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Defense & Security
Shenzhen, Guangdong, China - Apr 27 2023: A China Coast Guard boat is cruising on the sea.

Philippines: Calming Tensions in the South China Sea

by International Crisis Group

“This article was originally published here by the International Crisis Group”Tensions between China and the Philippines are increasing the risk of armed conflict in the South China Sea. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2024 – Spring Update, Crisis Group looks at how the EU can support regional diplomacy to mitigate maritime disputes. Rising maritime tensions between China and the Philippines have highlighted the risk of armed conflict in the South China Sea and the dangers it would pose to global trade. Several countries are implicated in the set of complex sovereignty disputes in the sea, which stem from rival claims to various features and the maritime entitlements they generate, but recent incidents involving Beijing and Manila have triggered the greatest concern. The Philippines controls nine outposts in the Spratlys, a contested group of land and maritime features at the heart of the South China Sea. A submerged reef known as Second Thomas Shoal has become a dangerous flashpoint, with Chinese boats continually trying to block Manila’s efforts to resupply the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting ship housing a handful of soldiers that a former Philippine government purposely grounded in 1999 in a bid to assert sovereignty over the atoll. China, which also claims the shoal, first started interfering with these missions in 2014, but relations between the two countries in the maritime domain have never been as volatile as during the last seven months. Chinese boats have regularly rammed the Philippine supply vessels or doused them with water cannons, occasionally wounding the sailors on board. Manila has a Mutual Defence Treaty with Washington, making this burgeoning maritime dispute part of the geopolitical competition between the U.S and China. In effect, the South China Sea has become a zone where conflict risks are rife – and where Washington and Beijing could be drawn into direct confrontation. Considering these developments, the EU and its member states should: • Seek greater diplomatic engagement with both Beijing and Manila to keep tensions in check. They should also expand their diplomatic presence across South East Asia and, where relevant, establish reliable channels through which they could communicate with high-level authorities in China and other claimant states should disputes at sea escalate; • Work to promote respect for international law, particularly the law of the sea, as a source of neutral rules for dispute resolution and conflict prevention, for example by organising public events, roundtables and dialogues in Manila and elsewhere. While this measure may not bridge the divides between Manila and Beijing, it could at least help establish a level of mutual support and understanding among the other South China Sea claimant states; and • Strengthen coast guard cooperation with the Philippines, focusing on building capacity in areas such as environmental protection, safety and search-and-rescue procedures. Troubled Waters The sovereignty disputes that underpin the tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea go back decades. But it was Beijing’s manoeuvres to take control of Mischief Reef (in the east of the Spratlys) from Manila in 1995 that altered the perceived balance of power between the two states and in the region, setting off the territorial dispute that has now taken a turn for the worse. China’s assertiveness in the sea has grown in the past few years, along with its military capabilities. The brewing territorial dispute made headlines in 2012 when Beijing in effect took control of Scarborough Shoal, an atoll 220km west of the Philippine mainland but within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), after a maritime altercation. The incident prompted then-President Benigno Aquino to file a case challenging China’s territorial claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On 12 July 2016, the presiding arbitral tribunal ruled in favour of Manila, dismissing China’s claim to all the waters within its “nine-dash line”, which constitute almost the entire South China Sea. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Beijing not only rejected the adjudication and the subsequent ruling, but it had also already undercut efforts to settle the dispute through legal channels by building and fortifying seven artificial islands in the Spratlys while the case was winding its way through the system. This move fundamentally changed the status quo, enabling Beijing to post permanent garrisons in the area for the first time. By many accounts, China has thus ensured itself control of the sea in any situation below the threshold of armed conflict. A short lull in the maritime dispute appeared to follow. After coming to power in 2016, Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, pursued a pragmatic policy toward Beijing. Duterte downplayed the tribunal’s decision and cast sovereignty issues aside, hoping to benefit from Beijing’s economic largesse in exchange. Yet his ambitious gambit did not pay off. Tensions at sea continued in the form of regular standoffs between the country’s coast guard and Chinese vessels. Filipino fisherfolk struggled to reach their traditional fishing grounds, and Manila could not exploit the precious oil and gas reserves within its EEZ to which it is entitled under international law. In March 2021, Chinese ships massed around Whitsun Reef, an unoccupied feature in the sea, ringing alarm bells in Manila, where senior officials voiced public criticism of China’s behaviour for the first time in years. By the end of the Duterte administration, the Philippines had revived its ties with the U.S. and become more assertive still, filing several diplomatic protests with the Chinese government. Elected in 2022, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Duterte’s successor, was initially disposed toward friendly relations with Beijing, but the relationship soured only a few months into his presidency. Although China remains the Philippines’ top trading partner, Marcos, Jr.’s meetings with President Xi Jinping did not achieve the desired results: Beijing neither agreed to make major new investments nor curtailed its “grey zone” tactics in the South China Sea, understood as coercive actions that remain below the threshold of armed conflict. These rebuffs have helped push Marcos, Jr. toward strengthening ties with Washington, and the Biden administration has, on several occasions, publicly committed that the countries’ Mutual Defence Treaty would be deemed triggered in the event of an armed attack on Philippine warships, aircraft or public vessels. In perhaps the most significant recent development, after a series of high-level visits by U.S. officials to Manila, the two countries agreed to scale up implementation of their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which gives U.S. troops rotational expanded access to Philippine military bases, and which China perceives as a provocation, especially given these bases’ proximity not just to the South China Sea but also to Taiwan. Manila has also received defence and diplomatic support from a host of other countries, particularly Japan and Australia. Despite the dispute it has with Vietnam over parts of the South China Sea, it has engaged, more quietly, with Hanoi, and acquired maritime defence equipment from India, thus expanding its circle of partners. Joint naval exercises with various countries have included large-scale ones with the U.S. in April, which involved the deployment of missiles that can reach targets almost 1,600km away – something that was sure to draw Beijing’s attention – and took place just after Manila wound up its first-ever trilateral presidential summit with Washington and Tokyo. In the meantime, the Marcos, Jr. administration has pursued what it calls a “transparency initiative”, publicising information about maritime incidents by inviting journalists to join its coast guard ships or posting video recordings of events almost as they are happening. Dramatic footage of Chinese vessels blocking, ramming or attacking its resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal with water cannons has generated widespread condemnation in the Philippines and abroad. Many consider these tactics to be bullying. For its part, and despite the 2016 ruling, Beijing asserts that Manila is intruding into its waters and maintains that it is demonstrating maximum restraint. China has also recently referred to a so-called gentleman’s agreement under former President Duterte that it says foresaw preserving a status quo in the South China Sea, with Manila ostensibly agreeing to supply only humanitarian goods and no construction materials to the BRP Sierra Madre; Manila denies that there was any such arrangement. Given the Philippines’ determination to continue resupplying its troops on the BRP Sierra Madre, Second Thomas Shoal will likely remain a flashpoint. Due to the constraints imposed at sea by the Chinese maritime militia and coast guard, Manila is starting to look into other means of provisioning its outpost, some of which are likely to irk Beijing even more, such as airdrops or closer U.S. naval escorts. In September 2023, a U.S. plane was in the shoal’s vicinity during a resupply mission, while a U.S. warship passed through waters nearby in December. But the shoal is not the only possible source of tension. Chinese vessels, both official and non-official, sail through many areas where Philippine fisherfolk traditionally work, while other features, such as Scarborough Shoal, are also points of friction. A large-scale encounter or accident at sea could be especially dangerous. Should a Filipino or Chinese national die during such a confrontation, it could stir nationalist sentiments in Manila and Beijing and heighten threat perceptions on both sides. In case of loss of life on the Philippine side, Manila would expect its U.S. ally to assist under the Mutual Defence Treaty, especially given the recent exchanges with Washington on that topic, although the U.S. has not said precisely how it would come to the Philippines’ aid. How such a dangerous situation would evolve depends in large part on Manila’s political decision to invoke the treaty and the choices Washington makes about how to fulfill its commitments. In principle, Beijing and Manila remain open to negotiations. But the bilateral consultative mechanism, a confidence-building measure designed in 2017 to manage maritime issues between the two countries, among other things, has generated no results of note. Meanwhile, efforts to create a Code of Conduct, which aims to reduce tensions at sea by setting up norms and rules between claimants and has been under discussion between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for over two decades, have stagnated. Why the Sea Matters The South China Sea is a vital waterway through which around one third of global shipping passes. Peace and stability in the sea are a prerequisite for safe trade and are demonstrably in the interest of the EU and its member states. At over 40 per cent, the share of the EU’s trade with the rest of the world transiting the sea is even higher than the global average. Instability in the area would deal a major blow to the European economy; even a slight disturbance of shipping routes could result in higher transport costs, shipping delays and acute product shortages. Should there be an escalation that pits China against the U.S. in a direct conflict, the consequences could be catastrophic and global. European positions toward South China Sea disputes have traditionally highlighted the importance of all parties respecting international law and the need for peaceful resolution, while being careful not to take sides. But over the last few years, China’s assertiveness and expanding military capabilities have driven a greater sense of urgency and something of a shift in European thinking. First, the EU and several of its member states have developed “Indo-Pacific” strategies, designed to guide and promote cooperation with countries throughout the region. Secondly, Brussels has increased its diplomatic support for the Philippine position following maritime altercations, offering supportive statements in December 2023 and March 2024. Brussels and several European capitals now back Manila in regularly underlining the importance of UNCLOS and maritime law in the South China Sea context. Meanwhile, Europe’s presence in the region is growing, if slowly and in part symbolically. In 2021, the EU appointed a special envoy for the Indo-Pacific for the first time, while European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen visited Manila in July 2023, the first trip to the Philippines by someone holding that office and an opportunity to express, at the highest level, the EU’s readiness to strengthen cooperation with the government in maritime security, among other areas. A German frigate entered the South China Sea in 2021, and French and Italian ships made port calls in Manila in 2023. In March 2024, the EU and the Philippines agreed to resume negotiations over a free trade agreement, while a month later France announced talks regarding a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines. While EU interest in the region is rising, European stances on the South China Sea are complex, with member states harbouring different views on maritime disputes in the region and, more broadly, on big-power competition. Some, such as France – which is the only EU member state to have overseas territories in the region (and which has significant EEZ interests there) – see themselves as having stakes higher than others and are keen to participate in the region’s discussions on security. Others, such as Greece and Hungary, are less concerned with maritime flare-ups so far away and tend to ascribe greater importance to maintaining good relations with Beijing. What the EU and Its Member States Can Do As the EU and its most powerful member states are drawn deeper into the South China Sea, they should raise their diplomatic game in the region – both to ensure awareness of mounting tensions and to look for ways to manage corresponding risks. As a practical matter, Brussels could leverage its status as an ASEAN Strategic Partner to seek more participation in that bloc’s security mechanisms and regional forums; the EU and member states could seek higher levels of engagement with regional powers such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea on matters concerning the South China Sea; and Europe could post more diplomats to the region, including permanent defence attachés who speak the language of naval diplomacy. Of particular importance will be maintaining strong lines of communication with Beijing, where Europe is seen as still having some distance from the U.S.-China strategic rivalry, which works to its diplomatic advantage. While to some extent this communication will be traditional bilateral statecraft, it may also mean looking for new opportunities and new channels for dialogue. For example, some member states could also seek to follow the precedent set by France and China in establishing a coordination and deconfliction mechanism between their militaries. Brussels should also continue raising the South China Sea in its engagement with Beijing as it did during the EU-China summit in 2023. Maintaining these channels will become both more difficult and more important if and when the EU and member states expand their operational presence in the region – for example, if they decide to establish a calibrated maritime presence in the South China Sea, as proposed by the EU envoy to the Indo-Pacific. Such a move is still deemed unlikely for now. As for public diplomacy, Brussels and EU member states should consider practical ways to promote principles of the law of the sea in the region, making the case that broader regional support for and adherence to these principles would provide neutral ground for peacefully avoiding and resolving disputes. While it is hard to see this approach appealing to Beijing, which has rebuffed the UNCLOS tribunal’s decision, there could still be benefits in forging closer cooperation among other claimant states. Convenings in Manila and other regional capitals could cover topics related to the continuing disputes but also to cross-cutting themes of regional interest such as fisheries. With negotiations over a regional Code of Conduct stuck, like-minded countries in the region could use these occasions to at least develop common positions on discrete issues that might be addressed by the Code or that could foster regional confidence-building in the South China Sea. Finally, in the realm of capacity building, European governments should continue to strengthen coast guard cooperation with South China Sea claimant states, helping them develop tools and protocols that might be used where appropriate to avoid confrontation and conflict. Since Aquino’s administration, Manila has tried to boost its coast guard capabilities. Given that many of the other claimant states’ vessels in the South China Sea are coast guard ships, and find themselves embroiled in maritime confrontations, a common approach on rules of engagement could help avoid misunderstandings at sea. Building on the EU’s integrated coast guard system, the EU could host or sponsor joint workshops to develop operating principles for the region’s law enforcement vessels and exchange best practices with Philippine authorities. Brussels could also fund agencies such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to strengthen coast guard expertise on issues such as environmental protection, safety and search-and-rescue procedures. European member states could also participate in joint activities with the Philippine and other ASEAN coast guards to strengthen fisheries control and maritime border protection and deter piracy or smuggling.

