Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.
After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.
As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.
Déjà vu 1988
Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.
It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.
Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.
Absence of a political consensus
Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.
Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.
When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability
The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.
Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.
At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.
Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.
The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history
With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.
As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.
Regional voices and the road to peace
Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.
Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.
Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.
Visit of Vietnamese President to Cuba
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.
From the 2004 tsunami relief efforts to the 2021 leaders’ summit, the Quad has come a long way
The Quad plurilateral mechanism in the Indo-Pacific reached the landmark summit level in March, this year. With its second summit being held late this week in Washington DC, the prospects of cooperation appear promising. In this long essay, I try to briefly historicise the journey of the Quad so far, right from its very beginnings to the present, and share my frame of mind on what the grouping entails and what it ought to be.
US President Joe Biden will host the prime ministers of India, Japan, and Australia at the White House on Friday (September 24) for their first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit. The previous summit was held in virtual mode six months before, in March.
In February, this year, the third ministerial of the four-nation grouping in two years’ time also took place in the virtual mode. The Quad has been recalibrating itself to deal with the most pressing challenges of the times with several purpose-driven working-level groups set in action this year.
This covers a wide range of areas of cooperation, going beyond the traditional domain of maritime security and defence and includes issues such as the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, quality infrastructure, cyber-security, diversified supply chains, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Even though the Quad leaders’ came up with a joint statement titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’ shortly after the virtual summit in March, the grouping’s very purpose or raison d’être still remains ambiguous, as there are a lot of issues it involves with and there is a lot on the table to speculate on.
While some perceives the Quad as an anti-China coalition of maritime democracies that would ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, some perceive it differently and see the possibilities for regional cooperation, rather than competition.
The Quad navies jointly participated in the annual Malabar naval exercise thrice – in 2007, 2020, and 2021. It was initially conceived and conducted as an India-US bilateral exercise until 2007, when the four Quad navies participated together for the first time since the drills began in 1992. Among the Quad partners, the United States, India, and Japan have been participating as permanent members of the annual war games since 2015.
Australia has been participating in Exercise Malabar for two consecutive years now – 2020 and 2021 – and has additionally participated in one more edition, in 2007, but it still lacks a permanent status in the exercise. If Australia is inducted as a permanent member soon enough, it completes the securitisation of the Quad, but without a formal treaty alliance.
Despite all the contemporary public excitement surrounding the Quad, it is still not fully institutionalised in terms of structural factors such as having a permanent secretariat or an active web presence, a gap that has to be filled in order to complete the process of formal institutionalisation.
There is little doubt that China’s enhanced power projection in the past two decades in the region and the geopolitical concerns it raise has been a key factor in bringing together the nations of grouping in the late 2000s. However, the Quad’s story had subtly begun even much before in an entirely different context.
A natural disaster brings the would-be Quad partners together
The four Quad countries have a history of mutual cooperation that goes 17 years back to December 2004, when a massive tsunami struck along the rim of the Indian Ocean, depriving tens of thousands of people of their lives, livelihoods, and property. It was presumably the deadliest natural disaster of the 21st century, resulting in the death of a whopping 230,000 people.
India, Japan and Australia joined hands with the United States to coordinate the relief efforts, two days after the disaster occurred. They formed a ‘Tsunami Core Group’ as first responders to the looming humanitarian crisis and their collective effort continued till mid-January 2005 before handing over the mission to the United Nations.
A thematic conundrum
The very first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (shortened as the QSD, or the Quad) of senior officials from the four Indo-Pacific democracies took place in May 2007 on the side-lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, only to get disbanded the very next year with Australia’s withdrawal and also due to differences on what the grouping’s aims and objectives ought to be in the years ahead.
However, after nearly a decade, the Quad took a new avatar in November 2017 with the launch of an official-level working group for ‘consultations on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region’, and since then until the March 2021 summit, the Quad meetings of senior officials were held seven times and the foreign ministers met thrice, one each in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively.
Having a large number of issues at hand would amount to losing focus on a key central theme, which ideally ought to be maritime security and the preservation of the right balance of power against any single power’s quest for hegemony in the region. While a shared concern on the rise of China and its new assertion in a way disrupting the regional and global balance of power was an issue that needed to be dealt with right from the very first QSD in 2007.
