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Managing the South China Sea: Where Policy Meets Science

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The South China Sea is in a crisis. The problems facing the sea are as vast, deep and seemingly intractable as the oceans themselves.

Rival countries have wrangled over a string of atolls, coral reefs, and islets in this contested region for centuries but now these competing claims are viewed as a serious challenge to peace and prosperity in the region. These disputes, which are associated with continuous coastal development, escalating reclamation, and increased maritime traffic, also draw attention to the destruction of coral reefs and the overall environmental degradation in the troubled waters.

Furthermore, they reveal how claimant nations—the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan—have a legal and ethical responsibility to ensure that none of their activities harm or create long-term damage to the fragile marine ecosystems.

In this sea of opportunities, uncertainties and threats, environmental degradation remains at the center of scientific conversation as an increasing number of marine scientists sound the alarm about how to address issues of acidification, biodiversity loss, climate change, destruction of coral reefs, and fishery collapses.

With environmental security shaping a new South China Sea narrative about the ecological challenges, this concept represents a crucial effort to link the impact of environmental change to both national and international security.

Paul Berkman, oceanographer and former head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Program at the Scott Polar Research Institute, provided his own definition of environmental security. “It’s an integrated approach for assessing and responding to the risks as well as the opportunities generated by an environmental state-change.” 1

Through studying the sustainability of the biological seascape and navigating the development of science diplomacy to prevent geopolitical battles over the management of marine resources, marine biologists’ efforts to respond to the damage done to the “Global Commons” will require scientific forums and collaborative problem solving among all neighbors.

Last year, the unanimousdecision reached by The Hague’s five-judge tribunal,found that China’s large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands has caused severe harm to coral and violated the country’s obligation to preserve fragile marine environments. Furthermore, it denied them any legal basis to claim historic rights over a vast majority of the South China Sea. It was a striking victory for the Philippines, which filed the case. Among many dramatic findings, the tribunal declared China’s so-called “nine-dash line” invalid.

“The Tribunal has no doubt that China’s artificial island-building activities on the seven reefs in the Spratly Islands caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment,” stated the judgment. 2

In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates in two of the 17 Parts of UNCLOS a direct application to the merits of marine science research with an emphasis on encouraging bilateral and multilateral agreements to create favorable conditions for marine science study. 3

Professor John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami and a notable coral reef specialist, who has regularly visited the region and provided analysis to the tribunal, has stated that based on satellite imagery the environmental damage done by the Chinese’s dredgers and clam poaching is most severe.

McManus has researched this region for over a quarter of a century. He knows that the most important resource in these heavily fished waters is the larvae of fish and invertebrates. As a result, he has called repeatedly for the development of an international peace park in this contested region.

“Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands. Given the rapid proliferation of international peace parks around the world, it is time to take positive steps toward the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park,” claims McManus. 4

His peace park proposal includes management of the area’s natural resources and alleviation of regional tensions via a freeze on claims.

As early as 1992, McManus was one of several marine scientists who completed scientific articles advocating for an international peace park or marine protected area. Despite the geopolitical SCS intractability, the Spratly Islands appear to him as a “resource savings bank,” where fish, as trans-boundary residents, spawn in the coral reefs and encircle all of the South China Sea waters, before returning home.

Policy makers may do well to take a lesson or two from nature as they examine how best to address the complex and myriad of sovereignty claims.

Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment recognizes that the region faces enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions. Unless a scientific ecosystem approach is adopted, trans-boundary marine areas conflicts can and are getting worse.

Since ASEAN’s inception, it has been occupied with the task of identifying shared solutions to common security problems. To a large degree, one may say that security questions have been the driving force for continued regional integration in Southeast Asia. In the future questions of environmental security may play the same role.

