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

Aug 16-31, 2017



Coordinated Attacks on Police and Military by Muslim Militant Group

On 25 August Muslim militants in Rakhine state of Myanmar carried out attacks on 31 police and military targets in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships in northern part of the state. The estimated number of causalities of government and security personnel are about a dozen while civilian dead including the insurgents are said to be closer to one hindered. There are reports that a force of around 150 men attacked Infantry Base 552 and an explosive device was used in an attack in Maungdaw. Another group of 150 men is said to have attacked a police station at Taung Bazaar. Evidently, these were coordinated attacks and a variety of explosive devices including some handmade bombs were used in the attacks.

The attacks came one day after an advisory commission led by the former UN chief Kofi Annan finished its year-long mandate to advise State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on long-term solutions for the ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine State. Kofi Annan denounced the attacks and called it as a “worrying escalation of violence,” and urged security forces to exercise restraint in dealing with the situation. Attacks were owned up by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group that avers that it is fighting against Rohingya persecution. Earlier, the ARSA in May had committed to avoid civilian targets. The ARSA has mutated from , Harakah al-Yaqin—meaning “Faith Movement,” which had also carried out attacks against police killing nine policemen in October 2016.

The Myanmar security forces’ response has resulted in a fresh migration of Rohingyas to Bangladesh; it is difficult to ascertain the correct figures but some reports indicate that it could be around nine to ten thousand. Bangladesh has offered to Myanmar joint patrolling to weed out the militant elements.

India has expressed serious concern on renewed violence and attacks by terrorists in northern Rakhine State of Myanmar. India has also expressed sadness at the loss of lives among members of the Myanmar security forces and has condemned such violence and attacks. The MEA statement goes on to add “We hope that the perpetrators of these crimes will be brought to justice and we extend our strong support at this challenging moment to the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar”.


Former PM Yingluck Flees before Thai Court Hearing

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fled Thailand for Dubai on August 23 before a verdict was due to be delivered in a trial over rice subsidies as per sources in her Pheu Thai party. At the court hearing on August 25, Yingluck's lawyer said she was ill, but did not produce a medical certificate. The explanation was rejected and Thailand's Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant. Yingluck's brother Thaksin, who is also a former Thai Prime Minister, lives in Dubai and London in self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges. Similar to Thaksin, Yingluck too was ousted by a military coup in 2014 and had been barred from leaving Thailand without court approval since 2015, when her trial started. After the 2014 coup, she was impeached by Thailand's military-appointed National Legislative Assembly. The ruling barred her from political office for five years. Yingluck faced up to 10 years in prison for alleged negligence over the rice-buying scheme, which cost the country billions of dollars. The court has set a new date for the verdict of September 27.

In a Facebook post on August 24, Yingluck had asked her followers to stay home; fearing people with “ill-intentions” might cause trouble against them. “I want all of you to give me support by staying home and monitoring the news to avoid any risk of an unexpected incident by people with ill-intention against the country and us,” she said. The Shinawatra family is a hugely influential political dynasty that is loved by many of Thailand’s rural poor but hated by many of the royalist and military elite in Bangkok. Analysts speculate that Yingluck's decision to skip the verdict hearing will "embolden" the military government which has now gained an edge over her following her no-show.

Preparing to Receive Rohingya refugees

Thailand is preparing to receive people fleeing fighting in Myanmar and send them back “when they are ready”, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on August 29, following a series of attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on Myanmar security forces. Thailand was once a popular transit route for Rohingya escaping troubled Rakhine state in northwest Myanmar across the Andaman Sea. But in May 2015, gruesome mass graves were unearthed in southern Thailand, revealing scores of bodies belonging to mostly Rohingya refugees who had been victimized by human traffickers. The discovery placed Thailand under a global spotlight exactly at the time when the country was seeking to be upgraded by the United States in terms of its handling of human trafficking. A consequent police crackdown on human trafficking syndicates led to ships with migrants aboard being abandoned at sea. It also disrupted the networks that brought migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia.

