Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini & Mahitha Lingala*
The vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative has been perceived as Washington’s strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative and it’s growing influence in Asia.
While the initial steps were taken by the Obama Administration in 2015 during Obama’s visit to India by releasing a Joint Strategic Vision statement for the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and putting efforts into canvassing for India to act as a partner to support Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy,the Trump Administration has given a further push to the concept of the FOIP (Free and open indo Pacific). During his 12 day Asia trip in November2017, Trump used the term Free and Open Indo-Pacific on more than one occasion – much to the discomfort of Beijing.
While delivering his second major address of the trip, he mentioned USA’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region at the APEC(Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO Summit in Da Nang (Vietnam). Upon his return from the trip, Trump stated that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific was one of his key foreign policy objectives.
The revival of the Quad, consisting of US, India, Australia and Japan, has given a further fillip to the FOIP strategy. This initiative was revived in 2017 after a decade. Their most recent meeting in fact was held on June 1, 2019 at Bangkok. During the meeting, officials from the four countries these met and held consultations on a number of issues and reaffirmed their shared commitment to preserving and promoting the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
Some steps have been taken, by the US, towards enhancing connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Trump Administration passed the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development) act in October 2018, through which a new development agency, the USIDFC was created. According to the BUILD act, the USIDFC seeks to combine ‘… the capabilities of OPIC and USAID’s Development Credit Authority, while introducing new and innovative financial products to better bring private capital to the developing world’
Earlier in August 2018, in an address to the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington DC,US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo committed 113 Million USD for investments in technology, energy and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this as a ‘down payment’ towards a new era in the Indo-Pacific.
Joint efforts of stakeholders in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Narrative
Efforts have also been made to work jointly for promoting connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.
In the APEC Summit in November 2018, Australia, Japan, and US signed an MOU for jointly developing infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific. The MOU was signed between Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and its Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
The Joint Statement issued by all three countries stated, that the trilateral partnership would lend support to ‘..infrastructure projects that adhere to international standards and principles for development, including openness, transparency, and fiscal sustainability’. The three countries have identified a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in Papua New Guinea to which three agencies – JBIC, OPIC and EFIC – will jointly provide assistance to the tune of 1 Billion.
During the recent trilateral meeting between Japan, India and the US (dubbed as JAI), on the sidelines of the G20, connectivity initiatives were discussed. In a tweet, the Indian Prime Minister stated, that in the discussions on the Indo-Pacific region, connectivity and infrastructural development were high on the agenda.
Towards an alternative vision for the Indo-Pacific
While the narrative of the Indo-Pacific has been dominated by the US, Indonesia and India have sought to put forward a vision which is similar, but not identical to that of the US (Japan and other stakeholders seem to be comfortable with this vision).
Indonesia’s vision of the Indo-Pacific seeks to give an integral role to ASEAN in the FOIP, and is not merely focused on the China factor. During the last meeting of Quad, in June 2019 at Bangkok, member countries batted for ASEAN playing a larger role in the Indo-Pacific given its economic and geo-political relevance.
“….by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region is, therefore, a positive one,”
This was a month after the Indian Prime Minister had met with President Xi Jinping, with an eye on bringing relations back on track after the Doklam stand off (which had taken place in 2017).
Indonesia organised a high level dialogue on Indo-Pacific Cooperation in March 2019 in Djkarta where delegates from 18 East Asia Summit (EAS) countries were present. Indonesia while referring to the need for a rules based order, also spoke about the need for peace and prosperity and to avoid ‘…potential rivalry and competition in the region’
It would be pertinent to point out that during Indian PM, Narendra Modi’s May 2018 visit both sides had agreed upon a“Shared Vision of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo Pacific” . One of the important steps in this direction, is India’s decision to develop the Sabang Port in (Aceh Province) close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The port will give India access to markets of ASEAN countries on the one hand and in strategic terms, it is India’s answer to China’s increasing presence in the Straits of Malacca.
ASEAN Summit – June 2019
At the recent ASEAN Summit, the grouping put forward its Indo-Pacific outlook. This was interesting. While on the one hand, it talks about firmly standing for a rules based order on the other, it also speaks against rivalries and a ‘zero sum game’ (alluding to US-China rivalry).
