failure of government to act based on sound and timely intelligence,' terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna says

MANILA, Philippines – Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna criticized the Philippine government Friday, September 22, for failing to read signs of the "build-up" of the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) in the Philippines, leading to the siege of Marawi City.

"The Philippines failed to detect, to read, the indicators, the signs, and the clues that led to Marawi. We have to acknowledge that," Gunaratna said on Friday.

"If governments do not understand to read the indicators, then another Marawi is inevitable in this region," he also said.

Gunaratna was speaking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Conference on Peace and the Prevention of Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City.

The expert was referring to the May 23 siege of Marawi by the terrorist Maute Group, which is linked to ISIS. (READ: Terror in Mindanao: The Mautes of Marawi)

The Marawi siege triggered clashes with the Philippine military, and prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to put Mindanao under martial law.

The Marawi clashes have killed at least 147 government forces, 45 civilians, and 660 terrorists. The crisis has also forced more than 600,000 Filipinos out of their homes.

'Not an intelligence failure'

In a speech, Gunaratna pointed out that the Marawi siege "is not an intelligence failure," but "an operational failure."

"It is a failure of government to act based on sound and timely intelligence," he said.

He explained that before the Marawi siege, the Philippine intelligence community had already produced 4 reports on the "build-up" in Marawi. The latest of these reports was published on April 14.

"So you can see that as we look at the expansion of IS in the Southeast Asian region, for governments, it is very important to read the signs, indicators, and clues of the build-up of groups in certain cities," he said, referring to ISIS by its other acronym, IS.

He added that the expertise of ISIS "is distinct" from that of terror groups Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Jemaah Islamiyah, "which was largely fighting in the rural areas."

In contrast, he said, "if you look at IS, it was always moving from the desert to the cities," such as Mosul and Raqqa.

Gunaratna also said that "IS central advised those groups that occupied Marawi on how to conduct the battle in Marawi."

He cited advice from "IS central" on May 24, just a day after the Marawi siege. This was for the Maute Group to "quickly get a drone up," as the Armed Forces of the Philippines approached Marawi. "So you can see the guidance."

Duterte and previous leaders

At the same time, Gunaratna noted that President Rodrigo Duterte "acknowledged that IS is operating in the Philippines." (READ: Duterte says martial law due to ISIS threat)

"Unfortunately, the previous leaders, the previous bureaucrats, said there's no IS in the Philippines. So I think that the President understood that to fight IS, he needed to identify them," Gunaratna said. (READ: Admit ISIS presence in Philippines, analyst says)

"Identifying the problem itself is 50% of the solution," he said.

Former Philippine president Fidel V Ramos, who was in Friday's event, also gave his own "very sound advice" on the Marawi crisis.

"The Marawi uprising could have been prevented if only there was more of what we call in ASEAN 'musyawarah-mufakat.' What is that? Musyawarah means consultation. Mufakat means consensus," he said.

Consultation, he said, can be done through the government mechanism called Legislatic-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac).

Created by Ramos in 1992, Ledac advises the President and is composed of the Vice President, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and other government leaders.

Ramos, who endorsed Duterte for president, said "consultation" has taken a different form under the former Davao City mayor.

"Now the consultation is only among the party leaders. Ano 'yon?" (What's that?) – Rappler.com

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Singapore seen as top spot to launch global cyber attacks

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NEW YORK — Singapore has overtaken nations including the US, Russia and China as the country launching the most cyber attacks globally, according to Israeli data security firm Check Point Software Technologies.

The company, whose software tracks an average of eight to 10 million live cyber attacks daily, said Singapore rose to pole position after ranking in the top five attacking countries for the previous two weeks.

“It is not particularly unusual for Singapore to be featured among the top attacking countries,” said Eying Wee, Check Point’s Asia-Pacific spokeswoman.

A key Southeast Asian technology hub, much of the internet traffic flowing through Singapore originates in other countries. That means a cyber attack recorded as coming from Singapore may have been launched outside the country, she said.

The Cyber Security Agency of Singapore said there are a number of reports measuring cyber attacks, which are based on various methodologies and therefore provide different perspectives of the situation.

