Fortnightly Review & Analysis: ASEAN, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Japan & China (Vol 2 Issue XII)

June 16 - 30, 2017

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visits Canada

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counselor visited Canada in end June after having earlier visited the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. Canada did announce some meagre allotment of funds for peace building efforts and allied activities. There was a team accompanying her which had come with the specific purpose of studying the nature and concept of Canadian Federalism. However, there was some criticism that while the Canadian Confederation is straightforward, whereas Myanmar’s federalism is complicated by a number of ethnic armed organizations at war with the central government—there is nothing to be adopted from Canada. She was either not invited to address the parliament as she normally does being an icon of democracy or possibly the Canadian side slipped up on the issue. Moreover, she is a recipient of Honorary Canadian Citizenship. However, she did meet the Myanmar diaspora but then were also some protests against Myanmar’s treatment of Rohnigyas. The State Counselor had earlier stated that she would only accept recommendations from a separate commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan rather than the one appointed by the UN.

Myanmar Military C-in-C Visits Russia

Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia in the third week of June for strengthening bilateral defence cooperation. The discussions the discussion focused on the promotion of military ties and military technical cooperation. Since 2011, Myanmar-Russia military relations have been on upward trajectory. Earlier, especially from 1988 onwards, when the military staged a coup, the Tatmadaw had relied mostly on China for importing defence equipment and weapon systems. In 2001, the Tatmadaw purchased 12 MiG29B fighter jets from Russia and continued to purchase more and more sophisticated weapons from the country. From 2001 to 2016, the Tatmadaw mainly purchased weapons from Russia, with the total value of weapons it purchased from Russia during that period was higher than that of weapons bought from China. Recently, a Russian company handed over three Yak-130 trainer aircrafts purchased by the Tatmadaw. More aircraft will be transferred in 2018. According to one report around 6,000 Tatmadaw students have graduated from prestigious universities in Russia and some have received post-graduate and doctoral degrees. There are currently around 600 students studying in Russia.


Philippines-US Détente ?

Despite Duterte’s attempts to reduce its dependence on the US, the ISIS crisis in his home island has forced him to welcome greater US military assistance. Duterte had earlier threatened to bar US counterterrorism forces in the south, saying they could be targets of attacks and were fueling Muslim restiveness in the volatile region. However, he has walked back on those threats. The US military deployed a P3 Orion aircraft recently to southern Marawi city upon Philippine request to help provide surveillance to Filipino troops battling militants aligned with the Islamic State group who laid siege on the mostly Islamic city starting last month. The slow-motion reset in Philippine–US bilateral relations could set the stage to revive cooperation in other, broader areas of strategic concern, including in the South China Sea.

Duterte has not allowed Philippines-US joint patrols in the disputed South China Sea to avoid damaging its relations with China. But he has now welcomed cooperation in the south due to increased militant activity. Earlier this fortnight, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines held joint naval patrols in southern waters where kidnappings by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf militants have sparked a regional security alarm. The US and Philippines also held joint patrols in southern Philippines from June 28- July 1 where the USS Coronado, and the Philippine navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz completed the four-day patrol at the Sulu Sea.US Navy Lt. Commander Arlo Abrahamson added that the operation was carried out at the request of the Philippine government. The coordinated patrol, which was aimed at detecting and deterring threats, "was safe and routine," Abrahamson said. US Navy Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson said "our at-sea operations with the Philippine navy demonstrate our commitment to the alliance and deter piracy and illegal activities."


President's Visit to Russia: Progress on Russia's Asian Pivot

In their first summit meeting from June 28 to July 1 in Moscow, Vietnamese State President Tran Dai Quang and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to boost comprehensive cooperation between the two nations. Vietnam and Russia established a diplomatic relationship in 1950 and became strategic partners in 2001, upgrading the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership in July 2012. The two leaders agreed to continue carrying out investment projects in both countries, including an oil and gas joint-venture, construction of a light industrial zone in Moscow, nuclear energy reactors, and projects by Vietnamese dairy group TH in some Russian localities. The presidents also reached consensus on further enhancing collaboration in defense and security, education and training, culture, tourism, and others. Russia’s investment projects in Vietnam are worth a total of US$2 billion, while Vietnam’s investment in Russia is $2.4 billion. The two countries also agreed to establish a $500 million investment fund focused on prioritizing agriculture. They also set a target of raising bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2020. Regarding the situation in the East Vietnam Sea, the two leaders agreed that any dispute should be resolved by peaceful means in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Following their talks, the two presidents witnessed the signing of seven significant cooperation deals. President Quang also met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Gennady Zyuganov in Moscow. Vietnam last year had said it was open to the idea of the Russian Navy returning to Cam Ranh Bay, now a purely commercial venture; open to ships of any country willing to pay for the maintenance and refueling it provides. The USSR had used the Cam Ranh Bay naval base after the Vietnam War. Russia later withdrew from the base in 2002. Though the much touted Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ announced by Putin in 2014 has not seen great progress, a major achievement has been a free trade agreement (FTA) between Vietnam and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).