This vision interestingly, was welcomed by the US and other countries.
It is not just Indonesia, but even certain South Asian countries which are vary of the US narrative. At the Dalian Forum or the Summer Davos, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made it clear, that the Indo-Pacific narrative should not be targeted at anyone and not just focused on security issues.
While it is true, that the Indo-Pacific narrative can not be wished away, as China has sought to do in the past (a senior official dubbed it as a bubble). It is also true, that the vision has to define itself in terms of what it stands for, and can not be merely targeted at China. The vision for the Indo-Pacific needs to be in sync with the geo-political and economic realities of Asia.
An unpredictable Trump has resulted in a change in geo-political dynamics. In the last two years, both Japan and India have sought to mend ties with China. As a result, it has been argued that India has been more cautious vis-à-vis the Quad Grouping as well as the overall narrative of the FOIP.
Second, smaller countries not just in ASEAN, but South Asia, which are important stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific, do not want to get entangled in the US-China rivalry. A perfect instance is Bangladesh. There are off course many countries which have expressed their concern with regard to the overall economic implications of the Belt and Road Initiative, but want to avoid any open confrontation with Beijing.
Perhaps it is time for an Indo-Pacific strategy, which emanates from Asia, and does not have to blindly toe Washington’s line. Also, if the alternative vision needs to be successful, it needs to have a clear and pragmatic vision for connectivity and economic linkages. In this context, the Trump Administration’s emphasis of giving a larger role to the private sector is important. Governments and donor agencies can not match Chinese investments in connectivity projects and infrastructure, it is time that the private sector emerges as an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Indo-Pacific strategy needs to be innovative and should avoid being reactive or knee jerk.
*Mahitha Lingala is a student at the OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India
The U.S Lauded Pakistan’s Assistance in Fighting COVID-19
The United States has thanked Pakistan for its donation of protective gear and surgical masks to support the fight against coronavirus. In a Tweet, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appreciated Pakistan’s goodwill donation of surgical masks and protective suits to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said this delivery is a symbol of Pak-US solidarity in the fight against COVID-19 and termed it a “partnership for the prosperity of the two countries.”
Meanwhile, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, in her tweet, also expressed gratitude to Pakistan for the goodwill donation. She said our countries’ health partnership and the coordinated response would help defeat this virus and rebuild our prosperity.
Earlier, the consignment of Personal Protective Equipment from Pakistan via a C-130 flight from Islamabad landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. The equipment was also handed over to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency for onward delivery to the US armed forces.
Pakistan values its Seven Decades-long friendship with the US. Although, it is meager Medical Supplies, yet as a token of friendships values a lot. Pakistan is also facing a huge challenge of the outbreak, and the rapid growth is alarming in Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan is a responsible nation and always willing to share its part of responsibility in any part of the World. Either it is a natural disaster or warlike disaster, Pakistan always played its role on the front line as a volunteer. Pakistan is a country with the highest number of philanthropists per million population.
The US was one of the few first countries that recognized Pakistan in 1947 after getting independence from British rule. Pakistan was a close ally with the US in the cold war era and the Afghan War. Pakistan was a frontline ally with the US in its War on terror. Pakistan enjoyed non-NATO close ally status. Definitely, Pakistan was also beneficiary of US AID and assistance. Either it was on Economic front, or S&T, Defense or Education, Military or civilian, Agriculture or Industry, almost all areas witnessed the US assistance in the past. The US is a major trading partner with Pakistan too.
Pakistan has no objection if the US changed its priorities and aligned itself with India. The US is aiming to strengthen India to counter China, but India used all of the American assistance to counter Pakistan. The US may keep balance and restrict its assistance to India to a condition not to use against Pakistan. There can be designed a monitoring and tracking system to check that American assistance is not used against Pakistan directly or indirectly. A close monitoring system may be deployed on India and verifiable by any third party. I believe “there is the way if there is a will.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan is a visionary leader and peace-loving in nature. His declared-policy to be a partner in peace with any country in any part of the World is well appreciated widely. Pakistan was a victim of the Afghan War for the last four decades and learned a bitter lesson. War means disaster; War means a net loss of human lives and economy; War means no victory for either side. Pakistan will be no longer partner wth any one in War with any country.
