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US strategy in South China Sea and its impact on Vietnam and ASEAN

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Vietnam and other ASEAN countries are witnessing renewed vigour from the US with regard to the developments in South China Sea (SCS). The redeployment of troops from Europe to Southeast Asia, and undertaking major maritime initiatives to counter Chinese aggression have been talked in the international media. Be it the US forces undertaking elephant walk (lining up all fighter aircrafts on the tarmac) in Guam or the movement of Carrier Battle Group USS Nimitz in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region. Undertaking massive show of military strength and deploying sophisticated bombers in the region are a testimony to US military superiority at display.

 Recent statements by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded to the fact that China would not be allowed to create a ‘Maritime Empire in South China Sea’. While speaking at a public lecture at Nixon presidential library on July 23rd, he said that China has benefited a lot from the liberal order under the United States. He further said that there are massive imbalances in the relationship, and the quest of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for global hegemony is a critical issue at the international level. He said that China has failed to evolve towards freedom and democracy, and accused China of making the world sea waterways insecure for international maritime commerce. Lauding military efforts by US Department of Defence, he pronounced that US has undertaken initiatives as well as exercises so as to maintain freedom of navigation operations(FONOPs) in SCS and ensured that the allies and strategic partners are not threatened by Chinese aggressive posture.

Earlier David R Stillwel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs attended the virtual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 21stand he stressed on the fact that ASEAN role is critical for FONOPs, and there is a need for integrity and trust in the developing regional security architecture. There is a need for a meaningful and compliance based Code of Conduct on South China Sea, and guaranteed that US was committed to cooperation and collaboration with the allies and partners in the region. 

Earlier in mid-July (July 13) in one of the statements, the US State Department made it very clear that the Chinese claims of offshore resources in the South China Sea was unlawful, and not accepted by the US. The US State Department also clarified its position on the Chinese maritime claims and buttressed the fact that there is a need to preserve peace and stability, ensure freedom at seas under the provisions of UNCLOS, and protect the maritime trade and commerce. The clear cut highlight was that US would not accept any bullying by China in the region and urged to settle disputes through force or coercion.

Addressing the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling given in July 2016 and on the question of sovereignty in disputed waters, the US State Department confirmed its allegiance to the tribunals decision on the SCS and stated that China should abide by the legally binding principle. The US also reinforced the fact that no country can unlawfully assert maritime sovereignty and every country would have to abide by the UNCLOS. Earlier, the US had condemned the sinking of the Vietnam fishing vessel by China in South China Sea and extended full support to the ASEAN claimant countries in the South China Sea dispute.

The development with regard to the US and China ties specially on the issue of closing down of Chinese Consulate in Houston, and the reaction by China asking the US to close down its Chengdu consulate has further aggravated tensions in South China Sea. Washington has undertaken a number of exercises with friendly countries in the region which includes Japan and Australia in the Pacific/South China Sea, and with Indian navy in the Indian Ocean region. The purpose is to show that Quad is not a paper tiger and has the necessary capacities and capabilities to stop China from acting as a recalcitrant state.

Even lately the claimant countries of South China Sea dispute have come out openly against Chinese aggressive posture. Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia have presented a unified stance against maritime claims of China. Malaysia submitted its position paper in the UN related to extended Continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, has found support among many ASEAN nations. Interestingly, Brunei which was more of a silent spectator has also issued a statement related to this issue. It has clearly stated that the negotiations between the countries should be as per the guidelines of the UNCLOS and in compliance to the international law. However, it has made a statement, with a caveat, that specific issues should be addressed at bilateral level.

China has also been stressing on the fact that bilateral issues related to SCS should be address through bilateral dialogues and consultations. China has been stressing on the fact that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved at bilateral level rather than multilateral negotiations among the claimant countries. The strong approach taken by the US might help the ASEAN countries to undertake stronger approach, now when the US has been continuously undertaking freedom of navigation operations and has deployed two of its aircraft carriers in the vicinity of SCS.

The imaginary nine dash line related to South China Sea projected by China has come under intense international scrutiny. It need to be seen that Vietnam as chairperson of ASEAN would seek international intervention and seek Chinese compliance for safety and security in the contested waters. Vietnam’s role would be seen critical for the next four months and its leadership has been lauded on this critical issue but whether dialogue partners should also be willing to extend a helping hand.

Following the rebuttal by the US on the issue of South China Sea claims by China; India, Japan and Australia have made string of statements related to the issue and have stated full support to the freedom of navigation and the safety of the sea lanes of communication. These statements as well as joint exercises would act as confidence building among the ASEAN states and also helps in reining in China which is using the assertive posture backed by aggressive military moves in the region.

