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Southeast Asia

Proposed Solution to South China Sea Disputes is Unrealistic



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

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



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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

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



Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam



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.


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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