Category Archives: Foreign policy

An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 1

This article is the first in a three part series looking at dams in the Mekong. 

Damming the Mekong: Unprecedented threats to the river and its people

The lifeblood of the region, the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and its many tributaries flow through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its resources affect the lives of over 70 million people who rely on it daily for food and/or work, but these livelihoods are facing growing threats.1,2,3 Today, the mighty Mekong is at an unprecedented juncture in its ongoing survival, particularly from hydropower dam development.

Much of the focus of the Mekong is divided between the upper Mekong, which includes China and Myanmar, and the Lower Mekong, encompassing the remaining four states. Eleven dams are being planned or built on the Lower Mekong Basin’s mainstream with many more anticipated along its extensive tributaries.4,5 Most of these dams come with significant social and environmental impacts.

Source: WWF

Most dams trap fluvial sediment, creating erosion and reducing nutrients in the river, directly affecting agricultural production, so each additional dam means less rich soil downstream.11 Agricultural outputs from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, particularly rice, have already been severely impacted via China’s Lancang dams scheme.12 The situation has become so critical that Vietnam recently went to the extent of asking China to discharge water from the Jinghong Dam on the Lancang in Yunnan Province to help alleviate conditions in the Delta and seems intent on requesting other upstream states to do similarly regarding river flows.13,14 Thailand’s need for water during the current drought has led it to set up temporary pumping stations to divert 47 million cubic metres of water from the Mekong, causing concern for other downstream countries.26 Additional Mekong dams, compounded by ongoing drought and rising sea levels due to climate change, will only exacerbate these issues.11,15

While some riverine communities may be displaced as their fishing or farming lifestyles become unsustainable, other communities, often indigenous peoples with a strong cultural connection to their ancestral land, are being relocated to make way for dam reservoirs.16,17

Thus, it is no wonder that disputes have emerged between various Mekong basin states as to the domestic, transboundary, environmental, and social impacts of certain dams. Part 1 of this three-part article examines the existing legal framework for regulating dam development in the Mekong and how its legal gaps and ambiguities have led to ongoing disputes, specifically regarding the Xayaburi Dam under construction in Laos.

1995 Mekong Agreement and MRC

Entering into force on 5 April 1995, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) for the Lower Mekong Basin states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam was the celebrated river basin treaty of its time and a major legal milestone.

Divided into six chapters, the Mekong Agreement’s provisions broadly set out the roles and responsibilities of riparian – being ‘of the river’ – states in governing the seasonal flows and major uses of the Lower Mekong Basin. It is accompanied by the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which sets out key timeframes, standards, and processes for states regulating dam development. It contains separate procedures for projects on Mekong tributaries, plus intra-basin uses on the mainstream (proposing states are only required to notify fellow riparians of planned projects) versus inter-basin and other mainstream developments (proposing states must submit the project for prior consultation with MRC member states with the aim of reaching an agreement on any contested aspects). The PNPCA Guidelines elaborate further on implementing these processes. Both the PNPCA and Guidelines are not ‘international treaties’ in the strict legal sense as they are supplementary to, and thus sit outside of, the Mekong Agreement ratified by MRC member states.18,19

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

As Bearden (2010)18 aptly suggests, the Mekong Agreement and the MRC have successfully epitomised what a transboundary watercourse agreement and river basin commission should be in many respects, especially given the ever-changing geo-political and environmental contexts of the basin and its member states. However, twenty years later, the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA have collectively shown identifiable legal weaknesses.The Agreement also established the MRC as an inter-governmental institution with the aim to foster cooperation between basin states to effectively manage river usage. Having not yet decided to join, China and Myanmar hold official observer status as MRC ‘Dialogue Partners’.

Legal gaps and limitations for governing dams

The following critical legal gaps in the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA have led to varying interpretations on its basic standards, timeframes, and processes for dam construction thus fostering subsequent disagreements among MRC states:

  • Lack of clear specifics for key processes under the Agreement and PNPCA’s standards, timeframes, and procedures thus leading to inconsistency in their practical application;
  • Exclusion of tributary dams from ‘prior consultation’ regulations under the PNPCA; and
  • PNPCA and Guidelines being widely perceived as not legally binding on states.2,18,19,20,21

Another significant limitation of the Mekong Agreement and the MRC is its circular mechanism for dispute resolution. As it stands, the Agreement requires states to peacefully resolve disputes or, when necessary, to refer the dispute to the MRC for further negotiation. However, the MRC refers unresolved matters back to states to use diplomatic means unless, as a last resort, they chose to invite third party involvement. Eventually, if no resolution is reached, states can essentially ‘agree to disagree’ as has occurred with the Xayaburi Dam and its PNPCA process (explored in Parts 2 and 3 of this article). Such stalemates often leave the disputing parties dissatisfied and can breed distrust for future processes.

Frustrated at the perceived inability to efficiently resolve disputes and clarify processes for dam developments, including the PNPCA, bilateral ‘Development Partners’ have considerably reduced their funding to the MRC for the 2016-2020 budget.22,23 Large-scale restructuring is scheduled and relocation of the Secretariat headquarters from Laos has even been suggested as a possibility.22,24 After years of calls for greater transparency and improved efficiency, the MRC is currently undergoing such significant changes that its ability to effectively govern the river’s resources long-term is at stake.24,25

Mekong in 2016: A basin under threat, agreement under scrutiny, institution undergoing change

As dam construction on the Mekong rapidly accelerates, states’ legal obligations under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA, as well as the mandate of the MRC to help guide and resolve disputed procedural matters, need clarifying and strengthening to evolve and cope with these challenges.

Given the issues outlined above, Part 2 of this three-part article will next investigate the practical implementation of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA via the Xayaburi Dam ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements. The potential benefits of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) – the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers – being applied to the Lower Mekong Basin are subsequently explored.

