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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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Laos’s leadership transition raises questions over regional alliances

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Bounnhang will be the leader of Laos’ ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

Laos’ Communist Party elected vice-president Bounnhang Vorachit to be its next leader last week, after a vote by the newly formed 10th Party Central Committee.

State media announced on Friday that the congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which is held every five years, had selected a new central committee and politburo to lead the country. The 78-year-old Bounnhang is replacing Choummaly Sayasone, 79, as secretary-general and president, who is stepping down after almost a decade in power.

Some observers believe that the change in leadership signifies a tilt away from China and closer to longtime ally Vietnam, as Laos takes on the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc.

The secretive nature of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which has ruled the country since 1975, makes its internal politics difficult to understand, but the changes in the politburo offer some indications of a slight shift in the ruling elite.

The choice of Bounnhang, a senior figure of the regime who was a prominent member of the Pathet Lao armed independence movement and has previously acted as prime minister, is an unsurprising one for the single-party state.

However, few expected the departure from the party of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, 71, who had been in the politburo since 1991. Speculation in Laos is rife that his exit from power is linked to the recent arrests for corruption of Central Bank Governor Somphao Sayasith and former Finance Minister Phouphet Khamphounvong.

The 70-year-old Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad was also reported as not having sought re-election to the central committee, where he had been been a politburo member since 2006. Though less highly ranked in the cabinet, he was notable for being the principal pro-Beijing voice within the government.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, Somsavat has shepherded many joint ventures with China and is currently overseeing the controversial Laos-China high-speed rail project, whose ground-breaking ceremony took place in early December 2015.

The 427 km railway would connect the Lao capital to the Chinese border and is expected to cost  US$6.04 billion. A Radio Free Asia (RFA) report from January 4 mentions some government officials as criticizing Somsavat for having accepted a deal unfavorable to Laos, noting that it was not the first “high-cost investment where he gave too much away as collateral for project loans with little or no payoffs for ordinary Lao citizens.

The railroad has been mired in controversy ever since it was announced in 2010. The project was alleged to have created tensions between Laos and Vietnam, whose “own relations with China were then at a standstill,” explains Ian Baird, a Laos expert and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bouasone Bouphavanh, the then-prime minister, is believed to have been removed from power and replaced by Thongsing in 2010, due to perceptions that he was favoring Beijing over Hanoi. Soon after, plans were started for a Laos-Vietnam railway, but never formalized.

In recent years, Beijing has vied aggressively for influence in Laos through aid, loans and infrastructure investment.

“China is using its economic interests to get political power” says Baird. “Politically, though, Laos remains much closer to Vietnam. Most of the country’s leaders studied or trained in Vietnam, including Bounnhang. They were already in governmental positions in the 1980s when there were strong enmities between Laos and China, who were then almost at war, with no trade or real relations.”

“What the Lao are doing now is trying to balance between the Vietnamese and Chinese. They want political support from Vietnam and financial support from China…The United States is also getting closer to Laos, but has relatively low investments in the country.”

“Ultimately”, Baird concludes, “I believe that Vietnam has more power than China in Laos.

Such diplomatic balancing was already visible this week. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Thongsing had assured US. Secretary of State John Kerry that “Laos would help counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Xinhua, meanwhile, detailed a meeting on Tuesday between Bounnhang and Song Tao, a special envoy mandated by Xi Jinping, where the former announced “he was ready to join hands with China to further develop the relations between the two parties and two countries.” Unmentioned publicly by either government was the death of two Chinese nationals in a suspected bomb attack on Sunday in central Laos, though it remains unknown whether they were individually targeted.

As this year’s ASEAN chairman and co-convenor of the upcoming Sunnylands Summit, it is likely that Laos will be trying to strengthen its own position in the regional balance, particularly in light of mounting tensions in the South China Sea.

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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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Daniel Russel: Remarks at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference

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On July 21, 2015 at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the US State Department delivered a keynote speech clearly outlining the US position on China’s recent land reclamation action in the South China Sea and its implications for US-China relations.  Given the timeliness and relevance of this speech, we’ve posted it in its entirety below.  
Good afternoon. Thank you, Murray, for the kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be back at CSIS.

Let me start by laying out the essential context.

