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Southeast Asia

Tag Archives | Southeast Asia

Is Burma Moving Towards Democratic Reforms?

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton adresses Burmese and international press in Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, on December 1, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton adresses Burmese and international press in Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, on December 1, 2011

The notoriously powerful military junta of Burma is loosening its grip. In an uncharacteristic move, former army general Thein Sein, who came to power in March, thwarted the Chinese-funded $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in the state of Kachin, relenting to the continuous pressure from the Burmese citizens in that region. The Burmese government has recently released more than 6,000 jailed political prisoners. The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to pay a visit to a country that has been closed to outside world for more than 50 years. These events indicate that Burma maybe inching toward a democratic reform.

But much more need to be accomplished, tested, and proved. For example, Burma’s political structure is ruled unilaterally by the military, which also control its economy. Its opposition parties are weak. But with Aung Suu Kyi out of house arrest, the opposition parties are strengthening their voices. It is too early, however, to predict the impact of the opposition parties on Burma’s current political structure. Burma remains a poor country and its economic infrastructure must be changed with open trade and domestic monetary and fiscal policies.

The Junta

For the last 50 years, the military junta has ruled Burma with an iron fist and the outside world did little damage to the sovereignty of the country despite economic sanctions. Burma is rich with natural resources like hydropower, natural gas, petroleum, precious stones, and others. The U.S. has renewed its financial and travel sanctions against Burma in 2007. Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) also extended its economic sanctions against Burma.

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The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region

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President Barack Obama attends the APEC working lunch at the InterContinental Yokohama Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

China’s centralized policymaking continues to be at odds with a world system that strives to observe the principles promoted by the international community.

President Barack Obama attends the APEC working lunch at the InterContinental Yokohama Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

At the Reuters Washington Summit, Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats stated that “There’s competition between the American economic model and the more state-centered economic model of China” and “We have a challenge in dealing with China. On one hand, the global system won’t work well if we and China can’t cooperate and productively resolve our differences.”

With the developed world reinforcing the notions of democracy and open markets, China continues to combat Western influence as a means to preserve its national sovereignty and diminish foreign interference in domestic affairs. Undersecretary Hormats’ resolution to this issue is for the West to promote its “principles and practices” as a means to “signal to China that other countries are playing by a higher set of international rules”.

The APEC and ASEAN summits provided U.S. leaders the opportunity to vocalize the nation’s discontent over the growing trade imbalance with China. President Obama acknowledged China’s importance in defining the U.S.’s “long-term economic future” while vocalizing irritation about Beijing’s contemporary trade policies. China’s unwillingness to hasten the liberalization of its trade policies and consider currency revaluation has led to much consternation among free-marketers, who perceive China’s state-controlled economy as unfair.

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Tensions in the South China Sea but No Solutions

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Members of Chinese navy honor guard stand at attention during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China. Andy Wong/AP

Members of Chinese navy honor guard stand at attention during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China. Andy Wong/AP

Increased tensions in the South China Sea, especially between China and Vietnam, focus attention on vitally strategic area of interest, not only for the countries involved, but for the entire Asian continent. Global dynamics and balance of power are greatly affected by them.

Between late May and early June of this year, a new round of negotiations over a topic that, according to many analysts, will become one of the most important geopolitical issues in the coming years, began. The geopolitical development of what is happening in the South China Sea will have immediate and long term consequences for global security. This is due in large part to the economic significance of the area, its strategic location, the sheer number of states directly and indirectly involved with it (China, South Korea, Japan, etc), and their economic significance on the global level. Rising tensions and regional developments are being carefully followed by many stakeholders.

The South China Sea is the part of the Pacific Ocean stretching from the Straits of Malacca in the south-west to the Straits of Taiwan in the north-east. One of the distinctive features of the region is its high level of biodiversity and abundant marine resources, as it teems with fish, a product of strategic importance for all of the neighboring countries. Another feature is tied to the large number of islands and islets, sandbanks, and atolls in the region. The diversity and richness of natural resources and the divergent interests of the key actors in the region are what originally attracted so much international attention.

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Australia’s Cluster Bomb Conundrum

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U.S. sailors load tank-buster cluster bombs under the wing of a Harrier jump jet aboard the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania 07 May, 1999.  U.S. warplanes dropped cluster bombs in their latest intense overnight attacks on Taliban frontlines, a militia official said 25 October 2001.  Mike NELSON/AFP

U.S. sailors load tank-buster cluster bombs under the wing of a Harrier jump jet aboard the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania 07 May, 1999. Mike NELSON/AFP

Cluster bombs are currently the subject of considerable humanitarian concern internationally because of their indiscriminate effect. Every year, thousands of civilians, many of them children, are killed and maimed by any one of the hundreds of munitions (also known as “bomblets”) released by cluster bombs. Studies show that around 30 percent of all bomblets do not explode on impact, and therefore become de facto landmines. In such instances, bomblets can cause harm decades after the conflict has ended.

Surely Australia would seek to ban the use of such weapons? The answer is a bit more complicated than you might expect. The Cluster Munitions Prohibition Bill (2010) seeks to do precisely that. If the legislation were passed, it would sign Australia up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of the weapons by member states. With the final decision on the draft legislation having being deferred for some months now, this is not the place for me to again rehearse arguments based on either international humanitarian law, general treaty obligations, or the role of a middle-powers such as Australia in attempting to establish new “norms” of behavior. Rather, I seek here to highlight ways in which certain Australians will be needlessly faced with both implementation and moral dilemmas that will not be so easily resolved as presumed. These dilemmas relate to two significant loopholes identified in the Bill relating to “military interoperability” and “indirect investment”.

Military interoperability refers to that part of the draft legislation that permits Australia’s military allies that are not party to the Convention unfettered access to stockpile, retain and transit cluster munitions within Australia, as well as allowing Australian military personnel to actively assist in cluster munitions-related activities during joint military operations with our non-signatory allies. Removing this first loophole remains the primary focus of both the Fix the Bill campaign run by the Australian branch of the Cluster Munition Coalition, as well as the campaign launched by GetUp in mid-August 2011, whilst it is being defended by the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Defence, and the Attorney-General’s office.

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The South China Sea Conundrum

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Amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) arrives in Hong Kong

Amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) arriving in Hong Kong

Recent months have witnessed renewed tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea. In response to China’s encroaching military maneuvers and the country’s designation of the whole area as part of its indisputable sovereignty, several South East Asian countries have found themselves dangerously vulnerable. A murky legal regime has led to the emergence of a series of overlapping territorial claims in the area, but at the center of tensions are five key-actors: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and increasingly the United States.

Despite growing economic interdependence, a two-decade-long Chinese charm-offensive, modest levels of pan-regional political integration, and considerable institutional-political linkages, the South China Sea issue is an intractable issue reigniting inter-state tensions and threatening the very stability of the whole Asia-Pacific region. However, the issue is also a catalyst for a more pro-active regional response that emphasizes rule-based diplomatic resolutions of both existent and emerging conflicts.

In a region known for its economic miracles, mercantilist states with performance-based legitimacy, and growing global financial clout, economics might once again trump politics and allow the voice of reason to prevail. But China’s evolving strategic outlook is central to any prospects for regional stability. The United States should maintain immense strategic patience if it seeks to avoid a great-power clash over an essentially regional issue. The territorial conflicts should also serve as an impetus for a more concrete and binding institutionalization of regional norms, rules, and principles.

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