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

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Southeast Asia

Learning to build a community from a ”Solok Literacy Community”in the West Sumatra

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Established on September 21, 2020 in Solok City, West Sumatra Province, Indonesia. Solok Literacy Community initiated by the young people of Solok City has grown rapidly into a community that has its own trendsetter among young people. Bringing narratives smelling of education, The Literacy Solok Community has a movement with measurable progressiveness that can be seen from its flagship programs.

Starting from the free reading stall movement that has been moving in various corners of Solok City over the past few months. The concept of film surgery that provides proactive discussion space for all segmentation in society. “Diskusi Ngopi” activities which in fact is the concept of FGD (Focus Group Discussion), run with interesting themes and issues so that it can be considered as one of the favorite programs that are often attended by many young people in Solok. Then a class of interests and talents aimed at reactivating the soft skills and great talents of the children of Solok City.

Solok Literacy Community has a long-term goal of making Solok City as a Literacy City in 2025. With these noble targets, of course we together need small steps in the form of programs that run consistently over time. Because after all, a long journey will always begin with small steps in the process of achieving it.

Many appreciations and positive impressions from the surrounding community continue to be received by the Solok Literacy Community. This is certainly a big responsibility for the Solok Literacy Community to continue to commit to grounding literacy in Solok City. Solok Literacy Community activities can be checked directly through instagram social media accounts @solok_literasi. Carrying the tagline #penetrategloomy or penetrating the gloom and #lawanpembodohan, members of the Solok Literacy Community or better known as Soliters, will always make innovative breakthroughs in completing the goal of making Solok City 2025 as a Literacy City.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia Submit Extended Continental Shelf Proposal Amidst Pandemic: Why now is important?

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Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

Indonesia’s active cases of coronavirus have been getting more worrying with more than 100.000 active cases. With nearly a year of pandemic, Indonesia’s not only facing a serious health crisis but also an economic catastrophe. People lose their jobs and GDP expected to shrink by 1.5 percent. Jakarta government therefore should work hard to anticipate the worst condition in 2021.

With this serious economic threat, Indonesia surely has to explore maximize its maritime geographic potential to pass this economic crisis and gain more national revenue to recover from the impact of the pandemic. And there where the Extended Continental Shelf submission should play an important role.

Recently this week, Indonesia submit a second proposal for the extended continental shelf in the southwest of the island of Sumatra to the United Nations Commission on the Limit of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Continental shelf is that part of the seabed over which a coastal State exercises sovereign rights concerning the exploration and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas deposits as well as other minerals and biological resources.

Therefore, this article argues that now is the right time for Indonesia to maximize its Continental Shelf claim under the law of the sea convention for at least three reasons.

First, one could not underestimate the economic potential of the Continental Shelf, since the US Truman Proclamation in 1945, countries have been aware of the economic potential from the oil and gas exploration in the continental shelf.

By being able to explore and exploit natural resources in the strategic continental shelf, at least Indonesia will gain more revenue to recover the economy. Even though indeed the oil and gas business is also hit by the pandemic, however, Indonesia’s extended continental shelf area might give a future potentials area for exploitation in long term. Therefore, it will help Indonesia prepare a long-term economic strategy to recover from the pandemic. After Indonesia can prove that there is a natural prolongation of the continental shelf.

Second, as the Indo-Pacific region is getting more significant in world affairs, it is strategic for Indonesia to have a more strategic presence in the region. This will make Indonesia not only an object of the geopolitical competition to utilize resources in the region, but also a player in getting the economic potential of the region.

And third, it is also showing that President Joko Widodo’s global maritime fulcrum agenda is not yet to perish. Even though in his second term of administration global maritime fulcrum has nearly never been discussed, this momentum could be a good time to prove that Indonesia are still committed to the Global maritime fulcrum by enhancing more maritime diplomacy.

Though this is not the first time Indonesia submit an extended Continental Shelf proposal to the CLCS, this time it is more likely to be accepted by the commission. Not to mention the geographical elements of natural prolongation of the continental shelf that has to be proved by geologist.

The fact that Indonesia has no maritime border with any neighboring states in the Southwest of Sumatra. Therefore, unlike Malaysia’s extended continental shelf proposal in the South China Sea that provoke many political responses from many states, it is less likely that Indonesia extended continental shelf proposal will raise protest from any states.

However, the most important thing to realize the potential benefit of the extended continental shelf as discussed earlier, Indonesia should have a strategy and road map how what to do after Indonesia gets the extended continental shelf.

*Arie Afriansyah is a Senior Lecturer in international law and Chairman of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at University of Indonesia.

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam

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Photo courtesy - PTI

In its fourth year since the elevation of ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, December 2020 witnessed an enhanced cooperation between New Delhi and Hanoi, ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to defence and maritime cooperation, amid common concerns about China.