“As a commercial hub with high interconnectivity, Singapore is undoubtedly an attractive target for cybercriminals,” a spokesman for the agency said in an email, adding that it’s important for the nation to maintain high cybersecurity standards and take necessary measures to protect its systems and data.

Cyber Defense

The city-state, which wants to become a global technology hub, recently stepped up efforts to tighten cyber security after several high profile attacks on government agencies and companies.

“Singapore has now found itself on someone’s list,” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in July. “The attacks are orchestrated, the attacks are targeted, they want to steal specific information, there are minds behind this orchestration.”

Earlier this year, Singapore’s military established a cyber defense unit while the government drafted legislation to impose new cyber security requirements aimed at helping companies protect critical information infrastructure.

In May, Singapore stopped most of its public servants from being able to access the internet from their work computers. The nation’s central bank has also set up an international advisory committee dedicated to enhancing the safety and resilience of Singapore’s financial sector. BLOOMBERG

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8 Things We Learned From Colonel Khairul Anuar, A Malaysian 'Black Hawk Down' Hero

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Back in 1993, Col. Khairul Anuar was a Second Lieutenant when he was sent on assignment for six months in Mogadishu, Somalia.
​If you aren't aware, Black Hawk Down was the movie depicting the Battle of Mogadishu where American forces were pinned down by Somalian militia after two of their helicopters were shot down. The Royal Malay Regiment of the Malaysian Army were instrumental to the rescue of the soldiers but were not properly acknowledged for their efforts.


We meet Colonel Khairul Anuar at Kem Wardieburn in Setapak. He appears in #theblackhawkdown Wira Keamanan, a documentary produced by Astro recounting the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia and we were privileged enough to speak with him at his office in 4 Division where he works as Chief of Staff. At 46, the Colonel has served in the army for 27 years.

Four cigarettes, a couple of phone calls, and a few tabik hormats later between him and his cadets, and we were done with our interview. In that time, we spoke to him about the benefits of joining the military, his reasons for drafting, the reputation of the Malaysian Armed Forces in the eyes of the world, and what really happened at the Battle of Mogadishu. Here's all we learned in our interview with him:

The interview was conducted in Malay and has been translated into English while maintaining its meaning.

1. Joining the Malaysian Armed Forces has it perks

As long as you're willing to sign the 10-year contract, the military will pretty much take care of all your educational needs. Under the army, you can enter as an engineer or a doctor and have your educational expenses covered. On top of that, you'll be paid a salary along with allowances. You can read the list of benefits here

According to Col. Khairul, the amount of cadets entering has risen since he joined in 1989 and there is actually a surplus of applicants now. And according to the enlistment site, in 2016, a total of 22,552 people joined the military which includes cadets, Tentera Darat, Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia, and Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia. The total so far at the time of this article is 18,521.

2. Khairul himself joined the army initially because of these perks

"No one in my family joined the military. My family was not well-to-do. When it came time for me to go to university, my sister was already in uni so I 'sacrificed' myself. Since my family could not afford to send three children to university, I decided to join the military as a cadet. Because the army supported all my financial needs, my family did not need to spend a single cent."

3. His battalion was assigned to Somalia for six months

They were assigned under UNOSOM II's Quick Reaction Force. "Any incidents that come up will be assigned to us by UNOSOM. So we were on stand-by 24 hours a day." His main duties included patroling the gazetted safe zones while also escorting civilians from A to B.

4. The one thing that Black Hawk Down got wrong about the Battle of Mogadishu

"First things first, the movie was accurate, but you know lah, Hollywood, they're not going to do a movie about Malaysia. The story was real, but they just didn't involve us in the movie. They excluded us from the rescue operation.

"The movie didn't mention the three failed attempts by the Americans at rescuing their soldiers. Only at the fourth attempt did they call us in to rescue them." Looks like in the end, it's just a case of Hollywood glorifying America, which makes sense if you're an American, watching an American movie.

"The movie only show us (the rescue team) coming in at the end of the movie. So it looked like we had very little involvement."