According to Karin Dokken, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, “The states around the South China Sea are to a large degree interdependent when it comes to questions of the human environment. They are interdependent to the degree that if they fail to find common solutions to environmental problems they may end up in violent conflict against each other. In general, environmental interdependence is both a source of conflict and a potential for international integration.” 5

Without agreement on these environmental problems there’s a bleak future for the sea. Nearly 80 percent of the SCS’s coral reefs have been degraded and are under serious threat in places from sediment, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution, and climate change.

Challenges around food security and renewable fish resources are fast becoming a hardscrabble reality for more than just fishermen. With dwindling fisheries in the region’s coastal areas, fishing state subsidies, overlapping EEZ claims, and mega-commercial fishing trawlers competing in a multi-billion-dollar industry, fish are now the backbone in this sea of troubles.

An ecological catastrophe is unfolding in the SCS’sonce fertile fishing grounds, as repeated reclamations destroy reefs, agricultural and industrial run-off poison coastal waters, and overfishing depletes fish stocks.

And in 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity warned that it could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly headed towards extinction by mid-century.” Fish catches have remained at an unsustainable 10-12 million tons per year for decades—a number that could double when Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices is included.

A recent issue of The Economist underscores the importance for science diplomacy: “The littoral states ought to be working together to manage the sea, but the dispute over sovereignty fosters the fear that any collaboration will be taken as a concession.” 6

The lack of any effective international governanceremains at the epicenter of the SCS sustainability problems.As a result, the marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating these perilous geopolitical passages and to provide some science based solutions. Although not a new paradigm, more policy planners and marine scientists appear to be devoting their studies to establish the linkage that places the environment squarelyat center of national security.

After all, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one tenth of global fish catches and by 2030, China will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption. Overfishing and widespread destruction of coral reefs now necessitates the intervention of science policy to safeguard stewardship of this vital area.

While other regions stabilized the size of their fishing fleets, Asia’s has doubled in size and makes up three quarters of the world’s powered fishing fleets.

Sent by their governments to find food for their people, fishers find themselves on the front lines of this new ecological battle. These fishing sentinels and their trawlers are fighting the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors.

This fishing competition for available fish has resulted in increased number of fishing vessel conflicts. These hostile sea encounters have been witnessed in Indonesia waters where 23 fishing boast from Vietnam and Malaysia were accused of poaching in that nation’s waters.As a result, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudijastuti, ordered the dynamiting of these boats and over 170 fishing vessels have been sunk in their waters over the past two years. The increasing number of fishing incidents reflects not only deeply different interpretations and application of the law of the sea, but a fundamental conflict of interest between coastal states and maritime powers.

Foreign Policy magazine asserts that these fishing incidents and direct acts of violence is significant “because it underscores how central fishing is to the simmering territorial disputes that are turning the South China Sea into a potential global flash point — and how far countries are willing to go to defend their turf, or at least what they claim is theirs.” 7

Within the disputed territory, there are over 1.9 billion people, seventy-five percent of them living within one hundred kilometers of the coast. Nearly eighty-five percent of the world’s fishers are concentrated in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Subsequently, fishing remains a politically sensitive and emotionally charged national security issue for all claimant nations. This ocean plundering presents the region witha looming food crisis. Any effort to balance the economic benefits with the security context within the South China Sea will require a coordinated, multi-level response from scientists, historically engaged in collaborative research and already addressing issues of sustained productivity and environmental security in the region.

The immense biodiversity that exists in the South China Sea cannot be ignored. The impact of continuous coastal development, escalating reclamation and increased maritime traffic is now regularly placed in front of an increasing number of marine scientists and policy strategists.

Marine biologists, who share a common language that cuts across political, economic and social differences, recognize that the structure of a coral reef is strewn with the detritus of perpetual conflict and represents one of nature’s cruelest battlefields, pitting species against species.

While traditional diplomatic and military tactics are not completely exhaustedin the latest round of diplomatic salvos between China and the U.S., perhaps the timing is excellent for the emergence of science as an optimal tool to bring together various claimants, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the highly nationalistic contested sea disputes.

