India Vietnam relations in the context of COVID 19 pandemic has open new avenues in terms of further cooperation between the two countries. One of the important pillars of the comprehensive strategic partnership signed between the two countries in 2016 was developing economic complementarities, promoting trade and investment, political understanding and promoting defence corporation.
India has been proposing that Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and the ASEAN outlook towards the new geopolitical concept have inherent complementarities which can be explored for promoting trade, investment and better understanding on security challenges in this region. The two countries conducted the 17th joint commission meeting in August 2020 and the meeting explored new areas for corporation which included trade, science and technology, and promoting corporation in critical areas such as marine sciences, new emerging technologies, civil nuclear energy, renewable energy and space.
India has instituted a new division in its External Affairs Ministry which deals with New Emerging Strategic Technologies (NEST) looking into governance, legal and technical aspects of this new domain. India and Vietnam need to look into promoting joint projects and also looking into feasible technologies which can be harnessed by both the sides. Also developing better coding and encryption software should be the motto of taking the relationship to the next level.
While interacting with the CLMV countries very recently, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar has categorically stated that there is a need for quick impact projects (QIP) which can be initiated and also brought to fruition in areas such as water resource management, sustainable development goals, developing digital connectivity and also conservation of heritage. Out of the 12 quick impact projects which have been earmarked for Vietnam, India has undertaken initiatives to start seven projects in water resource management and five projects related to developing educational infrastructure in Vietnam.
While both India and Vietnam will be serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in 2021, coordination between the two is important to raise issues of security in South China Sea, dams on Mekong and Brahmaputra by China would be common points of convergence. Also looking into the possibilities of cooperation with the regional supply chain resilience need to be discussed between the two countries which are the emerging economies in South and Southeast Asia.
In the last week of November Vietnamese defence minister General Ngô Xuân Lịch has invited India defence Minister Rajnath Singh for discussing areas of cooperation in developing capabilities in defence industry as well as collaboration in training and sharing best practices under the United Nations peacekeeping operations. One of the interesting facets of the ties between the two countries is to develop corporation in the field of hydrography. The hydrography is critical for understanding marine life as well as exploring possibilities of minerals and sulphates at the sea surface. The hydrographic data is also critical for protecting the marine life and also for defence purposes particularly submarines operations in the underwater terrain.
One of the possibilities that can be explored between the two countries has been in developing institutionalise framework for research in defence, and developing the industrial defence complex. As it is well known that Vietnam is one of the major defence spenders in the region but it also wants to develop its defence industry so asked to cater to its increasing needs in terms of maintenance, developing systems and also better avenues for training office personnel particularly in simulation and virtual reality (VR).
Prime Minister Modi in his speech given at 17th ASEAN- India summit Stressed on the need of promoting physical, digital, financial, maritime and economic connectivity between India and ASEAN. He also stated that there is a need for maintaining freedom of navigation and over flight in South China Sea. The statement itself showed how India is keen that the SCS should abide by the UNCLOS and the parties to the dispute should maintain restraint. It was alluding to Chinese assertive activities in the waters and how the tensions have mounted in recent months.
In the India-ASEAN Plan of Action 2021-2025, the stress has been on developing maritime security architecture. It also stated that International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) provisions need to be complied with in the region. India is keen on developing better understanding with ASEAN nations on capacity building, technical cooperation, and developing common standards for maritime information sharing. In all these initiatives support of Vietnam would be critical. Vietnam has been seen as the important player in the region because of its successful fight against COVID-19 and India also looks for export of Indian vaccine to the country whenever it passes the trials stage. Also developing common research area in medicine and protecting communities form transmission of such kind of diseases would figure high in the dialogue between the two countries.
As it has been seen in the year 2020 that cyber, space and cooperation between think tanks and technical institutions would be vital for taking the Comprehensive Strategic partnership to the next level. It is possible that India would institute new dialogue forum on science and technology, and jointly collaborate in developing software related to cyber security and also military communication. India would be keen to sign a logistics support agreement with Vietnam in future given the outreach of the Indian navy and the similar kind of agreement has been discussed with the Philippines in the past. With the Malabar exercises getting bigger and more intense in participation, Indian navy would seek logistical support in the Pacific Ocean and East Seas.
India is opening its space sector for the private players and Vietnam could harness the resources that India ahs and can work on launching few weather satellites as well as other satellites which can be instrumental in broadcasting and telecommunication. India and Vietnam have developed the unique forums to address new challenges and it would be prudent for both sides to look into possibilities and develop better understanding on trade, investment and services. As already direct flights have provided stimulus to developing economic links but the regular interactions have been marred by the pandemic. It would be good to see that formal interactions between political leaders and also institutions would put the comprehensive strategic partnership on the higher orbit.
Indonesian G20 presidency promises to put a ‘battle for the soul of Islam’ on the front burner
Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas set the bar high for President Joko Widodo as well as Nahdlatul Ulama, the religious backbone of Mr. Widodo’s government when he laid out the agenda for his country’s presidency of the Group of 20. The G20 groups the world’s largest economies.
Speaking to the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna as Italy prepared to handover its presidency to Indonesia, Mr. Qoumas also threw down a gauntlet for Indonesia’s Middle Eastern competitors in a battle to define the degree to which Islam incorporates principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The battle, which is likely to likewise determine which Muslim-majority country or countries will be recognized as leaders of the Islamic world, takes on added significance with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and concerns about Taliban policy towards militants on Afghan soil.
