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Eminent Scholars discuss India-ASEAN Engagements through Video Conference

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“We look at India as a very good, close friend. We should continue to work to reenergise the bilateral relationship and need to focus on strengthening people-to-people contact”, said H.E. Dato Nazirah Hussain, who formerly served as Malaysian Ambassador to Thailand and as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. She was speaking at the Video Conference on “India-ASEAN Trade and Geopolitical Engagements” organised by the Society for Policy Research and Empowerment (SPRE), a New Delhi based think tank, on May 30, 2020.

Ambassador Hussain is a distinguished diplomat and has also served in the Malaysian Embassy in China and Singapore. She was also the Director General of the ASEAN Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. She shared her experiences of participating in the ASEAN-India meetings. She also emphasised that even at the level of leaders, they need to talk directly on contentious issues and resolve them. Ambassador Hussain also lauded India’s role in the pharmaceutical sector saying that India has been the father of generic medicines.

The session was moderated by Dr. Faisal Ahmed, a leading trade and geopolitical expert on the Indo-Pacific, and an Associate Professor of International Business at FORE School of Management. Dr. Ahmed welcomed the speakers and the participants and presented his initial remarks. He said that ASEAN is an economically progressive, culturally vibrant and a geopolitically significant congregation. He said that India and the countries of ASEAN share a strong civilizational and cultural ties. Dr. Ahmed cited some trade statistics to emphasise on the volume of trade. He mentioned that in 2018-19, the merchandise trade between India and ASEAN stood at $97 billion. The services trade accounted between them accounted for $45 billion.

In his welcome remarks, Dr. Ahmed specifically mentioned about some key frameworks including Act East Policy, and also India-ASEAN FTAs in goods and services. He also emphasized that India and ASEAN are mutually important in terms of resources, sea routes, defence, investments, value chains, regional connectivity, and cultural cooperation, as well. Geopolitically too, he said that, India and ASEAN are indispensable for each other as they share the Indian Ocean resources and the security architecture therein. Moreover, in the Indo-Pacific construct too, he stressed that ASEAN Centrality plays a strategic role. Dr. Ahmed maintained that both India and ASEAN are strategically and geo-economically significant for each other.

After Ambassador Hussain, the next eminent speaker was Prof.Rajaram Panda. Heserves as Lok Sabha Research Fellow, and is also a Member of the Governing Council of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). He is an eminent scholar and also served as Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair Professor at Reitaku University in Japan.

Prof. Panda maintained that India’s relation with ASEAN has a long historical past characterised by civilizational linkages. Talking about security and political dimensions, he emphasised that India is a strong participant in East Asia Summit, ADMM+ and other such institutional arrangements and has been playing a very constructive role. He also talked about the South China Sea geopolitics and said that the Sea has emerged as a hotspot. He stressed that China’s aggressive and assertive posturing in the South China Sea is threatening the security of several ASEAN countries including Vietnam. He talked about the 2016 verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which rejected China’s historical claims in the South China Sea. Also mentioning the nine dash line, he said that India should not feel shy of coming out in support of the ASEAN countries.

Further, Prof. Le Van Toan, an erudite scholar who serves as a Professor in Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics in Hanoi, Vietnam, presented his views on Vietnam-India relations. Prof.Toan, who headed the Indian Studies Centre in Vietnam and has been engaged in several policy level and Track II dialogues with India, said that the future of India-Vietnam relations will depend on what we do today.

Prof.Toan maintained that so far Vietnam has contributed very responsibly in global affairs. He also said that we need to look into the cultural traditions which have shaped India-Vietnam relationship over the years. Speaking about comprehensive strategic partnership, he said that Vietnam already has diplomatic relations with 198 countries in the world, however, it has entered into comprehensive partnership only with three countries viz. India, China and Russia. He said that the relationship between Vietnam and China is a very sensitive one wherein China puts threat and pressure on Vietnam, while Vietnam has always tried to respond amicably. But as far as India is concerned, he said that among the three comprehensive partners, India is the most trusted friend for Vietnam.

The next speaker was Dr. Rajan Sudesh Ratna who is an Economic Affairs Officer in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in New Delhi. Dr. Ratna, who earlier served in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India for twenty years, including his stint as the Joint Director General of Foreign Trade, discussed about his experiences of negotiating the India-ASEAN framework agreement in 2003. He said that the entire Early Harvest Program (EHP) of India-ASEAN Framework Agreement was dropped because India wanted a very stringent rules of origin (ROO) from ASEAN, fearing that trade would circumvent from China through ASEAN to India. He also maintained that when we started negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2010, we were of course aware about such issues related to negotiating with China. He believed that perhaps it did not reflect good on our negotiations that in 2019, we were still not ready to join the RCEP.

