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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

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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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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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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