Pakistan’s strategic location, where it connects almost half of the World and at the major trade route – Middle-East to rest of the World, is vital for maintaining peace and stability of this region as well as the whole World. Pakistan is a nation of 220 Million, with its 70% population of youth under the age of 40 years. Pakistan is a resilient nation and can survive under any circumstances.
Pakistan wanted to keep traditional friendship with the US and strongly wish an early resumption. Pakistan wanted to contribute its potential to global peace and stability. In the past, especially in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Pakistan kept close alliance with the US while maintaining its strategic relations with China. I hope the US may not object to Pakistan’s strategic interest with China or Russia while restoring traditional friendship with Pakistan.
The Need for Pakistan’s Digitalisation Policy
Change is the only constant and one has to keep evolving through new trends in order to compete with the changing dynamics of the world. There is no denying the fact that any country’s economic growth is now directly linked to one factor i.e., adoption of information and communications technology. The adoption of digitalisation is the new reality where majority of population has access to mobile phones and internet than to basic necessities of life. Digitalisation is not a choice, it is the need of the hour, therefore, the governments are now determining their policies and strategies for digitalising every sector, to promote and strengthen their socio-economic fabric.
Keeping in view the current scenario, the COVID-19 has had a major impact on almost all socio-economic sectors, the digital world has never been more important than it is today, Digitalisation is the new normal where consumers are buying everything online whether it is to buy groceries and essentials or to socialise and virtually reach with friends and family. During this critical time, many of these adoptions will persist long even after the situation has stabilised.
Globally countries are adopting new ways through digitalisation to ease the life of their citizens by providing them with improved and rapid amenities. The access to free internet services made it possible to pave the way for effective digitalization. An exponential increase is observed in the number of internet providers and consumers which demonstrates that the world is adapting with the concept of digitalization. It is witnessed that the developed countries has already shifted all their services from the outdated ways to online portals to facilitate the masses. In recent years, Pakistan is also evolving its IT sector promptly by introducing the latest technological mechanisms in the country.
The present government has taken up the task to digitalize the entire country and is working hard to create an e-governance system to bring down corruption, to ensure accountability process and also to augment the productivity in the country. The government has been taking great strides in the advancement of technology- from the Mohafiz app to digitizing the Postal service and the introduction of Tax Asaan mobile app which provides taxpayers with quick access of verification features like active Taxpayers list (ATL), NTN/STRN inquiry and exemption certificate etc. and many more. The PTI government has been proactive in the inclusion of technology within various segments and has also launched the online FIR system where people can submit their complaints online, and will be facilitated by government officials.
Nevertheless one might assume that digitalisation and government don’t blend,but in reality this fusion is helping the government agencies and officials to represent their agendas and administrative progress directly to the people through social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.).Perhaps the defined role of government social media accounts is to serve as a source of unrestricted updates. This includes everything from present initiatives to upcoming policy reforms and breaking news. Therefore, news should be a foundation of your content strategy as a government account. For instance, we are currently seeing social media crisis management in action for government organisations, including real-time updates in response to COVID-19. This illustrates that social media actually serves as a first hand source of information and provides people with timely updates. This is the brilliance of digitalisation and government that the voters and opposition are already there and the government has only one job that is to publish content which engages the attention from the public. This also suggests educating your followers by clarifying potential misinformation, keeping in view the fact that how quickly fabricated content can spread through social media, the government accounts serve as an important source for authentic information.
Statically, as per Pakistan’s Digital2020 Report, Feb 2020: there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 which illustrates that the number of internet users has increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020 and internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35%. As far as the social media users in Pakistan are concerned, the number has increased by 2.4 million (+7.0%) between April 2019 and January 2020 which shows that there were 37.00 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2020 and the penetration rate stood at 17%.The source of this penetration depends widely on mobile connections in Pakistan. Reportedly, there were 164.9 million mobile connections in Pakistan in January 2020. The number of mobile connections increased by 9.6 million (+6.2%) between January 2019 and January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of mobile connections in Pakistan was equivalent to 75% of the total population in January, 2020.
