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Proposed Solution to South China Sea Disputes is Unrealistic

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Modern Diplomacy published a proposed solution to the South China Sea disputes. The proposal suggests that the ASEAN claimant states – Indonesia (which claims it is not a party to the dispute), Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam form a united front that makes a joint declaration on issues they agree on and then issues a joint proposal for resolving the disputes.  (It is unclear why the proposal excludes Brunei – another claimant heavily dependent economically on China). Such attempts to find a solution to these seemingly intractable and dangerous disputes is a welcome respite from the usual China-bashing and calls for more US military intervention. But unfortunately it is unrealistic. While it is true that some of the elements of the proposed joint statement have been expressed individually and buried in ASEAN statements, a claimants’ joint statement against China regarding its claims would be a significant next level political statement that would provoke blowback from China.  International law does not exist in a political vacuum nor does it implement itself.

Indeed, the major flaw in this proposal is that it ignores the fundamental interests and influence of China, the region’s dominant indigenous power.  In brief, China believes that the former Western colonies are stealing its fish and petroleum in collaboration with outside Western companies and powers.  Worse, it thinks that the U.S. is using the disputes and the claimants to contain and constrain what it sees as its rightful rise to regional domination. 

The point is that China would not sit idly by if these claimants try to implement a proposal that treats China’s claims as invalid and denies any share in the resources in the disputed area.   These claimants all want China’s continued economic largesse and each has their own political/military reasons for not wanting to fall out of its favor. China will likely use their individual needs as leverage to prevent such unity against it.

Indonesia’s principle security concern is internal stability.  To maintain that stability it needs rapid economic growth and China provides significant economic assistance and investment. Despite its differences with China in the South China Sea, it has so far preserved its national interests without endangering its Chinese investment or providing sufficient fodder for its domestic anti- China nationalists. Unless China loses patience and does something really foolish to upset the relations applecart, Indonesia is unlikely to abandon this “delicate equilibrium”. (see Prashanth Parameswaran, “Delicate Equilibrium: Indonesia’s Approach to the South China Sea”.

 Malaysia as its then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said, is simply “too small to face up to China.”  Moreover, China and Malaysia have agreed to a joint dialogue mechanism to search for solutions to their  South China Sea disputes.

The Philippines will not join such a ‘front’—at least under President Rodrigo Duterte. He has made his own political accommodation with China.

But issuing a joint statement is only the first hurdle in the proposal. If these claimants were to issue such a statement, the proposal then encourages them to define their EEZs and to provisionally share the resources in disputed areas. Versions of this temporary solution have been proposed before but to little avail.

It also suggests “all of the coastal states _ _ could expressly consent to submit all remaining legal issues to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a multi party, consolidated case.” But for the ICJ to entertain a case, both or all parties must agree to submit to its authority. None of these countries are likely to agree to do so.  They have had bitter experiences with international adjudication —  Malaysia with its loss to Singapore over Pulau Batu Puteh Indonesia o with its loss to Malaysia of Sipandan/Ligatan and of course China’s loss to the Philippines (an arbitration it refused to participate in or recognize).

Moreover settlement of these disputes through the ICJ would raise sovereignty issues including over Sabah (Malaysia/Philippines) and over the Paracel Islands (China/Vietnam), the latter because of China’s possible claim from them to part of Vietnam’s claimed EEZ and continental shelf. Agreeing to share resources in areas of overlapping EEZs based on disputed territory could imply recognition of the validity of the opposing sovereignty claim and thus claimants will be reluctant to do that.

The Sabah dispute is particularly sensitive. The Philippines objected to the 2009 Malaysia-Vietnam joint extended continental shelf claim because part of it was based on Malaysia’s state of Sabah.  Malaysia’s 2019 extended continental shelf claim is also partially based on Sabah. The Philippines’ objection is not likely to change because the Philippines claim to Sabah is part of its constitution.

When Malaysia and Vietnam were preparing their joint submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the Philippines was asked if it wanted to join as it would strengthen their individual positions against China’s sweeping claims. The Philippines replied that Malaysia  could make almost the same claim from Sarawak and the Peninsula and that if it dropped Sabah as a base point for an extended continental shelf, it would not object to the submission.   Malaysia did not do so — perhaps because it intended to eventually make its more recent claim also from Sabah. So the Philippines formally objected.  It stated that it was “requesting the Commission to refrain from considering the submissions unless and until the parties had discussed and resolved their disputes.” 