References:

  1. Vidal, J. (2015, November 26). Mekong: a river rising. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/26/the-mekong-river-stories-from-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis-interactive
  2. Hirsch, P. (1999). Nature beyond the nation state symposium: beyond the nation state – natural resource conflict and “national interest” in Mekong hydropower development. Golden Gate Law Review, 29, 399
  3. Osborne, M. (2004). River at risk: The Mekong and the water politics of China and Southeast Asia. Lowy Institute for International Policy Paper 02. Longueville Media, New South Wales, Australia
  4. Goichot, M. (2016, January 14). UN convention could help solve Mekong pact’s weaknesses. Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/analysis-and-op-ed/un-convention-could-help-solve-mekong-pacts-weaknesses
  5. International Rivers (2015, November 15). Guest Blog – Dams: Don’t Risk What You Can’t Afford To Lose. Available from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/263/guest-blog-dams-don-t-risk-what-you-can-t-afford-to-lose
  6. Than, K. (2011). New Mekong Dam a Go, and a Blow to Megafishes? National Geographic. Available from:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110324-mekong-river-endangered-megafish-xayaburi-dam/
  7. Gaworecki, M. (2016, January 12). Scientists sound alarm over hydropower’s impacts on tropical fish biodiversity.Mongabay. Available from: http://news.mongabay.com/2016/01/scientists-sound-alarm-over-hydropowers-impacts-on-tropical-fish-biodiversity/
  8. Turton, S. (2015, October 22). Mekong dams will wipe out fisheries, study says. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-dams-will-wipe-out-fisheries-study-says
  9. WWF (2012, August 27). Mekong dams could rob millions of their primary protein source. Available from:http://cambodia.panda.org/news_cambodia/press_releases/?uNewsID=206032
  10. Henderson, S. (2013, December 3). Mekong Dams a Long-Term Risk to Food Security. Cambodia Daily. Available from: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/mekong-dams-a-long-term%E2%80%88risk-to-food-security-48415/
  11. Khadka, N.S. (2015, October 20). Climate Change: Mekong Delta heads for troubled waters. BBC News. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34407061
  12. Gillet, K. (2011, August 21). Vietnam’s rice bowl threatened by rising seas. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/aug/21/vietnam-rice-bowl-threatened-rising-seas
  13. Tiezzi, S. (2016, March 16). Facing Mekong Drought, China to Release Water From Yunnan Dam. The Diplomat. Available from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/facing-mekong-drought-china-to-release-water-from-yunnan-dam/
  14. Viet, D. (2016, March 16). Vietnam takes urgent action to rescue Mekong River Delta. VietNamNet Bridge. Available from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/152461/vietnam-takes-urgent-action-to-rescue-mekong-river-delta.html
  15. Choonhavan, K. (2014, April 30). Vietnam screams for halt to Mekong dams as delta salts up. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Vietnam-screams-for-halt-to-Mekong-dams-as-delta-s-30232520.html
  16. IRIN. (2011, July 29). LAOS: Villagers brace for relocation as dam project moves forward. IRIN. Available from:http://www.irinnews.org/report/93355/laos-villagers-brace-for-relocation-as-dam-project-moves-forward
  17. Titthara, M. (2016, January 7). Trapped between two dams. Mekong Eye. Available from:http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/01/26/trapped-between-two-dams/
  18. Bearden, B.L. (2010). The legal regime of the Mekong River: a look back and some proposals for the way ahead.Water Policy. 12, 798
  19. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2015). Notification and consultation procedures under the Mekong Agreement: insights from the Xayaburi controversy. Asian Journal of International Law. 5(1), 143
  20. IUCN. (2016). A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation (A legal analysis of how the UN Watercourses Convention complements the Mekong Agreement): IUCN. 27pp. Available from: http://www.3sbasin.org/publication/download-documents.html?download=99:a-window-of-opportunity-for-the-mekong-basin-the-un-watercourses-convention-as-a-basis-for-cooperation
  21. Kinna, R. (2015, November 24). UN Watercourses Convention: Can it revitalise the Mekong Agreement 20 years on?. Mekong Commons. Available from: http://www.mekongcommons.org/un-watercourses-convention-can-it-revitalise-mekong-agreement-20-years-on/
  22. Cox, J. (2016, January 13). Forecast Stormy for Mekong, Commission Says. Khmer Times. Available from:http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/19880/forecast-stormy-for-mekong–commission-says/
  23. Turton, S. (2015, June 25). Mekong body risks losing funds: donors. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-body-risks-losing-funds-donors
  24. Hunt, L. (2016). Mekong River Commission Faces Radical Change. The Diplomat. (22 January, 2016). Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/mekong-river-commission-faces-radical-change/
  25. International Rivers (2008, March 27). MRC’s crisis of legitimacy and relevancy challenges new CEO: Regional Groups. Available from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/mrc-s-crisis-of-legitimacy-and-relevancy-challenges-new-ceo-regional-groups-3177
  26. Lee, G. & Scurrah, N. (2009). Power and responsibility – The Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong mainstream dams. A joint report of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Sydney University and Oxfam Australia. Available from: http://sydney.edu.au/mekong/documents/power_and_responsibility_fullreport_2009.pdf
  27. Cochrane, Liam. (2016, March 17) Mekong River diverted into Thailand’s waterways, worrying drought-stricken neighbours like Vietnam ABC News. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/mekong-river-thailand-diverts-worries-neighbours/7256678

This article was first published here on the website of the Global Water Forum. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Global Water Forum. 

Rémy Kinna is an Australian international water law, policy and governance specialist and Principal Consultant with Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting (www.transboundarywaterlaw.com) currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an Expert – International Water Law and Policy with the London Centre of International Law Practice’s Centre for International Water Law and Security. Rémy can be contacted via email (remy@transboundarywaterlaw) or found on TwitterAll views and errors remain those of the author and do not represent those of the states, organisations and individuals mentioned in this piece.

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What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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A More Comprehensive Partnership: What the US should seek from Jokowi’s visit

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo's first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

