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ASEAN’s much underrated soft power

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The 10-nation Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) still doesn’t figure high on Europe’s foreign policy agenda, yet the EU’s chances of stronger political, business and security profile in Asia rest on forging stronger relations with it. This means EU governments must have a clearer understanding of ASEAN and its many little-noticed achievements.

With its policy of quiet, cautious and often not so fast regional co-operation and “preventive diplomacy”, ASEAN has managed to achieve peace and stability in the region. Slowly but steadily, ASEAN members are integrating their economies and institutions, making the group a respected political force in the region.

Peace and stability in South-east Asia was certainly not a given when Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia signed the political declaration in 1967 that formed the basis for ASEAN. In a climate of uncertainty and suspicion, ASEAN started as a purely political undertaking. One big difference between the EU and ASEAN is that by starting as a political project, it wasn’t until 1993 that the ASEAN agenda, inspired by the EU, was extended to cover economic integration.

And even then, ASEAN’s goal of establishing an economic community by end-2015 with a “single market and common production base” doesn’t mean it’s on track to become another EU. ASEAN’s economic integration is less ‘deep’ than that of the EU. In addition to its own integration, it is the group’s policy to push ahead with the knitting together of its many different free trade agreements into one over-arching accord. The goal is to establish by 2015 an umbrella trade deal known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand as part of a policy of “widening”. The RCEP is designed to create a free trade zone for a market of 3bn people with an economy of $17 trillion.

Equally impressive is ASEAN’s role as a political stabiliser in the region through its network of dialogues on issues ranging from maritime security, health and climate change. These ASEAN-driven initiatives tend to go largely unnoticed in the west but they are the tools of preventive diplomacy.

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ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC) began as a “peace treaty” between its own member states but now includes a growing number of countries and ‘regional organisations’ (since the TAC was adapted so the EU could join) that have committed to the TAC’s message of “peaceful co-operation and non-interference”. In 2003, China was the first non-ASEAN member to sign up to the TAC, and others that have followed included the U.S. in 2009, the EU in 2012 and Norway and Pakistan as the most recent members, with Turkey and Brazil about to join.

ASEAN has, significantly, managed to keep relations with China on an even keel despite the tensions in the South China Sea over conflicting territorial claims of China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines. This may lead some to indulge in simplistic conclusions of “inevitable war” in the region – but the reality is very different. China, after long, patient but relentless lobbying by ASEAN, has finally agreed to talk with ASEAN as a bloc about a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This ASEAN-China dialogue is still fragile, and fresh incidents could yet lead to future misunderstandings and escalation, so armed conflict can never be ruled out. In the meantime though, ASEAN has played an important stabilising role.

Indonesia, accounting for some 40% of ASEAN’s population and economy, is in the vanguard of efforts to keep the peace with China and has steered clear of China-U.S. rivalry in the region. Indonesia seeks to keep ASEAN, which includes some very pro-U.S. members and others who are allied with China, on a similarly neutral course. When East Timor said it wanted to join ASEAN, Indonesia was clear about ASEAN’s role as a counter-balance to China, with Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa warning that a negative ASEAN reaction to East Timor’s entry bid could only lead to “greater influence of China in East Timor”. This said, the minister has stressed on more than once occasion that there is “no need to create a new Cold War climate”.

ASEAN executed much behind-the-scenes influence to spur political change and reform in Myanmar. Its decision in 1997 to accept military-ruled Myanmar as a member was in part related to growing Chinese influence in that country, and ASEAN member states felt it was better to deal with Myanmar through a policy of “constructive engagement” than to exclude it.

Myanmar’s ASEAN membership of course led to difficulties in relations with the EU, the U.S. and other Western countries. But ASEAN felt it was not up to those outside the region to pass judgment on the issue, and it can now claim with some justification that this inclusive approach towards Myanmar produced the right results. ASEAN diplomats like to explain that it played an equally important role by showing Myanmar that the ‘international community’ was not composed of a bunch of unpleasant bullies.

 

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ASEAN’s rapid response to cyclone Nargis when it struck Myanmar in 2008 also helped to spur change in the country. Former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan convinced Myanmar’s leaders of the need to accept foreign assistance, and in addition, there was constant soft pressure from Indonesia, whose leaders never spoke out openly against the regime, but for many years met with their Myanmar counterparts to underline the importance of becoming democratic, holding up their own country as an example of a transformation from an authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy. Myanmar isn’t there yet, but the process of change now underway is testimony to ASEAN’s little-noticed soft power.