 It is simply unrealistic to leave China’s interest and influence out of the equation.  The only peaceful way out is compromise. The Philippines and China may be on the verge of showing the way. Now –after years of virulent criticism of Duterte’s policy regarding China’s South China Sea claims, retired Philippines Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio is praising its results. He says China has made a “soft admission” of the Philippines EEZ claim.  He says “The _ _ _ arrangement will satisfy the objective of the Philippines to preserve its sovereign rights in the EEZ in the West Philippine Sea [by retaining its Constitutionally -required 60 percent of the proceeds]. He says “it would also allow China, through its state-owned enterprise CNOOC and CNOOC’s partners, to get 40 percent of the net proceeds of the gas in Reed Bank.”  Another vociferous critic of Duterte’s policies former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario praised the tentative arrangement as a “constructive move”.

This praise may be premature.  The proof will be in the pudding.  But the agreement that appears to be taking shape is indeed promising.  Such an arrangement would ensure that the Philippines retains sovereignty over the resources. Indeed, it enabled Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman to say that allowing the exploration in the disputed area to proceed “was an exercise of the Philippines’ exclusive right in the area”. In other words it was an implementation of the Philippines’ arbitration victory.  On the other hand, assuming CNOOC is the minority partner, China’s leaders can argue to their people that the Philippines has tacitly acknowledged its claim to resources in the Philippines claimed EEZ by agreeing to give it a 40 percent share in the Reed Bank project.  Philippines Energy Secretary Alfonso Cuisi said “If they [ Philippines majority owned Forum Energy] can’t do it [by themselves –which they can not] and they need a partner, they have to [emphasis added] partner with China.”

Such an agreement—that implicitly gives China first refusal to participate in oil exploration projects in disputed areas– would also earn considerable and needed goodwill for China in the region and set a precedent for solutions to its disputes with its other rival claimants. By accepting this slight of hand, China would also be demonstrating that it can resolve its regional disputes to mutual satisfaction without the involvement of outside powers.

 China recognizes that its relationship with the Philippines regarding the South China Sea is being watched carefully by the other claimants and it seems to be trying to make it a “showcase of its peaceful dispute management and good neighbor policy.”

Similar arrangements with other claimants could be the way forward. But disputes involving maritime claims based on disputed territory are another matter and perhaps best left for future generations to resolve.

Dr. Mark J. Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a Visiting Senior Scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an Adjunct Senior Scholar with the Institute. Dr. Valencia has published some 15 books and over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and has been a frequent oped contributor to prominent public media. Selected major policy relevant works include The Proliferation Security Initiative : Making Waves in Asia (Adelphi Paper 376, International Institute for Strategic Studies, October 2005), Military and Intelligence Gathering Activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone : Consensus and Disagreement (co-editor, Marine Policy Special Issues, March 2005 and January 2004); Maritime Regime Building: Lessons Learned and Their Relevance for Northeast Asia (Martinus Nijhoff, 2002); Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea (with Jon Van Dyke and Noel Ludwig, Martinus Nijhoff, 1997); A Maritime Regime for Northeast Asia (Oxford University Press, 1996); China and the South China Sea Disputes (Adelphi Paper 298, Institute for International and Strategic Studies, 1995); Atlas for Marine Policy in East Asian Seas (with Joseph Morgan, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992); and Pacific Ocean Boundary Problems: Status and Solutions (with Douglas Johnston, Martinus Nijhoff, 1991).

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s President Phuc visit to Switzerland and Russia

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Image source: chinhphu.vn

Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Switzerland and Russia(November25-December 2) to promote his country’s bilateral ties with the two countries. During the visit to Switzerland, the Vietnamese president initiated a link between the Swiss state and Vietnam. For Vietnam, which has already ordered and administered eight different vaccines in its country to protect its citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need is to procure more vaccines. The immediate urgency is to get medical equipment and to import resuscitation supporting machines so that critically ill patients should be saved. In terms of medical equipment and diagnostics procedures, Switzerland is one of the foremost countries for research in fields of diagnostics, pharmacy, lifesaving medicines and new kinds of vaccine development. Vietnam has been facing immense threat from the new variants of COVID-19 and related complications. The country is looking for conclusion of free trade agreement with European free trade association. The European Free Trade Association comprises of Norway, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, There are also immense possibilities of improving the trade basket between the two trade partners. Vietnam is slowly emerging as an alternate manufacturing destination too.

