- Mar 13 2018
Bhutan: Boundary dispute with China and beyond
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan would be hosting the 25th round of border talks with China sometime this year. The decision to take forward the border talks that began in 1984 has attained significance after the 74 day-Doklam stand-off last year between China and India, over a portion of land claimed by Bhutan.
After months of tension along her borders, Bhutan’s preparation for talks is in line with its non-antagonistic foreign policy strategy for China and India, the two large neighbours that it shares its boundaries with. Thimphu is weary of China for long, and is even more anxious over China building roads and rail-heads close to their 470-km long shared border.
Getting past Doklam
The ‘Dhoklam tensions’ saw Bhutan engage in back-channel talks to diffuse the tensions between the other two nations. Thimphu’s current efforts at taking forward the border talks must been seen in this context – of Bhutan continuing to play a constructive role to avoid any conflict on or close to her borders.
Amidst tensions of fresh troops’ build-up in Doklam, Bhutan’s signal to China is that of a cautious rapprochement in the light of a broader policy towards Beijing. New Delhi is unlikely to be oblivious to Bhutan’s decision to revive border talks with China. Last month, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and new Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had visited Thimphu. In the interim, India too was/is seen as changing its post-Doklam stance viz China.
The last round of Bhutan-China boundary negotiations was held in August 2016 in Beijing. At that meeting, the two countries were able to minimise the differences on the alignment of borders. This in turn followed the successful conduct of a joint survey in 2015 and after two rounds of expert group meetings between the two sides. The talks comprised a dispute over two areas, one each in central and northern sectors, and four in the western sector.
The 25th round of talks will be led by two new faces from Bhutan’s side -- Foreign Secretary Sonam Tshong and International Borders Secretary Letho Tobdhen Tangbi. Tshong replaces Dasho Tshering Dorji, who had retired from service last year. Tangbi takes the place of Dasho Pema Wangchuck as the international borders secretary. Bhutanese Ambassador to India, Maj-Gen Vetsop Namgyal, would be another member.
Bhutan is yet to establish diplomatic relations with China. Thimphu has made it clear that establishing diplomatic relations with China is subject to settlement of the border dispute. However, despite the official stance and India’s scanner on the border negotiations, Bhutan is warming up to Chinese economy.
In terms of value, imports from China are the third highest for Bhutan, closely behind India and South Korea. Since 2007, exports of Chinese cars, pick-up vehicles and tractors have been a major share of Bhutan’s imports from China. Beijing is also eyeing trade in hydro-power, minerals and timber from Thimphu. Tourists from China form 17 percent of the total visitors to Bhutan.
Though Bhutan has rebuffed Chinese offers to further intensify trade, the prowess of the Chinese economy is having a marked influence upon the urban population in the Himalayan kingdom, especially with internet bringing them all to the finger-tips. In context, during the 23rd round of border talks in 2015, the Chinese delegation asked Bhutan to actively participate in the "Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
For India, especially, China’s use of border talks as a channel for enlisting the Himalayan kingdom for big initiatives like the BRI and the AIIB are worrying signs of package deal. There are concerns even otherwise about any Chinese shifting of goal-posts by making boundary settlement as a condition for diplomatic and trade relations.
Bhutan is hoping to graduate out of the UN’s List of ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDC) by 2022. A robust economy with a vibrant private sector is a requisite for that. Thimphu cannot for long resist foreign direct investment and the opening up of its market. It is also eyeing at the membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Connectivity initiatives like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) have generated a positive response from Bhutan. Thimphu also hopes to find its way into the prospects of an economic upturn in India’s north-eastern region. Connectivity with bordering countries like Myanmar and China is a hope and possibility for Bhutan to attract investments and find markets for its goods.
Overall, Bhutan hopes to achieve economic development and growth by intensifying engagement in the South Asian region. In turn, this could give Thimphu enough reasons to argue for a role beyond the traditional buffer between the China and India. Though it is compelled by geography to play this role, democratic aspirations within Bhutan would want Thimphu to go beyond.
(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter).
Myanmar: Balancing two bigger neighbours
Before the West started paying real attention to the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s democratic transition was something of a cause celebre. But in reality, the country is still under military-sway and the democratic West is still less influential in Myanmar than autocratic China.
The third Myanmar-China High-Level Consultations led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence was held in Nay Pyi Taw on 17 January. At the discussions, the two nations pledged to further promote bilateral ties, maintain close communication on the situation in northern Myanmar and maintain peace and stability along the bilateral border.
Myanmar is plagued by ethnic conflicts for decades. It is a highly strategic neighbour for China, whose interests in the country have historically been divided into four key categories: border security, energy protection, economic investment and geo-strategic advantage.