However, the ‘security’ element of QSD has broadened into newer arenas of cooperation lately, of which the most important issue has been the coordination of the Covid-19 pandemic relief efforts collectively, particularly through the vaccine initiative, announced earlier this year.
Under the initiative, Covid vaccines will be manufactured in India using American biotechnology, with Japanese financial support and Australian logistical support and distribution network, thereby making use of the respective capability-edge of each Quad countries in different areas, as a combined whole. This can also be seen as a response to increasing Chinese influence in regions such as Southeast Asia, where the Quad’s initiative can be introduced as an alternative to the ones offered by China.
The territorial worries of India and Japan
Of all the Quad partners, India is the only country that shares a land border with China in the high Himalayas, which is also disputed and undemarcated with overlapping claims and serious differences in perception of the border. Japan, on the other hand, is located in China’s immediate maritime neighbourhood.
From 2005 to 2007, the security dynamics of Asia and the Pacific witnessed several changes with the rise of China. On the other hand, India was getting closer to the United States, with notably the Indo-US civil nuclear deal negotiations being underway, and later finalised.
Around the same time, in November 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to India kindled an unnecessary controversy by claiming the whole of the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory, or rather as part of southern Tibet. This cast a shadow over the border negotiations that were going on between the two countries since the early 1990s.
Earlier in 2006, during a round of border negotiations, the Chinese side seemed to backtrack on a prior understanding that any final resolution would refrain from disturbing ‘settled populations’. This signalled that Beijing had no intention of respecting the ‘status quo’.
Tensions were also simmering in the East China Sea and not that far from Japanese territorial waters, when a Chinese submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier strike group without warning. This happened in October 2006, causing a major embarrassment for the US Navy. Until that point of time, China remained a quiet naval power.
The incident marked the first instance of China’s naval power projection in modern history, as it remained a land-based power for centuries, even though it had a long coastline along the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Bohai Sea. The Chinese just gave a political message to the world on their new coming as an Asian maritime power.
In fact, Japan started to view China as a potential threat even a couple of years before, when Chinese aircrafts intruded into Japanese airspace near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese referred to as the Diaoyu Islands. A Chinese submarine transited through Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa in 2006 and similar incidents repeated in the following years too.
With tensions heating up, Shinzo Abe, then member of the Japanese National Diet (parliament) published a book detailing his political philosophy and vision for Japan in July 2006, titled “Towards a Beautiful Country”, in which he proposed to strengthen Japan’s collaboration with Australia, the US, and India.
By the time, Indian and Japanese strategic interests in the region began to converge. In the same year, Shinzo Abe was elected as the Prime Minister of Japan, the youngest person to hold the office since the conclusion of the Second World War.
The birth of Quad coincides with the re-emergence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’
The Indian Ocean represented a key strategic vulnerability of China, being a crucial waterway through which Beijing’s energy lifelines transit, before reaching the southern and eastern ports of mainland China via the Strait of Malacca. This opened up the possibility of using naval might to moderate China’s aggressive behaviour, a discussion that attracted minds in the strategic circles of New Delhi and Tokyo, particularly since the mid-2000s.
Before 2006, the Indian Ocean was rarely seen as part of the Asia-Pacific in the context of regional politico-economic integration. The time has now come to imagine a region in which the Indian Ocean integrated with the Asia-Pacific.
Around the same time, in November 2006, then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso delivered a speech at a seminar organised by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in which he spoke of an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent’.
In January 2007, a strategic thinker and then Captain in the Indian Navy named Gurpreet S. Khurana subtly brought back an old idea of a maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the strategic discourse though his policy paper titled, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation” – the Indo-Pacific. It was published in Strategic Analysis, the journal of Indian think-tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
However, the idea was originally attributed to a 20th century German geopolitician named Karl Haushofer, who used it in the 1920s in his multiple academic works. Fast forward to the 21st century, in August 2007, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe delivered a speech in the Parliament of India, during his visit to the country, known as ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’, in which he endorsed the concept, thereby receiving political and diplomatic mileage for the first time.
The immediate trigger for this ideational revival was apparently the new military assertiveness of China in its neighbourhood. However, it was different from the idea of a four-nation grouping of the Quad, which later endorsed a much-evolved concept of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’, respecting customary international law and a rules-based regional order.
Today, the Quad is one of the most important power centres in the Indo-Pacific, along with the ASEAN countries, France, and of course, China.
