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Military Coup In Myanmar: Getting Democratic Reforms Back On Track

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image source: Wikipedia

The recent military coup in Myanmar brought looming contradictions in the country’s transition into sharp focus. It has also revealed the international short-term approach to an ingrained politico-military conflict over decades. Western observers have had a romantic and limited perception of Myanmar, which means little to average Europeans aside from being an exotic new tourist destination. Democracy still needs to take root in Myanmar and requires long-term solid commitment. While civilian rule has been suspended, it is possible that the coup will turn out to be brief and might follow the Thailand paradigm of bloodless intervention under a more assertive and organized civil society. A new cycle of violence is not a foregone conclusion. Myanmar has reached its most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010 and the last coup in 1988.

Key partner actions should therefore include joining forces and diplomacy with Myanmar leaders to resuscitate political dialogue that had lost steam since 2019. ASEAN and EU have a meaningful role to play in inter-regional trilateral cooperation to avoid pushing Myanmar deeper into the arms of China which has significant economic and strategic interests in the country. B2B relations and knowledge sharing should also be scaled up through business and academic associations, instead of taking reflex action to impose wider sanctions. During the global COVID-19 response, additional entry points can be created to capitalize on local success in Myanmar’s resilience against the virus. Moving military assets in this direction can help promote reforms. This is urgently needed to put the country on a more solid democratic path to tackle global challenges, including migrations and climate change. 

Current Dynamics- Myanmar Actors and International Response

The 1 February military coup in Myanmar and subsequent arrests among senior civilian leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) including Aung San Suu Kyi did not come as a complete surprise. After the military- affiliated USDP Party voiced misgivings since November 2020, the military leadership warned of a possible coup in late January. Crisis talks with NLD and the military on 28 January were not successful. At the core were unsubstantiated election fraud allegations just before the newly elected parliament was convened. NLD increased its majority compared to the 2015 election results.

For the Myanmar military with guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament, three senior cabinet positions and one vice presidency under the constitutional arrangement since 2008, there was much at stake. Myanmar’s military- industrial and trading complex is vast and protecting their investments had become urgent, in view of a possible redrawing of the constitution. Abolishing privileges for the military might expose them to international prosecution after retirement. The military established a one-year state of emergency in preparation for a re-run of the last elections. Internet services were ordered to close Facebook and other online messaging up until last weekend. Yangon International Airport was closed for a day until regional flights resumed.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing became the facto national leader; he has a reputation for problem solving and experts assess he has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Most of the new cabinet members are in fact civil servants and not military leaders as in the 1980s (Myanmar Confronts New Uncertainties, China Daily, Global Weekly Edition 5-11 February 2021).Civil society in Myanmar was stunned by the coup which has remained bloodless. After early local discontent, mass demonstrations followed over the weekend and on Monday 5 February in Yangon, the capital of Naypyidaw and other urban centers. However, mostof the detained regional and state ministers were released by 5 February.

 International response was swift, and the EU as well as western capitals issued declarations against the coup. Despite internal wrangling and objections from China, the UN Security Council was relatively quick in pronouncing itself on Myanmar. China stressed that the international community should “create a sound external environment for Myanmar to properly resolve the differences.” The Council’s 4 February media statement called for respect of democratic principles and avoiding violence as well as releasing the detainees. so the constitutional order could be restored. Yet the Council avoided a condemnation of the coup and instead demanded that the constitutional order should be respected. Myanmar’s former colonial power (the UK) presided over the Security Council session. UN SG Guterres was frank in denouncing the coup as “absolutely unacceptable” and noting all firm intention to reverse the coup.

The US led international reactions threatening possible sanctions and blocking direct assistance to the government on 3 February, which was a notable policy departure from the Trump Administration. President Biden highlighted the Myanmar coup in his first major foreign policy speech at the U.S. State Department on 4 February, promising to hold the military accountable.

Democratic Pause or Rollback of Reforms?