ASEAN’s post-modern diplomacy and its role as a factor of stability and peace in the region have long been underestimated by Europe and the U.S. But both Brussels and Washington are now waking to ASEAN’s importance, recognising that it shares with the EU the fate of a regional “peace organisation” that seldom makes the headlines. ASEAN plays a crucial stabilising and balancing role in a south-east Asia, and in the face of rivalries between China, the U.S., Australia, India, Russia and others, its protective fence is of utmost importance to the region’s smaller countries. And even Indonesia finds itself better able to promote its policy of “zero enemies, thousand friends” in the ASEAN context than alone.

In spite of the shouting matches that at times erupt between individual ASEAN members and China, ASEAN as a group has a constructive relationship with its huge neighbour. ASEAN-China co-operation covers many sectors and the two sides have concluded an ambitious free trade agreement. There remain problems, but these are dealt with in a way that is arguably more mature and proactive than, for instance, the uneasy relationship between the EU and Russia.

ASEAN’s soft power may be hard to understand for those who think of power in terms of helicopters and gunboats. But today’s world needs peace-builders and conflict managers – and ASEAN’s stabilising role should not be underestimated. It is time Europe took note.

First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission

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Southeast Asia

Can the BURMA Act Coagulate the Frozen Conflict in Myanmar?

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The BURMA Act of 2021, which seeks to hold the Myanmar’s military junta responsible for human rights violation, is up for consideration to become legislation in the United States House of Representatives in December 2022. The provision about Myanmar in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act expands the U.S. government’s power to apply sanctions against the post-coup cabinets and help Myanmar’s opposition and resistance communities.

This provision of the bill combines four major challenges to U.S. policy towards Myanmar: targeting of military revenue through sanctions, supporting pro-democracy movements, authorizing of humanitarian assistance, and the pursuit of transparency for the military atrocities.

Reportedly, there are twenty pronouncements under the BURMA Act. That involves facilitating representative government, unity, and national integration; pursuing a strategy of validated engagements that take into account respecting the fundamental rights of all people regardless of their ethnicity or religion; restoring civilian authority; functioning toward legal and constitutional reform that protects individuals’ civil and political freedoms; allowing unrestricted access for international assistance, the mainstream press, and social justice mechanisms; and preventing malfeasance and unauthorized economic activity.

This act makes a proclamation regarding the promotion of national reconciliation; as well as the conclusion and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire agreement to be guided by a political settlement to encompass ethnic Rohingya, Shan, Chin, Rakhine, Karen, and other ethnic groups as well as opposition groups in order to develop an electoral institution. Further concerns have been added including protecting the rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state; perhaps other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, along with delaying the repatriation of refugees who have migrated to neighboring states.

For the purpose of coordinating foreign assistance, the BURMA Act specifies that, the US will provide technical assistance and non-lethal support to Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), including pro-democracy organizations. The National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar has lauded the BURMA Act as a significant step towards the country’s democratic transition.

BURMA Act drew massive criticism; while many EAOs involves in illegal narcotics trade and raises questions as to who exactly gets the armaments and how they are allocated within the EAOs. It seems that, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh, each of which are neighboring, are having difficulty sticking their national security and military strategy to confront the actual challenges of logistic of supplying weapons. While the US treaty ally Thailand has been consistently supporting the Military administration in Myanmar, making this provision challenging to implement.

According to a paper on the costs and advantages of sanctioning Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the export of oil and gas is the junta regime’s main source of income of foreign revenue. If the US will allow its corporations to finance and invest for the Myanmar military and their companies, this would be a violation of the BURMA Act. Despite the fact, their oil company, Chevron, was tied to gas revenue payments to the military; as well as the distribution of aviation fuels. Beside that, Apple, Google, and Microsoft; the most prominent US tech giants have corporate offices in Myanmar.

It is possible to break ceasefire agreements despite the fact that the BURMA Act opens the door to direct engagement with all oppositions to the military junta. To successfully overhaul the financial machinery, international backing will be essential; hence, concerted actions targeted at influencing the strategic decision of Russia, China, and India will be necessary. Because they are military junta’s most key stakeholders in terms of both collaboration and advancement. If the peace accord is not entirely implemented and a parliamentary government is not installed “Frozen Conflict” might be emerge in Myanmar.

The term “Frozen Conflict” is used to describe to circumstances wherein conflict has ceased but no systematic and coherent solutions, such as a peace treaty, have been developed to deal with the issue. According to the statement made by Antonio Guterres in the Security Council in 2017, the term “peace-keeping” can be misguided because it creates the illusion that the risk of armed conflict has passed; however, until peace accords are agreed to sign and put into action, the potential for reinvigorated violence will go on.

