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

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

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

Top Secret (or maybe not)

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

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

The ASEAN Way

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

Re-Rebalancing

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

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

First Match

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

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

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

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

Spare the Triarii

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

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

First Chain Bound

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

Hidden Catch

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the International Relations Department of Far Eastern Federal University, RIAC Expert

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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