Vietnam and China: An Uneasy Relationship

A delegation led by Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, People’s Republic of China cut short its visit to Vietnam last week for reasons related to “working arrangements” The delegation had earlier left Beijing on June 12 and visited Spain and Finland before going trip to Vietnam. The Chinese delegation decided to cancel the defense border meeting for reasons related to working arrangements, according to a publicity official of the Chinese defense ministry as reported in the Global Times. Vietnam has, however, not commented on the issue.

The delegation had earlier met Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Tran Dai Quang, Prime Minister Bguyen Xuan Phuc and Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich during the visit. Fan said he believed Vietnam has the potential to further develop bilateral trade with China, which is ready to co-operate with Vietnam to effectively carry out the regional One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative and the bilateral Two Corridors, One Economic Belt (TCOB) development plan. Following the talks, Lịch and Fan signed a cooperation agreement on personnel training between the defence ministries of Vietnam and China. Vietnamese and Chinese high-ranking military officers also reviewed the outcome of recent cooperation between the two armies and agreed on the cooperation in the time ahead to effectively implement the statement on joint vision on defence co-operation until 2025 that was signed in January 2017.

China and Vietnam have major differences regarding the South China Sea, more so after China had refused to recognize the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on 12 July 2017. China’s ban on fishing in the South China Sea issued on in 20 Jan 2017 has further agitated the Vietnamese. Chinese irritation with the Vietnamese intention to renew oil exploration in the South China Sea is also well known. China is also not too happy with Vietnam buying military hardware from Japan. However, these are issues which predate the extant meeting of 20 – 22 Jun 17 and hence could have clouded the planning of the meeting itself. The fact that the meeting was conducted despite these existing problems implies that both sides had agreed to proceed ahead with discussion on other not-so contentious issues. Statements by both sides during the visit also indicate a degree of understanding. Hence the reason for termination of the visit are not clear presently. The Vietnamese have also not put out any statement on the visit and in fact, there is an absence of any reports in the Vietnamese press on these happenings. What is clear though is that there are very deep fissures in this relationship and hence it is prone to disagreements like these, at the slightest provocation.

China’s Naval Shipbuilding Achieves a Milestone

China's indigenous 10,000-ton class missile destroyer was launched in Shanghai on 28 Jun 17 at the Jiangnan Shipyard of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation. This is China's first 10,000-ton class missile destroyer with advanced anti-air, anti-missile, anti-vessel and anti-submarine capabilities. The ship will now be fitted out with various equipment and machinery before undertaking equipment testing and sea trials.

Construction of the indigenous destroyer represents the thrust on naval shipbuilding by the Chinese leadership in their quest for China’s status as a great power. China has proclaimed its ambition to be a maritime power and building up the People’s liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the one of the major steps in that direction. The PLAN is being modernized with induction of newer ships and currently more than 50 percent of its fleet of less than ten years old. This year alone has seen eight major warships being inducted into service along with the launch of its indigenous aircraft carrier which is likely to enter service by about 2020. The PLAN is also acquiring new capabilities exemplified in the operationalisation of its lone aircraft carrier over the past five years. The PLAN is also building new landing ships which will give it an expeditionary capability in areas well beyond its current reach. The new destroyer along with its sisters will add new teeth to these capabilities when they are integrated with existing assets and will provide a combat force which can project power in distant waters.

Another important achievement is the level of indigenization that marks the current shipbuilding programmes. Building a destroyer of this size is a defining moment for any nation as naval shipbuilding is a complex discipline requiring synergy from various domains. China now has a major shipbuilding capability which is rivaled very few countries in the world. It will therefore be of interest as also concern as to how the Chinese progress their shipbuilding in the coming decade.