The United States has always had interests in Asia. These interests have only grown stronger as our economies have become more interconnected, and as our people have grown closer through travel and the Internet.

For the last seven decades, we’ve worked with allies and partners in the region to build shared prosperity and shared security. In the last six-and-a-half years, in particular, we’ve invested in building cooperative relations with every country in the region. This is the rebalance.

There are many types of investment the world, and Asia, needs in order to grow—investment in people, first and foremost; investment in business; in physical infrastructure, and just as important; investment in “cooperative capital” – the international law and order infrastructure that facilitates the interactions between countries, that advances regional economic integration, and helps states peacefully manage and settle disputes.

The U.S. makes balanced investments in all of these areas.

The last one, the international rules-based system, has been the ‘essential but underappreciated underpinning’ of global growth over the last 70 years. That’s especially true in Asia, where many countries have grown – and continue to grow – their economies through international trade, especially trade with the U.S.

Asia’s nations have achieved so much in recent decades—reducing poverty, raising living standards, and creating opportunities for their people. They’ve done it through hard work, cooperation with each other, partnership with the U.S., and by jointly developing and operating within a rules-based system.

And we are helping them to do even more:

We’re taking broad-based, sustainable economic growth to a new level with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP embraces a future that reaches beyond trade and investment to include high standards for environmental protection, for labor rights.

TPP’s provisions will support a thriving, growing, entrepreneurial middle class that is able to connect with the world and do business through a free, open Internet.

We’re taking the security architecture that underpins this brighter future to a new level by investing in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to our longstanding work with global ones like the U.N.

These institutions uphold norms and tackle tough challenges; they can help bring parties together to hash out disagreements, or when bilateral diplomacy doesn’t succeed, help to have those disputes resolved peacefully in a fair, impartial manner.

Standing behind and supporting these institutions is our system of alliances and partnerships.

This network has helped keep the peace in the region since World War II. And through a series of important agreements with key security partners over the last few years, we’ve refreshed them so they’ll last for decades to come.

We’re taking environmental protection to a new level, through our work on ocean preservation, on combatting climate change and its effects, and through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative that help make economic growth environmentally sustainable.

As we pursue this broad, forward-looking vision for the region, we’ve worked constructively with China—a lot.

We’ve built greater understanding through President Obama’s 20 some-odd meetings with the Chinese President or Premier; and through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and an alphabet soup of other consultations.

We’ve put a floor under the relationship so it can withstand tensions or even a crisis.

And in the last couple years, all of this work has paid off—we’ve made measurable progress in a range of cooperative efforts: in low-carbon policies; countering piracy at sea; in stemming the Ebola crisis; supporting a better future for Afghanistan; and much more.

But unfortunately, the situation in the South China Sea does not fit this cooperative pattern.

Now, the U.S. is not a claimant. As I’ve said here at CSIS, these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US-China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors and – ultimately – it’s an issue of what kind of power China will become. But for a variety of reasons, the competing claims and problematic behavior in the South China Sea have emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s take a step back and recall, as I’m sure you discussed this morning, that there is a history of competing assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and even violent conflicts in 1974 and 1988.

There are no angels here. The occupation of land features in this contested space over the years looked a lot like “squatters’ rights.” But that is something that in 2002 the claimants agreed to stop doing.

In that year, all the claimants (and the ASEAN states) signed a Declaration of Conduct. In it, and on other occasions, they have committed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from … inhabiting the presently uninhabited… features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.

In the Declaration of Conduct, they also committed to negotiate a Code of Conduct that would lay out and lock in responsible behavior. But in the ensuing 13 years, work on the Code has stalled, and the Declaration has not been sufficient to prevent confrontations or to help claimants resolve these disputes peacefully.

Recently, the level of concern in the region has escalated as the scale and speed of China’s reclamation work has become public. The Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN leaders’ summit in April was unusually blunt, speaking of “serious concerns” about “land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability….”

While China’s statement on June 16 that it would stop reclamation work “soon” was presumably intended to reassure, its effect was in fact alarming since the statement went on to warn that China would construct military facilities on these reclaimed outposts.

So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.