5. What the rescue operation was really like

Colonel Khairul was part of Team Alpha of Bravo Company. Their objective was to secure the downed helicopter on the eastern corner. "Location kapal terbang, tak tau. Cari." He told us that the search extended into black zones that were strongholds of the Somalian militia. They were going into enemy territory for the first time without navigation. "Our mission was to find the downed helis. We were shot at even before we entered the black areas."

"These were paramilitary soldiers who were trained. So when we entered the enemy zone they ambushed us." He recalls nearly 50 - 60 vehicles inlcuding tanks, APCs, and anti-tank vehicles entering enemy territory with roads that were really narrow.

The Americans had an eye in the sky with a heli that gave directions to the team on the ground. As platoon commander, Col. Khairul received navigation from the heli and gave instructions. "We were shot at from all directions. It sounded like rain. All the soldiers in the vehicle were afraid, because the longer we stayed in the vehicle, the higher the chances of it exploding and killing all of us in one go."

"The soldiers were shouting 'Dismount, dismount!'. I had to yell back at them to wait. I was still receiving instructions to reach the location. Finally, we reached a close enough area to dismount and our soldiers rushed out of the vehicles to for cover between the buildings."

From here they used the vehicles for cover and inched their way through Bakaara Market. On the way, soldiers were killed and wounded, and these were carried and placed into the vehicles immediately.

"By the time we reached the 70 soldiers they were already defending their position for a very long time. Their food and water supply and their bullets were already finished." In his words, "Diorang tunggu sembelih sahaja."
By the time all the bodies from the crash site were recovered, it was already morning. Mortar fire and enemy gunfire continued through the night and the soldiers were extracted with APCs with flat tires. "Tinggal rim saje," as he says.

6. After the rescue, military ties between America and Malaysia were greatly improved

"While we were at Somalia, the army was really thankful. In fact, we are now regarded like anak angkat."

"But these are military to military relations. Government to government is a different thing." At the time of this interview, our PM had not met with President Donald Trump yet. Perhaps relations are better now.

7. The UN also acknowledges the Malaysian army

"Because of the incident, we were recognised by the United Nations and are never second guessed during missions."

"People here (Malaysians) don't see this, they don't see the contributions of the military in Malaysia. We have lots of UN Observer Missions overseas."

"Observer Missions are usually done by officers but we still have troops in Lebanon as part of Resolution 1701 as peacekeepers. The Malaysian army is there to educate the local troops and to assist the government in various activities like building schools and infrastructure."

8. His message to Malaysians

"I feel the rakyat (of Malaysia) view the military as irrelevant these days. They say things like 'Why we have the military using government funds?' and 'It's better to use the money for something else'. They only have an insular view of the army and not a global outlook. The military is like an insurance for the nation. If you're healthy, you don't see the benefits, but when you're sick you get the benifits. Why don't people attack us? It's because we have a strong military."

"As an ambassador overseas, we introduce Malaysia to the world during our missions. During my first tour to Lebanon, the locals didn't even know where Malaysia was. The Norwegian army asked me as well, where is Malaysia? Singapore I know, Malaysia I don't know. Through military relations we are able to educate them, and now everyone knows, 'Ah, Malaysia'."

"Not many people know about our contributions because our army doesn't appear on TV. Not like the police. Police you can see every day catching people here and there. But did you know that in every single border surrounding Malaysia, there are army men guarding it? In Thailand, Johor, Sabah, and Sarawak, we have men guarding them. People sleep safely in their homes while we sleep in the jungle; leaving our families (usually) for three months."

The movie Black Hawk Down was released in 2001 and the incident happened in 1993. Only recently, in December 2013 – 20 years after the incident – did America extend an official sign of gratitude. It's 20 years too late but hey, it's something.

You can watch #theblackhawkdown Wira Keamanan on Astro On Demand, Astro GO, and on Astro Awani, Astro Ria and Ria HD, Astro Maya HD, and Astro Prima on 16 September 2017.

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Is There Any Way to Counter China's Gray Zone Tactics in the South China Sea?

