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Southeast Asia

A New Dynamics of U.S.-Viet Nam Relations: U.S.-led ‘Quad and Viet Nam Axis’ in the Indo-Pacific

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The relation between the United States and Viet Nam has been reinvigorated in the recent times and that has led to an extraordinary level mutual exchange. Both countries have had a tempestuous past with scars of the war. This rapprochement accompanied with Viet Nam’s efforts to work with the Asia-Pacific countries like Japan and India speaks volumes about Viet Nam’s concern over Chinese assertive superiority mainly in the South China Sea and due to these dynamics, the relations between the United States of America and Viet Nam are now in a new era of stronger relations. The article traces the reasons for the ‘new changes within the dynamics’ between the United States of America and Vietnam which stems the possibility of the formation of a ‘United States-led coalition with the Quad countries and Viet Nam Axis’ in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to the 2019 Defence White Paper of Viet Nam, it considers itself as a“maritime nation which pays special attention to the safety and protection of the seas along with commitment towards the freedom of navigation and overflight”. They also aim for free trade and peaceful economic activities in accordance with international law. For the United States, the importance of Viet Nam is based on the fact that it is a Southeast Asian nation, a maritime power and in a tussle with China in the South China Sea. Therefore, the United States finds Viet Nam to be the most suitable candidate for their South and Southeast Asian strategy where China’s maritime dominance and its efforts to emerge as a maritime hegemonic power needs to be dealt with.  Also, the U.S knows very well that apart from China, Viet Nam has been considered the most dangerous maritime power as it has taken China on in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has been amazed by the sheer courage that Viet Nam has shown to tackle Chinese aggression.The 2019 Defence White Paper also clearly reflects Viet Nam’s fear from Chinese encroachment as it mentions about the destabilizing elements in the region which threatens the stability, peace and prosperity in the South China Sea and East Sea according to Viet Nam. Though, the white paper avoids calling out any countries name, but it does mention that the “new developments in the East Sea like the unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarization, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.” Therefore, it is a clear reference to China without actually naming it. Viet Nam faces multiple challenges from China in the South China Sea of threat from militarised artificial islands and the test deployments of capabilities from these island facilities. Viet Nam has become active in the economic operations within the claimed exclusive economic zone and its continental shelf and has been repetitively challenged by China which has resulted in the withdrawal of some oil and gas exploration projects like the demand to cease the exploration operation with Repsol in 2017 and the most recent standoff around the Vanguard Bank.

The United States of America understands Viet Nam’s importance in the multipolar world and knows how Viet Nam can be an integral part of the Indo-Pacific strategy of countering Chinese maritime dominance. Viet Nam too agrees with this fact and the 2019 Defence White paper is proof of that where it assesses the global situation which has been rapidly evolving into a multipolar order.  The region of Southeast Asia continues to be a dynamic part of the Asia-Pacific region due to its increasingly important geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic location making it a battleground among the great powers and it also mentioned the various foreign initiatives of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) and India’s Look East Policy (LEP) now Act East Policy (AEP). Viet Nam has been making efforts to build good ties with Australia, India and Japan and other partners of the United States keeping the Free and Indo-Pacific concept and strategy in mind. In March 2018, they signed a new strategic partnership and 2019 during Prime Minister Morrison’s visit recognised each other’s importance as bilateral as well as Indo-Pacific partners globally. Both countries expressed their serious concerns in the developments of the South China Sea especially the long-standing oil and gas issues and condemned Chinese behaviour of violating the International law in particular UNCLOS. Viet Nam’s relations with India are based on a comprehensive strategic partnership which entails both these nations to build closer maritime security cooperation and work towards oil and gas explorations. India has been training fighter pilots from Viet Nam and has been in talks to sell surface-to-air missiles. Both the countries have had joint naval exercises. Viet Nam’s relations with Japan have significantly expanded through strategic links in the last five years. These expanded ties include regular Japanese port visits to Viet Nam and Japan has been assisting Vietnam in maritime security and defence industrial cooperation. Viet Nam has been building closer relations with all three close partners of the U.S and by doing this is paving itself a position of being a networking security forum where all the regional powers combine which would help each of these countries come together and align against their common cause of threat, China.

Viet Nam was recently invited by the United States to participate in the Indo-Pacific teleconference on the COVID-19. Viet Nam was the only non-Quad member invited to this teleconferencing. Though, it can be said that since Viet Nam has been the Chair for ASEAN this year maybe that’s why it was invited by the United States. On the contrary, the new changing dynamics in the relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam clearly highlights the importance of Viet Nam’s contribution in dealing with China in the Southeast Asian region especially as a maritime partner. Viet Nam is known to have the strongest standing army and maritime force in Southeast Asia which is also beneficial in a situation of crisis in the region. Viet Nam’s relations with Japan Australia and India pave way for a multi-lateral dimension in its diplomacy which ultimately benefits the U.S. and due to all these inter-twined relations; Viet Nam has indirectly become a part of the Quad and so, there is a possible formation of a U.S. led coalition with Quad countries and Vietnam Axis in the Indo-Pacific region.

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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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