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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

France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Mahathir offers a hypocritical take on ASEAN unity

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“The stability and prosperity of our region,” Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad claimed earlier this week, “rely heavily on a united and integrated ASEAN.” The call for regional unity came as Malaysia’s prime minister was conferred an honorary doctorate in Thailand in the field of social leadership, entrepreneurship and politics, an occasion that marked Mahathir’s second visit to the country since winning a landmark election in May this year. His earlier visit saw him pledge to facilitate peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand amid a persistent separatist insurgency.

While his speech may have been stirring, Mahathir’s grandiose vision of a more unified ASEAN community does not extend to his own government’s policies, at least judging by the escalating border dispute Putrajaya has ignited in recent weeks with neighbouring Singapore. The same Mahathir that called for regional unity in Thailand is refusing to remove ships from disputed waters, while a senior member of his party threatened Singapore with “pain by a thousand cuts”. The provocative language harkens back to the long and tense relationship between the two countries since their 1965 split, with boundary issues typically flaring up in parallel with domestic politics.

This latest dispute straddles two sets of issues. On the maritime side, Malaysia’s October claim to extended limits of the Johor Bahru port has been rejected by Singapore on the grounds that the new boundaries exceed previous claims. In terms of airspace, Malaysia has voiced opposition to the Instrument Landing System (ILS), an assisted navigational aviation facility for Seletar Airport. Malaysia protests the system’s implementation on the grounds that it infringes on national sovereignty and creates adverse impacts on flight paths and shipping in Pasir Gudang.

Mahathir’s renewed aggression toward Singapore marks a notable about-face from predecessor NajibRazak’s efforts to build stronger ties between Malaysia and the city-state. Najib sought to increase mutual trust through cross-border infrastructure and education projects. “We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries,” he declared earlier this year in a barely-veiled barb at Mahathir’s preceding stint in office. “It was an era that we want to forget.”

That attitude was echoed by international observers, who held high hopes for bilateral relations upon Mahathir’s election as PM in May despite his widely-known frosty attitude towards Singapore. A few months in, those hopes have given way to somber disillusionment. The tensions of the past several weeks have revived uncomfortable memories of cross-causeway relations during Mahathir’s first stint in power, when he ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003.

One focal point of tensions is Mahathir’s so-called 2001 “crooked bridge” plan, designed to replace the causeway linking the two countries with a bridge to allow ships to cross the Johor Strait. Singapore refused to back the project, declaring the bridge unnecessary as long as the causeway was in good condition. Mahathir’s insistence on building Malaysia’s end of the bridge, and more recent attempts to revive project discussions, have confirmed fears that his return to power would revive old issues previously laid to rest.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why Mahathir is so blatantly after confrontation with Singapore. Two main theories have emerged to explain the PM’s enmity towards Malaysia’s tiny neighbour. According to the first theory, the idiosyncratic Mahathir holds a grudge from his university days in Singapore, where he faced anti-Malay prejudice and condescension from Singaporeans.

Mahathir does indeed have a history of holding grudges. Long before the Seletar airport issue and the revival of the Johor Strait bridge project, Mahathir had one-time protégé Anwar Ibrahim thrown in jail on trumped up sodomy charges after they disagreed over financial policy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar, who has since re-emerged as a critical political ally for Mahathir, was just one of a long list of political opponents to suffer similar fates during Mahathir’s first tenure.

That trend has carried over into the premier’s second term. Having already spoken at length of his soured impression of successor Abdullah Badawi, the newly reinstated leader is now going after predecessor Najib. Arrested in July in connection with the billion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1MDB, Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the embezzlement of large sums of money. The unfolding case against Najib is being held up as a litmus test of Mahathir’s commitment to justice. The supposedly “bitter” Mahathir is unlikely to disappoint.

The second theory, however, may offer a more straightforward explanation. It suggests Mahathir is using this latest spat with Singapore as a means of drawing attention away from domestic problems. A Nikkei Asian Review report released earlier this year held Mahathir’s government responsible for a rapidly declining ringgit, with the new administration lacking in substantial new economic policies and failing to curb capital outflow.

Mahathir’s economic woes are compounded by rising concerns over Malaysia’s ballooning debt. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, realizations that government debt exceeds RM1 trillion – more than $238 billion – are ringing national alarm bells. The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen nearly ten percent since Mahathir took office.

Amid rising debt, dubious economic policies, and broken election promises, Mahathir’s comments in Thailand earlier this week belied what could very well be a conscious strategy of exploiting regional tensions to maintain domestic control. While ASEAN unity almost certainly is the only path to shared regional prosperity, Mahathir does not seem to be to be listening to his own advice.

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