The World This Week

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The World This Week
Japan, Philippines and the tensions in the South China Sea

  GP Team

TWTW#203, 19 February 2023, Vol. 5, No. 7

Japan, Philippines and the South China Sea: Strengthening ties to defend territories against intrusions 
Avishka Ashok

What happened?
On 12 February, President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos Jnr completed his four-days-long visit to Japan by signing a proposed agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which allows the countries’ armed forces to cooperate on disaster relief, thereby permitting the deployment of forces on each other’s sovereign territory. 

President Marcos said: “The country has seen heightened geopolitical tensions that do not conform to our ideals of peace and threaten the security and stability of the country, of the region and of the world. This country will not lose an inch of its territory.”

During the visit, 35 deals were signed between the countries; covering diverse areas of cooperation such as infrastructure, energy, health care and agriculture. 

What is the background?
First, rising tensions in the South China Sea. There are multiple conflicts in the region between China and the other countries in the SCS. Since the visit of US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s to Taiwan in August 2022, there has been a sharp surge in China’s military activities in the South China Sea. In February, more than 18 PLA aircrafts entered Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. In December 2022, the PLA conducted its longest military patrol since 2012 near the Senkaku islands. According to the its Foreign Ministry, China is conducting military drills within its territory as it lays a claim over the nine-dash line in the region. The nine-dash line digs into the sovereign territory of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and Brunei. 

Second, increasing proximity between other countries in the SCS. Through the latest diplomatic visit to Japan, the Philippine government is diversifying its partnerships and moving to reduce its dependency on China. For most countries, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as an eye-opener when China’s multiple lockdowns heavily impacted the supply chains. For countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, China is the largest trading partner and the second largest for the Philippines. Thus, the countries in the region began expanding their trade connection. The closer relations amongst countries in the SCS also allow for better military cooperation and help create a stronger defence against Chinese aggression. 

Third, China’s position on the SCS. China has been propagating the idea of the nine-dash-line by reiterating that the region belonged to them historically and by exerting pressure on the other actors in the SCS. Furthermore, it has been increasing its influence in these countries by investing heavily in the regional countries’ infrastructure, encouraging people-to-people exchanges, providing assistance in energy and healthcare and more. However, China’s primary objective continues to be maintaining its hegemony in the SCS, securing its access to warm-water ports throughout the year and keeping the US far away from the region. 

Fourth, other countries and their position on the issues. The Philippines re-emphasized the concept of credible deterrence during the 2013 State of the Nation Address by President Benigno Aquino. The term refers to its ability to defend itself sufficiently with the use of its military prowess. However, the country is now heightening its defenses due to China’s increased action in the SCS. Japan, like other countries in the region, also aims to maintain a balance in relations with the aggressor due to the importance of trade and economic ties. However, in December 2022, Japan’s government approved the highest draft budget for the defense industry worth 6.8 trillion yen.

What does it mean?
The tensions in the SCS are expected to increase in the coming years. The primary source of conflict may come from China and its unilateral actions of building on reefs and other unclaimed sea bodies. The Philippines, Japan and other countries have been condemning China for single-handedly attempting to change the status quo in the SCS. 

Therefore, there is likely to be an increase in economic, trade and, most importantly, military cooperation between the countries in the region. Since China is the primary aggressor, the countries will focus on creating a defence against the People’s Republic of China.  

Also in the news...
Regional round-ups

East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: President Xi and President Raisi release joint statement on bilateral relations
On 16 February, China and Iran released a joint statement regarding Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to China, where the leaders of the two countries agreed to promote bilateral cooperation. The joint statement stressed political, security, defence, economic, educational and cultural cooperation. Chinese President Xi Jinping concurred with President Raisi on the need to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf. China and Iran also agreed to expand their cooperation on trade, agriculture, industry and renewable energy.

China: Two students injured at shooting in US University 
On 13 February, a gunman opened fire at the Michigan State University, injuring two Chinese students, before killing himself with the same weapon. China’s Consulate-General in Chicago strictly condemned the shooting and later reported that the Chinese students were now recuperating at a local hospital. The Consulate-General further urged the US to protect foreign nationals living in the country and provide appropriate security to the students. 

