Saturday, 25 October 2014

China Seeks Improved Ties with Vietnam, Fears U.S. Alignment

During the summer of 2014, Sino-Vietnamese relations teetered on utter collapse as Hanoi reacted strongly to the placement of a Chinese oil rig and accompanying naval escort in waters claimed by Vietnam. Tensions escalated as naval and civilian vessels from both countries repeatedly sought to hamper each other, sparking fears over a possible maritime skirmish. Following anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and the later withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig, relations between Hanoi and Beijing have remained cool. In recent weeks there has been an increased emphasis, primarily by the Chinese government, to improve its relations with Vietnam. China wants to prevent undue conflict in the the South China Sea over the myriad islands, reefs, and outcroppings which are claimed by various countries.

China is sending its top envoy, state councillor Yang Jiechi to Vietnam on Monday October 27th to talk with his Vietnamese counterpart, Phnom Binh Minh. In comparison to Yang's previous Vietnam visit in June, when he accused Hanoi of 'hyping up' the oil rig dispute and undermining bilateral relations, on Monday Yang is expected to deliver a starkly different message. Yang's trip is an effort by China to ease tensions over the South China Sea and to move forward on creating a jointly agreed upon code of conduct for state actions in the area. Yang's visit comes after earlier bilateral meetings in October which were held in Beijing. On October 17th Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh agreed to resolve maritime disputes responsibly and to resume military ties. On the same day Chinese vice-president Li Yuanchao met with a high-ranking, sixteen member, Vietnamese military delegation.

Chang Wanquan (L) and Phung Quang Thanh in Beijing
Image Credit: Xinhua

An important element in increasing relations is the recent agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding, which seeks to establish direct technical communication lines (hot lines) between both countries' defence ministries. This is important because during the 2014 summer oil rig crisis, Vietnam sought to establish a hotline in order to manage the situation, yet was unsuccessful. In light of events this summer, both sides have acknowledged that a miscalculation or accident in the South China Sea could quickly get out of hand. Moreover, in contrast to previous statements by Vietnam, General Thanh downplayed existing territorial disputes, likening war of words to a family spat, and emphasizing the recent improvement in bilateral relations.

It is important to note that Vietnam still has serious reservations about Chinese actions in the South China Sea, specifically the Paracel and Spratly Islands which both countries claim. While Beijing appears to be making an effort to repair relations in the wake of the oil rig crisis, the government continues to pursue an extensive construction program in the region. Specifically China is utilizing dredging vessels to reclaim land in effort to build outposts, fuel depots, and even sophisticated air bases. In response foreign ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang stated that China's move to build a military airstrip in the Spratly's was “illegal and void without Vietnam's permission.” Furthermore, this month saw the completion of the Paracel's largest airport by China. In addition to this newly constructed outpost, Beijing has seven other construction projects in the region, five of which have been initiated by the new Xi government

China's Plans for South Johnson Reef
Image Credit: China State Shipbuilding Corporation

China's recent emphasis on neighbourliness is interesting because it comes on the heals of greater ties between Vietnam and the United States, as well as other regional powers such as India and Japan, both of which have stepped up their defence relations with Hanoi. Beijing has sought to dissuade Vietnam from looking afar for partners (read U.S.), with China's Central Military Commission vice-chairman Fan Changlong stating that “It's impossible for neighbouring countries to move...It is in the interest of both China and Vietnam to get along with each other and to handle differences appropriately.” The key factor which seems to have spurred China's new charm offensive is the partial lifting of the United State's forty year arms embargo on Vietnam, as well as other American efforts to create an “implicit military partnership.”

For decades the Vietnamese government has followed a policy known as the “Three Nos” (no military alliances, no foreign bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on others when fighting other countries) with respect to defence planning. In recent years this doctrine has been undermined as the rise of China has seen that country pull far ahead in terms of defence spending, procurement and technological sophistication. Hanoi is now seriously reconsidering the “Three Nos” because recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea can only be checked by the U.S naval power. In order to preserve the status quo, Vietnam needs to forge close ties with Washington, especially with regard to maritime defence and joint patrolling of the South China Sea.

Competing Claims in the South China Sea
Image Credit: The Economist

Vietnam remains a one party state, a fact which has caused pause in Washington when reconsidering bilateral military ties, yet a friendly Vietnam, along the lines of Thailand or the Philippines, is increasingly a strategic priority. The irony is palpable, as Vietnam is increasingly drawn to Washington, its former enemy, to counter China, Hanoi's former Vietnam War supporter. Despite the legacy of Vietnam War era cooperation, Vietnam has historically viewed China as a colonial power, having fought a series of wars throughout ancient history against successive Chinese dynasties. Vietnam's last clash with China was the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 following Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The three week war resulted in almost 100,000 causalities.