We see a broad consensus within ASEAN on a path forward to reduce tensions and promote peaceful handling of these disputes. And we support ASEAN’s efforts to expeditiously conclude an effective, rigorous Code of Conduct that builds on the Declaration by translating its cooperative spirit into specific “do’s and don’ts.”

But to make this happen, the parties need to create room for diplomacy.

In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, “when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.” That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.

These are steps the parties could commit to immediately; steps that would cost them nothing; steps that would significantly reduce risks; steps that would open the door to eventual resolution of the disputes.

Secretary Kerry has made this point to Chinese leaders and to the other claimants, and will be meeting with his counterparts early next month in Malaysia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, to push for progress on this important priority.

Now, steps to exercise restraint through a moratorium and a Code of Conduct will create diplomatic space and help keep the peace, but they won’t address the question of maritime boundaries or sovereignty over land features.

So what’s the way forward?

When it comes to competing claims, two of the main peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiations and arbitration.

Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through third-party dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary;

Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

A common thread runs through the maritime boundary disputes that have been resolved peacefully: the parties asserted maritime claims based on land features, and were prepared to resolve those disputes in accordance with international law.

This is why we’ve consistently called on all claimants to clarify the scope of their claims in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Doing so would narrow the differences and offer the basis for negotiations and cooperative solutions.

Regrettably, I don’t know anyone in the region who believes that a negotiated settlement between China and other claimants is attainable in the current atmosphere.

And the multiple competing claims in some parts of the South China Sea make negotiations that much more difficult.

And then there is the absolutist political position taken by some claimants who insist that their own claims are “indisputable” and represent territory – however distant from their shores – that was “entrusted to them by ancestors” and who vow never to relinquish “one inch.”

What about arbitration? As this audience knows, there currently is an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention between the Philippines and China.

At the heart of the case is the question of the so-called “Nine Dash Line” and whether that has a legal basis under the international law of the sea. It also asks what maritime entitlements, if any, are generated by features that China occupies? In other words, regardless of whose jurisdiction it may fall under, would Mischief Reef, for example, be entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea? A 200nm exclusive economic zone? A continental shelf?

Now, it’s important to note that the Tribunal is not being asked – and is not authorized to rule – on the question of sovereignty over disputed land features. Everyone recognizes that the sovereignty issue is beyond the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Claimants would need to agree to bring that sort of sovereignty dispute before a court or tribunal, typically the ICJ.

But under the Law of the Sea Convention, the Tribunal is authorized to first determine whether it has jurisdiction under the Convention over any of the Philippines’ claims in the case and, if it does, whether the Philippines’ arguments have merit.

The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case. But when they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime.

Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not.

Now China has argued that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction, and the tribunal has specifically considered this issue in recent hearings in The Hague, looking very carefully at a position paper published by China. But if the Tribunal concludes that it in fact has jurisdiction in this case, it will proceed to the merits, including potentially the question of the legality of China’s “Nine-Dash Line.”

Should it then rule that the “Nine-Dash Line” is not consistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, and particularly if the Tribunal ruled that the features cited in the case do not generate EEZ or continental shelf entitlements, the scope of the overlapping maritime claims – and hopefully the points of friction – would be significantly reduced.

But it’s also important to recognize that even in this outcome, important sovereignty and boundary issues would remain unresolved.

This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, although accession has been supported by every Republican and Democratic administration since the Convention was signed and sent to the Senate in 1994. It is supported by the U.S. military, by industry, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

For the United States to secure the benefits of accession, the Senate has to provide its advice and consent, as I hope it ultimately will.

But even as we encourage the parties to work for long term solutions, we are obligated to protect U.S. interests. Let me take a moment to examine what some of those interests are:

  • Protecting unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea by all, not just the U.S. Navy;
  • Honoring our alliance and security commitments, and retaining the full confidence of our partners and the region in the United States;
  • Aiding the development of effective regional institutions, including a unified ASEAN;
  • Promoting responsible marine environmental practices;
  • Fostering China’s peaceful rise in a manner that promotes economic growth and regional stability, including through consistency with international law and standards.
  • And more generally, an international order based on compliance with international law and the peaceful of disputes without the threat or use of force.

As a practical matter, in addition to our support for principles such as the rule of law, we are taking steps to help all countries in the region cooperate on maritime issues. For example, we’re investing in the maritime domain awareness capabilities of coastal states in the region.

