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Can Australia,offer an alternative narrative in the Indo-Pacific?

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An excessively unpredictable and isolationist United States, under the US President Trump, whose transactionalism borders on being simplistic, has caused discomfort globally – even more so in the Asia-Pacific region now referred to as the Indo-Pacific. This discomfort is exacerbated the fact, that the US’ unpredictable approach, has been simultaneously accompanied by an increasingly assertive China.

 Along with India, Japan and ASEAN members like Singapore, one of the countries which has taken note of the Trump Administration’s unpredictable approach towards the Indo-Pacific region is Australia.  

Australia’s reservations with regard to US isolationism and Chinese expansionism

In a White Paper on Foreign Policy (2017), the Australian government while recognizing the less pro-active approach of the Trump Administration, unequivocally argued in favor of more robust engagement between the US and the Indo-Pacific Region

 ‘We believe that the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order is in its own interests and in the interests of wider international stability and prosperity’

The White Paper while drawing attention to the unpredictable approach of the US, also highlights the rise of China. While Australia has robust economic ties with Beijing, with bilateral trade estimated at well over 100 Billion USD in 2016 and Chinese Investments in Australia estimated at over 15 Billion USD for 2016, The White Paper has not refrained from expressing concern over China’s assertive stand on the South China sea issue.

‘Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities.. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes’.

The Chinese media has been unsparing in its criticism of the White Paper. An editorial in Global Times went to the extent of saying that:

‘ …China can move its ties with Australia to a back seat and disregard its sensitivities’.

It is not just the White Paper which has drawn attention to China’s increasing influence. There has been skepticism with regard to the One Belt One Road Project. Commenting on the OBOR, Commenting on the project, Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary, Frances Adamson stated:

‘We know from our neighbours in the South Pacific in particular that infrastructure projects can come with very heavy price tags and the repayment of those loans often can be absolutely crippling and that’s why you’d expect Australia has an interest in governance arrangements’.

 Australia’s Role in the Indo-Pacific and Quad Alliance

 Keeping in mind the twin challenges discussed above, Australian policy makers, think-tanks and strategic analysts have been  working towards building an alternative narrative in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific. One of them is nudging India to play a more significant role in the Indo-Pacific.

2013 White Paper on Defence released by the Australian government (Department of Defense), referred to what was earlier called the Asia-Pacific as the’ Indo-Pacific’ region. The White Paper also spoke about the importance of the India-Australia relationship:

‘India and Australia have a shared interest in helping to address the strategic changes that are occurring in the region. Australia and India are also important trade partners and share a commitment to democracy, freedom of navigation and a global order governed by international law’

 During former PM Julie Gillard’s state visit to India in October 2012, the joint statement between her and Dr. Manmohan Singh:

‘India and Australia share a common interest in the Indian Ocean and in the maintenance of stability and security through the Indian-Pacific region’.

Common Values which bind the Quad

Ironically,  while Australia has been worried about US isolationism, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his address delivered on the eve of his India visit in October 2017,  at CSIS, Washington DC had not referred to not just the close strategic ties, but also to the possibility of Australia ‘anchoring’ the India-Japan-US alliance.

Earlier too in 2007, Australia, Japan, India and the US had established ‘Quad held naval exercises, but due to Chinese pressure, Australia walked out of the alliance. This time, all the four participants in the alliance are much clearer and Australia too is not likely to blindly toe the Chinese line. A meeting of the Quad was held in Manila on the eve of the ASEAN Summit, with representatives from all four countries.

The statement of the Australian Foreign Ministry post the meeting outlined the key factors which bind the Quad Alliance. Said the statement:

“The officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address shared challenges in the region. This includes upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, increase connectivity,”

Beyond the strategic dimension

It is important to bear in mind, that the Quad is bound by democratic values, openness and a respect for the rule of Law. Shinzo Abe, who was one of the key architects of the Quad grouping had thought of it as a ‘concert of Asian Democracies’

Australia has strongly stood for some of the ideas and values which are under threat; Democracy, Diversity, Freedom of Speech.

One clear instance of Australia’s reasonable commitment to freedom of speech is it’s nuanced but reasonably firm response to the aggressive behavior of Chinese students on Australian campuses. This in spite of the fact that out of the roughly 5,80,000 overseas students in Australia (taking into account Vocational Training, English Language Training along with higher education) Chinese students (estimated at 170,547) account for roughly 29 percent of the enrollment. A large section of the media, intelligentsia did not shy away from lashing out at the assertive and aggressive behavior of Australian students

While in one instance, students objected to a Professor at the University of Newcastle, mentioning Taiwan as independent. In another, an IT Professor at Sydney University displayed a map showing Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, and Ladakh as part of India, and had to apologize to Chinese students. While in the second instance, the Professor was forced to apologize to the students, a number of articles in the media have drawn attention to the aggression of the Chinese students and hit out at them. Government officials to have drawn attention to this. While Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department, Frances Adamson commenting on these incidents stated that international students should engage with ideas they disagree with and not ‘silently withdraw’ or ‘blindly condemn’. The head of Australia’s spy agency had also drawn attention to increased Chinese interference on Australian campuses through organizations like the CCSA (Chinese Students and Scholars Association).