For leaders of large Asian countries, the United States is the focus for fall 2016. After India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping both visited the US in September, Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo landed on US soil this week, for the first time since he took office a little more than a year ago. Today, Indonesia sits at an important crossroads as it engages with the US and China, all while forging its own identity in Southeast Asia. During Jokowi’s visit, the US should build on its existing comprehensive partnership with Indonesia by strengthening bilateral security and defense ties and continuing to court Indonesia economically, specifically in light of the newly-agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington should also push Jakarta to use its perennial leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region.
Since the Suharto era, the US and Indonesia have maintained close security ties. This facet of the bilateral relationship should be augmented during this month’s visit. Jokowi aims to make Indonesia a maritime power that serves as a strategic and economic link between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US should help Jokowi realize this goal by providing assistance as Indonesia plans to create a coast guard independent of its navy. This assistance could come in the form of the US Coast Guard training its Indonesian counterpart and possible joint exercises in 2016. Moreover, as the world’s maritime superpower, the US has much to offer Indonesia as it looks to upgrade its own capabilities. A new strategic dialogue focused on maritime security would serve to strengthen bilateral ties and help Jakarta attain its maritime goals.
Additionally, Indonesia has struggled with piracy throughout the archipelago and is host to a low-level insurgency in its western islands. Recently, more than 500 Indonesians have traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State (IS). The US should offer to assist Indonesia in combating both off-shore piracy and terrorism through an agreement for enhanced cooperation on terrorism and intelligence sharing.
In Jokowi’s visit, the US also has an opportunity to enhance economic ties with Indonesia. The country of 250 million has great economic potential; however the first year of the Jokowi presidency has been marked by low growth rates and disappointing economic stimulus packages. Jokowi desires to attract investment from US businesses, however regulatory red-tape and a penchant for economic nationalism has scared away foreign enterprises in the past. To solve this issue and benefit both sides, Washington and Jakarta should lay the groundwork for a new bilateral investment agreement.
In addition, the US should continue to court Indonesia to join the TPP. With negotiations recently concluding in Atlanta, now is the perfect time to remind Indonesia of the economic benefits of joining the trade pact. In the past, the Indonesian response to the TPP has been lukewarm, though fears of falling behind its neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment could spur Jakarta to reconsider the treaty.
Lastly, Washington should not miss this chance to encourage Indonesia to continue its leadership role in ASEAN. As the regional bloc’s largest country and strongest democracy, Indonesia holds a special place among the member states and its past efforts have shaped political transitions in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. The US should push Jokowi to continue to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region, especially at a time when these institutions are under renewed peril in Thailand and Myanmar. Additionally, ASEAN member states face a threat from Chinese
expansion in the South China Sea. A strong Indonesia is necessary if ASEAN is able to stand-up to its northern neighbor’s provocations.

 

After more than five years, the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership could use a refresher and Jokowi’s visit to the US provides the perfect opportunity. By enhancing military-to-military ties, pushing for a new bilateral investment treaty and encouraging Indonesia to continue its leadership in ASEAN, the US can develop Indonesia into a robust regional partner capable of supporting the United States’ interests in Southeast Asia.

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Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations

burmese logging

Chinese demand for prized woods like teak has led to an illegal logging epidemic in eastern Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the trial of over 150 Chinese workers has sparked yet another diplomatic row and has raised questions about the stability of the Sino-Burmese relationship.

Last week Wednesday, a local court in Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging. In addition, another two Chinese minors were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the same offense.

The sentences were handed down in the Myitkyina district court, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. The 155 Chinese nationals, most from neighboring Yunnan province, were apprehended in January of this year by members of the Myanmar army, along with a number of Burmese citizens. At the time of arrest, the loggers were found with 436 logging trucks, along with drugs and around 12000 Chinese Yuan (around 2000 USD) in currency, according to a report from Phoenix News.

“We tried to make the sentences as fair as possible, but we had to consider the environmental point of view,” district deputy magistrate Myint Swe told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service.

“If you look at the number of vehicles, and machinery and the equipment [they were arrested with], you can imagine the amount of environmental damage they’ve done.”

The criminals were convicted  under a 1963 law carrying a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment for abusing or stealing public property. However,  life sentences are commonly only served for 20 years under Myanmar’s legal system, according to the Associated Press.

Searching for an explanation

The trial marks a new low in Sino-Burmese relations. Since the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower project in 2011, the two neighbors’ relations have steadily deteriorated. The relationship was further strained in March when fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel group based in Myanmar’s Kokang Special Region, spilled over the border and killed five Chinese civilians.

The life sentences in this case could simply be the result of a local magistrate’s decision, however the recent downturn in bilateral relations has led some to wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the verdicts given to the loggers. One explanation is that the sentencing was given in response to Beijing hosting  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in June. Despite the Burmese opposition leader speaking Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting of political parties (Daw Suu heads the National League for Democracy and Xi is the Chinese Communist Party leader), the significance of the visit was not lost on Naypidaw and the government might have taken offense at Beijing’s meeting with the opposition leader. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has met with world leaders before, including US President Barack Obama and Indian PM Nahendra Modi, and neither visit provoked such a controversial response from Naypidaw. It is unlikely that Daw Suu’s meeting with Xi is an exception.

Another possible explanation for the harsh sentences is that the Myanmar government wants some sort of insurance against aggressive actions from their neighbor. If the current trend in Sino-Burmese relations is to continue, Myanmar may be looking for some sort of bargaining chip in any future interactions with China. One can imagine that a further escalation of the ethnic conflict along the China-Myanmar border prompts the Chinese to send its military into Myanmar. The Burmese could use the release of the Chinese loggers as an incentive for Beijing to withdraw its troops. While Sino-Burmese relations have indeed reached a nadir in 2015, the Burmese would have to have an extremely cynical view of the relationship to make so shrewd a move.

A third view of the trial invokes a discussion of the so-called “Dream of the Golden Land,” one of the popular frameworks of the nation of Myanmar. Like China’s national humiliation discourse or US President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” the “Dream of the Golden Land” is the Burmese nation’s story about itself, according to Yale University’s Josh Gordon. In the narrative, Myanmar is a land endowed with abundant natural resources, highly desired by foreigners. One has only to look at the colonial period for evidence of this. It is then the duty of the majority ethnic Bamar to protect their “Golden Land” from these covetous outsiders and since independence from the British in 1948 this has been done by expelling Chinese and Indian immigrants from the country in the 1960’s, remaining non-aligned through the Cold War and fighting off a host of ethnic insurgencies for almost six decades. The military junta’s attacks against Daw Suu as a tool of the West, the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and the results of this trial could also be interpreted using this narrative. In this view, by sentencing 153 Chinese loggers to life in prison, Myanmar has once again protected itself from the thieving hands of outsiders and is making an example of the offenders to avoid similar incidents in the future.

There are also sovereignty issues at stake in the trial. Kachin state has long been contested by ethnic armed groups, namely the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA has been known to issue permits for resource extraction projects, including logging, in the areas it controls, despite the Myanmar government’s protests. This appears to be the case here.

According to a report from Phoenix News, the workers in question were found with logging permits issued by the KIA. Moreover, the Chinese workers arrested in this case claimed they were unaware that they were breaking the law and believed that their permits were valid.

