Building on the theme of the “periphery,” I’d like to use this blog space to highlight the unorthodox, the unexpected, and the truly bizarre in international affairs.
For the record, this post is NOT about Dennis Rodman’s excursion to the hermit kingdom of North Korea. That topic is already too media saturated to delve further in a meaningful way. Even ESPN is now involved in foreign policy analysis!
But I digress. Today’s post is about a less well-known matter – though nonetheless equally interesting. Recently, a rebel group from southern Philippines called The Royal Army of Sulu invaded the Malaysian state of Sabah in an attempt to re-impose the sovereignty of self-proclaimed Sultanate of Sulu. The small invading force (of less than 250 people!) has already been pursued by Malaysian police, who have instituted mass arrests of suspected rebel fighters. At the same time, the Philippine president is calling for humane treatment of Filipinos in Malaysia, suspecting the Malaysian crackdown is unfairly targeting innocent Filipinos.
This begs the question: why on earth does this matter? To be true, the US media has downplayed this event (it’s tough to beat a unique papal transition, budget wars on Capitol Hill, March Madness, and the end of Hollywood’s awards season). However, what can be easily missed on cursory glance is that the Sulu invasion of Sabah relates to a confluence of forces that can make Southeast Asia the region a powder keg of sorts:
- Islamic extremism has been a thorny problem in the southern Philippines for some time. While the Royal Army of Sulu does not have the threatening power and presence of the noted extremist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, its brazenness and their location in the world’s most populated Muslim area could be a dangerous combination. At a time when the Muslim world as a whole is experiencing significant upheavals and perceived threats to a way of life (in the view of extremists globally), this area could become a more popular place for Al Qaeda-type adherents to train and gain a foothold for continuing the global movement post-Arab Spring. Within the Philippines/Malaysia sphere, peace talks between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (mediated by Malaysia) are currently taking place. Negative public views of how both governments (Malaysia and the Philippines) have handled the situation poses a challenge – albeit small – to the legitimacy of the negotiations.
- Malaysia and the Philippines, both members of ASEAN, face an additional threat to their territorial sovereignty in the form of China’s claims to nearly the entire South China Sea (including the oil-rich Spratly islands). Their resistance to China’s insistence on sovereignty over these waters has split ASEAN into two competing camps:
- Those Southeast Asian states with interests in retaining a piece of the South China Sea, and
- Those who have less of an interest (plus stronger support from China).
A rift between Malaysia and the Philippines (and an interested US) could weaken the counterbalancing force of the China resistance bloc within ASEAN.
- If allowed to blossom, this would be the sixth major politically disruptive conflict to affect the East Asia/Pacific sphere in the past year, including:
- The aforementioned South China Sea dispute
- China-Japan tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands
- South Korea-Japan tensions over the Liancourt Rocks
- North-South Korean tensions brought on by a nuclear test and the resulting increase in pressure on the North from the international community (especially China), and
- The recurring sovereignty disagreement between Taiwan and Mainland China
The fallout from an Islamic invasion of Malaysia only adds to the security issues faced by the world’s two largest global powers: China and the US. As a former “colonial” power over the Philippines, it will be especially interesting to see the long term US reaction to such an event given the “Pivot to Asia.”
While all of this seems to highlight a doomsday scenario, the small scale of this invasion of Sabah probably makes this particular conflict relatively minor in scope and impact. However, I find that an analysis of smaller conflicts/events be helpful in thinking through complex political issues so as to be better prepared for when larger unexpected events (such as the Arab Spring?) occur.
Do you have any examples of current political events that seem strange, surprising, or otherwise obscure? Please share!