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Southeast Asia

50 Years of Clear Skies and Diplomatic Ties

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Archisha Tiwari*

The late Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Van Dong had remarked in 1980 that the relationship between India and Vietnam was “as clear as a cloudless sky”, and now that the two countries celebrate 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties it can be safely assumed that the statement has stood the test of time. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla paid an official visit to Vietnam on the invitation from National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hu from 19th April to 21st April 2022 following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call with Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam on 15th April 2022. There is a constant reiteration of Vietnam’s role in India’s Act East Policy and its Indo-Pacific Vision which is cemented by bilateral relations in all fields including but not limited to economy, trade, defence and tourism.

History

From ‘Bilateral Relations’ to ‘Strategic Partnership’ to now a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ the two countries have always shared close diplomatic ties which is a result of their shared experience of struggle for liberation from foreign rule and national struggle for independence. Despite having different political systems, there has been numerous high level diplomatic visits and India has time and again played a key role in Vietnam whether it was supporting its independence from France and its unification or it’s commitment to provide assistance in advancing Vietnam’s defence in the present decade.

India launched its Act East Policy in the year 2014 where it rightfully recognized the need for economic, strategic and cultural relations with South East Asian countries in the field of connectivity, trade, culture, defence and people-to-people contact. Vietnam is a very vital and strategic partner for India and as commented by Ambassador Pham Sanh Chu, India has become one of Vietnam’s top three partners as a comprehensive strategy partner along with Russia and China, but India and Vietnam’s diplomatic relations are stronger.

India’s Indo-Pacific Vision is positive and inclusive of and nations in its geography and beyond who have a stake in it. ASEAN centrality and unity is an important element of the vision. This is as per the remarks delivered by Saurabh Kumar, Secretary(East), Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India. Vietnam yet again plays a key role in the region and in India’s vision especially with respect to the area of South China Sea that is currently a contested area with China blatantly violating United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and hereby going against India’s vision for the region that aligns with Vietnam’s.

Phone Talks

The telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong turned out to be very fruitful wherein the Prime Minister requested for greater facilitation of market access for India’s pharma and agri-products in Vietnam and highlighted the historical and civilization links between the two. There was an emphasis on the role of importance of international law when in context of both the current Ukrainian crisis and the situation in South China Sea.

Om Birla’s Visit

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to keep the celebratory spirit going than a visit of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, which also marks the first official visit of India in Vietnam after the COVID-19 pandemic. SD Pradhan in his article aptly recognizes the significance of the meeting and convergence of two law making bodies and their heads who also serve as the representative of their citizens by default. It shows an intermingling of ideas and views of two countries with different political systems. Vuong Dinh Hue, the Chairman of the National Assembly of Vietnam visited India in December 2021 and gave out a three-level action plan: (1) Deepening relations of the two law making bodies. (2) Need for two sides to under one another’s socio-economic development policies and (3) Developing a system of comparing notes on international issues of common concern and to seek solutions to global issues. Om Birla’s visit is a step towards hastening and progressing the proposed plan. There were further considerations given to expansion in areas such as climate change and sustainable development, health care and digital economy. Reiterating the previous phone call and the Indo Pacific Vision, there was a discussion on defence and increase in maritime security with the acquisition of BrahMos by Vietnam being discussed. Dr. Rajaram Panda in his analysis of India-Vietnam comments on how Vietnam considers India a global power and supports India to play a greater role in a muti polar world based on standards of international law.

A very important part of Indian-Vietnam relations is the cooperation on economic policies and trade. India is the most important market for Vietnam accounting got 80% of Vietnam’s total trade with South Asian nations. Om Birla mentioned the desire to increase the bilateral trade to reach US $15 billion from the previous US $13.2 billion while admiring the growth of Vietnam on a variety of economic sectors.

There was a discussion on the partnership in the energy sector with the hopes of renewal of the ONGC Videsh Limited contract for another 15 years. Not only that on a more cultural level, Om Birla also while meeting the Party Secretary Nguyen Van Nen, highlighted the common civilization heritage. The cultural ties are also evident when the topic of tourism was brought up and discussed with an agreement to enhance cooperation in tourism. Speaking of tourism, after the suspension of direct flights between New Delhi and Hanoi in light of the pandemic, the air connectivity was impacted but Birla’s visit restored the connectivity.