The Australian government decision to announce laws which curbs foreign funding, was also done with an eye on China, which has been seeking to influence the domestic political system. The Chinese have criticized this move, saying that Beijing has not interfered in Australia’s domestic political system and such Australia’s recent move would harm the bilateral relationship.

Conclusion

While Australia can emerge as a key stakeholder in the alternative narrative emerging in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to be consistent in its commitment to open borders, and not put in place tougher anti-immigration laws which are insular and not in consonance with the aspirations of a more open Indo-Pacific. While being vigilant, it needs to be a true beacon of freedom and openness, something which has been emphasized by its Government and something the Quad stands for.  While the alternative narrative need not be Anti-China, but it has to have a clear and tough stand on certain values.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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Southeast Asia

Learning to build a community from a ”Solok Literacy Community”in the West Sumatra

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Established on September 21, 2020 in Solok City, West Sumatra Province, Indonesia. Solok Literacy Community initiated by the young people of Solok City has grown rapidly into a community that has its own trendsetter among young people. Bringing narratives smelling of education, The Literacy Solok Community has a movement with measurable progressiveness that can be seen from its flagship programs.

Starting from the free reading stall movement that has been moving in various corners of Solok City over the past few months. The concept of film surgery that provides proactive discussion space for all segmentation in society. “Diskusi Ngopi” activities which in fact is the concept of FGD (Focus Group Discussion), run with interesting themes and issues so that it can be considered as one of the favorite programs that are often attended by many young people in Solok. Then a class of interests and talents aimed at reactivating the soft skills and great talents of the children of Solok City.

Solok Literacy Community has a long-term goal of making Solok City as a Literacy City in 2025. With these noble targets, of course we together need small steps in the form of programs that run consistently over time. Because after all, a long journey will always begin with small steps in the process of achieving it.

Many appreciations and positive impressions from the surrounding community continue to be received by the Solok Literacy Community. This is certainly a big responsibility for the Solok Literacy Community to continue to commit to grounding literacy in Solok City. Solok Literacy Community activities can be checked directly through instagram social media accounts @solok_literasi. Carrying the tagline #penetrategloomy or penetrating the gloom and #lawanpembodohan, members of the Solok Literacy Community or better known as Soliters, will always make innovative breakthroughs in completing the goal of making Solok City 2025 as a Literacy City.

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Indonesia Submit Extended Continental Shelf Proposal Amidst Pandemic: Why now is important?

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Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

Indonesia’s active cases of coronavirus have been getting more worrying with more than 100.000 active cases. With nearly a year of pandemic, Indonesia’s not only facing a serious health crisis but also an economic catastrophe. People lose their jobs and GDP expected to shrink by 1.5 percent. Jakarta government therefore should work hard to anticipate the worst condition in 2021.

With this serious economic threat, Indonesia surely has to explore maximize its maritime geographic potential to pass this economic crisis and gain more national revenue to recover from the impact of the pandemic. And there where the Extended Continental Shelf submission should play an important role.

Recently this week, Indonesia submit a second proposal for the extended continental shelf in the southwest of the island of Sumatra to the United Nations Commission on the Limit of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Continental shelf is that part of the seabed over which a coastal State exercises sovereign rights concerning the exploration and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas deposits as well as other minerals and biological resources.

Therefore, this article argues that now is the right time for Indonesia to maximize its Continental Shelf claim under the law of the sea convention for at least three reasons.

First, one could not underestimate the economic potential of the Continental Shelf, since the US Truman Proclamation in 1945, countries have been aware of the economic potential from the oil and gas exploration in the continental shelf.

By being able to explore and exploit natural resources in the strategic continental shelf, at least Indonesia will gain more revenue to recover the economy. Even though indeed the oil and gas business is also hit by the pandemic, however, Indonesia’s extended continental shelf area might give a future potentials area for exploitation in long term. Therefore, it will help Indonesia prepare a long-term economic strategy to recover from the pandemic. After Indonesia can prove that there is a natural prolongation of the continental shelf.

Second, as the Indo-Pacific region is getting more significant in world affairs, it is strategic for Indonesia to have a more strategic presence in the region. This will make Indonesia not only an object of the geopolitical competition to utilize resources in the region, but also a player in getting the economic potential of the region.

And third, it is also showing that President Joko Widodo’s global maritime fulcrum agenda is not yet to perish. Even though in his second term of administration global maritime fulcrum has nearly never been discussed, this momentum could be a good time to prove that Indonesia are still committed to the Global maritime fulcrum by enhancing more maritime diplomacy.

Though this is not the first time Indonesia submit an extended Continental Shelf proposal to the CLCS, this time it is more likely to be accepted by the commission. Not to mention the geographical elements of natural prolongation of the continental shelf that has to be proved by geologist.

The fact that Indonesia has no maritime border with any neighboring states in the Southwest of Sumatra. Therefore, unlike Malaysia’s extended continental shelf proposal in the South China Sea that provoke many political responses from many states, it is less likely that Indonesia extended continental shelf proposal will raise protest from any states.