As parts of Kachin and Shan states have switched hands between rebel groups and central government control over the past decades, Chinese and Thai businessmen have taken advantage by signing shady  logging and mining contracts with insurgent armies and local Myanmar army commanders. In this case, it appears that Myanmar’s long-running civil war may have moved from the battlefield to the court room. By prosecuting Chinese workers for logging with illegal permits issued by the KIA, the Myanmar government is sending a signal that it, not the KIA is the final authority on who gets to extract resources in the country. It is a significant move, especially considering the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Naypidaw and a number of ethnic armed groups.

“Highly concerned with the verdict”

News of the verdicts last Wednesday provoked protests from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that Beijing is “highly concerned” with the sentences and urged the Burmese to consider Chinese concerns and “properly” handle the case, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

On Thursday, Xinhua published a commentary on the matter, condemning the sentences and calling for the loggers to be treated in a “reasonable and sensible way.” The piece noted that China “respects laws and customs of other countries,” but also called the mass sentencing “abnormal,” questioning the impartiality of the verdict.

While the Chinese government has been vocal in its displeasure with the sentencing, it has not yet gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of its citizens. Following the announcement of the verdict, some analysts wondered whether Beijing would involve itself in the legal process, a move which could challenge China’s existing foreign policy principles. Since its founding, non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has been a pillar of the PRC’s foreign policy. Intervening  strongly on the Chinese loggers’ behalf could trigger an evolution in China’s non-interference and would mark an important transition in the country’s foreign policy.

Until now, however, it appears that China will not take such extreme measures to see its citizens freed. Officials from China’s Foreign Ministry were in attendance for the reading of the verdict on Wednesday but there was no evidence of any further involvement.

According to a lawyer familiar with the case, the loggers can file an appeal with the Kachin state judiciary and then to the Supreme Court in Myanmar’s capital, Naypidaw.

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All aboard: Kunming-Vientiane Railway inches forward

china train head

Although a bit trite with repetition, no saying better encapsulates the major obstacle facing Laos than “geography is destiny”. The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos is wedged between the vast rivers and expansive mountain ranges that demarcate its natural borders with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Because of its lack of access to maritime trade routes, the small country has historically relied heavily on domestic subsistence agriculture with little opportunity for much international commerce.

The legacy of its geography in combination with the destruction wrought by the United States during the Vietnam War has today resulted in a nation with some of the world’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. With the help of the Chinese and Thai governments, Laos hopes to change this narrative of international isolation in the years to come.

Since 2010, plans have been under consideration to construct a high-speed railway between Kunming and Vientiane, Laos’ capital. However, political and financial setbacks have pushed the starting date of the project back by five years. This year, the three governments all sound confident that construction of the seven billion dollar project will begin.

Many analysts now view the construction of the Kunming-Vientiane railway within the context of China’s larger ambitions to revamp trade routes throughout Southeast Asia. China’s president Xi Jinping has openly stated his eagerness to establish silk road-esque connections with China’s neighbors, placing Kunming at the epicenter of overland transactions. The country has already invested 40 billion dollars to facilitate railway links, which it hopes will eventually drive new economic plans throughout South Asia.

Already, long-term proposals have been hashed out to eventually link Kunming with Singapore. The first phase in the series of projects is currently under construction, with China building a 737-kilometer connection between the Thai city of Nong Khai — just across the Mekong River from Vientiane — and Map Ta Phut — one of the largest deep water ports in Thailand.

The planned Kunming-Vientiane rail then, would add on to existing railroad infrastructure, facilitating a larger Kunming-Bangkok route by — according to recent estimates — no later than 2020. A link to Malaysia would from there be relatively simple. If all goes as projected, passengers may, within the next decade, be able to hop onto a high speed rail from Kunming all the way to Singapore.

Past financial qualms that have plagued the realization of the Vientiane-Kunming proposal continue to worry politicians in both China and Laos. Although a fairly small investment for China, the seven billion dollar price tag corresponds to over 60 percent of Laos’ US$11.24 billion gross domestic product, making it a hefty and risky endeavor. Currently, the two countries have agreed on a 40-60 split of the initial financing, with Laos contributing US$840 million and China US$1.26 billion. The remaining five billion will later be chipped in by Chinese venture capital firms, who would then hold substantial stakes in the railway once it is up and running.

Although worries over the pragmatic utilization of the railway have previously stymied Laos’ cooperation with Chinese entrepreneurs, increasingly Lao politicians believe the connection to Yunnan’s capital is paramount for their country’s economic growth. In an interview with Japanese magazine Nikkei, Laos’ deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, explained that Laos, being a landlocked country, can only rely on roads, so the transport cost is very high. “In our policy of turning Laos from a landlocked to a land-linked country, we believe the railroad will help us reach our objective. [The railway] will boost the Lao economy because many investors are now looking for a production base here. They say that if the country had a railway, it would help them reduce their transportation costs. So it would make us more attractive to investors.”

Recently, the country has proven itself one in an appealing group of potential manufacturing centers in Southeast Asia as overseas companies flee China. Over the past few years, Laos has ridden a growing wave of economic growth, with annual GDP often topping eight percent. Such financial development has been attributed primarily to the construction of massive 1,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam complexes, growing highway infrastructure and multibillion-dollar investors betting on long term prosperity in the region.

Politicians, including Lengsavad, remain sanguine that the fiscal expansion will only be further boosted by a direct link to Yunnan. Already, companies including Samsung and Yahoo have left China to venture into smaller, burgeoning financial systems. Laos hopes the Vientiane-Kunming connection will enable it to hop onto the train of foreign investment out of China.

Skeptics, including Lao politicians, point out that the real construction cost of the Kunming-Vientiane route may soon render the project another white-elephant. Without a doubt, both financially and topographically, much stands in the way of the railway’s establishment. An astounding 154 bridges, 76 tunnels and 31 train stations will be necessary for the Lao leg of the track. The monumental proposals stands in stark contrast to Laos’ nearly complete lack of experience with railway construction. The land-locked country currently boasts only of a 3,5-kilometer train link, spanning the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

To make matters more complicated, the Annamite mountain range, which the railway will eventually need to cross, is infamous as a minefield littered with unexploded American ordnance dropped during the Vietnam War. These factors combined are likely to result in a final cost for the track much greater than the projected seven billion dollar price tag. Laos thus finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place — on one hand it desperately needs infrastructure for greater commerce, while on the other, current proposals may leave the country in an even more precarious financial situation than it currently faces.

