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From the 2004 tsunami relief efforts to the 2021 leaders’ summit, the Quad has come a long way

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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.

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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.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Southeast Asia

Cambodian Prime Minister’s Visit to Myanmar: Weakening Role of the ASEAN?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently visited Myanmar for two days despite a wave of condemnation that his visit undermines ASEAN and legitimizes Myanmar’s deadly regime. Hun Sen is currently the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, and is expected to lead ASEAN in diplomatic activity on how to navigate Myanmar’s political situation. As expected, Hun Sen was welcomed by the Myanmar officials, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and was given a guard of honor. Accompanying Hun Sen are donations of medical equipment to fight Covid-19, comprising three million face masks, 200,000 N95 masks, 100,000 goggles, 30,000 personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, 30,000 face shields, 3,000 plastic boots, 50 ventilators appropriate for an ICU setting, 50 patient monitors and 50 oxygen concentrators. He was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected party and jailed it’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Since Feb 1, at least 1,435 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw in ruthless crackdowns on democracy protests. Conflict has also escalated in the nation’s border zones creating a humanitarian disaster where tens of thousands of people have been fleeing for their lives. Prompted by Myanmar’s exclusion from the bloc’s summit in 2021, the premier has repeatedly signaled his intent to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, arguing that the economic union was “incomplete”.

Why has the Cambodian Prime Minister visited Myanmar, a nearly pariah nation in the world? Traditionally, Cambodia is a time-tested ally of Myanmar. This country has remained behind Myanmar solidly in times of crisis and challenges. Particularly, the current Hun Sen leadership is close to the military Junta of Myanmar. Cambodia has a different view about Myanmar and it’s a deeply pro-Junta as Hun Sen believes that ASEAN did not operate very smoothly in 2021 on the Myanmar issue. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen is determined to find a way to halt the violence and maintain the “ceasefire” in Myanmar while pursuing the bloc’s five-point consensus and bringing in humanitarian assistance. In his words, we cannot stand by passively while Myanmar falls apart and that we must find a way to resolve the stand-off between the opposing sides there and take advantage of all opportunities to pursue negotiations.

Although apparently the Cambodian leader focuses on political crisis in Myanmar, he has no concern for democracy, human rights and brutality of the military regime. He has no concern for the Rohingyas or any minority groups, which suits interests of Myanmar regime and its allies. Cambodia has launched a diplomatic blitz to rehabilitate the Junta first in ASEAN and then at the global level. Before taking over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, Hun Sen declared that he wanted the Burmese junta to be represented at the bloc’s meeting. In responding to questions of whether Cambodia can resolve the issue of the Myanmar junta, Hun Sen mentioned that any resolution would have to come from Myanmar itself, saying that the regional bloc was only one part of helping the member nation find a solution. “It isn’t based on whether Cambodia can resolve it or not, but Cambodia will try to compromise the situation of Myanmar to return it to a better situation.

Hun Sen is trying to use his personal influence as one of the oldest leaders in the region who is in power for more than 36 years and who even supported Vietnam’s invasion of his country in 1978. His own leadership in Cambodia is also deeply criticized, so his diplomatic role can also help him legitimizing his power in one of the small but historic nations on earth, Cambodia. Hun Sen often refers to ASEAN’s long-held convention of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs as an excuse of not creating any pressure on the Junta government. He plainly promotes the idea that under the ASEAN charter, no one has the rights to expel another member.

Support for the Hun Sen Initiative

The visit of Hun Sen enjoys support from some members of ASEAN and outside. Cambodia enjoys strong endorsement from two powerful regional partners of ASEAN and members of ASEAN Plus Three, China and Japan. In a statement of Japan’s MOFA, it is stated that Japan welcomes Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN Chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely. Another close ally of Myanmar, China, is also strongly in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar. The Chinese foreign ministry official, Wang Wenbin states that China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty and [he] works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point road map and ASEAN’s five-point consensus. In his words, “China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar”. Members of ASEAN such as Thailand and Vietnam have strong support for Hun Sen visit. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that ASEAN member-state Thailand’s top diplomat had sent a “congratulatory message” saying, “he strongly supported the outcomes of the Cambodia-Myanmar joint press release”.