The total volume of trade between Vietnam and Switzerland is more than 3.5 billion U.S. dollars. Vietnam which was the permanent member of the UN Security Council for the year 2020-21 is looking for developing better understanding and greater participation in international institutions such as United Nations, its affiliate organizations and the World Trade Organization(WTO).

Switzerland is also one of the enticing destinations for Vietnamese travelers and it is expected that there might be possibility of more flights between the two countries. During the visit to Switzerland discussions were held also with regard to promoting defence relations, interaction between the legal bodies of the two countries, promoting science and technology interactions between different institutions, encouraging investment from Switzerland to Vietnam, and also celebrating five decades of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. President Phuc concluded his visit to Switzerland on November 29th and went to Moscow to hold meetings with its counterpart Vladimir Putin. 

During the visit to Russia, the two sides discussed areas to promote further cooperation in realizing the true potential of comprehensive strategic partnership and developing coordination in areas such as humanitarian and disaster relief. One of the important milestones during the visit of President Phuc has been the signing of bilateral agreement on vaccine production so that Sputnik V could be produced in Vietnam. The agreement which was signed between Vabiotech and Russian Direct Investment Fund(RDIF) would promote development of Sputnik V vaccine research in Vietnam, and developing resilient supply chains within Vietnam so that the vaccine can be produced in that country. One of the interesting aspects of this agreement is development of a Research Center and a small lab to look into efficacy of the vaccine and develop new formulations to counter the new variants of Coronavirus. Other prominent areas include developing cyber security architecture, exchange of cultural troupes, research in renewable energy and promoting sports between the two countries. Vietnam is emerging as one of the important sources for iron ore and therefore Vietnam now wants to diversify its vehicle manufacturing facility.

In fact, that Vietnam is increasingly reliant on Russia for its defence imports and in the past have imported sophisticated frigates, Sukhoi 30 aircraft, and Kilo class submarines. The growing defence relationship between the two sides is also expected to further expand in terms of sonar systems, supersonic missiles, air defence equipment, and training of sailors and technicians. 

Vietnam and Russia have a long-standing relationship even after the disintegration of the USSR. Russia has been very supportive of Vietnam efforts with regard to countering the three major powers which included France, the US, and China. The three Vietnam wars and the valor of the Vietnamese soldiers were much appreciated in erstwhile Soviet Union and thereafter by Russia. The historic ties  between the two countries was much appreciated and there has been much research which has been done with regard to cultural, historical, and political interactions between the two sides.

 The visit of President Phuc is seen as a new addition to the relationship as the president stated in one of the business interactions that the two sides should lift their trade by 15 times and also facilitate investment in each other’s countries. During one of these interactions, he clearly stated that Vietnam has emerged as one of the top 20 priority countries and therefore Russian investors should look forward for investing in Vietnam. He urged the Russian companies to capitalize on the free trade agreements that Vietnam has signed with Eurasian Economic Union and also understand the liberalization measures that Vietnam has undertaken in the recent past.

In the joint statement, which was released between the two sides it was clearly articulated that there is mutual respect and friendship between the two countries. The foundation of this relationship has been through mutual trust, territorial integrity, right to self-determination, and no use or threat of force against each other. The joint statement clearly stated that the two countries will work together in the field of security, military interaction, defence, and developing new technologies in defence sector. In the joint statement it was also stated that the two sides should work on capability planning, training, developing better science and technology cooperation, and forge strategic partnership in areas such as international law and promote interactions in UN agencies. The joint statement also alluded to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS) and it was particularly important in the context of developing issues in South China Sea. 

President Phuc used his diplomatic acumen to issue a joint statement in which there was clear reference with regard to developments in South China Sea. Russia supported Vietnam’s endeavor for full and effective implementation of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct of the South China Sea parties (DOC) under the 2002 agreement. Another important aspect was looking into sectors for promoting ASEAN Russia relationship and realize the potential of the comprehensive action plan between the two sides. The visit to Switzerland and Russia was effective and it met the objectives which were laid out in terms of achievements and new ideas which would be put into practice for the future. 

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Southeast Asia

Local Wisdom Brings Everybody Towards Sustainability

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Me and the Bajo kids posing with clamshell powder. Source: Author’s Collection

Climate change, carbon emission, zero waste, circular economy, and sustainability. If you are anywhere on the internet just like 62% of the world’s population, chances are you must be familiar, have understood, or at least have heard of these 21st century buzzwords. If you Google search the word ‘sustainable’, it would give you more results than if you search for ‘Titanic’, ‘globalization’, even ‘BTS’. Clearly, people all around the world has been putting more and more attention towards the concept of sustainability.