China’s Vision for Maritime Cooperation

China released a document titled ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative’, on 20 Jun 17, to synchronize development plans and promote joint actions among countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

The document is an attempt to give a shape to the vision of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road first promulgated in the document ‘Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road’ released on 28 Mar 15, which itself was a follow up to the Chinese President’s idea of a ‘One Belt One Road’ now, christened as the ‘Belt and road initiative’. The current document adds to the earlier envisioned routes, mapped out in March 2015, by including a passage to Europe through the Arctic. The document also now brings in aspects of Maritime Security and the Blue Economy. An attempt has also been made to address issues of ocean governance.

A preliminary analysis of the document clearly brings out China’s reluctance to address issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity which were the founding principles of the vision document for the BRI/OBOR of March 2015. While China talks about upholding the ‘existing international ocean order’ in this document, whose award and orders, it has not recognized the award of the PCA in July 2015. Inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the MSR is not only contentious but an affront to India’s sensitivities considering India’s objections and subsequent non- attendance at the recently concluded Belt and Road Forum. Adding the yet not decided Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) in the ambit of the MSR further increases the ambiguity of the whole venture. Talk of improving maritime connectivity and shipping service networks, especially by including the failed Hambantota port experience in the MSR, further obfuscates China’s intentions. The current document does not do much but further concretise the perception of China’s attempts to gain strategic leverage inthe region along the MSR by utilising the weaknesses of countries along the route.

The Koreas

South Korea: Moon- Trump First Summit

In their first summit meeting in Washington DC on June 29-30, South Korean analysts remarked that Moon Jae In and Donald Trump seem to have built personal trust and friendship in a time when administration-to-administration relationship with US is more important than traditional alliances. Trump said his relationship with Moon was "very, very, very, good" and described it as "great chemistry," according to Cheong Wa Dae (Korean Blue House) officials. However, the two showed a gap on the trade issue, implying possible future conflict over the trade deal including the South Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) which Trump has long criticized for causing a deficit with his country. The two leaders presented a united front with plans to work toward a solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. According to a joint statement the two leaders released after their meeting, Trump and Moon voiced a commitment “to fully implement existing sanctions and impose new measures designed to apply maximum pressure on North Korea”. Though Moon signed onto such a resolute statement, he also succeeded in getting a passage on how “President Trump supported President Moon's aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue” into the final statement, to appease his supporters back at home.

Moon is now likely to hold bilateral talks with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit scheduled for July 7 and 8 in Germany.

Another Active Fortnight in North Korea: Conditional Moratorium and Soldier Defections

On June 21, North Korean envoy to India Kye Chun-yong stated that North Korea was willing to consider a moratorium on its nuclear and missile tests if the US suspends its annual joint military drills with South Korea. It marked the first time that the North raised the possibility of the conditional suspension of its nuclear and missile provocations since liberal President Moon Jae-in took office in May. However, South Korea's unification ministry expressed caution over Kye's statement, saying that North Korea made a similar proposal in January 2015. At the time, North Korea proposed that it would temporarily suspend its nuclear testing if the US halted its joint military exercises with the South that year. It went on to conduct two nuclear tests the very next year.

On average, around 1,000 people from the North flee to the South each year but only a handful use the highly dangerous escape route across the military demarcation line (DMZ). South Korean statistics have shown that soldier defections are rare amounting to only 2.5% of all defectors. Two soldier defections occurred in June- one crossed the DMZ on June 13, and another on June 23. According to South Korean media reports, both are around the age of 20 and were found to be undernourished. This is the third and fourth defection by a North Korean soldier via the DMZ in the last three years. The last time a North Korean soldier defected via the DMZ was in September 2016 and before that, in June 2015. In 2012 two soldiers from the North made it through the dense security net and handed themselves over. The North Korean regime has planted large number of land mines in the DMZ in recent years. Analysts state that this is more about discouraging its soldiers from attempting to flee than warding off a South Korean intrusion.