Myanmar remains vital to Chinese President Xi Jiping’s “One Belt One Road” project, as access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar would decrease Beijing’s heavy reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Straits of Malacca for imports. More specifically, the land holds the key to meeting China’s energy needs. It is important to understand why Myanmar depends and is holding on to its Asian neighbour.
State of business
A series of reforms in the new Myanmar government was hoped to prise open an economy stunted by international sanctions and decades of mismanagement under military rule. With most sanctions now lifted, an expected flood of Western money was seen as a key dividend from the transition to civilian rule under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Regional diplomats saw it balancing China's growing influence over its neighbour. The government of Myanmar hoping to spread its wings to drum up western investments in transport, energy and education sectors, instead, has faced harsh criticism over the Rohingya Muslim issue. The US and Europe-based corporations that were ready to invest suddenly decided to hold off their plan to enter the Myanmar market.
Thus, ‘democratic’ Myanmar had to fall back on its old partner and thus sought to deepen relations with China at a time when Beijing remains keen to push projects that fit with its "Belt and Road" initiative, which aims to stimulate trade by investment in infrastructure throughout Asia and beyond. China being a calculative investor has already made huge investments in Myanmar in terms of infrastructure development and construction of pipelines for purchase of oil and natural gas.
Myanmar’s bilateral trade with China in the first eight months of fiscal year 2017-18 is put at $7.42 billion compared to $ 10.8 billion for the whole of fiscal 2016-17, thus indicating a continuing trend. Overall, bilateral trade relations demonstrate renewed ties between the two after an abrupt cooling off period since 2011, when Myanmar began the democratic reform process.
China has re-calibrated its strategy after the Myanmar population accused the former of taking advantage of the nation’s resources without giving much in return. Since political reforms, Myanmar had to act on the public perception. This led the government to cancel a proposed $20-billion China-Myanmar railway line and face harsh criticism of the 50-year development project in the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
Perhaps, the most significant of them all was the $3.8-billion Myitsone hydropower project, which had already been launched but was suspended without warning in 2011. This prompted a sharp decrease in Chinese investment and trade.
In this background, Chinese companies operating in Myanmar currently have launched significant corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns and sought to improve public relations. The state-owned China National Petroleum Company has pledged $6 million to build schools, clinics and a hospital in the Sino-Myanmar pipeline construction areas.
Furthermore, China has been a sympathetic ‘friend’ and catalyst to mitigate the tarnished image of Myanmar by providing strategy to deal with over 700,000 Rohingyas, now living as refugees in the wake of bloodshed and brutal violence. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi garnered support for the three-point plan from top officials in Nay Pyi Taw, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Bangladeshi government, which was hosting most of the Rohingya refugees, before announcing it in November 2017. It was China’s way of tactfully dealing with a sensitive issue, but also provided for the development of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
China is just one of Myanmar’s heavy-weight international protectors. The other influential neighbour is India. India has significant geo-political and security interests that continue to shape its outreach to Myanmar. India is also enhancing its presence by developing infrastructure and connectivity projects in the country.
Myanmar is at the heart of Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy. Among others, the elements comprise the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asian Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan multimodal project, a road-river-port cargo transport project, and of course BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Then Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, during his visit to Myanmar last year, pledged to provide $25 million (K 34-billion) for the next five years, for Myanmar to develop the troubled Rankhine province. India knows it has an edge over China in raising the education standard, healthcare and human resource training as well as in empowering women and nurturing children in the region.
Sandwiched between two active Asian giants, Nay Pyi Taw will have to balance its relations carefully as India and China vie with each other for greater influence. China and India will dominate Myanmar’s foreign policy stage, and their dealings with the rest of ASEAN will grow during 2018. Myanmar must avoid being sucked into conflict zones in their common areas of influence and know how to duck whenever these two confront one another.
In the months and years to come, the crisis in Rakhine State will remain a key area where Beijing and New Delhi will continue to compete, displaying goodwill to help their troubled neighbour. The international community will continue to step up pressure on Myanmar to accelerate efforts to repatriate more displaced people. But the real problems on the ground still need to be overcome. In a similar vein, India would not easily let go of its involvement in Rakhine. Thus, it is time Myanmar played its own strategic card and use its position to gain advantage at its own will.
(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter)
Killings in Kandahar
A suicide car bomber detonated explosives in the vicinity of a police base in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. Two other attackers stormed into the police compound and clashed with the police forces. The attack lasted for only two and a half hours. It resulted in the death of three policemen out of whom one was a border policeman reported the police chief. Two others were severely wounded. No group has yet claimed any responsibility of the deed.