2007 – A historic year for the Quad
2007 was indeed a phenomenal year for the Quad as it witnessed the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) on the side-lines of that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. This was made possible after Japanese PM Shinzo Abe managed to successfully persuade the then US Vice-President Dick Cheney of the need for such a meeting. Abe also made similar proposals to India and Australia, which received positive responses.
The first Quad meeting was in fact a gathering of mid-level officials from the four countries, who explored possible ways of cooperation. The year also witnessed the participation of Japan and Australia in the annual US-India Malabar naval exercise, along with Singapore, the first in which all the Quad partners participated. These moves, as expected, invited strong reactions from China.
The disbandment of Quad 1.0
Unfortunately, what followed in the rest of 2007 were unfavourable regime changes in Japan and Australia, as PM Abe was forced to resign due to the loss of public confidence and the then Australian PM John Howard was replaced by a Mandarin-speaking and pro-China Kevin Rudd.
Less than a year since its formation, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was forced to disband itself prematurely in 2008 when Canberra made it clear that it would no longer wish to be part of the Quad, owing to pressure from Beijing, to which it was getting closer for exploring new prospects of expanding a promising economic ties, and also due to a lack of interest from the new Japanese leadership that succeeded Abe.
With a mounting economic might and promising industrial progress, China comfortably and gradually began to pursue an assertive foreign policy, which would soon be visible in areas such as the South China Sea and later reflective as Beijing’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy.
The return of Shinzo Abe and Japanese leadership at play
In 2012, the visionary Shinzo Abe made a heroic return as the Prime Minister of Japan, after winning that year’s parliamentary polls. He then vowed to invest Japan’s capabilities in the reinvigoration of the Quad by all means possible. He said, “Australia, India, Japan and the US State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons staring from the Indian Ocean Region to the Western Pacific …”
Three years later, in 2015, Japan was inducted as the third permanent partner in the US-India Malabar naval exercise. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan managed to revise its defence guidelines involving the United States, allowing maritime drills outside the vicinity of Japan’s territorial waters.
Soon after, Tokyo elevated its ties with Canberra to a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ and its ties with New Delhi to a ‘Special Strategic Global Partnership’. Around the same time, Australia, being home to one-third of the world’s known uranium reserves, overturned its uranium export ban to India by signing a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, an issue that had strained Canberra-New Delhi ties for long.
Even without a formal quadrilateral set-up in place, the Quad countries continued to enhance their mutual cooperation in the early 2010s by a series of trilateral networks initiated among themselves such as the Japan-America-India (JAI) and the Australia-India-Japan dialogues. Similarly, an Australia-Japan-US ministerial dialogue has already been in existence since 2006, falling short of including only India.
Quad 2.0 rises from the ashes
Finally, after a nine-year gap between the formal meetings of the disbanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Tokyo again took the lead in proposing a fresh meeting of the Quad to be held on the side-lines of the ASEAN and related summits in November 2017, again in Manila, the same city that hosted the very first Quad meeting almost a decade back.
The Japanese proposal was welcomed by Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, without much delay. This eventually led to the resurrection of the Quad from the ashes, almost a decade after it was disbanded. This time, in its new avatar, all the four countries had shared concerns on the geopolitical challenge posed by China and their strategic interests converged well.
In January 2018, the navy chiefs from the Quad countries participated and shared a common stage in the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual conference on geopolitics and geo-economics held in New Delhi, jointly organised by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Indian government and a think-tank named Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
2018 saw two working-level meetings of senior officials from the Quad countries in Singapore. The following year witnessed two such meetings in Bangkok and also the elevation of the Quad to the ministerial level in New York. The second Quad ministerial was hosted by Tokyo in 2020, and the same year saw all the Quad countries participating in Exercise Malabar after a gap of 13 years.
The US assumes the leadership of Quad 2.0
The United States has been a significant factor in the convening of the Quad summit recently. The Trump presidency (2017-2021) took an openly confrontational stance against China, giving an early impetus for the re-emergence of the Quad in 2017.
President Joe Biden, in fact, followed his predecessor’s footsteps and built on Trump’s legacy when it came to dealing with China, a global-level strategic rival of the United States, in arenas ranging from trade and technology to geopolitics.
With a virtual Quad ministerial and two summits being held this year under the US leadership, the balance of power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific has been recalibrated this year to the highest level of diplomatic engagement.
