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King Salman Goes to Southeast Asia

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] L [/yt_dropcap]ast week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud kicked off a month-long tour in Asia in a bid to win over one of the fastest growing regions in the world. Responding to the steady decline of American influence in the Middle East, the scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and China’s expanding clout, Saudi Arabia has been hedging its bets over the past few months by deepening its commercial and political relationships with countries like the United Kingdom and Japan.

Over the long term, this makes it more likely Riyadh will turn away from its traditional relationship with Washington and build new partnerships with Asia’s emerging powers, but given Beijing’s stance on hot-button issues like Syria, this new set of alliances are likely to pose an entirely different array of geopolitical challenges.

King Salman’s timing for the trip to Asia is not coincidental. His kingdom’s economy is wrestling with deflation, falling oil prices and growing budget deficits. In response, the country has unveiled Vision 2030, a plan to diversity its economy (which is heavily reliant on revenues from oil) and attract foreign investment. Fully realizing those ambitions – which many analysts have taken with a grain of salt – won’t be possible without Asian investors on board. East Asia is already Saudi’s biggest energy market and the one with the greatest potential for growth.

The king’s tour of the region has already been accompanied by new agreements. Last week, the Saudis sealed two major deals in Malaysia and Indonesia: national oil champion Aramco signed a $7 billion agreement with Malaysia’s PETRONAS on Tuesday and concluded a $6 billion deal for a range of refinery projects with Indonesia’s PT Pertamina the day after. Salman’s delegation will be looking for even more significant deals in Japan and China, where he is due to touch down later this month.

The Saudi king is expected to arrive in China after the end of the annual parliamentary session in Beijing on March 15th. Trade between the two countries has grown from roughly $1 billion in 1990 to more than $70 billion in 2013, surpassing Saudi-US trade. In early 2016, President Xi Jinping traveled to Riyadh as part of his first official visit to the Middle East since he came into office in 2013. During his stay, the two countries agreed to create a more comprehensive strategic partnership that would include collaboration in the economic, political, and security fields. More recently, in August, Riyadh signed 15 preliminary agreements with Beijing, covering projects ranging from oil storage to housing construction. The deals were sealed during a high-profile visit by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the monarch’s son and the power behind the throne overseeing Vision 2030.

Although plenty of commercial opportunities await in China, Beijing’s other foreign policy objectives have left it at loggerheads with the Saudis. While it’s true that China has taken a utilitarian approach to the Middle Eastern monarchies by sweeping human rights concerns under the rug, Beijing has nonetheless vexed Gulf states by aligning itself with Iran in Syria. From a Saudi point of view, this position is far more egregious than any perceived American missteps, even former president Obama’s refusal to enforce the “red line” he drew on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia is one of the primary actors backing the Syrian opposition, and China’s positioning on the conflict is sure to be a sore spot.

In reality, Saudi Arabia’s pivot away from the US and toward China is far from clear-cut. The crux of the matter is that Western support remains invaluable for Saudi Arabia, regardless of the potential opportunities that exist in the Asia-Pacific. Despite increased tensions between Riyadh and Washington, the bedrock of their partnership – oil for security – is expected to remain intact for some years to come. Nor are the Americans the only Western partner the Saudis rely on: by opening a new Royal Navy base in Bahrain and spelling out their support for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) against Iranian security threats, the UK has reversed its longstanding “east of Suez” policy and reinvested itself in the stability of the Persian Gulf.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s participation in the GCC summit last December culminated in a number of deals to strengthen security and trade ties with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. After the summit, May said the UK would invest more than £3 billion in defense spending in the region over the next decade, in part to help counter Iran’s influence. Nor is Britain’s renewed commitment to regional affairs purely focused on matters of defense: the two sides also outlined plans to further boost trade between Britain and the GCC, which totaled £30 billion in 2015. May’s visit came in the context of the UK’s drive to solidify existing trade ties and build new ones ahead of Brexit, and her commercial diplomacy happens to dovetail especially well with Riyadh’s push to diversify its own economy.

All of these developments, from Salman’s travels to Theresa May’s GCC outreach, are part of a fundamental restructuring of regional alliances that date back to the Cold War. With American influence and interest in the Middle East waning, it’s in Asia that Riyadh will find the investors and business partners it needs to survive in a post-oil world. The Saudis will need to decide whether they are willing to hold their nose faced with Beijing’s comparatively close ties with Syria and Iran, even if the reward is continued economic viability.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia: Balanced politics amid major powers

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In 2020, Russia and Indonesia will mark 70 years to the establishment of  diplomatic relations between the two countries. Given that the epicenter of the geopolitical activity is currently shifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), the role of Indonesia as the planet’s strategically important location increases.

Along with Russia, there are a number of other countries that are as keen on developing ties with Indonesia. One of them is Australia, which is particularly active due to its geographical location.

