To choose or not to choose: That is the question for Myanmar

Liam Brewin Higgins

Politics | Southeast Asia


The low sonorous murmurs of Buddhist prayer rising above the sea of twinkling golden stupas becomes distant and distorted, as the startling bright lights of gleaming shopping centres engulfs the crammed streets of downtown Yangon.

Myanmar, like many countries, is a place of contrasts, challenges and complexity.  As an undergraduate student taking part in the ‘Political Economy of Myanmar Course’ this year and a first-time traveller to Myanmar, I became increasingly aware of the great importance of the multi-dimensional relationship between Myanmar and China. From lively karaoke in Naypyidaw, to the green mountain tops of the Shan mountains and to the smallest villages in between, the cultural and geographical diversity of this country should not be underestimated.

Despite intensifying Chinese economic and strategic interests and considerable support from the USA for Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, Myanmar has engaged on a higher pragmatic bilateral level with China. Myanmar as an emerging Asia Pacific state cannot afford direct and confrontational great power competition manifesting into a potentially dangerous Sino-USA rivalry in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has thus sought to navigate the complexities of the increasing Sino-USA competition in the Asia Pacific Region, by continuing her father’s overarching post-Second World War emphasis on an independent, pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy for Myanmar.

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Since the victory of the National League of Democracy in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi as foreign minister and state counsellor has pragmatically intensified Myanmar’s paukphaw ‘cousin’ relationship with China amid growing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to the NLD’s landslide victory, relations between the Thein Sein government and Beijing cooled because of the stalling of the billion dollar Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, in what Jürgen Haacke has described as the military’s fear of ‘...undue military, political or economic dependence on China.’ Indeed, Myanmar’s experience of exploitative British colonialism has a created a strong and ‘pervasive’ nationalistic sentiment that sustains much of the Tatmadaw’s hypersensitivity to foreign interests in Myanmar.

Geographically, China is a key and influential actor in Myanmar’s border regions and peace process.  In a recent New York Times article Jane Perlez highlighted China’s continued indirect support of ethnic armed organisations such as the United Wa Army, despite China’s extensive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The United Wa Army is believed to have the military capabilities to rival or at least challenge the Tatmadaw, with an estimated 20,000 active soldiers, as well as an arsenal of helicopters and tank destroyers allegedly supplied by China. The Wa region is virtually a self-administered area that has more cultural ties with China, rather than with Myanmar. Its close proximity to the border and an association with the illegal narcotics trade in China has even resulted in the circulation of Chinese currency instead of the Burmese Kyat.

President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road initiative, including the Kyaukphyu oil, and gas pipelines originating in Rakhine State are geostrategic and economic projects that Beijing has focused on in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu pipeline is considered as economically and strategically significant because it allows Beijing to transport large amounts of oil and natural gas overland from Rakhine State and transport it into Yunnan Province, where it is processed and sent to power the industrial centres further east. The pipelines are currently in operation, allowing China to source energy from the Bay of Bengal without it having to pass through the highly-contested and geostrategically significant Malacca Straits, currently controlled by Singapore. China has also begun constructing a number of deep-sea ports in Myanmar, as part of the ‘string of pearls strategy’, that has also seen China building ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy is attempting to exercise influence on the waters to China’s East and also in the Indian ocean, making China what Steinberg refers to as a ‘two ocean country.’  China’s economic interests in Myanmar have been focused primarily in terms of developmental investment and these have rarely come into conflict with the interests of the USA.

Under the de facto leadership of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar will continue to attempt to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t solely reliant on a foreign actor. It is very probable however, that Myanmar’s desire for democratic reform, greater state unity and foreign investment in a wider regional context of great power competition is going to be increasingly difficult to pursue. Especially given the present situation in Rakhine state which has seen, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees escaping violence and fleeing to Bangladesh since the 25th of August 2017.

