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Waterworld: Moscow Betting on the South China Sea

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Troubled waters in South China Sea

The waters of the South China Sea are troubled. The latest weeks have not been that quiet in that geopolitical area. On the one side, the Spratly Islands continue to be under the spotlight, as Chinese vessels have been detected by the Philippines within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On the other side, Manila’s coast guard has lately been engaged in a naval drill in the disputed waters. President Duterte clearly stated that he will not undermine his country’s sovereignty by withdrawing its vessels from patrolling national waters.

As tensions mount, Vietnam is not twiddling its thumbs. Lately, Hanoi has in fact been building up its own maritime militia, which patrols the area around Hainan, the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. China believes this to be a covert operation in order to spy on the Chinese military infrastructure and ships.

Russia’s stake in the wrangle

Located thousands of kilometers away, Russia may look like a full-fledged outsider of this dispute. Still waters run deep. Back in 2016, Vladimir Putin spoke of a “greater Eurasian partnership”. As the Russian Federation has been engaged in its pivot to Asia for almost ten years, links with a number of major Asian countries—both bilaterally and multilaterally through organizations (like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN)—are strong and definite.

Moscow is clearly not interested in claiming any of the disputed waters, islands or reefs of the South China Sea. Still, it pursues its own stake, which is mainly linked to its economic and strategic interests.

Only by going beyond official rhetoric, one can possibly understand Russia’s goals within this geopolitical context. During the 2016 G20 Summit in China, Vladimir Putin clearly stated that any third-party interference within this quarrel would be condemned by Russia.

According to the official statements, Moscow advocates for a peaceful resolution of the dispute among the parties involved. The Russian Federation stands firm on the adherence to international law and UNCLOS, while supporting the 2002 ASEAN-China Joint Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The latest years have been fruitful for Russia’s economic links with several Asian and South-East Asian countries. Let’s just think about its relations with the main claimants within this dispute. Moscow is the leading trade partner with Vietnam, has secured itself a close and comprehensive partnership with China and is clearly interested in deepening its ties with ASEAN countries.

As Russia is not a newborn in the energy and defense sectors, it tries to take advantage of its skills in order to get the most of it within this region, too. However, this has to do not with economic concerns only. Security matters just as well.

Between Hanoi, Manila, New Delhi and Beijing

Despite not being directly involved in the territorial dispute, Moscow still plays a double role. On the one hand, it has been pursuing a strategy of hedging within that specific regional complex. On the other hand, the disputed South China Sea must be understood within a larger systemic framework of international relations.

By using the term “hedging”, we refer to as a set of intertwining policies between engagement, integration and containment with the aim of bumping up one’s security. As different regional actors are involved, this is the strategy that Russia has so far used in order to preserve a sort of geopolitical stability.

The People’s Republic of China undoubtedly represents the most crucial player in the dispute. The latest months have confirmed how deep the comprehensive and strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow is. Just some time ago, the two countries announced a joint project for a moon research station and increased cooperation within the joint venture Arctic LNG-2. Cooperation in the defense field has been sped up too. Not so long ago, Beijing has purchased some of Moscow’s top military technologies, such as Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile systems.

In 2016, the two parties have carried out a joint naval drill in the waters of the contested South China Sea. This was interpreted by the international community as the expression of Russia taking the Chinese side. The same year, the Hague International Court spoke out in favor of the Philippines, ruling that the Chinese territorial claims were unfounded. This happened at a time when Russia could possibly face the same situation with Crimea, so the Russian rhetoric of external non-interference within conflicts was reiterated, as had already been the case with the Western engagement in Libya or Iraq.

Even if in Hangzhou Vladimir Putin chose to publicly express his support on China about the international ruling, Russia continues to flaunt its neutral stance. For instance, Moscow has never publicly supported China’s concept of the nine-dash line, since the Chinese concept of establishing sovereignty on account of historical rights clearly contradicts international law. Still, this may be a source of disagreement, as China does not fully recognize the same idea for what concerns Russian claims in the Arctic.

The People’s Republic of China is not the only country which collaborates with Russia in that area. Vietnam, for instance, appears to be the Russian gate to South-East Asia, both in economic and security terms. Crucial energy and economic deals have been signed between the two parties—not only within the Eurasian Economic Union.

Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft have been deeply involved in the development of oil and gas fields also within the disputed waters of the South China Sea, much at China’s discontent. In 2018, the Russian state oil company, Rosneft, initiated drilling in the Lan Do “Red Orchid” offshore gas field. The Chinese Foreign Ministry harshly replied by condemning this act.

The reminiscence of the Cold War has become the foundation for integration between the two countries in the defense field as well. In 2012, the entente was elevated up to the grade of a comprehensive strategic partnership. With the situation in the South China Sea worsening, Hanoi has lately been expanding its arms purchases from Russia, as it has happened with the Project 1241 corvettes. Beyond arms sales, Russia plays a major role in fostering the Vietnamese military capabilities, which are also aimed at countering any threat within the South China Sea.

The Philippines is another country with which Russia has been cooperating in the energy field. In 2019, President Duterte asked Russia to carry out offshore oil and gas exploration in what he defines the “West Philippine Sea”, namely the South China Sea, once again placing Moscow at the center of the dispute.

Countering the systemic threat

Imagining Russia’s actions in the South China Sea as mere hedging measures in order to preserve geopolitical stability in a crucial region would be a huge mistake. As the West continues to perceive Moscow and Beijing as systemic rivals, the reverse is also true.

The United States’ reorientation towards Asia under President Obama has been considered as a sort of systemic pressure on Russia. Through Moscow’s lenses, Washington is seeking to maximize its influence in the dispute and in the area by strengthening ties with its Asian partners as well as through the QUAD format. This is also shown by the U.S. willing to modernize its military bases in Okinawa and Guam. This is why Moscow would like to resist the so-called “internationalization” of the conflict, as claimed by Korolev.

Moscow has in fact been helping Hanoi in modernizing a former Cold War base at Cam Ranh Bay by supplying Kilo submarines and providing training programs. In November 2014, an agreement was signed permitting to use this naval facility by Russian military forces. This led to a quarrel with the United States, as Russian bombers were patrolling over an area too close to Guam. Russia’s interest in reestablishing a permanent presence in the South China Sea is thus also directed against the United States’ aspirations in the area and represent a real balancing strategy.

Moscow is, of course, not the only one balancing here. China fears a U.S. intervention too. Aleksander Korolev has an interesting intuition on the issue. In fact, despite Moscow’s military cooperation with Hanoi, Beijing appears to coexist with it, as it prevents Vietnam from aligning with Washington.

At the end of the day, Russia—despite its geographic location and seemingly neutral stance—does care about the South China Sea dispute and has a role in it indeed. Keeping a low profile does not necessarily mean indifference. At least, this is not the case.

From our partner RIAC

MA in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe — Political Science, University of Bologna, Coordinator at Osservatorio Russia, RIAC Intern

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Southeast Asia

China – Myanmar relations

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While addressing a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi expressed China’s grave concerns over the Myanmar issue. Wang reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue playing a constructive role, saying that China is all ready to work with ASEAN on Myanmar-related problems. Wang Yi was addressing the special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting to commemorate the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations held on June 7, 2021, at Chongqing Municipality, South West of China.

Wang further emphasized that all parties in Myanmar should prioritize the interests of the people, exercise moderation, and eradicate all forms of violence. China can assist in economic recovery, enhance its people’s livelihoods, and protect their rights and interests. He stated that China welcomes all parties to conduct political discourse under the constitution and legal framework to resume the path of democratic change, adding that China remains ready to cooperate with ASEAN to give help to Myanmar in the face of COVID-19.

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. The relations between two, have been characterized as “kinsfolk” (pauk-phaw in Burmese), a phrase coined in the 1950s. The relations between China and Myanmar have gone through various ups and downs. Formal relations between the two dates back to late 1940 when both countries mutually recognized each other. Until the 1960’s two nations have enjoyed warm bilateral relations. Things got complicated in 1967 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Yangon. Bilateral relations between them again touched a high point in 1988 when they signed a ‘cross-border trade agreement’ that finally put an end to Myanmar’s lengthy isolation from the rest of the world. China was thus vigorously seeking a strategic channel to the Indian Ocean, mainly for its landlocked provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Later, the Chinese presence in Myanmar enlarged significantly in terms of financial and domestic affairs. In 2018, China was the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar with a direct investment of more than $15 billion on 126 business projects. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was Myanmar’s principal source of arms and ammunition. In more recent times, the Tatmadaw attempted to shift its arms supply dependence on China, though China is still the leading supplier, accounting for almost 50% of Myanmar armaments. Moreover, Myanmar is amongst the largest receivers of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds. It has continuously having China’s massive financial support for a set of infrastructural projects along the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) including projects related to transportation, industry, finance and communication. The construction of a deep-sea port and the development of a Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine State that connects Yunnan province via railway, are among the utmost significant developmental projects.

