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Biden administration’s policy towards Vietnam, and the South China Sea

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Joe Biden
Image credit: Todd Jacobucci/ flickr

The one big question loomed large about Biden administration and it was whether there be a change in Biden administration with regard to its policy towards South China Sea in comparison to Trump? The question became irrelevant when the new US administration buttressed the statement made by Mike Pompeo in July 2020.

In July 2020, Mike Pompeo the then Secretary of State has clearly outlined the US position on Chinese maritime claims related to South China Sea. It clearly stated that US intends to preserve peace and stability as well as reinforce ‘freedom of the seas’ in accordance with the international law and assist in unimpeded flow of commerce, and protect the interests of the ASEAN claimant countries. It also stated that the ‘PRCs predatory world view has no place in the 21st century’.

With the coming of Joe Biden as the new president of the US, the US state department during the press briefing conducted on February 19th clearly stated that the US has serious concerns with regard to the China’s Coast Guard law which allows the use of force by the Chinese Coast Guard against other countries. This language was seen as intimidatory and also enforces China’s claims in the territorial and maritime disputes of East China Sea and South China Sea by force.

During the press briefing it was clearly stated that the language which is enshrined in the new Coast Guard law allows Chinese Coast Guard to destroy the economic structures of other countries. Its projected apprehensions that this would legalize use of force from Chinese perspective in order to enforce its claims in disputed areas. In this press briefing the US buttressed the fact that it stands by its statement which was made on July 13, 2020 by the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which was related to the maritime claims of China in South China Sea. It also stated that it is adherent to the alliance commitments that it has made towards the Philippines and Japan.

The US policy towards South China Sea particularly in the context of the US economic and strategic interests in the region can be seen from the fact that the US deployed its one of the advanced submarines USS Ohio (guided missile nuclear submarine) in the contested waters. This clearly means that there is no digression from the Trump policy towards China, and Joe Biden is keen to pressurise China to desist from threatening its neighbours with regard to its claim in the region. The State Department spokesperson Edward Price has stated “We remind the PRC and all those forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities.”

In fact, developments in South China Sea have also been discussed during the recent Quad meeting held on February 18th between the foreign ministers of the four countries- the US, Japan, Australia and India, and also reflected during the meeting of the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi. Antony Blinken has bolstered the fact that the Senkaku islands located in the sovereign territory of Japan falls under the security treaty obligations of the US.

Following the telephonic meeting of the Quad, it has been seen that countries such as Australia, Japan and the US would continue their patrolling in South China Sea. In the January 2020,the US aircraft carrier group had also sailed through the South China Sea for promoting freedom of the seas. Australia has also taken strong stance following its fall out with China, and Australian defence minister during its interactions with his US counterpartLloyd J. Austin in late January 2020 stated that the US and Australia would continue to work with alliance partners to maintain security, and enforce inclusive and rules-based order in South China Sea. Earlier also the Pentagon had issued a statement that maintaining ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific based on contemporary international law and norms should be free from malign behaviour’. Even Australia has stated the fact that Chinese activities in South China Sea in a ‘disturbing manner’ has complicated Australia security environment.

It has been seen that Joe Biden is also towing the line of its predecessor Donald Trump, and has been deploying ships and submarines to the contested region. As per the news reports the USS Ohio deployment in South China Sea shows that the US is willing to take more aggressive stance to protect its allies and also maintain security of Taiwan. In that context the Washington has dispatched guided missile destroyer USS McCain to Taiwan straits and the same destroyer had sailed through Paracel islands to challenge illegal maritime claims of China. The more deployment of submarines clearly shows that the US wants to undercut the deterrence capabilities that China usually displays by deploying its submarines in South China Sea. While China proclaims that it has effective carrier killer missile and anti-ship capabilities but it has not has upgraded its anti-submarine warfare in that context. The US Ohio can carry nearly 154 tomahawk cruise missiles and these cruise missiles can deliver effective impact given the fact that each missile can carry nearly 453 kilos of highly explosive warhead. 

The stealth capabilities of a large nuclear submarine with that kind of a punch are an enigma for a country like China. In terms of technological superiority, particularly in underwater operations, and lethality the US is far ahead of Chinese capabilities. Chinese anti-submarine capabilities are developed to operate closer to the shores rather than in the open seas. Given the fact that Ohio has a stealth advantage therefore it will be difficult for China to detect it even closer to its shores. It is believed that the US will be deploying more of its aircraft carriers and submarines so as to deter China and monitor its assertive activities. It has been seen that China has become too much intimidating to the Taiwan and also is closely guarding the approach route to Taiwan through the South China Sea.