Particular moments in Myanmar stand out to me as being intensely provocative. Standing at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda the low hum of afternoon prayers still resonating, I realised the great extent to which the challenges facing Myanmar are inter-connected and intricate. Soaring above thunderous monsoon clouds over the Bay of Bengal, I reflected how wonderful it was to live and breathe research and understand how even the simplest human narratives can create a burning desire to explore and to investigate.

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China’s internal migrants: Flowing into big cities – but ending up with disappointment?

Ruiying Zheng



When I first talked to Xiao Zhang he was packing his bag in a tiny, shabby room near a construction site where he worked. He has lived there with his wife and other fellow workers since he came to this city.

“I fled from a remote village in Guangxi province to Shenzhen to change my life three years ago.” He said. “But now I realise it is much harder than I expected. I could never actually become part of this city, so I am planning to leave.”

In fact, Xiao Zhang is just one of more than 280 million migrant workers in China. There are also a great number of fresh graduates and office workers moving from rural or less developed areas to large cities.

Today, China’s internal migration is characterised by a flow of people, especially the youth, moving into first-tier cities located in developed provinces in search of fortune, status and a higher quality of life. Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are their main destinations.

It is of great significance to raise people’s awareness of the current situation confronted by rural migrants as a disadvantaged group, and tackling the issues arising from this mass migration. It also helps China’s government to improve essential services that these rural migrants risk losing when they move to the big cities.

[caption id="attachment_6466" align="aligncenter" width="511"] Source: 'The Impact of Chinese Migration', The Economist, 2012[/caption]

The importance of studying urban migration in China
China’s rural-to-urban migration is a good case study for people who are interested in or doing development studies. The phenomenon of population movement is an important indicator of urbanisation in the modern world.

Regional migration also changes the spatial distribution of China’s population, thereby posing challenges to urban land use such as expanding overall built land and increasing proportion of residential land. It also results in the expansion of urban infrastructure systems. This increasing demand on land and urban facilities could lead to potential environmental disturbance that goes against principles of building resilient and sustainable cities.

[caption id="attachment_6471" align="aligncenter" width="540"] Source: 'Land-use change in China,' National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2004 - 2010[/caption]

Additionally, demographics of a country plays an essential role in its economic, political, cultural and societal domains. Studying urban migration helps the government to formulate appropriate policies and regulations for the society as a whole

New attitudes and reforms needed
Since many rural migrants are under great pressure due to the barriers they come across in terms of housing, job seeking, and education for children, is it really worthwhile for people to leave their hometown and struggle in big cities?

While it may be better for them to weigh the opportunities and difficulties of their migration rather than blindly following the trend, the government is still responsible for reforms that aim to assist and support these rural migrants.

For those studying China’s phenomena of rural to urban migration, there are key points to consider when making recommendations for effective policies that can mitigate the threats rural migrants face during their resettlement.

The government is expected to construct affordable and low-rent houses. For example, the average housing price in Beijing is more than 50,000 in RMB (nearly 10,000 in AUD) per square meter which is too expensive for low-income migrants. They can hardly afford their accommodation if there are no alternatives provided.

Relaxation of institutional barriers to civil rights is also crucial. Social welfare systems in China are largely based on the Hukou (known as the household registration system) which limits rural migrants’ access to equal rights such as voting and medical insurance.

Another big concern is their children’s education, so the implementation of preferential schooling policies for their children is required. Left-behind children in rural China has become a social concern because the lack of parental accompany and care has profound impacts on their future outcomes.

It is also helpful to provide subsidies for their transportation costs. China’s great migration during the lunar New Year is the largest movement in the world. It is reported that some poor migrants have to travel approximately two thousand kilometers by motorcycle to head home for reunions.

The most difficult factor can be the changes in Chinese society’s attitudes towards these rural to urban migrants because of prejudices they face in decision-making processes as a marginalised community. They sometimes receive disrespect or even discrimination from citizens, which leads to disharmony in society.

The study of China’s rural to urban migration can help to motivate the Chinese government and China’s general public to pay more attention to this imperative issue. It also contributes to eliminating the potential problems that come with the inequality suffered by these rural migrants who seek only to live a better life.

