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China Seeks Big Ticket Payback From Myanmar

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Beijing is pressing to resume the controversial Myitsone dam and other stalled mega-projects in exchange for its diplomatic support of the again isolated nation

As China surges forward again in Myanmar, new pressure to restart a controversial dam project could represent a watershed moment for bilateral relations.

The Beijing-backed US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project, which if built as previously designed would flood 600 square kilometers of forestland in northern Kachin state and export 90 % of the power produced to China, was suspended by Myanmar’s previous military-dominated government in September 2011.

In justifying the landmark decision, seen by many at the time as the beginning of a shift away from China, then Myanmar president Thein Sein said the project, “it was against the wishes of the people.”

The dam is designed to block a confluence that forms the culturally significant Irrawaddy River, the nation’s longest running from north to south. The project was previously strongly opposed by local Kachins and across the entire country.

Renewed Chinese pressure for the dam was in the news earlier this month, when The Irrawaddy news site reported that Hong Liang, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, had dispensed warnings and threats against local Kachin leaders during a visit to the state capital Myitkyina.

According to the report, Hong reportedly warned them against opposing the project and threatened them with “difficult consequences” if they had more frequent contacts with Western envoys and Christian church organizations.

Artist's rendition of the postponed Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar. Photo: Wikipedia

Artist’s rendition of the postponed Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar. Photo: Wikipedia

It was neither a new nor unprecedented threat. In 2016, the same Chinese ambassador urged his US counterpart in Yangon not to travel to northern Kachin State or certain parts of eastern Shan State because Washington “should respect China’s interests.”

Beijing’s interests in Myanmar are largely strategic, including as an outlet for its landlocked southwestern provinces to the Indian Ocean. A hydroelectric dam at Myitsone would provide power to Yunnan and other southern areas across the border where a proposed Myanmar-China Economic Corridor (MCEC) would feasibly begin.

The US-based Institute for Peace said in a report referring to the threat that China believes it “deserves to have predominant presence and influence in these areas, if not elsewhere in Myanmar, regardless of the wishes or interests of Myanmar, let alone the interests of other countries.”

Two years later, China is in a much stronger position to push its Myanmar-based policies and projects.

The US has imposed only limited sanctions on Myanmar’s military over its brutal “area clearance” operations against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, which drove more than 700,000 people across the border into Bangladesh.

The European Union has leveled similar targeted sanctions against seven senior military, border guard and police officials accused of serious human rights violations against the Rohingya. The United Nations has said the expulsion may have had “genocidal intent.”

Myanmar-Aung San Suu Kyi-Myitsone Dam-River-2011-Facebook

Aung San Suu Kyi in front of an anti-Myitsone dam poster in 2011. Photo: Facebook

Aung San Suu Kyi, lauded as a civil rights and pro-democracy icon before she became State Counselor in 2016, has since been stripped of several of the accolades and prizes she received in the West because of her refusal to condemn the carnage against the Rohingya. That’s pushed her away from her previous backers in the West and increasingly into China’s welcoming embrace.

On December 7, 2018, she was appointed chairperson of a Myanmar government steering committee tasked with implementing the establishment of the MCEC, a venture under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

During his meetings in Myitkyina, Chinese ambassador Hong told Kachin community leaders that Suu Kyi, once a staunch and vocal opponent of the Myitsone project, has changed her mind and that they should follow suit.

Suu Kyi has made no official announcement indicating that is her position and people close to her have said rather bluntly that any such move to resurrect the deeply unpopular project would be tantamount to “political suicide.”

That’s definitely the case among Kachin activists. Lahpai Seng Raw, a Kachin community worker and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner — which honors former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s example of integrity in governance and public service — said in a recent commentary piece that the BRI is “a form of neo-colonialism, a thinly-veiled attempt at gaining dominance on the world stage.”

She argued that clear mechanisms need to be put in place for resource-sharing and evaluating the social and environmental impacts of any MCEC projects before they are implemented.

“Unless such steps are taken, the trust deficit in China-backed economic ventures will only intensify. China also stands to lose credibility as an honest mediator in the peace process” between central authorities and the country’s various ethnic armed groups, Seng Raw warned.

