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Challenges in Oceania: the fight over Pacific Island Countries (PICs)

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Oceania has discovered itself in the last 15 years as a newly appealing region for world powers. As a matter of fact, right after the Cold War, it loses a bit of its pivotal position upon which many events had hinged, but as China continues to grow, and western countries notice, Oceania has regained increasing attention.

As far as maritime challenges are concerned, we shall proceed keeping in mind that, of the players territorially present here, three are close allies of the US with a good naval capabilities (Japan, 5th largest fleet) and with which the US have an excellent intelligence sharing relationship (the Five eyes –Australia and New Zealand plus UK and Canada); and the opponent (China) to the US’s hegemony which apparently is not willing to put in place aggressive military actions, but through its soft power (i.e. economic and political pressure) is building up a new system of relations. The scope of this debrief is to shed a light on the Pacific Island Countries’ (PICs) maritime issues within the perspective of the US-China contrast.

As shown by the declarations of the Fiji’s ambassador in the US in 2019 at a CSIS event, the PICs are particularly worried about the inconclusiveness of US presidents’ doctrines, both Obama and Trump, which stated indeed a renewed interest for the Pacific, stressed by an active securing of sea lanes as well as by numerous warnings of being careful of the “Chinese debt trap”, but without, in fact, taking any action toward what the PICs really consider to be relevant to their survival. That is, monitoring of polluters and resources plunderers, of climate change issues like the rising sea level and shores erosion: in general, natural disasters, which for PICs are an actual threat, like the cyclone that in February 2018 destroyed both the Parliament of Tonga and $150 million in crops.

China’s growth

Therefore, as put by Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute (an Australian non-profit thinktank mainly based on donations) at the CSIS event, US policymakers’ insensitivity toward PICs may bring about a rapprochement with China. In fact, although the volume of US’s and Australia’s investments in the PICs is yet to be caught up by China, there has been a trend over the years through lending practices, major infrastructure projects for airports and highways (under the OBOR) and much more. From 2011 to 2017, China has committed more than $5.2 billion in investments and granted $518 million (according to the Lowy Institute) to PICs, for sectors like road upgrading (Fiji, $136 million; Papua New Guinea, $85 million), wharf redevelopment (Vanuatu, $85 million) and governmental buildings (Samoa, $52 million). All these projects were generically addressed to by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific in 2018, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, as “useless buildings”. These words sum up Australia’s concerns over the new level of expenditures in China, reinforced by Prime Minister Morrison’s statements who openly admitted, in 2019, how his country has taken for granted its influence in the Southwest Pacific. It is also true that while China invests millions in road upgrade and critical infrastructure, Australia has spent $219 million to improve medical care, donating drugs and vaccines or promoting initiatives of health education.

Australia

At a more meticulous look, the relationship between the PICs and Australia is something more than an economic bond. The PICs are mostly dependent on foreign aid to carry on their political existences and Australia has been obviously attentive of their needs, committing grants, from 2011 to 2017, for about $5.9 billion. For instance: PICs’ maritime security does not merely involve nature-linked issues, but also illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, alongside drug smuggling from Latin America to Australia, which have caused a loss of about $616 million per year. In order to prevent these crimes, twelve of the PICshave agreed to have Australia sent them every three months until 2023 a newly built Guardian-class patrol boat and in 2020 Fiji, Palau, Kiribati and Tonga will receive them. Without an external assistance, these islands would find themselves in a dangerously precarious situation.

The nature of the bond between the PICs and Australia is very different from that between them and China, founded on sheer economic bases. On the other hand, if Australia’s spending on foreign aid continues to dwindle, like it has been doing since 1974 from 0,47% of GDP to 0,22% in 2018, there might begin to blow winds of change. What Australia (and New Zealand to a certain extent) have to be careful of is not to indulge too much in the PICs’ forbearance with unbalanced agreements or sudden and explicit withdrawal, which politically may result in a serious loss of a strategic ally in favor of China, regardless of the several “debt trap” reminders. Unbalanced agreements, like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus), which is basically a free trade agreement that, given that the PICs’ already have a nearly duty-free access to Australia and New Zealand, will not bring any major change for them, but it will definitely drop tariffs for Australian and New Zealand goods and, as the New Zealand’s government puts it, “[to] “preserve New Zealand’s position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come”.