Philippines: Coast guards increase their presence in the South China Sea
On 17 February, the Philippines coast guards decided to bolster their presence in the South China Sea over the disputed waters. The president is also aiming to deepen the ties with Japan and US to counter the growing influence of Beijing. The PCG will deploy BRP Teresa Magbanua, their flagship vessel, to patrol and aid in defending Filipino fishermen. This comes to light after the Philippines accused Chinese coastguards of using ‘military grade laser light’ leading to the temporary blinding of the Philippines crew. They criticized Chinese coast guards for approaching near 150 yards to the Philippines vessel calling it a “dangerous manoeuvre”.

Australia: Officials remove Chinese-made security cameras in government offices
On 14 February, Australian officials removed Chinese-made security cameras. The defence minister announced the removal of devices from buildings and politicians’ offices owing to security concerns. There are at least 913 Chinese security cameras in over 205 Australian government buildings. The defence minister said: “make sure that our facilities are completely secure”. At least 40 securities needed to be upgraded while they are not connected to the internet, they would be removed for precautionary measure. In a similar stance, US and Britain have taken such measures to refrain from installing Chinese-made cameras in sensitive areas.

South Asia This Week 
India: Foreign Secretary visits Nepal and Bangladesh
On 13 February, the Foreign Secretary of India visited Nepal officially. He met the Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Both sides discussed “various sectors, including economic and development cooperation.” On 15 February, the Foreign Secretary of India visited Bangladesh officially. He called on the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, H.E. Sheikh Hasina and conveyed India’s commitment to the relationship with Bangladesh as a part of the Act East and Neighbourhood First policy. Both sides discussed “Lines of Credit, trade and investment, connectivity, power and energy, defence and security, and people-to-people ties.”

Pakistan: Director-General of IAEA in Islamabad for a two-day visit
On 15 February, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi arrived in Pakistan for a two-day visit where he is expected to attend bilateral meetings and visit institutions using nuclear technology in the fields of health, agriculture, industry, and power generation. The Foreign Office also issued a statement on Grossi’s visit and said: “The visit will provide an opportunity to Pakistan and the IAEA to explore avenues for further strengthening their ongoing cooperation in the area of peaceful applications of nuclear technology for the socioeconomic development of the country.”

Afghanistan: US urges Taliban to uphold promises made to ensure Afghan territory is not used as a safe haven for terrorists
On 15 February, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, Ned Price reiterated that the Taliban has made private and public commitments to not allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for those who would plot against the United States and other countries. He made this statement in response to the UN report on al-Qaeda saying, “When it comes to other al-Qaida members, including those who are in Afghanistan, our message is twofold. One, to the Taliban, the Taliban has a commitment. It has made private commitments, it has made public commitments to uphold that it does not allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used as a safe haven for those who would plot against the United States.” He added, “Our second point is that we are prepared, willing, and able to take action ourselves if the Taliban is unable or unwilling to fulfil the commitments that it has made.”  
Afghanistan: Taliban’s political office in Qatar meets with Chinese special envoy
On 17 February, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen while speaking to Tolo News stated that he met with the Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, Yue Xiaoyong. He said, “We discussed the empowerment of the relations of Afghanistan with China, trade, and the provision of facilities for Afghan traders, as well as educational scholarship and the solving of Afghan students' problems and also about Chinese investment in Afghanistan and the acceleration of Chinese projects in Afghanistan.”

Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week
Turkiye-Syria: Earthquake woes continue, as death toll crosses 43,000
On 17 February, the Turkish interior ministry updated the death toll to 39,672, and Syria reported 3,688, bringing the total number to 43,360. However, it is being estimated that there is a serious undercount in Syria, and the numbers are much higher than reported. The UN has called for more aid to be mobilized for the two countries. For Syria, the UN appealed for USD 400 million and for Turkiye, more than USD one billion. UN Humanitarian Aid Chief Martin Griffiths visited Turkiye and said “people have experienced unspeakable heartache. We must stand with them in their darkest hour and ensure they receive the support they need.”