This allows countries to protect safety at sea and respond to threats such as piracy, marine pollution and illegal trafficking. Maritime awareness also advances transparency, in line with our call to all claimants to be more open and transparent about their capabilities, actions, and intentions at sea.

The U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations are another element of a global policy to promote compliance with the international law of the sea.

Our goal is to ensure that not only can the U.S. Navy or Air Force exercise their navigational rights and freedoms, but ships and planes from even the smallest countries are also able to enjoy those rights without risk. The principles underlying unimpeded lawful commerce apply to vessels from countries around the globe.

And under international law, all countries—not just the United States—enjoy the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that our diplomacy and the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations help protect.

For us, it’s not about the rocks and shoals in the South China Sea or the resources in and under it, it’s about rules and it’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. So we will continue to defend the rules, and encourage others to do so as well. We will also encourage all countries to apply principles of good neighborliness to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Let me close by mentioning that we have a host of cooperative initiatives we’re working on for the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the East Asia Summit—all of which will advance much more quickly and effectively when tensions in the South China Sea are lower.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing US foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more in partnership with our Allies, with ASEAN and with China.

For us, for the region, and for China – finding a peaceful, lawful and responsible way forward on the South China Sea is a prerequisite to achieving our longer term goals.

Thank you.

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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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Filed under China, Current Events, Foreign policy, Governance, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Trade, Vietnam

Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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Mass Disappearance of Vietnamese Brides in China’s North

Cover shot of a 2010 Southern Weekly magazine featuring the trend of Chinese men are marrying Vietnamese brides

Cover shot of a 2010 Southern Weekly magazine with a feature on how Chinese men are marrying Vietnamese brides

Police are investigating how a hundred people came to be missing last month in Handan County, Hebei.  The disappeared aren’t protesters or dissidents, they aren’t journalists, they aren’t teachers; they haven’t been victim to a mud slide, a coal mine collapse or a flood.  They are a hundred young Vietnamese women, brokered into marriage to Chinese men across the border mere months ago, and now gone.

Public, verifiable facts on the case are scarce; even on the barest nature of the crime.  Are the disappeared women victims or co-conspirators with their traffickers?  Did they move on willingly, clandestinely, or were they forcibly kidnapped?  How could a hundred people remove themselves from their new husbands without a trace left behind?

One local official says it looks like the men were scammed by a marriage broker who had lived in the county for twenty years before disappearing with the women.

Wu Meiyu was herself a Vietnamese bride, moving to the county and raising a family there with her new Chinese husband.  Wu is alleged to have travelled widely this year in search of lonely male bachelors to sell Vietnamese brides to.  She successfully administrated one hundred illegal marriages to these men, importing each bride individually through associates in Vietnam for a hefty fee.

On the evening of November 20 all one hundred of these women disappeared en masse.  They apparently told their husbands they were attending a dinner party, but none returned at evening’s end.  Except, possibly,for one.

It has been reported that one of the brides returned to her hometown and filed a police report.  The report claimed that upon arriving for a dinner party she was told by an unspecified person that a new husband was going to be found for her.  At some point she fell unconscious and after awakening managed to make her way back to her adopted village.

This incredibly vague, frustrating anecdote raises more questions than it answers, but if true, appears to imply that the women have been trafficked against their will.  On the other hand, this is the only piece of evidence pointing to the forced nature of the disappearance, and if untrue the likelihood of the women being scammers themselves increases.

Whether these women are victims or co-conspirators, the scale of the movement of people involved highlights the robust, entrenched criminal networks involved in human trafficking in the region – and the suffering trafficking incurs for all involved.

Human trafficking in China is a huge, murky issue.  Although absolutely illegal in PRC law, it occurs constantly; domestically – with victims being abducted and transported thousands of kilometers across the huge country, to unfamiliar surrounds – and internationally, with thousands of people being smuggled in from neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and nations further afield.  In some parts of China openly marrying brokered, foreign brides has become local tradition.

Chinese police forces are enacting a notional attempt to stem the tide of trafficking crime, with most attention being paid to child trafficking, sexual slavery and prostitution.  However, given China’s skewed sex ratio and its growing demand for trafficked children and wives (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates there could be up to 24 million more men than women of marriageable age in China by 2020) it remains to be seen if police can make any real inroads into the problem.