Growing Concerns on Security: BMD Drills and Cooperation with ASEAN

Owing to increasing North Korean belligerence in recent months, the Japanese Defense Ministry on June 21 conducted a ballistic missile defense (BMD) drill for the first time in four years partly to quell public fears about a North Korean missile hitting a populated area. The drill was conducted in front of reporters at the Ground Self Defense Forces’ (SDF) Camp Asaka. Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air guided missile units, comprising a launcher vehicle and a power supply vehicle, as well as a vehicle-loading radar system, were shown. Air Self Defense Forces (SDF) members in charge of the Kanto region confirmed the PAC-3 procedure to quickly set up the devices to detect a missile’s trajectory and intercept it. Under the current multitier ballistic missile defense arrangements, Maritime SDF Aegis destroyers equipped with Standard Missile-3 interceptors are intended to intercept missiles in the outer atmosphere. If they fail, the PAC-3 interceptors will be ready to shoot down the missiles. As per South Korean media reports, US F-16s in South Korea and Japanese F-35s are both set to get long-range missiles that are ideal for striking North Korean mobile missile launchers. Japanese F-35s are expected to field the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The JSM has an extremely stealthy profile, high precision, and can fly just a few yards above the ground to deliver its 500-pound warhead before ever being detected. However, Defense Minister Inada refuted the media reports saying the SDF currently possesses no equipment system intended to attack enemy bases, nor does it plan to do so.

This fortnight intensive efforts to strengthen Japan-ASEAN defense cooperation were implemented under two new programs based on the Vientiane Vision, a guiding principle for Japan's defense cooperation with ASEAN. First, under the Japan-ASEAN Ship Rider Cooperation Program, officers from all ASEAN member states and staff members of the ASEAN secretariat were invited to board the destroyer Izumo, which is sailing in the waters around Singapore, to promote sharing of the perception of international law and provide capacity building assistance related to maritime security through their attendance at a seminar on international law and observation of training. Meanwhile, under the Japan-ASEAN Joint Exercise for Rescue (JXR) Observation Program, officers from all ASEAN member states and a staff member of the ASEAN secretariat were invited as observers of the exercise in order to enhance capabilities in the fields of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through the study and training in methodologies for staff command and coordination mechanism to respond to disasters.

Another Favoritism Scandal for Abe: Political Impact Yet to be Seen

Details about the involvement of a Koichi Hagiuda, deputy chief Cabinet secretary and a close political ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the government's controversial approval of a new veterinary medicine faculty planned by Kake Educational Institution which is headed by Abe's close friend has led to another favoritism scandal. Hirokazu Matsuno, the education minister, on June 20 released the document stating that “the prime minister’s office said it will do it no matter what” in granting approval for the new faculty in a National Strategic Special Zone in Ehime Prefecture. It also notes that Abe had mentioned a timetable of Aril 2018 as deadline for its opening. Abe has repeatedly denied abusing his authority to benefit his friend identified as Kotaro Kake, the director of the Kake Educational Institution. The government has not approved new veterinary schools for decades because of concern about a glut of veterinarians. Almost three-quarters of voters in the Mainichi (newspaper) survey said they were not persuaded by the government's insistence there was nothing wrong with the approval process following a similar favoritism case with Moritomo Gakuen earlier.

Voters in recent time have also been split by ramming of controversial anti-conspiracy bill in parliament that will penalize conspiracies to commit terrorism and other serious crimes. Though ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) support still far outstripped that of the opposition Democratic Party, it was behind Governor’ Koike’s new party (Tomin First) in Tokyo metropolitan elections. A bad performance by the LDP in the metropolitan assembly election could have repercussions at the national level, including plans by Abe to push through constitutional revision. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to reshuffle his cabinet in attempt to bolster ratings, media reported on June 17. As per media speculations, Abe will probably retain Finance Minister Taro Aso and close ally Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, but it was not clear if he would replace Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Economy Minister Nobuteru Ishihara. Non-support for Abe also rose to 44%, the first time it surpassed the percentage of backers since October 2015, after parliament enacted controversial security laws expanding the scope for military activities overseas.

China & Taiwan

Chinese Troops Transgress in Doklam Area

Chinese troops entered the Doklam area in Bhutan. Doklam is one of four disputed areas between Bhutan and China in the western region of Haa and Paro Dzongkhangs. On 16 June 2017, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) construction party entered the Doklam area and attempted to construct a road. The Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade the PLA. Since India and Bhutan have close military ties Indian army intervened. This led to a face-off between Indian Army and the Chinese troops. Consequently, the Chinese troops stopped the batch of pilgrims that was proceeding for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The pilgrims returned to Gangtok after waiting till June 23. On 26 June 2017, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang issued a statement holding India responsible for the face-off and reiterated the treaty of 1890 on Sikkim signed between Great Britain and China. On 30 June 2017, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement clarifying India’s position, “On the issue of the boundary in the Sikkim sector, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the “basis of the alignment”. Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representative framework.”

