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Southeast Asia

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

An alarming surge in illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia

Avirat Parekh

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With a recent purge by American social media giant Facebook on advertisements for the illicit sale of animals in Yangon, Myanmar, the discourse around such trade has resurfaced. To add more specifically sported a picture of a caged cat and described it as “Not too wild, not too-well behaved. If interested, call…” which is alarming for the platform as it has a strict ban on the sale of animals. According to a report by an international non-governmental organization World Wide Fund for Nature Illegal Wildlife Trade occurs across the Southeast Asian region from the remote corners of Myanmar and Laos, to markets in Bangkok and Hanoi, but its center of gravity is the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar, Lao PDR, China meet. Thereby, categorizing the region as a major hub for trade of this nature. The region is a biodiversity hotspot that sits at the heart of wildlife trade. Although, such trade is carried out for specific purposes the scale of trade in the region is quite large. A report published by TRAFFIC, which is another leading non-governmental organization involved in the wildlife monitoring network further categorizes the scale to include the following: Over 96,000 Kg of Pangolin scales seized in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, Over 225,000 Kg of African ivory seized from almost all ASEAN nations, Over 2,200 tigers seized, More than 3,800 bear equivalents sized in ASEAN nations, Over 4,500 African rhino horns most linked to ASEAN nations, 1,100 Helmeted Hornbill parts seized in Indonesia, Over 45,000 live birds seized in Indonesia, Up to 1,189 otters observed for sale online in 4 ASEAN nations, Over 100,000 pig nosed turtles seized in Indonesia. This expanse not only threatens wildlife in the region but also endangers species far beyond the region’s borders, making it a major cause of concern for the international community.

Therefore, the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members namely Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos function as a source, consumer and as entrepôts for wildlife coming into the region and this trade is globally connected to feeding a demand for exotic wild animals, parts and products for use as luxury goods, traditional medicine ingredients and the billion-dollar live animal trade. There are also adequate loopholes in the legislation systems in the region considering there is a policy gap in understanding the difference in trade volumes of both legal and illegal trade brackets. To further understand the volume of wildlife trade in the region, it is critical to look at a case by case analysis of nations in the region.

Indonesia is home to 1,531 species of birds,515 species of mammals,270 species of amphibians and 35 species of primates thereby making it a biodiversity hotspot also due its vast rainforest cover. However, with hectares of land being destroyed the new landscape is prone to deforestation and hence endangers wildlife. The Sumatran tiger is crucial case study of how this deforestation makes it easier for poachers to track them as their use is eminent in various traditional Chinese ornaments and medication. The illegal Pangolin trade has nearly halved the population since the 90’s as the markets have been creating adequate demand and thereby incentivizing poachers. The Orangutan and Gibbon numbers have been declining due to their increased vulnerability to poachers due to reduced forest cover. The government of Indonesia blames this situation on lack of funding for wildlife preservation efforts but what’s required is a bolder legislative front considering activities like bird-keeping are social activities in the nation. It is estimated that in an average year as many as 614,180 native songbirds were trapped and traded nationally throughout Java and Sumatra. This is a significant number when considering that even species listed as ‘least concern’ host populations of less than 3,000 individuals. The government has even joined hands with social media giants like Facebook and Instagram to zero down on illicit online trade of wildlife, to be able to ensure strict surveillance on the same. While the Indonesian government is improving the enforcement of the wildlife trade ban and while seizures of illegally trafficked animals are increasing, better monitoring and research of existing threatened species populations will help ensure better protection of Indonesia’s wildlife and hence impact the global network of illicit wildlife trade. Another key region of trade and transit for illicit wildlife is the Golden Triangle region. According to a special report by WWF on ‘the top ten most wanted endangered species’ tigers, elephants, bears, pangolin are most widely traded in the region where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos connect. While, rhinos, serow, helmeted hornbill, gaur, leopards and turtles are openly sold in the region that is the basis of the widespread illicit wildlife trade network in the Southeast Asian region. Tigers that are poached from all over Asia end up on dinner tables, in medicines, wine or as luxury ornaments, elephant skin and ivory also generate a lot of demand from global buyers. The report also enumerates how ‘African rhinos are being poached at the rate of three per day to feed the demand for their horns in places such as Vietnam, where it is mostly consumed as a symbol of wealth, as well as for traditional medicine. It supposedly cures hangovers and fevers, but rhino horn is in fact made from the same material as human nails, with no medicinal value. A more recent trend in rhino horn jewelry and carved horns is also threatening rhinos.’