During the opening weeks of the Biden administration, it has clearly indicated that many of the Trump administration policies towards China will continue unimpeded. The US Navy would conduct regular ‘freedom of navigation operations’ and in early February the US Navy had remarked that two aircraft carriers have been operating together in the South China Sea disputed waters. The destroyer John S McCain passed through the Taiwan Strait in the first week of February and conducted freedom of navigation operations in the disputed Paracel islands. The new Secretary of State had made a call to his counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines, and assured that the US was not retreating from its stance on South China Sea and completely dispelling the excessive Chinese claims of maritime rights. He has assured that the US was committed to enforcing a rules-based order in the contested waters. The statement which was released subsequently stated that Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the US stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure. The US approach is reassuring and critical during these trying times in South China Sea.

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

The National Unity Government in Myanmar: Role and Challenges

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Top row, left to right: Mahn Win Khaing Than, U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Duwa Lashi La. Bottom row, left to right: Daw Zin Mar Aung, Dr. Lian Hmung Sakhong, Dr Zaw Wai Soe, Dr. Tu Hkawng

The continuing crisis in Myanmar has got a new momentum when the elected parliamentarians of the National League for Democracy (NLD), along with ethnic groups have formed National Unity Government (NUG) based on federal democratic principles. It marks a new milestone of the anti-Junta struggle after about three months of protests and civil disobedience movement since the military takeover on 1 February 2021. It is considered a parallel civilian-led government against the military-led State Administration Council (SAC).It has come into being when the country has been facing its worst crisis ever, along with the complex political dynamics. As we see claims and counterclaims from NUG and the military regime, it is worthwhile to understand the role and challenges of the NUG.

Formation of the Government

The opponents of Myanmar’s junta formally announced the establishment of a National Unity Government (NUG) on 16 April, 2021.It came in the wake of mounting brutality and murders of protesting civilians by the ruthless military regime. The NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. In the new government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and former House Speaker under the NLD government, is the country’s prime minister, while President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi retain their positions. The vice president is Duwa Lashi La, the president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.

It has unveiled a 20-page Federal Democracy Charter, which is based on an interim constitution drafted between 1990 and 2008 by NLD lawmakers elected in 1990 and ethnic armed forces in Myanmar’s border areas. The goal of the NUG is to establish an alternative government – a sort of internal government-in-exile – that can compete with the junta for international recognition and spearhead what is likely to be a long campaign to defeat it. The NUG is aimed at uniting anti-coup groups, ethnic armed organizations, and other opponents of the junta. It has pledged the “eradication of dictatorship” and the creation of an inclusive federal democracy “where all citizens can live peacefully”.

Reckoning the Role of the NUG

Roadmap for a Democratic Government

The Federal Democracy Charter provides a roadmap for a democratic government of Myanmar abolishing the current constitution. It includes plans to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution. Diversity and consensus mark the formation of the NUG, which addresses the multi-ethnic and multi-national nature of the state of Myanmar. The NUG hopes that it will bring all ethnic nationalities on board as it represents the great diversity and strength of this great nation of Myanmar. The new government aims at maintaining inclusiveness in the governance system aligning all ethnic groups. Calling it “the peoples’ government” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing emphasized the unity between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking ethnic minority groups. The understanding between and among the democratic forces as well as ethnic groups and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) organizers may facilitate peace and unity in Myanmar.

Pressure on the Military Regime

The formation of NUG will exert a major political pressure on the post-coup military regime. The two-part charter of NUG lays out a plan to “weaken the governance mechanisms” of the military regime by discrediting the Tatmadaw, support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and make arrangements for “national defence” by forming a federal army. Representatives of the NUG state that there will be “no compromise” between their Government and the military regime unless the group’s demands are met. These demands include: restoring the country’s democratically elected leaders and parliamentarians from the November election, ending to violence against civilians, removing soldiers from the streets, and releasing political prisoners. Meanwhile, many argue that Myanmar is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state and stands on the brink of civil war at an unprecedented scale.

Managing Support of the Ethnic Groups

The formation of NUG offers new hope for Myanmar to increase interactions with diverse ethnic and religious groups. The 10 ethnic armed organizations’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) has given its unwavering support to Myanmar’s striking civil servants and the ousted government’s Federal Democracy Charter. Some ethnic communities have already termed it as Myanmar’s “spring revolution” and pledged to join the fight against the junta if it doesn’t stop the killing immediately or meet calls to restore democracy. Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements. Notably, the inclusivity and diversity of the nature of the formation of the shadow government is likely to forge consensus building it halting the outrage of the military.