Defense & Security
Hanoi Vietnam - Jan 30 2023: People go about daily life under Vietnamese flags in a narrow residential alleyway called Kham Thien Market in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Convergence in Vietnam, EU Interests a Harbinger of Indo-Pacific Order?

by Richard Ghiasy , Julie Yu-Wen Chen , Jagannath Panda

In March and April, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son’s nearly back-to-back visits to the U.S. and China highlighted Vietnam’s increasing penchant for delicate diplomacy with major powers amid the U.S.-China strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and Vietnam’s territorial tussles with China especially in the South China Sea (SCS), which Vietnam calls the East Sea. Much of the (perceived) disorder in the Indo-Pacific hails from the SCS, and one of Vietnam’s principal challenges is fostering order on its maritime borders. Therefore, Vietnam—historically distrustful of major powers—has been diversifying its relations by seeking security and defense ties with Indo-Pacific partners like the European Union (EU), India, and Japan, as well as with Russia, a country that poses an “existential threat” to the transatlantic allies. At the same time, Southeast Asia is battling disunity within the region for resolving disputes in the SCS, for instance. The regional multilateralism embodied by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) seems to lack teeth even as China ‘controls’ some of its members using its financial and economic heft. So clearly, efforts beyond Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy” that deepen international solidarity are required. In a similar vein, Europe’s reluctant rapprochement with China in recent times amid the EU calling China a strategic challenge but continuing to look for economic engagement is reminiscent of Vietnam and much of Asia’s predicament vis-à-vis China. Moreover, like in Southeast Asia, not every member-country of the EU is embracing the Indo-Pacific construct, led by the U.S. Or even if a member does, like France or Germany, it does not spell the end of a productive relationship with China. Nonetheless, it is clear that the EU has started to take a greater interest in the growing geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific, even as the disunity over the extent of the Indo-Pacific priorities, including China, is as apparent. In such a scenario, is it possible for the EU and Vietnam, and by extension ASEAN, to have greater convergence, if not congruence, in their policies? Revisiting Vietnam’s Lack of an Indo-Pacific Tilt The Indo-Pacific, the maritime space and littoral between the western Indian and Pacific Oceans, has become the world’s most geopolitically critical region. In this region, much of the focus and debate among the EU’s more proactive members, such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany, is in response to Chinese unilateralism, trade dependency, and unchecked Sino-U.S. contestation. Several of these EU members have come to understand each other’s positions on the Indo-Pacific. Gradually, there is a realization that it is not just about what the EU and its members seek to accomplish in the region but just as much the perspectives and priorities of key Indo-Pacific resident actors—and their views on European strategies and contributions. Vietnam is one such country that is worthy of greater European strategic attention. Vietnam is known for its “bamboo diplomacy”—a reference to the bamboo plant’s strong roots, sturdy stems, and flexible branches—balancing ties with the two big powers, the U.S. and China. In the words of Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Vietnam’s foreign policy caters to “independence, self-reliance, peace, friendship and cooperation, and multilateralization and diversification of external relations and proactive international integration.” However, Hanoi has never officially and fully embraced the term “Indo-Pacific” nor the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific construct although it does recognize that some aspects of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific tenet advocated by the U.S. and its allies are compatible with its national interests. For instance, the order in the Asia-Pacific, a term that Hanoi prefers to use, should be rule-based. This speaks to one of Vietnam’s most important foreign policy priorities: finding peace and stability in the SCS disputes with China and other claimants. However, the order that Vietnam seeks is in more than just the security domain. The goal of development has been the highest priority since Doi Moi (renovation) in 1986. Economic growth is considered the backbone of national security and regime legitimacy. Hanoi’s development of foreign relations can be said to be grounded in its national development experience, with the stress on economic priority leading to national stability and international standing. Vietnam chooses to engage in the Indo-Pacific construct on its terms. Vietnam and EU Convergence On both economic and security fronts, Vietnam and the EU can find converged interests that align closer to each other. Even as Hanoi has not officially adopted the term “Indo-Pacific,” the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, if implemented well, could address both Vietnam’s economic and security needs. Despite its security and military power limitations in the Indo-Pacific, the EU can still play a crucial role in effectively addressing these needs, which are vital for the EU’s strategic interests as well. The two already have a Framework Participation Agreement. Vietnam is also part of the EU’s Enhancing Security In and With Asia (ESIWA) project, which covers crisis management and cyber security. This also aligns with the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, where Vietnam is considered a “solid” partner. Notably, both the EU and Vietnam face (potential) economic coercion from China. As China is now Vietnam’s largest trading partner, sudden trade restrictions hindering Vietnamese exports to China would dramatically hurt the Vietnamese economy. In this vein, Hanoi welcomed the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), hoping it would give opportunities to diversify its trading partners and thus mitigate the risks of economic coercion from China. On the other hand, the EU and its member-states are also trying to increase economic resilience by diversifying trading partners as they wrestle with economic overdependence on China. So, strategically, Brussels presents an excellent opportunity for Hanoi and vice versa. However, challenges remain. For example, all the EU member-states are still to ratify the Investment Protection Agreement signed along with the EVFTA. Even though this is usually a time-consuming procedure, the imperative to reap benefits as soon as possible has taken a setback amid a challenging geopolitical landscape. Nonetheless, the two sides are concerned about more than just traditional economic development; they are concerned about sustainable development and green transition. For instance, under the EU’s Global Gateway framework, the EU and Vietnam have signed the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), which looks to provide a multi-projects credit facility worth €500 million. This is supposed to be the EU’s primary focus in Vietnam now. Yet, Hanoi’s cautious approach for fear of falling into any potential debt trap could stymie smooth cooperation. Projects involving vast sums of money, such as the JETP, are also practically challenging to push at the moment as officials are afraid to be the targets of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaigns. Vietnam would also be keen for ASEAN and the EU as blocs to reinvigorate multilateralism and shore up security cooperation, particularly in the SCS disputes. ASEAN states, in general, are looking to the EU as a non-threatening balancing power to reduce the impact of the China-U.S. strategic competition. Among the potential areas of cooperation between the EU and Vietnam within the ASEAN are regional climate action measures, food security, digitalization, and tech innovation. The two sides must also use their partnership to realize an ASEAN-EU FTA. EU as a Security Balancer? The EU and Vietnam also share their commitment to upholding the rules-based order—an essential component of security cooperation because of the region’s strategic importance. However, improving communication and understanding of maritime incidents more effectively is challenging. The SCS territorial conflict is simmering, particularly between China and the Philippines. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the Philippines, which China rejected. However, the ruling bolstered Vietnam’s claims, which were not openly welcomed by other ASEAN states besides the Philippines. In the absence of an agreement for a code of conduct (CoC) between China and ASEAN, which has been dragging on for years, China’s violations of international law in the SCS, including the latest against Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, have increased. Against this scenario, Vietnam and the Philippines have signed maritime security deals. At the same time, Vietnam would be reluctant to do anything more drastic, such as support the Philippines in its attempt to draft a “separate” CoC for fear of Chinese retaliation. While Vietnam is less discussed in major global media than the Philippines on the issue, Hanoi is actively using diplomatic means to internationalize the problem, bringing in more players to address complex territorial disputes to safeguard its sovereignty and promote regional peace. In this context, winning the support of the EU and its member-states would be strategically important for Vietnam. The Vietnamese side can facilitate this by providing foreign entities, including the EU, with more transparent and timely information when incidents occur. Naturally, using a media strategy like the Philippines might sensationalize the issue, which might be different from what Hanoi prefers as it walks a tightrope to balance its complex relations with China. However, Hanoi can at least offer foreign diplomats transparent and detailed information in a timely fashion to help them verify and assess the situation on the ground. This will speed up the EU’s and other potential like-minded states’ response to sea incidents and foster ways forward for more multilaterally agreeable forms of modus vivendi in the South China Sea. Ultimately, such a modus should serve China too. EU No Longer a Bystander The EU’s recent stance on the SCS issue has been its respect for a rule-based order and freedom of navigation, strong opposition to unilateral actions, and supporting the ASEAN-led “effective, substantive and legally binding” CoC while mentioning China but not singling it out. This is a change from the EU’s pre-Indo-Pacific embrace when it was a more divided, neutral house. The EU’s heavy dependence on maritime trade through the SCS mandates that the EU can no longer stand as a bystander. However, ASEAN claimant states, particularly Vietnam, would perhaps expect a sharper or clearer position, which the EU has indeed been moving toward. For example, in March 2024, the EU released a statement expressing concerns about the incidents involving “repeated dangerous maneuvers” by the Chinese Coast Guard and Maritime Militia in the SCS. This tilts to the U.S. line, even as the U.S. has been more vocal in directly criticizing China on the SCS, by calling China’s claims “completely unlawful” even before the current events. One could argue that despite the U.S. and its allies having been vocal, this has yet to lead to a concrete resolution of the conflict. However, if the EU cannot send clear signals on the issue, the division among like-minded countries will be seen as weak and exploitable in China’s eyes. Importantly, this is true not just for the SCS disputes but also for China’s coercive activities in general. Therefore, given the convergent non-confrontational, inclusivity-, and economic interests-oriented attitudes of both Vietnam and the EU toward the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region, both sides are primed to embrace the other’s strategic outlook and up their game in the face of a challenging China and efforts to foster order.