Indonesia and Australia boast a comprehensive bilateral strategic partnership agreement, which defines them as “strategic anchors of the Indo-Pacific Region”. According to tradition, each newly elected Australian Prime Minister pays his first foreign visit to Indonesia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who took office on August 24, 2018, kept the tradition as well.

In Jakarta, Morrison met with Indonesian partners to discuss the details of a strategic cooperation agreement, which envisages economic cooperation, security measures, exploitation of marine resources, ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific Region and social projects.

According to the Jakarta Maritime Policy Strategy (Global Maritime Fulcrum), Indonesia is regarded as the fulcrum between the Indian and the Pacific. Canberra also sees Jakarta as key to Australia’s defense strategy.

Indonesia’s territory embraces most of the archipelagoes north of Australia and these make a convenient springboard for a hypothetical threat to the Australian coast. In addition, Indonesia stands at the junction of marine and air routes from Australia to Europe and from Australia to Asia-Pacific countries. Joint naval exercises run by the Indonesian and Australian defense ministries account for 24% of the total, while 33% of the drills are held by the Air Forces, 30% by special services and special task forces, and 2% by the peacekeeping contingents.

Australia became the third country with which Jakarta signed a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement after the United States (2013) and China (2015). In 2017, the two parties signed the Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation, in 2018 – the Maritime Cooperation Action Plan, covering 85 areas with the participation of 17 Australian and 20 Indonesian departments and agencies.

Australia finds Indonesia more important than Indonesia finds Australia. As a single continent, Australia attaches particular importance to foreign policy with a view to ensure its national security. As for Indonesia, it has a more introverted policy. Being the largest island nation on the planet, Jakarta aims to guarantee its security through internal consolidation of the many islands that make up the Indonesian state.

Pursuing the policy of “non-alignment”, Indonesia seeks to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations. This becomes clear from the previous development of the Indonesian-Australian relations: Jakarta would quickly freeze projects with Canberra once it spotted a disproportionate presence of Australia in Indonesian politics.

That was the case in 1999 when Jakarta withdrew from the Security Agreement, signed in 1995, in 2013 when it suspended defense cooperation and cooperation between special services, and 2016 when it suspended the language training of military personnel.

For Indonesia, a multi-vector foreign policy is crucial for maintaining a healthy balance of power in the region. For this reason, Moscow is an attractive economic partner for Jakarta. That Russian-Indonesian contacts have been developing at fast pace can be concluded from the fact that there have been several meetings between the two countries’ presidents, that Russia has been supplying Indonesia with weapons, that the two countries’ armed forces have held joint exercises, that Indonesian representatives have participated in business forums in Russia and that the Russian capital has revealed in interest in Indonesia’s projects in the mining industry.

Jakarta and Moscow are considering prospects for the introduction of a free trade zone in Indonesia and the EEU. Indonesia is also ready to join the Chinese global infrastructure project “One Belt, One Road.”

Under the project, Chinese investments in the Indonesian transport infrastructure amount to $ 6 billion, which is clearly not enough for a rapid growth of transit of commodities and haulages from China and the Asia-Pacific countries through Indonesia. Indonesia’s medium-term economic development plan stipulates local financing at 63% (4). The rest should come from foreign investors, which could include Russia.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

Improving Vocational Education in Thailand: An interview with Khunying Sumonta Promboon

Rattana Lao

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Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited Chitlarada Technology College with a welcome by Associate Professor Khunying Sumonta Promboon, the President of Chitralada Technology College

Bangkok – When robots are advancing and industries are playing catch up to technological advancement, vocational education plays a pivotal role in national development. Instead of arcane theory, vocational education trains students with sophisticated, hands on and practical skills needed to excel in the world of work. Vocational training offers an up to date and cutting edged techniques for students not only comply but push technical boundaries forward. Countries that excel in their industrialization all champion vocational education – Germany, China and Taiwan to name but a few.

Thailand, despite setting its eyes for Thailand 4.0 to transform its economy to digitalization, automation and robotics, is falling behind the race to the top. The World Bank found that 40% of the top tier international firms reported the inadequate skills as the major constraint. While the country is in much needed position for vocational education, there are only 1 million students in vocational school comparing to 2.5 millions in higher education. Although the country has more than 900 vocational colleges, students opt for higher education because better images and prestigious. When news about vocational education in Thailand are filled with images of violent students and gang fights amongst students, there is a dire need to reform this important sector. Rattana Lao, Program Officer in Policy and Research at the Asia Foundation, talked to Associate Professor Khunying Sumonta Promboon, the President of Chitralada Technology College on ways in which Thailand vocational education can reform itself to better respond to national demand: One step at a time.

What role should vocational education play in Thailand?

Vocational education should be the main educational track to educate and encourage young students to partake in the national development of the country. After receiving basic education of grade 1 to 9, the majority of students should enroll in vocational education. However, the case of Thailand is different. The majority of Thai students like to enroll in basic education of grade 10 to 12 and continue to enroll in universities rather than vocational education.

How can one promote vocational education?

Many factors need to be taken into account in order to incentivize more students to enroll in vocational education.