However, the most important thing to realize the potential benefit of the extended continental shelf as discussed earlier, Indonesia should have a strategy and road map how what to do after Indonesia gets the extended continental shelf.

*Arie Afriansyah is a Senior Lecturer in international law and Chairman of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at University of Indonesia.

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam

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Photo courtesy - PTI

In its fourth year since the elevation of ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, December 2020 witnessed an enhanced cooperation between New Delhi and Hanoi, ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to defence and maritime cooperation, amid common concerns about China.

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In an effort to boost defence cooperation, the navies of India and Vietnam conducted atwo-day passage exercise (Passex) in the South China Sea on December 26 and 27, 2020, reinforcing interoperability and jointness in the maritime sphere. Two days before this exercise has begun, an Indian naval ship arrived at Nha Rong Port in Ho Chi Minh City to offer humanitarian assistance for the flood-affected parts of Central Vietnam.

Before this, in the same week, during a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on December 21, both countries inked seven agreements on miscellaneous areas of cooperation and jointly unveiled a vision and plan of action for the future, as both countries encounter the common Chinese threat in their respective neighbourhoods.

Vietnam’s disputes with China

India’s bone of contention with China ranges from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. Both Vietnam and India share territorial borders with China. Well, it seems odd that despite its common socialistic political backgrounds, China and Vietnam remains largely hostile. 

Having a 3,260 km coastline, covering much of the western part of South China Sea, Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) overlaps with Chinese claims based on the legally invalid and vaguely defined Nine-Dash Line concept, unacceptable for all the other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In 2016, China lost a case brought out by the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague when the court ruled that Beijing’s had no legal basis to claim ‘historic rights’ as per the nine-dash line. China rejected the ruling and continued to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, which it has been doing since 2013, some of them later militarized to gain favourable strategic footholds in the sea and the entire region.

The Paracel and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has been historically considered part of Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War, gave the erstwhile South Vietnam control of territories south of the 17th Parallel, which included these island groups. But, China lays claims on all of these islands and occupies some of them, leading to an ongoing dispute with Vietnam.

China and Vietnam also fought a border war from 1979 to 1990. But today, the disputes largely remain in the maritime sphere, in the South China Sea.

China’s eyes on the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean has been long regarded as India’s sphere of influence. But with the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar megaproject proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and the Maritime Silk Road connecting three continents, which is part of it, China has grand ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Theories such as ‘String of Pearls’ shed light on an overambitious Beijing, whichattempts to encircle India with ports and bases operating under its control.

China has also opened a military base in Djibouti, overlooking the Indian Ocean, in 2017 and it has also gained control of the strategic port of Hambantota in the southern tip of the island of Sri Lanka, the same year.

Chinese presence in Gwadar in Pakistan, where the Maritime Silk Route meets the land route of BRI, is also a matter of concern for India. Moreover, the land route passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is under Pakistani control, but is also claimed by India.  China has also been developing partnerships with Bangladesh and Myanmar to gain access to its ports in the Bay of Bengal.

Notwithstanding all this, India’s response has been robust and proactive. The Indian Navy has been building partnership with all the littoral states and small island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles to counter the Chinese threat.

India has also been engaged in humanitarian and developmental assistance in the Indian Ocean region, even much before the pandemic, to build mutual trust and cooperation among these countries. Last month, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Sri Lanka to revive a trilateral maritime security dialogue with India’s two most important South Asian maritime neighbours, the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Foe’s foe is friend

The Indian Navy holding a Passex with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which is China’s backyard, is a clear message to Beijing. This means, if China ups the ante in the Indian Ocean or in the Tibetan border along the Himalayas, India will intensify its joint exercises and defence cooperation with Vietnam.

A permanent Indian presence in the South China Sea is something which Beijing’s never wish to see materialise in the new future. So, India’s engagement with Vietnam, which has a long coast in this sea, is a serious matter of concern for Beijing.

During this month’s virtual summit, Prime Minister Modi has also reiterated that Vietnam is a key partner of India in its Indo-Pacific vision, a term that Beijing vehemently opposes and considers as a containment strategy against its rise led by the United States.

Milestones in India-Vietnam ties – a quick look-back

There was a time when India supported Vietnam’s independence from France, and had opposed US-initiated war in the Southeast Asian country in the latter half of the previous century. Later, India hailed there-unification of North and South Vietnams.

Even though India maintained consulate-level relations with the then North and South Vietnams before the re-unification, it was elevated to ambassadorial level in 1972, thereby establishing full diplomatic ties that year.

During the Vietnam War, India supported the North, despite being a non-communist country, but without forging open hostilities with the South. Today, India partners with both France and the United States, Vietnam’s former colonizers, in its Indo-Pacific vision, comfortably along with Vietnam as geopolitical dynamics witnessed a sea change in the past few years and decades.

Way ahead

Today, these two civilizational states, sharing religio-cultural links dating many centuries back, is coming together again to ensure a favourable balance of power in Asia. Being a key part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and ‘Quad Plus’ conceptualisation, Vietnam’s role is poised to increase in the years to come as China continues to project its power in Asia and beyond.

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