This article was written by Richard Diehl Martinez and first posted here on GoKunming.

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Kunming’s China-South Asia Expo Balloons to Enormous Proportions

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When the Spring City throws a trade and investment party, everyone comes. That is the lesson gleaned following closing ceremonies held yesterday at the twenty-third annual Kunming Import and Export Commodities Fair and third annual China-South Asia Expo. Expected to generate billions in business agreements and attract hundreds of thousands of curious attendees, the twin events did not disappoint.

The expos are held each year with the intention of attracting greater foreign business interest and interaction with Yunnan-based companies. This principal goal is part of a larger strategy to build up the province’s economy while also increasing China’s political and commercial footprint in Southeast Asia and beyond.

In terms of sheer numbers, these goals are being realized. Contracts signed during the course of the fairs totaled 785 billion yuan (US$127 billion) in direct foreign investment — a catchall term including money put toward virtually any business acquisition or other commitment. At last year’s expo opening ceremony, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (汪洋) said he expected the next few years to be “the most active and fruitful period yet” for cooperation between Yunnan, Association of Southeast Asian Nations member-countries and South Asia. He appears to have been correct.

The numbers for direct foreign investment in Yunnan dwarfed those concerned with Chinese ventures in other countries, which reached 155 billion yuan (US$25 billion). In total, 903 overseas firms inked deals to begin or expand existing businesses in the province. The largest of these involved the fields of tourism, energy and infrastructure development, logistics, education, and environmental protection.

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Highlighting Yunnan’s growing importance as a trade and investment hub, 20,000 businesspeople as well as dignitaries from 31 countries attended. Among the most notable were Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (李源潮), the president of the Maldives, Laos’ prime minister and high-ranking representatives from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

India’s Minister of State External Affairs, VK Singh, also attended. He represented the expo’s feature country, a place of honor this year replete with a dedicated “museum” devoted not only to the Subcontinent’s most advanced industries, but also its history and culture. At a separate event held during the expo, Singh officially opened China’s first yoga college at the Yunnan University of Nationalities campus in Chenggong.

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Giving India such recognition was no random decision, but instead a calculated diplomatic move aimed at encouraging the world’s second most populous country to embrace China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The brainchild of President Xi Jinping, the proposal looks to propel regional integration between China and the countries of Central and South Asia, India chief among them.

While enormous deals and industry-specific conferences were carried out behind closed doors, the general public tuned out in droves to this year’s expos. In preparation, organizers printed half a million tickets. It did not prove to be enough, as 740,000 attendees passed through the gates at the Kunming Dianchi International Convention and Exhibition Center, shattering last year’s attendance numbers by 500,000.

An exhibitor from Taiwan, surnamed Li, told reporters she had signed deals to sell dried fish to Carrefour, Parkson and Golden Eagle while at the expo. She, like many other exhibitors, ran out of things to sell two days before the expo concluded. “Everyone has been so friendly and warm,” Li said, “I hope to see them all again next year.”

This article, written by Patrick Scally with images by Yereth Jansen, was first posted here on Gokunming.com.

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The US Rebalance in Vietnam & The Philippines

In Southeast Asia, the United States has rebalanced its attention to a vital region while seeking to avoid alarming China. The Obama Administration’s comprehensive efforthas engaged a diverse array of countries, strengthening ties with both unlikely partners and longtime allies. Coupled with a brief study of American interests in the region, an examination of the strategy applied to two countries – Vietnam and the Philippines –reveals little cause for the Chinese concern that America is pursuing a policy of containment.

VIETNAM

In Vietnam, the U.S. has succeeded in creating a partnership with a nation that was a bitter foe just forty years ago. Perceiving China’s recent policies as a disturbing sign of greater assertiveness to come, Vietnam has felt it necessary to hedge against its neighbor by pursuing a closer relationship with the United States.

The driving force behind this reconciliation has been China’s provocations in the South China Sea, which have infuriated the Vietnamese government and its people and caused them to view China as a potentially destabilizing force in the region. The May 2014 placement of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) marked a highpoint in the tensions, sparking deadly anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and naval incidents in the area of the drilling.

Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clash near the disputed oil rig. Photo: Getty Images

Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clash near the disputed oil rig. Photo: Getty Images

Chinese diplomacy has not eased Vietnamese concerns. Rhetoric regarding the South China Sea has been inflexible: in 2010, officials labeled the region one of China’s “core interests,” joining only Taiwan and Tibet. At a meeting concerning the South China Sea the same year, in which all disputant states were present, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly stared at Singapore’s Foreign Minister while pointedly stating, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” In the eyes of Vietnam and its fellow Southeast Asian States, this threatening tone has confirmed fears inspired by China’s aggressive policy in the region.

While some American observers have gone so far as to call for a full treaty alliance with Hanoi, several barriers will keep a degree of separation the two countries. The first is Vietnam’s policy of the “three nos”: no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no dependence on any countries for help in combating other countries. The last point is particularly important in the context of Vietnam’s history: when China invaded in 1979, the Soviet Union – having signed a defense treaty with Hanoi just a year before – declined to come to its aid. This history provides Vietnam with a powerful warning against reliance on powerful but distant allies.

Another analogy that suggests restraint is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Looking to Moscow once more, Vietnam sees a disturbing example of how a major power will react to its small neighbor aligning with a rival. Of course, the comparison is imperfect, but the degree of similarity between the two cases is striking nonetheless.

The greatest constraint upon Vietnamese diplomacy is its economy’s dependence upon trade with China. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner, and the source of many of the inputs critical to its burgeoning manufacturing industry. While some worry that tensions could lead to a trade war, economic concerns have thus far won out, and the Vietnamese government has been careful to avoid pushing China too far.

The Rebalance

Even with these constraints, Vietnam has welcomed American efforts to deepen ties on diplomatic, economic, and military fronts. The rebalancing is directed toward all of Asia, but extra attention has been directed toward Vietnam – a prominent victim of China’s actions in the South China Sea, and a country with an especially dynamic and promising economy.

America has promoted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the main pillar of its economic rebalancing to Asia. The United States, Vietnam, and 11 other Asian-Pacific nations are currently negotiating the deal,which seeks to reduce both tariff and non-tariff trade barriers while maintaining high standards for intellectual property, the environment, and labor rights. American officials have said they would welcome China, but it is widely acknowledged that the deal’s standards are too stringent for China to adhere to. Vietnam also faces challenges to joining, especially with its reluctance to reform state-owned enterprises and labor rights. Its presence in the negotiations is a testament to the determination of both America and Vietnam to deepen their economic ties.