Seeking to distance itself from any guilt, the ruling regime charged at least 85 persons with complicity in the scandal, including Army General Manas Kongpaen. Thailand also agreed to offer humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees and convened a regional conference on Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, which indirectly blamed Myanmar. Earlier in 2008, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had proposed sending all the Rohingya to a draconian immigration facility on a deserted Thai island, an idea that was never implemented. Thailand has never signed the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 protocol. As such, the country has no specific international legal responsibility to safeguard refugees or asylum seekers. Nevertheless, Thailand has signed other human rights agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which arguably cover the rights of stateless Rohingya in Thailand. But a lack of enforcement has made these instruments ineffective.

Western Pacific

Another Collision between USS Destroyer and local Ship

On August 21, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore. It was US Navy’s fourth serious incident in the western Pacific this year, and mirrored a similar disaster in June that claimed the lives of seven sailors off the coast of Japan. In January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the US Seventh Fleet is based. In May, the USS Lake Champlain ran into a South Korean fishing vessel. And earlier this fortnight, the US Navy relieved the commander of the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer that on June 17 was hit by a container ship, with deadly consequences.

Defense Secretary James Mattis in his statement on the day of the collision said he supported a decision by the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson to conduct a "broader inquiry" into the recent accidents and "to determine any causal factors." As per US media reports, Richardson is expected to order a rare operational pause across the entire Navy. The pause would be a one-day, safety stand-down that would be done over the course of a couple of weeks and at the discretion of individual commands. Richardson said in a Facebook statement that he has asked Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of US Fleet Forces Command, to take charge of the investigation, which will include a review of training and operational readiness of US naval forces. The probe will also examine operational tempo and "trends in personnel, materiel, maintenance and equipment," he said. "It will also include a review of how we train and certify our surface warfare community, including tactical and navigational proficiency." Richardson said there is no indication at this time that the incident was caused by cyber-intrusion or sabotage, but the review will consider all possibilities. "We are looking at every possibility so we are not leaving anything to chance there," he said.

The Koreas

China and Russia do not favor Unilateral Sanctions on North Korea

China ruled out unilateral economic sanctions on North Korea following its latest missile launch over Japan. Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the idea on August 30 as the United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting issued a statement condemning North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan’s airspace. However, the council stopped short of any new sanctions or other specific measures to rein in Pyongyang. “Any unilateral sanction is not in line with international laws, and is not supported by China,” Wang said in a news briefing. “A very important part of Security Council resolutions is that we should continue to stick to peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve this issue,” he said. He added that China had been working with the four other permanent Security Council members – the US, Britain, France and Russia – to start discussions on the issue. Speaking on the sidelines of a press briefing ahead of next week’s BRICS summit in Xiamen, he added that there would be a “necessary reaction” based on an agreed resolution.
Russian President Vladimir Putin too meanwhile warned the Trump administration the continuing hostility between the US and North Korea was close to deteriorating into a “large-scale conflict” and said the only way to de-escalate tensions was through talks. Putin also stated that it would be a mistake to try to pressure Pyongyang into halting its nuclear missile program. “It is essential to resolve the region’s problems through direct dialogue involving all sides without advancing any preconditions (for such talks),” the Russian president wrote on the Kremlin’s website. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also echoed Putin, saying Washington not Pyongyang should take the initiative on constructive talks to reduce tensions between the countries. Russian nuclear-capable bombers recently flew over the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.

Moon orders display of Power to Respond to North Korea Missile

President Moon Jae-in ordered the military on August 29 to showcase its overwhelming ability to strike North Korea in response to Pyongyang's launch of a ballistic missile over Japan. The Air Force conducted a live-fire bombing drill near the inter-Korean border on President Moon's orders. Four F-15k fighter jets carried out bombing runs, dropping eight MK84 multipurpose bombs on a firing range in Taebaek, Gangwon Province. This is seen as a strong warning to the Kim Jong-un regime that the South Korean military is determined to take military action, if needed, to counter the North's growing missile provocations. According to a Blue House official, the United States is also considering deploying strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, such as B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress bombers, stealth jets, Aegis destroyers and nuclear-powered submarines. The military also unveiled footage of its new 500-kilometer and 800-kilometer range ballistic missiles. They were developed by the Agency for Defense Development as part of South Korea's own three-stage missile defense system. North Korea has launched missiles from 20 different sites since 1984, making it harder for South Korea and the US to detect possible missile strikes in advance. South Korea seeks to build a three-pronged defense system by 2020, including the Kill Chain aimed at launching pre-emptive strikes on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile facilities if Seoul is under imminent threat.