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Strait differences: attitudes towards same-gender rights in Taiwan and mainland China

Kai Clark

Politics | East Asia


On the 24th of May, the Taiwanese Constitutional Court invalided marriage law defining unions between a man and a woman. The court ordered the parliament to amend the law within two years, otherwise, same-gender couples will be allowed to marry under the current law.

Two days later, a popular lesbian dating app in Mainland China, Rela (热拉) was mysteriously shut down; following the earlier removal of another dating app, ZANK. This ties in with the government’s intolerance towards the LGBTIQA community, as it last year issued a ban on the portrayal of “abnormal” sexual relationships within Chinese media, lumping LGBTIQA relationships along with incest and sexual assault.

Despite their similar culture and heritage, both society’s attitudes are undeniably separate.  Taiwan is home to a vibrant LGBTIQA community and there is a majority support for same-sex marriage within Taiwanese society. Mainland China, on the other hand, has only removed homosexuality off its official lists of mental disorders since 2001, let only only having legalised homosexuality in 1997. Homosexuality in China is still viewed as abnormal and conversion therapy clinics remain open within the country.

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Why do Taiwan and China view same-gender relationships so differently?

Following the fall of Taiwan’s authoritarian government, there was a commitment to push forward with democratisation with a strong rule of law and constitution. This promoted the growth of a progressive and active civil society with strong freedom of speech and assembly. In turn, LGBTIQA activism was encouraged to protest and argue lawfully for equal rights.

The Taiwanese government’s passage of the Gender Equity Education Act in 2004 has also assisted in promoting progressive values among Taiwanese society, as the act instructs schools to teach students the importance of gender equity and diversity.

Taiwan also lacks a strong religious resistance, as over two-thirds of its society adhere to Buddhist or Taoist teachings, which hold no opinion over homosexual relations.

Mainland China, sadly, lacks Taiwan’s strong rule of law and civil freedoms which make LGBTIQA activism possible. Not being allowed to properly inform the public and push for better LGBTIQA rights, these activists suffer under the threat of arrest or harassment.

This is not the only reason why Mainland Chinese attitudes towards the LGBTIQA community differ. Within China, there is a strong emphasis on continuing the families bloodline and reputation — especially considering after-effect pressures of the former one-child policy. Many gay Chinese men feel forced to marry into sham marriages to satisfy their families. In 2012, these cases ignited public debate after a professor committed suicide after finding out her husband was gay.

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In 2016, Peking University published a survey, Being LGBTI in China, looking at social attitudes towards the LGBTI community. It which found “[f]amilies have the lowest degree of acceptance for [sexual] minorities.” The survey also found 35% of Chinese born before the 1960s “cannot accept my children as any [sexual] minority”. Looking at these results, it is no surprise many feel compelled to be pushed into these marriages rather than risk being disowned by their family.

But there is hope for change.

Many Chinese millennials are far more open towards same-sex relationships. Social media that they use has helped LGBTIQA activists fight for equal rights online. Many millennials are also willing to fight back, as was felt in a landmark win for the Chinese trans community as a transman won a wrongful dismissal case earlier this year.

Sociologist and prominent LGBTIQA activist Li Yinhe (李银河) argues that because of the lack of religious pressure within the country, the only resistance towards same-sex marriage is current culture. In a New York Times interview, Li further argues “real change will only come once this generation of leaders dies out”. Li’s argument may have merit, as the Peking University survey finds many Chinese under 35 support gay marriage. At the same time, The Economist finds the average age of China’s legislators to be 49.

Overall, there is hope for many LGBTIQA-identifying individuals in China — and the recent decision by the Taiwanese Constitutional Court is advancing its cause. In another interview, Li states that critics of gay marriage have always claimed that it is a ‘western’ culture incompatible with Chinese culture. Taiwan’s ruling however, shows how a similar society has independently decided in favour of gay marriage. She concludes saying, “if Taiwan can, we can.”