This particular police investigation into the hundred missing women is worth tracking for its unusual scale.  Every day young vulnerable Vietnamese women are abducted from their homes by friends, family and strangers and sold into China.  These damaged women rarely manage to return and are mostly voiceless if they do.

Local and regional policing efforts need to work effectively to achieve a solid outcome in this potentially high-profile case so that more attention can be drawn to the crimes of slavery and human trafficking in Asia.Source countries must also do their bit, but as a significant destination country China has a huge responsibility –and debt – to the many victims who wake up there daily in the dark: far from home, scared and stripped of their rights.

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The Illicit Drug Industry & Counter-Narcotics in Southeast Asia

drug picture 1

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: The Irrawaddy

On 5 October 2011, when Thai river police investigated reported gunshots on the middle reaches of the Mekong River, they discovered two cargo vessels and their 12 Chinese crew members, all of whom had been executed and their bodies dumped in the river. The ships were determined to have been hijacked to transport illicit cargo, and they contained over 920,000 amphetamine tablets, locally referred to as yaba, which were subsequently confiscated by Thai authorities.

Over the past 70 years stories like this have become commonplace in the notorious Golden Triangle, a delta area at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers that takes up approximately 150,000 square kilometers of land in the tri-state Thai, Lao and Burmese (Myanmar) border region. Drug production and trafficking has brought this locality to international infamy, and it remains the world’s second largest cultivator of opium poppy, second only to Afghanistan. Faced with rising heroin and amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) addiction levels, drug-related violence, and an expanding HIV epidemic, Southeast Asian governments have recently begun to intensify their efforts to combat this endemic problem. Using bilateral agreements and the frameworks of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), actions by these governments have met varying levels of success.

 

Colonial Roots of the Southeast Asian Drug Trade

Opium poppy is native to the lush and remote Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces of China’s southwest. For hundreds of years small-scale cultivation by hill tribes in the region met the modest needs of Chinese opium-smokers, but in the early 19th century a powerful competitor arrived in Southeast Asia: the British Empire and its waves of merchants and imperialists, all trying to find new markets for seemingly unlimited supplies of India-grown opium. At the humiliating conclusion of the 1842 Opium War the British forced the Chinese emperor to accept opium imports, thereby unleashing one of the most devastating drug epidemics in history: a mere thirty years later, British opium imports were supplying an estimated 15 million Chinese opium addicts.

Social upheaval in China during the 19th and 20th century caused massive emigration of Chinese refugees to all parts of the world, and where they went, their opium habits followed. The large Chinese immigrant populations in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam provided lucrative opportunities for the opium industry, and despite the protests of indigenous rulers, one by one state-mandated opium franchises were forced into being by British and French imperialists. It was also in this time that fleeing Chinese merchants and hill tribe people arrived in the Golden Triangle area and introduced poppy cultivation to the local populations.

In British Burma, the imperialist government lacked the ability to administer the western Shan States and so instead provided them with autonomy in exchange for loyalty. This autonomy provided a foundation for a thriving opium economy and a fiercely independent political consciousness, both of which would have strong legacies long after the British withdrawal. In French Indochina, the government-run Opium Monopoly worked industriously to incorporate Laotian poppy-growing hill tribes, and helped to sponsor the Yunnan-Tonkin railway, which provided a valuable link to the well-established opium cultivators of southwest China.

 

Colonial Events Timeline

In the years following World War II, almost all of the world’s major opium producers, the largest being Turkey, Iran, and India, brought an end to their legal opium exports to Southeast Asia, which created an enormous vacuum in the opium industry. Newly Communist China, independent Burma, and restored French Indochina all cracked down on local production, further choking supply. Eradication of the drug industry was not achieved however, primarily thanks to the actions of Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) remnants in northern Burma, the corrupt Thai National Police Force, and the French and American covert intelligence agencies.