For several decades, science has been adopted as a diplomatic tool for peace building by many countries, including the United States, and there are many organizations that strengthen global scientific relationships. Formed in1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is the largest scientific organization in the world and houses a Center for Science Diplomacy that effectively builds cooperation and collaboration. The Center’s journal, Science and Diplomacy, provides a forum for open policy discussion.

Also, representatives from the Soviet Union, the United States, and 10 other Eastern and Western bloc countries to use “scientific cooperation to build bridges across the Cold War divide, and to confront growing global problems on an international scale” established the International Institute for Applied Analysis (IIASA) in 1972. Since then, the institute has developed a mission with the help of 24 national member organizations to bring together a wide range of scientific skills to provide science-based insights into critical policy issues in international and national debates on global change.

Although nation states have different approaches toward science diplomacy, in general this type of diplomacy is defined by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as (i) science in diplomacy (science to inform foreign policy decisions); (ii) diplomacy for science (promotion of international scientific collaborations); and (iii) science for diplomacy (establishment of scientific cooperation to ease tensions between nations) (The Royal Society 2010). In that sense, it is widely accepted among environmental policy planners that science diplomacy positively contributes to the terms of conflict resolution.

As such, science diplomacy is not a completely new approach to international relations in general, and to South China Sea dispute management in particular. However, at this moment it seems that this type of diplomacy has raised two important questions in efforts to successfully settle the South China Sea dispute, namely: should we do it? And can it be successful?

What’s clear is that an insightful understanding of historical and scientific perspectives in the context of both Arctic and Antarctic environmental policies offers valuable lessons for possible adoption in the South China Sea. The Antarctic Treaty system involved seven claimant nations by 1943. Others signed a treaty in 1959 by 12 countries, including the seven claimants, and later to a total of 53 nations. Because of the leadership of scientists, they set Antarctica aside as a scientific preserve and recognized it as a multilateral, trans-boundary peace park in 1998.

The success of the treaty was predicated on three key elements: 1) a freeze on claims (no modifications or additions to existing claims are allowed. 2) a freeze on claim-supportive activities (nothing a claimant does during the time of the treaty can be later used in support of a claim), and 3) joint resource management.

To be clear, science diplomacy does help by directly and indirectly promoting confidence building among the parties involved in the South China Sea dispute. Science diplomacy, characterized by scientific cooperation activities, has contributed to solving many trans-boundary issues among nations sharing the same marine waters and in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. Also, environmental monitoring successfully offers a context for countries to express their true perception of the region without being affected by other nationalistic, political, or economic factors like sovereignty or foreign policy direction.

As a result, it provides claimants and other parties involved in the South China Sea with an effective way to evaluate the political willingness of other partners and policy makers among the claimants, as well as a better understanding of the overall picture of what is happening in the South China Sea.

Consequently, claimants can be more confident in future cooperation on other issues. In other words, science diplomacy can establish a useful and convenient starting point for regional cooperation to deal with not only international environmental problems but also the achievement of a South China Sea settlement in particular and the region’s prosperity and peace in general. 7

The role of science diplomacy in solving illegal fishing in the South China Sea can be seen as an example. Fishermen act as sentinels in maritime territorial disputes where nations already employ naval forces to bolster sovereignty claims. In the contested waters, clashes between the claimant governments and foreign illegal fishermen continue. In that regard, the prospect of South China Sea claimants going to war over access to fishing waters is a real and immediate threat. 8

However, compared to other issues like the claims over sovereignty, science diplomacy’s approach to fishery collapse may be one of the most urgent but least sensitive problems, as it can be solved without provoking nationalism and other traditional concerns which are currently much higher than they need be in the region. Simply put, science diplomacy provides the parties involved in the South China Sea disputes with a rational and transparent way to avoid the worst while looking for the best.

The timing for a joint scientific declaration for urgent action on an environmental moratorium on dredging is much needed. Recent biological surveys in the region and even off Mainland China reveal that the losses of living coral reefs present a grim picture of decline, degradation, and destruction. More specifically, reef fish species in the contested region have declined precipitously to around 261 from 460 species.