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Two sides of the gambler’s coin: Japan’s conflicting opinions on casino expansion plans

Adina Darbyshire

Politics | Asia


Large, flashy Pachinko parlours light up the streets of Japan. These are pinball arcades that have marginally circumvented Japan's anti-gambling laws for many decades. However, Japan's gambling culture is about to change. The Japanese Diet passed a bill lifting the ban on integrated resorts (IR) - commercial complexes including casinos - last December, and are set to hold an extraordinary session to pass an IR Implementation bill in late September of this year.

[caption id="attachment_6408" align="aligncenter" width="513"] Pachinko players in Akihabara[/caption]

The incumbent Liberal-Democratic party (LDP) is largely in favour of expanding the Japanese gambling market. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his hopes to implement integrated resorts before the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo in order to draw more tourists to the country and to help revive regional economies. On the other hand, the Opposition (Democratic Party) and the public alike are dubious about the motion. In fact, members of the Opposition walked out in protest during the session last December on the grounds that the bill contains insufficient safeguards addressing gambling addiction.

The former head of the Opposition has also voiced his concerns over the rashness with which integrated resorts are being pushed for, noting that the initial IR Promotions bill was passed in just six hours without a consensus between the LDP and the Opposition. The public has echoed these concerns, fearing that the bill understates problems such as gambling addiction and gambling-related crime. In fact, a national survey conducted on August 7th shows that 22.8% and 66.8% of Japanese citizens are respectively for and against passing the IR implementation bill.

Thorough deliberation of implementing integrated resorts in Japan is crucial considering its existing gambling problem amongst Pachinko-goers. A 2008 national survey found that Japan's gambling addiction rate was approximately 5.6%, with similar results in a 2013 survey. This is high compared to national survey results of other Asian countries. As of 2011, this includes 0.8% in South Korea, 3.1% in Singapore, and 4.4% in Hong Kong.

[caption id="attachment_6414" align="aligncenter" width="577"] A gambling parlour[/caption]

How can we hasten IR legislation when we have yet to ensure that Japan will be sufficiently prepared to tackle the problem of gambling addiction? It is crucial that enough time is taken to discuss safeguards before the bill is to be enacted. An example of a country that has done just this is Singapore.

Singapore implemented two integrated resorts in 2010 - Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa - both of which have achieved astounding success. Prior to these developments, the Singaporean government had already prepared a comprehensive framework tackling gambling addiction. In accordance with the framework, the newly appointed National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) proactively sought public opinion; funded an educational TV series on the issue in January, 2006; and set up a problem gambling counselling helpline with the Institute of Mental Health in December, 2007. Moreover, the Ministry of Health helped establish a National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) in 2008.

[caption id="attachment_6422" align="aligncenter" width="515"] Inside a Pachinko parlour[/caption]

The Japanese government has appointed a Casino Management Committee to examine gambling issues related to organised crime and money laundering, and has proposed safeguards such as using 'My Number' cards to limit patrons' visits to casinos. The National Police Agency has also pushed for regulations limiting the number of Pachinko balls that can be won. It would be in the best interest of the Abe administration to follow Singapore's lead in accommodating the mental health needs of the Japanese people further.

Addressing mental health is especially a pressing issue considering Japan's high suicide rates. A 2014 study suggests a strong positive correlation between suicide rates and gambling addiction, even pinpointing Japan as exemplary of this trend. If so, it is all the more reason to establish relevant safeguards, such as providing specialized counselling services for potential gambling addicts. Otherwise, the Abe administration will be gambling on the public's support.

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Sindh’s Mohajir card: on its last legs

Qandeel Khan

Politics | South Asia


Pakistan is a surprisingly ethnically diverse country. Urdu, its official language, is spoken by only 8 percent of the population. Pakistan’s abject failure to glue different nationalities, languages, politics and religious beliefs upon its creation has triggered a host of issues for the nation today. Former capital Karachi is the arena for one of the most interesting: the rise and demise of Mohajir politics.

Once a formidable force, Mohajir-aligned political groups and their militant wings are now on their last legs, set to lose their political clout in the near future.

