KUALA LUMPUR — On most weekends, the streets around the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and the landmark Petronas Twin Towers — previously the world’s tallest building complex — are usually heaving with covetous shoppers, selfie-snapping diners and pram-pushing young families.
But as 18 regional and world leaders met at the KLCC for a series of summits on Nov. 20-22, even the typical mass security deployment seen at such gatherings was outdone. Roads around the center were closed, and stern-faced machine-gun toting soldiers stood at attention under some of the Malaysian commercial capital’s glossiest hotels and malls.
After hundreds of people were killed in recent terrorist attacks in Egypt, France, Lebanon and Mali, the fear was that even a handful of the hundreds of Southeast Asians estimated to have joined the Islamic State militant group could have filtered back to the region with the intent of wreaking havoc on what must have seemed a lush target: a gathering of “enemy” world leaders — men who have ordered air attacks on IS in Iraq and Syria, such as U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
In the end, despite a leaked memo from the Malaysian police suggesting that IS suicide bombers were planning to target the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and related summits — a three-day series of multiple summits and dozens of bilateral meetings — there was no violence, just flared tempers, with the events culminating in a testy East Asian Summit on Sunday afternoon.
But the cause of the confab friction was not how to address the diffuse terrorist threat posed by IS, but an age-old kind of international row: territorial disputes.
“The Sea Known By Many Names”
China claims around 80% of the South China Sea and has clashed militarily on the sea with rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines. Many ASEAN summits in recent years have been dominated by the contested waters, known as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines or the East Sea if you happen to be in Hanoi.
It was also referred to as “The Sea Known By Many Names” by Philippine President Benigno Aquino during his several interventions about the dispute in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend. Aquino’s jeremiads about the South China Sea culminated on Sunday with a set of previously unpublicized allegations of Chinese interference with Philippine vessels in parts of the sea claimed by the Philippines.
The Philippines is seeking international arbitration over the issue, further angering China, which Sunday fired back at both Manila and the U.S. Washington sees Beijing’s claims as interfering with freedom of navigation on a waterway through which around $5 billion in commerce passes each year.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin accused the U.S. of “provocation” over its recent deployment of B-52 bombers and naval vessels to the area around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“This time, in a very high-profile manner, the U.S. sent military vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s islands and reefs,” Liu said. “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation and the purpose is to test China’s response.”
As for the islands, a new peg for China’s long-standing claim to most of the South China Sea, these are not being constructed with military ambitions in mind, Liu added, describing such depictions as a “misrepresentation. He said “the construction efforts … are aimed to improve the working and living conditions of those living on the islands.”
And while the South China Sea issue has dragged on for years without anything like war breaking out, tensions have clearly risen in recent months, at least in the two years since China’s artificial island-building commenced and since the U.S. sent its Navy and Air Force in to needle the Chinese.
But while the prospect of war over the South China Sea lingers, with potentially devastating ramifications for peace and economic prosperity across the wider Pacific region, Obama sought to get leaders in Kuala Lumpur talking about terrorism, saying on Nov. 20 that he expected the summits to focus on combating the growing, deadly reach of IS.
Ultimately, however, the South China Sea dominated the discussions, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Nov. 22 press conference after the summits wound down.
Split over Syria
Obama held a separate press conference at a plush hotel away from the summit venue, where he repeated his view that the war in Syria — the seedbed for IS — was the fault of the Assad government, against which the U.S. has funded opposition militia groups.
“It is not conceivable that Mr. Assad can regain legitimacy in a country in which a large majority of that country despises Assad, and will not stop fighting so long as he’s in power,” Obama said, at around the same time a terror threat forced the diversion to Canada of a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to New York, while Belgian capital Brussels, the European Union headquarters, remained in lockdown due to “a serious and imminent threat,” according to Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Obama’s remarks were aimed at Russia, which supports Assad, and which, like the U.S., is carrying out airstrikes in Syria. But though both countries are targeting IS, Russia sees Assad as a bulwark against the militants, whose deadly exploits appear to be spreading, after a spate of recent attacks spanning Europe, the Middle East and Africa — including the blowing up of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt.
Obama called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “go after the people that killed Russian citizens,” a reference not just to the IS killing of Russian tourists in Egypt, but Moscow’s targeting of U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria who are fighting IS, which Obama derided on Sunday as “a bunch of killers with good social media.”
Medvedev, effectively Putin’s emissary, on Sunday called on countries with large Muslim populations to do more to curb IS, telling the East Asia Summit that “we need a consolidated anti-terrorist position of those countries that have a large Islamic community, and incidentally Russia is one of these countries.”
Medvedev likely picked up on Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak’s Saturday morning broadside against IS, in which the host prime minister said that “it states clearly in the holy Quran” that if anyone wrongly takes a life, “it shall be as if he had killed all mankind.”
“Suicide — under any circumstances, never mind suicide bombing that kills innocents –is likewise a terrible sin. In the Hadith, it is recorded that the Prophet Muhammad said that God forbids Paradise to anyone who takes their own life — let alone the lives of innocents,” said Naijb, the head of government in majority-Muslim Malaysia.
But Najib himself is a tarnished brand – still having not explained the source of and reason for nearly $700billion lodged into his bank accounts in 2013 – a scandal that prompted mass street protests in Kuala Lumpur, calling for Najib’s resignation. When the Malaysian Prime Minister met President Obama on Nov. 20, the U.S. Leader barely managed a smile and the following day met with the lead organizer of the anti Najib protests – a notable change from less than a year ago, when the two men played a Christmas Eve round of golf in Hawaii.
But nonetheless, Obama welcomed Najib’s condemnation of IS, and the Malaysian PM carried on as MC for the weekend talks — which followed a Group of 20 get-together in Turkey, where IS has also carried out suicide bombings, and an APEC summit in the Philippines. The meetings marathon – a week in total taking in the G-20, APEC and then ASEAN – concluded with a ceremonial handover in which Najib shook hands with the stony-faced Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, who will take over as chair of ASEAN in 2016.
“I assure you of Malaysia’s unwavering support during your chairmanship next year,” Najib said.
Naijb then summed up the weekend’s meetings, telling the media that “the threat of terrorism and extremism is real and its effects are being felt more widely,” though his words were half-drowned out by the wailing of police sirens from the otherwise barren streets outside.