About 1,500 battered KMT troops entered Burma in 1949, fleeing the advance of the People’s Liberation Army into Yunnan Province. This weak force was nearly crushed by the Burmese army, but in 1950 they began receiving airdrops of weapons from the CIA, which was frantic to arm groups on the southern borders of the People’s Republic of China in case Mao Zedong had expansionist ambitions. Reinforced by additional troops flown in from Taiwan, the empowered KMT army executed several failed invasions to retake Yunnan, but afterward decided to remain in northern Burma and hold the line against the Communist threat. This well-armed army proceeded to force the local tribes-people into opium cultivation, and with the help of the corrupt Thai police force, created one of the most robust drug production and trafficking systems in history.

Opium produced in northern and eastern Burma was transported across the Thai border and down to Bangkok, where it was exported out of the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1961, provoked by aggressive expansionism on the part of the KMT, the Burmese Army and the PLA jointly ousted the Nationalists from Burma and forced them into Thailand and Laos, where their communities remain today. Although the KMT forces no longer directly controlled the opium cultivation, the system was in place and ethnic Chinese, then later various Burmese insurgent traffickers, maintained the lucrative trafficking network into Thailand.

 

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

In French Indochina, the under-financed French intelligence community covertly took over management of the formally illegal opium trade in order to continue their efforts in suppressing Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. The Laotian opium industry that they nourished would later find its greatest successes during the American GI heroin epidemic of the Second Indochina Conflict, and following that, in its international spread into the continental US and Europe.

Currently, the vast majority of Southeast Asian illicit narcotics are produced in the semi-autonomous, rebel-administered eastern states of Burma, while smaller amounts also come from the remote areas of western Laos and northern Thailand. It is trafficked in two main routes: the southern route goes through Thailand to Bangkok for distribution, and the northern route enters China’s Yunnan Province, headed for Kunming and then all of East Asia. Recently, Golden Triangle supply has been unable to keep up with skyrocketing Asian demand for heroin and ATS, and approximately one third of East and Southeast Asia’s narcotics now originate in Afghanistan.

map

Source: UNODC Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2013: Lao PDR, Myanmar

 

Temporarily successful eradication programs and sustained crackdowns brought Southeast Asian drug production to a historical low in 2006, but since then there has been a consistent increase in cultivation, production, trafficking, and consumption, with levels returning to those of the 1970s and 1980s. This steady expansion of the drug trade is occurring despite a 2005 self-imposed opium cultivating ban in the territories of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Burma, a rebel group that previously accounted for the lion’s share of Burma’s opium production. This worrying trend has many consequences for Southeast Asian society.

 

Threats Posed by the Illicit Drug Industry

The streaming supply of narcotics from the Golden Triangle into China and Thailand has negative impacts on myriad areas of Southeast Asian life. Mass drug addiction and drug trafficking causes the breakup of families and increases in crime rates, spreads diseases like HIV, burdens the economy through lost productivity, imposes financial costs on the state, spreads law enforcement thin, overwhelms justice systems, encourages corruption, and funds violent groups. As production continues to increase, these problems are becoming more pronounced and demand strong preventative action.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average of 13% of injected-drug users are HIV positive, and more than half have hepatitis C. Coupled with China’s annually growing number of registered opioid users (official figures reported 1.3 million users in 2012, with actual rates likely almost double that), this situation makes the threat of a massive HIV epidemic in the world’s largest country ever more likely. Recent trends in China suggest that methamphetamine use is slowly overtaking heroin use as China’s most problematic drug, and just in China 228 meth labs were dismantled in 2012. Widespread amphetamine use continues to be a regional dilemma, as more than 8,980,000 people in East and Southeast Asian used ATS tablets in 2013. The Greater Mekong Subregion has the highest rate of crystal meth use in the world, and this drug use is exacting large tolls on society, as addiction-fueled crime expands and as families and communities spend time and resources helping addicts.