Examining the country’s trajectory since the ground-breaking 2011 elections and opening from the military dictatorship holds clues for further evolution of the coup. International actors face a dilemma: strong opposition to the coup might drive the military and protestors into a spiral of violence which has potential for another repression like the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 where thousands of lives were lost. Analysts based in the region see Myanmar backsliding several decades and gains in democratic transition erased.

Despite economic engagement and foreign investments over the last decade, Myanmar has suffered from contradictions and incomplete democratization. Commentators see the coup as confirmation that the 2008 power sharing deal between civilians and the military was never very solid. The legacy of 50 years in political roles for the armed forces- beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi herself as daughter of the independence leader general who was assassinated in 1948- shows that civilian- military relations are complex and still evolving. Therefore dialogue among the political contenders is highly valuable, which requires significant investments and patience.

The two greatest recent challenges for reigning in military power were evident in the violent campaigns against ethnic minorities. First, military anti-terror sweeps in northern Rakhine State against Muslim stateless residents (described as “Rohingya” and anathema to the Myanmar Bamar ruling class) led to a huge population exodus in 2016/2017across the border into Bangladesh. Myanmar was facing international court action on allegations of genocide, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi standing in defense of the authorities at the International Court of Justice. While some steps were taken to try to enable returns and reintegration, those processes remained largely untested.

Second, the fragile peace talks with armed ethnic militias in several states of Myanmar started to fizzle out in 2018/2019.Rebels adopted more mobile tactics to confront the military in known hotspots but also in Rakhine, causing frustrated in the armed forces. The Myanmar Peace Center, established in 2013 with support from the Norway-led Peace Support Donor Group, closed after three years. Its secretariat services were formally incorporated into a National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) while innovative dialogues received less attention. Official claims from the military that most rebel groups were pacified and cooperating rang increasingly hollow. These were ominous signs that the military was asserting itself as in previous decades. After the coup,return to open warfare with ethnic rebel movements is seen as one of the greatest possible aftershocks of the coup. In both developments, the military was not pushed to undergo deeper reforms and civilian oversight, or use military justice effectively against human rights violators, with few exceptions. This illustrated the pervasive challenges in maintaining inclusive political dialogue. Western actors mistakenly believed that professional military training and capacity building could align the military more with civilian rule. 

Thailand Paradigm and Geopolitical Weight of China

In neighboring Thailand, which hosts many refugees from neighboring Myanmar in camps, military intervention has a long tradition in supporting the monarchy against civilian rule. Demands for constitutional monarchy from a grass-roots movement led by young activists are a new phenomenon. Regional reactions to the coup in  Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore and Malaysia as well as Indonesia. The combination of conservative political rule with relative economic liberalism and unified national trends seen in Thailand is an appealing model for the transition in Myanmar. It could help moderate the military behavior after Myanmar’s coup.It is assessed that Myanmar’s main economic partners will most likely adopt a “wait and see” approach before they start to reach out again and deal with the junta-led government.

China’s Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin State has been one of the more recent flashpoints in rebel activity. The area is critically important for China’s designs in bringing Myanmar into the ambit of the transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas projects/pipeline installations in coastal areas of Rakhine State.  China has also pursued

a mega-hydro project (Myitsone north of Myitkyina) which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped up a lot of land and real estate in the Yangon area, despite a prohibition on sales to foreign buyers.

China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements and MoUs. The strategic value of Myanmar in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021- the highest ranking foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China has taken a low-key approach with Myanmar. Some observers believe that the opening in 2011 provided just enough breathing space for Myanmar’s military to avoid over-dependency on China in the defense sector. India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor hosts refugees from the Christian Chin minority and a crackdown might prompt a larger influx of arrivals from Myanmar.