Meanwhile, uncertainty about US reliability as a security guarantor in the Gulf is prompting regional foes to contain their differences to ensure that they don’t spin out of control, increasing their emphasis on the projection of soft power.
Turkey’s 2022 budget appears to signal the shift and the importance President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes to this particular challenge.
The budget of the powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet is expected to increase by 20 per cent for fiscal 2022, giving it greater financial flexibility than the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, trade, industry and technology, environment and urbanization, energy and natural resources and culture and tourism.
These ministries are key for enabling Turkey to resolve its economic problems, compensate for the fallout of the pandemic and enhance its appeal as a potential leader of the Muslim world.
The Diyanet, in another sign of Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on religious rather than national identity, recently urged Turks to use the religiously framed greeting Peace Be Upon (Selamün aleyküm) You rather than phrases like Good Morning (Gunaydin), prevalent in Turkey since its founding as a republic almost a century ago.
Diyanet president Ali Erbas argued in a recently published Turkish-language book, Human Religion and Religion in the Information Age, that the greeting ‘Good Morning’ traced its origins to the pre-Islamic era.
These latest moves suggest that Mr. Erdogan is taking his country, also a member of the G20, down a path diametrically opposed to what Mr. Qoumas was arguing in Bologna.
The minister contended in contrast to Mr. Erdogan’s policies that religion “has the potential to help block the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being. Yet to realize this potential, we must wisely manage the inevitable struggle between competing values, as globalization brings highly diverse peoples, cultures, and traditions into ever closer contact.”
Mr. Qoumas made his remarks as an Islamist journalist called on Mr. Erdogan to avoid the weaponization of religion.
Writing in Karar, a Turkish publication believed to be close to Mr. Erdogan’s erstwhile prime and foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who left the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to found a party of his own, journalist Ahmet Tasgetiren, warned that the president appeared to be politicizing the Diyanet.
Drawing a comparison to Mr. Erdogan’ politicization of Turkey’s judiciary, Mr. Tasgetiren noted that it “weakens people’s confidence in it.” Pleading with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Tasgetiren cautioned that “the politicization of the religion and the Diyanet ruins people’s relationship with religion… I think you would never want this for the religion. For the religion’s sake, please.”
Mr. Qoumas, the scion of an influential Nahdlatul Ulama family and the former head of the group’s powerful youth wing, GP Ansor, went on to say in his speech that “one major task that lies before us is to identify, and conscientiously observe, those universal values that a majority of the world’s inhabitants already acknowledge, such as the virtues of honesty, truth-seeking, compassion and justice. Another parallel task is to develop a global consensus regarding shared values that the world’s diverse cultures will need to embrace if we are to co-exist peacefully.”
Implicitly, the minister noted that in contrast to its competitors – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran – in the battle to reshape mainstream Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, has put its money where its mouth is.
Mr. Qoumas noted that a gathering in 2019 of more than 20,000 Muslim religious scholars associated with Nahdlatul Ulama ruled that the legal category of infidel was “neither relevant to nor applicable within, the context of a modern nation-state.” In doing so, Nahdlatul Ulama became the world’s first major contemporary Sunni Muslim religious entity to seek to update and modernize Islamic jurisprudence.
Mr. Qoumas stopped short of laying out an agenda for dealing with other concepts in Islamic law that Nahdlatul Ulama clerics have identified as either problematic or obsolete such as blasphemy. Nahdlatul Ulama has argued that concepts like the dhimmi or people of the book who are recognized in classical Islamic jurisprudence but not granted equal status before the law, and apostasy, had been invalidated by the ruling on infidels.
To be sure, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where Islamic law is at the least recognized constitutionally as a main source of legislation if it does not constitute the main fountain of legislation, have significantly liberalized social rights.
Saudi Arabia has significantly enhanced women’s rights in recent years by lifting a ban on women’s driving, liberalizing gender segregation, reducing men’s control over women’s lives, and expanding professional opportunities.
Similarly, the UAE announced last November a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing “honour killings,” a widely criticized religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring a family.
Liberalization of social mores in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were anchored in civilian law, rules, and regulations but neither country, in contrast to the process initiated by Nahdlatul Ulama, adopted Islamic jurisprudence accordingly.
That way, the two Gulf states, in contrast to Indonesia, seek to keep tight state control of their interpretation of Islam with no input by civil society.
The dichotomy raises fundamental questions, including whether what Nahdlatul Ulama calls the “recontextualization” of Islam can be achieved by autocratic or authoritarian regimes that are seeking to ensure their survival and project themselves internationally in a positive light or whether religious reform needs to be popularly anchored and driven by civil society.
Despite being in government, Mr. Qoumas implicitly provided his answer to the question by quoting a poem by Kyai Haji Mustofa Bisri, a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama spiritual leader. The poem, titled ‘Religion’ focuses on the behaviour of the individual rather than the role of the state.
“Religion is a golden carriage prepared by God to convey you along the path to His Divine Presence.
Don’t become mesmerized by its beauty, much less enchanted to the point that you come to blows with your own brothers and sisters over who occupies the front seat.
Depart!” the poem reads.
Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia
Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.
Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.
In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.
The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.
The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base. The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.
The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.
In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.
The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.
This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.
Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.
The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player
Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.
US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.
A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.
The French Response
When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.
Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.
‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision
The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.
In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.
Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.
A new addition to the regional architecture
In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.
It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.
What Australia should be careful about?
No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.
Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.
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