TPP

Current members negotiating the TPP. Image: The New York Times

 

Diplomatically, the bulk of American efforts are directed toward the region rather than individual states. With regard to the South China Sea disputes, the United States has recognized that no single Southeast Asian state can hope to receive bilateral negotiations with China on equal footing. As a result, it has worked quietly to promote a closer unification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which wields significant influence but, like all regional organizations, is held back by the disagreements of its member states.

Even with the region-wide focus of diplomacy, however, a rapid exchange of interstate visits has reflected Vietnam’s importance. American congressional delegations and Administration officials have met with the Vietnamese with increasing regularity, and Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 2011 trip marked the first visit by a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1971.Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party and the country’s supreme leader, will make his first visit to the United States this June.

America’s military policy constitutes the most visible aspect of its rebalancing strategy, and naturally draws the bulk of Beijing’s complaints. In Vietnam, the U.S. has coupled emphasis on exchanges and cooperation with direct (although minor) military aid. Military-to-military ties have grown greatly in the past decade, particularly with the introduction of an annual Naval Engagement Activity (NEA), which pairs each navy in noncombat exercises. In 2014, the Secretary of the Navy also invited Vietnam to join the biannual, U.S.-led RIMPAC exercises, the largest naval exercise in the world.

While noncombat exercises are a mild form of cooperation, American promises of military aid to Vietnam reflect a much stronger commitment to rebalancing. In December of 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry announced $18 million in aid to Vietnam to “boost maritime security.” A portion of the money was earmarked for the purchase of five unarmed patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard – a minor increase, but symbolically significant. Additionally, Japan – the linchpin of American security in the Pacific and another country locked in a territorial dispute with China – provided Vietnam with an additional six boats, worth $5 million. And in 2014, the U.S. eased its ban on providing Vietnam with lethal arms, opening the door to a number ofsystems for its coastal defense.

Military Spending Infographic

THE PHILIPPINES

In the Philippines, the U.S. is working to further deepen its relationship with a treaty ally and longtime partner. After a brutal war with the United States that left it an American colony, the Philippines maintained a better relationship with its conqueror than most countries, and upon gaining independence sought American protection throughout the Cold War. While Filipinos resentment of U.S. military bases led to an American exit in the 1990s and a slight chill in relations, the Philippines remains one of America’s closest allies in the region.

Philippine-American Timeline Infographic

As with Vietnam, the Philippines’ desire to draw even closer to America is explained by Chinese tactics in the South China Sea. The Sino-Philippine conflict has actually been significantly more contentious. Because it shares no border with China, is less economically dependent, and has signed a mutual defense treaty with America, the Philippine government has been less constrained by geopolitics than its Vietnamese counterpart. (It should be noted, however, that the U.S. has declined to clarify whether this defense treaty applies to Philippine claims in the South China Sea.)

These circumstances have enabled the Philippine government to apply for international arbitration of its disputes in the South China Sea, a step that Vietnam considered too divisive. China has objected, stating that it will “neither accept nor participate” in the arbitration, and maintained its political stance of indisputable sovereignty throughout the South China Sea. It is highly unlikely that the suit will achieve any result.

In spite of greater economic insularity than Vietnam, the Philippines has still fallen victim to what isperhaps China’s greatest asset: economic coercion. China has employed this strategy often, taking advantage of its large domestic market and the control the state retains over the economy. In June of 2012, it reacted to a confrontation with the Philippine Navy by cutting off Filipino banana imports. Justifying the policy as a health regulation, China succeeded in choking an important industry and driving Manila to adopt a conciliatory tone.

The Rebalance

Economically, the United States and the Philippines are already quite close. America is the Philippines’ second-largest trade partner (after Japan) and its biggest investor. Still, the Obama Administration has worked to further enhance the relationship. While the Philippines does not currently take part in the TPP negotiations, it has expressed interest, and high-level officials from each country have met to discuss what its participation would look like. In 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral defense treaty, the two countries signed a five-year Partnership For Growth (PFG) agreement, designating the Philippines as a priority area for American development assistance. That same year, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (a government agency) signed a five-year, $434 million compact to combat poverty and encourage growth in the Philippines.

Trade Growth Infographic

While historical closeness, cultural similarity, and the depth of Philippine-American exchange have already created close ties, American diplomats have sought to further reinforce the relationship. The two countries recently began holding a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue to institutionalize the regular exchange of ideas. And in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton visited the Philippines to release a joint Philippine-American declaration,reaffirming that the alliance had “never been stronger.”

The military aspect of rebalancing has consisted of naval aid, closer cooperation and training, and – most importantly – a strengthened defense treaty. Having always depended on its American counterpart, the Philippine Navy is one of the weakest in the region. Its flagship is a 45-year-old cutter, donated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011. The U.S. has offered an additional ship, communications equipment, and training, but recognizes that no amount of aid will enable the Philippines to unilaterally defend against Chinese naval incursions.

The true cornerstone of the military rebalance is a ten-year enhanced defense pact negotiated in 2014. The agreement creates no permanent bases, an option that then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dismissed as a “return to an outdated Cold War mentality.”Instead, it invites rotational deployments of American ships and advisers, which will significantly escalate military presence in the region. It also opens the door to greater commitments of military aid to the Philippines.

The symbolic value of a return to the Philippines, just over twenty years after public protest forced the closing of American bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, is indicative of the region’s tense atmosphere. Some anti-American sentiment remains, stalling the agreement in a legal challenge that is now before the Philippine Supreme Court. Still, Philippine officials are confident that the case will be thrown out when a decision is reached.

Assessing American Intentions Throughout Southeast Asia

In spite of American efforts to paint the rebalance in nonthreatening terms, Beijing has frequently voiced its concern that the strategy aims to encircle and contain China. These complaints have especially been directed at the military components of these partnerships with Vietnam and the Philippines. China – at least publicly – eyes these moves suspiciously, and assumes that realist, hegemonic motives dominate American intentions.