Role of ASEAN and EU: Joining Forces and Preparing for Global Challenges

Myanmar chaired the ASEAN regional group of states in Southeast Asia as a founding member in 2013, after having to abandon this role in 2007, due to peer pressure from ASEAN. Yet ASEAN had avoided a confrontational approach over the forced displacement from Rakhine State; the consensus principle in ASEAN prevents strong common positioning, putting regional cohesion as a top priority. There is no punitive, sanctions-based mechanism as in ECOWAS for West African States, despite an obligation to respect the ASEAN Charter. Accordingly, the current ASEAN chair Brunei appealed to respect ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. ASEAN encouraged “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar” (ASEAN Statement of 1 February 2020).

What has been missing is the joint thematic dialogue and support to Myanmar through ASEAN and the EU. Lady Catherine Ashton, the first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had a significant role as EU Envoy for Myanmar. A well-resourced European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) was opened in Yangon in 2014 to serve as a voice of European businesses in Myanmar. The EU was in fact one of the first actors to respond to the country’s political opening, suspending in April 2012 its restrictive measures except for the arms embargo.

Since Myanmar is vulnerable to climate change, especially in the coastal regions and the large Irrawaddy Delta, collective expertise for humanitarian disaster preparedness, relief and prevention of natural hazards is an entry point for dialogue. The experience of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 has left deep scars in the country and productive areas. Therefore making Myanmar fit for withstanding even greater climatic change and extreme weather events in the future is a shared interest for the country’s leadership. Expertise in navigating politically complex situations exists in ASEAN where non-traditional security threats are systematically studied at a dedicated institute in the RSIS School of Singapore.

Greater connectivity and access to innovation is possible with business partners from Europe where the “Green Deal” has heralded a re-tooling of many industries to exit faster from the economic slump caused by the Pandemic to realize ambitious emissions targets by 2030. Myanmar has already shown initiative in flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections from late 2020 into early 2021, due to concerted local sensitization campaigns, e.g. in the “Paung Sie” Facility joint partnership with 50 civil society partners (see: Paung Sie Facility Leaflet, October 2020), and through immigration controls. Similar resourcefulness can promote larger modernization, digitalization and green infrastructure schemes. The NLD already had a response and recovery plan to deal with medium and long-term challenges of the Pandemic, providing some common ground in conciliation with the military.

Myanmar’s Geopolitical and Global Pivot

While the global US- China relations are undergoing a rebalancing, Myanmar offers a convenient middle ground for the global powers to work with the middle powers and regional alliances such as EU and ASEAN. It should not be forgotten that an open, fully fledged democratic Myanmar next door to China will remain a thorn in the side for China, even though the emerging superpower is projecting itself elsewhere into the ASEAN and global arena.

In this wider perspective, the reactions to the military coup in Myanmar will be decisive for shaping the future diplomatic and geo-economic playing field. With foresight and a dose of realism, the recent events can still be turned into an advantage, requiring a substantial increase in inter-regional joint dialogue as well as support to domestic peace and reconciliation efforts in Myanmar. EU and ASEAN but also the UN should scale up the information flow on situational awareness and wield sanctions tools judiciously. There is a risk that more punitive approaches could drive Myanmar deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence once again.  

Matthias E Leitner, Senior Adviser/ International Coordinator with ICSVE Center Washington, DC (USA), Berlin-based Matthias Ernst LEITNER has over 20 years’ experience in international peace and security, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in the Middle East. His professional focus is on governance/ accountability, national dialogues and coalition building as well as on project development for preventing violent extremism and radicalization. Mr. Leitner has held senior management positions with UN Special Envoy Offices. His ongoing interest is in UN reforms, peacebuilding and innovative approaches for resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages and history.