Australia’s trade woes with China brings it closer to the Quad
Australia and China have been engaged in a quasi-trade war since late 2019. Both countries do not share any territorial boundaries, as Southeast Asia and the China Seas lie in between these two large countries. However, China has been Australia’s biggest export market for many years.
In 2018, Australia became the first country in the world to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from its 5G trials and rollout, citing national security concerns. It was alleged that these companies had links with China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) and due to the fear of espionage. China reacted strongly to this by asking the Australian government to “abandon ideological prejudices and provide a fair competitive environment for Chinese companies”.
In 2020, Australia risked further worsening of its ties with China by demanding an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. China, on the other hand, imposed high tariffs on Australian imports, particularly wine that was taxed at over 200 per cent, with some lasting even up to five years, making its sale almost impossible in China.
Also, China has either halted or substantially reduced imports of many more items from Australia such as beef, coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber, as part of ‘anti-dumping measures’ and by alleging that the Australian government has been subsidising its wine producers for facilitating their exports against the rules of fair competition.
But, the real reason was apparently political, which China doesn’t wish to openly acknowledge and it also wanted to punish the struggling Australian economy. By March, this year, the value of Australian trade with China for almost all industries had plummeted by 40 per cent.
Since April 2020, Australia has been engaging in a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with fellow Quad partners India and Japan to diversify and mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities, without overly being dependent on a single country or a few. All these factors have, in fact, brought Australia closer to the Quad.
India’s participation as a sustainability factor in the Quad
The Quad opened up fresh new possibilities for India for cooperation with the US and its two key regional allies in the Quad. Thus, the grouping gained attraction in India’s strategic calculations for the Indo-Pacific lately, further intensified by the Chinese threat looming large across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is particularly intensified in the backdrop of the bloody Galwan clash of June 2020 that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers.
With its territorial border with China remaining tense, Indian strategic thinkers batted for an effective maritime strategy that would dissuade China from its misadventures in land, owing to its strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean. Today, the Quad remains as the lynchpin of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Some experts even pointed out that the secret to peace in India’s land border with China might actually lie in the oceans.
India has inaugurated ‘2+2’ dialogues of foreign and defence ministers with the United States, Japan and Australia in 2018, 2019 and 2021 respectively, to enhance cooperation in the realm of security, bypassing strategic constraints. If India ever leaves the Quad, the grouping simply ceases to exist with Japan and Australia continuing to remain as US allies in the region.
Historically, India has been a champion of a non-aligned foreign policy, which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’ by the dawn of this century. India still remains to be the only Quad partner not in a formal treaty alliance with the United States.
A trilateral ministerial dialogue between Australia, Japan, and the US is in existence since 2006. The leaders of Japan and Australia signed a historic Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007, and a US-Japan-Australia triangle was already in place.
Thus, India was a loner in the Quad since its comeback in 2017 and has always been reluctant to the alliance system. In fact, India is an active participant of Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
A ‘Quad Plus’ in the offing
New mechanisms such as the ‘Quad-Plus’ are also taking shape recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials from the Quad countries along with their counterparts from South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand had met to discuss ways to tackle the challenges of the global health crisis, covering areas from vaccine development to mitigating the impact of the pandemic on world economy.
The Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, and France can also be potential ‘Quad-Plus’ partners in the future.
The need for a re-defined raison d’être for Quad 2.0
The world of diplomacy and multilateralism has a myriad of inter-governmental or non-governmental organisations, institutional mechanisms, legal regimes, and advocacy groups for various purposes such as global nuclear governance, trade, humanitarian assistance, environment, development assistance, health and so on. In that league, it is important to specifically determine where exactly do the Quad stand and what is its relevance in the current times?
An expanded mandate of Quad 2.0 would mean losing focus on the most important issue at hand – maritime security and defence, at the cost of entertaining other issues. The Quad deals with issues of common interest of all of its members that are systemically ‘democracies’ and this explains why China cannot be part of it.
With ‘security’ being ‘one of the many issues’ the Quad undertakes lately, the grouping still has to clear ambiguities surrounding its bottom-line raison d’être and there is still scope for redefining its purpose and central focus into a few limited themes by prioritising a sustainable and positive balance of power in the region above everything else, and I remain optimistic in this regard, particularly as the White House welcomes the prime ministers of India, Japan and Australia, this week.