With these growth trends projected to persist in the future, Pakistan is dire need of a comprehensive ‘Digitalisation Policy’. There should be a policy that must be implemented in its true spirits, and the government should devise an efficient monitoring mechanism to evaluate the vitality of that policy.
South Asia: A COVID-19 Outlier?
International observers remain baffled at the rate of spread and impact of Corona on one of the most populous regions in the world. South Asia is home to more than a 5th of the world’s population. As is the case with other trends related to Corona, it is still not clear why the virus did not see the surge in the region that was experienced in other parts of the globe.
South Asia had been deemed as the perfect hotbed for the Coronavirus. It is densely populated, has poor public health institutions, and is geographically close to China, where the virus originated. Its people are also affected by severe levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. While the countries share a similar heritage, the region happens to be one of the most poorly connected in the world, owing to bad road networks and toxic bilateral relations between some of the countries.
Despite strict guidelines from respective governments, social distancing norms are incompatible with South Asian society. It is a privilege only the elite can afford, as a vast majority of the people live in close proximity with their family members. The region also comprises of fairly religious societies, and governments have faced challenges in the prevention of congregational worship. In Pakistan, Khan was severely criticized for allowing communal prayer during the month of Ramadan.
It can be argued that the relatively lower numbers can be accounted for by low testing rates but if the health care systems in these countries had been choking up, it would have been very difficult to hide.
India, the economic giant in the region, can boast of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world. While the fatality rate is increasing with every passing day, the number of deaths is nowhere near that of Europe or the US. Migrant workers paid a heavy price for the lockdown, which was announced without prior notice, leaving millions displaced. The economic cost of the lockdown has been astounding, as an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%,
Similarly, in Bangladesh, researchers from Dhaka University predict that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in the country due to slowdown of businesses. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown.
Modi and Khan have recently eased lockdowns in India and Pakistan respectively, in spite of increasing cases, as they expressed concern for low-income groups and daily wage earners in their countries. Their concerns regarding their economies may be well-founded. According to a recent Yale study, social distancing measures may be more effective in saving lives in higher-income countries. Whereas, in lower-income countries a complete lockdown may be counterproductive, significantly increasing the economic costs. Economic benefits generated by social distancing are estimated to be 240 times larger for the United States, or 70 times larger for Germany, compared to the value created in Pakistan. The value of savings would be 59% of the GDP for the US, 85% of the GDP for Germany as opposed to 14% of Bangladesh and 19% of India’s GDP.
There are several theories about the conservative spread of the virus in South Asia. None of them have been substantiated as yet. It could be that the pandemic was taken more seriously in these developing economies because there was an acceptance of the fact that they weren’t well equipped to deal with the crisis in case it hit them with full force. Some experts credit the warmer and humid climate of the region to have kept the spread of the disease in check. Others are talking about the protection offered to South Asians by the vaccine for Tuberculosis, BCG and possibly a weaker strain of the virus in this region.
One of the more plausible explanations for this trend seems to be the extremely young population of the region. The average age of an Indian is 26.8 years. The number is less than 25 years in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In contrast, the average age of a citizen is 45 in Italy and above 40 in Germany, France and the UK. According to the Yale study, Populations in rich countries tend to skew older, and so the mortality rate is expected to be higher in those countries, in spite of the disparity in healthcare capacity.
According to Jacob John, a virologist from India, it is not sensible to compare the situation in South Asia with Europe yet, as the region is over a month behind in terms of timeline. Therefore, the April of Europe should be compared to June in India. The epidemic is developing in different countries at different rates and it has not yet reached its full maturity in the region.
There is little doubt about the fact that Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for global leaders of our times. Policy has to evolve constantly according to the trajectory of the virus in the concerned country. The choice between lives and livelihoods can never be an easy one to make.
While it’s too soon to declare any country’s approach a success, it can be acknowledged that South Asian countries enforced stringent lockdowns at a relatively early stage compared to many in the West. However, locking down for over a month hasn’t necessarily slowed down the spread of the disease and the reversal of restrictions could lead to spikes in rates of infections. This in tandem with increasing economic constraints makes it a complex dilemma for policymakers. As the virus is yet to peak in the region in the coming months, the real challenge for the leadership lies in expanding their capacity to deal with the worsening situation.
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