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In an effort to boost defence cooperation, the navies of India and Vietnam conducted atwo-day passage exercise (Passex) in the South China Sea on December 26 and 27, 2020, reinforcing interoperability and jointness in the maritime sphere. Two days before this exercise has begun, an Indian naval ship arrived at Nha Rong Port in Ho Chi Minh City to offer humanitarian assistance for the flood-affected parts of Central Vietnam.

Before this, in the same week, during a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on December 21, both countries inked seven agreements on miscellaneous areas of cooperation and jointly unveiled a vision and plan of action for the future, as both countries encounter the common Chinese threat in their respective neighbourhoods.

Vietnam’s disputes with China

India’s bone of contention with China ranges from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. Both Vietnam and India share territorial borders with China. Well, it seems odd that despite its common socialistic political backgrounds, China and Vietnam remains largely hostile. 

Having a 3,260 km coastline, covering much of the western part of South China Sea, Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) overlaps with Chinese claims based on the legally invalid and vaguely defined Nine-Dash Line concept, unacceptable for all the other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In 2016, China lost a case brought out by the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague when the court ruled that Beijing’s had no legal basis to claim ‘historic rights’ as per the nine-dash line. China rejected the ruling and continued to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, which it has been doing since 2013, some of them later militarized to gain favourable strategic footholds in the sea and the entire region.

The Paracel and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has been historically considered part of Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War, gave the erstwhile South Vietnam control of territories south of the 17th Parallel, which included these island groups. But, China lays claims on all of these islands and occupies some of them, leading to an ongoing dispute with Vietnam.

China and Vietnam also fought a border war from 1979 to 1990. But today, the disputes largely remain in the maritime sphere, in the South China Sea.

China’s eyes on the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean has been long regarded as India’s sphere of influence. But with the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar megaproject proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and the Maritime Silk Road connecting three continents, which is part of it, China has grand ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Theories such as ‘String of Pearls’ shed light on an overambitious Beijing, whichattempts to encircle India with ports and bases operating under its control.

China has also opened a military base in Djibouti, overlooking the Indian Ocean, in 2017 and it has also gained control of the strategic port of Hambantota in the southern tip of the island of Sri Lanka, the same year.

Chinese presence in Gwadar in Pakistan, where the Maritime Silk Route meets the land route of BRI, is also a matter of concern for India. Moreover, the land route passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is under Pakistani control, but is also claimed by India.  China has also been developing partnerships with Bangladesh and Myanmar to gain access to its ports in the Bay of Bengal.

Notwithstanding all this, India’s response has been robust and proactive. The Indian Navy has been building partnership with all the littoral states and small island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles to counter the Chinese threat.

India has also been engaged in humanitarian and developmental assistance in the Indian Ocean region, even much before the pandemic, to build mutual trust and cooperation among these countries. Last month, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Sri Lanka to revive a trilateral maritime security dialogue with India’s two most important South Asian maritime neighbours, the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Foe’s foe is friend

The Indian Navy holding a Passex with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which is China’s backyard, is a clear message to Beijing. This means, if China ups the ante in the Indian Ocean or in the Tibetan border along the Himalayas, India will intensify its joint exercises and defence cooperation with Vietnam.

A permanent Indian presence in the South China Sea is something which Beijing’s never wish to see materialise in the new future. So, India’s engagement with Vietnam, which has a long coast in this sea, is a serious matter of concern for Beijing.

During this month’s virtual summit, Prime Minister Modi has also reiterated that Vietnam is a key partner of India in its Indo-Pacific vision, a term that Beijing vehemently opposes and considers as a containment strategy against its rise led by the United States.

Milestones in India-Vietnam ties – a quick look-back

There was a time when India supported Vietnam’s independence from France, and had opposed US-initiated war in the Southeast Asian country in the latter half of the previous century. Later, India hailed there-unification of North and South Vietnams.

Even though India maintained consulate-level relations with the then North and South Vietnams before the re-unification, it was elevated to ambassadorial level in 1972, thereby establishing full diplomatic ties that year.

During the Vietnam War, India supported the North, despite being a non-communist country, but without forging open hostilities with the South. Today, India partners with both France and the United States, Vietnam’s former colonizers, in its Indo-Pacific vision, comfortably along with Vietnam as geopolitical dynamics witnessed a sea change in the past few years and decades.

Way ahead

Today, these two civilizational states, sharing religio-cultural links dating many centuries back, is coming together again to ensure a favourable balance of power in Asia. Being a key part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and ‘Quad Plus’ conceptualisation, Vietnam’s role is poised to increase in the years to come as China continues to project its power in Asia and beyond.

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