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Southeast Asia

Understanding the India-Myanmar Relations

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On October 2, 2020, India and Myanmar participated in the 19th round of Foreign Office Consultations. This took place virtually, and new means of cooperation were discovered with India being represented by Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Myanmar being represented by Permanent Secretary, U Soe Han.

During the consultations, both sides reviewed the entire gamut of relations, including border cooperation and up-gradation of border infrastructure, the status of India’s ongoing development projects in Myanmar, trade and investment ties, power and energy cooperation, consular matters and cultural cooperation, including the ongoing restoration work on earthquake-damaged pagodas in Bagan. But most importantly, India stated its agreement to provide debt relief service to Myanmar under the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (“DSSI”), which shall assist Myanmar in its efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Under DSSI, the severe impact of COVID-19 pandemic is being managed with the encouragement of the WBG, IMF and consequently, G20 economies are allowing the world’s poorest countries to suspend repayment of official bilateral credit. In October itself, India handed over 3000 vials of Remdesivir to Myanmar to fight Covid-19. There is even an exchange of assurance regarding the joint development of the vaccine between the two States.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has shaken up the entire world, and in these troubling times, assistance from neighbouring nations is crucial. The developing nations will have to come together to support each other and ensure the safety of its citizens. Myanmar and India share a relation of tremendous support, and such exchange of assistance will strengthen the bilateral relations as well as provide the key to not be completely dependent on the western nations in times of crisis.

The Sittwe Port Project

Infrastructure is indeed very significant for every country, and apart from technical assistance, often financial assistance is needed to complete such projects due to the high amount of capital involved. Several infrastructure projects in Myanmar like the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway have attained assistance from India. A press release recently reported that India and Myanmar have also agreed to work towards the operationalization of the Sittwe port in the Rakhine state in the first quarter of 2021.

Sittwe port is part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, which is crucial to India’s plans for the landlocked northeastern states to access the Bay of Bengal through Mizoram and to provide alternative connectivity to Kolkata without having to use the circuitous Siliguri corridor. Once the port is operationalized through a private operator, Indian goods can be taken via the Aizawl-Zorinpui-Palletwa axis to Kaladan river, and then transferred to Sittwe port.

This move is beneficial not only for India and Myanmar but also for other southeastern nations. Such a project is beneficial for enhanced connectivity and economic participation amongst various nations in a convenient manner. Consequently, a Special Economic Zone near the Rakhine State would depict a long-standing economic relation between the two. The northeastern states of India will also receive a boost through this project. The easy access to the Bay of Bengal will open up new opportunities for trade and investment, especially for northeastern nations, which has the capacity to subsequently benefit the whole country. The trade between Myanmar and India is also bound to rise with this project. The Act East policy of India will receive a colossal incentive on completion of the project.

India’s proactive approach towards gaining a regional outreach and building ties with Myanmar

India shares borders with nine nations which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The tensions and conflicts between Pakistan and India are indeed quite popular in the entire world. The deep cultural, as well as historical link between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is well known. Additionally, even when diplomatic ties between India and China are still “looking” strong, the pandemic has brought in new dimensions to the relations between the two. Therefore, amongst the nine neighbouring nations, only six nations remain with a potential of healthy and strong bilateral relations.

Myanmar, being one of these six, the “shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties” between India and Myanmar, is significant in the development of foreign relations of India. Myanmar shares close borders with the Northeast Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland with a shared border of 1,643 kilometres and the land-locked nature of these states becomes a myth when we look at their connectivity through Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal.