The Anandamahidol Foundation and the Legacy of Rama the Ninth of Thailand
Founded in 1955 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the Ninth of Thailand, the AnandaMahidol Foundation has supported and sponsored exceptional young students of Thailand to pursue graduate studies abroad in eight fields of studies. These fields include Medicine, Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Agriculture, Dentistry and Veterinary – all quintessential to the sustainable development of Thailand. For nearly seven decades, the graduates of this Foundation have served various roles and positions in Thai society and altogether advanced the production of knowledge for Thailand.
Dr. Rattana Lao, a trained Educator and a recipient of the Foundation from Social Sciences, interviewed Dr. Jain Charnnarong, an experienced Mechanical Engineering and the president of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the Foundation, the late King’s Philosophy and what it means to Thailand’s future.
Inspiration of the AnandaMahidol Foundation
The origin of the Foundation began as the late King wanted to honor the memory of His elder brother and His Majesty was advised to do something about education. Due to the dire need of the nation, the first scholarships were given to two medical students: Professor Charas Suwanwela and Professor Prawase Wasi. Since, nearly 400 students from eight fields have been awarded the scholarship. Each scholarship recipient excels in their own fields and dedicates their lives to the betterment of the society. Today, it is important for us as a Foundation to reflect on our role in the society and think critically about how we can work together in unity. We need to think what the country needs and focus on it.
Example of developmental issue in Thailand
Environmental issue is the main problem. Two years ago, I was asked by Professor Charan Mahatummaratana, the then Chairman of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the PM2.5 issue in Thailand. There are two main reasons for the dust problem: burning of fossil fuel and openburning wildfire. As long as Bangkok still depends on personal transportation via cars, there is not much we can do about fossil fuel. We have to wait for the transformation of the society toward more public transportation and the use of alternative sources of energy.
Wildfire is another problem. It is caused by ignorance andcarelessness of the people. Sometimes, farmers wanted to burn post-harvest materials in their lands for a rai or two, but it spread into the forest escalating to 100,000 rai of wildfire. Some wildfires last continually for months and the villagers suffer from air pollution.
Ananda Mahidol Foundation’s involvement in addressing development issue
It began at Bann Kor, in Li, Lumphun – in the north of Thailand, where our Foundation’s work as a sandbox. A few of us went to the village toresearch in order to understand the plight of Kor. There were engineers, scientists and botanists. The botanists helped enlightened the team about the intricate relationship between different species in the forest, especially between plants and mycorrhiza. The main question is how we can live in harmony with the forest, how can human mitigate the intrusion to the forest and limit environmental degradation.
Bann Kor Sandbox and the late King’s Philosophy
The root cause of forest invasion is poverty. Villagers need to eat. They need to survive. During the summertime, most villagers are unemployed and they depended on the forest for their living. They might want to burn a rai or two but the fire escalated to 100,000 rai due to carelessness. This is the cause of the wildfire.
Going into Bann Kor reminded all of us about the late King’s Philosophy on sustainable development. There needs to be betterwater management, soil and access to the market.
Our study on Bann Kor shows that there is sufficient water in the forest: both on the surface and underground but there lacks water management system. The state needs to invest for the villagers to have sustainable water infrastructure. His Majesty the late King of Thailand talked a lot about sustainable water management. Throughout His Majesty’s life, he did many projects related to water – more than 1,000 projects altogether. Water is the first step of life, for plants and for human. Without water, there is no food security nor life.
Soil is also important. It is about agriculture. Then comes access to the market. If any village can maintain the balance between water, soil and access to market, while preserving the nature,there is hope for sustainable development.
Youth is important
Knowledge production and learning matter significantly to the development equation. We must educate the new cadre of youth in the village to know how to live with the forest in harmony. In the beginning of the project, we asked the youth what kind of plants grow in their forest, they couldn’t answer it. It is a fallacy that people who live with the forest do not understand the forest.
They could not see the relationship between different living things in the forest. They lack basic knowledge and understanding about the forest. We have to change that. We have to reeducate them. We have to show them the intersectionality betweenwildfire, environmental degradation and poverty. It’s essential to integrate these knowledge into the school system so students are made aware of the impact of their action. If we can do that, we can hope to begin a journey to address the issue of climate change.
It all begins with young people.
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