Dr. Ratna, who served as a Professor at the Centre for WTO Studies in Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, also mentioned that China is the cheapest supplier in the world. If we buy most of our import requirements from other suppliers at a higher cost, our ability to export finished product at a competitive price will also suffer. He gave an example from pharmaceutical sector and said that the sector is dependent on China for its Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) imports. Talking about services, Dr. Ratna said that the major problem is not market access, but Mutual Recognition Agreement by which qualifications can be mutually recognised by India and ASEAN governments. Also, he emphasised that the supply chain of inter-linking services with goods did not happen between India and ASEAN. For instance, he said that during the 2000s, ASEAN was a manufacturing hub of hardware and India specialised in software, yet a mutually beneficial inter-linking between the hardware and software could not be established.

Presenting a perspective from Thailand, eminent scholar Prof.Jaran Maluleem, Professor of Political Science in Thammasat University, Bangkok talked on several issues ranging from trade to education. He said that since the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship between India and Thailand has enhanced to a large extent. Mentioning about the Thailand-India trade agreement, he said that it helped eradicate obstacles to bilateral trade and increased the trade volume between the two countries. He also discussed on the positive role played by the industry chambers in both India and Thailand for enhancing bilateral relations.

Prof.Maluleem also emphasised on the historical and cultural relationship between the two countries, and stressed on the potential for cooperation in tourism, science and technology, investments, strategic and military affairs, and other areas. Being a leading figure in establishing the Indian Studies Program in Thailand, Prof. Maluleem also talked about the educational cooperation between India and Thailand and said that there is a very huge potential for educational exchange and future cooperation in this sector.

Another speaker Dr. Mohd. Faheem, Lecturer, Pridi Banomyong International College at Thammasat University in Bangkok, emphasised on the connectivity issues. He presented his views on the opportunities and challenges of physical connectivity between India and ASEAN. He said that immediately after India embraced economic reforms in 1991, it decided to focus on Southeast Asian countries and adopted the Look East Policy in 1992. Later, the Look East Policy was transformed into Act East Policy. Dr. Faheem further emphasised that Thailand is very strategically located to enhance the connectivity between India and ASEAN. India’s neighbourhood diplomacy, he said, has helped improve focus on sub-regional groups in the region, in which Thailand has a significant role. He maintained that through connectivity, we can improve trade and economic integration, and also enhance people’s mobility between India and ASEAN countries.

During his talk, Dr. Faheem also focused on the importance of engaging youths to enhance bilateral relations. He said that more than half of the ASEAN population is under the age of 35, which provides good opportunity for future cooperation. Dr. Faheem, who is basically a geographer, said that the two most important geographies pertinent to India-ASEAN connectivity projects are Northeast India and Myanmar. He cited the example of two connectivity projects namely Kaladan multimodal project, and, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral Highway as being crucial and significant for both India and ASEAN.

Taking forward the deliberation, Dr. Mana Southichack, an international trade economist and Executive Director of Lao Intergro, a Vientiane based consulting firm in Lao PDR, presented his views on Laos-India engagements. He said that Laos is a small, landlocked country, with a population of 7 million. On India-Laos bilateral relation, he said that it has been growing in the recent years in economic as well as strategic aspects. He stated that Laos has gradually gained from the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community. He emphasised that the level of development in Laos has been increasing in recent years at a satisfactory rate. Also, he said that human resource infrastructure in Laos need to harmonise its system with ASEAN. After joining  ASEAN, he said, Laos experienced some changes in trade and investment and it was good for its economic development. As a land-locked country, he maintained that Laos is trying to enhance the pace of its development by attracting investment. He cited an example of a project on high-speed train connecting China. He said that China is 2nd largest trading partner for Laos, while Vietnam stands at third place; and India is 4th largest export market for Laos. He stressed that the economic relationship between Laos and India is good and improving.

Finally, Dr. Mahjabin Banu, President, SPRE, and Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Vietnam Studies in New Delhi, presented her perspective on Vietnam, ASEAN, and India-Vietnam relations. Starting her talk with history and culture of Vietnam, she emphasised that Vietnam carries a good reputation for successfully hosting global and regional dialogues. It has a shown long standing commitment for ASEAN integration. She said that in 1998, Vietnam hosted a ASEAN summit, and called for enhanced cooperation among the member countries.

Dr. Banu discussed about the Hanoi Plan of Action which called for macroeconomic and financial cooperation, harmonisation of customs procedures, and trade liberalisation. She mentioned that the Hanoi Plan of Action also called for enhancing efforts for the resolution of South China Sea dispute. Specifically, she stressed that if we are talking about the ASEAN region, we cannot escape Vietnam’s concerns about the South China Sea dispute. She said that in recent months, China has illegally entered into the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam several times. She called for quicker implementation of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.Dr. Banu also discussed about India-Vietnam bilateral cooperation in education sector as well as in defence and strategic issues.

After the technical session, the moderator Dr. Faisal Ahmed opened the video conference forum for Q&A session. It included active participation by delegates and speakers joining from India and abroad including those from Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Jordan, Switzerland, South Korea, Ethiopia, and the United States.

(SPRE may be contacted at: spre.india[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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