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The Indo-Pacific Conundrum: Why U.S. Plans Are Destined to Fail

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

That U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris paid an official visit to Singapore and Vietnam in late August 2021 signifies clear intention of Joe Biden’s democratic administration to forge ahead with the course taken by his predecessor to build A Free and Open Indo-Pacific. According to the statement made by the second-highest political office-holder in the U.S., fostering partnership with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including those in Southeast Asia, is Washington’s priority in foreign policy. Kamala Harris reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the international rules-based order, ensuring freedom on the seas, unimpeded commerce and advancing human rights. Although the U.S. Vice President noted that China continues to coerce and intimidate, Washington’s engagement in Southeast Asia, she argued, is not against any country, nor is it designed to make ASEAN member states choose between countries. At the same time, almost all Indo-Pacific states, either known as the so-called Quad—the United States, Japan, India and Australia—or those willing to join the initiative on a less binding basis, have already failed to escape the adverse effects of the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

Top Secret (or maybe not)

Previously classified as secret and unintended to be publicly released before 2042, the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was made available in May 2021. Experts believe this to be a guarantor of continuity in the Asian dimension of Washington’s foreign policy, regardless of the party affiliation of the country’s leadership. The document provides for a tougher confrontation with China in the military and economic spheres, which may negatively be perceived by some Indo-Pacific states and complicate their relations with the United States.

The policy outlined in the document seems inconsistent, which may cause misunderstanding on the part of allies and partners, resulting in a discussion about the real priorities and intentions of the United States. For example, it is difficult to explain the differing interpretations of India’s role. In the declassified NSC document, the nation is equated with Washington’s leading partners in the region, which implies an allocation of significant assistance from the U.S. Department of State, the military and the secret services in order to enhance “India’s capacity to address continental challenges.” Meanwhile, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of Defense ranked India among small and medium-sized states of Asia, which are not considered U.S. allies and are, therefore, not eligible for considerable assistance.

The ASEAN Way

Australian experts note that the deliberately declassified document reveals the need to consolidate the leading role of ASEAN in the security architecture of the region. At the same time, there is no consensus among the union’s member states regarding the essence and degree of priority of such important for the United States categories as freedom of navigation, trade and investment, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The so-called universal liberal values are of less importance to them as compared to the practical benefits coming from bilateral relations with China. According to Indonesian experts, such a divergence of views signifies apparently little sense of the specifics of Southeast Asia and regional processes on the part of analysts in Washington. They believe that the United States has not yet been able to convince the ASEAN nations of the need to create a counterbalance to Beijing as the U.S. cannot guarantee their security. As a result, the region has to face invidious choices since they find themselves at the intersection of the U.S.-China confrontation. Some countries seek to develop ties with Beijing within the Belt and Road Initiative (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar), while others opt for equidistance (Vietnam, Singapore) or adopt a wait-and-see approach (Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia). At the same time, the latter increasingly tend to re-establish ties with the U.S. in order to benefit from American partners and put pressure on the Chinese leadership.

Re-Rebalancing

Among the measures on claiming superiority over China, the architects of the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific envisage to deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict (Japan, Taiwan, northern Philippines). However, this merely is a further extension of the “rebalancing” policy carried out without much success by the Obama administration. A restoration of this course is predetermined by the fact that the plans of the former U.S. President Donald Trump for the massive rearmament and more American troops to be stationed in the Indo-Pacific never received proper financial support. The doldrums seem to be rooted in the Biden administration officials being skeptical about these grand in scale military goals in the Indo-Pacific, which they believe are neither affordable nor necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.

The underlying theme of the National Security Council report is “the U.S. remaining the region’s dominant actor.” However, analysts believe that Washington’s fundamental interest is effectively about ensuring access of national manufacturers to the markets and resources of the region rather than maintaining U.S. hegemony there. To this end, the American authorities are invited to clearly define how they could help the states of South and Southeast Asia in resisting pressure from China. At the same time, experts rely on the Cold War experience, when the U.S. could justify its military and economic presence by the menacing spread of communism. Consequently, the notion of an authoritarian the Chinese Communist Party and the need to sever ties with communist China are gaining popularity in the American establishment.

First Match

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance provide for a change in the U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific, taking into account its reorientation to ensure an effective response following the loss of unconditional dominance over the PLA.