For many reasons, however, this theory does not hold water. Even if China were to be excluded from the equation, a shift in attention to Asia would remain eminently logical. The War on Terror absorbed American resources in the Middle East for a decade after 9/11, but never promised long-term benefits to the national interest. Nor does any other region offer the dynamism and promise of Asia, which officials and scholars predict will be at the center of international affairs for decades to come

While China’s era of incredible growth is finally slowing, the rest of Asia is only beginning to take off. Asia holds more than half of the world’s population and is projected to account for half of its economy by 2050. Southeast Asia in particular holds much of this untapped potential, and four of the ten ASEAN states already rank among the world’s 20 most competitive economies.

With this unparalleled importance in mind, it becomes clear that the rebalance is simply an alignment of American resources and commitments with its interests – and that if anything, criticisms should question if the policy has gone far enough. With a globally integrated economy and worldwide commitments and interests, the United States does not see itself as having the option to neglect such a crucial region.

The rebalancing strategy has also emphasized the importance of improved relations with China. While public statements have often put America and China at odds, particularly over territorial disputes, diplomatic and military coordination have improved considerably. The annual, Strategic and Economic Dialogue receives a great deal of attention, and institutionalizes the frank exchange of positions between the two countries. Communication has been at the heart of American efforts to ease Chinese suspicions. For example, the Administration even privately briefed China on its plans before embarking on President Obama’s 2014 trip to Asia, in which he announced the enhanced defense treaty with the Philippines.

In responding to fears of containment, it is also important to note that a struggling China would be a disaster for America’s economy and interests. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it in 2014,“I worry more about a China that falters economically than I do about them building another aircraft carrier.” The American and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined, and economic turmoil could also provoke political instability in China and East Asia– the last thing the United States would like to see.

Chinese ships expanding land in the South China Sea. Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Chinese ships expanding land in the South China Sea. Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies

Beijing may blame America for regional sentiment turning against it, but it would be better served by turning the mirror on itself. China’s policy in the South China Sea has done much more damage to its stature in Southeast Asia than American actions conceivably could. With aggressive expansion, including incursions into both Vietnamese and Philippine Exclusive Economic Zones, China has flouted both regional and international norms and laws. Its inflexible and even threatening rhetoric and diplomacy have only compounded the problem.

Only this behavior can explain why a country like Vietnam has sought greater friendship with the United States, or why ASEAN has pursued greater unity in dealing with other countries. China may well regret its policies in the South China Sea: in pursuit of territorial gains, it has sacrificed regional influence and reputation, thus containing itself.

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Who’s afraid of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative?

A month ago China unveiled an action plan for China’s controversial One Belt, One Road initiative. The action plan introduces a series infrastructure development projects and trade related agreements along three Silk Roads emanating from China and reaching as far as Europe, Africa, and South America. It undoubtedly will be the subject of scrutiny as analysts and pundits on both sides of the Pacific chime in to make hasty comparisons to China’s 14th century maritime expansion and the more recent U.S. led Marshall Plan.  Some may even go as far to equate the One Belt, One Road to Japan’s pernicious WWII era East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – this analogy, to the Chinese, is ultimately insulting.

Scrutiny and false comparisons aside, China and the world will be made economically better off by a successful implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative.  China estimates the total benefit stream for investors and firms that participate in the initiative to reach an astronomical USD 21 trillion. Moreover, the prospects of such benefits are particularly timely at a time when global aggregate demand is on a downslide.   During a series of fall 2013 visits to Asian neighbors, China’s president Xi Jinping first announced the One Road, One Belt proposal as an umbrella concept describing three economic belts extending westward from China toward Europe and Africa.  The three economic belts roughly follow historical trade routes linking China with the West and are known as the New Silk Road, South Silk Road, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (See map).

One Belt One Road

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the initiative seeks to strengthen economic collaboration, improve road connectivity, promote trade and investment, promote currency conversion, and bolster people-to-people exchanges.  The timing of the initiative is critical.  China’s current development trajectory requires an infusion of economic growth emanating from its under-developed interior using an outward focused plan to export its finished products abroad while importing much needed raw materials and foodstuffs from the rest of the world.

The catchword among the planners of the Belt and Road system is youwai zhinei (由外至内) or ‘to bring the outside in.’ This concept reveals the actual logic of the plan as an outward looking plan that fills domestic economic needs first. Xi Jinping is betting his political future, and by extension, the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, on this plan to solve China’s economic woes and deliver successful reforms.  Thus, criticism should not pontificate on how the initiative is China’s grand strategy for global domination, but rather focus on assessing the efficiency of the various related project and prognosticating whether Xi can drive the initiative’s benefits home in time to stave off an economic slowdown.

To address current criticism, pundits are quick to draw historical comparisons to when Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, a court eunuch whose naval fleets, sailed as far as the east African coastline collecting tribute and expanding China’s sphere of influence.  To be sure, Zheng He’s ships were equipped with soldiers and were not simply diplomatic missions.  However, historian Jeremiah Jenne Executive Director of The Hutong in Beijing says, “Zheng was not trying to conquer or colonize in the name of the Ming Court. China gets into a lot of trouble in contemporary diplomacy because there seem to be elements in the foreign policy and military establishments and a whole swath of the general population who have trouble separating tributary arrangements from actual control and sovereignty.”

Jenne’s comments are generally made in reference to China’s historical claims to most of the South China Sea, many of which are based on Zheng He’s naval explorations.  However, on equal measure, Western detractors of the One Belt One Road plans should also not claim Zheng He as a world conqueror or challenger to the status quo.

Some analysts suggest the cheap financing and aid packages attached to the One Belt One Road plan are part of a political strategy for China to placate its neighbors over territorial disagreements with trade incentives and cash.  China indeed ill-advisedly attempted this strategy in the mid 1990s with its economic cooperation strategies vis-à-vis mainland Southeast Asia, but its track record with this strategy, particularly with Vietnam and Indonesia is spotty and has not produced desired results.

Yun Sun, resident fellow and Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. does not quite agree with the view that One Belt, One Road is motivated primarily by strategic and political calculations. She says, “The plan is primarily an economic campaign designed to serve China’s economic restructuring and export needs. It will benefit the region, as well as China.”  She admits the initiative will inevitably have a political impact and Beijing conceivably sees the political benefit as a part of the package.

“Using the counter-factual approach,” continues Sun, “China would still pursue One Belt, One Road without South China Sea disputes, so we can’t really say that the South China Seas or mending ties due to disputes there is the cause of China’s One Belt One Road.”