Defense & Security
Jakarta, Indonesia - April 9, 2023. Verteidigungsminister der Republik Indonesien, Prabowo Subianto

Everybody needs good neighbours: Indonesian defence under Prabowo

by Natalie Sambhi

With Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo fast approaching the end of his 10-year term and the February election result now official, it’s time to consider how incoming president Prabowo Subianto will shape the country’s strategic and defence affairs. While the country’s overall strategic outlook is unlikely to shift, there are some changes the new president and new defence minister could—and should—make. First and foremost, as current defence minister, Prabowo will continue to oversee the much-needed military modernisation program, which aims to strengthen the country’s maritime defences by upgrading the navy and air force. It has been Prabowo’s priority and was one of his election promises. But there is a lack of coherence in Prabowo’s approach that is problematic. The program, which promises fighter jets, submarines and patrol boats, had in 2023 only met 51 percent of its targets for the air force, and 60 percent and 76 percent for the army and navy, respectively. His flurry of travel as defence minister from 2019 yielded the signing of contracts for acquisitions from the US, France, Turkey, South Korea and Britain, as well as deeper overall defence ties. Yet, as the ill-fated attempt to acquire second-hand Mirage 2000 fighters from Qatar attests, it is unclear whether these purchases from multiple suppliers will further strengthen Indonesia’s defence posture or fragment it. Additionally, questions remain whether these big-ticket items are appropriate for service requirements or simply provide opportunities for sectioning off parts of the national budget. The new Prabowo administration must also address the inevitable tension between the need to invest in maritime defence and the ongoing primacy of the army. Of Indonesia’s contemporary security challenges, several are land-based and pressing: the army is still heavily relied upon for disaster relief and food security and is tasked with maintaining a sprawling territorial presence. The military must balance deterring potential threats from a larger adversary and attending to internal emergencies facing 280 million citizens on land. Effective deterrence in the region is critical, given China’s shameless bullying of Indonesia’s partners, such as the Philippines, in the South China Sea. Such efforts would be considerably aided by the publication of a new defence white paper or strategic update. The last such document, the 2015 white paper, was issued nearly a decade ago. An update would shift Indonesia’s strategic thinking away from threats such as communism and total people’s defence and help articulate the nation’s own ideas of deterrence. A new strategic document would also allow Indonesia, as Southeast Asia’s largest state and a key Indo-Pacific player, to lead its regional neighbours by example. This is critical given the contemporary security landscape marked by wars threatening food security, sharpened US–China strategic competition, tensions in the South China Sea and climate change pressures. Lastly, such a document would help outline a new phase of military modernisation and detail the government’s response to grey zone threats, particularly in the cyber realm. It should also provide transparency about how the national budget would be spent. And yet we’re unlikely to see any shifts in prevailing strategic thought anytime soon. Unlike his predecessor Jokowi, Prabowo has a personal interest in the defence portfolio and will appoint loyalists to defence and security roles to protect his legacies. An unofficial mock-up of the cabinet floated on social media shortly after the election pictured retired Lieutenant General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, Prabowo’s confidante and classmate in the special forces (Kopassus) as defence minister, and retired Lieutenant General Muhammad Herindra, also from Kopassus, staying on as deputy defence minister. That‘s probably not far off what will happen. Prabowo and his ex-Kopassus coterie hold the realist’s world view that might equals right. Prabowo has even written a book on how Indonesia’s military must assiduously protect the country’s natural resource wealth from foreign actors. His deputy Herindra said in an interview last year that ‘the world is anarchistic, chaotic. If we are weak, we will be eaten. It is not about Indonesia not having a power projection; we just want to defend our nation’s sovereignty.’ As for other key positions, such as the military and police chiefs, Prabowo will inherit Jokowi appointees who will serve out their terms for the first few years. They are considered loyal to Jokowi’s interests but often also have links to Prabowo. For example, while the current army chief of ataff, General Maruli Simanjuntak, is the son-in-law of Jokowi’s senior minister and adviser Luhut Binsar Panjaitan. Luhut reportedly has good relations with Prabowo through their shared background in Kopassus. For partners like Australia, Prabowo as defence minister has helped ensure that Indonesia is a good neighbour. Under his watch, defence cooperation has deepened, with Indonesian military cadets graduating for the first time from Australian Royal Military College, Duntroon. Prabowo has also maintained good relations with Australia’s key ally, the United States, meeting several times with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and overseeing the return of Indonesian cadets to American military academies. But Indonesia’s military needs investment and support in developing scenario-based planning and joint operations. These are areas in which Australia, the US and other partners can make valuable long-term contributions. As president, Prabowo will want Indonesia to remain a good neighbour to Australia and, notwithstanding unforeseen events provoking pushback from the Australian public or inciting Prabowo’s nationalist sentiments, he should have every chance of success. To achieve regional stability in the prevailing strategic environment, everybody needs good neighbours.

Defense & Security
Taunggyi, Myanmar - 10 March 2021: Military officers on duty before the crackdown on protests