Myanmar’s active Union Minister of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, Aung Niang OO stated that, “there are two main elements that are playing in Myanmar’s present situation: the protracted programming errors in political discussions and a decrease in conflicts in most areas of the country”.

If the ceasefire accords that will be in place become unstable, the situation in Myanmar will be even more dangerous than the circumstances in Cyprus, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the absence of a political resolution, both the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the bilateral arrangements to halt the conflict in jeopardy. Furthermore, the ethnic armed groups or the Tatmadaw will face large-scale military challenges in the near future if the uniliteral ceasefire agreement do not come to a negotiation table.

When NCA signatory members the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State resigned from the process and junta regime imprisoned democratically elected government officials, this scenario has become more perilous. There is a genuine possibility that armed conflicts may resurface in so many different parts of the state.

The US BURMA Act is a historic piece of legislation, that will help restore peace and harmony in Myanmar. New armed hostilities could be fueled by the accessibility of non-lethal weapons, resulting to the reverse of tranquility in Myanmar and generating anxiety amongst neighboring countries.

Although, Myanmar has never played an important part in USA’s strategy and policy, the BURMA Act may result into an increased multilateralism. Collective decision making for a constitutional amendment doesn’t seem to be progressing fast and sufficiently. This is yet another area for which the US and other occidental states may give essential legal representation.

Making the BURMA Act more acceptable requires bringing all disputants to the discussion table to develop a foundation of a constitutional democracy. Both USA’s Western allies and competitors, Russia and China must meet together for a wide-ranging acceptance and fruitful negotiation to resolve conflict. Concerns as well as expectations mixed up with existing conflicts may well be resolved and potential “Frozen Conflict” can be avoided through the involvement of all parties.

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Towards an Integrated Southeast Asia: Timor-Leste’s Challenges and Opportunities in Joining ASEAN

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Authors: Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia and Silvia Jultikasari Febrian*

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short, is an organization originally formed to respond to the Cold War in the region by five founding member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Thailand. Timor-Leste itself had been attempting to join ASEAN since 2011, considering that Timor-Leste is geographically and culturally a country in Southeast Asia. Despite this condition, the country experienced difficulties in its efforts. These happened due to the unstable situation of the country, particularly in terms of political, economic, and security.

As a regional institution, ASEAN’s role is increasingly developing into a multidimensional organization. In order to strengthen its integration efforts, the ASEAN Community was formed to reinforce the centrality and role of ASEAN as a regional power which plays a major part in designing the territorial framework, accompanied by the signing of ASEAN Charter–marking the commitment of its member states in building the community through cooperation expansion and regional integration. The ASEAN Community itself consists of three main pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

Why did Timor-Leste join the regional organization?

Indonesia has been one of the parties which pushed the acceptance of Timor-Leste as a member state since long ago. Nevertheless, it should be noted that every policy issued by ASEAN requires unanimous votes from all member states. The new membership intention itself faced a number of challenges, such as Singapore’s refusal and questioning Timor-Leste’s steadiness and ability. Such a view is based on an assessment on Timor-Leste that it will only be a burden for ASEAN, which is currently on the way for economic integration.

The rationale underlying the appliance refusal is Timor-Leste’s condition to meet the eligibility prerequisites for membership. Timor-Leste itself is a small country with social conditions living in high poverty ($1.90/day in 2022); it is feared that it will only creating hardships on other member states as they are–ethically speaking, obliged to help, bearing in mind that full membership demand payment for around US$2.5 million per year. In fact, locally, President Ramos-Horta faced hesitation due to a lack of human and economic resources in light of ASEAN which conducts hundreds of various-level meetings each year. Other than that, the country’s reluctance to address the opposing stance towards Myanmar junta in the United Nations also caused delay in the joining process.

Even though historically, ASEAN has always welcomed new members regardless of rich-and-poor considerations on countries capabilities or resources. This is what made Laos and Myanmar join in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. In short, as long as the precondition of geographic location is met, any country is eligible to apply, which is also stated in the ASEAN Charter. Other than that, the candidate must be recognized by all member states, abide the charter, and have the willingness and ability to carry out the membership obligations. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the current ASEAN system can not be completely generalized to that of the 1990s.

In the meantime, ASEAN agreed in principle to acknowledge Timor-Leste. Along with being sent a fact-finding mission from the three ASEAN communities, Timor-Leste was given the status of observer state which allows itself to participate in numerous ASEAN meetings, though could not contribute directly to the process of conveying views to making decisions. Hopefully in the near future, the mission will release a report outlining a roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN.