The lack of local consultation has backfired on China’s designs for Myitsone in the past. In 2010, the dam site was hit by several bomb blasts detonated by disgruntled locals that injured and killed Chinese workers. At the time, an estimated 300 Chinese workers were employed at the project site.

Myanmareses living in Malaysia display placards in protest against the Myitsone dam project, outside Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur September 22, 2011. A group of Myanmar activists on Thursday staged a protest against the Myitsone hydroelectric power development project on the Irrawaddy River in the Myanmar's northern state of Kachin. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTR2RNHU

A protest against the Myitsone dam project on September 22, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

But is Myanmar, now isolated again from the West, in a position to withstand Chinese pressure? China accounted for nearly 40% of Myanmar’s trade in 2017, according to World Bank figures, while Chinese official sources say between 40%-50% of foreign investment came from China, including Hong Kong and Macau.

Now, Myanmar is likely even more economically dependent on China, a reliance that has been compounded by the need for Beijing’s political and diplomatic support at the United Nations and against Western nations critical of the Rohingya issue.

China has also managed to outmaneuver other foreign interlocutors and emerge as the main broker in Myanmar’s staggering peace process, which is a major reason why Hong is opposed to Western diplomats visiting Myanmar’s war-torn north that borders on China.

Beijing clearly enjoys closer connections with the ethnic armies operating in Myanmar’s north than any of the Western-backed peacemaking outfits that have tried to influence the peace process.

China is also wielding a carrot and stick in the conflict areas. A four-month pause in fighting, announced by the Myanmar military on December 21, is widely seen as a result of Chinese pressure on the Myanmar government.

That announcement, however, has been ignored by ethnic armed groups in the area because it does not cover Rakhine state, where fighting against the rebel Arakan Army has recently intensified. During his meeting in Myitkyina in January, Hong offered to initiate negotiations between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been under attack since 2011.

People displaced in the conflict between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar military for the control of an amber mine pass their time at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, Myanmar June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Internally displaced people at a Christian church in Tanai township, Kachin state, June 16, 2017. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

An estimated 120,000 people have fled the fighting and are living in makeshift camps in KIA-controlled areas along the Chinese border or near government-administered centers such as Myitkyina and Bhamo. Refugees in KIA-controlled areas are dependent on food and medical supplies from China, which makes the Kachin rebels especially vulnerable to Chinese pressure.

At the same time, huge shipments of Chinese weapons have been moved across the border to select rebel outfits, putting even more pressure on the Myanmar government and military. The 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) is now equipped with new, sophisticated Chinese weapons which it has shared with ethnic Kokang, Palaung, Shan and Rakhine rebels, with much smaller quantities also being given to the KIA.

Yangon-based diplomats speculate that China is now, as ever, playing a sophisticated “good cop, bad cop” routine to win concessions in Myanmar, including for the Myitsone dam.

Hong’s sharp warning stands in contrast to the approach of Sun Guoxiang, a smooth-talking Chinese diplomat who has attended several meetings with the Myanmar government’s peace commission as well as talks between the central authorities and ethnic rebels.

When Myanmar opened to the West and permitted unprecedented political freedoms in 2011-2012, the policy shift was driven by a desire of the then ruling military to mitigate its dependence on China.

That reliance had steadily grown since a brutal military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, which led to the imposition of Western sanctions and boycotts, and raised concerns about sovereignty among the top brass.

A graffiti is seen on a stone at the confluence of the Mali and Nmai river at Myitsone, outside Myitkyina, capital city of Kachin state, Myanmar March 30, 2017. Picture taken on March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun            To match Exclusve CHINA-SILKROAD/MYANMAR-DAM - RTX347PC

Graffiti on a stone at the confluence of the Mali and Nmai river at Myitsone, outside Myitkyina, capital city of Kachin state, Myanmar March 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun To

The Rohingya crisis has restored the country’s previous pariah status after a brief period of Western engagement that saw the lifting of a previous generation of sanctions imposed for rights abuses.

That new shift, analysts say, could have devastating consequences for the country’s political future and sovereign interests. Since last year, China has strongly lobbied for new economic concessions and for previously promised projects to be swiftly implemented.