The key pillars of the revised strategy to deter China were presented by Navy Adm. Philip S. Davidson in March 2021, at that time the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). He believes that China’s military capabilities will enable it to upset the status quo in most of East Asia, especially in the Taiwan Strait, the East China and the South China Seas, over the next six years. In order to prevent a further erosion of the rules-based order, he suggested putting a premium on “exercises, experimentation, and innovation” within the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific as “critical enablers to deter day-to-day, in crisis, and key to our ability to fight and win.”

The Pentagon plans to provide for the allocation of USD 4.68 billion for the force design and stronger military capabilities in 2022, with another USD 22.69 billion spanning from FY 2023 through FY 2027. One of the focus areas is the creation of forward-based joint rotational forces under the auspices of INDOPACOM that would be capable of responding to challenges that require immediate and joint solutions.

Earlier on, one of the authors of this initiative, former U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, argued that the U.S. Navy should create a new First Fleet [1] that would take some load off the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleet (respectively based in San Diego and Yokosuka). According to American experts, the Seventh Fleet, overloaded with combat and training under the present conditions, is experiencing difficulties in supplies and staffing, since it is actually forced to operate in a vast area of the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans (from the dateline to India–Pakistan border). At the same time, the strength of the Third Fleet, whose AOR is the east and north of the Pacific, is excessive to fulfill the tasks facing it now[2].

Spare the Triarii

The U.S. military envisage the allies and partners of the United States to become the basis of the security system of “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” In the meantime, close attention will be paid to the compatibility of branches of the armed forces, interaction of units and formations, improving the exchange of information as well as leveling the technology of the region’s nations in the field of defense to be similar to the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Defense considers it justified to maintain an emphasis on forward deployment at foreign bases and the rotation of operational formations (mainly aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups), based on the specific situation. In this regard, Washington relies on India’s and Singapore’s assistance in the deployment of American units and formations as well as their logistic support. Promoting cooperation with the Maldives in this area is not ruled out either, with a defense agreement being signed in 2020. The prospects for a partial renewal of the substantive provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, which provided for the deployment of the U.S. armed forces on its territory, look rather realistic. Earlier in February 2020, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, announced the suspension of the Visiting Force Agreement, but his position towards the U.S. softened, given the complications in relations between the Philippines and China.

First Chain Bound

Based on the rhetoric of the U.S. military leadership representatives and the published reports, Washington must constantly demonstrate its ability to deter China, denying China actions in critical regions and deploying sufficient U.S. forces in these regions to defeat the PLA. In alignment with the situation, the Pentagon finds this possible through creating local superiority zones within the so-called first island chain, using Fleet Forces, Air Force, mobile air missile defense systems as well as high-precision short- and medium-range missiles. In addition, an integrated Indo-Pacific anti-missile and air missile defense system is designed to ensure stability for the second island chain (from the Bonin Islands through the Mariana Islands to New Guinea). The U.S. Department of Defense is planning to allocate funds to improve space detection and tracking systems for a timely response to the PLA’s unwanted activities. These actions are designed to fulfill the Pentagon’s mission to increase the lethality of the Integrated Joint Force to prevent any enemy from dominance in land, sea, air, space and cyberspace conflicts.

Hidden Catch

The plans presented by Washington are built around the futility of military operations against it within the Indo-Pacific and are coupled with high losses for any potential adversary. At the same time, the presented strategy does not provide for inevitable retaliatory measures from China. Relying on allies and partners seems controversial as well, including when it comes to the deployment of additional U.S. Armed Forces. Most Asian states would prefer to retain the benefit from furthering cooperation with Beijing and are afraid of being abandoned by Washington in the event of a serious threat to their security, with the situation in Afghanistan already serving as an illustration.

Apparently, the Biden administration, even in the face of the declared defense budget austerity, will still increase the costs to strengthen U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific. On the one hand, this approach reflects the intention to reach a compromise with the Republicans. On the other hand, it is aimed at putting pressure on China and persuading it to negotiate such important areas of bilateral cooperation as trade, arms control and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This policy has already shown itself at the meeting of the U.S. and China representatives in Anchorage in March 2021 as well as at the meeting of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2021.