Here is where the story begins: in the years following partition the Mohajir were touted as loyal, valuable migrants providing much needed skills to assist Pakistan in its fledgling years after the exodus of educated Hindi communities. An opposing narrative, led mostly by native Sindhis viewed Mohajir as elitist newcomers who not only quickly integrated with the oppressive Punjabi bureaucracy, but who swamped Sindh’s urban cities and forcefully imposed their Urdu cultural identity upon Sindhis.

Very soon, the Mohajir formed half of the provincial capital Karachi’s population, and were over-represented in government, military and business roles.

From the 1970s onwards, this dominance was lost. The new Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto took measures to placate Sindhi alienation, imposing pro-rural quotas for government jobs and admission to educational institutions, and introducing Sindhi as a compulsory language in school and work. Following General Zia-Ul-Haq’s martial regime in the late 1970s that heavily favoured Punjabis, and influxes of Pathan and Baclohi migrants into Sindh, the Mohajir began to feel squeezed out.

Amid brewing discontent over the restriction of career opportunities for poor and middle-class educated Mohajir youth, a university student named Altaf Hussain who did not meet quotas for admission into a pharmacy program started the earliest version of today’s Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

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The MQM appealed to the Urdu-speaking majority of Karachi and Hyderabad by promising to address concerns other national or religious parties had not—"Islamic parties promised us a place in heaven but failed to get us one in Pakistan", explained one MQM supporter. Ruled internally with an iron fist by a charismatic leader, MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain was respected as a pir (a Muslim saint) and a bhai (brother). Giving dramatic speeches where he often wept about the plight of his fellow Mohajir, MQM became the dominant political force in urban Sindh, with Altaf successfully mobilising an emerging ethnic loyalty.

Riots came with the growth of an MQM militant wing, normalising political violence in the city. Targeted killings, torture and abduction of rival parties, police or government were common. Describing their motivations, one young Mohajir militant stated, “Altaf Hussain arrived on the scene talking about my experience exactly… He showed that because 2 per cent of the population ruled over 98 per cent, a lower-middle class, educated, intelligent boy couldn't become a general or reach a high post in Pakistan. That's why I joined. I was 18 or 20.” The total cost of lives in Karachi’s urban killings has been deemed comparable to the war with the Taliban and jihadists.

But despite being drunk on violent victories for decades, the hangover finally hit. The glory of the MQM faded slowly, at first—and then seemingly all at once.

People of all backgrounds grew tired of violence. The once beloved Altaf Hussain, now exiled in London for several years, grew increasingly erratic and out of touch. The last straw fell in August 2016, when a hate-speech by Hussain went viral: “Pakistan is a cancer for the entire world. Down with Pakistan.” The Mohajir, frustrated with constant commands to spurn the country their ancestors chose to call home, and unimpressed with allegations of corruption against Altaf Hussain, had had enough.

The MQM soon split into three factions, marking the first time in decades that Karachi’s political landscape had not seen a strong, unified Mohajir front, leaving smaller, weaker groups competing for the Mohajir vote.

With Altaf Hussain now gone, can we expect Mohajir politics to remain the same?

Probably not.

Pakistan is currently undergoing its first census since 1998. High migration and low birth rates means there is wide expectation that the Mohajir are no longer the demographic majority in Karachi. Constituency boundaries may be redrawn out of the census in a way that would sorely weaken the Mohajir vote.

And it’s no longer the 1970s. The fundamentalist premise justifying the MQM’s existence in the first place was that young Mohajirs were being denied opportunities for social mobility and economic prosperity.

Back then, most relied on access to political patronage and a government job for success. After economic liberalisation of the 1990s, this is no longer the sole option, nor the most popular for young people.

The smartest students no longer want to be generals; they want to be brand managers for Unilever. While rural-urban quotas remain, they matter little since demand for government employment amid young, educated, urban Pakistanis is low.

Memories of partition trauma are salient, but no longer fresh. With neither a carrot nor a whip, it is difficult to imagine the MQM or its offshoots succeeding to play the Mohajir card for much longer.