The previous Thein Sein government allowed a 2011 memorandum of understanding with China to build a high-speed railway from its southern Yunnan province to Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu port to elapse without any track laid.

Now, the project is back on the table, as are a number of smaller hydroelectric power projects Beijing aims to build. But China’s new push for the Myitsone dam represents a gamble, one that could reignite the popular anti-China movement that swept the country in 2011, and one that even Suu Kyi would be hard-pressed to stop once started. Atimes*


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Hun Sen’s labor sop will cost Cambodian industry

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political move to hike the minimum wage for textile and footwear workers threatens to undermine the crucial industries, which combined account for two-thirds of the nation’s exports.

Under the executive order, announced last week, garment and footwear factory workers’ minimum wages will increase around US$2 to $192 per month beginning January 1, 2021.

Employer groups that have argued for wage reductions for next year say that this additional burden could make the sector even more uncompetitive and hinder recovery amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s workers have been laid off since the pandemic began and after the European Union partially knocked Cambodia from a privileged tariff-free trade scheme, known as Everything But Arms (EBA), in reprisal for Hun Sen’s democratic backsliding.

The National Council for Minimum Wage, a tripartite body composed of representatives from the government, trade unions and employer groups, meets annually to discuss minimum wage increases. But it couldn’t reach an agreement for what the basic salary should be in 2021 after weeks of debate.

Most industries in Cambodia have no set minimum wage, but the salary of textile workers tends to be the highest.

Trade union representatives went into this year’s discussions demanding a wage hike of $11.59 for next year, which they say is a necessity given the ever-increasing cost of living in Cambodia. Employer groups, which had tried to have these discussions postponed by a year, demanded a $17 cut.

There are conflicting reports as to why Hun Sen intervened. One claim is that the National Council for Minimum Wage simply couldn’t agree on a figure so turned the decision over to his government to settle the impasse.

Another suggestion is that the council agreed to keep wages the same for next year, only for the prime minister to then intervene with his raise.

This isn’t out of character for the national leader. In 2014, 2015 and 2018, Hun Sen added a few dollars to higher minimum wages that his ministers had previously agreed.

While unions and business groups have tacitly accepted the decision of Cambodia’s strongman leader, who has been in power since 1985, neither side are pleased with an outcome that appears to most benefit the government.

Hun Sen is keen to maintain some calm in a country that has seen escalating youth-led protests in recent months, especially after the arrest of prominent trade unionist Rong Chhun in July. Placating garment workers with even a limited wage bump is the other side of the coin to his government’s violent crackdown on these latest protests.

It was also a populist measure by Hun Sen who has been keen in recent years to woo garment workers, who in the past typically voted for the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party until its forced dissolution in late 2017.

A promise to boost the minimum wage was key to the CNRP’s campaign ahead of the 2013 general election, at which it won 44% of the popular vote. Afterward, this policy was immediately appropriated by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as a way to curry favor with this part of the electorate.

The minimum wage for textile workers rose from just $80 in 2013 to $190 this year. Government propaganda circulated on social media shows images of Hun Sen being embraced by adoring garment workers, alongside the boast that Cambodia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has increased the minimum wage during the pandemic.

Core inflation reached 3.2% in June as Cambodia’s consumer price index hit a five-year high. The cost of living has increased significantly over the past five years. The price of fresh fish, for instance, rose by 11.4% in June compared to the same month last year.

Phnom Penh, home to many of the typically young, female migrants from the countryside who work in the textile factories, is now the sixth most expensive city in Southeast Asia, according to the Numbeo Current Cost of Living Index. It ranked fourth last year.

It is estimated that one in five Cambodians depend on salaries earned in the textile sector, as workers send home large chunks of their wages to families back in the countryside. The considerable decline of the sector during the pandemic has contributed to rising poverty in rural areas, analysts say.

Government data claims that textile exports fell by only 5.4% in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2019, an official figure that has raised a few suspicious eyebrows considering the loss of certain tariff-free trade privileges in the EU.

The government also asserts that only 50,000 jobs have been affected by the pandemic-induced economic crisis. But the Garment Manufacturers of Cambodia (GMAC), the main industry body, puts the number of job losses at 150,000, out of around 700,000 pre-pandemic.