Against the Visit

Rights groups are calling the visit a charade. They openly argue that by failing to insist that he would meet with all parties to the conflict, including imprisoned political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, PM Hun Sen has demonstrated a clear authoritarian orientation that all issues can be sorted out in closed door talks between dictators. They argue that such kind stance of Hun Sen threatens to undermine the very fragile ASEAN decision that Myanmar political authorities cannot participate in future ASEAN events unless they abide by the 5 Point Consensus agreed by junta supremo General Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021. Activists also argue that with the false confidence generated by this ill-advised visit, the serious worry is the Tatmadaw will see this as a green light to double down on its rights abusing tactics seeking to quell the aspirations of the Burmese people. The worrying fact is that ASEAN has been making some efforts to stabilise the political conflict in Myanmar since the 2021 coup, but many view Hun Sen’s visit undermines this progress. Understandably, anti-coup activists and leading members of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, have also condemned the visit across social media. The most outspoken ASEAN members against the visit are Indonesia and Malaysia who led the process in 2021 to keep the Junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing out of ASEAN process for his blatant breach of 5-point consensus to which he was also a party.

Who has benefited from the Visit?

Undoubtedly, it is the military Junta of Myanmar who has gained exclusively from this visit orchestrated by the pro-Junta members within and outside of ASEAN. Myanmar and Cambodia are particularly happy with the outcomes of the visit. In the first place, the Myanmar Military has already achieved a huge diplomatic advantage from the visit of Hun Sen as he became the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar and meet the regime’s leader, Min Aung Hlaing, since the military overthrew the country’s elected government in February 2021. Meanwhile, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations in a 140-minute meeting in the capital of Naypyidaw and they agreed that the ASEAN Special Envoy could be involved in the Myanmar peace process. Myanmar believes that Cambodia will rule with fairness during its chairmanship this year of the ASEAN. To Myanmar, there were “good results” from the Cambodian leader’s visit that boosted the military leadership as they argue that international pressure on Myanmar had not dialed down, but Myanmar would not bow to it.

Despite the satisfaction of Myanmar and Cambodia, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticized Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for taking unilateral action in meeting the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The foreign minister further added, “We would expect that he could have at least consult – if not all – a few of his brother leaders as to what he should say.” He reminded that ASEAN position would not change that until there is clear progress on the five-point consensus Myanmar’s representation at the Asean summit and related summits at the end of the year should remain non-political. Indonesia is another powerful member of ASEAN also criticized that visit and identified it as a futile exercise.  

Another immediate outcome of the visit is postponement of the first ASEAN meeting known as The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) initially scheduled on Jan. 18-19, 2022, in Siem Reap province under Cambodia’s 2022 chairmanship. Although COVID 19 was shown as a reason behind this decision, it is the division among the bloc’s members over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar has played a vital role behind this new development. Discords within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the ASEAN diplomats’ retreat might be why some ASEAN members chose not to attend the meeting. Precisely, the issue is members’ intense disagreement over ASEAN chair’s invitation to the Myanmar military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have created an impasse. It may be mentioned that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit in 2021 when Brunei was the Chair of the bloc.  Analysts fear that the postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.

By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized him and at the same time, weakened the role of ASEAN in playing a constructive role in the Myanmar crisis. The military leader in Myanmar had promised, among other things, to end violence and give an ASEAN special envoy access to all parties in the Myanmar political crisis, but he has done none of those things. Hun Sen has reversed the stance of the previous Chair Brunei, which created positive pressure on the Myanmar regime. Now the visit has questioned the credibility and limit of ASEAN to continue its meaningful and effective diplomatic role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, which has adverse impact on the future of democratic movement and the possible repatriation of the Rohingyas.