Number of Heroin Users 2010

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

The criminals and insurgents that operate the drug trade are making enormous windfalls from their work: the value of all consumed East and Southeast Asian heroin was estimated at $16.3 billion USD in 2011, with methamphetamine and amphetamine consumption valued at an additional $15 billion USD. The traffickers and their associates encompass a wide variety of individuals: ethnic Chinese syndicates, Nigerian and Iranian criminal groups, high-ranking Southeast Asian officials and military personnel, and Burmese insurgent and paramilitary forces. Although on average 50,000 people are arrested each year for trafficking illicit narcotics in Southeast Asia, the high profits of the drug trade continue to lure thousands more into the business. In the case of Burmese fighters, drug earnings are usually spent on weapons, helping to intensify violence in those areas.

drug market value

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

Some of the drug trade’s worst victims are the poverty-stricken opium cultivators in the Golden Triangle. Lacking other economic opportunities and desperate for income, many rural farmers are forced into dealings with violent traffickers and become trapped in a cycle of drug cultivation, slowly becoming more and more dependent on poppy income. They are prevented from growing crops that can benefit society, and oftentimes their communities are hit hard by addiction. Unfortunately, these rural villagers only make up a small portion of the people whose lives are destroyed by the drug trade.

 

International Cooperation and Efforts to Eliminate the Drug Industry

The governments of Southeast Asia have been working to combat the narcotics trade ever since their post-colonial independence, but unfortunately the vast majority of these efforts have been restricted to unilateral measures. Law enforcement is usually by definition national in character, but the drug trade is a transnational and regional problem, and increased cooperation on the part of Southeast Asian governments is critical for its sustainable reduction.

Thanks in large part to the prodding of the US government, which had recently declared its own War on Drugs, the 1976 ASEAN Bali Summit saw the adoption of the “ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuses of Narcotics Drugs.” Although mainly filled with rhetoric and containing few concrete measures, this declaration showed consensus among the ASEAN governments and kicked off the modern wave of counter-narcotics policies in Southeast Asia.

Thailand can be considered one of the more successful cases of sustainable reduction in illicit cultivation. Starting in 1984, the Thai government embarked on a 30-year intensive program of crop replacement, which has resulted in bringing opium cultivation in northern Thailand to negligible levels.

In contrast, the efforts of Burma’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control have been snared in the frequently contradicting objectives of the government’s anti-insurgent policy. Despite the ambitious 1999 declaration by the ruling regime to eliminate all illicit drug production by 2014, the Burmese government often turns a blind eye towards the narcotics industry in its efforts to co-opt various rebel groups. In the 1980s and 1990s the weak central government began signing ceasefire agreements with the numerous insurgent armies that control the Burmese borderlands, and many of those autonomy-granting agreements contained clauses permitting (and even encouraging) drug cultivation and production by the groups in exchange for their loyalty to the regime. Subsequently, drug enforcement policy became a tool of the state, and it was used both as a carrot and a stick to bring insurgent groups into the legal fold. When a United States grand jury indicted several leaders of the United Wa State Army, which had signed a ceasefire agreement and was the largest Burmese opium producer in the early 2000s, the government refused to arrest them or crack down on their illegal businesses. This lack of enforcement can be seen as a way of repayment for loyalty, and is in direct contrast to the government’s actions towards the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The MNDAA, another major opium producer, had refused to make peace with the government, and when the government attacked them in 2009, drug enforcement was the justification given. These two examples show how the central regime manipulates drug policy to its advantage in its state-building efforts, and explains the lack of sustained progress in eliminating the narcotics industry.

 

ASEAN response timeline            In addition to the unilateral efforts of individual states, regional organizations and agreements have been crucial to the evolution of drug enforcement in the Golden Triangle. In the late 1990s, ASEAN began examining anti-narcotics and other issues such as human trafficking and smuggling in the context of transnational crime, and started putting greater emphasis on regional cooperation. The expansion of ASEAN in 1997 to include the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Union of Myanmar allowed the other ASEAN governments to exert more diplomatic pressure on the newcomers to clean up their drug exporting regions, demonstrated in the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime. Although the declaration contained no binding measures, it set up several communication and monitoring bodies, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), the ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL) and the ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD). These bodies mainly monitor the progress of the 2000 Bangkok Political Declaration in Pursuit of a Drug-Free ASEAN 2015, but they also work to encourage development of bilateral extradition treaties, international criminal justice institutions, and cooperative border control, legal assistance, and data sharing.