In February, Hun Sen promised that furloughed textile workers would receive 60% of the minimum wage, or roughly $114 per month, with the majority being paid for by the state and the rest by employers.

Two months later, however, the leader reduced the amount to just $70 per month. It remains unclear whether Phnom Penh caved to demands from employers for the original sum to be reduced or, more likely, the government realized it didn’t have the funds to make the payments over a medium or long-term period.

Most years, employer groups have gone into minimum wage discussions with the goal of keeping salary hikes as low as possible. Seldom, however, have they demanded a cut in minimum wages, as they did this year.

Textile factory owners contend that the minimum wage is something of a red-herring, as most workers receive more than the basic salary.  Employers must also pay overtime bonuses, a $7 monthly accommodation allowance, good attendance add-ons, and seniority payments for long-serving staff.

It is thought that these bonuses, on average, cost employers an additional $15 per month per worker.

Phnom Penh has put a positive spin on the minimum wage hike. “The raise is also a message to attract more investment and new factories to Cambodia,” Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng told local media.

Yet it is difficult to see how the move to increase costs would necessarily attract new investors. Indeed, if the textile sector is to recover to near pre-pandemic levels it will need substantial investment in the coming years, mostly from overseas.

Some of the factories barely surviving at present are expected to collapse once state bailout funds are withdrawn. Others will need to raise working capital to pay for operations and wages, since earnings from exports are rarely paid up-front.

A recent GMAC survey found that only 35% of factories have enough orders until the end of the year, while quarter 25% reported having no orders until the end of 2020, the Southeast Asia Globe reported last month.

To raise the necessary investment, Cambodia’s textile sector will need to show it remains competitive against its more developed and higher-end rival producers in Thailand and Vietnam.

Not only has the pandemic significantly reduced demand from Western buyers for Cambodia-made textiles, the country also recently lost many of its trade privileges with the EU, traditionally its largest textile market. Last year, the EU purchased the majority of Cambodia’s textile exports.

In August, tariffs were slapped on one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports to the EU, including some goods from the textile sector, though it is difficult to estimate the costs of the new charges.

Kimlong Chheng, director of the Centre for Governance, Innovation and Democracy at the local Asian Vision Institute think tank, has claimed that total removal from the EBA scheme would cost Cambodia’s economy as much as $650 million each year.

Given that only a fifth of trade privileges under the EBA was cut, the cost may be around US$130 million each year.

Much depends on whether textile factory owners shoulder the additional costs of tariffs by cutting into their profits, or whether they shift the additional costs onto clients by increasing prices, making Cambodia’s textile exports less competitive.

Now, factory owners must also find additional money for higher wages. If the textile sector was to recover to near full employment next year, representing around 750,000 workers, the minimum wage hike will cost employers an additional $1.5 million each month, or $18 million annually.

For years, analysts and industry insiders have warned that Cambodia’s textile sector was losing its competitive edge vis-a-vis neighbors.

Vietnam, now a Southeast Asian powerhouse for manufacturing exports, boasts far higher standards of transport infrastructure, a more productive workforce and easier export capabilities for business owners.

Cambodia’s minimum wage was already higher than its more productive neighbors, which in comparison have avoided hefty wage hikes in recent years to maintain their competitiveness.

Wages for Thai textile workers are currently $191 per month, compared to Cambodia’s US$192 from next year. In Vietnam, where wages differ based upon location, the highest salary i$182 per month. In Laos, the minimum wage is just $88 per month.

Another reason for Cambodia’s faltering competitiveness is political unpredictability. For almost two years, textile owners and investors were left guessing whether Hun Sen’s government would loosen its political stranglehold to maintain economic benefits with the EU. He didn’t and now business owners and workers are bearing the costs.

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Indonesian bill an environmental, economic disaster

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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a peatland forest in Payung Sekaki regency in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Sumatra, on August 2, 2019. Photo: AFP / Wahyudi

Indonesia’s  parliament is poised to pass a massive “omnibus bill” stimulus package by early October to help offset the economic damage incurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, that package currently contains provisions that will allow unbridled deforestation that will both harm the environment and sabotage the bill’s economic growth potential.