Firstly, students need to have guaranteed employment. Such employment should begin when they are still students, an internship of some sorts. This requires a close collaboration between educational institutes and corporates. A symbiosis between the two stakeholders is necessary. This is not widespread in Thailand. The opportunities are still inadequate and limited to a few top students in colleges rather than available equally to all students.

Secondly, the social attitude must change. In Thailand, parents want their children attend higher education and receive bachelor degrees, master degrees and PhD. To change this attitude, it will take time. It goes back to the first point that students need secure employment.

We incorporated these ideas into the creation of Chitralada Technology College. We want to take lead in enabling students who take vocational education with us being able to transfer into higher education later on– making the opportunities for education and employment aligned.

What are the problems of vocational education in Thailand?

The first problem is the social bias. People prefer basic education because its more prestigious. The second problem is students do not know the diversity of career paths. They know only limited choices of teachers, soldiers and doctors. The educational counselling in Thailand needs an improvement.

What does Chitralada Technology College try to do?

There are two institutes within the same umbrella. The first is Chitralada Vocational School and the second is Chitralada Technology College. There are total number of 800 students in these two institutes. Although we are small in sizes, we would like to lead best practices in term of vocational educational practices. There are many programs that we offer for students.

What is your strategy to promote vocational education in Thailand that is different from others?

We have extensive networks of 67 businesses throughout Thailand as well as partnered with other organizations. In total, we have MOUs with more than 80 institutions. We partnered with Singapore, China and Germany.

Can you give examples?

With China, we partnered with Leshan Vocational Technical College. They accept our students’ exchanges for culinary school. There is also Tienjin Sino-German Vocational Technical College that we partner about mechatronics. With Singapore, we work with Singapore Polytechnique. We are beginning to initiate exchanging programs with Temasek and Singapore Polytechnique. Last year, we took Singapore students to Sumutsongkarm to visit local communities who produce shrimp pastes. It’s impressive idea they are creating. There is also Senior Expert Project we partner with Germany. Mostly it is about mechanics and mechatronics.

How do these collaborations help Thailand?

These are successful countries who implemented vocational education and we can learn from them.

There are a lot of pictures of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. How does HRH inspire this college?

Her idea is to educate students according to their talents. Those who do not like academic track should have the opportunity to pursue other alternatives. Her Royal Highness plays a monumental role to guide our college’s direction and inspires us to excel. When HRH visits other countries, HRH enables the college to expand our collaboration with successful institutions from abroad.

We want to change the images of vocational students in Thailand from being violent students to be responsible students.

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Indonesia shaping the South East Asian foreign policy of India and Sri Lanka

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Megha Gupta*

Indonesia with more than 17,000 islands, occupies a key geopolitical position in the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc. In the recent past Indonesia has been trying to strengthen its foreign policy outlook both diplomatically and economically through bilateral or multilateral means.

Indonesia with its large population, military capabilities, vast territory and rich natural resources in Southeast Asia is trying to align with India possessing similar power potentialities in South Asia. With this strategy in mind Indonesia has been trying to access the 1.3 billion Indian consumer market and also has been trying to cooperate with Sri Lanka due to its vital geographical position in the Indian Ocean. In this regard, there has been a growing bilateral and trilateral interest among these three countries such that they can tap into the consumer and producer market hence generating higher revenue. However, these three financial hotspots have found themselves in the forefront of challenges posed by globalization and this makes it vital for them to revive their cooperation in different areas.

Over the past few decades, Indonesia has made several development landmarks through restructuring its polity and society. The economy and foreign policy goals of this nation have constructively transformed from President Sukarno to Joko. Furthermore, in the 1980’s Indonesia also took a large step in establishing the regional body of ASEAN. Since then for more than a quarter century, ASEAN has been the most important reason for bilateral and multilateral engagements between Indonesia and the two South Asian countries.

Currently, the two-way trade between Indonesia and India stands at about $18.13 billion according to the Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency (bps).  With this mutually beneficial relationship, in the coming years Indonesia and India are planning to enhance their bilateral trade to $50 billion. There is also said to be an increased strategic, defense and security partnership between the two which got reiterated with the state visit of the Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Similarly, the trade between Indonesia and Sri Lanka has doubled from $418 million in 2011 to around a billion dollar in the recent past and the ties between the two is set to improve further with the establishment of a future Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The year 2018 has also marked the 66th Anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between Indonesia and Sri Lanka where the visit of the Indonesian President after 40 years saw the signing of a series of agreements between the two island nations.

Since the Bandung Summit of 1955, the Indonesia’s relationship with India and Sri Lanka has been strong. Later ASEAN has played a leading role in making this partnership grow further. However, India’s cooperation with Indonesia and ASEAN serves as a test bed for the new ideas to grow between the two regions.

Indonesia positioned between Southeast Asia and Australasia is a crucial gateway for India and Sri Lanka to further their foreign, economic and security endeavors in these two regions.

*Megha Gupta, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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