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Southeast Asia

South China Sea: The need for a lasting solution

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The developments in South China sea (SCS) during the months of March and April has brought the region to the limelight again. The countries and territories in the periphery of South China Sea (SCS) have been threatened by Chinese coastguards and fishermen militia. More recently, in the first week of April, Chinese Coast guard ships destroyed Vietnamese fishing boat QNg 90617 TS and left eight crew members scampering for life. These repeated drowning of other countries boats by Chinese coastguards and armed militia has threatened the livelihood of the fishing communities who thrive on the third largest fishing ground of the world. The exotic fishes and the possibility of mineral resources underneath the sea surface have made it a lucrative hunting grounds for the littoral countries but in the last couple of years, the tensions in the region have multiplied manifold. One of the reasons stated by Chinese is that US has been undertaking provocative surveillance sorties with its maritime aircrafts and conducting group sails to force freedom of navigation, and undermine China’s habitual access denial and area dominance aggression. China, on the other hand, has been giving alibi for its military maneuvers,and at times compete disregard for freedom of navigation under the UNCLOS. The PLA navy has been firing warning shots and even targeting surveillance aircrafts of the US with lasers guns. The Coronavirus pandemic and US inability to undertake large scale naval operations in the SCS have further enthused China to threaten its neighbours. The Chinese survey ship HD 8 which has been the epicenter of trouble in the past and has been conducting fictitious surveys to station itself in Exclusive Economic zone of other claimant countries is a matter of concern.

Few factors have added to PLA navy’s confidence. This included its recurring sorties and operationalizing of its two air craft carriers (Liaoning and Shandong) and conducting operations closer to Taiwan straits and Philippines, while at the same time threatening Indonesia as well as Japan in East China Sea. It seems that China is drawing the outer periphery of the nine-dash line which now includes non-disputed regions such as Vanguard bank and Natuna islands.  China has been sending its ships also to East China Sea knowing very well that at time of this global pandemic, it would use these to divert international attention and avert global accusations of dereliction of global responsibility by China. Coronavirus (COVID 19) has raised serious doubts about China’s commitment as a country which is a member of the UNSC, and its non-transparent attitude related to the declaration of the COVID 19 and the number of casualties. South China Sea and North Korea missile tests provide that alibi for China to divert attention also raise hyper nationalism in China, especially when President Xi Jinping has been facing huge internal dissent. In SCS, after China has completely assailed the PCA ruling in July 2016 which adjudicated in favour of Philippines, and dismissed all claims of EEZ for reclaimed islands that China has built in South China Sea. The lackadaisical attitude of the international community in terms of imposing penalties and bringing compliance with regard to the PCA ruling gave a long handle to the communist regime of China to station new weapons including surface to air missiles, and radars in few of the reclaimed islands.

More recently, the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8(HD 8) survey ship has returned to Vietnamese EEZ nearly 160 kms off the coast of Vietnam, and is approaching closer to Malaysian held islands, in complete disregard to international law, and the UNCLOS provisions. The survey ship is accompanied with Chinese coast guard vessels.

US State Department in support of Vietnam has stated, “we call on the PRC to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea”. Late last year, China stationed its one coastguard vessel closer to the oil rig operated by Russia’s Rosneft. Vietnam has also tried to put the issue in the UN Security Council agenda item to draw attention of the global community. However, more than discussions the international community must release a statement completely criticizing the UNSC permanent member global behaviour. On the part of regional countries and dialogue partner a unified statement castigating Chinese efforts to vitiate the regional order in SCS is a must. The Quad countries must undertake group sails on regular intervals and even a standoff with China would be a big lesson in the placid waters.

On the part of Vietnam, it must understand that the global realities and compulsions have changed over a period of time and identifying the US as a permanent enemy would do not augur well for their strategic interests. There is a need for signing the strategic partnership and security agreement with the US. The template can be drawn from the India-Japan global strategic partnership and the joint declaration on security cooperation. The visit of USS Roosevelt had not been received well within Chinese strategic community, and Vietnam must undertake measures so that dialogue partner countries ships (excluding China) must call on its ports. This show of strength along with regular interactions at ASEAN level, and also while drawing the agenda of the ADMM plus meeting later this year must mention the issue of SCS. There is a need to all parties to accept COC from legal point of view and the momentum must be supported with new ideas when Vietnam is the chair of ASEAN. China is likely to face economic hardships especially when the European and the US markets would not be able to generate the demand.

Vietnam, as ASEAN Chair, need to undertake five step approach to solve the problem. Firstly, institutionalize a high powered committee to expedite and build consensus on the draft Code of Conduct (CoC) among ASEAN on a priority basis. Former prime ministers and heads of government can be involved in this committee so as to get political acceptance and develop trust among claimant countries. Secondly, it must undertake trilateral initiatives with dialogue partners and other claimants for hydrographic surveys and mapping of ocean floor. The ASEAN dialogue partners (except China) are indirectly affected because of Chinese tactics.  Thirdly, it must create a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) among the ASEAN nations and release a statement maintaining status quo. Fourthly, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation need to be formulated with regard to SCS. The agreement can be named as Zone of Peace, Freedom and Innocent Passage. This agreement need to be signed with all dialogue partners. Assurance of freedom of navigation should be the foundation of this agreement. Lastly, Vietnam have to make a universal appeal to the international community to undertake priority in resolving the SCS dispute which is critical for maritime security and promotion of trade and commerce in the region. A lasting solution is required on an urgent basis. 

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[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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