Additionally, Myanmar is a key pillar of India’s Act East and Neighborhood First Policy. India’s ‘Act East’ policy is a diplomatic initiative to promote economic, strategic and cultural relations with the vast Asia-Pacific region at different levels. Certainly for India’s Act East Policy to be successful, the betterment of connectivity with Myanmar and Thailand is vital. Being the only country that sits at the intersection of India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy, Myanmar is an essential element in India’s practice of regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific and serves as a land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Myanmar is also India’s closest defence partner in the region. Seeing that Myanmar is critical to its national security interests, India provides military training and conducts joint military exercises with the Myanmar Army like the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2018-19), by which India had trained the Myanmar Army to be able to participate in UN Peacekeeping Operations. Delhi has also agreed to train Myanmar army officers and allow them to study at military academies in India. Currently, with an energy portfolio of more than $ 1.2 billion, Myanmar is the largest destination for India’s investment in the oil and gas sector in Southeast Asia.

Therefore, in terms of the energy sector, defence sector, the Act East Policy and the development of the northeastern nations, the relations with Myanmar will turn out to be very important in the coming future. Being an important country amongst the Bay of Bengal countries, Myanmar plays a strategic role in the upliftment of the economy of India. Myanmar and India even share a 725-km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

Other agreements such as Project Agreement for the establishment of modern Integrated Check Post at Tamu, MoU for the construction of 50 basic schools and the Project Agreement for the upgrading of agricultural mechanization sub-station will also be signed shortly.The development in Rakhine State, the sharing of library material and other factors have a prime influence on the bilateral relations. The humanitarian assistance and the grants provided by India have always been a leading example for many other nations. In February 2020, the prime minister and President Myint later held talks at Hyderabad House and ten agreements were signed between the two countries, the focus being on development projects under India’s assistance, particularly in the conflict-torn Rakhine state.

The facts stated above reflect the complete dynamic approach adopted by India to establish strong strategic relations. It is undoubtedly true that both nations have the potential to flourish and can achieve significant heights if given the right incentive. With each other`s support, both the nations may even give a competitive edge to the neighbouring nations.

In fact, the proactive approach of India is indispensable in the prevailing circumstances so as to avoid the negative influence of China on Myanmar. Such influence could even conclude with Myanmar becoming a debt-driven nation in the clutches and control of China, completely. The balance of power in the Southeastern nations may even receive a drop once China acquires the control of Myanmar. This may cause a major security concern for India. But with a total bilateral trade of $2 billion, India’s economic engagement with Myanmar lags behind China, behoving Modi’s government to scale up India-Myanmar economic ties. Therefore, the proactive approach being initiated by India becomes a key factor to influence the regional relations.

If a reactive approach is adopted by India, it will be in a ditch with too many problems all occurring at once. The consequences will cost more if prevention is not done currently. It is a known fact that a spark neglected burns the house. Since India can predict the circumstances in the future as an outcome of these bilateral relations with reasonable certainty, a proactive approach becomes suitable. The benefits accruing to both the participants is desirable and may even achieve a higher standard, even if one of the participants plays a leading role.

The dominant powers in ties with Myanmar

There are several dominant powers that are building ties with Myanmar, namely India, China, USA, and other Western nations. Beijing is using COVID diplomacy to push its BRI initiative in neighbouring Myanmar via CMEC. China has also influenced economic development and political stability in Myanmar. In January 2020, “Paukphaw”, which literally means born together, implying not only a shared destiny but racial kinship, was reinforced through strong political and economic bonds between Myanmar and China. It was even reported recently, in September 2020, that China seeks to set up military logistic facilities in Myanmar. This is a measure to maintain military control in the region. The Auditor General of Myanmar also cautioned the government officials of Myanmar about the dependence on debt being given through Chinese loans. The “client state” formula or the “satellite state” formula of China has already affected Sri Lanka, and Myanmar must take into consideration the impact of the controlling influence of China, no matter how generous China behaves.

The influence of China on Myanmar dates back to decades of history. However, the rising influence on China on Myanmar was noticed by the US when Barack Obama came to power in 2009 and launched  “Pivot to Asia” to emphasize that the US had strategic interests in Asia. Myanmar also launched political and economic reform in 2008 and adopted a “Look West” policy by re-establishing its linkages with the US. Even recently, in August 2020, US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda has emphasized that one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values” in the Southeast Asian country and help defend the country against “malign influences” in a veiled reference to China. This shows how the US has also been observing Myanmar as a potential ally and wishes to enhance its position over Myanmar.