Japan

As for the other side of the board, Japan, France and the US too constantly try to reverse these anti-western trends, oftentimes acting in concert, given, after all, their significant past or position in the region. As a matter of fact, France’s largest EEZ worldwide (thanks to its overseas territories, accounting for 97% of its EEZ) gives a broad room for maneuvers which are usually backed both by the US (with military bases in Guam and in the Marshall Islands) and Japan, with Shinzo Abe’s doctrine of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. Their shared interests to secure the area (geopolitically from China, economically from crime) are expressed through many projects and agreements with the PICs.

France

PICs’ limited capacity of governance of their maritime domains has been attractive for Japan, that has a per capita EEZ surface much smaller than that of most of the PICs, with which it has established a dialogue to cope with the vast and unguarded marine areas. Not directly through governmental channels, but through the NGO Nippon foundation led by Yohei Sasakawa, in light of Japan’s impossibility to partake in military and navy activities whose nature goes beyond their own defense. For example, it has facilitated the setup of the maritime coordination center in Palau, in full operational capacity in January 2018, as well as the installation of a surveillance system in the Malacca strait and the handover of patrol boats to Micronesian countries. As reported by Dr. Rieko Hayakawa, founder of the Sasakawa Pacific Islands Fund, the USPACOM and US Coastal Guard have recognized as positively proactive the Japanese efforts in the region to enhance maritime security.

USA

Moving on to another historical US ally, with a presence of more than 7000 defense personnel and tens of units among vessels, aircrafts and helicopters, France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is facing both environmental and non-traditional security issues (drug smuggling, IUU fishing, piracy, human trafficking, etc.), whose solutions are articulated within formal dialogues with western countries and PICs. As for climate change and natural disasters, France has demonstrated a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) exercises (like “Croix du Sud”), not to mention its proposal in 2017, at the South Pacific Defense Ministers Meeting (SPDMM), to coordinate members’ navies and armies (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, plus the United States and United Kingdom as observers) for a deeper study on the impact of climate change. As for non-traditional security, France, alongside Australia, New Zealand and the US, constitutes the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), which manifests itself as a dialogue platform where maritime surveillance and military cooperation (principally against IUU fishing) are discussed. France’s privileged position of New Caledonia and Polynesia has recently guaranteed successes like the arrest of three Vietnamese so-called “blue boats”, that were fishing illegally offshore New Caledonia. Within the margins of the QUAD, the French forces have joined the numerous multinational operations under the Fisheries Agency of the Pacific Islands Forum (FFA), founded in 1979, currently with 17 members, that are PICs and Australia and New Zealand.

All these efforts are framed in the long institutionalized presence of the US in the western Pacific. Their influence is concretized through well-established organizations like the already-mentioned Pacific Islands Forum and QUAD, and also more recent initiatives like the biennial series of warfare exercises RIMPAC, the first in 2004, for which the US have recently extended an invitation to Fiji to join in summer 2020 (with slight changes to the pandemic).In 2019, the Trump administration has persisted in the predecessor’s recalibration to Asia, investing in the PICs, additionally to the annual $350 million, amounts like$36.5 million in August and $63.5 million in September, principally for development assistance linked to their associated states like the Marshall Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federates states of Micronesia and Palau but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Most of this $350 million, in 2018,was redirected to the Foreign Military Financing to strengthen maritime security and law enforcement cooperation ($290 million); a minor part of that sum was redirected to economic development, infrastructure building and protection of environment (about $30 million). Without going through each sector of investment, it is enough to say that the US have improved their engagement but perhaps paying “too much” attention to ensuring their strategic role while neglecting areas of concerns that, as the Fiji Ambassador in the US put it above, consist of a more pragmatic nature which is not rooted in geostrategic games but in the needs of their people.

But what about now? The pandemic has revealed the structural problem afflicting Oceania, despite the number of cases was never high. Dependency on tourism has shown its limit and not only in their case (see Italy). The severe lockdown’s consequences will surely lead PICs to seriously reconsider their economic strategy. In the meantime, where will the help come from? Within certain institutions (IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), the procedures for requesting disaster relief funds or more flexibility have been already activated. In Oceania, the impact of the pandemic itself has not been violent (but its effects will be).Today, the power games will be nevertheless played within the same context of relationships, but the question iswhat kind of response countries will offer and whether it fits accordingly with PICs’ needs.

I am a BA graduand in Political Sciences and International relations at "L'Orientale" University in Naples and currently studying as an exchange student at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (SciencesPo, Asian Campus of Normandy).

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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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