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United States and France In Asia-Pacific

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Authors: Ansa Bint-e-Fayyaz and Nageen Ashraf*

Asia-Pacific region expands over a vast geographical area. As the name indicates, this area encapsulates the states largely contiguous to the western Pacific region. Although the definition of Asia-Pacific region is contested and a consensus is not found, most academicians have included area stretching vertically from Mongolia in the north to New Zealand in the south and horizontally, from Pakistan in the west to the island states of Oceania in the east, in the Asia Pacific region. The region spans over approximately 22% of global land.

This region accounts for more than 50% of global economy. It hosts some of the busiest straits like Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. The region’s characteristic of being the fastest growing region has attracted attention of all major powers and have become a hot zone for major power competition, especially the big three i.e. USA, China and Russia.

Asia Pacific region hosts one of the great powers and essentially the one that is in a fierce competition with the superpower US, i.e. China. While China is in a direct strategic competition with US they are naturally affront in the Asia Pacific region as well. Russia is another great power, parts of which are occasionally included in Asia Pacific region. It is another competitor of US in the region, the alliance of which with China could have serious repercussions for US and indeed it is the most feared and most conceivable possibility.

France, another major power, had relatively been less involved in the region since the Second World War, however the rising economic significance of Asia-Pacific and thereby its territories in the region has brought France onto the competitive chess board, where each state is trying to secure as much as is possible.

USA’s Interests in Asia-Pacific

Unlike the 20th century, where most of the world’s attention was towards Europe and America, the 21st century has proven to be an important century for the Asia Pacific region where we see the new emerging economies. The economic center has shifted from America and Europe to the emerging Asian states like China, and India which attracts USA to the region for multiple reasons. As a global hegemon, USA has always tried to control or at least influence the most important geo strategic areas of the world, and Asia Pacific gives a clear reason to USA to intervene in the region for its interests.

The major focus of USA is to curb the rise of any power that can be a threat to USA in future. In the Asia Pacific, China and North Korea remain a major threat to USA in various regional as well as International affairs. USA is also concerned about China’s support for the North Koreas rogue regime in the region. USA best tries to tackle China in the region but the economic interdependence of states on China will most probably leave USA alone in the effort. China has the best market all over the world and containment of such large market is not only difficult, but almost impossible.  Even most of the European states will not support USA in the containment of China since they know the consequences. These emerging markets serve as a wonderful opportunity for Europe and there are chances that Europe would prefer to be China’s partner instead of being its competitor.

USA already has deployed its naval fleet in all the International waters, 7th fleet being deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. Maintaining an influence in the region is also significant because of the fact that the region includes two major oceans, i.e. Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, so it plays an important role in commerce and trade through seas. Trump administration aims to deploy more missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. USA tried to engage India in various dialogues to make India become its partner in curbing the China’s rise, but unfortunately, India realizes that there are some issues which cannot be solved without mutual cooperation and consensus of the regional powers. Therefore, India, instead of siding itself with USA, has been trying to cooperate with China on many issues. But, in the recent Sino-Indian Ladakh stand-off, India was successful in making many states including USA to side with it, leaving China almost alone internationally. Mike Pompeo also inculpated China for showing aggression in various parts of the world. USA also has increased the presence of its naval forces in the region, giving China and the rest of the world a strong signal about its naval hegemony. To assert pressure on its competitor, USA currently has deployed 3 aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean.

As far as North Korea is concerned, there seems no improvement in the relations of both the states. Trump administration has been trying to bring NK to the negotiation table but the last meeting, held in Vietnam in 2019 failed and had no desirable outcome. As of July 29th, 2020, North Korea showed no interest in continuing the peace talks with the USA and is carrying on the nuclear program because it believes that it’s necessary to prevent any war in the region. Despite the strict sanctions and their even worse impacts because of the pandemic, NK is not considering the option of negotiating things with USA.

French Interests in Asia Pacific

As Asia-Pacific region has become a hotbed for major power competition, France is no exception to the trend. The noticeable presence of France in Asia-pacific region has been as old as the colonial times, however post-second world war era is marked by a relative French dormancy in the region. Paris has pursued a significant revitalization in the region, particularly as the 21st century proceeds.

Paris favors a multipolar, free, stable and multilateral system, based on rule of law to ensure stability. Its major interests in Asia-Pacific involve protection of sovereign interests, French nationals residing in the region, territories and Exclusive Economic zones; promotion of regional stability through military and security cooperation; preservation of free and secure access to sea lines of communications; leveraging multilateral means for promotion of strategic stability; and cooperation to mitigate climate related issues in the region.

French strategy is based on the understanding that interstate competition in international arena cannot be stopped and one must board the same train as the topmost if it wishes to keep the pace equal. In the case of Asia-pacific, however, Paris is not on the same train as the big three i.e. US, China and Russia.