The recent coup of February 2021 raised serious apprehensions for China due to the factors which are multifold. Firstly, given the past events, it poses severe security threats to the neighboring Yunnan province as a spillover effect, for instance, 2017 had seen the death of five persons on the China side and the migration of thousands of refugees into the Yunnan Province in combat between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army, one of the four (Ethnic Armed Organizations)EAOs of the Northern Alliance. Additionally, it can halt the economic development of Yunnan, an impoverished province, draws investment because of its strategic location as a doorway to Southeast Asia. Secondly, Instability in Myanmar can be ruinous for China’s flagship project, Belt and Road Initiative. For the success of BRI, stability in neighborhood is indispensable. Thirdly, China can’t afford to have turmoil in the neighborhood. The instability in Myanmar is causing disturbances in the neighboring states too, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh when Myanmar’s army launched a brutal campaign on them in August 2017.

While China was enjoying stable and friendly relations with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent coup is by no means in favor of China Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C stated that  “A coup in no way is in Beijing’s interests. Beijing was working very well with the NLD”, he further added, “If Beijing has a choice, I think they would prefer the NLD over the military. But they don’t have a choice… so they have to deal with whatever comes along.”

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. In the current scenario, China can play a constructive role in somehow settling the Myanmar issue and support the ill-fated country to embrace stability.

Firstly, since the outbreak of Covid19, things got worse domestically in Myanmar due to the lack of a proper health care system. It can be a blessing in disguise for China and provides a golden opportunity to score some diplomatic points by providing vaccinations and playing a significant role in solving the combined public health and economic crises that would be a win-win situation for both nations. Secondly, China can use its influence being the sole and long term partner, to bring conflicting parties to the table to find amicable resolution of the conflict. Thirdly, China should keep investing in Myanmar and help it building its economy through more investments especially in development sector. Finally, China can utilize ASEAN option as mentioned by Wang Yi in latest statement. ASEAN and China can collaborate to devise amicable and practical resolution of the Myanmar problem.

Stable and peaceful Myanmar is in the interest of the whole region and China in particular. Considering, chaos in a neighboring country can have grim implications for China and its developmental projects,  China along with other regional actors need to find realistic solutions for durable peace and stability in Myanmar.

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Southeast Asia

The National Unity Government and the Rohingya Issue in Myanmar: A New Twist?

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In a Twitter message on 3 June 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar announced a new policy position about the Rohingya issue. Entitled as ‘Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State’ the NUG unequivocally spells out, “In honour of human rights and human dignity and also to eradicate the conflicts and root causes in the Union, the NUG aims to build up a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully. This objective is clearly stated in the Federal Democracy Charter.’ The statement further says, ‘We invite Rohingyas to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.’

This marks a monumental policy change on the Rohingya issue by the NUG that did not include any Rohingya when it was formed on April 16, 2021. It may be mentioned that 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. International community particularly global civil society actors criticized the NUG for excluding the Rohingyas in the newly formed civilian government. It is, indeed, a question about the credibility of the government when it talks about federal democracy, but excludes a community who have been living in Myanmar for centuries.

The new statement from the NUG is a welcome development and an adjustment of their position with a genuine spirit of bringing all ethnic groups together and create a strong platform against the brutal and genocidal military regime in Myanmar. The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar is a watershed political development in the country that has dramatically changed the attitudes and perception oof the Myanmar people and the civilian political forces because of illegality, extreme form of brutality and betrayal to democratic change. The spontaneous social movements by the Myanmar people with a high risk of lives and livelihoods was perhaps unimaginable to the Junta government as well as global community. The civilian political forces possibly did not think such kind of sustained resistance in the form of Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Myanmar where people suffered direct military rule for more than five decades. Military rule was the order of the day in the country.