The dominance of Myanmar of neighbouring nations like China and India along with powerful western nations like the US has constantly been rising. In furtherance of promoting its domestic interests, Myanmar has accepted every proposal which may benefit the nation currently, keeping aside the intent behind these proposals.

Balance of Powers and Competing Interests for India

With Myanmar receiving aid and assistance from different time zones and diverse regions, a crucial question which arises is, how has Myanmar been balancing these powers? China and India not being in a “perfect” relation currently, Myanmar is technically attaining immense assistance from both these competing nations. Still, Myanmar has been effectively managing a diplomatic tie with both the nations. Similarly, Myanmar shows no stick-to-the-neighbour formula when dealing with the US. The balance of powers by Myanmar is commendable; however, very vulnerable as well. China and the US are at a constant pseudo-Cold War and with so many competing nations looking for Myanmar as a trophy prize, one day or another, Myanmar will have to choose. Although none of these nations would be quite happy with the second prize.

With so many competing interests, it may be probable that a country starts to wonder, is it even worth it? India, as a nation, has achieved remarkable heights recently and is still very encouraged to grow. There have been instances when Myanmar has shown a disinterest towards China. One can say that quick glances of the control of China keep occurring at Myanmar and at these junctures, Myanmar has broken several contracts and reacted boldly. By challenging China’s monopoly, the Myanmar government is opening strategic space to create further competition between India and the United States on the one hand and China on the other, affording the Myanmar government a more comfortable degree of leverage and autonomy in the international arena.

There is a high potential for India in Myanmar in various diverse sectors like agriculture, infrastructure and defence. With China trying to push Myanmar into a debt trap, it is the right time for India to stick with Myanmar when Myanmar realizes the intent behind practices of China.

One can foresee Myanmar`s bias towards India in the coming future. Myanmar has even decided to expedite India-backed infrastructure projects and widen security ties with India as it seeks to balance China’s expanding presence in the country in the backdrop of Beijing’s active cross-border support for rebel groups and push for early completion of BRI projects. By challenging the BRI project, Myanmar shows how India is a priority over China. The potential of India and Myanmar in exploring complementary linkages in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, information technology and telecommunication infrastructure, traditional and renewable energy, among others, can present a compelling case for commodity-linked, export-oriented investment.

Conclusion

Myanmar is a nation with latent qualities and abilities. Although several powers have been influencing the decisions of Myanmar, the actions of Myanmar must portray what is best for its domestic self. The interest of the nations itself must never be subsidized. India has a lot to gain from Myanmar and a lot to give to Myanmar as well. This give and take relationship has been the foundation of the bilateral ties between the two nations. However, the ties are in a vulnerable stage currently, but the proactive approach of India can mitigate all doubts and ensure that the struggle to support shall be worth the effort that India is putting in.

The ties will benefit the neighbouring nations with security and infrastructure and give the Southeastern Asian region a balance of resources as well as power. India is at a stage where it will regret if it backs out now and will have to take the risk of a proactive approach to assure support to Myanmar.

Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School, and a Research Analyst at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is also the Co-Founder of UPeksha Eduservices and the Director of the UPeksha Mentorship Programme which focuses on enhancing law students' legal research, writing, editing, public speaking skills, and professional development.

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Southeast Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

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

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Authors: Aristyo Rizka Darmawan and Arie Afriansyah*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Southeast Asia

The China factor in India’s recent engagement with Vietnam

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Photo courtesy - PTI

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

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

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

Vietnam’s disputes with China

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

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

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

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

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

China’s eyes on the Indian Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

Foe’s foe is friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Way ahead

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

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