Most likely, the United States will not give up on its attempts to establish a multilateral Quad-based security system in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future. It is also planned to gradually involve other participants in this format, as evidenced by the increased contacts with Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Taipei has a critical role to play in the U.S. strategic plans in the Indo-Pacific, while the development of military and technical, trade and economic cooperation, and the exchange of intelligence information with it deserves particular attention.

Today, Beijing is no longer going to hide its capabilities and bide its time, rather pursuing policies to advance its own security and development interests. China’s activities, not being directed against anyone, are perceived by the United States and its allies as an expansion and an attempt to crash the liberal world order, which is habitually defended by the liberal military force.

  1. An operational formation with AOR in the Northwest Pacific and the same name already existed from 1946 to 1973.
  2. The total number of warships (aircraft carrier, landing ship, cruiser, destroyer, frigate, multi-role nuclear submarine) is almost five times greater.

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AUKUS: A Sequela of World War II and US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Deemed as a historic security pact, AUKUS was unveiled by the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia – a patent revelation of their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison’s public refusal “to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability”, the plan of building eight nuclear-powered submarines under the agreement remarkably augurs the country’s official accession to the existing “nuclear submarine club” whose members include the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and India. The AUKUS pact, for all intents and purposes, delivers as huge a leap in Australia’s defense capabilities as its international military strength.

Many have interpreted the birth of AUKUS as an effort to counter China’s aggressively rising military presence in the Pacific even though China was never explicitly mentioned in the remarks of the creation of the new alliance by its leaders. However, judged by China’s vehement condemnation of the security pact as “extremely irresponsible” so that it has risked “severely damaging regional peace” and “intensifying the arms race”, China obviously perceived it as a barefaced provocation and threat.

It has been witnessed that the tensions between Australia and China over the past few years have been soaring, ranging from Scott Morrison’s insistence on a full-bodied investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to Beijing’s indefinite suspension of all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue Deal. Be that as it may, military confrontations between the two countries still seemed implausible until the formation of AUKUS. To make matters worse, Australia’s bold move also gave a rise out of France by scrapping their previous $40 billion submarine deal, which led the Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian to scathingly denounce Australia’s action as a “stab in the back”. But why on earth did Australia take such a sudden hawkish turn in terms of military, even at the expense of its relationship with France?

The shifting geopolitics of the Pacific region plays a major role. Australia has been sheltered by the ANZUS Treaty (The Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty) since 1951, but the stable environment it has thrived in ascribes not only to the security agreement, but also to its own geopolitical advantage. During the Cold War, the North Atlantic was the focus of the naval operations of the US and the Soviet Union. The South Pacific, where Australia is located, was basically out of USSR’s reach, not to mention a rising US-backed Japan if Soviets ever planned on marching south. Geopolitics of Australia today, nonetheless, has drastically changed as the country’s greatest threat is no longer the Soviet Union. Instead, a provocative China has emerged as a new challenger in the South Pacific with its ramped-up presence in the South China Sea, rendering the area a security hotspot where Australia is ineluctably involved.

However, the geopolitical change in the Pacific is nothing new to Australia since it already experienced it decades ago. As a member of the British Empire, Australia fought alongside its Mother Country – the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it was highly dependent on the UK for its defense against the backdrop of America’s inactive involvement prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite Winston Churchill’s vow to protect Singapore from Japan, the unexpected surrender of the British troops instead led to the fall of the Britain’s former colony to the Japanese army. Britain’s failure to defend Singapore was seen as a betrayal by the then-Prime Minister of Australia John Curtin, and his fury was further fueled when the UK turned a blind eye to Australia’s pleas for help in the wake of Japanese air raids on Darwin and northern Australia. The US did come to Australia’s aid, but the very reason why Americans helped was that they needed a base in the Pacific to look out for their own interests, and Australia happened to serve as a good spot.