The most important factor that brings France to Asia-Pacific is its territorial possessions in the Pacific, including New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis & Futuna, and therefore a vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which makes her an important player in the region. Her involvement in the region has increased in the recent times, especially a bolder foreign policy has been observed under Emmanuel Macron’s regime.

French foreign policy in Asia-pacific is determined by two sets of inclinations. The first set comprises energy, telecommunication, automobile and wheat that inclines favorable policy towards states like China, while the second set comprise high technology industries, electronics, space and armaments that demand favorable policy towards states like Taiwan, South Korea and ASEAN nations, etc. These competing sets make her foreign policy inconsistent, as is illustrated by 1993 French trade of armaments with Taiwan amidst one-China policy, thereby alienating China.

The inconsistency of policy is also evident in arms sale, where frequent shift of inclinations has been observed owing to short-term opportunities in the market, as is visible in the case of Pakistan and India.

French foreign policy in Asia-Pacific is more aligned with the Quad nations that pursue an anti-China rhetoric. Despite the existence of cultural and economic ties and high trade volume, along with heavy Chinese tourism in France, Paris remains skeptical of Chinese political exceptionalism and its ambitions especially in Africa. Issues of Intellectual Property Rights and trade deficit are other areas of French concerns related to China. Conclusively, France takes a bumpy ride when it comes to China, sometimes accepting; other times criticizing.

Another noticeable French policy trend in Asia-Pacific is the rise in military and defense agreements and negotiations. India, for instance, has signed a Joint Action Plan on Indian Ocean with France, whereby the states will collaborate for better maritime environment using space assets and sharing intelligence. India had also pledged to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets from France, of which three dozen have been bought. Franco-Indian cooperation also span over other domains like space, civil nuclear use, clean energy, and urbanization etc.

France has also widened its defense and strategic partnership with Vietnam. The buildup of ties between a former colony and France accelerated in the past few years. The initial steps included Defence Cooperation Agreement 2009, followed by signature of strategic partnership in 2013; commencement of New Defense Policy Dialogue 2016 and later 2018. A Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation was signed between the two countries that will last till 2028. Cyberspace, information exchange and people-to-people interaction are other areas of cooperation between Paris and Hanoi. An agreement to solve legacy issues related to Indochina war was also made.

Another defence deal was signed between France and Australia, whereby the later pledged to buy a dozen of French submarines at the cost of 50 billion Australian Dollars.

Japan, a Quad state, in cooperation with France, unveiled a 5 year road-map that was to be built to enhance cooperation in domains ranging from maritime cooperation to infrastructure assistance. This project has been unveiled essentially at a point when tensions in South China Sea are burning up.

Russia presents yet another major player of the Asia-Pacific region however, Franco-Russian ties could not convene partly because of Russo-phobia and partly because of Sino-Russian ties. The relations started to build around defence equipment trade, when France made a deal with Russia to sell amphibious assault ships, it was however scraped later due to Ukrainian crisis in 2014. The French President, Emmanuel Macron made endeavors in the last NATO summit to convince US president, Donald Trump and other allies to redirect the NATO policy, asserting that the Cold War was over and Russia was no longer an enemy. France also played a role in Georgia-Russia crisis and Ukraine-Russia crisis, however constructive engagement in essentially all domains is yet neither achieved, nor planned.

The upcoming decade will see increment of French involvement in Asia-Pacific region, as Paris advances its cooperation with the partner states and build new partnerships with other states in the region.

Conclusion

As the economic and strategic essentiality of Asia-Pacific region deepens, so does the interests of international competitors in the region. The race of states to seek partnerships with the regional states, rooted in the desire to increase influence in the region, has turned it into a hotbed for strategic and economic competition between the major powers. The major power competition in the region is not limited to trade and economic domain, but has increasingly shifted to military and defense domain, especially in the last decade. The rising tensions, particularly those between China and US in the South China Sea, makes it a potential conflict zone, however an all-out war between the major powers seems inconceivable because of extensive economic interdependence. France, as of late 20th century and the present century, is also expanding its footprint in the Asia-pacific region owing to intertwinement of its interests with this region’s development.

As the time proceeds, French and American presence in the region is expected to increase owing to incremental economic rise of the region vis a vis other regions around the world.

*Nageen Ashraf, student of Bachelor in “Defense and Diplomatic studies” at Fatima Jinnah Women University.

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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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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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South Korea’s finance of ‘green’ palm oil drives destruction in Indonesia

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In 2019, South Korea imported 745,000 metric tonnes of palm oil, up from 194,000 metric tonnes in 2005. It is one of the fastest-growing markets for the commodity in the world, driven by government policies to boost palm oil as a lucrative green industry and to secure food and energy supplies from overseas.