US President Donald Trump also agreed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to revise a joint treaty capping the development of the South's ballistic missiles, Moon's office said on September 2, amid a standoff over North Korea's missile and nuclear tests. Trump also gave "conceptual" approval to the purchase by the South of billions of dollars of US military hardware, the White House said. The South wants to raise the missile cap to boost its defenses against the belligerent North, which is pursuing missile and nuclear weapons programs in defiance of international warnings and UN sanctions. "The two leaders agreed to the principle of revising the missile guideline to a level desired by South Korea, sharing the view that it was necessary to strengthen South Korea's defense capabilities in response to North Korea's provocations and threats," South Korea's presidential Blue House said.


Japan’s Support to India on Doklam

On August 18, in an interview to Hindustan Times, Japanese ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu mentioned Doklam is a disputed territory between China and Bhutan and his country understands why India has got involved in the dispute. “We recognize Doklam is a disputed area between Bhutan and China and two countries are engaged in border talks… We also understand that the India has a treaty understanding with Bhutan that’s why Indian troops got involved in the area,” the envoy said. When asked about the Japanese Ambassador’s comments, and whether the support on Doklam had been conveyed by Japan directly, the Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment. MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar stated that the statement made by the (Japanese) ambassador spoke for itself.

China however, reacted sharply to Japanese Ambassador Kenji Hiramatsu’s comments supporting India’s position on Doklam. “I have seen the Japanese Ambassador in India really wants to support India. I want to remind him not to randomly make comments before clarifying the facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in Beijing. A Global Times, a state backed daily, wrote in an editorial later that Ambassador Hiramatsu’s remarks of there should be no attempt to change the status quo on the ground in Doklam by force, were misinterpreted by India as support from Japan. The editorial also retorted that though both Washington and Tokyo have always been supportive of New Delhi, this time they have exercised restraint by not showing any real support for New Delhi on the Doklam issue. India and Japan’s growing closeness in recent years has been a matter of great concern to China. Another Global Times article on August 28 noted that there is no big conflict between Japan and India in terms of strategy and they also have a common interest in containing China. China is thus keenly observing the next Modi-Abe summit to be held in mid-September and their joint initiative of Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). China largely sees AAGC as a counter to its own Belt and Road initiative.

North Korea Fires Missile over Japan a third time after 1998 and 2009

North Korea carried out one of its most provocative missile tests in recent years on August 29 launching a ballistic missile directly over Japan. Public television programs in Japan were interrupted with a rare warning screen announcing the missile’s flight over the country with several bullet train lines temporarily halted. This test was the third time that North Korea’s ever successfully launched an object over Japan, and the first time that the object in question was explicitly a missile. In 1998 and 2009, North Korea attempted to launch satellites. The missile flew over the northern island of Hokkaido and landed into the Pacific Ocean after a flight of nearly 1,700 miles.

Japanese PM Abe in his statement mentioned “North Korea’s reckless action of launching a missile that passed over Japan as an unprecedented, serious and grave threat”. He later told reporters that he had spoken by telephone with US President Trump. “Japan and the US stances are completely matched,” he said, adding that they discussed ways to tighten pressure on North Korea. After the launch, the Pentagon announced that it determined the missile did not pose a threat to either the continental United States or Guam. That might explain why, despite the presence in the Pacific of 16 ships capable of intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the US Navy declined to do so. August 29 launch came days after the North fired three short-range ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan and a month after its second flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which analysts say could reach deep into the US mainland when perfected.