All of those have made Australia acknowledge the fact that it only had “small-power status” and neither the US or the UK had been a reliable ally when it comes to protecting Australia in its hour of need. In that respect, it makes perfect sense for Australia to prioritize the enhancement of its own military capabilities over other matters, especially in the wake of the blatant military threat made by the chief editor of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper that Chinese missile strikes on Australia will be inevitable if the latter ever plans to intervene in Taiwan Strait issues.

Another heavily discussed question is – why did Australia rush to forge a new security pact even it is already a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance? The faltering American global leadership might be the major impetus. America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan not only created a power vacuum in the latter, but also potential instability in the Indo-Pacific. No matter how hard the Biden Administration has tried to defend its humiliating Afghan retreat, allies of the US are alarmed and suspicions of a falling America are raised. In the eyes of Australia, America’s abandonment of Afghanistan is nothing short of Britain’s insouciance towards Australia 70 years ago. As the victim of abandonment trauma during World War II, Australia’s contributions to AUKUS are simply the outgrowth of the country’s efforts to prevent history from repeating itself.

Australia is by no means the only country seeking a stronger military force and a tougher stance against CCP during the ongoing reshuffling of the global deck. Canada and Japan, both economically powerful but politically mediocre, are likely to make the same move as Australia has made to gradually break free from their military dependence on the US. Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has relentlessly bashed China’s Communist Regime and has highlighted his tough-on-China policy in the Canada federal election. In Japan, a great majority of the current prime minister candidates have also overtly manifested their hawkish stance on China. Regardless of where those elections may lead, it is not hard to fathom that Australia’s ballooning military spending will be replicated by more countries. AUKUS, as a sequela of the Second World War and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, is likely to usher in an era of a new round of arms race.

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Visit of Vietnamese President to Cuba

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President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) meets with Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. (Photo: VNA)

Following the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam, the government has decided to procure 10 million doses of Abdala vaccines from Cuba. Abdala vaccine is one of the two vaccines produced locally in Cuba. The situation in Vietnam is compelling because Vietnam has seen more than 16,637 deaths because of the Delta warrant outbreak in the country since April of this year. The casualty rate is still low in terms of global average.  The severity of the crisis has been so profound that before the visit of Vietnam’s president to Havana an order of 10 million vaccine doses of Cuba’s vaccine has already been placed. Abdala vaccine is the eighth vaccine approved for inoculating Vietnamese adult population.

During the visit of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (18-20 September) and his meeting with President of Cuba Miguel Diaz Canel issues of common interest were discussed at length. The two countries have been ideal logically aligned and there has been comprehensive cooperation between the two communist parties. In terms of bilateral corporation the two countries have been working with regard to trading in consumer goods, manufacturing, renewable energy and aquatic products. Cuba has appreciated Vietnam’s Doi Moi reforms and has expressed interest in drawing lessons from the initiative.

In fact the two countries have been adverse to the US capitalist approach in the past, and have been collaborating to sending off their party cadres to each other’s countries for training and also collaboration between the party schools. The relationship between Cuba and US is dotted with tensions and sanctions. The two countries are keen to collaborate with the US. There is increasing trade ties between Vietnam and US following the Permanent Normalization of Trade Relations (PNTR) between the two countries.

The leaders of the two countries are on the same page for betterment of their population and providing better living standards to the people. During the time of Obama constructive engagement with Cuba was foreseen. However, during the period of Trump administration, the congenial ties between Cuba and US went on a cold freeze. Cuba has appreciative of Vietnam’s support since the Cold War period and there has been exchange of knowledge and information with regard to socialist welfare model and economic liberalization  measures that Vietnam has undertaken in the past few decades.

In terms of comprehensive partnership the two countries have focused primarily in areas such as agriculture, rice, coffee, aquatic culture, fisheries sector, maize and agrarian sectors. During the meeting between the two leaders it was agreed that the two countries will work together on developing the theoretical framework of Communist movement and better coordination between the foreign ministries of the two countries. In terms of defence and security aspects also there has been collaboration between the two sides and it is expressed that the collaboration should be further expanded.

