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ASEAN and North Korea: A Way Forward

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Due to the stalemate on the Korean peninsula, it is time to find alternate policies to deal with North Korea. Past inter-Korean history has indicated that a long term multilateral approach is the way to go compared to a short term based crisis diplomacy. The process of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table requires the support of diverse actors especially when regular channels of communication have been blocked. To this end, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as an organization and its member states have the capacity to take a larger role in inter-Korean affairs in providing a structured process for regional confidence building and security cooperation. Past history of ASEAN indicates the organization has the capacity to facilitate engagement of North Korea through its many institutionalised frameworks, especially between South Korea and the United States.

ASEAN, formed in 1967 has embraced dynamic East Asian countries as dialogue partners. Its member states are deeply aware that security incidents triggered by North Korea will significantly affect Southeast Asia’s own development. Basically, any whiff of instability in East Asia will spell trouble for ASEAN’s economic growth which is interlinked greatly with the Japanese, South Korean and Chinese economies. A stable East Asia is crucial as ASEAN is also the main driver of initiatives such as the East Asian Community, East Asian Summit, ASEAN Plus Three and so on and not forgetting the newly minted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Despite’s ASEAN’s regional importance, it is intriguing that the role of ASEAN in inter-Korean peace and security issues has not been explored to its fullest. Though the East Asian region is commonly associated with dynamic economic growth, nonetheless, North Korea is the only country in East Asia that has a reputation for reclusiveness. Despite a number of inter-Korean summits and US-North Korea meetings in Singapore and Hanoi between 2018 and 2019, North Korea has disengaged itself from all forms of diplomacy beginning 2019. Against this backdrop,i n the absence of sustained official dialogue between the U.S. South and North Korea as well as the collapse of the Six Party Talks, ASEAN is capable of engaging North Korea, with the condition, its presence is supported by major players.

For decades, ASEAN has faithfully supported Seoul’s position towards North Korean denuclearisation. This is due to North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missiles, which are capable of reaching Southeast Asia. In addition, historically, ASEAN believes in the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) which disallows its members to acquire or produce nuclear weapons.  For these reasons, ASEAN has continued its support for North Korean denuclearisation.

In promoting New Southern Policy to all 10 ASEAN Member States (AMS), President Moon Jae In of South Korea repeatedly urged regional governments to get involved in the Korean Peninsula peace process as well as integrate North Korea into regional affairs. To date, however, besides asking for support, there has not been a concrete South Korean proposal to institutionalize ASEAN as a serious player in inter-Korean affairs. Therefore ASEAN remains secondary to the involvement of bigger powers on the Korean peninsula.

There are multiple channels where ASEAN and its member states can engage North Korea in a more meaningful manner and at the same time integrate Pyongyang into the ASEAN community processes which includes the security, economic and social communities. The ‘ASEAN Way,’ a non-confrontational approach to diplomacy which relies on building trust through regular consultations allows for the organization to be a facilitator or a mediator between the two Koreas and become an additional platform for the United States and other major powers in engaging Pyongyang.

Though North Korea has embraced multilateralism in the past, Pyongyang has been more successful in interacting bilaterally with ASEAN member states. Due to historical and ideological linkages, ASEAN member states have relatively civilised relations with North Korea. Pyongyang has established diplomatic relations with every ASEAN country, and has embassies in every country in the region except for the Philippines and Brunei. In addition, Thailand, as host of the ASEAN meetings in 2000, took the initiative to invite the North to join the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It has to be noted that Cambodia assisted Thailand greatly when inviting the North Koreans. 

Pyongyang’s interactions with ASEAN is varied. Southeast Asian private and non-governmental firms have also been allowed to operate in North Korea.  For example, while Singaporean household and luxury goods are common, Thailand’s Loxley Pacific built the internet infrastructure in North Korea. In addition, a Singapore based NGO, Choson Exchange, has continued to train young North Koreans in business and entrepreneurship.

Nonetheless, the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in a Malaysian airport in February 2017 and the discovery of numerous illegal activities in the region did strain relations. Despite this and increased  missile and nuclear tests in 2017, ASEAN member states refused to break off diplomatic ties or expel North Korea from the ARF.

Given the fact that Kim Jong-un readily accepted Singapore and Vietnam as summit locations for US- North Korea talks, it is reasonable to argue that not only does he view ASEAN positively but the economic developments of these states is appealing to him.  Presumably, Kim Jong Un was assessing if these two Southeast Asian states could be exemplars for achieving economic modernisation of North Korea.

Currently, North Korea’s engagement with ASEAN is limited to the ARF and Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific(CSCAP) at the Track One and Track Two levels. These platforms have been useful for North Korea to interact with other states. Following the breakdown of the Six-Party process in late 2008, the ARF has served as one of the few remaining channels of institutionalized contact on security issues for North Korea. Since the COVID-19 era has severely affected the North Korean economy, the timing is right for ASEAN to amalgamate Pyongyang into the regional economic expansion. Therefore, North Korea should be invited to be part of other ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings with Dialogue Partners. These platforms will provide a range of opportunities for North Korea to extend deeper regional security and economic engagement.

Despite the fact that North Korea had acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), a prerequisite to become a dialogue partner, ASEAN previously rejected North Korea’s request to become a dialogue partner. It can be assumed the rejection was directly related to frequent North Korean missile tests.

In comparison to other regional organisations, ASEAN is better qualified than most to keep North Korea continually engaged as well as in providing a favourable setting for addressing the state’s legitimate concerns. To the North Koreans, ASEAN is seen as being impartial when dealing with Pyongyang. Against this backdrop, there is a diplomatic opportunity for ASEAN to play the role of a mediator in bring together Pyongyang, Seoul and the US.

Since North Korea’s relations with both Seoul and Washington is at an all-time low, ASEAN should reconsider inviting North Korea as a dialogue partner or at least an observer. This will allow ASEAN to gain support from the international community to bring North Korea into the East Asian community vision. Such a move would certainly provide North Korea a strong rationale to participate and become a stakeholder in regional affairs. To avoid being alienated further, participation in ASEAN would give North Korea a chance to highlight its position, perceived threats and other areas of concern. In the long run, it could very well eliminate North Korean perceptions of insecurity and lack of trust towards the global community and might even give it the security guarantee it wants. A platform for active engagement, mediated by a  neutral party,  offers a slim chance that North Korea might return to the negotiating table as well be prepared to commit to a more staggered approach towards denuclearisation. For ASEAN to have an informed, sustainable and practical North Korea policy, it would require political will and South Korea’s institutionalised participation, which probably can be conducted within the context of the New Southern Policy. As North Korea’s participation grows in ASEAN, more likely than not, the state will be able to take advantage of newer opportunities that may lead it to concentrate more on economic development rather than building its nuclear capabilities further.

Senior Lecturer Department of East Asian Studies Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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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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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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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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