Marshaling Regional and Global Support

Garnering regional and global support is the prime motivation behind the NUG. The NUG has already called on Southeast Asian countries to boost their engagement and support for the body. According to the NUG representatives, some nations, including some Western countries and a member country of the Arab World that experienced the Arab Spring, are already intending to formally recognize the NUG as the country’s legitimate government. The joint statement of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting held in London on 5 May 2021 welcomed the creation of the NUG. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government. Many other international groups have called for the NUG’s legitimacy to be recognized. The International Trade Union Confederation recognizes its legitimacy. Two international rights organizations – Fortify Rights and Rohingya Organisation U.K. (BROUK) urged southeast Asian leaders to work with the newly formed anti-coup unity government in Myanmar to restore democracy, putting an end to the illegal military takeover.

ASEAN has a unique role in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Global actors – both states and civil society – strongly argue that ASEAN should work with the newly formed NUG in Myanmar and the broader international community to end the Myanmar military junta’s attacks and ensure a transition to democratic, civilian rule. After filing the case against General Min Aung Hlainga head of the junta leader’s arrival in Jakarta to attend an ASEAN summit, the shadow government has asked the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to arrest the coup leader. A letter to Interpol said Min Aung Hlaing was a criminal and terrorist for his crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and must be tried at both international courts.

Challenges Ahead

Few challenges need to be considered in assessing the future of the NUG. While the shadow government has expectations for expanding support among socio-ethnic and religious groups, more violence may dampen hopes for national reconciliation, as the military junta regime has not retreated from its brutal and repressive moves. The announcement of a new unity government is likely to push Myanmar into a dangerous new phase of its crisis with urban upheaval, a collapsing economy. Internationally, the formation of the NUG will confront foreign governments with the difficult choice of whether to recognize and throw the full force of their support behind the alternative government. Recently, the expelling of the Myanmar Ambassador in London for his support to Suu Kyi created a difficult situation for the U.K. government. The invitation of general Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN’s special summit in Jakarta was also a critical choice for ASEAN states to decide whether they would recognize NUG or Tatmadaw.

The move is likely to harden the country’s battle lines since the military coup. The junta has killed 739 people and made 3,370 arrests. There are statements and counter statements between NUG and the junta regime over the formation of unity government. In an apparent response to the NUG’s letter to Interpol accusing general Hlaing, the regime announced that all 24 NUG ministers and two associates have been charged with high treason. It has also declared the NUG an unlawful association. The‘non-interference’ principle of ASEAN, which prohibits involvement in the ‘internal affairs’ of member states, has been violated in the recent move by the ASEAN. It has bolstered the Aung Hlaing government. By inviting Min Aung Hlaing and not NUG representatives to the ASEAN Special Summit, the organization has chosen to intervene and recognize the military regime. This situation has created contradictions and a lack of consensus among the parties who formed the NUG. Diverse comments and different positions of the groups concerned have caused a shadowy situation. For instance, the NUG initially did welcome the five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis during the ASEAN summit. Contrarily, the protesters have rejected the five-point consensus as it has not mentioned political prisoners and vowed to continue their protest campaign. Later on, the NUG declared that they would not negotiate with the military regime against the people’s will, despite calls from the ASEAN for talks. The NUG rejected a joint junta-ASEAN statement which said, ‘all parties shall exercise utmost restraint’.

In conclusion, the very formation of NUG with its projection of establishing a federal democracy is likely to open opportunities for giving a direction to the ongoing protest movement and creating greater understanding among socio-ethnic groups who have long been cherishing autonomy and ending the cycle of military authoritarianism in essence. If the NUG can build consensus and accelerate trust among the stakeholders of the forces of democracy, there is a prospect for success in the coming days for the transition. The key to victory for the NUG will be to keep civil disobedience going in the face of repression and an economic collapse that has already started and gain support and recognition from the domestic and international arena. Most importantly, the role of the international community is critical. Regionally, ASEAN’s role is vital, but so far, it has not demonstrated any credible action, including the special summit decisions. The NUG remains a fragile unity in a country of the almost permanent reign of the military that makes its mission ever challenging.

