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South China Sea of brewing troubles and its implications for India

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For years, China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam have contested overlapping claims to hundreds of coral reefs, features, and islets in the South China Sea. China’s man-made islands fortified with airstrips, anti cruise missiles, control towers, naval bases has allowed it to assert its sovereignty vigorously and poised it to seize greater control of the sea. As it’s economic and military position bolstered, it resorted to bullying its small neighbors by illicitly entering their territorial waters or by hindering their oil and gas explorations in the disputed waters. China hoped that it would seek to buy the acquiescence for its terrorizing tactics by luring them into economic incentives and its dubious intentions for a stable and secure South China Sea. But Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, frustrated with the status quo, are defying China’s dominance in the region turning the region into a new geopolitical flashpoint.

Recently, Indonesia, who for years avoided an open confrontation with its economic partner, locked horns with China as it sent warships and F16 fighter jets off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands to fend off Chinese fishing vessels in its exclusive economic zone, which China considers its fishing ground.  Indonesia’s patience with China’s maverick overtures has worn thin since 2016 as it has been repeatedly countering the poaching of its vessels by the Chinese coast guard in Indonesia’s backwaters. These counteractive measures are a testament to Indonesia’s tilt to a more proactive role to curb Chinese aggression. 

Another conspicuous development that raised eyebrows was Malaysia’s submission to the UN for a greater share of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of its EEZ, which happened to overlap with China’s claim on the entire Spratly islands (nine-dash line). Currently, Malaysia occupies five islands in Spratlys and lays claims to 12 islands.  The submission is linked to a related application that Malaysia and Vietnam made 10 years ago, which met staunch opposition from China’s UN mission. Mahathir, who ascended to power on the wave of simmering domestic discontent against China’s pervasive economic influence, resorted to legal arbitration to possibly have added leverage over the negotiations related to the Chinese funded BRI projects which are notoriously known for pursuing debt-trap diplomacy.

In the wake of the Philippines, Cambodia, and Brunei openly courting China, the US seeks to warm up to Vietnam, the most vocal adversary to China’s boisterous aggression in the South China Sea. The latest defense paper of Vietnam indicates that it is going to desist from hedging bets between the US and China and call on the foreign powers to assist their regional endeavors in constraining China’s outreach in the region.  After the month’s long confrontation with China over its survey vessels into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near Vanguard Ban, and Beijing’s coercion of Hanoi to prevent hydrocarbon drilling in its own territorial waters with foreign partners,  Vietnam introduced maritime militias which will escort the fishing fleets in the strategic resource-rich waterway to counter China’s fishing militias ships. 

Ironically, a country like the Philippines, who restored to law fare first in 2016, where the international arbitration panel ruling favored the Philippines and struck down  China’s unilaterally declared nine-dash line, has preferred to bilaterally settle the maritime disputes in contested waters through peaceful means and dithered from consolidated deterrence to oppose Beijing claims.  Embracing China’s billion-dollar investment in the construction of ports and the telecommunication sector signifies a tilt towards Chinese orbit at a time when the Philippines is threatening to end a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. 

ASEAN’s ability to speak as a common voice on sensitive issues such as on sovereignty and territorial disputes has been under the scanner for years. China capitalizing on its economic supremacy has managed to keep a short leash on its Southeast Asian neighbors, thus it is unlikely that ASEAN will directly denounce China’s hawkish behavior in the South China Sea. In 2017 ASEAN summit held in Manila, China’s hard lobbying led ASEAN to drop its mention of “China’s reclamation and militarization of the South China sea islands”. Cambodia, China’s most staunch ally in Southeast Asia during its chairmanship of ASEAN, for the first time in its history, obstructed ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué that insisted on mentioning a reference of China’s territorial disputes with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea. Cambodia to grovel China also stated that ASEAN cannot be “a legal institution” for settling territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The most fatigued issue of the Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN, which is set to be concluded in 2021, will further expose ASEAN’s fraying institutional mechanism due to its flawed consensus-building process where any ASEAN member can mute  ASEAN’S voice by issuing a veto over any joint resolutions or statements.  If China is successful in framing a nonbinding COC and codifying the clause of ending foreign armed forces in the region, it will make the COC dead on arrival.  China can exploit it as a diplomatic tool to justify its unilateral disruptive actions by including ambiguous and imprecise language. Further, China will not adhere to any COC as it has repeatedly been flouting international laws without paying any heed to the international arbitration tribunal’s ruling sought by the Philippines. It will lead to further erosion of the ASEAN centrality as some member states like Cambodia and Brunei might  openly support China buttressing China’s views  that Asean should not be a party to the south china sea disputes and rather solve  the issue ” “bilaterally”. 

China’s recurrent aggressive posturing in the region through the grey zone tactics such as that of sending fishermen, geological survey ships, and coast guards in the other claimants’ territorial waters will irk Vietnam, Malaysia pushing them to take a harder line on the dispute resolution through multilateral intervention of the US Australia, and Japan.  In this way, China might lose at its own game. Instead of bringing its neighbors to the negotiating table to accept Chinese prescribed terms of COC, they will be impervious to China’s threats, and its unabashed maritime expansion will propel them to enhance their strategic ties with the US and step up joint naval exercises with the US, Australia, Japan and India.  