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Islamic Warriors: Pakistani soldiers in Arab armies

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | South Asia


Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Pakistan has been deploying its own military to the region for decades. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets in combat and 15,000 soldiers were stationed in the kingdom during the turbulent 1970s and 80s. Personnel were also sent to train the militaries of numerous emerging Arab states which lacked the necessary experience and knowledge, and a force was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Pakistan’s strong Islamic identity and need for nearby strategic and economic partners has driven these commitments, and the resulting shared history and institutional links has forged close bonds between states and militaries alike.

However, the strongest flow of Pakistani power to the region is now unofficial and largely unnoticed, with many Pakistanis travelling to the peninsula of their own volition and donning the uniform of Arab countries.

One intriguing case is the recruitment of young men from Pakistan’s Balochistan Province into the Royal Army of Oman. The origins of the arrangement can be traced back to 1784 when Oman, then a significant colonial power, gained possession of the Gwadar region in what is now Balochistan’s Southwestern corner. Many Baloch people migrated to Oman and have played an important part in Omani history since that time. In 1958, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$3 million. The deal included permission for Oman to continue recruiting soldiers from Balochistan. The practice continues to this day with thousands applying for each intake, eager for opportunities which are hard to find in their underdeveloped region.

A more recent phenomenon is the influx of former Pakistani soldiers into the armed forces of Bahrain. The tiny gulf state suffers from internal conflict caused by a rift between its Shia majority and Sunni ruling elite, and has struggled to restore order. Lacking qualified personnel, its government has relied on Pakistan since 2011. Pakistani military foundations publicly advertise positions and up to 2,500 Pakistanis have joined Bahrain’s special forces, national guard and riot police, where they now comprise 30 per cent of the security services. Conditions are dangerous and many have been killed, but with pay exceeding US$1,140 a month it remains an attractive prospect when compared to Pakistan’s average of $162.

Several other countries on the Arabian Peninsula employ Pakistani soldiers. The majority of Qatar’s army comprises foreign soldiers, many of whom are Pakistani. Pakistanis are also recruited into the armed forces of the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where entire battalions consist of Pakistani manpower.

Why are Pakistani soldiers in such high demand in these countries?

The Arab countries desperately need effective soldiers. The combined population of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE is just 53 million, compared to the 79 million of Iran which some consider a major threat. Many of them have vast areas to defend as well as regional ambitions, and they simply can’t recruit enough soldiers. On top of this, their armies have notoriously poor records in combat which is ascribed to a lack of experience and cultural difficulties.

On the other hand, Pakistan has a large population and extensive military experience. Its army benefits from lessons learned during conventional wars with India, and modern soldiers have fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against extremists and achieved considerable success. The knowledge and skills this has produced is a valuable commodity and sorely needed in the region. This is demonstrated by the appointment of Pakistan’s previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander of the beleaguered Saudi-led forces currently battling rebels in Yemen.

Low wages in Pakistan allow the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula to easily attract recruits. Religious considerations also factor in. As a Sunni-majority country, Pakistan provides soldiers who easily assimilate and provoke none of the outrage that US soldiers do. They are also neutral in potentially volatile tribal politics.

It is unusual for a country to allow so many of its citizens to join foreign armies. But for one in an awkward position such as Pakistan, it is a convenient arrangement. Pakistan needs good relations with stable Arab countries. However, it must also avoid provoking its influential neighbor Iran by giving its rivals too much support. Pakistan must walk a tightrope to maintain relations with both.  By exporting soldiers in an unofficial capacity, the government manages this by having a tangible impact on security in the Arabian Peninsula while also avoiding the political ramifications that excessively deploying its own forces would entail.

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OBOR: A Checkmate Move in China’s New Great Game?

Toby Warden

Politics | Asia


Announced in 2013, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) economic blueprint has been heralded by some as ‘the number one project under heaven’. The mega-plan sees the construction of an infrastructure project at sea, connecting both South East Asia and East Africa to China, and a revival of the ancient Silk Road- a trade route that lead the way for Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical expansion. The ambitious initiative stretches across Central and Western Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Although described as having ‘trade relations, financial cooperation and coordinated development policies’ in his sights, Xi Jinping has faced considerable regional headwinds, begging for the question: is OBOR becoming the new realm for regional contestation, despite being framed as a way to transcend popular geopolitical issues?