The omnibus bill involves the insertion of 174 new articles into 79 existing laws governing areas including taxation, labor, investment and the environment. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government has pitched the bill as an essential job-creation tool designed to streamline business-unfriendly bureaucratic processes in order to boost investment.

However, some of the bill’s provisions would also directly increase the risk of massive deforestation by eliminating existing legal protections for primary forest cover.

Specifically, the bill would loosen requirements for environmental impact assessments for industrial and agribusiness projects and empower the central government to approve business and investment in officially designated forest and peatland areas, which are currently protected by a deforestation moratorium.

The bill also eliminates the legal requirement that provinces maintain a minimum forest cover of 30% on provincial land by allowing them to set such standards “proportionately.”

And it includes a provision that could increase the regional risk of catastrophic haze from plantation fires by lifting the existing strict legal liability for companies with fires occurring on their concession areas.

According to an analysis by the Indonesian non-governmental organization Madani of these provisions, their potential impacts are nothing less than catastrophic. The NGO warns that the omnibus bill if passed in its current form could lead to the complete destruction of natural forest cover in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, Bangka Belitung and Central Java over the next two to three decades.

This assessment is reinforced by a public letter sent to domestic and international financiers by a coalition of Indonesian civil-society and environmental NGOs. They warned that the result of the bill’s passage will be that “Indonesian​​ current laws and regulations will no longer​​ comply​​ with​​ globally accepted​​ environmental and social safeguards.”

These concerns aren’t limited to environmental organizations. In July, the World Bank’s Indonesia and Timor Leste country director, Satu Kahkonen, criticized the bill by warning that in its present form it “is basically not helping Indonesia” because it will “move Indonesia’s environmental legislation further away from the implementation of best practices.”

Tragically, the severe environmental consequences of the omnibus bill will also directly undermine its stated intention of economic stimulus and job creation. That’s because the environmental harms wrought by the bill will harm Indonesia’s  attractiveness as an investment destination and exporter. That will in effect reverse recent hard-won progress by the Indonesian government and the private sector in reducing widespread deforestation and destruction of peat lands.

One of the sectors that have the most to lose from the omnibus bill’s pro-deforestation elements is the palm-oil industry. The sector – whose exports constitute more than 2% of Indonesia’s annual gross domestic product – has made strides in recent years to shake its well-earned reputation as a major driver of forest destruction by implementing “No Deforestation, No Peatland, No Exploitation” (NDPE) policies.

Those policies, in tandem with Indonesian government initiatives, including the enactment in August 2019 of a permanent moratorium on forest clearing for timber and plantation development, helped reduce deforestation in Indonesia in 2019 to its lowest levels in almost two decades.

But rather than decrying the omnibus bill’s pro-deforestation elements, Indonesia’s palm-oil sector has instead taken a position of complicit silence.

The glaring exception to this has been Astra Agro Lestari, a subsidiary of the British conglomerate Jardine Matheson. Astra Agro Lestari, Indonesia’s second-largest palm-oil producer, has significant influence within both the palm-oil sector and the Indonesian government through Joko Supriyono, Astra’s vice-resident director and chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI).

Despite Astra’s adoption in 2015 of an NDPE policy, in February this year, Supriyono expressed unqualified support for the deeply flawed omnibus bill as “a solution to the complexity of licensing in the palm-oil sector.” He described GAPKI’s support for the bill as essential to “the interests of the national palm-oil sector.”

That stance suggests willful blindness to the damage that the omnibus bill poses to the palm-oil industry, both domestically and internationally. Major palm-oil importers including the European Union and United Kingdom are considering increasingly stringent environmental standards for agricultural imports, including palm oil. Those standards, if enacted, will in effect block any Indonesian agricultural exports linked to deforestation that this omnibus bill, in its current form, would fuel.

The Indonesian government and its palm-oil industry have a choice. They can allow the passage of an omnibus bill that will worsen deforestation and undermine economic growth by discouraging foreign investment and stigmatizing key agricultural exports, or delay the bill’s passage and allow for meaningful public consultation on its environmentally harmful provisions to help ensure that economic stimulus measures are built on a foundation of environmental sustainability rather than destruction.

With the Indonesian parliament expected to approve the bill within weeks, President Widodo, legislators and the private sector need to move urgently to address the bill’s flaws before it’s too late.