It has been also seen that collaboration with regard to production of Abdala COVID-19 vaccine in Vietnam would work in enhancing ties between the two countries in health and medicine sector. Given scourge of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam it is expected that the medical and health clearances for the vaccine will be expedited quickly.

This Cuba visit happened before Vietnam president and the delegation attending the general debate in UN General Assembly in the last week of September. It is expected that the Vietnam president will also attend bilateral activities in the United States. As the Cuban visit precedes the UN meeting, it clearly exposes the strong solidarity and understanding that the two countries have.

Vietnam is also going to make a strong pitch in favour of its role as the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and also put up its candidature for the UN human Rights Council for the period 2023-2025. It is also expected that Vietnam President will hold discussion with other heads of states and important countries related to pandemic prevention and economic recovery in the post pandemic phase.

India has also expressed strong desire with regard to intellectual property rights waiver for the vaccine development and also support to the third world countries in the production of vaccines. Vietnam has been looking for international producers of vaccines to expedite quick delivery of vaccine doses, critical medical equipment and medical supplies to the country. Following the permanent normalisation of relations between US and Vietnam, and the existence of comprehensive partnership between the two countries it is expected that better trade relations between the US and Vietnam would help Vietnam to recover from the pandemic enforced economic stress. The US has so far provided more than 6 million doses of vaccine to Vietnam through the global vaccine mechanism which is known as COVAX. Vietnam is also looking for procuring 20 million doses of Pfizer vaccine for citizens aged 12 to 18.

Vietnam has also started administrating mixture doses of Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines to its population acknowledging the fact that the best way to protect the citizens from the coronavirus is through extensive vaccination programmes. Despite certain bottlenecks Vietnam has inoculated nearly 30.4 million doses of vaccines to its population. The third wave of the coronavirus is expected to be more devastating and it is compelling for a country like Vietnam to provide vaccines to its population.

With Cuba the interesting aspect is that the country will transfer the production technology to Vietnam by the end of this year. Vietnam has been a very instrumental in urging the United States to drop the hostile policy towards Cuba. In terms of trade embargo that the US has imposed on Cuba, it is anticipated that US is going to tone down the restrictions and promote trade facilitation between the two countries. Cuba is also planning to export and commercialize its two indigenous vaccines after the World Health Organization (WHO) gives approval. In terms of effectiveness Abdala vaccine is stated to be 92.28 per cent effective against COVID-19 when a person is administered three doses of the vaccine.

Given the closer relationship between the two countries which started with the recognition of Vietnam by Cuba in 1960 the ties between the two countries have grown multifold. Cuba had also supported Vietnam during its fight against the US forces in southern Vietnam and in order to show solidarity Cuba has established mission of Permanent representative in July 1962 and it appointed an Ambassador subsequently in March 1969. Also during the war of aggression undertaken by the US against Vietnam, US imposed trade embargo against Cuba and snapped all diplomatic relations with the island country. Cuba raised a nationwide movement with the slogan of ‘All for Vietnam’. Interestingly, Cuba has also named manufactories schools and neighbourhood after the anti-US heroes of Vietnam. Fidel Castro during his various visits to different countries has also urged these countries to support Vietnam against the US invasion. Cuban sailors had supported Vietnamese people during the bombing at Hai Phong port.

The history of relationship between the two countries is replete with examples of cooperation, construction and support for each other’s revolutionary causes. Vietnam and Cuba had signed a new trade agreement in November 2018 and have outlined the new agenda for the 2020–20 25 period. Vietnam has grown to be the second largest trading partner for Cuba in Asia. Vietnam has also supported Cuba in terms of developing rice production techniques and ensuring food security. The two countries celebrated their 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and are entering a new phase of unity, partnership and better economic relations.

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