After all, this environmental change is a global issue that holds no regard to sovereignty. The destruction and depletion of marine resources in the Spratly Islands harms all claimant nations. Perhaps, citizens from the region, who are directly impacted by the environmental attack on their sea and their fragile coral formations, can create something like a Coral Reef Action Network, similar to the Rainforest Action Network.

Protected marine reserves are an emerging tool for marine conservation and management. Sometimes called “ecological reserves” or “no take areas,” these marine protected areas are designated to enhance conservation of marine resources. 9

Vietnam, another claimant nation is wasting little time responding to the region’s environmental challenges and is fast-tracking its own model marine protected area program.

Cu Lao Cham is located about 20 kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. The Cham Islands is a marine protected area (MPA) that was established by the Provincial People’s Committee of Quang Nam Province in December 2005. Professor Chu Manh Trinh, a 53-year-old Da Nang University biology professor, is largely responsible for mapping out the agreed upon objectives of protecting natural resources, and cultural and historical values of the Cham archipelago. In 2009, the area was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.10

“Yes, it took a sustained educational campaign to convince the population that conservation would provide long-term benefits to their way of life,” claims Trinh. 11

The senior marine science expert goes even further in reinforcing that the coral reefs in the Paracels and Spratlys need to be carefully protected for the whole East Sea region, that is not only for the life of fish but the life of people in the region and the world.

Vietnam has adopted marine protected areas to address present and future food security issues. These MPAs play an important role in the development of the marine economy; improve livelihoods of coastal fishing communities, and also serves to protect national sovereignty claims.

Scientific and policy cooperation required

This paper’s position is that it’s time to bring together the most qualified scientists who have experience studying the marine biodiversity and environmental sustainability in the troubled SCS waters to participate in a science policy forum.

While other types of diplomacy tend only to solve issues at the state level, like sovereignty or territorial integrity, science research cooperation in the South China Sea is aimed at a more “down-to-earth” approach, namely ensuring that fishermen can fish safely, marine products are unpolluted, and marine resources are protected correctly.

Their collaborative work may lead to the successful development of a South China Sea International Science Commission. As a result, their scientific efforts may then inspire the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to cooperate in responding to regional resource management by issuing a call for a moratorium on any further damaging reclamation work.

Of course, China has many excellent coral reef scientists of its own, who recognize it is in the best interests of Beijing to protect coral reefs, maintain sustainable fisheries, and to eventually avail themselves of ecofriendly tourism once tensions decline.

Thus, it came as a surprise and somewhat of a mystery to scientists last year why China insisted that the portions of the coral reefs on which they have built consisted of dead corals.

Dr. Wu Shicun, president and senior research fellow of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, claims that the Spratly Islands are territory of China, and that his country has adopted “green engineering” measures before, during, and after the completion of its entire reclamation in the South China Sea in order to protect the region’s ecology.

In an email, Wu claims that, “China carries out its construction projects on the inner reef flat where corals have basically died. China gathers loose soil for its land reclamation on the flat lagoon basin, which is not fit for coral growth. China has adopted “natural simulation,” applied a new type of “cutter-suction dredging and land reclamation method,” and has paid attention to the spread of sediment floating in its construction.”

There are many inconsistencies associated with China’s assertions about conservation.  The most revealing includes Google satellite images that identified hundreds of these clam “cutter boats” operating on an unidentifiable reef located between Thitu Island and Tieshi Jiao referred to now as “Checkmark Reef”,where large areas of sand and dead coral were piled into arc-like ridges. In most of the area, there was not a single living organism—no visible sea urchins, sea cucumbers, worms, corals or other organisms present.

Revisited satellite imagery of the Spratly Islands, which is freely available on Google Earth, confirms that for each of China’s newly constructed islands, the cutter boats had been operating on the reef prior to construction. Thus, it seems likely that when the coral reef scientists had been asked to assess each potential site, they truthfully reported that the coral was dead.