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Laos Prime Minister visit to Vietnam

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Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (front, centre) arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on January 8 morning (Photo: VNA)

Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh along with a high-ranking delegation visited Vietnam from January 8 -10 to strengthen ties with its neighbour country. The official visit of Laos Prime Minister to Vietnam ushered in a new phase of interactions and outlook in friendship between the two neighbourly countries of Indochina. The Laotian prime minister would also usher in the era long celebration of the friendship between Laos and Vietnam in the year 2022. Given the fact that the two countries of Indochina have suffered the after effects of the pandemic COVID-19 in the year 2021, and have decided to enhance their partnership in select areas for protecting the mutual interest and forging cooperation between the parties, the government and developing people to people interactions. Vietnam has taken cognisance of the fact that the neighbouring countries require support both in terms of medicines, diagnostics and other health equipment which was required during the times of crisis.

Vietnam had given medical equipment and diagnostics kits  worth US$2.2 million to Laos, and also sent a few of its medical personal to assist the Laotian patients and Vietnamese  overseas citizens in Laos. At the times of crisis, even Laos has given Vietnam nearly US$300,000 for pandemic containment response and even the private sector in Laos came forward for giving 1.4 billion dollars  to the Vietnamese communities located closer to the  border of the two countries.  Between Laos and  Vietnam there has been economic and development cooperation  under that there are more than 209 projects under which Vietnamese firms  have invested more than $5.16 billion in Laos.

In terms of education, training and developing capacities the two countries have assisted each other and Vietnam has offered more than 1200 scholarships to Laotian  officials and students for enhancing their knowledge and capacities.

Since last year the interaction between the two countries has been more profound and there has been a visit of party general secretary, presidents, and prime ministers of the two countries. In August 2021 Laos general secretary and president Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Vietnam. During the visit the discussions were held with regard to improving ties and elevating ties to the next level. One of the important agenda points which have been discussed was bringing about reforms and ensuring national construction and defence between the two countries. The party general secretary appreciated the extensive reforms which have been carried out in Vietnam in the last three and a half decades after Doi-Moi(economic reforms programme initiated in 1986). The two sides also discussed developing conducive conditions for mutual development and ensuring stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. The issue of development in Mekong subregion and developing interactions at World Trade organizations were in the agenda too. One of the important highlights of the visit was strengthening cooperation and coordination with Cambodia so as to promote the CLV developmental triangle area. Laos and Vietnam also share the resources of Mekong River and it has become imperative for the two countries to develop institutional links and coordination mechanisms in this context. The two sides were also keen on developing defence ties and addressing challenges such as cross border crime an undertaking joint border patrol.

Following this visit, President Phuc visited Laos in his new term and the discussions were held between the two counterparts on COVID-19 pandemic cooperation and undertaking special efforts particularly in regional organisations as well as in the United Nations. During that visit nearly 14 cooperation documents were signed between the two ministries particularly in the fields of security, defence, drugs control, power exchange, and mineral exploration. The visit also opened new vistas of cooperation between the two sides and but trust the need for special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation. During the visit the 43rd meeting of the Vietnam Laos intergovernmental committee was also held and the two sides also decided on the cooperation strategy for the next decade (2021 to 2030). In fact, one of the important highlights of the visit of president Phuc has been the wide coverage which has been given by the media in Laos and also highlighting the special friendship between the two nations.

This visit of the Laos Prime Minister forms the basis of solidarity, political acknowledgement, and confidence between the two parties in the Indochina. Vietnam has also helped Laos in building its National Assembly which was worth 111 million USD dollars. Vietnam showed urgency and immediate support when Laos was facing widespread effects of COVID-19 pandemic. In one of the statements which was made by the Ambassador of Laos in Vietnam, he stated that this visit will build up foundation for a comprehensive partnership between the two nations in the year 2022. He added that this visit will help in deepening ties related to science and technology, culture, education, knowledge building security and defence ties as well as political interactions. The two countries have convergence is with regard to developing the age end of ASEAN meetings in the year 2022 as well as looking for better development avenues in the Mekong subregion. The Vietnam Laos friendship and solidarity year 2022 would help in better management of trade relationship, use of Vietnamese sea ports by Laotian businessman and exploring transport connections through the East West corridor.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s contributions as non-permanent member of UNSC