This multibillion-dollar trade is severely damaging the biodiversity of not only the region but the world and has caused global initiatives to curb and eliminate illegal wildlife trade. However, the easiest way for facilitating such transactions has become online due to the loopholes being exploited by crime syndicates in governmental legislation. The region which also just witnessed Bakri Eid celebrations boasts of a significant surge in the illicit trade of animals which in nations like Malaysia and Indonesia that are predominantly Islamic becomes a big cause for concern. Furthermore, amidst the global pandemic what’s noteworthy is how this trade of unmonitored trade of animals becomes a breeding ground for animally transmitted viruses like the novel coronavirus, which traces its origin to a live animal market in Wuhan, China.

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Southeast Asia

Asia’s New Geopolitics- Book Review

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In Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific, Michael R. Auslin presents a series of essays touching on major security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. Altogether, these essays form a comprehensive overview of the current geopolitical situation in the region from a U.S. perspective, providing ample recommendations for how the U.S. might balance against China. Although the volume’s broad scope is commendable, the essays within suffer from a handful of major weaknesses: one is a failure to consistently address and pinpoint China’s motivations in the region. Yet another is a failure to address the interests and incentives of malleable or unaligned powers in the region, and how these incentives might move a country to either balance against or bandwagon with China. The book also focuses primarily on historical context, with its one predictive essay, “The Sino-American Littoral War of 2025: A Future History,” saved for the very end, serving as the volume’s weakest point.

The book’s strengths in the form of strategic recommendations make themselves apparent in the first section, “Asia’s Mediterranean Strategy”. In this section, Michael R. Auslin correctly addresses a short-sighted focus on a single sub-region at a time as a weakness of U.S. Indo-Pacfic strategy, arguing for an approach that considers the region as a whole. This point is also reiterated in the book’s penultimate essay, “The Question of American Strategy in the Indo-Pacific.” The book’s second essay, “The New China Rules”, likewise addresses U.S. concerns over growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, pointing to China’s economic, military, and cultural statecraft. However, it is also in this section in which Auslin’s book begins to display its weaknesses. In this section, Auslin refers to China as a dominant global power. However, most of the specific geopolitical issues addressed in this essay entail regional (rather than global) concerns on China’s behalf, while the global influence Auslin addresses displays itself mostly in cultural forms. Some of this is explicit, such as the establishment of Confucius Institutes, while some of this is implicit, such as Hollywood’s choice to remove imagery and plots that might be offensive to the Chinese government from the films it produces.

One of the more interesting and convincing essays in the book, though one not without its own flaws, is “Can Kim Jong-Un Control His Nukes? Nuclear Safety, Accident, and the Specter of North Korea’s Atomic Arsenal.” In this essay, Auslin provides a fresh take, arguing that a nuclear accident is a much more likely threat from North Korea’s arms program than the oft-discussed topic of nuclear escalation. Auslin convincingly addresses a trust gap among North Korean officials in proffering up this argument. However, this essay also fails to consider whether North Korea would remain a regional threat should the country denuclearize, particularly given incidents of cyberattacks such as the 2014 Sony hack that the U.S. and its allies have attributed to North Korea. Auslin here also fails to consider whether North Korea’s conventional weapons would remain a regional threat in the event of denuclearization.