Professor McManus claims that “these areas of living coral reef would have been killed as the sand and silt from dredging and island construction leaked out to envelop them, just as is happening around the cutter boats. It can take a reef in these areas a thousand years to create a meter or so of gravel, sand, and silt, and so places from which they have been removed are essentially permanently altered.” 12

The common ground shared by all claimants is that an increasing number of South China Sea fisheries are hurtling towards collapse and this translates into a looming environmental security issue, and the outcome is all too likely to be conflict. The global scientific, conservation and legal communities must unite to halt the coral reef destruction, biodiversity loss, and fisheries depletion.

China with the world’s largest fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels is plundering the ocean to feed their enormous population. China’s distant-water fishing fleet has grown to nearly 2,600 vessels (the United States has fewer than one-tenth as many), with 400 boats coming into service between 2014 and 2016. The data is clear: these unsustainable fishing practices threaten food security for the region and the world. 13

Since there remain serious concerns about what will happen next to address further ecological damage, it may be thatscientific interest and environmental objectives in the region could strengthen diplomacy within both legal and scientific frameworks and lead to cooperation and to insuring environmental security for all in the region.

For ASEAN, the South China Sea links their global economies, remains an energy-shipping route and provides the essential sea lanes between Southeast Asian islands. With an escalation of fishing boat clashes, ASEAN leaders may be taking notes on how to reduce fishing incidents rather than to resorting to sending more fleets into the commons.

For many policy observers, it’s odd that while ASEAN countries quickly reached a consensus to issue statements to address the terror attacks in Istanbul;they failed to be united on the international tribunal’s ruling.

Since last year’s tribunal decision was the first international rulingon the South China Sea, it offered an opportunity for measured steps towards peace and security. Of course, ASEAN has demonstrated a weak institutional capacity to address complex political and environmental issues simultaneously, but the world, including the United Nations and Washington are watching carefully how international law and its application on various claims can lead to a peaceful and lawful path forward.

Lawrence E. Susskind, a Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also raises the issue of China’s support for science diplomacy. He asserts that although China did not join a few of the science diplomacy initiatives in the past, Beijing has its own agencies to deal with environmental issues. 14

However, it’s telling that China is not among the states that share data with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii (PTWC), which collaborates with countries all over the globe to warn at-risk populations of impending tsunami. Conversely, China established its own tsunami-warning center in the South China Sea, which it counts among its diplomatic rationales for its South China Sea activities. So China may already have its own science policy in the South China Sea, which could simultaneously prove both diplomatic and controlling. Consequently, Beijing may tend not to protest other, similar initiatives.

The Philippines and Vietnam have time and again chosen to look at the South China Sea as a sea that binds rather than divides claimant nations by trying to promote cooperation on common interests.

The Joint Oceanographic Marine Scientific Research Expedition organized between the Philippine Maritime and Ocean Affairs and the Vietnamese Institute of Oceanography provides evidence that science offers confidence-building opportunities through diffusion and exchange of information on marine resources. There have been three joint science operations conducted between 1996-2007 covering the southern part of the South China Sea. 15

Informal conversations are now taking place between the Philippines and Vietnam about reviving joint maritime research activities in 2018.

But the crucial point here is that the assemblage of the South China Sea is increasingly shaped in scientific terms. Nevertheless, it’s painfully clear that today’s ecological policy issues face formidable challenges to inform policy deliberations. As the disposition of regional maritime space becomes greater, adding seabed research, geology and mapping, deep-sea biology, underwater archaeology, cultural registers, environmental symposia, and marine protected areas, it revealsmore avenues for thecreation of common ground for all claimants. In this unfolding maritime drama, science offers all claimants the ability to monitor and to intervene.

Although science diplomacy is not a completely new approach to solving conflicts in general and in South China dispute management in particular, the urgent adoption of such a peace-building mechanism by all claimants is desperately needed.