The South China Sea symbolizes an arena of China’s naval prowess hence; it has shown the audacity to enter its rival claimants’ exclusive economic zone. This show of subtle coercive power is not only limited to Southeast Asian littoral states, but also India’s maritime backyard in the Andaman Sea.  Last September the Indian Navy expelled China’s research vessels from its exclusive economic zone near the Andaman and Nicobar islands.  These research vessels portray a significant threat to Indian strategic interests as they could be mapping characteristics of water to enhance its submarine warfare and deep-sea mining capabilities.  China, being cognizant of India’s redlines, has resorted to such subtle intimidation, thus abstaining from directly challenging India’s sovereignty claims, or drawing in closer proximity to the Indian coastal states with pernicious intent.

China has been making inroads in the eastern Indian Ocean region through the development of strategic Kyaukpyu deep seaport in Myanmar giving it direct access to the Bay of Bengal, talks about constructing a secret naval base in Cambodia, and 100km long km long canal in Kra isthmus in Thailand bypassing strait of Malacca, a critical lifeline for China’s energy supplies. Apart from encircling India, China’s expanding naval influence astride India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands stems from its need to diversify its energy supply routes as the maritime traffic to the Strait of Malacca has to traverse through the Andaman Sea, leaving China’s critical energy supplies vulnerable to a blockade from its foes. Other points of leverage are its control of ports in Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now Myanmar which serve as a refueling and resupply stopover to Chinese naval vessels and warships, which patrol the critical entry checkpoints in the IOR. This, in turn, would ensure sustenance to its naval forces enabling nimble deployment in any event of war providing a strategic edge over its adversaries.

In a great game of power competition between India and China, the navy’s rapid modernization has led China to dominate the waters of Indo Pacific.   China has tripled the number of frigates, cruisers, destroyers, attacked guided missile submarines, and nuclear attack submarines. China has been modernizing its submarine fleet and indigenously developing aircraft carriers, and conducting joint military drills in the western Indian Ocean region with Iran and Russia showing its naval superiority in the region. It has been also squeezing India on the Kashmir issue, its membership in NSG, while challenging India’s dominance in its backyard by establishing a palpable constabulary presence in the Andaman Sea through its submarines and research survey vessels exhibiting its veiled influence in the region.

Indian Navy, which envisions the role of being a “net security provider” in the IOR and enhances the capacity building of its littoral states, is itself facing modernization deficiencies due to recurring budgetary constraints, procurement delays, corruption, and red-tapism. This year’s obfuscated defense budget allocated for the Navy will lead it to pullback its capacity enhancement plans of becoming a 200 ship fleet by 2025 and will also lead to cut down on procurement of the most needed naval assets like countermeasure mine vessels, early warning helicopters, fleet support ships, aircraft carriers. This raises serious questions about the Indian Navy’s ability to navigate through the most common threat of mines which impinge considerable damage to the large ships off the coast.

China’s increasing military build-up has thus pinched India to drop its self imposed restraint and reinvigorate the QUAD. Along with upgrading the QUAD engagement to the foreign ministerial level , and India’s consideration of inviting Australia for the trilateral Malabar exercises with Japan and USA this year suggests India’s growing seriousness in giving Quad a semblance of the formal security alliance, eliciting chagrin from China. India’s exclusion of China from its largest-ever multinational naval drills construes that as long as incompatibility prevails between India and China visions for the Indo Pacific, New Delhi through such naval exercises will try to deprive China of the significant shared interoperability mechanism vital for overhauling Navy’s strategic maneuvers, and through these exercises ensure synergy of the free and open Indo Pacific doctrine. It is also a benign way to reinforce its naval preeminence in the Asian nautical commons when India feels a sense of unease with China’s naval forays in its backyard.

India may further milk out on growing frustration of Indonesia and Malaysia with China’s hooliganism and find a common cause to augment its defense cooperation. China is riding roughshod despite retaliatory responses from its Southeast Asian neighbors.  Its bullying of Southeast Asian littoral states is a harbinger to how it may treat the neighbors in the future. The only positive development is the US’s “piecemeal” efforts in the form of mounting freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan straits and South China Sea. It further pricked Beijing by buttressing defense aid to Vietnam and Taiwan. While we can expect deeper defense cooperation between core ASEAN Nations and external powers like US, Australia, Japan, the US’s security commitment towards the region will hinge on China’s actions and the accordingly both the parties in their heated rivalry will pull the strings of the ASEAN’s countries security and economic fragile thrust points to overpower each other. For now, China should make peace with the fact that its thirst for conquering the seas risks skewing power asymmetry in the US’s favor as the ASEAN nations will tilt towards the US for counterpoising Beijing’s rise in the Asia Pacific.

With the geopolitical fault lines in the region coming to the fore, ASEAN will now be under scrutiny for managing the delicate dancing act between its strategic allies US, and its leading trade partner China.   It will also be interesting to see how Vietnam presiding this year’s ASEAN chair handles the South China Sea dispute balancing the economic and strategic priorities of the group.

Mona Thakkar, based in Mumbai, India, graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Media with specialization in Journalism from Mumbai University. Due to her lucid understanding of German and Arabic, she has worked as a translator and fixer with various German news outlets like Swiss Radio und Fernsehen, Tageszeitung , and Supernova. Her research interests include martime security and contemporary geopolitical dynamics of Asia-Pacific Pacific and MENA region . She has been an integral part of strategic studies programme with a tha m called Centre for Public Policy Research based in Kochi. She can be reached at m.thakkar1601[at]gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

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

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Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam

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Photo courtesy - PTI

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

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

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

Vietnam’s disputes with China

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

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

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

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

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

China’s eyes on the Indian Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

Foe’s foe is friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Way ahead

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

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