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Southeast Asia

China-Indonesia clash of interests in South China Sea

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Even as China claims most of the South China Sea where it has been building islands, Indonesia has formally protested to China over an infringement of its waters. On June 18 an Indonesian patrol ship attempted to detain a Chinese fishing boat it says was fishing illegally in the Natuna Sea of Indonesia. But it was prevented from doing so by the Chinese coastguard. Eight crew members of the fishing vessel Kway Fey were detained, however.

Natuna is the furthermost island in Indonesia, and it’s on our border in the South China Sea. Natuna Island is located up north in the South China Sea and the potential conflict zone where China’s nine-dash line and Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the coast of Natuna overlap.

While Chinese fishing boats and their coastguard escorts were encroaching deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, it was not clear how far this was driven by strategic as opposed to commercial objectives.

Chinese fishing fleets, whether directed by the state or not, are going further and further south because they have overfished the waters near Hainan. It may also be strategically driven because Indonesia has stepped up fisheries enforcement in the Natuna Sea and China may want to send a message that it won’t be pushed around.”

It is unclear whether the fishermen are still being detained by Indonesian authorities.

China claims most of the South China Sea, where it is building islands and extending its infrastructure, and there are often flare-ups with regional neighbours with competing claims. Indonesia would release them sooner than later since, unlike other South East Asian countries, Indonesia is not involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China accepts the Natuna islands and the seas around them belong to Indonesia, but the two sides have confronted one another there before, typically over illegal fishing.

Friday’s incident was the third altercation between Indonesia and China in waters near Natuna this year. In March, Indonesia lodged an official protest after an Indonesian patrol ship tried to detain a Chinese fishing boat in the Natuna Sea, but was prevented from doing so by the Chinese coastguard.

China’s acting charge d’affaires in Jakarta Sun Weide demanded the release of the crew, saying the incident occurred in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. Sun told press “When it comes to fishery disputes, or maritime issues, China is always ready to work with Indonesia to solve these disputes trough negotiations and dialogue.” Unlike other South-east Asian countries, Indonesia is not involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. After meeting with Chinese embassy officials on June 20, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said: “At the meeting we conveyed our strong protest over the breach by the Chinese coastguard of Indonesia’s sovereign rights.”

Indonesia said it’s obvious how much that stability of Natuna is prized among the local population. This island is a picturesque, idyllic place – but it stands on the frontline of a potential clash between Indonesia and China.

Meanwhile, China has accused the Indonesian Navy of opening fire on a Chinese fishing boat in disputed fishing grounds. China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that one fisherman was injured and several detained. The incident happened on Friday near the Natuna islands, off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea. A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry described Indonesia’s actions as an “indiscriminate use of force”, adding: “We urge the Indonesian side to refrain from any action that complicates or magnifies the dispute, or impacts the peace and stability of the region.” The ministry said the incident had happened in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground”.

The Indonesian Navy said it had fired warning shots on Friday at Chinese fishing boats operating in the Natuna Sea, in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, the third such confrontation reported this year. Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said that China would be asked to respect his country’s sovereignty around the islands. “This is not a clash, but we are protecting the area,” Kalla said. Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said that the navy “made the right move by maintaining the sovereignty of our seas”. “Stealing fish is a crime,” she said.

China’s foreign ministry said that one boat had been damaged and one sailor shot and injured during the altercation, which it said occurred in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”.

Beijing and Jakarta have tried to play down their maritime differences over the past two decades but the recent run of incidents and hardening rhetoric from China are undermining that stance.

Indonesia’s government insists that Indonesia and China won’t clash over the South China Sea, and that the two nations will solve Although the possibility may seem remote at the moment, Indonesia has to balance its interests delicately while making sure it keeps its borders safe.

China’s “nine-dash line” claim to almost the entire South China Sea cuts through Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Sea, although Beijing has accepted that Jakarta has sovereignty over the Natuna islands themselves. China’s foreign ministry said the latest incident occurred in waters “where China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests”, suggesting its ambitions in the gas-rich Natuna Sea stretch beyond mere “fishing grounds”. “This is the first time in a long time that China is openly declaring that there are overlapping maritime claims. If China is enforcing its maritime claims, it becomes harder for Indonesia to maintain its neutrality.