In Myanmar, the military government is faltering

by Morten Hammeken , Pedro Peruca

한국어로 읽기Leer en españolIn Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربيةLire en françaisЧитать на русском Three years after a coup d'état reinstated military rule in Myanmar, armed rebels are on the offensive. The country's civil war is often described in terms of ethnic conflict, but opposition forces are the only ones keeping the hope of an inclusive democracy alive. The military seized power and controlled the country with an iron fist. They are backed by a superpower that benefits from a friendly military junta, prioritizing stability and trade over human rights or democracy. It's a familiar story. At first glance, Myanmar's political situation could easily be compared to that of Egypt (supported by the United States), Belarus (supported by Russia), or Syria (supported by Iran). But while the struggle for freedom and national self-determination seems stalled in many cases around the world, change is happening in Myanmar. Here, the rebels continue to fight against the Tatmadaw, the country's infamous military junta whose claim to power is backed by China. In October 2023, the rebels launched a major offensive, known as Operation 1027, which has been pushing the military government to its limits. So, what is different in Myanmar? "The rebels have been gradually wearing down the military since the fighting began," explains pro-democracy activist Michael Sladnick, who is currently in Myanmar. He started doing solidarity work, donated money to resistance groups, and learned Burmese while speaking online with rebel groups. He left the comforts of Chicago and moved to the borderlands between Thailand and Burma in July 2023. Now, he works with people from different rebel factions united with the goal of ending the dictatorship. According to Sladnick, the military has suffered devastating losses. A patient strategy of death by a thousand cuts is depleting their forces and explains the current success of the resistance. "The military losses number in the tens of thousands. Our estimates put the regime's dead soldiers at fifty thousand, but the actual numbers could be even higher. The junta is simply trying to control an area that is too large for its capacity, and it is finding it difficult to recruit new soldiers. The Tatmadaw has lost several bases on the border with Thailand, where the Karen National Union (KNU) is gaining strength. Just a few weeks ago, Myawaddy, not far from here, was besieged," says Sladnick, who is currently in an undisclosed village near the Thai border. The military, the Three Brothers, and the Revolution Since February 2021, Myanmar has been governed by General Min Aung Hlaing, the self-proclaimed Prime Minister. Before the coup, he commanded the Tatmadaw junta, which has controlled Myanmar since the 1962 coup that followed independence from British colonial rule in 1948. In the 20th century, communists (dominated by the Bamar ethnicity) and ethnic armed organizations fought against the military dictatorship, often at odds with each other. The communist resistance resisted the Tatmadaw until 1989 before collapsing. In this sense, the current insurgency didn't start in 2021 but it is the culmination of decades-long clandestine struggle for democracy. A brief attempt at democratization produced a new government between 2016 and 2021, led by the liberal National League for Democracy. However, the military never relinquished power. The democratic constitution of 2008 still reserved 25% of parliamentary seats for the Tatmadaw, enough to veto constitutional changes. The military remained a State within the State, with no oversight from the civilian government, retaining broad powers over the education sector and public officials, and a monopoly on matters of "national security." This also granted them emergency powers to overthrow even the limited elected government, a prerogative they exercised on February 1st, 2021. As evidence of the Junta's control over the judicial system, in December 2022, Myanmar's former elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison on fabricated corruption charges. The spark that ignited the Arab Spring is often traced back to December 2010 when Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his vegetable stall. In Myanmar, a similar story unfolded when the regime committed a massacre in mid-March 2021, killing dozens of women union leaders in Hlaingthaya, the industrial district of Yangon, the country's largest city. This sparked an unprecedented outpouring of anger in the countryside, where most of the population still resides. For the first time, the rural population rose in support of the workers in Yangon. This formed the basis of a popular uprising, which also helps to explain the intensity of the confrontations. "Hundreds of thousands of workers left the cities and returned to their native villages to organize the revolution there," explains Sladnick. He adds, "When the regime attempted to replicate the repression tactics that had previously worked in the cities, the masses immediately began to take up arms and counterattack. A new generation directly supporting the People's Defense Forces (PDF) emerged in the heart of the country." Three of the largest organized resistance groups joined forces and formed the Three Brotherhood Alliance. They consist of larger, more centralized rebel groups among a mosaic of local autonomous forces. Their power is stronger in the eastern region of Shan state, where the junta also faces both rebel forces and powerful drug cartels. The UN estimates that 25% of the world's opium is produced in Myanmar, and 80% of that figure comes from the Golden Triangle in the eastern Shan state. In Shan state, you can also find the National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, two of the three "brothers" fighting to overthrow the Junta. Other Shan ethnic militias, previously supported by China and Thailand, paint an even blurrier picture of internal power struggles and a labyrinth of different factions. When the third brother, the Arakan Army, launched an insurgency in the Rakhine state in 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government initially tried to appease the military by siding with them against the demands of armed ethnic organizations. Past mistakes like these continue to strain the relationship between the Brothers and the forces of the National Unity Government in the PDF. But for now, they remain united against General Min Aung Hlaing. In Sagaing, on the other side of the country and bordering India, the struggle took on a different path. Here, Sladnick sees a movement that resembles more of a mass revolution supported by the National Unity Government in exile and its armed wing. Sladnick says: ‘The Sagaing People's Defense Forces have universal support. Myanmar's urban working class grew significantly in the 2010s, but it originates from the rural mass of the population. They provide much of the funding to the PDF groups by sending money to their villages. The uprising in the countryside, which began in 2021, was sparked by the anger over the massacre of women leading protests in Yangon's textile factories.’ The military used to suppress dissent through punitive expeditions, with entire villages burned to the ground. Among the most brutal massacres were the Tatmadaw's reprisals in hundreds of villages like Let Yet Kone and Tar Taing, which were razed. It is estimated that at least six thousand civilians — 160 of them children — were killed by the junta just in 2022, with millions displaced since the 2021 coup. This adds to the millions of people already displaced by the decades-long war the army has been waging against ethnic and religious minorities, culminating in the Rohingya genocide in the 2010s. But the army has been worn down to the point that local militias of the PDFs were able to take control of small towns practically unopposed. As contemporary Myanmar comprises a diverse range of ethnicities, many foreign observers rushed to characterize the ongoing insurgency as "ethnically motivated." Two-thirds of the country's fifty-five million inhabitants are of Bamar descent, while the Shan (9%), Karen (7%), and Rakhine (4%) constitute significant minorities. This impression of a "melting pot of races" is further compounded by descendants of Chinese and Indians, the southern Mon, and the heavily persecuted Rohingya. However, presenting the conflict solely in ethnic terms is overly simplistic, as explained by Sladnick. ‘In Western media, things quickly get reduced to ethnic struggles. This overlooks the fact that all major rebel factions have declared that their offensive is part of a united Spring Revolution. The common denominator is the agreement that the regime must be uprooted in favor of a federal democracy. This is the shared vision of the movement that is gaining traction and spreading from the Shan state to the rest of Myanmar, including the Irrawaddy Valley, dominated by the Bamar, in the central part of the country.’ The protests began to spread even to Rohingya refugee camps, leading the Junta to specifically target Muslim activists during their bloody crackdowns in the cities. This "divide and conquer" approach was met with huge crowds from all backgrounds attending their funerals in displays of solidarity. China’s shadow The fact that the deeply unpopular Junta has been able to stay in power for three years is largely due to China. The northeastern superpower views Myanmar as a strategic partner, even amidst deteriorating relations with many other neighbors. For now, Beijing refrained from military intervention, which is surprising, explains Sladnick. "Since our revolution began, I feared that China would directly intervene and save the Tatmadaw as Russia and Iran did with [Syrian dictator Bashar] al-Assad. But China seems to have somewhat accepted the resistance," he states. In Myanmar, there were even rumors circulating that the Beijing government had given up considering the junta as a stable long-term partner and had started supporting the rebels. But this is likely an illusion, and it may be premature, explains Sladnick: "If China were really supporting the rebels, we would have won by now. The insurgency has achieved some significant gains, especially in Shan state, but the rebellion has not yet reached the larger cities. One of my fellow fighters from a local militia in the city of Loikaw [in central Myanmar] told me the other day that they have plenty of weapons but not enough ammunition or medical supplies." In reality, the Chinese intervention, or lack thereof, can be seen from a more pragmatic standpoint. China tacitly allowed the entry of arms from the black market into the Shan state, which enabled the Three Brothers to gain control over large areas of the region. Some view this as punishment for the government's inability to shut down Myanmar's infamous scam centers, which have generated billions of dollars for Chinese underworld syndicates. In a recent offensive, numerous centers were closed. It's no coincidence that weapons also stopped reaching the hands of rebels in Shan state once this issue was addressed, pressuring the Brothers to reach a ceasefire agreement with the government. "China gave a lot of leeway to the rebels and used it to force concessions from the Tatmadaw," explains Sladnick. This is also evident in the Junta's growing interest in maritime trade. For China, one of the strategic advantages of having a friendly government in Naypyidaw is access to the trade routes of the Bay of Bengal. This is also why the Beijing government has been pressuring the Junta to accelerate the construction of a new deep-water port in Rakhine, despite objections from local fishermen who fear it will destroy their livelihoods. The same dynamics are observed in the western province of Sagaing, where disgruntled workers shut down the Letpadaung copper mine in Salingyi, operated by the Chinese. Like hundreds of thousands of teachers, railway workers, and other public servants, the miners have been on continuous general strike since the 2021 coup. According to one of the miners' leaders, the Junta is now pressuring to resume operations there to appease China. "If you ask ordinary people in Myanmar, they have a very clear understanding of this relationship," Sladnick states. "Everyone sees that the ceasefire in Shan state was necessary because China demanded it. What else could the militias have done? They have been fighting alone for decades, and if they had refused to sign the agreement, China would have completely cut off their arms supply. The hope now is that they will continue to finance other resistance groups," Sladnick concludes. A desperate move Although things have recently calmed down somewhat in Shan state, through an uneasy truce, the pressure on the Junta remains intense. The Arakan Army accepted a ceasefire in Shan state but made no similar promises in Rakhine, where fighting continues. To the Tatmadaw's troubles are added the new resistance groups joining the revolutionary struggle. A few weeks after Operation 1027 ended in a temporary ceasefire, the Kachin Independence Army, which has been fighting since 1960, launched Operation 0307 in the Kachin state, quickly seizing control of dozens of cities and bases similar to the Brothers' offensive in the Shan state last fall. The Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA) broke the ceasefire in the Shan state, while the New Mon State Party split in the Mon state to the south, prompting a large number of people to join the resistance. The PDF is also gaining ground in Bamar ethnic regions, while Kalay, on the border with India, was nearly completely taken by insurgents. As the Junta weakens, the strategy becomes bolder. PDF forces in central Burma, still largely reliant on homemade weapons, are invading cities, a clear indication that the authorities' resources are dwindling, and their casualties cannot be replaced. So, how much control has the Junta lost? Although it's difficult to obtain precise information in Myanmar, where access to the internet has been cut off in large swathes of territory, some analysts estimate that up to 48% of the country is now controlled by resistance groups. Myawaddy, on the Thai border, was liberated in early April, while a Junta offensive to reclaim the border town was recently repelled. A drone attack was launched against the capital, Naypyidaw, a few weeks ago, and although Yangon remains firmly under the Junta's control, their authority here could soon deteriorate as well. In February, the Tatmadaw announced nationwide conscription to bolster their depleted ranks. "It's a desperate move," Sladnick asserts. Conscription is highly unpopular among ordinary people. It also means that urban middle-class citizens, who could previously pretend that everything was fine, are now forced to confront the truth. The Tatmadaw has been trying to avoid this measure for the same reasons Russia's regime is trying to keep people from Moscow and St. Petersburg out of its war in Ukraine. Don’t close the door From his base on the border between Myanmar and Thailand, Sladnick recently traveled to the Karenni state. There, the Junta completely cut off internet and phones, so Starlink is the only window to the digital world. This also meant that their group was able to witness combat in areas of the country that had not been reported before. After a three-day delay due to the Junta airstrikes, they were able to witness the deterioration of the dictatorship's control over the region. Only four Junta bases remain standing on the outskirts of Loikaw, where Karenni resistance militias and PDF forces are currently advancing. In some of the hill bases captured in February, the recent corpses of the Junta soldiers still littered the ground, while a trip to the village of Hpa Saung placed them directly in the line of fire. In the small town of Mese, twenty police uniforms still lay among the rubble of the former police station, whose occupants presumably perished in the final battle to liberate the city. Mese has now become a refuge for civilians fleeing from the southern Karenni. But while progress is steady, things could move much faster, explains Sladnick: ‘All the resistance fighters tell me they could take the last strongholds of the regime in a week if they had enough ammunition. But every time they advance, they must wait to resupply. It doesn't help that all the villages abandoned by the Tatmadaw forces are full of explosive traps, making it impossible for people to return. This also highlights the paradox of Myanmar's struggle. Despite ongoing successes - in March alone, five thousand square kilometers were liberated, according to researcher Thomas van Linge - the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about them. It might be a deliberate choice. Cooking oil, malaria medication, bullets, and global attention - everything is scarce here. There's even a shortage of raincoats in refugee camps, turning the upcoming seasonal monsoon in a few months into an imminent threat. "I asked one of my colleagues what she would say to the world if she had the chance. She said, 'Don't close the door on us. Open it!'" In Myanmar, enough is happening to fill the news every night, but the internet blackout and the abundance of other conflicts around the world make Myanmar almost invisible to the public," comments Sladnick. In his opinion, the lack of attention may also be due to an outdated image of Myanmar. "People in the West have this image of Myanmar's freedom fighters as rural peasants with an old rifle in their hands. Listen; these people are modern, connected, and very aware of the global struggle between fascism and democracy. They're aware of what's happening in Gaza, Ukraine, and Syria and see themselves fighting for both national self-determination and social justice worldwide. They know this is part of a broader struggle to prevent the spread of authoritarianism and fascism worldwide." With conscription looming, the last pretenses of normalcy under the regime are rapidly fading away. Everyone is forced to take sides, making the conflict even more intense, explains Sladnick. "The other day I had dinner with a former colleague of my wife, a real estate agent with a very sweet demeanor and a pleasant personality. She's not exactly the type of person you'd expect to be an armed rebel. I said to her, 'The revolution is scary.' She replied, 'Yes, but living under the regime is scarier.' I think this is emblematic of the current mood." Despite the challenging road ahead, Sladnick and the resistance fighters in Myanmar remain optimistic. "Everyone I spoke to in Myanmar believes the regime will collapse. Millions of people have already sacrificed everything in the fight for freedom, and I trust that in the end, we will prevail. If we don't receive help from outside, obviously it will take longer, but the regime's days are numbered. It's just a matter of time."

Defense & Security
2021 Myanmar Armed Forces Day

Myanmar: If sanctions aren’t the solution, what is?

by Morten B. Pedersen

한국어로 읽기Leer en españolIn Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربيةLire en françaisЧитать на русском The local population invariably pays the price for financial punishment of the regime. So better for the world to directly support communities instead. The decision by Australia in February last year to impose sanctions on 16 members of Myanmar’s ruling junta, as well as two military holding companies, received rare praise from a wide range of Myanmar resistance groups, international activists, and trade unions who had long been dissatisfied with Australia’s Myanmar policy. A year later, in February this year, when two Myanmar government banks and three private companies supplying jet fuel to the military were added to the sanctions list, there were almost standing applause. This is symptomatic of a world where many activists see sanctions on the military regime as the primary measure of “good policy”. Unfortunately, the obsession with sanctions draws attention away from other important issues, notably the nature and quality of international aid to the Myanmar people. Don’t get me wrong. There are strong normative reasons for imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s military rulers. Sanctions signal support for international law and lend weight to the broader policy of ostracising the military regime, which is deeply illegitimate and guilty of mass atrocities. They also provide a measure of symbolic support for the resistance, which has called for sanctions to support their cause. With so many people believing that sanctions are simply the right thing to do, not imposing them also have significant reputational costs for Australia. But as a strategic tool, sanctions are overrated. No Myanmar general is going to be shamed by Western criticism into changing their behaviour or induced by a travel ban to surrender their power and privileges as the resistance demands. In theory, by targeting the flows of arms and finance to the regime, sanctions may weaken the junta’s military capabilities and help tip the balance of power on the battlefield. But the main sources of military revenue are simply out of reach. As the de facto government of the rump state of Myanmar, the junta has inherited the state’s money printing press, as well as its sovereign borrowing rights, and the ability to set foreign exchange rates. Moreover, it is skimming hundreds of millions of dollars annually off the drugs trade and other illicit economic activity through a combination of protection payments and official “whitewashing” of private profits of unknown origin. Sure, sanctions bite. But any pain the military regime feels will invariably be transferred to other groups. Indeed, given the military’s control of key levers of the economy, the term “targeted sanctions” employed by governments such as Australia’s is really a misnomer. Whatever the generals lose in one area, they can take somewhere else. Anyone who thinks sanctions are the solution should take a closer look at daily life in Myanmar. While the population is suffering from run-amok inflation and shortages of vital goods such as medicine, there are no indications that the junta has had to reduce its arms spending. On the contrary, the number of air strikes on resistance forces and local communities continues to rise month by month. But if sanctions aren’t the solution, what is? To answer that question, we need to take step back and look at what is happening on the ground in Myanmar. With the military suffering defeat after defeat on the battlefield and gradually retreating from large parts of the country, resistance groups have started building parallel state structures and providing public services in “liberated areas” outside of central state control. Across Myanmar, new political authorities are claiming jurisdiction to govern significant territories and populations. They are establishing new government institutions; pronouncing better laws and policies; and providing security, health, and education for millions of people. While much of this is still rudimentary, they are effectively building mini states. At the grassroots level, thousands of community-based organisations are delivering humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected populations, while local communities are building their own roads and schools, and hiring their own teachers and nurses. This fragmentation of authority may seem confusing – and even threatening – to many outsiders who see it as a symptom of state failure. But it can also be viewed as the basis for a new kind of state, better suited to unifying and serving Myanmar’s diverse ethnic communities who have suffered greatly from decades of overcentralisation and continuous civil war. When asked, senior Australian government officials invariably say their primary goal in Myanmar is to help its long-suffering population. And many of their critics presumably would agree. By supporting these emerging local governance structures, Australia could help the resistance by increasing its relevance to the daily struggles of local people. It could also help vulnerable communities by expanding humanitarian assistance and basic social services. And it could help the country by supporting longer-term institution-building and establishing the basis for a new federal democratic union. All of this would help the Myanmar people in ways that sanctions never will.