“Japan’s Eightfold Fence” perhaps serves as the most admirably interdisciplinary essay in the book, addressing Japan’s cultural foundations through a lens of historiography founded on modernization theory, integrating these approaches with a broad discussion of how Japanese national identity inflects contemporary Japanese internal politics. Auslin then uses this analysis of Japanese cultural history to describe the formation of the country’s strong nationalist tradition and the influence of this tradition on Japan’s foreign policy. In addressing these issues, Auslin provides an intriguing, if controversial, defense of a perceived Japanese cultural conservatism. The essay also leads in perfectly to the one that immediately follows it, “China Versus Japan”, which details the lengthy history behind (and projected long-term continuation of) the Sino-Japanese regional rivalry.

Perhaps the most out-of-place essay in the book is “India’s Missing Women”, the only essay in the book that focuses principally on South Asia rather than Northeast Asia. Additionally, it is also the only chapter in the book that focuses on small “p” politics issues of gender, identity, and human rights rather than broader diplomatic and military strategy. While an intriguing and insightful read, the reader can not shake the view that this essay belongs in a different book entirely.

The weakest portion of the book is undoubtedly its concluding essay, “The Sino-American Littoral War of 2025: A Future History.” This essay provides a relatively trite prediction involving current tensions escalating into a full-scale war between China and the U.S. A more compelling argument might have involved a list or qualitative probability analysis of competing scenarios, rather than simply retreading already common territory, with fairly little originality. The final essay in effect serves to highlight Auslin’s strengths at historical and cultural arguments in the previous essays, in contrast to a somewhat weak analysis that plays only with fairly safe and conventional ideas. At the very least, this essay could take more risks by making less conventional predictions about the future of the U.S.-China rivalry. Aside from this issue, however, the book’s overview of conflicts and rivalries in Northeast Asia – and how the U.S. might seek to work within this playing field – remains generally interesting and commendable.

Michael R. Auslin generally provides a reasonable argument for a broader, more comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy on behalf of the U.S. As a starting point, Auslin makes the agreeable suggestion of focusing less on sub-regions and specific issues and instead maintaining a broad view of the Indo-Pacific. However, the essays never quite make a consistent argument for China’s motivations in the region. The essays also assume, implicitly, that most states in the region would benefit principally from bandwagoning with the U.S. and balancing against China, while failing to consider what economic, political, military, or cultural incentives might motivate a state to bandwagon with China. Similarly, the essay on “India’s Missing Women” feels like an interesting, if unnecessary detour. Lastly, the essays in the book maintain their principal strength in historical analysis. However, the book’s one predictive essay effectively reveals this strength in contrast to the author’s weakness in providing insightful long-term or long-shot regional forecasts.

info: Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific by Michael R. Auslin, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, USA, 2020, 244p.

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Countering Chinese String of Pearls, India’s ‘Double Fish Hook’ Strategy

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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India and Indonesia held their defence dialogue between the defence ministers on July 27, 2020 and discussed issues related to defence cooperation, promoting investment in each other’s defence enterprises and helping each other in extending logistical support. This meeting was held in person, instead of online meeting.

 India has started engaging its eastern Indian Ocean neighbours particularly Indonesia, Australia, and island nations in the Southern Indian Ocean region such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and French territories spread across the Indian Ocean. India’s entry into Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Reunion islands, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as observer was facilitated by France. India and France have started conducting of regular maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands. This shows that India is keen on developing strategic and defence ties with France in the Indian Ocean region. This also hints to the fact that Indian navy has been working on ‘double fish hook’ strategy.

This ‘Fish Hook’ strategy of India is expected to complement the fish hook strategy undertaken by the US along with its allies in the Pacific Ocean. Media reports also state that China has floated many surveillance pods in South China Sea to monitor movements of US and its allies’ ships and submarines. With the upgradation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and an investment of more than US $ 6.67 million which has been allocated during Prime Minister Modi visit to the islands, shows that India have larger designs with regard to these islands. This includes developing jetties, deep sea harbour and extending landing strips to facilitate landing of maritime surveillance aircrafts. There is also proposal of developing hangers for stationing of Sukhoi-30MKI aircrafts on a permanent basis.