Phelim Kine is the senior director for Asia at the environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. – ATIMES

 

 

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China, Indonesia Sea Dispute Hot and Getting Hotter

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Security ship crew members of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries prepare for a patrol along Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Islands. Credit. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) cutter 5204 has become such a familiar sight inside and on the fringes of Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) that it is now suspected of trying to stake out the limits of Beijing’s nine-dotted line of historically claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea.

The Indonesian government issued a formal protest to Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian over the latest intrusion on September 12, in which the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) said the Chinese used the specific term “nine-dash line” in radio messages with an Indonesian patrol vessel.

While China recognizes Indonesian sovereignty over its northernmost Natuna archipelago, it has always refused to provide the exact coordinates of the nine-dash line, a broad tongue-shaped swathe of the South China Sea extending into the North Natuna Sea.

The latest incident suggests that Jakarta may sooner or later have to confront the fact that China is now seeking to lay down markers in claiming traditional fishing rights inside Indonesian waters in a clear breach of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“In many locations, the CCG/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy are trying to normalize the presence of their ships and then eventually move into enforcing their fishing rights and the nine-dash line,” says one naval analyst who requested anonymity.

Although not included among ships listed in the CCG fleet, 5204 is a 2,700-ton Zhaojun-Class cutter which normally plies between the Chinese-occupied Spratly islands and the Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef of the disputed island group known for its oil and gas reserves.

Natuna Sea

Last January, it was also one of three Chinese cutters which intruded 100 kilometers into Indonesian waters in a large-scale incursion that caused Indonesia to scramble F-16 jets from Pekanbaru, southern Sumatra, and dispatch eight naval vessels to the scene.

Since then, the cutter is believed to have made several other intrusions after switching off its automatic identification system (AIS) for up to 36 hours as it ventured close to the maritime border, which lies about 70 kilometers south of Vanguard Bank.

The difference this time is it kept its transponder activated, which as the analyst explained, “means they want you to know.” It also took two days to return to international waters after it was intercepted by an Indonesian patrol vessel.

In its most forthright statement so far, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters at the height of the January stand-off: “Whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters.”

Pompeo told last week’s East Asia Foreign Ministers summit that Beijing had no respect for democracy in the region and called on the region’s nations to fight Chinese domination and cut business ties with Chinese companies with interests in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the same online meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi denied that Beijing claimed all the waters within the nine-dash line as internal and territorial waters, calling it a “deliberate confusion of concepts and a distortion of China’s position.”

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C on screen) addresses counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in a live video conference during the ASEAN-CHINA Ministerial Meeting, held online due to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, in Hanoi on September 9, 2020. (Photo by Nhac NGUYEN/AFP)

But he prefaced his statement by asserting that China has “sufficient historical and legal basis for its sovereignty and sovereign rights over the South China Sea,” claiming that under UNCLOS the “historic rights of countries should be respected.”

Four years ago, in a case brought by the Philippine government, an arbitral tribunal convened under a provision in the UNCLOS ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights within its nine-dash line. Beijing rejected the ruling, which lacked an enforcement mechanism.

One noteworthy development was Wang’s support for “actively advancing” the long-delayed maritime Code of Conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which aims to prevent armed clashes in the South China Sea.

“China persists in advocating ‘shelving disputes and developing together’ and is willing to pay attention to the energy needs of coastal countries under this framework and seek win-win and multi-win results,” he said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi used the East Asian conference to warn the US and China, as she has previously,  not to involve Indonesia and its Southeast Asian neighbors in their competition in the South China Sea.

Coordinating Minister for Political Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD has said Indonesia will never be drawn into negotiations over its sovereign rights to waters north of the Natuna archipelago, which is part of the country’s Riau province.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo aboard a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter/Presidential Handout

Marsudi and other senior officials also continue to insist there is no overlapping jurisdictions with China and that Indonesia has never recognized the nine-dash line, which first appeared in a map published by the Republic of China in 1947.

The Pekanbaru-based F-16s now conduct regular patrols over the Natunas. So do Boeing 737 and CN-235 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, flying out of Makassar in South Sulawesi, and a squadron of Israeli-made drones based in West Kalimantan. ATIMES


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