Defense & Security
Flags of china and the united states on a map of the southern china sea.

War games risk stirring up troubled waters as Philippines − emboldened by US − squares up to Beijing at sea

by Fred H. Lawson

한국어로 읽기Leer en españolIn Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربيةLire en françaisЧитать на русском U.S. Marines joined Filipino counterparts on May 5, 2024, for a mock battle at a telling location: a small, remote territory just 100 miles off the southern tip of the contested island of Taiwan. The combat drill is part of the weekslong Exercise Balikatan that has brought together naval, air and ground forces of the Philippines and the United States, with Australia and France also joining some maneuvers. With a planned “maritime strike” on May 8 in which a decommissioned ship will be sunk and exercises at repelling an advancing foreign army, the aim is to display a united front against China, which Washington and Manila perceive as a threat to the region. Balikatan is Tagalog for “shoulder to shoulder.” Joint Philippines-U.S. naval drills have become an annual event. But as an expert in international relations, I believe this year’s drills mark an inflection point in the regional politics of the South China Sea. For the first time, warships taking part in the exercise ventured outside the 12-mile boundary that demarcates the territorial waters of the Philippines. This extends military operations into the gray area where the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone rubs up against the territory claimed by China and designated by its “nine-dash line.”    Also for the first time, the U.S. deployed an advanced mobile launcher for medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles of a type that had been banned under the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In addition, the Philippine navy is showing off its newest acquisition, a South Korean-built missile frigate. The South China Sea has long been the source of maritime disputes between China, which claims the vast majority of its waters, and nations including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, heightened tensions over the status of Taiwan – a territory that the Biden administration has pledged to defend militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion – have made the South China Sea even more strategically important. Containment at sea The latest joint maneuvers come amid two developments that could go some way to influence the future trajectory of tensions in the South China Sea. First, the Philippines has grown increasingly assertive in countering China’s claims in the region; and second, the U.S. is increasingly intent on building up regional alliances as part of a strategy to contain China. The Philippines-U.S. alignment is more robust than ever. After a brief interval during the 2016-22 presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, U.S. warships and military aircraft once again operate out of bases in the Philippines. Joint naval patrols resumed in early 2023. At the same time, Manila granted U.S. troops unprecedented access to facilities on the northern Batanes islands, which have become the focus of current joint operations. Meanwhile, Washington has become more vocal in condemning challenges to the Philippines from China. U.S. officials had carefully avoided promising to protect the far-flung islands, atolls and reefs claimed by Manila for seven decades following the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines in 1951. Only in March 2019 did then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assert that the treaty covers all of the geographical area over which the Philippines asserts sovereignty. In February 2023, Presidents Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Joe Biden doubled the number of bases in the Philippines open to the U.S. military. That May, the two leaders affirmed that the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks that take place “anywhere in the South China Sea.” Causing waves, rocking the boat Firmer ties to the U.S. have been accompanied by more combative behavior on the part of the Philippines. In May 2023, the Philippines coast guard introduced demarcation buoys around Whitsun Reef – the site of an intense confrontation with China’s maritime militia a year earlier. Reports circulated three months later that Philippine marines planned to construct permanent outposts in the vicinity of the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal. And a Philippine coast guard ship, with the commander of the country’s armed forces aboard, approached Scarborough Shoal in November, before being forced to retreat by Chinese maritime militia vessels. Then in January 2024, the Philippines broke with its adherence to a prohibition on erecting structures on disputed territory, which was part of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, by installing electronic surveillance equipment on Thitu Island, which sits beyond Scarborough Shoal in the heart of a cluster of disputed formations. This was followed by announced plans to put water desalination plants on Thitu, Nanshan Island and Second Thomas Shoal, making it possible to maintain permanent garrisons on these isolated outposts. Manila has continued to assert its maritime rights by announcing that armed forces would escort exploration and mining activities in the exclusive economic zone. Further acts that could be seen as provocative in Beijing followed, including the stationing of a Philippine navy corvette at nearby Palawan Island and a joint flyover by Philippine warplanes and a U.S. Air Force B-52 heavy bomber. A raft of Chinese responses It is clear that the deepening of Philippines-U.S. ties has given Manila the confidence to undertake a variety of combative acts toward China. The question is, to what ends? A more assertive Philippines may end up contributing to the U.S. strategy to deter Beijing from extending its presence in the South China Sea and launching what many in Washington fear: an invasion of Taiwan. But it is possible that heightened truculence on the part of the Philippines will goad Beijing into being more aggressive, diminishing the prospects for regional stability. As the Philippines-U.S. alignment has strengthened, Beijing has boosted the number of warships it deploys in the South China Sea and escalated maritime operations around Thitu Island, Second Thomas Shoal and Iroquois Reef – all of which the Philippines considers its sovereign territory. In early March 2024, two Chinese research ships moved into Benham Rise, a resource-rich shelf situated on the eastern coast of the Philippines, outside the South China Sea. Weeks later, a Philippines coast guard cutter surveying a sandbar near Thitu was harassed not only by Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships but also by a missile frigate of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which for the first time launched a helicopter to shadow the cutter. Washington has taken no public steps to dampen tensions between Manila and Beijing. Rather, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed full-throated support for “our ironclad defense commitments” during a mid-March 2024 stopover in Manila. Reassured of U.S. backing, Marcos has amped up the rhetoric, proclaiming that Manila would respond to any troublemaking on Beijing’s part by implementing a “countermeasure package that is proportionate, deliberate and reasonable.” “Filipinos,” he added, “do not yield.” Such an approach, according to Marcos, was now feasible due to the U.S. and its regional allies offering “to help us on what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.” The danger is that as the Philippines grows more assured by U.S. support, it may grow reckless in dealing with China. Rather than deterring China from further expansion, the deepening Philippines-U.S. alignment and associated Filipino assertiveness may only ramp up Beijing’s apprehensiveness over its continued access to the South China Sea – through which virtually all of its energy imports and most of its exports flow. And there is little reason to expect that Washington will be able to prevent an emboldened Manila from continuing down the path of confronting China in the South China Sea. To Beijing, the prospect of an emboldened Philippines forging active strategic partnerships with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and – most troublesome of all – Taiwan makes the situation all the more perilous.