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Vietnam’s Role in ASEAN 2021 meetings

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The ASEAN leaders met at the organisation's secretariat building in Jakarta [Laily Rachev/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters]

Taking on from the meetings held under the rubric of ASEAN chairmanship of Vietnam in the year 2020, the country coordinator for Russia in ASEAN, Indonesia conducted the meeting which reaffirmed the strategic partnership between ASEAN and Russia in January 2021. Under the meeting it was decided that the two sides need to address the implications of COVID -19 and accelerating the recovery from economic and social point of view across the region. The basis of meeting was the new ASEAN Russia comprehensive plan of action for the next four years (2021-2025), and discuss its impact related to political and economic security, industry, science and technology, smart cities, health cooperation, and increasing people to people contacts. Vietnam during its chairmanship has been proactive in developing meaningful engagement between ASEAN and Russia as well as between other dialogue partners.

Russia supported ASEAN centrality in organisational architecture, but a need was felt for further engaging Russia in the regional dynamics. Within January 2021 itself issues related to ASEAN Economic Community were discussed through the video conference. Given the fact that the ASEAN community blueprints have been discussed as well as the template for Asian comprehensive recovery framework has been out lined last year, the meeting as expected deliberated on issues related to communication and information technology, E-Commerce, minerals, science and technology, and innovation. Areas which have been highlighted during the ASEAN meetings last year has been related to the 4th industrial revolution and working out plan of action. ASEAN economies have been impacted by limited domestic demand and therefore recovery of the value chains suffered because of the pandemic. There is a need for post pandemic economic support.

ASEAN faced the biggest challenge with the change of government in Myanmar when military junta took over which has been criticised at global level. There have been calls at international level to address this at the regional organisational level and undertake effective measures so that the military junta should cede power to the democratically elected government in Myanmar. This was seen as a challenge to the ASEAN as military government had taken repressive measures with more than 800 people killed since the military coup. ASEAN took cognizance of the fact that the changes in Myanmar would be detrimental to its cohesive and centrality as well as it would challenge the authority that the ASEAN has in terms of a regional organization. It issued a statement seeking peace and dialogue among parties.  In February 2021a meeting was held related to minerals exploitation and developing ASEAN minerals cooperation action plan and its effective implementation. It has been felt that with the ongoing 4th industrial revolution in ASEAN, the demand for critical minerals would rise exponentially. The meeting also commissioned a study which is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.

In the March 2021 ASEAN socio- cultural committee has expressed strong support to Brunei’s chairmanship which espouses for better care, effective preparations, and prosperity in the region. Taking note of the earlier decisions which have been taken during the ASEAN 2020 meetings, the new chair highlighted various proposals which include developing regional responses to emergencies and disasters, youth academy programme, establishing the ASEAN climate change centre, and developing gender understanding among the people of the region. By the end of March, ASEAN India meeting was also held through the video conference in which it was buttressed that there is a need for effective implementation of the new plan of action for 2021- 2025. Stress was laid about the execution of ASEAN-India Fund, ASEAN- India Green Fund and a need was felt to proactively implement all these programmes under the ASEAN India project management. India has contributed USD 1 million to the COVID 19 fund which was appreciated, and views were shared regarding cooperation in medicine, developing vaccines, and cheap pharmaceutical products.

Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, it was suggested that ASEAN should prepare for the 4th industrial revolution in a more cohesive way. It was expressed that with the coming of digital economy and new innovations there is a need for comprehensive consolidated strategy which should prepare the region towards the 4th industrial revolution. It suggested that to achieve such a manufacturing revolution there is need for a better regulatory environment, global competitive standards, developing skills and capacity at the same time. The consultative meetings which were held in the last week of April, accepted that there is need for collaborative frameworks, creating the ecosystem which is required for achieving such a goal.

In early May ASEAN discussed issues related toCOVID-19 impact, transformation of global value chains and how the organization should accept the post recovery phenomenon for the long term. The workshop also addressed the hindrances about global value chain and what exactly are the opportunities which will emerge in the post pandemic recovery. It was suggested that there is need for developing critical infrastructure, addressing gaps in connectivity, and seriously undertaking measures for human resource development. What is surprising this year is the fact that ASEAN failed to raise issues related to the South China Sea very vociferously and how China has been asserting its maritime claims in the region. Even though there have been constrained statements in this regard.

Vietnam, on its part, has been proactively engaging ASEAN dialogue partners -Japan, India, Russia and the US in developing long term strategic partnership, and the new Vietnamese foreign minister updated the developments in South China Sea. ASEAN as an organization has been engaging the new partners such as Chile and Cuba. Vietnam has also been drawing attention to the activities of numerous Chinese vessels in Ba Dau(Whitsun reef ) and it was stated by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam that the activities of the Chinese vessels violate Vietnam sovereignty and the provisions of the UNCLOS as it goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea(DOC). At the international level during the press conference which was conducted in April 2021 on the issue of South China Sea, Vietnam foreign office clearly remarked that all countries should maintain peace and stability as well as cooperation in the South China Sea and must comply with the international law.