 

The Future: Regional Integration and the Effectiveness of Anti-Narcotics Policy

2015 is marked to be the year in which the ASEAN Economic Community is brought into being, and many hope that it will bring with it great advances in regional trade, infrastructure, and cooperation. Already projects such as the North-South Economic Corridor, running from Kunming to Bangkok, and the building of ports and bridges along the Mekong River are generating enormous economic benefits. However, advances in regional integration also provide opportunities for those who would exploit them for illegal purposes. The increasing ease of transporting illicit narcotics and the improving communication technologies of criminal groups present a strong challenge to the national law enforcement agencies of ASEAN countries. Equally innovative and efficient use of new capabilities and technologies, as well as increased intelligence sharing and coordination must be implemented for Southeast Asian governments to effectively meet these new threats.

In November 2011, just a month after the “Mekong Massacre,” China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand agreed to cooperate on river patrols and law enforcement along the Mekong River. Their Joint Statement detailed numerous confidence building measures between the various national police forces, but mainly focused on the responsibility of each individual nation to properly patrol its own sovereign waters. This aspect reveals the major weakness of all ASEAN counter-narcotics efforts to date: ASEAN nations are caught in a paradoxical situation where despite the damaging effects of the drug industry and transnational crime on national sovereignty, the only way to effectively counter those threats is by each nation giving up some measure of their treasured sovereignty. Sovereignty and non-intervention are the two defining pillars of the “ASEAN Way,” and yet those two concepts desperately need to be reevaluated if transnational crime is to be confronted.

Confidence building measures and increased regional communication is a critical first step, but in order to make real progress in fighting the rising threat of transnational crime ASEAN nations need to accept the reduction of their sovereignty. A hopeful example is provided by the official conclusion of the Mekong Massacre: Naw Kham, the Burmese drug lord who supposedly masterminded the murders, was captured by Burmese counter-narcotics forces and extradited to China, where he and three of his subordinates were tried and executed in March 2013. Extradition treaties like these form the basis of effective cooperation, and similarly collaborative measures must be actively pursued by ASEAN governments if they are to successfully tackle the deeply-entrenched and continually evolving menace of the drug industry in Southeast Asia.

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China forbids some rice imports from Vietnam

Roger Hamilton via The Baltimore Sun

Roger Hamilton via The Baltimore Sun

Beijing has banned what trade authorities are calling “unofficial rice imports” from neighboring Vietnam. The move, ostensibly announced as closing a previously existing tax loophole, appears to be specifically targeted at Hanoi and does not affect other Southeast Asian countries sharing a border with China.

The prohibition specifically addresses the overland, cross-border traffic of rice into Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan province, both of which share lengthy southern borders with Vietnam. These shipments are often brokered and carried out by individual Chinese brokers who often skirt paying national import levies, according to Vietnamese press reports.

By centralizing bulk purchases of rice, Beijing could stand to generate substantial tax revenues.Two million tons of Vietnamese rice worth an estimated US$800 million were expected to imported through unofficial channels this year before the proscription went into affect. This number represents more than 30 percent of Vietnam’s total worldwide rice exports from 2013.

Although billed as a tax collecting endeavor, the Chinese ban has obvious political undertones. Once-strong ties between the two countries have been markedly strained since the deployment of a Chinese oil platform in international waters sparked deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam this summer. Although the oil rig has since been removed, relations have not thawed and the rice import ban may be a way for Beijing to subtly punish Hanoi.

China, which has announced it is attempting to expand its rice import portfolio, announced on Tuesday an agreement to buy 100,000 metric tons of rice from Cambodia. The contract, which went into affect immediately, states the rice must be purchased over the next year. A Cambodian businessman involved in the deal, surnamed Van, told the Phnom Penh Post that Vietnam’s loss was Cambodia’s gain:

The South China Sea dispute lately may have also played [an indirect] part in China wanting to diversify its rice import base as imports from Vietnam hit a substantial figure. China [received] over 66 percent of its total rice imports from Vietnam in 2013, while only one percent came from Cambodia.

For its part, Vietnam appears nonplussed by the import ban. Sales of rice to other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are expected to rise and make up for any money lost because of the new Chinese law. The situation, in some people’s eyes, might actually benefit the county’s agricultural market. According to Huynh The Nang, general director Vietnamese company Vinafood 2, “The demand from countries other than China for Vietnam’s rice is very high now, while the domestic supply is declining.”

This article written was by Patrick Scally and first published 8/13 here on the GoKunming website.

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