Defense & Security
Japanese Fighter Jet

Japan’s Role in Shaping the Security Landscape of Southeast and East Asia

by Swati Arun

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском Japan has embarked upon a transformative journey that signifies a departure from its conventional pacifist stance. Despite encountering pockets of domestic opposition, Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific has received increasing support from neighbouring nations. Within a regional backdrop of countering China’s military modernisation and expansionism, Japan is now laying the groundwork for collective defence while working to institutionalise these efforts and ease concerns about remilitarisation. Japan has gradually undertaken various steps to enhance the role of self-defence forces and allow military partnerships. The three new requirements for exercising self-defence, adopted in 2014, expanded Japan’s right to self-defence in the “occurrence of an armed attack against Japan or another country with close ties to Japan”, a threat to national existence, with “no other means to ensure the survival of the country”, adding the use of “minimum amount of force necessary”. Japan broadened the definition of security to encompass any changes in its vicinity that may compromise its territorial integrity. Following these changes, on 16 Dec 2022, the Kishida administration formally approved three revised strategic documents – the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defense Strategy (NDS), and the Defense Buildup Program. These revisions reduced the limitations imposed on the Self Defense Forces and collective defence. Viewing these changes in today’s security conflict in East Asia, the first requirement effectively extended the parameters of self-defence to include Taiwan. In the NSS, Japan identified Taiwan as an “extremely important partner and a precious friend” while characterising China as “a matter of serious concern” and “the greatest strategic challenge.” The documents also designated North Korea as “a graver, more imminent threat” and Russia as “a serious security concern.” The documents revealed Japan’s acquisition of counterstrike capabilities, filling gaps in its defences, and broadening the second and third requirements for collective self-defence. Furthermore, Tokyo intends to upgrade the indigenous Type 12 surface-to-ship missile, with a range of approximately 200 km, to approximately 1,200 km, substantially increasing the cost of Chinese attacks in the region. In January 2024, Japan signed agreements with the US to acquire 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with a firing range of approximately 1,600 km. Reportedly, Japan aims to rectify its current ammunition reserves by constructing “70 ammunition depots within five years” and plans to construct up to 130 ammunition depots by 2035, drawing lessons from the conflict in Ukraine. Japan revised the Three Principles of Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology overcoming the past restrictions on transfer of defence equipment and technology to other countries. These revisions marked the beginning of Japan’s evolving role as a security provider in the region. Together this amounts to the doubling of the defence spending from 1% to 2% of GDP by 2027 to speed up the advancement of Japan’s peacetime and immature military and bring it to NATO standards. The revisions are consistent with Japan’s understanding of its new security environment where Chinese assertions are reinforced by the largest naval force in Asia. The shift also underscores the limitation of the US power in the region to remain the sole security provider by enabling Japan to take a central role. Japanese people also resonated with the sentiments, as a poll conducted in 2022 revealed that 89% see China as a threat in 2022, and 49% of respondents supported an expanded role of Japan in the alliance while 46% were against it. In 2023, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted Indo-Pacific Deployment 2023 (IPD23) to “clearly demonstrate the intention that Japan will never tolerate unilateral changes to the status quo by force” as specified in NSS. The Japanese forces visited 17 countries and held 27 exercises with like-minded countries, highlighting Japan’s intention to expand security ties across the nations with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and with the ASEAN. In the same year, Japan established a Permanent Joint Headquarters to oversee all three forces – the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces – to ensure effective joint operations. Acknowledging Japan’s growing ambition, in December 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed the coast guard to strengthen its activities to assert sovereignty over the East China islets. Japan has actively pursued collective defence in Southeast Asia with its introduction of “Official Security Assistance” in February 2023, under which the Philippines was the first to receive aid, followed by Malaysia. Japan also plans to include Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. These plans will allow Japan to establish a military-industrial complex, extending the nexus of partnership and interdependency between Japan and Southeast Asia. The changes when seen together with the U.S.-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement mark a decisive shift in Japan’s strategy to counter China. In an upgrade to the US-Japan alliance, the two parties agreed to establish a unified Japanese-US command, enabling the US to make a headquarters in Japan for overseas military operations in the region. They also agreed upon the co-development and co-production of missiles and cutting-edge technologies in Japan, enhancing its defence industrial complex, and export to third parties. The statement noted Japan’s cooperation with AUKUS in its Pillar II advanced capability projects. The statement also relayed the “existential crisis” facing Japan making these efforts natural, conforming to Japan’s revisions to strategic policy documents. Previously, in 2022, Japan had announced a collaboration with the UK, and Italy to develop next-generation fighter jets and subsequently in March 2024, decided to authorise the export of jointly developed fighter jets to other nations. Cross-strait relations, once dealt with utmost precaution through the lens of the “One-China Policy” have now shifted to a more openly debated foreign and strategic policy surrounding Taiwan. Since 2021, Japanese leaders have made a series of statements and comments concerning Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. In May 2022 a statement from US-Japan Summit reiterated that “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element in security”. In a January 2024 speech, former PM Aso Taro also reiterated that the Taiwan crisis constitutes “a threat of national existence” for Japan. China reacted to former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 with large-scale military exercises around the island. Four months later in December 2022, Japan released three new strategic documents. Taiwan’s importance to Japan’s security was cited seven times in NSS and NDS. Furthermore, Japan intends to enhance the defence of all of its 6,852 islands, focusing on the Ryukyu Island chains, the cornerstone of Japan’s defence against China, lying only 100 Km from Taiwan, which also tightens security around the island. The deployment of a surface-to-air guided missile unit is now under consideration on Yomaguni, home to a JSDF surveillance station adding to Japan’s understanding of Taiwan’s security tied closely to its own. China’s preferred military scenario of a “lightning war”, or a surprise attack to take over Taiwan within weeks or days, has increased the level of urgency and acted as a precursor for the military acceleration of the past several years. The history of Japanese aggression in East Asia and Chinese military support for North Korea diluted the possibility of a regional framework between Japan, South Korea and China. However, through years of efforts in August 2023, a rapprochement was reached between Japan and South Korea when they met at Camp David for a trilateral summit between US-Japan-South Korea. The trilateral took the first step in removing historical obstacles and proving trust in Japan’s new regional role. South Korea has remained averse to participating in major power competitions, but this trilateral institutionalised the effort, guarding the progress against changes in the political situation in either country. For South Korea, North Korea remains its primary security concern. For Japan, the North remains the second most crucial threat with its launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile in the Sea of Japan in 2022, provoking cooperation on the same despite fractures. Through the joint statement of the trilateral summit, the US got support from South Korea in recognising the perils of not maintaining peace and security in the Taiwan Strait. South Korea got a much-needed boost in intelligence sharing on North Korea’s missile launches and cyber activities which will strengthen ballistic missile defence cooperation. However, it is unlikely that South Korea will endanger its security by interfering in a cross-strait crisis. It will still play a critical role in keeping North Korea at bay in the event of an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait or East China Sea. Nevertheless, Taiwan thanked the support shown through the trilateral, while China warned against destabilising the region. Japan stands as one of the Philippines’ most trusted partners, second only to the US. Ties have grown deeper as the two have signed a series of agreements from Military and Capacity Building to Maritime Security and Intelligence Sharing in the Indo-Pacific. In 2023, under Japan’s Official Security Assistance, the Philippines received USD 4 million worth of coastal surveillance radars. The two parties are discussing signing a Reciprocal Access Agreement before the end of 2024. An April 2024 joint statement between Japan, the Philippines and the US prioritised advancing “multilateral maritime domain awareness cooperation”, and developing “an information communications technology ecosystem”. It also committed to trilateral defence cooperation and support for the Philippines’ defence modernisation priorities. The statement noted concerns about China’s aggressive behaviour, its “coercive use of Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea”, conjoining it with the situation in the East China Sea. It also reiterated the importance of the Taiwan Strait in global security. Under this framework, reliance and trust in Japan have increased, setting it up for a larger security role and the collectivisation of security has brought new assurances for the smaller powers of the region. The Taiwanese President thanked the trilateral joint statement supporting peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. China, however, slammed the anti-China gathering, accusing it of forming a NATO analogue in the region. China summoned Japanese and Philippine diplomats, expressing dissatisfaction and urging Japan to “take actions beneficial to regional peace”. Beyond South Korea and the Philippines, Japan has also maintained long military and diplomatic relations with Vietnam, having had 10 defence dialogues in the past. Furthermore, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the Vietnam-Japan Comprehensive Strategic Partnership on 27 November 2023. According to their joint statement, Kishida and Thuong reinforced the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. The US also upgraded its ties with Vietnam in September 2023. These developments led to President Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam in December 2023, culminating into an agreement to establish a hotline between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theatre Command and the Vietnamese navy. But mistrust towards China runs deep in the Vietnamese public, which is furthered when China continues to lay new claims in Vietnamese waters. While Vietnam remains reluctant to participate in US-China conflict, its closeness with Japan is a sign that the latter is seen as a reliable regional partner with similar territorial problems. In a wider regional sense, Japan views ASEAN as its key partner in fulfilling the Indo-Pacific vision. The ASEAN centrality resonates in both the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral. Japan maintained close ties with the region through robust economic and defence cooperation. But the latter has gained momentum in the past few years. Beginning with the Philippines in 2016, Japan forged bilateral agreements for defence equipment and technology collaboration with multiple ASEAN nations (with Malaysia in 2018, Indonesia and Vietnam in 2021, and Thailand in 2022). In February 2023, the “Expert Panel for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation” issued a report emphasising that ASEAN has evolved from being primarily an aid recipient from Japan to a growing and influential partner. In December 2023, the ASEAN and Japan summit released a joint statement, committing to “strengthening security cooperation including maritime security” in the light of growing threats in the South China Sea. The statement highlighted the trust ASEAN has in Japan amid China’s growing claims in the South China Sea. This reflects a growing realisation among ASEAN members that collective defence is the answer to their security challenge – which China reacted negatively to. In the face of a major power conflict, the trust of Southeast Asian countries in Japan’s security guarantee has been increasing. A poll conducted in 2022 reflected these sentiments when 43.1% of Taiwanese confirmed their belief that Japan would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion from China, while 42.8% of citizens felt that the US would be a security guarantor to Taiwan. Surveys undertaken in 2023 and 2024 substantiate the increasing affinity between ASEAN and Japan. While China surpassed the US as the preferred partner for ASEAN, Japan remained the most trusted partner, with 58.9% of respondents expressing faith in the country, surpassing levels for the US, China, India, and the European Union. This suggests that ASEAN is gradually transitioning its geopolitical alignment towards Japan as (at least part of) a viable alternative, rather than seeing things as a binary choice between China and the US. The predominant theme in the understanding of the current security environment in Southeast and East Asia is that, while US assistance and reliance on its security guarantee in the region are essential to counter the so-called China threat, the defence of the maritime nations ultimately rests with those nations themselves. This sentiment has served as a catalyst to address gaps in individual countries’ defence preparedness and work towards a collective approach to protect against potential changes in US strategy – which has evolved into one of enabling regional stakeholders by providing technology, skills, and assistance, while maintaining dominance through other platforms. This has necessitated a collective defence posture where a more interconnected network, involving Japan, can be more resistant to isolation and coercion.

Defense & Security
USA und Nordkorea. Concept fight, War, Business Competition, Summit

Collapse of the Security Council Panel of Experts and the United States' persecutory obsession with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