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China and India’s moves to de-escalate tensions over the Doklam standoff inspired commentary about how Beijing’s coercive strategies can be countered. Some may argue that after all, India can be deemed a peer competitor to China in terms of relative power, especially militarily. Both countries are nuclear-weapon states and if push ever comes to shove in renewed border hostilities, they might be mindful of escalating armed action beyond the threshold of outright war and, worse, cross the Rubicon into nuclear conflict.
India’s lessons on dealing with China’s coercion are indeed interesting. But what about looking at Beijing’s rivals in the context of an obvious power asymmetry? Its Southeast Asian adversaries in the South China Sea immediately come to mind. That region is made up of smaller, weaker nation-states, which do not have India’s array of power tools and other forms of strategic leverages. It might be tempting to conclude that these Southeast Asian countries are easy pickings for Beijing to successfully exercise its coercive strategy.
Southeast Asian Rivals as Easy Pickings for China?
In fact, not too long after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a joint statement about the South China Sea that amounted to no more than a slap on Beijing’s wrist. Additionally, both parties formally endorsed a framework for a proposed code of conduct to manage disputes after there were revelations about the presence of several Chinese vessels spotted close to Philippine-occupied Thitu Island. A Philippine fishery patrol vessel was allegedly harassed as well.
This is where Manila’s reaction differs from New Delhi’s swift and decisive counter against a perceived Chinese attempt to alter the status quo in Doklam. True to the typical fashion of a pro-Beijing Rodrigo Duterte administration, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano neither confirmed nor denied the report. Instead, he downplayed its significance. “The presence of ships alone does not mean anything,” he remarked.
One may be tempted to empathize with Manila’s attempt to overlook China’s new antics in the disputed waters, for the country needs to confront other teething security challenges posed by terrorists and drug lords. Duterte has shifted away from Washington to Beijing for aid and investments to feed socioeconomic development, including his much-touted “Build Build Build” nationwide infrastructure program, which he promoted during the Belt and Road Forum hosted by his generous new friend, Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Simply put, a flare-up in the South China Sea does not serve his administration’s interest. Duterte and his close associates, such as equally pro-China Cayetano, do not wish to rock the boat and risk Beijing withholding those carrots it promised Manila. It thus appears inevitable for the Philippines to capitulate to China, not just shelving the arbitral award that rendered it overwhelming legal victory over its much larger and more powerful northern neighbor; but if necessary, it must suffer in silence from what Robert Haddick argued as “salami slicing” gray-zone strategies customarily utilized by Beijing to wear down opponents in the disputed waters.
China’s Gray-Zone Tactics
Duterte isn’t alone. He can find a close confidante in Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak who, as a general election looms, has also turned to Beijing for aid and investments to shore up his ruling party’s standing. Najib tries hard to ingratiate himself with China, such as through his “durian diplomacy.” He shuts up domestic critics who fear that he is selling out Malaysia’s sovereignty for Chinese largesse, even to the extent of exhibiting ambivalence—in the name of being nonconfrontational—about frequent Chinese coastguard incursions near features located well within Malaysia’s sea jurisdiction.