Most of this palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia and until recently was used in processed food, such as instant noodles. But under the country’s “Green New Deal” introduced earlier this year, palm oil is being promoted as a source of renewable energy, as biofuel for transport and power generation.

But palm oil’s green credentials are hotly debated. While the US and Europe are taking steps to restrict use because of links to widespread deforestation and high carbon emissions, South Korean public institutions have given millions of dollars in subsidies to companies developing plantations in Indonesia in the name of “green” development.

Environmental activists and lawyers in South Korea have become increasingly vocal about the industry’s links with human rights violations and deforestation in Indonesia, and are demanding the government stop financing destructive practices.

Demand soars

South Korea relies on overseas imports for 97% of its energy and 75% of its food resources. After the 2008 global food crisis, the government set out to secure both edible and industrial palm oil, launching an “Overseas Agro-resources Development” programme in 2009. That public loan scheme covered 70% of the business costs of private South Korean companies to produce and distribute wheat, soybean, corn and crude palm oil.

Palm oil is designated a strategic commodity under South Korean law. The Overseas Agriculture & Forest Resources Development and Cooperation Act, and the Overseas Resources Development Business Act are used as legal grounds to subsidise Korean palm oil companies overseas. The Korea Forest Service and various finance institutions classify oil palm development as “bioenergy afforestation” projects. This is a perverse use of the word afforestation, which generally means planting trees for environmental and climate benefits, not clearing tropical forest for monoculture plantations.

“I find these acts very imperialistic. The government is helping companies to take resources from other countries because we are resource-poor,” said Chung Shin-young, a lawyer with Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), who has been investigating South Korea’s palm oil industry and leading the campaign to stop public finance of the industry.

Public and private investment in the palm oil industry has also been driven by the use of palm oil as a transport fuel since the mid 2000s. Since 2015, South Korean companies importing or exporting petroleum fuel products have had to ensure their oil products are at least 2.5% biodiesel. The proportion was later increased to 3%. As of 2017, palm oil and its by-products accounted for 88% of South Korea’s biodiesel imports.

Public money funds deforestation and human rights abuses

South Korean palm oil producers found themselves in the international spotlight in 2016 when environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth, in partnership with the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM), exposed massive forest clearance in the palm oil concessions of Korindo and Posco International in Indonesian-administered Papua. Satellite data and drone images showed that Korindo had cleared 30,000 hectares of rainforest in the previous two years while Posco International had cleared 19,000 hectares in the previous four.

Korindo established its first oil palm plantation in Papua in 1998. Recent years have seen a marked expansion of its activities in the province, with 30,000 hectares of forest cleared between 2013 and 2016. (Image: Mighty Earth)

“The Korean model of palm oil plantation deforestation harkens back to the old, dark days of the palm oil industry when forests, wildlife and indigenous lands were obliterated for the purpose of establishing giant expanses of monoculture plantations, the profits of which mainly go to foreign owners,” said Deborah Lapidus, senior campaign director at Mighty Earth.

The problem is these two companies have been operating their palm oil business with public money from the Korea Forestry Service and the Export-Import Bank of Korea (Korea Exim Bank), said Chung.

“If you look at the detailed statement of the government loan to Posco International, you will learn that they rarely run a business on their own money. But it’s not only Posco International. LG International, Daesang, and JC Chemical before them got a loan from the Korea Forestry Service,” said Chung. Her team was one of the first local groups to investigate South Korean palm oil companies’ links to rights violations and massive deforestation in Indonesia since 2016, together with the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM). 

“The agency’s very first public loan to the palm oil industry was to an oil palm afforestation company, Daesang Holdings, in 2008. In total, 3.8 billion-won (around US$3.2 million) was financed for a bioenergy afforestation project in Indonesia,” explained Shin Gun-seop, an administrative officer at Korea Forest Service’s Overseas Resources Development Office.

Between 2010 and 2019, Korea Forest Service provided 40.1 billion won (around US$33 million) to plant oil palms in around 24,000 hectares, mostly in Indonesia, according to Shin. Daesang Holdings, LG International Corp., Kodeco, and JC Chemical were some of the recipients of these public loans.

Livelihoods destroyed

The expansion of South Korean palm oil companies has put indigenous communities’ livelihoods at risk, many of whom had been displaced from their forest land in the past.

“My concern is that the presence of Korindo and Posco International in Papua will further widen gaps and deepen injustices in Papua where big business take everything and the local community is left with empty hands. For most indigenous Papuans, forests are their supermarkets, banks, hospitals and sacred places. Massive forest conversion means they lose their livelihoods,” said Angky Samperante from the Papuan rights group Yayasan Pusaka. His team has been struggling to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment of Papua against Korean palm oil companies since 2010.