In the past also when India was upgrading the facility in late 1980s it was seen as a launching pad erstwhile Soviet Union to make inroads into the Indian Ocean, and there were apprehensions raised by countries such as Indonesia and Australia. At that point of time the Andaman and Nicobar island group was stated to be known as Fortress Andaman(FORTRAN).Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC) was developed at Port Blair in 2001 as first integrated joint command centre. India again is exploring this possibility of upgrading the facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands so as to project its power in the Bay of Bengal and Closer to The Malacca Straits.

China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy has developed a concept that India has been surrounded by Chinese developed ports (Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong) developed in connivance with the ruling regimes in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The ‘String of Pearls’ has gained lot of academic mileage in the international discourse related to the Indian Ocean security. As a countermeasure, India started engaging its littoral partners which includes the formidable navies in the region including US, France and Australia- all strategic partners of India. With US India has already engaged through the LEMOA agreement giving access to each other’s military bases and naval ports.

In June 2020, India has signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia which will provide support for maritime reconnaissance missions undertaken by the two countries with the use of their island facilities. The islands which have been listed for such a logistics arrangement is Andaman and Nicobar Islands(India) and Coco(Keeling) islands of Australia. Australia has been upgrading its facilities in the Coco Islands and also trying to upgraded facilities in Darwin and Keynes. This kind of complimentary logistics support agreement would enhance surveillance and reconnaissance activities of the two countries. Apart from Australia, India has also signed a port development project with Indonesia and has agreed to developed civilian and military facilities in the Sabang port which is located at the northern tip of Aceh archipelago. This acts as the first fish hook strategy spanning across the eastern Indian Ocean starting from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sabang port(Indonesia) and thereafter extending all the way to Coco(Keeling) Islands, the tip of this fish hook lands at the DiegoGarcia, the US military base in Chagos archipelago.

Similarly, the western fishhook strategy starts from Duqm port in Oman where India has entered into Maritime Transport Agreement and has gained access facility for Indian navy. India has also been working with regard to entering an agreement with the Djibouti so as to avail the logistic support in the Horn of Africa. Further engagements with Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar through training and visiting of the ships as well as giving them coastal radar systems, and few fast attack crafts shows that India is keen on anchoring its naval security through these engagements.

France has been very keen on developing maritime linkages with India and also undertaking fortnightly sorties through maritime surveillance aircraft such as P– 8 I Poseidon. The surveillance sorties have started in January 2020 and likely to continue in regular intervals along with France. France has acknowledged the fact that in order to secure its territories in the Indian Ocean region it has to build confidence and interoperability with the Indian Navy. Therefore if one draws a line connecting the ports  then it would look like a fish hook which again will land in the end at Diego Garcia.

The strategy which is known as ‘double fish hook’ strategy would help India in countering Chinese activities undertaken by unmanned submersibles and also know the activities of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean region. China has increased deployment of its personnel at its Djibouti base, and has been enhancing its presence in the Indian Ocean region. The reclamation of one of the Maldivian islands-Feydhoo  Finolhu Island, which is nearly 600 km from Indian coast, shows that China is willing to take risks so as protect its energy supply lines and maritime commerce. In fact, its Maritime Silk Road strategy would depend much on Chinese military heft in the region and also its dominance in the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean.

India has also understood the importance of blocking Chinese maritime traffic in case the border issue aggravates to the point of a war. During the 1971 war with Pakistan which led to the emergence of Bangladesh, the role of the Indian Navy has been appreciated in blocking the Karachi port, and also helping in protecting the Bangladesh from any external intervention.

This double fishhook strategy would depend much on development of the facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which includes developing airports in the Northern reaches of this island group, increasing the maritime traffic as well as developing docking facilities for naval ships. The chief of defence staff has already alluded to the fact that it will be a joint command of the three services and also it will be a rendezvous point for the Quad forces. In one of the RAND studies titled ‘Overseas Basing of US Military Forces’ it was stated that Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be a very good operating base for US drones as it would give edge in case of operations against China. The development of this double fish hook strategy would undermine String of Pearls and would give India an edge in case of tensions between the two countries in the maritime domain. This in every variably will mean that Chinese inroads into Indian Ocean will be noticed and countered by the Indian navy with Quad countries before it can change maritime power configuration in the Indian Ocean region.

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