Against this backdrop, the statement of the NUG deserves a huge attention. Why has the NUG issue the statement? What is the significance of this statement for the status of the Rohingyas and the future of democracy in Myanmar? These questions are vital for establishing the rights of the Rohingyas who have been suffering as stateless people and living in different countries as the forcibly displaced people. Particularly, the presence of the 1.1 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh in the camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char is a stark reality and a great casualty of humanity in the present world where a country called Myanmar can force more than a million of its residents overnight and continue to show the defiance not to accept them. The world is virtually silent!

In understanding the significance of the statement of the NUG we can identify several issues that deserve to be taken into consideration. First, the reason behind the change of position of the NUG on the question of Rohingyas is clearly spelled out at the bottom of the statement where they have urged the Rohingyas to join the movement to oust the military regime in Myanmar. It is not only addressed to the Rohingya people, but also to the forces and parties in the world who are supporting the cause of the Rohingyas. From this perspective it has a huge diplomatic purpose to bolster the movement of the NUG and CDM in their fight against the military regime. Particularly, the Western world, the United Nations and the Muslim countries who have expressed their solidarity and compassion for the Rohingyas and have devoted their resources for them. Second, the statement is not just a declaration of support of the NUG to the Rohingyas. It contains a roadmap about solving the Rohingya crisis for which some of the members of the NUG were liable. The leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD) betrayed with the Rohingyas when their leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined hands with the Tatmadaw in 2011 and ruled the country jointly and ditched the cause of the Rohingyas.

The NLD leader also defended the crimes against humanity of the military leaders in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It was a true infidelity to the Rohingyas and also to her own long credentials as a fighter for democracy. Therefore, to establish a credibility of their declaration, the NUG shows a way-out to resolve the Rohingya crisis. They have promised to repeal and amend laws such as the 1982 Citizenship laws by the new constitution. This new Citizenship Act must base citizenship on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens. It is also mentioned that the NUG is in process of abolishing National Verification Cards to recognize Rohingyas as citizens. These two laws have discriminated for Rohingyas as the core ground. The NUG reaffirms to implement the aggrements signed with Rohingya repatriation and also agreed to Kofi Anan’s 88 points recommendations over Rohingya legal rights.

Third, the statement acknowledges the rights of Rohingya people and atrocity crimes they faced in Myanmar. The statement represents a shift from the persecution of the Rohingya by the military junta as well as previous governments, which routinely denied the existence of the Rohingya as well as evidence of mass atrocity crimes they suffered. The statement commits the NUG to ensuring justice and accountability for crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar. The NUG also affirmed its commitment to “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State. The NUG makes a bold promise, “We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history.” They have gone to the extent of profound redressing of the past crimes and injustice as they say, “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities.”

Fourth, a critical issue is how would the supporters and sympathizers of the Tatmadaw at home and abroad respond to this major policy reversal of the NUG and its leadership who once viewed the Rohingyas in the same eyes as with the Tatmadaw? Understandably, China, Russia, ASEAN, India and several pro-military regime actors would not find it encouraging. They may rule it out at a tactic of the NUG to garner the global support particularly from the UN and West. Fifth, whatever the reactions of the global community, the Tatmadaw would find it a new avenue of diplomatic pressure on them. However, they will rule out this position as the military regime has already declared the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. Rather, the Tatmadaw would appeal to the Buddhist nationalists and Bamar people that the NUG has a sinister objective to legitimize the Rohingyas as citizens of the country.

Finally, the crux of the matter is that it is a great victory of the Rohingyas to show the world that the successive Myanmar regimes – military and pseudo military – have used false narratives, including branding them as terrorists, to undermine their rights and justice in the country where they have been living for centuries with their own identity. The NUG has made it loud and clear to the world that the military junta in the country is pursuing an apartheid policy and committed the crimes against humanity widely referred as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’.

In conclusion, to mean the business and establish a credibility of their intention expressed in the new policy position, the NUG of Myanmar should appoint an ethnic-Rohingya member to the cabinet who would help it implement and expand upon its new policy on the rights of Rohingya people. The NUG must continue to highlight meaningful consultation with Rohingya people globally, including Rohingya women. This new twist in the position of the civilian leadership in Myanmar who once reigned power and supported the military regime is critical for the future of the Rohingya issue and if it sustains, then the prospect of democracy in the post-Tatmadaw Myanmar will energize pro-democracy forces and boost global support for the NUG.