The leviathan project has been announced at a time when China’s foreign policy has been typified by aggressive assertiveness and proactivity. By purposely excluding the western-orientated Japan and the US, OBOR draws upon Edward Luttwak’s concoction of “geo-economics” and “military strategy”, which sees the “logic of conflict” being pursued through “methods of commerce and trade”. In 2015, Shinzo Abe announced Japan’s $110 billion infrastructure investment program for Asia through the Asian Development Bank (ADB)- the major competitor to OBOR’s AIIB bank. Likewise, the previous US’ previous administration’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’, which focused on the ‘expansion of trade and investment’ reflects a challenge to China’s grand strategy. This informal warfare over economic influence is rattling the current global economic order at its pillars, and China is at the epicentre.

The geopolitical creativity of the blueprint manifests in its ability to take advantage of other’s fragility and instability. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, which will deliver China greater preferential strategic access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the port of Gwadar, runs through Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal areas, including the Gwadar port itself, which has subsequently required a 12,000-strong special unit protection force. Its greater proclivity for corrupt and unstable politics will allow China to assume leadership in a range of security issues. Likewise, the relationship of dependence of these relatively economically, politically and socially fragile countries with the Chinese powerhouse will, as David Arase argues, give China ‘superior leverage in one-on-one economic negotiations’. This relationship gives China the ability to inflict punishment through reduced market access and to incite obstructionism in international organisations at its will.

The anxiety of neo-imperial tendencies and a lack of commercial imperatives have seen international backlash. In April 2017, Australia rejected any involvement in the initiative. As Peter Cai, OBOR researcher for the Lowy Institute, believes, OBOR antagonism and strategic distrust is most prominent in India.

Furthermore, even looking past of what some see as geopolitical expansion through pursuit of Eurasian power, domestic observers are concerned. These financially unsound countries could only add to China’s accelerating burden of debt, which soared to 170% of GDP in 2016. Surrounded in domestic and international worries, Xi Jinping needs to take clear, inclusive and transparent actions to soothe and reassure.

Undoubtedly, OBOR is a major component in China’s grand strategy of national renaissance, the ‘Chinese Dream’ (hence the echoing of the ancient Silk Road). Xi Jinping has agreed with predecessors that China is confronting a “period of strategic opportunity” until 2020, legitimising its actions that pursue great power status. Yet the security environment isn’t as benign as Mr Xi has been taught to believe it is.

The Indian Ocean is, and will for the extended future remain, a significant international space.  Its control by a single security community will always elicit reactionary contest. Possibly motivated by the construction of deep-sea Chinese-built ports, which accommodate the dimensions of Chinese aircraft carriers and submarines in Gwadar, Kyaukphyu and Hambanota, the Modi government has rigorously pursued its ‘Look East’ policy. This has been manifested in the acceleration of the construction of the India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway and the reinvigoration of dialogue within the SAARC organisational union to open up more maritime corridors.

While Britain and Russia may have fought for Central and South Asian power in the 19th and 20th century Great Game, China’s OBOR blueprint is a possible checkmate move in the New Great Game. Although competing geopolitical interests and visions stand in the way, the Chinese locomotive has started and it seems there is little to stop it. In Trump’s age of anti-globalisation and Europe’s sweeping populism, Xi Jinping is being served the opportunity to make OBOR the global vehicle for international trade in the 21st century. But if he is truly going to champion our liberal economic order he will need to be efficient. And that means addressing trust deficits, assuring multilateral cooperation and reinforcing the promise that OBOR will serve collective absolute gains for all its members.

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Indonesia: From paradox to partnership

Peter Bright

Politics | Asia


Whilst Australia and Indonesia have shared strategic challenges in the past, we are now seeing a convergence of interests that should see cooperation, rather than rivalry, defining bilateral relations.