Japan to Provide $500 million for Indo-Pacific Security

Japan will provide a total of $500 million in aid for coastal states in the Indo-Pacific in the three years to 2019 to help boost maritime security there, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on August 14. Kono unveiled the plan at a joint news conference after a security meeting of Japanese and US foreign and defense ministers in Washington the same day. Kono said Japan will offer the aid from this year through 2019 to help coastal nations in the Indo-Pacific region develop their maritime security capabilities. With the aid, Japan will help recipients procure patrol vessels and coast guard equipment, as well as conduct personnel training, so as to improve their surveillance and law-enforcement capabilities. Kono also mentioned that Japan will expand cooperation with the United States in the area of capacity building for developing Asian countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. The Foreign Ministry said as of present the plan includes providing a total of 16 patrol vessels for the Vietnamese maritime police and the Philippine coast guard under Japan's official development assistance program. Philippines and Vietnam are both embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The ministry however emphasized that the aid is not intended to guard against the activities of a specific country.

The recent announcement supplements the Vientiane Vision that was announced by Japanese Defense Minister Inada at the second ASEAN-Japan Defense Ministers' Informal Meeting held in Vientiane, Laos on 16 November 2016. The vision outlined Japan’s initiative to promote maritime security as a foundation for regional peace and prosperity by supporting ASEAN efforts to build up capabilities for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Search and Rescue (SAR) at sea and air space.

China & Taiwan

Mutual Disengagement of Indian and Chinese Troops at Doklam

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released statements, stating that the situation at Doklam has been resolved. The content and emphasis of the two statements were different but they did not contradict each other. The MEA announced that there has been “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam has been agreed to and is on-going.” In the second statement, the MEA confirmed; “expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam was ongoing. This process has since been completed under verification”. Hence the MEA made it clear that there has been mutual disengagement. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Hua Chungying said, “The Indian side withdrew all its border personnel and equipment that were illegally on the Chinese territory to the Indian side”. She later said, “In light of changing landscape on ground, China will make necessary adjustments and deployment as it sees fit.” This implies that they will stop the construction and the status quo will be restored.

For India and Bhutan, the resolution has been successful in achieving the desired result of a return to the status quo in Doklam before 16 June 2017. Meanwhile, for China, it is more of a face-saving statement; stating that Indian troops withdrew from the standoff site first and China will continue to patrol and defend the area. Further, the Chinese spokespersons said China will plan the construction of infrastructure in Donglang as “actual circumstances” allow.

During the standoff period, the Chinese media was very high on rhetoric condemning India over the standoff. Conversely, the Indian response was more mature and sensible. Perhaps, both India and China, the world’s largest emerging economies have realized that they cannot afford to be involved in a prolonged confrontation. Notably, these developments came just a week before the BRICS summit (3-5 September 2017 in Xiamen, China). China is the host country, wanted to resolve the dispute ahead of the summit to ensure Indian participation. The two leaders Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet at the BRICS summit. Overall, the mutual disengagement is a positive step in the bilateral relations and has set a good template for future.

The US Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford’s Visit to China

The Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford met with Xi Jinping, Fang Fenghui, Fang Changlong and Yang Jiechi during his visit to China. He also visited China’s Northern Theatre Command headquarters in Shenyang near North Korea and observed combined arms manoeuvre by Chinese infantry unit at the command’s Haicheng Camp. The officials discussed a range of issues namely; Korean peninsula, Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea.

During the meeting, Xi Jinping described the ups and downs of China-US ties by saying, “A rainbow appears after winds and tides”, and added the two sides should treat each other with sincerity and kindness, have closer contacts and properly tackle disagreements. On the military relations, he said that the military relations would become a major stabilising factor in China-US ties. Dunford said, “We have many, many difficult issues where we don’t necessarily share the same perspectives,” “We share a commitment to work through these difficult issues.” Reportedly, Dunford has asked China to increase the pressure on Pyongyang but Fan Changlong, said that “military action cannot be an option” in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. China took the opportunity to express its concerns about the US role in Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The major outcome of the visit was the signing of the joint strategic dialogue mechanism at Ba Yi, the People’s Liberation Army headquarters. The agreement is intended for crisis mitigation so that there is direct communication at the three star level in Pentagon and Ba Yi. This joint strategic dialogue is a result of the discussion held during the China-US Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (D&SD). Notably, the aim of this visit was to further develop a working relationship with China to lessen the risk of miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula.