The question is, how well do we understand sustainability? What is being sustainable in development, business, and life in general entail?

Sustainability concepts were built on the foundation of protecting the resources of the Earth and the wellbeing of humankind which are negatively impacted by our abusive patterns of production and consumption. The Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its highly-cited Brundtland Report, also called Our Common Future, formally defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need. The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) first coined by John Elkington in 1994 is the fundamental concept in business to balance Profit, People, and Planet[1]. The concept really gained its momentum when the United Nations (UN) in 2015 set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted and achieved through global partnership by its Member States in 2030.

As a way of thinking, however, balancing wealth, society, and the environment has actually been a part of traditional belief systems, religious teachings, medieval philosophies, and communal ways of living for centuries. Indigenous people all over the world for years have developed and for the most part maintained cultural knowledge, norms, and rules that stem from the adaptation process to the environment, commonly referred to as the local wisdom. Long before the natural, organic, free-this-and-that-synthetic skincare boom, People of Bajo or the Sea Gypsies community have been harnessing the ingredients provided by Earth as their recipe to having healthy and firm skin despite being out in the sea under the sun for most of the time. They would make use of the clams’ shells or rice grain mixed with herbs like turmeric to make powder that would protect their skin from the scorching sun.

Local wisdom is also at the heart of many customary rules, including activities to manage their natural resources. For instance, many indigenous coastal communities in Eastern Indonesia implement Sasi Laut that would only allow fishing in certain areas for around two weeks to three months and close for one to two years. This local wisdom embodies the concept of marine conservation and has been passed down from generation to generation. Globally, indigenous people that constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population is protecting around 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

Moreover, economic, environmental and social issues come in different form and intensity in different countries and communities. It might be pollution for urban area, declining water quality for tourism destination, or the non-existence of proper waste management system for rural area. Thus, achieving sustainability would require a bottom-up approach in identifying the most pressing problem in a particular country or community. The integration of local wisdom would contextualize the existing varied frameworks, concepts, tools, and innovations on sustainability to be positively perceived, better understood, and well implemented. It is the bridge to include the less represented voice, common people, and indigenous communities to be parts of climate and sustainability conversation; making sure to leave no one behind.


[1] Elkington, J. (1998). Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

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Southeast Asia

Ecosystem Restoration: The Answer to Indonesia’s Dilemma

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The pressure for the Indonesian government to actively take part in climate change mitigation has been escalated lately. Since 2016, Indonesia has been a part of the Paris Agreement to join the global movement to tackle climate change and its negative impacts. First adopted at COP 21, the agreement demands committed countries to submit an updated national climate action plan, called Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, on a five-year cycle. Hence, COP 26, which was held a couple of weeks ago in Glasgow, was the centre of attention to all activists and environmentalists to find out how each country’s progress has been mitigating climate issues for the past five years. President Jokowi spoke at COP 26 about Indonesia’s achievements in mitigating climate change which many Indonesian activists and environmentalists then criticized. He mentioned that Indonesia has been positively contributing to tackling climate change and that the deforestation rate in Indonesia has significantly reduced. Greenpeace criticized that all the Jokowi’s claims were not picturing the whole situation to Indonesia’s current condition. Greenpeace believed that the low rate of deforestation was not a product of policy intervention but merely from the wet season.

Just a day after COP 26 conference, the tweets from Siti Nurbaya, the Minister of Environment and Forestry, added fuel to the fire. She wrote a Twitter thread, explaining the vast development in Jokowi’s era should not be stopped only because of carbon emissions or deforestation. She also put the dilemma of the Indonesian government in achieving the net-zero carbon goal by 2030. “If the concept is no deforestation, that means there will be no roads, then how about the people, do they have to be isolated? Meanwhile the government must be present in the middle of its people”. The statement she put in her tweets was considered pro-deforestation, which contradicts her duty to contribute to Indonesia’s commitment to Net-Zero by 2060. It instantly got viral on social media. Aside from the controversy, the 2015 – 2019 National Medium Term Development Plan (RPJMN) mentioned six main national development goals: leading sector development targets, including food and energy. With monoculture food production and fossil fuel-based energy production, deforestation is inevitable, and Minister Siti’s controversial statement makes more sense and reflects the dilemma on forest management in Indonesia.