As it holds the ASEAN stewardship in 2023, Indonesia–a country that has been the traditional first visit for new leaders of Timor-Leste, is expected to accelerate the new member acceptance process. The outlook is that Timor-Leste can obtain full membership when Indonesia, as the chairman, hosts the ASEAN Summit in 2023.

The presence of new challenges

Economically-speaking, Timor-Leste’s economic growth is highly dependent on income from the oil business through the Petroleum Fund. Sooner or later, these funds will slowly run out and will only bring downturn effects on public finances, putting risk of economic instability, and eventually reduce the country’s capacity to fulfill the ASEAN membership necessity. At the moment, Timor-Leste is setting out to manipulate its overdependence on oil by shifting on other alternatives, such as industry of tourism and manufacturing. Another potential step is to galvanize the private sector which can attract foreign investments. Institutions, meaning government, become the initial determinant of effective and efficient development achievements. One which needs to be considered is that development mostly requires process to create better life for the society, including in Timor-Leste.

In the context of administrative aspects, Timor-Leste can adjust local policies–as alterable as possible–in line with ASEAN regulations, bearing in mind the characteristic of ASEAN treaties and conventions are legally-binding. These efforts must be directed towards the future of an independent Timor-Leste, as overdependence to foreign parties will only affect the decision-making process. Meanwhile, there are many sources of foreign aid to Timor-Leste, primarily from Australia, Japan, Portugal, European Union, United States (US), and China.

Aside from that, in a social-community context, the condition of Timor-Leste’s human resources is also a notable concern. In 2020-2021, the unemployment rate of citizens aged 25-31 is 43.3%. This situation can actually be minimized by encouraging community capacity education and training, which confidently will boost labor productivity. Given Timor-Leste’s target to avoid dependence on oil commodities, investment in human resources is a noteworthy matter to be acknowledged.

Timor-Leste’s reputation as a developing country experiencing instability, both politically and economically, makes other ASEAN member states in having moral obligations to assist the former. Pursuing economic targets unquestionably demands extra energy for Timor-Leste. Should the issue not be immediately corrected and changes are made, it will assuredly create a steep road when becoming a member of ASEAN later as it takes more time to reach other ASEAN member states’ economic abilities. Without question, this is a big stumbling block for Timor-Leste–the good intentions to admit it as a member might turn into problematic conditions for ASEAN in the future.

On one hand, all challenges have made several parties, particularly Singapore, hesitate to agree on Timor-Leste registration prior to its ratification as an official member. While on the other hand, Timor-Leste’s position in trading activity (exports-imports) is significant in the region, hence potentially becoming an important partner for Southeast Asia countries.

Emergence of potential opportunities

Presumably for the East Timorese, joining ASEAN means an open access for local residents, especially in the field of tourism and manufacturing, which is beneficial in expanding economic capacity. This includes the cross-border employment opportunities, particularly the ASEAN Economic Community which covers eight major industries for an ASEAN market of 683 million people. These opportunities will encourage the diversification of state revenues from oil and gas to other potential sectors, such as agriculture and tourism.

Furthermore in the economic sector, Timor-Leste will gain closer relations with neighboring ASEAN countries. Between 2016 and 2019, more than half of Timor-Leste’s imports originate from five ASEAN member states, amounting to US$2.05 trillion, whereas the figure for exports of goods and services was only US$95 million. Timor-Leste admittance to ASEAN can reduce this level of trade activity gap.

In a geopolitical context, Timor-Leste–as a part of ASEAN–can avoid the possibility of being exploited for the benefit of foreign influences. Timor-Leste’s government even confessed on a likelihood to totally ally with the US or China should ASEAN not agree to the membership application. Nevertheless, it should be noted that China’s role can not be underestimated given that the country has aid to fill Timor-Leste’s infrastructure gap. Its involvement in ASEAN, at least, offers a safety net that the Portuguese-speaking country will adjust its policies to the interests of ASEAN. Perceiving the regional dynamics, political and security reasonings must be made priorities instead of merely economic considerations.

The entrance of Timor-Leste is touted to be a model of democracy. Compared to many other states in ASEAN, including Myanmar and Thailand, which–at some point–are still authoritarian and supported by the military; let alone Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia which are communist countries, the presence of Timor-Leste might help the process of democratization in the region. Certainly, this will be challenging for a small democratic country which is presently struggling.

Moreover, in an institutional aspect, the recognition of Timor-Leste can make the organizational regulations gradually adapt to issues of contemporary dynamics. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat might be given authority to have a greater role in active and constructive use to ensure ASEAN’s long-term projects. This notion is not only to accommodate new members, but to model ASEAN as a more adaptive organization which is steady in facing future challenges.