by Jesús Aise Sotolongo

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском Regarding Linda Thomas-Greenfield's visit to the Republic of Korea. At the end of last March (March 28th), due to Russia's veto and China's abstention in the UN Security Council, it did not extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts of the Sanctions Committee overseeing the implementation of punitive measures against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This joint action by two of the global powers in the multilateral body has destabilized Washington, which angrily seeks an alternative that allows it to maintain its persecutory actions. Panel of Experts It is pertinent to detail that 18 years ago, under Resolution 1718 (2006), the Security Council established the Experts Group or Panel of Experts of the Sanctions Committee to oversee penalties imposed on the DPRK, which is comprised of eight specialists. In compliance with Resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016), 2321 (2016), 2356 (2017), 2371 (2017), 2375 (2017), and 2397 (2017), the Experts Group has, among other functions: 1. Assist the Sanctions Committee in executing its mandate, as outlined in paragraph 12 of Resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraph 25 of Resolution 1874 (2009); ● Gather, examine, and analyze information provided by Member States, relevant United Nations bodies, and other stakeholders regarding the implementation of measures, particularly focusing on instances of non-compliance; ● Formulate recommendations on actions that the Council, the Committee, or Member States could consider in order to enhance the implementation of measures; ● Submit a midterm report to the Committee and, following deliberations with it, present such report to the Security Council; ● Assist Member States in preparing and submitting national reports on the implementation of specific measures they have adopted to effectively implement the provisions of relevant resolutions; ● Support the Committee's efforts in further developing, improving, and drafting guidance notes for the implementation of resolutions. The members of the Panel of Experts are appointed by the General Secretary of the United Nations, upon the proposal of the referred Sanctions Committee. Members of the Panel of Experts have specialized expertise in areas such as nuclear issues, control of weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms, customs and export controls, non-proliferation policy, trade, finance and economics, air and maritime transportation, and missile and related technologies. The Security Council has urged all States to fully cooperate with the Panel of Experts, particularly by providing any information they possess regarding the implementation of measures. States are encouraged to respond to all requests promptly and comprehensively for information and to invite the Panel of Experts to conduct visits and investigate alleged violations of the sanction’s regime, including inspecting assets seized by national authorities. Its current mandate will expire on April 30, 2024, in compliance with paragraph 1 of Security Council resolution 2680 (2023). Russia’s veto Moscow defended its veto in the Security Council against the renewal of international sanctions monitoring on Pyongyang, stating that it reflects "its current interests." Russia, with its veto, and China, with its abstention, blocked the renewal of the Panel of Experts, and while the sanctions will remain in effect, these actions paralyze the scrutiny of the experts. Russia's so-called "current interests" sparked varied responses ranging from vehement criticism to concerns and speculation. Criticism focuses on Moscow's position undermining multilateral efforts to monitor measures implemented by Pyongyang that circumvent sanctions aimed at blocking its missile-nuclear development, which, according to critics, has implications for international security. Meanwhile, concerns are directed towards the alleged support that the DPRK receives from its regional allies, (Russia and China) for its missile-nuclear development, countries with marked ideological differences and high levels of conflict with the United States. Meanwhile, speculations refer to Moscow's motivations being linked to the support that Russia receives from Pyongyang in arms and ammunition needed for its military operation in Ukraine. Regardless of criticisms, concerns, and speculations, the reality is that we are witnessing the culmination of a gamble that Russia and China have been making in the Security Council for a long time, proposing various initiatives to ease rather than strengthen the sanctions regime and relax its implementation. Meanwhile, their respective governments have issued official statements blaming US hostility and its allies as the fundamental cause for the DPRK choosing nuclear weapons and their delivery systems as the basis of its national defense and continuing to expand and perfect them. Russia's veto and China's abstention have led to the collapse of a structure that has long been in question for a long time, because it could not prevent violations of sanctions by an increasing number of UN Member States. Additionally, it represents a significant victory for the DPRK, which harbored deep animosity towards the Panel of Experts. Furthermore, it confirms the current state of Russo-North Korean and Sino-North Korean political-diplomatic relations in a context of various armed conflicts, both real and potential, that have been shaking the planet. Opposing positions in the General Assembly On April 12th, 2024, the UN General Assembly discussed Russia's veto. Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, argued that his country exercised the veto because UN sanctions against the DPRK have had no significant effect and have only caused a humanitarian crisis for the North Korean people. Meanwhile, China's alternate representative, Geng Shuang, stated that the Korean War has long ended, but the Cold War is still persisting. He reiterated his country's position that "there will be no resolution of the problems if the security concerns of all parties, including the DPRK, remain unaddressed," calling on all actors to work together to adopt a path to peace. He said that tensions are hindering these efforts, and that dialogue is needed, and the Security Council must play an active role. Using a typically Chinese allegory, he stated that "sanctions should not be carved in stone" and added that "harsh sanctions" against the DPRK have had a negative effect on the humanitarian situation in the country. Regarding Russia's new proposal, he expressed hope that Council members will work productively to extend the mandate of the panel of experts, a phrase that justifies China's abstention rather than a veto. The representative of the Republic of Korea to the UN, Hwang Joon Kook, condemned Russia's veto and criticized the military collaboration between Moscow and Pyongyang. He argued that it was vetoed because "Russia did not want the watchtower, the panel, to light its dark spot." He asserted that the Panel had included in its recent report that it had been investigating reports of the arms agreement between the Russian Federation and the DPRK, which constitute a clear violation of multiple Security Council resolutions. Meanwhile, Robert Wood, alternate representative of the United States, said: "...we need to uphold our obligations." He stated that, as the sponsor of the resolution to extend the work of the Panel of Experts, his delegation had sought a broad compromise and that China and Russia had had ample opportunities to discuss sanctions reform in the council. Instead, Russia gave to the Council members an ultimatum that sought one of two outcomes: to avoid sanctions against the DPRK or to silence the panel's investigations, including Moscow's acquisition of arms from Pyongyang for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russia's veto undermines the architecture of peace and security and deprives action on one of the Council's most pressing issues, that of peace on the Korean Peninsula. "Russia is already threatening to end the mandate of the UN Sanctions Committee that helps the Security Council monitor and take actions to deter threats to international peace and security (...) that is why it is crucial for all of us to raise our voices today in support of the non-proliferation regime, and opposition to the attempts to silence the information, we need to uphold our obligations." Meanwhile, the DPRK ambassador to the UN, Kim Song, said: "The DPRK greatly appreciates the veto by the Russian Federation..." and argued that the Council's sanctions on his country are a product of U.S. hostile policy. "If the DPRK's position of possessing nuclear weapons for self-defense is a threat to international peace and security, as claimed by the United States and its followers, we should first properly discuss why the United States is not considered a threat to international peace and security, even though it is the only country in the world to have used a nuclear weapon..." As can be seen, the contrasts in statements reflect the adversarial positions of the parties most directly involved in the issue. United States seeks for alternatives As expected, Washington immediately began plotting countermeasures in the face of the imminent dissolution of the Group that it had controlled for years. The United States representative to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, during her recent visit to the Republic of Korea, was tasked with addressing this issue, although no concrete proposals were heard. The agenda crafted for the U.S. Ambassador to the UN included several meetings, even with North Korean defectors, and culminated in a visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, a moment she deemed opportune to express her concern that the DPRK could freely develop missiles without the oversight of the sanctions monitoring body. She stated that Washington is considering "out-of-the-box" options to monitor Pyongyang's compliance with sanctions. "All possibilities are on the table," and her government is "working closely with South Korea and Japan to seek creative and original ways to move forward" in this regard. At the same time, she urged Russia and China to reverse course, to stop rewarding the "misbehavior of the DPRK," and to protect it from sanctions, which allow it to carry out activities on its weapons programs. The diplomat called on Moscow and Beijing to reverse course and urge Pyongyang to choose diplomacy, come to the negotiating table, and engage in constructive dialogue. Considering all possibilities, she stated that it could be within the UN General Assembly, "entities outside of it." We see that Washington is exploring alternative ways to the Group of Experts to continue investigating Pyongyang's sanction violations. During the press conference, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said, "I look forward to collaborating with both the Republic of Korea and Japan, but also with like-minded countries, to try to develop options both within and outside of the UN. The point here is that we cannot allow the work that the panel of experts was doing to lapse." The U.S. representative to the UN added that Russia and China, which abstained from voting in favor of the extension, will continue to try to block international efforts to maintain monitoring of UN sanctions against the DPRK. She criticized Russia for violating these sanctions with its purchases of North Korean arms and, also China for shielding the North, stating, "I don't expect them to cooperate or agree with any effort we make to find another path, but that won't stop us from finding that path in the future." Recently, Marcus Noland, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an expert on Korean affairs, has proposed: ● That the UN General Assembly plays a more significant role in maintaining pressure on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs. This proposal emerged amid the debate over Russia's veto of a resolution to extend the mandate of the panel of experts monitoring sanctions on the DPRK. ● The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), launched on May 31st, 2003, during the George W. Bush era, represents a coalition outside the UN framework, composed of 112 members so far. It aims to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from States and non-State actors of proliferation concern. This initiative is part of the foundations of the global regime against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and has maintained strong support as a presidential priority in each of the US’s administrations since its inception. It is known that Washington, in its attempt to ensure the diversification of tools to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, apparently, foreseeing the eventual deactivation of the Panel of Experts, is seeking to strengthen and expand the PSI. Its active role in this direction involves contributing with experts, diplomats, financiers, military personnel, customs officials, and police; organizing meetings, workshops, and exercises with other States supporting the PSI; and working with specific partner States to enhance their capacity to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. ● Following the example of the United States and South Korea, who recently launched an Enhanced Disruption Working Group and jointly sanctioned six individuals and two entities based in Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates for supporting the DPRK's weapons of mass destruction programs. According to the expert, in the absence of the Panel of Experts, these sanction’s activities can be expanded and could involve countries allied with the United States. ● Utilization of the Egmont Group, a state-led network of financial intelligence units with 174 members that shares information and collaborates on illicit financial activities. It does not have a mandate in the sanctions area, but that does not mean it cannot be granted one, and if so, the Group could assume an intensified role in monitoring North Korea's sanctions evasion in the financial sphere. The pronouncements of the US Ambassador to the UN at the DMZ suggest that the US State Department is paying attention to Marcus Noland's proposals, which, so far, are identified as the most precise ones that have emerged. However, for now, except for the UN General Assembly, which, due to its plurality, is not likely to be able to assume supervisory functions, the rest of the alternatives lack the authority of the UN as the Panel of Experts of the Sanctions Committee had. Some considerations As the DPRK strengthened its missile and nuclear capabilities, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the sanction’s regime and the performance of the Sanctions Committee's Panel of Experts, this monitoring instrument of the Security Council appeared increasingly biased and uncompromising. Despite Washington and its top allies were intensifying their demands on the State Members to comply with the measures included in the resolutions, many governments avoided implementing the sanctions or did so only partially, in addition, they often failed to submit their reports. The calls from the Chairman of the Sanctions Committee for all Member States to submit their national reports on the implementation of the resolutions comprising the sanction's regime were becoming more frequent, with representatives being reminded that these reports are mandatory. Of all the UN Member States, fewer and fewer delegations were submitting their reports, and some never did. To mitigate the apathy, the Committee held meetings with Regional Groups to ascertain the technical assistance and training needs of Member States for the effective implementation of Security Council resolutions at the national level. It became evident that the most determined to challenge the Panel of Experts were Russia and China, which in the multilateral arena deployed various initiatives to ease the sanctions regime and vetoed new resolutions, while at the same time, they relativized their application bilaterally. Everything seems to indicate that Moscow and Beijing were gauging the "loophole" through which to penetrate and cause the implosion of the Panel of Experts and saw the opportunity by vetoing its extension, which will take effect on April 30. We are witnessing exasperated actions from Washington and its top allies to at least attempt to maintain oversight to contain the nuclearization of the DPRK when they have been unable to do so through other means. However, at the same time, it is observed that the main powers in conflict with the United States are aligned with Pyongyang on various fronts, including the multilateral space, something that is strategically very favorable for all three parties. References Agustín Menéndez. Matando al mensajero: sobre Corea del Norte y las Naciones Unidas – Reporte Asia. Disponible en: Marcus Noland. Hobbling sanctions on North Korea: Russia and the demise of the UN’s Panel of Experts. Disponible en: Chad O´Carroll. UN General Assembly could monitor North Korea Sanctions, Countries Suggest. Disponible en: KBS WORLD. S. Korea Envoy: Russia Vetoed UN Panel Extension to Hide it´s ´Dark Spot´. Disponible en: UN News General Assembly debates Russia´s veto of DPR Korea sanction Panel. Disponible en: Newsroom Infobae. La embajadora de EEUU ante la ONU visita la Zona Desmilitarizada entre las dos Coreas. Disponible en: Ifang Bremer. US exploring alternatives to North Korea sanction panel in and out of UN: Envoy. Disponible en: Kim Tong Hyung. Envoy says US determined to monitor North Korea nukes, through UN or otherwise. Disponible en: United States Mission to the United Nations. Readout of Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield´s Meeting with Young North Korean Escapees in the-Republic-of-Korea. Disponible en: Korea Times. US to seek ways to continue sanction monitoring on NK despite uncooperative Russia, China: Envoy. Disponible en: United Nations. Security Council Fail to Extend Mandate for Expert Panel Assisting Sanction Committee on Democratic People´s Republic of Korea. Disponible en: U.S. DEPARTMENT of STATE. Proliferation Security Initiative. About the Proliferation Security Initiative. Disponible en: EGMONT GROUP OF FINANCIAL INTELLIGENCE UNITS. Disponible en:

Defense & Security
Solomon Islands

Russia and China co-ordinate on disinformation in Solomon Islands elections

by Albert Zhang , Adam Ziogas

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском Moscow and Beijing likely worked together to sow disinformation globally that was propagated locally by political parties in the lead-up to Solomon Islands’ national and provincial elections on 17 April 2024. Both countries’ propaganda systems accused the United States, without evidence, of using its foreign aid and networks across the country to interfere in voting and of preparing to foment riots and orchestrate regime change in response to an unsatisfactory election result. This campaign adds to a growing body of evidence showing that China’s and Russia’s ‘no limits’ partnership extends to coordinating their disinformation campaigns in the Indo-Pacific. The narratives haven’t gained widespread attention or media coverage in Solomon Islands. Australia, the United States and other Pacific partners should nonetheless be concerned, as Russia and China can be expected to learn from this campaign and will likely use the lessons to further improve their influence operations in the region. Individually, China and Russia are adept and expert at pushing disinformation to disrupt other nations but, by coordinating their efforts, they have a force-multiplier effect. The campaign consisted of an alleged ‘leaked’ letter, articles published on authoritarian state-controlled media outlets and a fringe journal publication, which were then shared and amplified on social media platforms. A fortnight before election day, an unknown author by the name of Richard Anderson published an explosive article in CovertAction Magazine alleging that the US was seeking regime change in Solomon Islands. The US-based magazine was co-founded in 1978 by the late Philip Agee, a former CIA officer who after his retirement became a vocal critic of the agency and of US policy and had reported links with Soviet and Cuban intelligence. The magazine was set up ‘on the initiative of the KGB’, the Soviet Union’s main intelligence agency, according to a book by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin and British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew. Anderson had no previous history of writing for CovertAction Magazine. A week after that article was published, Russian state-controlled media agency Sputnik further fuelled the allegations, writing that the US was ‘plotting [an] electoral coup’. This article cited an anonymous source who had ‘intimate familiarity’ with the activities of USAID, the main United States foreign aid and international development agency. This mirrored how Anderson is described in his CovertAction Magazine bio, though Sputnik’s article did not explicitly mention him or his article. Sputnik’s claims were amplified four days later by the Chinese state-controlled tabloid newspaper the Global Times, which did directly reference Anderson’s article and has the potential to legitimise these narratives to an audience the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is actively targeting. During the same period, a poorly fabricated letter from an unconfirmed (and potentially non-existent) IFES project consultant was circulated among Solomon Islanders by an unknown source claiming that the US was seeking a ‘democratic transition by violent means in necessary circumstances.’ The text in this letter mirrored language used by Sputnik’s alleged anonymous source. Figure 1: Paragraph from Sputnik article (top) and a screenshot of the alleged IFES letter (bottom).     To be clear, there is no evidence that the US, or any other country, is supporting violent riots or interfering in Solomon Islands. Ann Marie Yastishock, US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, has strongly refuted these allegations. This is not the first time the CCP-controlled media has spread disinformation in Solomon Islands or accused the US of seeking to instigate riots in the country. Following the 2021 Honiara riots, the CCP falsely accused Australia, the US and Taiwan of organising the riots, fomenting unrest and discrediting the relationship between Solomon Islands and China. In contrast, Russian media outlets also covered the 2021 Honiara riots but didn’t promote any explicit accusations of US or foreign interference. This time, China and Russia have been in lockstep. In the lead-up to the April elections, Russian state media was more direct and damning in its reporting with the release of Sputnik’s original article and in the subsequent coordination and dissemination of false narratives alongside Chinese state media. While Sputnik published only one follow-up article to the initial investigation, China’s Global Times was more prolific and varied, with six articles alleging US meddling in Solomon Islands. Of these six articles, four explicitly referenced Sputnik’s claims and two referenced US influence operations in more general terms. The indications of Russia-China propaganda coordination in this campaign were further supported by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) post on 19 April 2024 titled ‘The Hypocrisy and Facts of the United States Foreign Aid’. The post on their website claims the US is giving aid to Solomon Islands, among other countries, only because it sees it as a political threat. This was the first article ever published by the MFA to smear USAID. Moscow, however, has consistently campaigned against USAID since it ejected the US agency from Russia in 2012 for ‘meddling in politics’. Russian media has pushed a consistent narrative that the organisation is a US imperialist tool of regime change, accusing it of fomenting civil unrest and coup attempts as far afield as Belarus, Cuba, Georgia and Mexico. However, this latest attack against USAID appears to be the first where Russia’s narratives are working to the benefit of CCP interests. It’s been clear since at least 2018 that Russian and Chinese state media are converging on media narratives that serve their governments’ strategic and political interests. According to leaked documents from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK, Russian and Chinese propaganda entities also signed an agreement to ‘further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events’. While previous ASPI research has demonstrated Russian and Chinese state-coordinated narratives on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the repeated re-airing of Sputnik’s conspiratorial claims of interference in Solomon Islands’ elections in Global Times articles indicates this propaganda cooperation is now a global initiative. There was also some evidence of amplification by inauthentic accounts on social media of these narratives, but they were limited and it is unclear whether they were state linked. For example, one X account with the handle @jv79628 shared the original Sputnik investigation. The account posts links almost exclusively from Sputnik, Global Times, Australian website Pearls and Irritations and videos with artificial intelligence-generated voices from the pro-CCP YouTube channel Chinese Revival, which may be linked to the Shadow Play network previously uncovered by ASPI. Other accounts sharing the original Sputnik report, such as @de22580171, pose as pro-Russian US citizens. They share articles mostly from Sputnik or Russia Today. At the time of publication of this report, Russia’s and China’s state media articles, and the accusations contained in them, have had minimal reach into online Pacific communities. In the public Solomon Islands Facebook groups ASPI viewed, online discourse remains more focussed on the emergence of new coalitions and the election of a new Prime Minister than on discussion of foreign influence or interference. According to Meta’s social monitoring tool, CrowdTangle, none of the articles from the Global Times have been shared in open and public Solomon Islands Facebook groups. However, Sputnik’s first article may have been more successful in reinforcing anti-Western sentiments in outgoing Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s O.U.R. Party, who are strong contenders to be part of the coalition that forms the next government. That article was posted on the O.U.R. Party Solomon Islands Facebook page, which is run by the party, on 10 April. It was reshared to several public Facebook groups in Solomon Islands, including news aggregation sites and local island forum pages. This is significant because it is the first time a news article has been posted on the O.U.R. Party Solomon Islands Facebook page, which typically shares positive images of the party’s activities and political campaigns. As of 1 May 2024, the post (below) has had over 180 interactions, which is higher than the average number of interactions a typical post has on this page. Figure 2: Screenshot of Sputnik article posted in O.U.R Party Solomon Islands Facebook page.     Sogavare, a founding member of the O.U.R. Party, has made similar remarks about ‘foreign forces’ previously. According to an article published in the Solomon Star, when US Ambassador Yastishock visited Solomon Islands in late March to present her letter of credentials to Governor-General John Oti, Sogavare claimed foreign forces were ‘intervening in the national general election’ and ‘may fund some political parties and plan to stage another riot during the election to disrupt the electoral process and undermine social stability’. Despite the low online interaction so far, the barrage of US regime change allegations lays the foundation for future narratives that may resurface if Solomon Islands experiences future unrest. Beijing and Moscow can be expected to learn from these disinformation efforts, leaving the US, Australia and their Pacific partners no room for complacency about the threat the regimes pose, nor the need for effective strategic communication. The Russian and Chinese governments are seeking to destabilise the Pacific’s information environment by using disinformation campaigns and influence operations to undermine traditional partnerships. In this digital age, leaders of governments and civil society across the region need to consistently confront and counter baseless lies pushed by authoritarian state media, such as accusations that the governments of Australia and the US are instigating riots. If they fail to do so, partnerships with, and trust in, democratic countries are at risk of deteriorating, which can reduce the development benefits provided to Pacific Island Countries by Western partners. Australia, the US, and other close Pacific partners, such as Japan, New Zealand and the European Union, must take a stronger stance against false and misleading information that is starting to circulate in the region as a result of authoritarian state-backed disinformation campaigns. These nations must also better support and encourage local media and governments to take further steps to identify and combat false information online. This includes providing more training packages and opportunities for dialogue on media-government communication procedures to tackle disinformation and misinformation. Countering the effects of disinformation requires ongoing efforts to call out false statements, educate the public, and build country-wide resilience in the information environment. Greater transparency and public awareness campaigns from the region’s partners can also help to ‘prebunk’—or anticipate and delegitimise—disinformation and alleviate concerns about malign activity.

Defense & Security
Pita Limjaroenrat, Member of the House of Representatives of Thailand

Pita (and the People) Versus the Powers that Be

by Napon Jatusripitak

Pita Limjaroenrat has failed to secure approval as Thailand’s next prime minister. This underscores the stark reality: leaders in Thailand are not elected by the will of the people, but permitted to rise to power with the support or at least the acquiescence of the conservative establishment. In the prime ministerial selection process on 13 July, Move Forward Party (MFP) leader Pita Limjaroenrat was unable to secure the required parliamentary votes for approval as the prime minister. Despite having a strong electoral mandate and claiming the support of an eight-party coalition comprising 312 MPs, Pita encountered resistance from the appointed 250-member Senate. The Senate predominantly consists of handpicked loyalists affiliated with the generals who orchestrated the May 2014 coup d’état. Only 13 senators voted in favour of Pita’s candidacy. The outcome is not unexpected. Nonetheless, it signals a strong determination by the Thai conservative establishment to block Pita’s rise to power. The implications of this outcome remain unclear. The prime ministerial selection process is set to continue until its completion, with the next round scheduled for 19 July. During this period, General Prayut Chan-o-cha will continue to serve as the caretaker Prime Minister. General Prayut has already ruled himself out of contention with his resignation on 11 July from the United Thai Nation Party. He had recently announced his intention to quit national politics. Nevertheless, there are significant uncertainties surrounding Pita’s potential renomination as a candidate. Previously, a deputy speaker from Pheu Thai disclosed that the party intended to back Pita for the initial three rounds of voting before engaging in formal discussions with the eight-party coalition regarding other potential candidates. However, disagreements within the coalition could emerge due to concerns about the viability of supporting a candidate who has encountered significant opposition and experienced a substantial losing margin. Moreover, it is uncertain whether Pita and the MFP would be prepared to withdraw their pledge to amend Article 112 in exchange for backing from senators. Furthermore, there are pending legal cases against Pita that could potentially impact his prospects. These cases include the media-shareholding case, where Pita is alleged to own shares in a media company (this is prohibited under Thai law). The Election Commission submitted the case to the Constitutional Court on 12 July. There is another case regarding the MFP’s campaign to amend the lese majeste law, which has been accepted but awaits a verdict from the Constitutional Court. These legal proceedings could result in Pita’s suspension or disqualification from holding office, as well as the dissolution of the MFP. In effect, they could eliminate him from the race for the premiership. Given these challenges, a new contender may emerge. However, this depends heavily on the actions of the Pheu Thai Party, which is the second largest party in the MFP-led coalition. If Pheu Thai decides to remain a part of the eight-party alliance, it is possible that the party will nominate its own candidate, with Srettha Thavisin or Paetongtarn Shinawatra as likely options. Alternatively, if Pheu Thai foresees challenges similar to those faced by Pita in securing the necessary support, the party may explore the option of forming new alliances with other political parties in the Prayut administration. These alliances could serve two purposes for Pheu Thai: either providing it with the necessary support to advance its candidate for the position of prime minister or securing a stable footing and a sizable share of cabinet portfolios in a future governing coalition. Parties such as General Prawit Wongsuwan’s Palang Pracharath and Anutin Charnvirakul’s Bhumjaithai, among others, could be potential partners in such alliances. General Prawit, who served as the chair of the Senate selection committee, could potentially sway the support of some members of the Senate if he decides to extend his support to Pheu Thai’s candidate. However, General Prawit may also leverage his position to insist that Pheu Thai supports him as the prime ministerial candidate, rather than the other way around. Even without Pheu Thai’s backing, Prawit might command enough parliamentary support to secure the prime ministerial role, though this would result in a minority coalition government. In either scenario, if Pheu Thai decides to withdraw from the MFP-led coalition, it is likely to face significant backlash. Such a decision could further erode the party’s already dwindling support base, especially among those who voted for Pheu Thai based on its pro-democracy stance. However, if this strategic gambit were to materialise, it could be seen as an attempt by the party’s leader-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra, to reassert his influence in Thailand’s political landscape, even if this comes at the expense of his own party in the long run. Looking towards the medium to long term, the implications of these developments extend far beyond party politics. They have the potential to ignite substantial frustration and discontent, particularly among those who perceive Pita’s failure to secure the necessary support as evidence that the democratic process has been compromised by actors and institutions that prioritise their own interests over the popular will. This growing disillusionment among the public may intensify calls for political reforms and a thorough re-evaluation of the role and accountability of various power structures within the political system, such as the Senate, the Constitutional Court, and the Election Commission. However, the absence of a clear and effective pathway for formally addressing these grievances poses a significant challenge. For instance, to revoke the Senate’s authority to jointly select the prime minister, amending Section 272 of the Constitution is necessary. But amending the Constitution requires the backing of at least one-third of senators, as stipulated by Section 256. The limited avenues for meaningful engagement and redress can further erode public trust in the existing political institutions, leading to widespread mobilisation and street protests with ever-increasing frequency and intensity. That said, however, historical precedents have shown that social unrest and emergencies are often used as a pretext for the military to intervene in the name of maintaining peace and order. In conclusion, the political future of Thailand hangs in the balance. If the selection process fails to produce a successful candidate for the role of Prime Minister, Section 272 (2) of the 2017 Constitution allows for the possibility of an outsider being considered as a potential candidate for the position. This scenario remains unlikely due to stringent requirements; moreover, there is no guarantee that the candidate would serve as a neutral arbiter or independent third party. Ultimately, these developments underscore the stark reality that leaders in Thailand are not elected by the will of the people but rather permitted to rise to power with support or at least acquiescence of the conservative establishment. Now that the true nature of democracy, or the lack thereof, in Thailand has been revealed, it remains to be seen what actions and measures will be taken by the Thai people whose voice and choice seem to have been trampled upon.