Is this the preordained destiny of smaller and weaker states like the Philippines and Malaysia, to capitulate to China’s gray-zone tactics? The International Security Advisory Board defines gray-zone approaches in its January 2017 report for the Department of State as “the use of techniques to achieve a nation’s goals and frustrate those of its rivals by employing instruments of power—often asymmetric and ambiguous in character—that are not direct use of acknowledged regular military forces.” China’s island-building program in the South China Sea counts as one such example, not to mention its gunboat diplomacy, which includes the use of its fabled fishing militia.
Manila and Kuala Lumpur fall neatly into the category of meek rivals that Beijing very much desires—preferring not to escalate their disputes beyond the “red line” of outright shooting war, and not imperiling their quest for Chinese benefits. But before one starts to assume Malaysia and the Philippines’ responses to China as constituting the norm in Southeast Asia, we must consider whether it’s inevitable to conflate between upholding one’s sovereignty and rights on the one hand, and promoting economic ties on the other.
Indonesia and Vietnam, which have serious stakes in the South China Sea, have proved that there is no such false dichotomy. At first glance, the two cash-strapped and resource-constrained countries could have been easy walkovers for Beijing’s gray-zone antics. But that wasn’t the case.
Indonesian Blowback at Beijing
Suffice to say, Sino-Indonesian ties have blossomed in the past one decade or so. Jakarta has not only sought investments from Beijing, but it has even purchased Chinese weapons. However, it did not become a pushover when a fishing boat incident flared up in March 2016. That year the Chinese coast guard rammed its fishing boat, the Kway Fey 10078, well within Jakarta’s jurisdictional waters off the Natuna Islands in a forceful intervention against Indonesian fishery law enforcement. Instead of downplaying the episode, President Joko Widodo, whose legitimacy of his Global Maritime Fulcrum vision was in danger of being derailed by anything less than resolve against Beijing’s encroachment, visited Natuna Islands aboard a warship.
In an even more ominous demonstration that Jakarta would tolerate no more nonsense from Beijing, the Indonesian Navy beefed up its presence at the islands. In June of that same year the navy fired warning shots at several Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in Natuna waters, reportedly injuring a fisherman in the process. Beijing protested, but Jakarta was unfazed. “We will not hesitate to take decisive action against foreign ships, whatever their flag and nationality, when they commit violations in Indonesian territory,” Indonesian navy spokesman 1st Adm. Edi Sucipto said after the incident. Since then, no further Chinese transgression has been reported.
But there was no subsequent major fallout. Chinese investments in Indonesia were unaffected; in fact, those investments grew by 291 percent over the January–September in 2016, hitting $1.6 billion by the following January. Still, Jakarta wished to signal Beijing that it should not be trifled with. In October 2016, Jakarta sought more Japanese investments and a month later, announced its preference for Japan to clinch a semi-high-speed train project. The following January, both countries agreed to step up maritime-security cooperation. Beijing grossly miscalculated that its gray-zone tactic would work against Indonesia, like what it did back in March 2013, thus pushing the latter to its rival.
Bilateral ties gradually recovered, with Indonesia having successfully garnered greater Chinese interest to ramp up investments. At the same time, the Southeast Asian country did not lax on its South China Sea interest, even renaming part of the waters as the North Natuna Sea. Beyond just criticizing this move, Beijing desisted from retaliation.


Vietnam’s Struggle against China
What about Vietnam? Since ancient history, this feisty Southeast Asian country has maintained a proven track record of resisting Chinese aggression. The naval skirmishes in the South China Sea in 1974 and 1988 could have been impressed upon Hanoi the futility of opposing Beijing in the disputed waters. Yet when China placed its deep-sea oil rig, the HD-981, in contested waters off Vietnamese coast and near to the Paracel Islands in May 2014, Hanoi responded decisively—and was at least a match for Beijing’s gray-zone antic. It carefully avoided sending military forces to face-off with the Chinese, instead deploying its coastguard and fishery enforcement vessels—and even its own fishing militia.
The standoff dragged on until back-channel diplomacy—mainly between the two communist parties—resulted in both sides backing down by end of July. Still, Hanoi had reasons to pat itself on the back, albeit at a cost. The sustained impasse compelled Vietnam to shelve routine maintenance for its coastguard and fishery-enforcement vessels, affecting their operational availability for other tasks. If the standoff had dragged on, Vietnam, already disadvantaged in its physical capacity, could have blinked first. Nonetheless, Hanoi’s gambit paid off. Beijing had some newfound respect for its erstwhile Southeast Asian rival.
Vietnam did not suffer repercussions from the standoff. Being economically tied to China, characterized by a trade deficit in the latter’s favor, did not stop Vietnam from testing its powerful northern neighbor from time to time. In September and October 2014, top Vietnamese and Indian leaders exchanged visits and inked numerous agreements, including for closer defense- and maritime-security cooperation. Of peculiar interest is one pact that called for India’s state-owned ONGC Videsh Limited to “expand its presence in Vietnam and further consolidate cooperation in exploration and other areas between the two countries in energy sector.” One recalls that China deployed the oil rig in response to Vietnam’s offer of additional offshore blocks to the Indian firm in waters claimed by Beijing.
In the years that followed, Vietnam continued to ramp-up cooperation with China’s rivals such as India and Japan. Yet it suffered no Chinese blowback. In fact, bilateral border trade continued to flourish. Notably, trade with Guangxi province jumped by 8.6 percent year-on-year to almost $6.9 billion in the first half of 2015—the highest of any border city in China. By early 2017, Beijing remains Hanoi’s biggest trade partner; the latter having raised exports to the former by 34.4 percent year-on-year. Even though Hanoi halted drilling in disputed waters after a reported threat from Beijing, it continued to challenge the latter over the South China Sea issues, especially during the most recent ASEAN meeting in Manila.
Peace isn’t the Natural State of Affairs in World Politics
Indonesia and Vietnam show that it’s possible to draw the line between resolutely defending one’s sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea, and fostering economic links with Beijing. It is possible for smaller and weaker states to purposefully shift the onus of escalation to the party contemplating gray-zone tactics through increasing the likelihood of conflict. The thought of suggesting this is troubling of course, since it is premised on the political calculation that the risk of war can be reduced by taking steps to lower the threshold for war itself.
Yet it does highlight the fallacy of believing that peace is the natural state of affairs in world politics. It’s time for Manila and Kuala Lumpur to learn from their neighbors on how to stand up to Beijing’s gray-zone tactics through a clear demonstration of resolve.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Image: A live-fire drill using an aircraft carrier is seen carried out in the Bohai sea, China, December 14, 2016. Picture taken December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