Eventually, Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN hopefully can become a new opportunity for well-integrated cooperation. Opportunities for cooperation and markets of Timor-Leste will be wide open and beneficials for ASEAN member states and also its dialogue partners. The reciprocal relationship between the two parties is expected to go hand-in-hand. Thus, ASEAN member states must provide support through the provision of capacity related to building assistance and other forms of assistance relevant with Timor-Leste’s needs. Simultaneously, Timor-Leste is also supposed to exhibit contributions for the development and progress of ASEAN. This will be advantageous in the form of a more active and effective cooperative relation in the future of ASEAN.

*This article is co-authored with Silvia Jultikasari Febrian, an undergraduate student of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia.

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China’s assurance of Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

We now have new hope thanks to news reports that were published in the Bangladeshi dailies on Tuesday and contained the word of Yao Wen, the recently appointed Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, that the repatriation of Rohingyas to their native Myanmar would begin as soon as possible. We believe that the Chinese government is truly considering Bangladesh’s concern over the safe and immediate repatriation of more than a million displaced Rohingyas in light of the Chinese envoy’s pledge.

The envoy reportedly made this commendable remark to our foreign minister at a recent meeting at his office.

If his words are followed by action, we think China’s role in this case will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace, particularly in light of the repeated failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya due to the government of Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. And when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we wholeheartedly believe in China’s potential. China is a dependable friend of Bangladesh and a major global force. There is no doubting the importance of the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador’s position in this situation.

The Rohingya situation needs to be resolved diplomatically and via political means, according to the international community. The US and other Western nations keep applying pressure to Myanmar even though they are unable to ensure the safe and willing return of the Rohingyas. As Bangladesh seeks the swift repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, Li Zhiming, the former Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, stated that China would serve as a “bridge of communication” and do its utmost to support a timely resolution. China supports Bangladesh’s desire to begin repatriation, and China will keep assisting the two friendly neighbors in finding a solution to this persistent problem. China will make an effort to address this issue effectively because it is one of humanity.

In truth, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and territory, is no longer able to handle such a large number of displaced people as it deals with a wide range of domestic and international problems as a result of the recent worldwide pandemic and the war in Russia and Ukraine. Hosting the growing population of Rohingyas, including newborn children, is also not a long-term option for them. In previous editorials, we have emphasized numerous times the importance of finding a long-term solution to this situation.

To protect China’s interests in Myanmar, the Rakhine state must remain stable. The infrastructure that China built in the state of Rakhine will have a big impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are also necessary to run all of these facilities. These Rohingyas and Rakhines can be trained by China to work efficiently in a variety of facilities and sectors. A stable Rakhine will draw tourists, and the region’s tourism industry can grow. Rakhines and Rohingyas can work in that sector as well. That will deal with the state’s unemployment issue. The level of racial animosity will progressively decline as the economy improves, and harmony may be guaranteed. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans in addition to ensuring presence in the Indian Ocean.

Given all, it can be concluded that the Rohingya situation will be resolved if China takes the proper action.

Bangladesh desires the safe and honorable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh and China have long-standing, close ties. During a visit to Bangladesh on August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Bangladesh is making serious efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis. During this tour, the Rohingya issue received important discussion. China’s help was requested during this visit in order to play a bigger role in the Rohingya situation and find a political solution that would guarantee return. China has contributed significantly to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth by funding numerous economic initiatives there.

We think the Rohingya situation would not have lasted as long if the big nations had shown the kindness and sincerity that we see now. An appropriate solution to the situation would have been achieved by now if the humanitarian component of it had been given precedence above its geopolitical ramifications.

According to our assessment, the main source of the crisis lost steam due to the competing interests of the major players, many of which Bangladesh and Myanmar have bilateral relations with for a variety of reasons.

The Rohingya situation is solely a matter of human rights. Democracy and human rights are related. From that vantage point, it is impossible to deny the significance of democracy for the sustainable return of displaced Rohingyas to their country of origin, Myanmar.

We believe that other global power players cannot avoid their collective responsibility to rise to the occasion above their political lines and assist China for a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that China’s assurance to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope.

Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner. The Rohingya issue must be addressed in Myanmar, a country that China has significant influence over. As a result, China can make a big contribution to the return of the Rohingya.

To resolve this problem, the regional powers need to step forward right away. Everyone expects that by resolving the Rohingya issue, China, a friendly nation of Bangladesh, will significantly contribute to the peace, security, and stability of the area.

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