All the discussions which happen this year were a carryover from the discussions which were held in November 2020, and it means that the issue related to politico-security and socio-cultural communities would gain more momentum in coming years. The ASEAN meetings in 2020 has laid out the template and suggested new ideas which would bring the ASEAN economies together and develop blueprint for E-commerce, digital economy, digital connectivity, promoting finance, trade and investment in the region. The issues and the engagement with dialogue partners is expected to start in May 2021 and Brunei will have to undertake effective measures so that the momentum of ASEAN discussions is maintained.

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Is Quad 2.0 transforming into a Pentad?

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The reinvigoration of Quad Security Dialogue as Quad 2.0 including US, Japan, and Australia along with India during the 12th East Asia Summit in November 2017 has been appreciated and acknowledged by several countries including Germany, France, and Britain. It has been expressed from these countries that such a concert of the major democracies would provide peace, security and help in maintaining order and harmony in the region. Quad 2.0 has been gaining strength with the Foreign ministers meeting in February 2021 followed with Summit level meeting (online) in March 2021 between the leaders of the four countries -India, US, Japan, and Australia.

In 2017, during the India-France Strategic Dialogue, the French senior officials have hinted that they would like to explore possibility regarding collaboration with the Quad members about joining the initiative. The French side has clearly mentioned that given the strength and the objective of the Quad, France would like to join the initiative with the common consensus of the other four partners.

Given the fact that India is averse to any idea of an Asian NATO, therefore France, India and Australia have created a new minilateral which would develop security structures and promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In September 2020 during the foreign Secretary level dialogue between three countries issues such as Maritime Security, Blue Economy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and Protection of Marine Global Commons were discussed. The maritime global commons and the blue economy are the two things along with maritime security which allude to the fact that France wants Quad by its side to protect its resources. Deliberating on the objectives and agenda of the Quad, France recently concluded joint exercise with the Quad members in April 2021. The exercises were conducted in the eastern Indian Ocean and were held for three days.

 India has been operating Rafale fighter jets (14 are now in service with Indian air force) and plans to procure two squadrons (about 36) of these jets while the three Scorpene submarines have already been commissioned with the Indian navy. This structural defence cooperation between India and France has also been seen in the context of India’s’ entry into the Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion islands, Mauritius, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as an observer, and India and France maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands from Reunion Islands. India benefits from France entry into the Quad as it would enhance extensive naval presence and add more friendly ports into the Quad network. France has expressed concerns related to China’s search for marine resources and seabed minerals near its Indian Ocean territories.

France has been looking into an agreement with Quad members for regular joint exercises and entering into a logistics supply agreement that India has signed with US and both Japan and Australia already have the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA).India and France have signed reciprocal logistics support which is not comprehensive but compliments the requirements from both sides. During the visit of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in November 2017, the French Minister welcomed the “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific and sated that it would servelong-term global interests but added that this concert of democracies should be open and inclusive citing that such an initiative should welcome other democracies.

Following the visit of the French Minister, it has been explored that given few Francophone countries in Eastern Africa, the logistics and other related support can be procured from the willing countries. India has set up a grid of coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Madagascar. France has military assets in Mayotte, besides military bases in UAE and Djibouti, and it has proposed a wide network of radars which can be integrated with other coastal surveillance radars so that not only white shipping, but rogue ships can also be monitored.

France has expressed interest in developing synergies and cooperative structure which should assimilate itself with the larger objectives of the Quad and is looking for maintaining peace and security as well as protecting the marine resources in the Indian Ocean as China has also been exploring for seabed resources near the Madagascar region. The islands that are of interest and can benefit from the Pentad (with France as new entrant) as this would provide security to its islands namely Reunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands which includes Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Île Saint-Paul and other scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bassas da India, Europa Island, Banc du Geyser, and Glorioso Islands, largely uninhabited islands.

Few of these islands can support military structures and Quad countries can use its facilities in and around the Indian Ocean as well as certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. In such a context, France has proposed in the past for holding bilateral and trilateral (with Australia and India) naval and coast guard exercises. The increasing bon homie between Quad members and France serves three basic purposes. Firstly, it involves the French navy in the Indian Ocean and helps in monitoring western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the number of island territories that France had both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific provides unique coverage and support systems. Thirdly, the trilateral between Australia, India, and France (India and Australia are two Quad members) shows that even though it is not very profoundly expressed but the blueprint is already created for including France to make it a Pentad.

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