The post-WII Marshall plan which successfully lifted both the US and Europe out of its post-WWII economic woes and acted as the keystone to US led global restructuring models such as the Bretton Woods system indeed serves as a useful comparison to the One Belt, One Road initiative.   While we should be mindful that there is no guarantee the plan will deliver the local and global economic benefits that China hopes for, we should be more mindful that unlike the Marshall Plan, China has no economic restructuring model to offer the rest of the world, its stock of soft power is not necessarily improving, and this plan, still in its proposal stage, will be no easy sell.

To provide a comparison, China’s scorecard in regard to economic belt and road development in mainland Southeast Asia is murky and has contributed much to its current reputation rising regional power with unclear intentions.  Vietnam has stringently followed China’s export-led growth model and as a result is currently heading toward dire and inexorable economic straits unless it considers other alternatives.  Even in poor countries like Laos, where mid-to-high-value Chinese exports are not preferred to Thai or even Vietnamese products, scant evidence exists to demonstrate the “Made in China” image is improving.

The record of Chinese firms abroad in regard to environmental protection and labor practices is abysmal in countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia with no evidenced improvement in corporate social responsibility practices. Tied to this, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown will reveal deep corruption and graft in many of China’s overseas infrastructure development projects.  Moreover, Xi Jinping is pledging to break-up the monopolies of many of China’s powerful state firms – construction and energy firms are already in his sights – thus, it is unclear who will build the One Belt, One Road projects.

To reiterate, these are the issues that deserve scrutiny and attention rather than the high-level rhetoric of China’s grand strategy.

Liu Jinxin, regional logistics expert and chief architect of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (a westward stretching leg of the South Silk Road – see map), says that the greatest challenge facing the One Belt, One Road strategy is in China’s public relations strategy.  “Too many out there misunderstand China’s intentions, and factions, particularly within democratic countries, will misinterpret the benefit flows that this plan will deliver.”  Liu also cites the need for harmonizing legal structures between cooperative partners in sectors related to trade, commerce, and logistics.  “China will learn the most from this process, specifically through interaction with countries in Europe where the rule of law is strong.  However, since China’s legal system is not based on rule of law, it will be difficult for China to emerge as a conversation leader on this initiative.  In many ways China’s role is passive.”

Thailand’s refusal to pass a regional cross-border transportation agreement sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (which China and other mainland Southeast Asian states have ratified) is reflective of Liu’s commentary.  The ratification of this agreement would require the break-up of many entrenched factions within Thailand’s customs and inspection agencies as well as the military – a move these powerful groups are unwilling to budge on despite Thailand’s overall enthusiasm for economic cooperation with China.

When applying a critical eye to the One Belt, One Road initiative, its best to begin with a consideration toward the feasibility of such a project and looking at China’s real capabilities. Many worthwhile questions arise amidst such an inquiry, and certainly no one should take for granted that China can pull such an endeavor.  The functionality of the initiative is to push China successfully through its next wave of economic reforms promising further stability to East Asia and delivering a substantial contribution to global economic growth.

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China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both thecontroversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract$100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

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China summons Burmese ambassador after bomb kills four in Yunnan

China has summoned Myanmar’s Ambassador to China following a Burmese air raid that led to the deaths of four Chinese citizens.

The Burmese military is currently engaged in an armed conflict with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), centered on the Kokang region. Kokang lies on the border of Burma’s Shan State and China’s Yunnan Province.

According to a report from state-run Xinhua News Agency, four villagers from Yunnan’s Gengma County were killed Friday afternoon while working in their sugarcane fields. Nine others were injured.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin expressed strict condemnation of the incident in a statement. Late Friday night, Liu urged Burmese Ambassador to China Thit Linn Ohn to fully investigate the incident and report the investigation’s outcomes to Beijing.

In addition, the Vice Minister asked for severe punishment for those involved and for the Burmese to take steps to ensure security in its border regions.

The incident on Friday was the second of its kind in just a week. On March 8, an errant shell fired from Burmese territory landed on a house in Gengma County. No one was injured.

While the Chinese press has pointed its finger squarely at the Myanmar Air Force, the question of blame is not so clear cut on the Burmese side.

An official with the office of the Myanmar president claimed that Burmese forces had informed the Chinese side of their air operations, which were carried out “strictly adhering to the information we told them”.

“The targets of all our aerial attacks were inside our territory,” the official, Zaw Htay, told Reuters in an interview.

“It’s possible that those fighting with us purposely created these attacks with the intent of causing misunderstanding between China and us … We plan to explain it to Chinese diplomats after summoning them.”

The 2015 Kokang Conflict began last month when MNDAA forces launched an offensive against the Burmese military. They attacked in an effort to retake territory lost in 2009 during a similar conflict with government forces. Like the 2009 conflict, this latest flare up has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee across the border into Yunnan.

Before hostilities broke out in 2009, Kokang, a region largely populated by ethnic Han Chinese, had enjoyed a twenty year ceasefire.

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MNDAA soldiers in Kokang region. AFP image, February 13, 2015

Myanmar has repeatedly accused the Chinese government of  aiding the MNDAA with troops and materiel. Beijing has categorically denied such claims.

The MNDAA was formed in 1989 after the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma, an armed group which Beijing supported for decades.

This latest iteration of the Kokang conflict has done much to strain relations between China and Myanmar.  Despite historically close ties between the two governments, Naypidaw’s efforts to defeat simmering rebellions in its border regions have had consequences for bilateral ties. The 2009 Kokang conflict and the refugee crisis it created drew condemnation from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, Burmese shells landed in Chinese territory during 2012 and 2013 as a result of Myanmar’s ongoing conflict with the Kachin Indepence Army.

Long Myanmar’s only ally in the region, China has had to compete with other countries for Myanmar’s favor following its implementation of reforms starting in 2011. However, whereas many have claimed Myanmar was distancing itself from China, the opposite may be true following this latest iteration of the Kokang conflict.

Additionally, these threats to China’s border security could test its commitment to non-interference, a key part of its foreign policy. Will another incident provoke China to deploy troops to the region? Will China seek to mediate a ceasefire agreement in Kokang? Does this all mark a significant turn in Sino-Burmese relations? China’s response in the coming days and weeks will help to answer these questions and more.

Update 7:07pm, March 14: According to new reports from China Central Television, China Eastern Airlines has decided to cancel six flights to three cities in Myanmar: Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Naypidaw. In addition , it is now reported that China has deployed fighter jets to the border region opposite Kokang.

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