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JULIE BISHOP WADES INTO SOUTH CHINA SEA STOUSH

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FOREIGN Minister Julie Bishop has raised concerns about how China would react to any Australian Naval deployment in the South China Sea contested territories.

In recent months, there have been high-level discussions between Turnbull Government senior ministers and department heads about what Australia’s stance should be in dealing with the South China Sea territorial disputes.

The discussions came as a mini armada of six Australian Navy ships sail north in the Indo-Pacific ­region and towards the South China Sea, to conduct military exercises in the biggest task-group deployment in more than 30 years.
During recent high-level discussions about Australia’s strategic options in the western ­Pacific, Ms Bishop and senior officials at DFAT are understood to have queried how any deployment near the contested waters would be received and interpreted by China.

However, it is understood that they were not opposed to exercises being conducted in the region.

The exercises are a show of resolve intended to maintain Australia’s presence in the western Pacific.

While Chinese state-owned media has been highly critical of the ­deployment, the Defence Department told The Daily Telegraph China had not raised the matter with Australia through diplomatic channels. The Turnbull government strongly reiterated its support for the rights of any nation to sail through the contested territories.
“This is part of what the Australian navy does,” she said in New York outside the UN headquarters.

Foreign policy expert Greg Sheridan said the fact the Turnbull government had not ruled out sailing within 12 nautical miles of artificial Chinese islands would agitate China in itself and was a “brave move.”



Ms Bishop declined to ­respond to questions from The Daily Telegraph about any concerns she raised in high-level discussions. But she told Sky News the military exercises had been planned for some time.

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Beijing Adopts New Tactic for S. China Sea Claims

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'Four Sha' island groups replace illegal 9-Dash Line

The Chinese government recently unveiled a new legal tactic to promote Beijing's aggressive claim to own most of the strategic South China Sea.

The new narrative that critics are calling "lawfare," or legal warfare, involves a shift from China's so-called "9-Dash Line" ownership covering most of the sea.

The new lawfare narrative is called the "Four Sha"—Chinese for sand—and was revealed by Ma Xinmin, deputy director general in the Foreign Ministry's department of treaty and law, during a closed-door meeting with State Department officials last month.

China has claimed three of the island chains in the past and recently added a fourth zone in the northern part of the sea called the Pratas Islands near Hong Kong.

The other locations are the disputed Paracels in the northwestern part and the Spratlys in the southern sea. The fourth island group is located in the central zone and includes Macclesfield Bank, a series of underwater reefs and shoals.

China calls the island groups Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha, and Zhongsha, respectively.