Jakarta has long maintained that this does not amount to a territorial dispute because China has never formally clarified its nine-dash line claim under international law. But the spike in fisheries clashes, which have occurred ever closer to Indonesia’s territorial waters, has angered some within the Indonesian government.

South China Sea

The South China Sea is a contested waterway – China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all lay claim to it. Indonesia says it has no territorial interests in these waters – but look closely at the map, and it’s a different story.

A series of violent fisheries clashes with China is adding to domestic pressure on Indonesia’s government to take a tougher stance towards Beijing, with which it routinely claims to have no maritime disputes. The latest clash comes at a testing time for the region, with Southeast Asian nations deeply divided over how to respond to Beijing’s assertive approach. Tensions are set to rise further in the coming weeks, when an international court in The Hague is expected to rule on a case brought against China’s maritime claims by the Philippines. Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s fisheries minister said that shots were fired “according to procedure” as the navy defended Indonesia’s sovereignty.

China is locked in a dispute with several countries over maritime claims in the South China Sea. China says its land reclamation work in the South China Sea is “totally justifiable” as it has “sovereignty” over the area. Its foreign affairs ministry spokesman Hua Chunying was responding to the issue of China’s construction work in disputed waters. In May the Philippines released photos appearing to show Chinese land reclamation on Johnson South reef, saying China appeared to be building an airstrip. Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have competing claims with China over various islands, reefs and shoals in the region.

Separately, relations between China and Japan are also currently under strain over a territorial row involving islands in the East China Sea. The Philippines has accused China of illegal building in the area. China is reportedly building new islands on five different reefs. Chinese work is progressing to dredge tonnes of rock and sand from the sea floor to pump into Johnson South reef in the Spratly islands, which are also claimed by Manila. The works appear to have been going on for months. They are privately calling for President Joko Widodo, , who has largely side-stepped foreign policy to focus on boosting the economy and has shown a reluctance to upset China, to abandon the country’s neutrality on regional maritime disputes and lend more support to neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have stood up to China more forcefully.

China also asserts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters, and China’s activities on relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands fall entirely within China’s sovereignty and are totally justifiable.” Asked whether the reclamation was for commercial or military use, Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokesman Ms Hua Chunying replied that it was “mainly for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands”.

China has been building artificial islands in the Spratly Islands on top of reefs and atolls to bolster its claims and to gain fishing and resource rights to most of the South China Sea.

More recently, the Chinese have signaled they may begin construction of a new island atop Scarborough Shoal, which lies only 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital. An international court is set to rule soon on this dispute. The looming decision, along with stepped-up US patrols, has led to mounting tensions in the disputed region.

USA steps in

The USA has sent a strong message to China by putting into operation its Navy destroyers in South China Sea, the world’s most contested body of water. US Naval destroyer Stennis left the South China Sea on June 5 after arriving in early April in what was intended as a demonstration of the U.S. commitment to the region after aggressive moves and island-building by China raised concerns among U.S. allies and partners there. The months-long patrol was shadowed almost the entire time by People’s Liberation Army-Navy vessels, and certainly raised the ire of Beijing. In May, the Chinese government cancelled a port visit in Hong Kong, saying it was “inconvenient” for the flattop to pull in.

Not long after departing the South China Sea, the Stennis participated in a massive show of force in the Philippine Sea as it rendezvoused with carrier Ronald Reagan. In a release, Navy Task Force 70 headlined the dual carrier flight operations as “Two carrier strike groups double down in Western Pacific,” noting that this showcases “United States unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups in close proximity.”

During the three months, Stennis frequently became a symbol of the U.S. response to increasingly aggressive Chinese moves across the region. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and has reinforced its claims by constructing man-made islands on rocky outcroppings, reefs and atolls in the region. Its neighbors claim China is bullying them, and the USA has opposed what it sees as China’s coercive tactics to enforce its claims.

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff

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Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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Our teachers need a stern lesson

Rattana Lao

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Outspoken Thammasat graduate Rattana Lao has very definite ideas on how to reform the education system. (Photo courtesy Ms Rattana)

It is no surprise that our local news reports on education have usually been replete with how bad the Thai learning system is.