Way Forward

Currently the two countries are implementing the 2021-2023 Action Program that aims to implement all the agreements and discussions that took place in the official meets and telephonic conversations. The relationship is a long standing one with deep understanding of each other’s needs and a mutual sense of respect. With a pending invite for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and policies that expand years, the sky continues to be as clear as it was in 1980.

*Archisha Tiwari is a Research Assistant at the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and a law student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, India. 

Harsh Mahaseth is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean (Academic Affairs) at Jindal Global Law School, and a Senior Research Analyst at the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.

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Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s Role in Bangladesh-Myanmar Border Tension

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Myanmar’s border forces near the Bangladesh border in northern Rakhine State. / photo: The Irrawaddy

For the past few days, Myanmar is continuously violating Bangladesh’s air space and territorial sovereignty. It has now done so at least five times. Apart from violating border laws, Myanmar is also responsible for firing mortar shells that killed two people. Moreover, the landmines at the border also injured one. It is worth mentioning that the use of landmines in the border region during peacetime is a clear violation of international law.

Against this continuous foul play by Myanmar, Bangladesh is dealing with the situation patiently and carefully considering the sensitivity of the border area. Many are seeing Myanmar’s mischievous activities as a provocation, Bangladesh hardly wants any clash in its borderlands as it may have a wide range of adverse impacts upon it such as unstable borderland, new tensions bordering districts, a new refugee crisis from Rakhine, and hindering its peaceful development.

So, the country is resorting to diplomatic options and regional and international pressure on Myanmar. The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh has already called the Myanmar Ambassador fourth time since August and briefed the ASEAN ambassadors about the situation. Dhaka is likely to raise the issue in the upcoming United Nations Assembly also.

In return, Myanmar Foreign Ministry also called Bangladesh’s Ambassador on 20th September and blamed Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) blamed for the attacks. The ministry also claimed previously that there are AA and ARSA terrorists inside Bangladesh. But it seems Myanmar’s claim is unbelievable and it is a part of its ‘blame game’. Prominent Journalist Subir Bhoumik analyzed that claim that neither AA nor ARSA is known for using heavy artillery and do not have air support, it was the military helicopter that violated Bangladesh’s airspace.

Moreover, the claim of AA and ARSA’s presence inside Bangladesh is also problematic. Bangladesh’s counter-insurgency measure and counter-terrorism measure is well-known in the region. And there is hardly any official claim that foreign rebels are operating from inside Bangladesh. Surely, it’s a tactics of Myanmar to create confusion about the tension and play a blame game.

However, Dhaka’s briefing the ASEAN ambassadors and seeking ASEAN’s role in mitigating the issue is a quite fair one considering ASEAN’s structure and ambition.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN in short is a union between 10 Southeast Asian nations. The members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The areas of cooperation include political, economic, security, military, and socio-cultural with a desire for integration. Since the early 2000s, ASEAN also followed a community approach and established several communities among it. So, ASEAN is following the supra-national model of the European Union (EU). As a result, in any matter regarding its member-state, it has a stake in it.

ASEAN also has a deep engagement in the situation in Myanmar. Since the February coup in 2021, ASEAN is playing an important role. ASEAN has also banned the Junta Chiefs from the association until a peace process follows. It is pressurizing the Junta to end the turmoil. However, many ASEAN state is already engaging with the Shadow government, National Unity Government (NUG). For instance, the Malaysian Foreign Minister met with NUG leaders and since then gradually NUG is emerging as an important stakeholder in Myanmar for ASEAN.

ASEAN can also play an important role in mitigating Myanmar’s foul play at the border. Bangladesh is not the only sufferer. Thailand- an ASEAN member also suffers greatly from Myanmar’s disrespect for borders. Quite often, Myanmar violates the Thai border; it is also a source of refugees and illicit trades such as arms and drugs.

Bangladesh also suffers from similar issues. Myanmar border is the largest source of drugs and refugees for the country. As a war-like situation is already going on in Rakhine between the Tatmadaw and the Junta, it is also a worry for Bangladesh. The conflict has already displaced many ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya. About 589 Rakhine has already sought refuge in India’s Mizoram. Bangladesh also has a fear that the conflict may trigger a new wave of Rohingya refugees, which is the last thing the country wants.