A family from the Kowin Marind tribe whose land has been affected by deforestation to make way for a Korindo plantation in Papua (Image: Mighty Earth)

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has been closely monitoring Korindo’s operations since complaints against its destructive practices and human rights violations were first made by Mighty Earth in 2017, but has stopped short of stripping it of its sustainability certification. Korindo Group published a statement on its website in July 2019 saying it rejected complaints that it was involved in illegal forest fires but agreed to work with FSC to improve its standards.

The Korean palm oil industry has been linked with the suffering of indigenous communities in Indonesia from the start. Korindo Group started the first “Korean” palm oil business in Merauke, Papua province, in 1995. There the Marind and Mandobo peoples had already been forced from their customary forest by the central government’s development plan in the early 1970s. PT. Tunas Sawa Erma, the palm oil company of Korindo Group, acquired a palm oil business permit in 1997 and by December 2001 had planted palms over 7,800 hectares of land. This set the scene for the next set of large-scale Korean palm oil ventures in Indonesia from 2007.

The major players

Apart from Korindo, six other big South Korean companies have become major players in the palm oil industry, financed by public money. Almost US$200 million worth of public funding has been given to these companies to develop over 65,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in Indonesia. These estimates are based on publicly available and verified data from the Korea Forest Service, Export-Import Bank of Korea and the South Korean parliament. And according to an independent investigation by APIL (Advocates for Public Interest Law), almost all of these companies have ongoing land and rights violation conflicts with local communities.

Local advocacy groups have been running a campaign to stop government loans to the palm oil companies in Indonesia since APIL and KFEM (Korean Federation for Environmental Movements) published a report based on their investigation in 2019.

“It’s our tax money going into the industry that is complicit in land grabbing, indigenous people’s rights and labour rights violations. We are pushing Korean export credit agencies to have their own human rights standards to follow when providing a public finance loan to overseas projects like the palm oil industry. It is the government offices’ constitutional responsibility to avoid any human rights violations,” said Chung.

Carbon emissions

Local scientists are also raising their concerns about the government’s growing “carbon debt” given its support for the palm oil industry.

“South Korea has been using a by-product of crude palm oil called Palm Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD) as a main source of bioenergy. Due to its high carbon intensity and environmental cost, PFAD would not be permitted as a main source of biodiesel in countries like the US and UK,” said Shin Jung-Yull from Korea Energy Agency’s audit division.

According to Shin’s 2018 PhD dissertation, PFAD accounted for 47% of Korea’s biodiesel feedstock in 2015, and emits 5.7 times more greenhouse gases than alternative oils. The European Union plans to phase out palm oil-based transport fuels by 2030, because of the deforestation and higher emissions they cause.

Mounting pressure

Since 2015, South Korean lawmakers have also been questioning the relevant ministries over the effectiveness and sustainability of public financing in the overseas palm oil industry through parliamentary inspections and research service reports.

Under public pressure, Korea Forest Service excluded Korindo from receiving overseas public financing and seized additional loan support for oil palm afforestation projects in 2019. This was after the agency introduced new evaluation criteria requiring companies to provide evidence, such as satellite images, to prove that they are not responsible for “conversion of forest”. However, companies receiving loans before 2019 are not bound by the stricter criteria.

Membership of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – the global certification organisation set up to promote ethical palm oil – is not included in public financing criteria, and neither is a commitment to No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policies.

Despite this, there has been huge public pressure on companies to take action. Posco International voluntarily joined RSPO membership and introduced a zero-deforestation policy for its palm oil plantation in Indonesia’s Papua province in March this year.

When asked to respond to the international outcry over their activities in Indonesia, Joyce Eun Jeong Seo of Posco International’s Sustainable Management Department told China Dialogue: “In carrying out the palm oil business in Indonesia, Posco International and its subsidiary PT Bio Inti Agrindo recognised and complied with indigenous customary laws as a top priority and strives to fulfil the level of social responsibility required by international norms as a responsible global company.”

Posco International was the first South Korean business to introduce a NDPE (no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation) policy earlier this year. But between 2012 and 2017, its subsidiary in Papua cleared 26,500 hectares of mostly primary forest to establish a plantation. (Image: Google Earth, Landsat / Copernicus)

But Korean citizens have only just started to demand more transparency about the palm oil supply chain and the problems around this ubiquitous commodity. 

“We all know that our country has to rely heavily on overseas resources for our food and energy. But the government cannot blind its citizens by using ‘national interest and security’ logic to justify human rights violation, deforestation and carbon emissions,” said Kang Myung-hwa, a 34-year-old citizen from Seoul.

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