From a national perspective, the country’s recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) test results for Grade 12 students reveal the average scores are below par in all subjects. The only subject that the average score is higher than 50% in is Thai language. This does not mean the average quality of students’ Thai language competence is high or adequate.

The World Bank’s report provides a bleak picture of the level of Thai language attainment among students. Its report states that 32% of 15-year-old students in Thailand are “functionally illiterate”. This means their reading comprehension is so poor that they barely understand what they read, hence they even struggle to survive or cope with menial jobs.

When it comes to an international comparison, Thai students are falling behind their peers in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. This is most evident in the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) which evaluates the ability of randomly selected 15-year-old students to attain scientific literacy, reading literacy and mathematics literacy. Sadly, for the past 10 years, Thailand’s performance in the Pisa test has never met the world standard. The average 15-year-old Thai student is 1.5 years academically less competent than their peers in Vietnam.

Thai educators are well aware of how bad the system is. For decades, considerable energy, attention and resources have gone into education reform in order to revamp the system. However, the system has not changed much. Since the National Education Act was promulgated in 1999, the system is still heavily centralised and overtly unequal resulting in low academic achievement of students.

One of the main problems of the Thai education system is the rampant rote learning pedagogy. Thai classrooms apply a top-down approach that lacks interactive engagement with students. Teachers stand in front of the class with the expectation to know it all and be the masters of knowledge, while students are given limited engagement and thus show little enthusiasm.

To make matters worse, teachers are not always present in class. The Quality Learning Foundation reported that Thai teachers spend more than 42% of their time outside the classroom.

Worst of all, Thai schools are overloaded with demanding curriculums. Students are expected to know so many topics without being provided with substantive explanation or examples of difficult concepts. They are expected to learn through memorisation rather than understanding, or acquisition of knowledge.

In the recent bi-annual meeting of Anandamahidol scholars, Charas Suwanwela, President of the Education Reform Committee appointed by the current government, offers a compelling insight to the reform process. He highlighted why the two decades of education reform do not produce the needed result and what needs to be done.

Firstly, our education system must shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up one. By all standards, the Thai system needs greater decentralisation. Reformers of the 1999 National Education Act were aware of this and put decentralisation at the forefront. However, realistically speaking, most — if not all — decisions and resource allocations still depend largely on the discretion of the Ministry of Education, which is heavily bureaucratised and highly hierarchical. Such reliance and dependency has limited the ability of educational service areas to be able to perform.

“To successfully implement any kind of reform, such effort must be bottom up where everyone owns it. As things stand, nobody is accountable for educational problems in Thailand. We all blame each other but nobody takes charge of how things must change”, Mr Charas said.

Greater participation of the public and private sectors is needed. For so long, educational responsibility has belonged to the state, which leaves the rest of the society inert and irresponsible for change. But education is the responsibility of every party: The state, schools, families, private sectors, communities and even temples. Everyone must participate to make a difference.

Second, there must be a renewed sense of hope for teachers and students.

“Teachers and students must be empowered to become active agents. For teachers, they must be motivated to constantly acquire new knowledge to inform and inspire students. While specialisation teachers in all subjects are needed, we do not have the resources to do so. Therefore, teachers must be eager and empowered to improve themselves”, Mr Charas said.

The heart of it all, however, is that students must be awakened. In the new era of digital technology, students cannot rely on top-down, rote learning and memorisation as the method of education. They must learn to be digitally literate so that they can acquire information on their own. A digital revolution is needed for students to learn online, on-air and on the ground.

Third, education reform must take the issue of inequality seriously. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, National Economic Reform Chairman, recently shared his vision of the state-run Equitable Education Fund that aims to address educational disparity.

“A new law is being drafted to mobilise [financial] resources from national budgets, donations and lottery profits to create an Equitable Education Fund in order to mitigate educational inequality,” Mr Prasarn said.

“The annual educational budget is around 500 billion baht. This new law will propose that 5% of that will be allocated precisely to offer educational resources to support the most marginalised and underprivileged in the country. Starting from early childhood education, this new fund aims to offer financial supports for students up to upper secondary schools.”

The system cannot be overhauled overnight. However, with vision, collaboration and real commitment, there is a beaming light of hope that education in Thailand might improve over time.

First published in Bangkok Post, repost under author’s permission

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