Perhaps a few of these suggested actions directed to all claimant nations marine scientists and policy shapers may bolster peace building in the region:

  • Create regional Marine Science Council to address environmental degradation issues;
  • Expand science cooperation among ASEAN marine scientists through more informal workshops;
  • Provide an ASEAN regional cooperation science framework that mobilizes countries to address trans-boundary issues;
  • Place aside all territorial claims;
  • Establish complete freedom of scientific investigation in the contested atolls and reclaimed islands;
  • Foster dialogue for a proposed marine peace park;
  • Propose a science-led ASEAN committee to study the Antarctica Treaty and the United Nations Environmental Program initiative under the East Asian Seas Action Plan;

ASEAN does recognize the importance of fisheries to food security and to the economy. Because China has become the world’s top producer and exporter of fishery products, there’s more responsibility for them to operate in alignment with shared sustainable practices among their neighbors.

If there are to be any fish left in the contested sea, an ASEAN ecological agreement––led by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam––can steer others to unite around a proposed international peace park or at the very least, a cooperative marine protected area situated prominently in the Spratlys.

It’s the first step in supporting trust and confidence among neighbors and in implementing a common conservation policy.

After all, coral reefs are the cathedrals of the South China Sea. It’s time for more citizens and policy shapers to join the chorus and rally around marine scientists so that they can “net” regional cooperation and ocean stewardship to benefit all before it’s too late.

Endnotes

1.Berkman, Paul, Power point presentation. http://www.envirosecurity.org/arctic/Presentations/EAC_Berkman. 
pdf

2.https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2016/07/PH-CN- 20160712-Press-Release-No-11-English.pdf

3.Nordquist, Myron H., Ronan Long, Tomas H. Heidar, and John Norton Moore, Ed.

                2007    Law, Science & Ocean Management, Leiden/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Pp 271-293.

4.http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2016/0720/In-South-China-Sea-case-ruling-on-environment-hailed-as-precedent

5.http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09512740110087311

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21650122-disputed-sea- growing-security-nightmareand-increasingly-ecological-one-sea- 
troubles

Hong, Nong. “Marine Environmental Security as a Driving Force of Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Paper presented at Taiwan and the 2016 Elections: The Road Ahead- The Twenty-Fourth Annual Conference on Taiwan Affairs, Walker Institute of International and Area Studies University of South Carolina, September 24, 2016.

Bergenas, Johan, and Ariella Knight. Secure Oceans: Collaborative Policy and Technology Recommendations for the World’s Largest Crime Scene. Washington, DC: The Stimson Center, 2016 https://www.stimson.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/Secure-Oceans.pdf.

http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/07/fishing-disputes-could-spark-a-south-china-sea-crisis/

Click to access reserves-factsheet2014.pdf

Interview conducted with Professor Chu Manh Trinh in Cu Lao Cham June 2, 2016.

Panelist Dr. John McManus at the East West Center in Washington DC on May 3, 2016.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/30/world/asia/chinas-appetite-pushes-fisheries-to-the-brink.html

https://lawrencesusskind.mit.edu/blog/we-need-science-diplomacy

http://www.international-relations.com/CM7-1WB/SouthChinaSea.htm

James Borton is an independent journalist, a former non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center, and founding member of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association based in Washington D.C. He is the editor of “Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post Hague Ruling” and “The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises.”

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Southeast Asia

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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Southeast Asia

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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Southeast Asia

To engage or not engage. Hindus and Muslims suss each other out

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Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.

Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.

Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.

What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.

For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.

“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.

For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.

A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.

“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.

Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.

Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.

These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.

Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.

“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.

In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.

“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.

Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.

“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.

Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.

A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.

Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.

“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.

Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.

So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.

The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.

To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.

In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.

Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.

From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.

“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.

“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.

To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.

By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.

“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.

The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”

Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”

Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”

Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”

Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”

Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.

In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.

“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.

“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.

In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.

The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”

The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.

Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.

“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.

Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”

Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.

Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.

“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.

“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.

The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.

Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”

Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.

“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”

It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.

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