Yang Jiechi held Telephonic Conversation with Rex Tillerson

State Councillor Yang Jiechi held a telephonic conversation with United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on US-China relations and Afghanistan. Both discussed wide-ranging issues and reiterated the consensus reached by the two head of states, strengthen high-level exchanges at various level, host well the mechanism dialogues and make good preparation for Donald Trump’s visit to China this year. They exchanged views on the current situation in Afghanistan and Yang said that China stands for a political dialogue for the resolution of the Afghanistan. China also used the opportunity to discuss the case of Pakistan.

Evidently, the pretext of the call was the “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia”. On Pakistan, Yang Jiechi said, “We need to give attention to the important role Pakistan plays in the Afghanistan issue and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and security concerns”. Later on, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “Pakistan is at the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting terrorism, making an important contribution to upholding peace and stability”.

China’s State Council Issues Guidelines on Overseas Investment

The State Council of China issued guidelines on overseas investment to promote healthy growth of overseas investment and prevent risks. The guideline intends to drive the output of China’s products, technology, and services, and deepen cooperation with countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the document, China will support eligible domestic enterprises to make the overseas investment and join in the construction of projects in the BRI. The guidelines classified outbound investment into three categories: encouraged, restricted and prohibited. The document also issued a warning that overseas investments should not go against the peaceful development, win-win cooperation, and China’s macro control policies.

This is the first time China has weighed in on permitted outbound investment. In the wake of China’s Go-out and BRI, the scale of outbound investment by Chinese companies had increased over the years. According to Ministry of Commerce (MOC) People’s Republic of China, in 2016 the total Foreign Direct Investment was USD 118 billion and the outbound investment to countries involved in BRI was USD 7.65 billion, accounting for 13.4 per cent of total Outward Direct Investment. Further, the MOC stated that 65 per cent of Chinese investment abroad, including BRI investments, has suffered losses. Hence the measures were deemed necessary. The guideline is a step to prevent financial risk, especially against the backdrop of the decline of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and the rise of capital outflow. On the flip side, the restrictions could have a detrimental effect on certain industries in the US, where in 2016 China invested USD 46 billion.

China Snubs the “Little Olympics” Held in Taiwan

Taiwan held the 29th biennial Summer Universiade games, famously known as “Little Olympics”. This was the first biggest international sporting event ever held in Taiwan. China boycotted the opening ceremony of the games. Since 1984 Taiwan participates in the game as “Chinese Taipei” and not as the “Republic of China”. According to the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), competing under the name “Chinese Taipei” is the only way that Taiwan can participate in the Olympics. The same rule is applicable to the Universiade, organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU).

Ahead of the games, the Mayor of Taipei visited Shanghai to ensure Chinese athletes participation. He had to draw the line at Chinese official’s request to address Tsai Ing-wen as the “leader” at the opening ceremony and not the “president”. Hence, China did not participate in the games. China has stated that there was a clash of dates with its own National Games, which was scheduled for 27 August -8 September in the north-eastern city of Tianjin, as the reason for its absence. Interestingly, at the opening ceremony of the event, Tsai Ing-wen was introduced as the “president” of the “the Republic of China”. She waved to the audience but did not give a speech.

China had pressured Nigeria, Bahrain, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Ecuador to remove the "Republic of China" and “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 of Taiwanese sovereignty. Other recent affronts include Panama severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Emirates banning Taiwan flag pin on its flight attendant and blocking Taiwanese representatives from taking part in the World Health Organization's annual assembly. This is China’s larger strategy to isolate Taiwan and indirect pressure to accept ‘One –China’ policy. Meanwhile, for Taiwan, it was a lost opportunity to highlight itself as a free democratic country. This could have been a good opportunity for Taiwan to benefit from international exposure, to introduce itself and highlight its unique identity.