Of course a convergence of strategic interests is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for cooperation. Australia and Indonesia will need strong leadership, long-term policy making, and a concerted shift in strategic thinking.

As it stands today, Indonesia represents a paradox in our defence planning. It is potentially one of our greatest strategic assets or greatest future threats. Indonesia forms the first line of defence between Australia and any intrusive hostile power. However, Indonesia will also be the major power with its military assets closest to Australia.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. It is highly likely that this economic strength will gradually translate into comparable military strength.  We must move quickly to ensure that a rapidly strengthening Indonesia will be a solution rather than a problem for Australia. Unfortunately, we have not yet recognised the important role Indonesia will play in our strategic future.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and our defence planners continue to see Australia’s defence as relying primarily on American power in Asia. Admittedly, receding US primacy is not a certainty, but with the rise of China, a far more contested Asia is. This will have significant implications for both Australian and Indonesian defence planning. We must both consider new answers to the same old question: How do we best prevent the intrusion of a potentially hostile power into maritime South East Asia?

It is in the answer to this question that Indonesia and Australia find the most common ground. In a contested Asia, both countries will need to look closely at the sorts of strategic alignments that will best serve to prevent a hostile power intruding into maritime South East Asia.

For Indonesia, ASEAN is no longer the answer, due to a geographically driven divergence of common interests in the face of a rising China. For Australia, we need to seek security partners aside from the US. It should be acknowledged that Indonesia, simply as a consequence of geography, is our most logical security partner. It certainly presents greater advantages than the other oft-proposed options of Japan or India.

Indeed, the time could be right for a deeper partnership, whether it is formal or informal. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) appear to be cultivating a close personal relationship. That being said, during Jokowi’s February 2017 visit to Australia, bilateral defence cooperation was a far second to trade and investment on the list of priorities.

It was only in an interview given before the Australia trip that Jokowi drew attention to shared security issues. Jokowi suggested joint patrols in the South China Sea, only to backtrack as a result of domestic disapproval and outright rejection by Bishop and Turnbull. But perhaps this slip of the tongue does open up the question of what deeper cooperation could look like, and what it might achieve.

Australia would benefit significantly from a more capable Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), Indonesia’s equivalent of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). A more balanced TNI force structure, in favour of naval and air capabilities, would more effectively protect Indonesia’s air and maritime approaches. This would consequently better protect Australia’s approaches.

Jokowi has clearly prioritised Indonesia’s transformation into a maritime power with his announcement of a ‘global maritime axis.’ Though admittedly a vague set of policies, Jokowi’s maritime vision signals clear intentions, and Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to this transformation.

To make the most of this opportunity Australia needs to go beyond the simple staff exchanges, military aid and joint military exercises that have made up our partnership in previous years. We must transition into a relationship of equals and pursue deeper cooperation that might include the much tougher areas of defence procurement, capability planning, joint maritime surveillance, and increased force interoperability.

Australia is currently uniquely placed with its air and naval ‘capability edge’ to help shape a TNI rebalance. However, this window of opportunity is closing fast. Over the next 15-20 years, the contribution Australia could make to a partnership would be comparatively small based on current defence procurement and force structure. Certainly, 12 undelivered submarines will not make a meaningful contribution to any future partnership in the event of regional conflict.

Unfortunately, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper does little more than acknowledge Indonesia’s long-term importance to Australia. It fails to outline the sort of ambitious steps that would be required to see the full potential of this relationship realised. And that is exactly what we need on both sides, ambitious steps.

For too long we have focused our attention on the little issues and pitfalls that loom so large in our bilateral ties. There has been seemingly endless tit-for-tat diplomacy involving the recalling of ambassadors and unilateral suspension of everything from live exports to military cooperation. This prevents us from looking at the bigger picture and making meaningful progress.

To progress we need to stop taking an increasingly powerful Indonesia for granted. Instead, we must start laying the groundwork of a relationship that could support a meaningful and effective future security partnership.

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