Syria: Jordanian foreign minister’s visit to Damascus
On 15 February, Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi visited Damascus for the first time since the conflict broke out in 2011. Humanitarian aid was the focal point of the visit and discussions held. The visit comes in the wake of neighbouring Arab leaders initiating conversation with the politically isolated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, since the earthquake wreaked havoc the previous week.

South Africa: Russian warship arrives in Cape Town for joint military drills
On 13 February, a Russian warship docked in Cape Town harbour as part of South Africa’s previously announced joint military drill with China and Russia. The drills are expected to run for 10 days from 17 to 27 February in the port city of Durban and Richards Bay. The South African defence ministry defended the drills after facing severe criticism for its engagement with Russia by claiming that the country has hosted similar military exercises with France, the US and other western allies previously.

Africa: Ukraine to launch training programme for diplomats
On 14 February, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that the country has launched a “comprehensive” four-day online training programme for African diplomats, as an effort to strengthen relations with the continent. The ministry said that the agreement was reached in October 2022 during the foreign minister’s visit to Africa. Kuleba said: “During my tour, our African partners showed considerable interest in studying Ukrainian diplomatic experience.” He added: “The course developed is a continuation of the renaissance of relations between Ukraine and African countries, and will also be our practical contribution to strengthening the stability of the African continent.”

Europe and The Americas This Week
Russia: CSTO to hold military drills in Kyrgyzstan after tensions with Amenia
On 14 February, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Joint Staff, Anatoly Sidorov stated that the forces will hold joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. According to the chief, the Unbreakable Brotherhood-2023 drill which is part of the complex joint exercises Combat Brotherhood-2023, will include training of mixed groups of forces Interaction-2023, reconnaissance drill Search-2023, and nuclear, biological, and chemical protection drill Barrier-2023. Initially, the drills were to be held in Armenia, however, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that he deems the drills as “unjustified” because the CSTO countries refused to condemn Azerbaijan’s actions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Caribbean: CARICOM meeting emphasises on crisis in Haiti and climate change
On 15 February, President of The Bahamas and Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Philip Davis addressed the opening ceremony of the forum's 44th Regular Meeting of the Heads of Government. Davis outlined the challenges in the region, particularly focusing on the crisis in Haiti. Davis said the region would benefit "if Haiti is again a fully-functioning state" and therefore emphasised: "We should learn from the failures of past efforts to help, rather than use those disappointments as an excuse for inaction." Davis also outlined the impact of climate change in the region, including rising sea levels, natural disasters and erosion of coastal communities. On 16 February, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the CARICOM and announced an initiative worth USD 44.8 million to address climate change.

Venezuela-Colombia: Presidents sign agreement four years after trade suspension
On 16 February, Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro met at the border and signed an agreement to enhance trade and withdraw import duties on several goods. Petro said the agreement would not only improve trade but would also facilitate easier movement of people between both countries. The development comes after Venezuela suspended trade and closed border bridges with Colombia in 2019. Maduro said the new agreement "updates everything having to do with tariffs, with goods traded, (and) lays the foundations for a new dynamic, for the expansion of trade between Colombia and Venezuela."

Nicaragua: Appeal Court revokes citizenship of 94 political opponents
On 15 February, an Appeals Court declared 94 political opponents, including authors, rebels and journalists, as "traitors" and revoked their citizenship; Justice Ernesto Rodríguez Mejía said their properties had been seized. Mejía said since most of the 94 people had fled the country during a crackdown by President Daniel Ortega in 2021, they had been declared "fugitives." On 17 February, the UN Refugee Agency said revoking citizenship is against the international law and highlighted: "The recent legislative reforms in Nicaragua allowing for citizenship-stripping on arbitrary grounds run contrary to Nicaragua’s obligations under international and regional human rights law." Previously, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "There should be no persecution or reprisals against human rights defenders or individuals expressing critical views. The right to nationality is a fundamental human right."

About the Authors
Rashmi Ramesh and Akriti Sharma are PhD scholars in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Abigail Miriam Fernandez, Avishka Ashok, Anu Maria Joseph, Apoorva Sudhakar are Research Associates at NIAS. Femy Francis is a Research Intern at NIAS.

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