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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

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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