On the Chinese assertion that the boundary in the Sikkim sector is settled, both countries broadly agree that there is no dispute is the Sikkim sector. The agreement is in on the basis of alignment and it is the highest watershed in the area. Both sides acknowledge the fact that more negotiation are required among the Special Representatives level to fix the alignment of the boundary on maps and also demarcate it on the ground. The Chinese side is aware of the differences with regards to the tri-junction point. The MEA, has affirmed that the tri-junction point will be finalized through consultations among the concerned countries. Additionally, there are also differences on interpreting the watershed boundary between India and China in the Sikkim sector.

BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs held in Beijing

On 19 June 2017, the meeting of BRICS Ministers of Foreign Affairs was held in Beijing. The meeting was chaired by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and attended by Minister of State for External Affairs Vijay Kumar Singh of India, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane of South Africa, Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes of Brazil and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia.

This year marks the beginning of the second decade of BRICS cooperation. The five ministers began the summit by discussing the outcomes and experience gained from the cooperation among five countries in the past decade. They agreed to enhance coordination and cooperation among BRICS on international and regional issues, safeguarding justice at the United Nations and other international fora. They discussed the Syria, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, African Union. They discussed the threats posed by the use of International Communications Technology (ICTS) for criminal and terrorist purposes and weaponisation of the outer space and arms race there. They criticised the terrorist attacks in some BRICS countries and condemned terrorism in all its form and manifestations. The ministers highly valued the Second BRICS Counter-Terrorism Working Group Meeting held in Beijing on 18 May and called for an expedited adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the UN General Assembly. The meeting was a run-up to the 9th BRICS summit, to be held in Xiamen, China in September.

China-US Diplomatic and Security Dialogue

On 21 June 2017, the first China-US (United States) Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (D&SD) was held at the US State Department in Washington. The D&SD dialogue was set up during the Mar-a- Lago talks in April between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. The first dialogue was attended by the State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Fang Fenghui (Chief of the China’s Military Commission Joint Staff Department) from the Chinese side and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis from the US. It is one of the four high-level mechanism established during the meeting, the other three are dialogues on economics, on law enforcement and cyber security, and social, cultural and people to people exchanges.

International issues of immediate concern affecting bilateral relations, such as North Korea, the South China Sea, terrorism, human rights and defence cooperation were extensively discussed between the two countries. Amongst all, the North Korean issue topped the agenda. On the issue of terrorism, the US asked China to support the Iraqi government in ‘meaningful ways’ on the issue of ISIS and its rebuilding process. On the military-to-military relationship, both sides acknowledge the fact that they should promote the expansion and upgrade the bilateral military relations at a ‘new starting point. There was no joint statement released after the dialogue nor was there any tangible outcome on the North Korea nuclear crisis or the South China Sea issue. But progress was made in fostering greater cooperation between the two countries in areas, such as military to military measures and high-level visits. The two sides acknowledge the fact that there should be more high-level exchanges.

China Pressures Five Countries to Remove the Name “Republic of China”
China had pressured Nigeria, Bahrain, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Ecuador to remove "Republic of China" (Taiwan's formal name) or "Taiwan" from Taiwan's trade offices. China wants the countries to use names such as “Taipei Trade Office” or a name that does not suggest Taiwanese sovereignty. Reportedly, Taiwan’s office in the UAE had changed its name from the “Commercial Office of China” to the “Commercial Office of Taipei.” Taiwan has already recalled its representative to Nigeria and suspended its mission's work there after the Nigerian government said it "could not guarantee its safety”. Notably, none of these countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

This is China’s larger strategy to isolate Taiwan and indirect pressure to accept ‘One –China’ policy. Last fortnight, Panama severe ties with China. Panama is the second country after Sao Tome to severe ties with Taiwan this year. Earlier, China has also blocked Taiwanese representatives from taking part in the World Health Organization's annual assembly.