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In early February, a band of Filipino Muslim insurgents called the Royal Sulu Army invaded the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Their goal: recapture the state for the Sultan of Sulu, whose ancestors ruled the region from the mid-17th century until 1878. While initial reports of the invasion may have suggested Flashman-like, picaresque South Seas intrigue, the reality is grim: 14 police and insurgents died in a shootout last week, with another five Malaysian policemen murdered in an ambush on Saturday.
The Sulu Sultanate’s 19th-century claim over Malaysia gives its invasion a time-warp feel. But the conflict reflects an utterly contemporary phenomenon. Yet another contested sovereignty claim to East Asia’s seas and shores, the Sulu-Sabah standoff provides a study in miniature of how nationalist passions have threatened regional peace and cooperation.
Sabah’s is a complex story of colonialism, nation-building, diplomacy and religion. The state was passed from ruler to ruler like so much colonial detritus: from the Sultan of Sulu to the British North Borneo Company to Great Britain, and then, in 1963, to independent Malaysia. Malaysia annually pays a token amount to Manila as “rent” to the sultan’s family.
Philippine politics explains the current revolt against the status quo just as much as Malaysian history. The Sultanate of Sulu is based in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where a fierce Islamic insurgency raged for decades until being settled last year with Malaysian help. The current sultan, 75-year-old Jamalul Kiram III, has complained of being sidelined during Manila’s negotiations with Mindanao’s main insurgent group.
Thus, the sultan’s attack on Malaysia is a triple-threat: potentially risking a crisis between the Philippines and Malaysia, upsetting the Philippines’ carefully crafted armistice for Mindanao, and reasserting royal control over Sabah.
So far, both Kuala Lumpur and Manila have acted responsibly and cooperatively to thwart these aims. Philippines President Benigno Aquino III has disavowed the militants. And Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak tried negotiation for nearly a month before ordering paramilitary forces to clear the invaders out from the town they had occupied since early February.
Yet the fighting that followed that decision may complicate efforts to resolve the crisis. The southern islands of the Philippines are rife with Islamic insurgents who could rally to the sultan’s cause. That would both increase Malaysian pressure on Manila to more firmly suppress the insurgents,and raise the danger that the peace treaty in Mindanao could be scuppered.
All this highlights how complex nationalism remains in East Asia, drawing as it does on religious roots and memories of the struggle against colonialism. Numerous groups in a given country can tap into veins of nationalist rhetoric, either to tweak the tail of their domestic governments or to demonize a foreign one.
The Sulu-Sabah conflict also offers a lesson in the difficulties of nation-building in a region that is largely archipelagic and peninsular. Cobbling together modern states out of island chains that were only dimly claimed by past local rulers has proven to be the bête noire of Asian governments.
The South China Sea, for instance, has been roiled by disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, relations between Tokyo and Beijing have cratered over the contested Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. Japan also has to control domestic groups trying to claim the South Korean-controlled Dokdo (Takeshima) Islands. Farther north, Russia recently announced a buildup of military forces on the Kurile Islands it captured from Japan in 1945.
These disputes are part of the reason why greater multilateral cooperation in Asia is so hard to achieve. Still-nascent groupings such as the Asean Regional Forum remain helpless to tackle these issues. China, for its part, has refused either multilateral negotiation or international arbitration for its disputes. No government is willing to back down on its claims, fearing domestic reaction and the loss of influence in the region.
The U.S. has two roles to play in these contretemps. First, it maintains a visible naval presence and relationships with many Asian nations. This provides a basic belief that Washington won’t let Asia’s overall stability collapse. Second, the U.S. has made the peaceful resolution of these disputes a central part of its so-called pivot to Asia.
Yet nations around the region worry about the effect of budget cuts on the U.S. military presence in Asia. Furthermore, American allies are increasingly dissatisfied with Washington’s unwillingness to back them up in their disputes. Some, such as the Philippines, are trying to figure out whether to get closer to China or search for new partners, like Japan.
Uncertainty is the mood of the day. Even sovereignty disputes long thought dormant, such as Sabah’s, risk flaring up in this era of competing nationalisms. The Sultan of Sulu’s army is unlikely to cause a war between the Philippines and Malaysia. But it is yet another irritant to the development of stable, trust-based ties between Asian nations. The sultan’s quixotic quest is but a reflection of a region still gingerly feeling its way toward unity.
Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.
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