As ASEAN is a successful regional organization among Myanmar and its Southeast Asian Neighbors, it can play an important role in pressurizing Myanmar to stop its foul-play to ensure stability on the ASEAN border. Moreover, Bangladesh also has a close relationship with ASEAN as it could become an observer. Bangladesh Police has already got observer status in ASEANPOL this year. Even, the conflict zone- Rakhine, and its habitants are also part of the ASEAN community. Therefore, ASEAN should take the matter seriously and engage in one of the ‘ASEAN borders’.

Myanmar’s Union is failing miserably at the hand of the Junta regime. The Armed conflicts in almost all states and the resistance of the People’s Democratic Force (PDF) against the Junta are bringing further turmoil to the country where ASEAN is seeking a peace process. The ongoing conflict in Rakhine between the Junta and Arakan Army is a part of this turmoil also. Moreover, the Rakhine state is a very sensitive region as it is the home of the Rohingya. A new wave of refugees and violations of human rights can bring further instability to the region. The tension on Bangladesh- Myanmar border is a symptom of it. So, ASEAN should be more active in ending the conflict in Rakhine and it should pressurize Myanmar to end its provocative actions on Bangladesh border for greater regional stability. After all, this is what the regional organizations are made for!

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Myanmar spiralling ‘from bad to worse, to horrific’

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Since the Myanmar military launched its “disastrous” coup last year, UN-appointed independent human rights expert Tom Andrews said on Wednesday that conditions have worsened, “by any measure”.

“With each report I have warned that unless UN Member States change course in the way they collectively respond to this crisis, the people of Myanmar will suffer even further,” he told the Human Rights Council in Geneva, saying that conditions have “gone from bad to worse, to horrific for untold numbers of innocent people in Myanmar”. 

‘Stakes could not be higher’

Mr. Andrews presented a grim assessment of 1.3 million displaced people; 28,000 destroyed homes; villages burned to the ground; more than 13,000 children killed as the death toll for innocent people rises significantly; a looming food crisis; and 130,000 Rohingya in de facto internment camps while others suffer deprivation and discrimination rooted in their lack of citizenship.

“Let me be frank: the people of Myanmar are deeply disappointed by the response of the international community to this crisis. They are frustrated and angered by Member States that are working to prop up this illegal and brutal military junta with funding, trade, weapons, and a veneer of legitimacy,” he spelled out.

“But they are also disappointed by those nations that voice support for them, but then fail to back up their words with action. The stakes could not be higher”.

War crimes

The Myanmar military is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity daily, including murder, sexual violence, torture, and the targeting of civilians, Mr. Andrews continued.

And conflict is spreading throughout the country as increasingly more civilians take up arms against the junta.

Moreover, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding because military leaders are obstructing aid deliveries to displaced populations and communities they perceive to be aligned with pro-democracy forces.

“Untold numbers of innocent people have been left without access to food, medicine, and the means to survive,” he said.

Failed response

Observing that the international response has failed, the UN expert said that “first and foremost,” Member States must more forcefully deprive the junta of revenue, weapons, and the legitimacy it needs to attack the Burmese and suppress their democratic aspirations.

“Many in Myanmar have come to the conclusion that the world has forgotten them, or simply doesn’t care. They ask me why Member States refuse to take measures that are both possible and practical, measures that could save untold numbers of lives,” he said.

“Frankly, I do not have an answer”.

Reminding that the Human Rights Council is referred to as the UN’s conscience, he appealed to its members to “re-think status quo policies” that aren’t working and set a new course of action for UN Member States to stand with and for those are “fighting for their lives, their children, their future”.

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Indonesia’s G 20 chairmanship: Balancing on a diplomatic tightrope

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Indonesia’s geopolitical plate is piling up as the archipelago state prepares to host the Group of 20 (G20) summit and associated gatherings in November, including the Religion 20 (R20), a high-level meeting of religious leaders, the first under the G20’s auspices.

The challenges and opportunities for Indonesia are multiple and often unique.

In June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo persuaded the leaders of the Group of 7, which brings together Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, to join the summit in Bali of the G20, made up of the world’s largest economies, even if it is attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The G7 leaders had threatened to boycott the summit if Mr. Putin were invited in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even so, much can derail Mr. Widodo’s achievement in the months leading up to the summit, although he has, for now, prevented a fracturing of the G 20 even before the leaders convene.

Pulling the G20 back from what could have constituted a devastating fiasco is just one of the pitfalls, Indonesia has been seeking to maneuver. With two months to go until the Bali summit and a world mired in conflict, bifurcation, and economic crisis, Indonesia’s G-20 presidency is hardly out of the woods.