Ma, the Foreign Ministry official, announced during the meetings in Boston on Aug. 28 and 29 that China is asserting sovereignty over the Four Sha through several legal claims. He stated the area is China's historical territorial waters and also part of China's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that defines adjacent zones as sovereign territory. Beijing also claims ownership by asserting the Four Sha are part of China's extended continental shelf.

U.S. officials attending the session expressed surprise at the new Chinese ploy to seek control over the sea as something not discussed before.

State Department spokesman Justin Higgins said the department does not comment on diplomatic discussions.

The United States, he said, has a longstanding global policy of not adopting positions on competing sovereignty claims over land features in the South China Sea.

"The United States does take principled positions, and has been clear and consistent, that maritime claims by all countries in the South China Sea and around the world must be made and pursued in accordance with the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention," Higgins said.

All the islands are claimed by other states in the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as by China.

The United States does not recognize China's control over the island groups and insists the sea, which sees an annual transit of an estimated $3.37 trillion in trade, is international.

The Pentagon and State Department have said the South China Sea is international waters and that American vessels and aircraft will transit the area unimpeded by Chinese claims of control.

The State Department in December formally protested China's unlawful maritime claims in a diplomatic note.

The Trump administration's recent focus on pressuring North Korea to denuclearize has given China a green light to step up its South China Sea control efforts.

Chinese coast guard and navy vessels successfully blocked the Philippines from repairing a runway on one of the Spratly islands, and in July China pressured Vietnam into halting natural gas drilling in the Paracels.

The Chinese Four Sha legal maneuver follows the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in July 2016 that legally nullified China's claim to historically own all waters and territory within the Nine-Dash Line.

The international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines government, which disputed the Chinese claim to the Spratlys.

The tribunal noted "there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources," according to a statement by the court last year.

China has rejected the international ruling, which has the force of international law.

Michael Pillsbury, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for Chinese Strategy, said the latest maritime maneuver by the Chinese is lawfare—one of China's three information warfare tools. The two others are media warfare and psychological warfare.

Pillsbury noted that the U.S. government lacks both legal warfare and counter legal warfare capabilities.

"The Chinese government seems to be better organized to design and implement clever legal tactics to defy international norms with impunity," Pillsbury said.

"It may ultimately require congressional legislation to mandate our executive branch to build a better capacity to counter the Chinese use of lawfare," he added. "If we had such a unit, it would be easy to counter China, especially when we have the United Nations on our side."

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said if confirmed the Four Sha program appears to be "Beijing's next logical step in their ‘salami slicing,' asserting the PRC's claims to the South China Sea."

"Given that an announcement of claims to the entirety of the Nine-Dash Line raised alarms throughout the region, it makes sense for the PRC Foreign Ministry to float this notion of an incremental step forward with the concept of the Four Sha approach to the eventual restoration of the entirety of the South China Sea."

Fanell said the Trump administration should first remind Beijing and the rest of the world about the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that found China's sovereignty claims to the sea both illegal and illegitimate.

"Second, the U.S. would do well to permanently deploy a carrier or expeditionary strike group to the South China Sea in order to make sure Beijing knows that our words are backed up by more than mere words," he said.

The United States has been pushing back against China's maritime claims in the sea by conducting Navy warship freedom of navigation operations around the disputed islands.

The naval operations were stalled during the Obama administration in a bid to avoid upsetting China. Under President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, warship freedom of navigation operations have resumed with regularity but without formal public acknowledgement of the operations.

In August, the destroyer USS John S. McCain sailed with 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, drawing criticism from China.

China denounced the warship passage as a provocation and violation of Chinese sovereignty.

China over the past several years has reclaimed some 3,200 acres of islands in the sea and in recent months began militarizing the islands with missile emplacements and other military facilities.

China also created a new governing unit over the sea called the Sansha administration in 2012. Sansha, or Three Sha, includes the Paracels, Macclesfield Bank, and the Spratlys and covered a total of 20 square kilometers of land, more than 2 million square kilometers of water, and a population of around 2,500 people.