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Bargaining and Strengthening position of EEZ: Indonesia’s Diplomacy in South China Sea

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The South China Sea issue is getting more complex and has become an international issue that never ends until now. Because in addition the water areas are rich in natural resources both from energy sources, offshore and fisheries, on the other hand,  the waters of the South China Sea also become a strategic territory because the South China Sea is a trade route that delivers international goods and services with the amount of US$5 trillion. Therefore, automatically, these territories become a bone of contention for many countries especially China and four ASEAN member countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei Darussalam in utilizing natural resources, where the involvement of many countries in claiming ownership of the South China Sea can trigger the occurrence of tension in an area such as the occurrence of conflicts such as there are showing of force between the armed forces, military intervention, and monitoring each other in the territorial waters of the South China Sea. These activities will disrupt the security stability of the South China Sea which triggers the threat of waters and disrupt the stability of neighbor countries that it close to the territorial. Coupled with the existence of China’s ownership claiming of the entire South China Sea through the Nine Dash Line rule, which is an ancient rule that emerged from Chinese history. This rule violates International law and is an illegal act, especially in violation of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is an international treaty that was adopted and signed in 1982. In which the treaty emphasizes the existence of national sovereignty over the territorial sea as far as 12 miles from the coast and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as far as 200 miles.

The Importance of Bargaining and Strengthening position of EEZ Indonesia Diplomacy In South China Sea

Indonesia has no claim position and disputes in the waters of the South China Sea. Because Indonesia respects the International law of the sea agreement. However, there is Indonesia’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) which intersects with China’s Nine Dash Line. It is clear that this action violates UNCLOS and has become an illegal action. Because China still maintains the claims and rules of the Nine Dash Line which is a rule that come from Chinese history that is contrary to International Law. It can be proven by the presence of a Chinese Coast Guard ship entering the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Natuna Sea, it can automatically disrupt the stability of Indonesia’s territory and can become a problem and it is obvious that China violates the International norms. Therefore, Indonesia is important to strengthen Indonesia’s diplomatic position in its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) through negotiations with China through South China Sea diplomacy by maintaining its EEZ position to avoid inequality between the Nine Dash Line and Indonesia’s EEZ , especially in the Natuna Sea. Where this diplomatic activity can be used as a more effective strategy because it prioritizes peace or soft power strategy rather than through hard power diplomacies like military which can cause tension between the two countries, especially Indonesia and China. Indonesia and China have established diplomatic relations for 70 years in various aspects, both in terms of economy, education, military, religion, as well as public diplomacy activities that involving people to people strategy in each country as a strategy to maintain the relationship between two countries. As good partner country, Indonesia and China also need to carry out diplomacy activity, especially Indonesia in maintaining and showing a standing position and considering the overlapping Nine Dash Line in the Exclusive Economic Zone which if Indonesia does diplomacy through soft power, both countries will become good negotiating partners. Indonesia and China are coexistence with each other, therefore more comprehensive cooperation is important in discussing problems from various aspects, in particular, Indonesia must strengthen the position of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone to maintain the sovereign rights owned, especially the Natuna waters.

Therefore, Indonesia is important to negotiate and make a clear standing position in the EEZ by conducting diplomacy that is sustainable and encouraging China not to occupy Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. As Indonesia has sovereign rights in the waters of the South China Sea which consists of territorial integrity, regional stability, and economic interests. However, with the existence of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which has been intersectingwith China’s Nine Dash Line, this has led to a reduction in Indonesia’s sovereign rights which can be feared to disrupt the stability of the international security of Indonesia waters, especially the Natuna Islands which can disrupt many activities such as navigation activities, activities in exploring natural resources, and can threaten the national stability of the country. It because the Natuna Island is an asset that owned by Indonesia which greatly influences the life of civil society in the Natuna Archipelago region and depends on it for their lives by looking for natural resources in the Natuna island. Therefore in addition to economic cooperation, education and others. There is also a need for clear cooperation and certainty from each country, especially Indonesia and China, regarding their clarity in claiming waters without offending the boundaries of the neighboring waters, especially the Indonesian territory in the Natuna Islands through diplomatic activities, which with the existence of diplomatic activities, bilateral negotiations from the two countries. It can be a strategy to achieve peace and prevent conflicts. Because until now Indonesia is dependent on China from any aspect in completing the country’s needs especially through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), therefore the strategy in maintaining Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) position through bilateral diplomacy can be a great strategy to create peace, without undermined cooperation and diplomatic relations between two countries especially must implement the aim and the purposes of ASEAN  to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law.

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