Insisting that Mr. Putin should attend the summit helps Mr. Widodo maneuver Indonesia through the minefields of a world increasingly polarized by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in civilizational rather than national terms, and the power struggle to shape the world order in the 21st century.

Yet, in a potential preview of the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali in July when Russia came under fire for its war in Ukraine.

The gathering ended without the traditional joint communique, chairperson’s statement and/or group photograph. It underscored the fact that Indonesia may have to walk a diplomatic tightrope to prevent the November summit from fracturing the G 20 beyond repair.

Mr. Lavrov’s walk-out underscored the risks stemming from the power struggle and the expansionist ambitions of civilizationalist leaders such as Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

They threaten to put a dent in Indonesia’s successful track record of being inspired by the principles of a 1955 conference in the Indonesian city of Bandung that gave birth to the non-aligned movement.

That has not stopped Indonesia from rejecting Chinese claims to territory in the South China Sea, refusing China’s offer to negotiate maritime boundaries, and at times conducting military exercises just beyond Chinese-claimed waters while maintaining substantial economic relations with the People’s Republic.

However, increasingly, Indonesia may find that non-alignment no longer is its best option, even if that would not necessarily mean that it would pick sides in the US-China divide.

What it does mean is that the G20 is the opportunity for Indonesia to showcase itself, on the back of its diplomatic acumen, as an attractive target for badly needed foreign investment and a regional power that has long flown under the radar.

To do so, Indonesia. one the world’s biggest coal exporters and carbon emitters, will have to clarify its stance on a host of issues, including climate change; perceived threats posed not only by China but also by Aukus, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that is allowing Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines; and the mushrooming food and energy crisis that raises the specter of a global recession.

One way, Indonesia hopes to make its mark is a summit of religious leaders that is scheduled to precede the meeting of heads of government and state. The religious summit is expected to refashion the G-20’s erstwhile Interfaith 20 track or IF20 as the Religion 20.

But even that is not without its pitfalls.

Organised by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the Islamic world’s foremost democracy, in cooperation with the Indonesian government, the R 20 constitutes at first glance a significant shift away from the approach of the IF 20.

In contrast to the IF 20 that was dominated by scholars and activists, the R 20 intends to bring together religious leaders to globally position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems. It is a call that resonates coming from the world’s most populous Muslim majority country and democracy.

Some 200 religious leaders and politicians, including Nahdlatul Ulama general chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, World Evangelical Alliance secretary general Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher and former US ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon are expected to attend the summit.

On the surface of it, the R 20 constitutes an opportunity to energize the world’s major faith groups to rally around shared civilizational values that would empower religion as a force for good that goes beyond lofty statements that are not worth more than the paper they are written on.

That is a tall order given the role that religious and identity groups play in perpetuating rather than resolving conflicts based on international law, justice, and equity.

Think of the Russian Orthodox church as a driver of extreme Russian nationalism and the definition of Russia as a civilizational rather than a national state, resulting in the invasion of Ukraine and the potential threat to other former Soviet republics.

Or the uncritical support by Christian and Jewish groups of Israeli policies that violate international law, deny Palestinian rights, and long-term put at risk Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state.

The R20’s organizers appear to have opted, at least for now, to co-organize the summit with the Muslim World League rather than representative non-Muslim faith groups less beholden to a government.

The League is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vehicle to garner religious soft power, help polish the kingdom’s tarnished image, and propagate a socially liberal but autocratic interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler.

An R20 press release quoted the League’s secretary general, Mohammed al-Issa, as saying that “working alongside Nahdlatul Ulama…will strengthen our mission. This partnership with Nahdlatul Ulama will serve as an excellent platform for dialogue that will amplify and extend the Muslim World League’s noble mission.”

Even so, the R 20 could undergird Mr. Widodo’s vision of applying the principles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the G 20.

Indonesian officials argue that the nature of ASEAN has allowed its ten members, despite their different political and economic systems, to prevent the once war-torn region from confronting another abyss and finding ways to peacefully manage or resolve disputes and tackle common problems.

Like with the religious summit, Indonesia faces a tall order in attempting to pull back from the brink a world consumed by the war in Ukraine as it seeks to maneuver the pitfalls of mounting tensions between the United States and China over issues like Taiwan that, like Eastern Europe, could spark a war with a global fallout.

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