A State Department notice at the end of what was billed as an annual U.S.-China Dialogue on the Law of the Sea and Polar Issues made no mention of the new Chinese lawfare tactic.

The statement said only that officials from foreign affairs and maritime agencies "exchanged views on a wide range of issues related to oceans, the law of the sea, and the polar regions."

The U.S. delegation was led by Evan Bloom, State Department director for ocean and polar affairs in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Bloom declined to comment on the talks.

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US bombers stage North Korea show of force

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It said the flight was the farthest north of the demilitarised zone between the Koreas that any US fighter jet or bomber had flown in the 21st Century.
Tensions have risen recently over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
At the UN, North Korea's foreign minister said US President Donald Trump was on a "suicide mission".
Ri Yong-ho's comments to the General Assembly mimicked Mr Trump's remarks at the UN on Tuesday, when he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a "rocket man on a suicide mission".
Mr Ri added that "insults" by Mr Trump - who was, he said, "mentally deranged and full of megalomania" - were an "irreversible mistake making it inevitable" that North Korean rockets would hit the US mainland.
Mr Trump, the foreign minister said, would "pay dearly" for his speech, in which he also said he would "totally destroy" North Korea if the US was forced to defend itself or its allies.

Shortly before his address, the Pentagon announced that the show of force underscored "the seriousness" with which the US took North Korea's "reckless" behaviour, calling the country's weapons programme a "grave threat".
"This mission is a demonstration of US resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat," it said in a statement.
"We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the US homeland and our allies."
US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam, escorted by Air Force F-15C Eagle fighters from Okinawa, Japan, flew in international airspace, the Pentagon added.
The flight follows a week of heated rhetoric between the leaders of both countries - after Mr Trump's comments, Mr Kim called him "mentally deranged" and "a dotard".
Mr Ri did not comment on the Pentagon's announcement.

North Korea has refused to stop its missile and nuclear tests, despite successive rounds of UN sanctions. Its leaders say nuclear capabilities are its only deterrent against an outside world seeking to destroy it.
After the North's latest and most powerful nuclear test earlier this month, the UN Security Council approved new sanctions on the country.
But speaking at the UN, Mr Ri repeated that the restrictions would not make the country stop its nuclear development.

Meanwhile, a shallow magnitude 3.4 tremor was detected near North Korea's nuclear test site on Saturday morning, but experts believe it was a natural earthquake.
The quake was recorded at a depth of 0km in North Hamgyong province, home to the Punggye-ri site, South Korea's meteorological agency said.
The US Geological Survey also said it occurred in the nuclear test area, but added that its seismologists assessed it as having a depth of 5km.
South Korea said no specific sound waves generated by artificial earthquakes were detected.
China's Earthquake Administration said the quake was not a nuclear explosion and had the characteristics of a natural tremor. The agency had initially said it was a "suspected explosion".

Analysts from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the UN-backed monitoring group, said the quake was "unlikely man-made".
CTBTO executive secretary Lassina Zerbo tweeted that the quake had occurred "about 50km from prior tests".
"The most probable hypothesis currently is that it is the consequence of the previous event... which could still have further repercussions," Mr Zerbo told the AFP news agency, referring to North Korea's massive nuclear test on 3 September.
North Korea - which has recently carried out a series of nuclear tests - has so far made no comment.
In a separate development, China moved to limit the North Korea's oil supply and stop buying textiles from the country, in line with the latest UN sanctions.
China is North Korea's most important trading partner, and one of its only sources of hard currency.
The ban on textiles - Pyongyang's second-biggest export - is expected to cost the country more than $700m (£530m) a year.

Clothing has often partially been made in North Korea but finished in China, allowing a Made in China label to be legally sewn onto the clothing, BBC World Service Asia-Pacific Editor Celia Hatton says.
China also said its restrictions on refined petroleum products would apply from 1 October, and on liquefied natural gas immediately.
Under a UN resolution, China will still be able to export a maximum of two million barrels of refined petroleum to North Korea annually, beginning next year.
North Korea is estimated to have imported 6,000 barrels of refined petroleum daily from China in 2016 - the equivalent of nearly 2.2 million in total for the entire year.

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