India has been playing a major role in rebuilding Afghanistan in the post- Taliban era. It has already invested over 2 billion dollars in reconstruction projects, like the new Afghan parliament building, the Zarganj-Delaram highway and the Salma Dam. Adding to the list is the construction of the national park on Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan hill, which houses the largest Afghan flag. The foundation stone was recently laid and India has announced another 1mn US$ for the project.
German troops up
Following the NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg’s statement of increasing the number of international forces in the NATO-Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan to approximately 16000 during 2018, the German defence minister Ursula Von Der Leyen has promised an increase in the number of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. The troops will be increased to 1300, who will train, advise and assist the Afghan Special Operations forces. Twenty-eight other allies and partners are also increasing their troop contributions to Afghanistan.
Peace offer reiterated
Recently, the Chief Executive of the Government of National Unity, Abdullah Abdullah, reiterated the government’s peace offer to the Talibans. He promised that the insurgent group would be recognised as a political party should it agree to lay down arms, cut ties with other terror groups and renounce violence. He further committed to share the details of the peace offer publicly. So far the Talibans have insisted on direct talks with the US and not the Afghan government.
Border tension with Myanmar
Bangladesh lodged a complaint about the deployment of the military across the border. The country expressed its displeasure at a meeting between Border Guards of Bangladesh and Myanmar's Border Guard Police held this week in the in Ghumdhum at Bandarban in South Eastern Bangladesh. Bangladesh informed Myanmar that such developments with hamper bilateral relations and will affect the Rohingya repatriation. Myanmar, however, claimed that the deployment was largely for its internal security and not directed to Bangladesh. Bangladesh claimed of witnessing the presence of a large number of Myanmar’s troops in areas adjacent to the border. Bangladesh also had summoned the Myanmar envoy and voiced its displeasure.
No poll initiative
Chief election commissioner K M Nurul Huda this week claimed that the election commission would not take any new initiative to bring all parties to the 11th general election scheduled later this year. Huda was hopeful that the election would be all-inclusive with the participation of all the political parties. Participation of the all the political parties have been facing doubts after BNP abstaining from participating the 2014 parliamentary election demanding a restoration of the caretaker government system abolished following a constitutional amendment in 2011.
Thle Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)s staged a protest in Dhaka this week demanding the release of the party chief and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who is serving a five-year prison sentence in a corruption case. However, the opposition accused police of obstructing their protests.
Bhutan and China will hold the 25th boundary talks this year after it could not be held last year. The talks will be held in Thimphu but the final dates are yet to be set for the talks. The boundary talk dates are expected to be finalised through diplomatic channels with the main channel from the Chinese side being through the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, since Bhutan does not have a Chinese Embassy in Thimphu.
EC questions ‘merger’
The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has questioned the merger decision of the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) by deregistering the party and ‘merge’ with the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). The ECB clarified that once the legal name of a political party is removed by the commission after deregistration, the deregistered parties have the legal right to talk as a party.
Monitoring Sri Lanka
Following the declaration of Emergency in Sri Lanka, the foreign affairs ministry is in touch with Bhutan’s ambassador in Dhaka, who is co-accredited to Colombo, to monitor the situation. Foreign Secretary Sonam Tshong said that the ministry has not received any reports of Bhutanese in Sri Lanka being adversely affected.
TDP pulls out of Union cabinet
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) ministers resigned from the central cabinet after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Andhra Pradesh CM, Chandrababu Naidu failed on the question of the Centre conferring ‘special status’on the State after bifurcation. Simultaneously, BJP ministers in the Andhra Pradesh government too resigned from their positions. The TDP has long demanded for a special package for the state for Andhra Pradesh.
Biplab Deb takes new Tripura CM
BJP’s Biplab Kumar Deb took oath as Tripura Chief Minister on the 6 March. The oath-taking ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah. Biplab Deb took over the reins as Tripura CM after the defeat of the CPI (M) that had ruled the state for 25 years.
Lok Sabha dead-locked
The Lok Sabha proceedings were halted amidst the opposition’s outcry over the 12,700 crore fraud at the leading public lender, the Punjab National Bank (PNB). Members belonging to the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu raised the demand over the constitution of the Cauvery Board to settle water disputes for the neighbouring states while a few others were seen holding placards of the late Dravidian ideologue, ‘Periyar’ E V Ramaswamy Naicker, after a tweet from a state BJP leader’s handle said his statutes would be pulled down like those of Lenin in Triupura.