However, the urgency to create a global movement tackling climate change is because climate change is getting real. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global temperature was 1.1 degrees Celcius above the pre-industrial period in 2019. In addition to that, the total greenhouse gas emissions, including land-use change, reached 59.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is undeniable that Indonesia also significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The Global Forest Watch summarized the tree cover loss that has been happening in Indonesia for the past ten years. For the last two decades, Indonesia lost 27.7 million hectares of tree cover and equivalent to 19 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. An article from WRI Indonesia mentioned that even though the overall deforestation rate is declining from 2015 to 2018, several provinces with an abundance of primary forest and peatland, which are East Kalimantan, Maluku, and West Papua, experienced a 43%, 40%, and 35% increase in deforestation, respectively. The impact of climate change affects the environmental and social aspects and dramatically affects the economy. In the 4th Indonesia Circular Economic Forum, the National Development Planning Agency of Indonesia or Bappenas mentioned that the economic loss due to climate change will reach 115 trillion rupiah in 2024. However, Indonesia can reduce the loss to 57 trillion rupiahs by making some efforts on mitigating climate change, Bappenas said.

The dilemma then brings up the question: how should the Indonesian government act on climate change mitigation in a way that is not threatening the continuity of national development but not stunting the growth of economic development? In 2004, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued an ecosystem restoration concession (ERC) regulation in the production forest area. ERC is a forest-based management model that allows the private sector to restore degraded lands and utilize non-timber products and environmental services in the production forest area. The idea behind ERC is to provide a license to investors, similar to logging and industrial forest permit, to reforest the area that the other two permit’s activities have impacted. ERC could help carbon capture scale and offset the carbon footprint from development activities if it runs well. And since private firms manage ERC, it could also positively impact the economy. Unlike NGO or non-profit organizations, the ERC scheme demands the operating company to profit through ecosystem restoration. It can be from utilizing non-timber products such as honey, bamboo, or rattan, cultivating medicinal plants, wildlife preservation, developing ecotourism, and carbon capture and sequestration.

Even though ERC is a relatively new concept and not as appealing and popular as other types of concession, some ERC companies managed to show some progress that supports Indonesia’s development plan and climate mitigation targets. The ERC of PT Rimba Makmur Utama (RMU), also known as the Katingan-Mentaya Project, focuses on carbon business to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has sold its carbon credits to companies such as Shell, Volkswagen, and NP Paribas. By protecting and restoring the forest, RMU had Verified Carbon Units for about 4.34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017. A member of the APRIL group, PT Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), also committed to protecting, restoring, and conserving the forest ecosystem through ERC. RER has been inventing flora and fauna, preventing forest fires, and conducting ecosystem research in its concession of 150.693 ha forest in Riau province. RER embodies APRIL’s commitment to conserving one hectare of land for every one hectare of APRIL’s pulp and paper plantation. PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia (REKI), the first ERC license holder, has become a home to 1.350 species, improving local livelihood by protecting farmers’ right to land, promoting women’s rights, and preserving deforestation-free areas through its Hutan Harapan. And PT Restorasi Habitat Orangutan Indonesia (RHOI) has provided a secure habitat for more than 400 orangutans from BOS Foundation Orangutan Reintroduction program.

ERC business models typically include carbon sequestration, wildlife conservation, forest protection, utilizing non-timber forest product (NTFS), developing ecotourism, enhancing local economies, and research and development. These activities potentially support the national development plan in practice and in a strategic way. Five of the 7 Agenda in The National Medium Term Development Plan 2020-2024, which are strengthening economic resilience, reducing inequality from regional development, improving human resources, building national character and culture, and enhancing the natural environment and building climate and disaster resilience, could use ecosystem restoration concession as a strategy to achieve the sustainable development goals. Moreover, the implementation of Omnibus law can benefit investors in doing ecosystem restoration business. The current regulation issued by the Minister of Environment and Forestry, P.8/2021, allow multibusiness activities in production forest with only one permit, called PBPH. With PBPH, investors can be more flexible in choosing where to invest in ecosystem restoration. Moreover, the G20 presidency of Indonesia 2022 also forces president Jokowi to show off his capability and willingness in moving toward sustainable development. Promoting ERC and putting best practices into practice, ecosystem restoration can be the most strategic way to solve the dilemma between climate change and development.

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