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Vietnam has joined the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the period 2020–2021 and during this period it was expected that Vietnam would be raising issues related to the regional development, challenges with regard to the pandemic, building consensus on sustainable development goals, and addressing issues related to maritime and regional security. In one of the statements which have been made by the permanent representative of Vietnam to the United Nations, he has clearly stated that Vietnam has been able to secure cooperation from the other members of the UNSC on issues related to objectivity, unity and transparency, and made a good case with regard to the legitimate interest of relevant parties in South China Sea. Vietnam has aspired to make the United Nations as a people centric approach and stressed on finding reasonable and sustainable solutions to settle maritime disputes through dialogue, and highlighted humanitarian challenges to the most vulnerable groups in the international society. Vietnam strongly supported the UN Charter in the maintenance of international peace and security. It was also very vocal with regard to protection of infrastructure which was critical to people’s livelihood.

In one of the messages which was sent by President of Vietnam Phuc following the conclusion of Vietnam’s term as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is stated that in the New Year Vietnam completed the term fulfilling the trust that was bestowed upon it by the international community when it got 192 out of and 193 votes for securing a non-permanent seat in the UNSC. He stated that Vietnam has always stressed on maintaining international peace and security and also urged the nations for building up consensus with regard to the pandemic and after effects caused by COVID-19.

Vietnam during the meeting on maritime security (held in August under the UNSC chairmanship of India) also suggested three important measures which included involvement of international organisations in regional conflict zones, undertaking consultative measures through dialogue mechanisms and also stressing on people centric approach so as to protect communities living in the coastal zones. Vietnam’s President Phuc also stated that the UN Charter and international law should be protected at all times. During the two-year stint with the UNSC, Vietnam projected its foreign policy in terms of self-reliance, promoting peace and friendship among nations, strengthening multilateral structures, and expanding its relations with other countries of the world. In his message he also stated that Vietnam has now become a more active and responsible stakeholder in international dialogue and would be taking responsibilities which would strengthen institutions such as UN.

Vietnam is also aspiring to become a strong and prosperous middle power country by the year 2045 when Vietnam will be celebrating hundred years of its independence. The adroitness of the Vietnam’s diplomatic community and the party cadres have helped in elevation of Vietnam’s international stature and enhance ties with a number of countries representing in the UN. Vietnam steadfastly advocated for a world free from wars and conflict, and developing common objective of international peace along with removing poverty and inequalities.

During its stint as the chair of the UNSC in April 2021, Vietnam demonstrated a strong affinity to the international community and highlighted the issues which are of common concern for the mankind. Vietnam also highlighted the need for strengthening dialogue between the UN and regional organisations, and addressed one of the important issues of unexploded landmines and after effects of explosive remnants of the world wars.

Vietnam made a strong case for respect and recognition for international law and implementation of the charter enshrined under UNCLOS 1982. In fact, Vietnam also raise the issue of woman in peace and conflicts aspects and   the collateral damage of the climate change in conflict zones. During the chairmanship of Vietnam, the pandemic effect became profound and, in that context, Vietnam showed diplomatic skilfulness in promoting international peace and security due to the pandemic conditions. Vietnam, during its stint as the chair of the ASEAN in 2020, has already explored the possibilities with regard to holding online and off-line activities and therefore its experience came very handy in UNSC to explore potential of online and off-line activities together.

Vietnam raised very pertinent questions with regard to the protection of civilians and critical civilian infrastructure in crises zones. One of the important achievements which was enshrined in Vietnam’s tenure was the adoption of the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness. This was fully supported by all UN member states and the resolution was adopted worldwide. This International Day of Epidemic Preparedness was meant to prepare all organisations including private and public sector to address any gaps in preparedness and coordination as well as creating awareness among people.

Among the list of priorities which have been issued by the Vietnam for the year 2020-2021 tenure was primarily focused on peaceful settlement of disputes, strengthening of implementation of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, addressing the after effects of armed conflict, cooperation under the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, and highlighting tangible solutions in mitigating the effects of climate change which are related to international peace and security. All in all, one can say that Vietnam has very deftly managed its position as non- permanent member at UNSC, and has also supported countries like India in addressing issues such as maritime security at the global level. This has generated lot of interest and international support which was instrumental in adopting common protocols and future agenda for protecting the global commons.  

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