Even as the UNHRC head, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, had called for President Abdulla Yameen to re-set the democracy clock in the country and restore multiple freedoms available to the people and political parties sans the prevailing state of Emergency, the situation on the ground remained deadlocked. The Government has since moved a fresh piece of legislation in Parliament, to disqualify ‘defectors’ and another for removing ‘convicted judges’ without going to Parliament. In the meantime, the united Opposition has reiterated the call for political talks under UN-mediated talks after the Government had rejected the proposal, after Yameen had called for such talks in the first place, but without international involvement of any kind.
The Japanese government is ready to contribute $100,000 (K133.7 million) for each community-centred infrastructure project in villages to help underdeveloped areas of the country. The money, from Japan’s Official Development Assistance, will be channelled via the Japanese embassy in Yangon, and any village can apply for the funds, which are mainly aimed at building facilities such as health care and training centres, roads and bridges.
3-mt rice for exports
President Htin Kyaw has announced that Myanmar can export 3 million tonnes of rice this financial year, which will be a record high in the past 70 years. Seventy percent of the population lives in rural area and their main livelihood is agriculture. So, this has come as welcome news. The export of such a high record of rice is because of the great efforts made by the peasants, and the cooperation between departmental officials and the private sector.
UNHRC for’ war-crimes’ probe
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on 7 March called for a new body tasked with preparing criminal indictments over alleged abuses committed in Myanmar, after a similar panel was created for the Syrian conflict. According to him, acts of genocide may have taken place in the Rohingya homeland of Rakhine state. An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have fled over the border to Bangladesh since an army crackdown was launched in Rakhine in August.
The official announcement of Lawmaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara taking up the post of ‘Speaker’ in the House of Representatives would be made ‘soon’. The entire process of election was smooth enough for not being faced with any opposition in candidature. He has been nominated from the CPN- Maoist Centre.
Despite the passage of three weeks since the swearing in of the new Prime Minister K. P Sharma Oli, the full Cabinet is yet to be formed. This is primarily due to the absence of a coherent talk between the two Madhes-based parties, which form an integral part of the ruling coalition. There would also the formation of new Ministries as well, as soon the process gains pace. Most leaders are of the opinion that intra-party feud over portfolios in UML and the Maoist Centre is also responsible for the postponement.
International Trade Fair
Prime Minister K. P Sharma Oli has inaugurated the Seventh International Trade Fair in Kathmandu. The expo has been initiated by the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) with the support of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies. The primary aim of such a conference is to motivate the industries and also promote trade and commerce along with International investments.
PML-N ‘for dictatorship’
Opposition leader Aitaz Ahsan in his farewell speech to the Senate accused the PML-N of inviting dictatorship by opposing the judiciary. He stated that the party accepts only those decisions which are favourable to it and resorts to confrontation with judiciary whenever decisions do not suit them. Without naming Nawaz Sharif or his associates Ahsan declared that the ruling party by opposing the judiciary was inviting a coup. He commended the army forces and chief of army staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa for being proactive on the national front unlike his predecessors.
Abbasi in Nepal
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbassi went for a two-day visit to Nepal as part of Pakistan’s strategy to engage with regional nations. Upon his arrival at Kathmandu airport the Pakistani PM was received by Nepal’s Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada. According to the official statement released from Prime Minister’s Office the two leaders discussed ways of strengthening bilateral ties in education, tourism, trade, defense and people to people contacts. Abbassi was stated to have emphasized ways for reinvigorating the SAARC as an important regional institution.
Russian ties up
The fast growing Pakistan and Russia’s partnership in military diplomatic and economic sectors is hard to miss. Russia’s embrace of Pakistan comes at a time when latter’s relations with its historical ally United States has hit the rock bottom. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have primarily focused upon war in Afghanistan where Russia is pushing for peaceful negotiations with Afghani Taliban. The détente is likely to provide a badly needed diplomatic lifeline to Pakistan.
No end to violence
Reacting swiftly even while possibly failing to control avoidable and unconnected racial violence in Ampara town and Kandy district, the Government lost no time in proclaiming a fortnight-long state of Emergency across the country, to be able to coordinate security efforts better and produce instant results. However, even days after the early violence, especially in Kandy, there was no end in sight, with the result, the police continued to proclaim curfew in parts of the district, after majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhists targeted Muslim homes, shops and businesses, following the death of a truck-driver,10 days after a street-fight, over alleged traffic incident.
Praise for President
At a meeting with visiting Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena at New Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan, Indian counterpart Ram Nath Kovind praised him for delivering long-term benefits to his nation even while establishing peace and reconciliation. Kovind also pointed out how trade and other aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries have improved during the period.
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Afghanistan: Sohini Bose
Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale
India: Ketan Mehta
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee
Nepal: Sohini Nayak
Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee