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Southeast Asia

India-Vietnam Relations on an Even Keel but Need a Push

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On the eve of forthcoming virtual summit between Prime Ministers Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Narendra Modi it would be useful to reflect on the current status of bilateral relationship and look for ways and means to impart further momentum to the same. Over the years both sides have assiduously worked towards having warm and friendly relations based not only on historical and cultural connections but also on shared security perceptions on regional and international issues. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2016 covers a wide variety of areas ranging from political engagement, economic cooperation, and expansion of trade, defence and security cooperation, energy cooperation as also people to people exchanges besides collaborations in a number of other areas. Further, Vietnam remains a sheet anchor of India’s Act East Policy which was unveiled by PM Modi in November in 2014 and which replaced the earlier ‘Look East Policy’.

Last meeting between both the Prime Ministers was held in November last year on the sidelines of ASEAN and East Asia Summits. Both leaders had discussions on how to strengthen bilateral relationship so as to realise the objectives and goals of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement. Though the current year saw an early onset of Covid-19 pandemic the high level political exchanges continued without a pause. February 2020 saw the visit of Vietnam’s Vice President Ms. Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh to India. Besides the joint delegation level talks there was also the inauguration for the launching of direct flights between India and Vietnam. An agreement was also signed to open a resident office of Voice of Vietnam in New Delhi. Vietnamese Vice-President also paid a visit to Bodh Gaya.

Later maintaining the momentum, in April Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc exchanged views on COVID-19 situation on telephone including ways for bilateral cooperation in fighting the pandemic as also discussed the evolving bilateral relationship. Further, the 17th Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation Meeting was held in a virtual mode on 25 August 2020 wherein   Foreign Ministers of both the countries took stock of multifarious aspects of our bilateral relationship including those of trade, tourism and technology. During the meeting among other projects and initiatives, seven Quick Impact Projects’ for water resource management in Mekong Delta Region and  five projects for development of educational infrastructure in Vietnam by India were agreed to which was  reflective of the ascending trajectory of bilateral relationship.

Defence and security cooperation between both sides has been an abiding feature of the evolving strategic relationship which has been bolstered by a strategic convergence on the contextual issues. Last month General Ngo Xuan Lich, Minister of National Defence of Vietnam and India’s Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh held a virtual meeting and affirmed that defence cooperation was most significant element of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership arrived at between the two sides. A number of projects were discussed including collaboration in capability building in defence industry, training as well as cooperation in UN Peacekeeping operations. Additionally,   an Implementing Arrangement for cooperation in the field of Hydrography was signed to enable sharing of Hydrographic data and assist in production of navigational charts. This becomes very relevant because of the complex situation in the South China Sea and in Indian Ocean region.

Further, India’s Defence Minister also dwelled upon PM Modi’s conceptual framework of “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” which among other aspects lays emphasis for increasing self-reliance in defence industries. Thus India’s indigenous efforts in development of industry would also be able to contribute positively to building similar capabilities in Vietnam. He also looked forward to concluding a framework agreement for such collaboration in the defence industry in the near future. Meanwhile, General Ngo Xuan Lich recognised the work done by India in the capacity building of Vietnamese Defence Forces especially in the area of Human Resource development. It was also brought out that India was keen to enlarge the scope of training for the Vietnamese armed forces in Indian armed forces’ training establishments. Another facet of bilateral strengthening ties has been expanding of cooperation in maritime security domain. This aspect was emphasised during both Prime Ministers’ meeting in November 2019.

It is also time to renew the “Joint Vision on Defence Cooperation for 2015-2020” that was signed in May 2015. Such a joint vision for next five years would be an affirmation of the close defence and security ties as also it would chart out the elements of bilateral cooperation in the near future. Moreover, it needs no emphasis that this vision would be an essential part of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries.

Looking back at trade and economic ties while it can be said that trade between India and Vietnam has expanded greatly from a low figure 200 million USD in the year 2000 to about 12 billion USD in 2019-20 yet the full potential has not been exploited.  During a meeting between PM Modi and President of Vietnam in March 2018 at New Delhi it was decided to take “substantive and practical measures” to realise a bilateral trade target of 15 billion USD by 2020. It is also noteworthy that Vietnam’s bilateral trade with both the US and China is much higher. On the other hand Covid-19 that has had adverse impact on global economy could also be contributory factor towards underachieving of the trade turnover. During the Joint Commission meeting in August this year it was well recognised that both sides need to work together to realise the full potential of trade and investment in consonance with their levels of economic development. Also Covid-19 crisis could be used as an opportunity to rework global value chains that are more reliable and which serve mutual interests in trade and commerce.

India and Vietnam have also been cooperating and coordinating their approaches in multilateral forums like the ASEAN and the UN. India is also appreciative of the fact that Vietnam as a Chair of ASEAN this year has not only handled the Covid-19 crisis quite well internally but also has been instrumental in evolving a cohesive and coordinated response at the multilateral level by the ASEAN. India has also been supporting Vietnam and ASEAN efforts to promote an open, inclusive, rule based and transparent regional architecture with the ASEAN at the centre. ASEAN under the chairmanship has also asserted that the UNCLOS was the sole legal basis to resolve maritime and territorial disputes in the region; a position which is also endorsed by India. New Delhi also supports the ASEAN’s Outlook on Indo-Pacific which has similar objectives as that of India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). There are a number of areas in both these initiatives where both countries can work together to achieve common goals of peace, security and growth.

 With both India and Vietnam becoming non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in 2021 for a period of two years there would be an opportunity to coordinate their approaches to the regional and global matters as both share similar outlook on geostrategic issues.

Thus the coming bilateral virtual meeting between both the Prime Ministers holds the prospects of giving a substantial push to the existing partnership agreements and understandings with a view to further cement the evolving relationship in more meaningful way.

Vinod Anand is a Senior Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a New Delhi based think tank.

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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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