Both great powers currying for favour in Vietnam have a bloody legacy in the country, and this makes considerations of alignment more complicated for the Vietnamese government. Geographical proximity and cultural similarities could see Vietnam follow a path akin to that of Belarus and Russia. Conversely fears over living next to an emerging superpower could see Vietnam and the United States move towards greater military cooperation in order to check China. This process could take a similar path to that of American cooperation with Poland, Romania and other ex-Soviet satellite states in countering Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

This article was originally written for Sharnoff's Global Views

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Has ISIS reached Southeast Asia? Philippine Terrorist Group Abu Sayyaf Pledges Allegiance

The conquest of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIS has seen the group become a household name, as the international community organizes to counter the terrorist group. ISIS has attracted thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, as well as foreign jihadis, to its cause. The group has garnered international sympathy from radical Islamists, with governments fearing the emergence of a global terrorist network which utterly dwarfs Al-Qaeda's power and reach circa 2001. Many fear the rise of satellite groups aligned with ISIS in various hotspots around the globe. Such concerns would initially appear to be justified in part by the recent declaration of allegiance by Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to ISIS.

The Philippine group is a radical Islamist group which has been active since the early 1990s, based in the southern province of Basilan and Sulu. The group's ultimate aim is the secession of these regions from the Philippines and the creations of an Islamic theocracy. Abu Sayyaf is one of the smaller terrorist groups in the southern Philippines - estimates as to the group's size range from some three hundred individuals to under a hundred. Until recently Abu Sayyaf along with the larger and better known Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were fighting the Philippine government, yet on January 25th 2014 both sides agreed to a peace deal. This deal will see the creation of a Muslim autonomous region (Bangsamoro) in the southern Philippines in return for the disarming of MILF, reduction of local militias, removal of heavy government troop presence and creation of common police force.

Abu Sayyaf Fighter Display German Hostages

This peace deal was opposed by the more radical Abu Sayyaf, which did not attend the peace negotiations, nor ceased their campaign of violence. During the summer the group raided a Malaysian fish farm and ambushed civilians celebrating Eid Al-Fitr in late July. The group also claims responsibility for the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing which killed 116 people. Last week's announcement of ISIS allegiance came in a video which also included a ransom demand for two German tourists. Abu Sayyaf has demanded a ransom of $5.6 million as well as the end of Germany's support for the American led campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Germany's foreign ministry spokesperson refused to concede to these demands, stating that such acts were “not an appropriate way to influence [Germany's] policy in Syria and Iraq.” Hostage taking is a common tactic employed by Abu Sayyaf which over the years has been involved in the prominent kidnappings of around 100 people; some of whom have been beheaded.

MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal (left) and government
negotiator Marvic Leonen (right) signing peace deal in Manila
Photo Credit:

In response to this latest act by Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine government has firmly denied that ISIS is operating by proxy in the country. Speaking for the government, Lt. Col. Roman Zagala acknowledged that there are certainly ISIS sympathizers within the group, yet there exists no concrete connection between the two groups. In contrast to ISIS's unity of vision and ideological commitment, Abu Sayyaf has in recent years become more of a for-profit criminal organization than an ideologically Islamic group. Terrorism expert Joseph Franco has described Abu Sayyaf's pledge to join ISIS as “a publicity stunt. [Abu Sayyaf] is known for its clever use of media and propaganda. Latching unto the ISIS brand is an attempt to prop up its flagging reputation.” 

Photo Credit:

With the conclusion of the aforementioned peace deal, continuing to fight risks a loss of legitimacy, and Abu Sayyaf is seen by many as a withering organization. The diminished status of Abu Sayyaf is driven home by the de-escalation of American anti-terrorism efforts in the country. Since 1992 the United States has stationed 500 commandos in the Philippines to aid the government in its fight against Muslim separatists. Despite Abu Sayyaf's posturing, Washington announced in July that it is disbanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines.

The frivolous connotations of the term 'publicity stunt' seems at first anachronistic when associated with terrorists, yet it is a very important point. Many people are misled by the '-ism' in 'terrorism' into viewing it akin to other -isms i.e. ideologies. Terrorism is a tactic and many groups have used it for a myriad of reasons. These disparate groups have also been keenly aware of branding. The same phenomenon behind disparate groups rallying behind the ISIS banner was behind groups claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. The ISIS brand is the latest viral sensation sweeping our interconnected world, fully embodying its dual meanings: murderous and memetic.