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east asia

The rise of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population and is one of South-East Asia’s most dynamic economies.

Located at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has the potential to become a leading regional power.

However, its location is also a source of considerable challenges that Indonesia will have to manage attentively in the coming years.

Indonesia’s Geography

The very name Indonesia is revealing: it comes from Greek and means “Indian Islands”. As a matter of fact, Indonesia is an archipelago located at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and this is a key factor that has shaped its geopolitical thinking.

In terms of dimension and configuration, Indonesia is a vast but fragmented state. It counts over 18,000 islands; the most important of which are Sumatra, Java, the southern section of Borneo, Sulawesi and the western part of New Guinea.

These islands, covered by a thick rainforest rich in wildlife, have a volcanic origin. This means that Indonesia is vulnerable to seismic events and tsunamis; something that has a negative impact on its human security environment.

The country extends over almost 8 million square kilometres if we take into account its maritime space including the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Combined with its archipelagic nature, this makes it difficult for the central state to exert its power over all the territory; also, because fragmentation is reflected in demographic terms: the population exceeds 260 million citizens divided in more than 300 ethnic groups; and this has important implications on the country’s geopolitics.

Moving on, Indonesia’s position has a deep impact on its foreign affairs. Located at the crossroad between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia plays a pivotal role for international maritime trade.

Sumatra is the southern boundary of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a strategic chokepoint. But Indonesia also controls other important straits; notably Sunda, Lombok and Makassar. These are all essential for trade between Europe and Asia, but also for the latter’s energy security.

Most of the oil it consumes transits through these narrow passages; which explains their geostrategic relevance. Indonesia hugely benefits from its role as a gateway between the two oceans, but this also brings considerable strategic problems because foreign powers have always been trying to control the archipelago.

This continues today: China, the US, Japan and India all have major interests at stake in the Indonesian Straits, and are trying to expand their influence on the country. Finally, the archipelago also hosts important natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These commodities are a source of wealth for Indonesia, but also another driver for the presence of external powers.

Indonesia’s Geopolitical Thinking

Indonesia’s nature as an archipelago and its “crossroad location”, a concept known as posisi silang, have shaped its geopolitical thinking since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia had to assert its authority over its surrounding seas to ensure its prosperity and security. A first step in this sense was the 1957 Djuanda Declaration, by which Indonesia claimed its sovereignty over all the maritime areas around the archipelago; especially those located between its main islands like the Java and Flores seas.

This stance was later recognized internationally by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The Djuanda Declaration was the first step towards a more comprehensive doctrine called “Maritime Archipelagic Outlook”, or Wawasan Nusantara Bahari. First formulated in 1966, this Doctrine still stands today. It considers that Indonesia’s location leaves it vulnerable to foreign meddling and that its fragmented geography endangers the unity of the state; but it is also the basis for justifying Indonesia’s leading regional role.

In geostrategic terms, the doctrine considers Java and its sea as Indonesia’s core, which must be protected from external threats. Applying a mandala logic, it identifies three concentric layers that are the base of Indonesia’s foreign and defence policy.

The innermost circle is Indonesia itself, the middle one extends to South-East Asia and Australia, while the external zone includes the rest of the world. The sea is equally important from a geoeconomic point of view.

Indonesia is a trade crossroad, it has an important fishing industry and its waters host important hydrocarbon deposits, estimated to hold 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 2,900 billion cubic feet of gas. As such, securing the sea has a primary importance for the country’s economy.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, it considers the sea as the space connecting the various islands that form its geographically and culturally fragmented territory. This configuration makes separatism easier, and therefore is seen as a threat to the unity of the state; even though it is also argued that the separation of the different national groups reduces the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, the sea is the mean by which foreign powers have reached the archipelago in the past.

Consequently, Indonesia believes that controlling the sea is a precondition to preserve the unity and the independence of the state. In this sense, it seeks to achieve resilience both at home and in neighbouring states, assuming that Indonesia is safe only if the archipelago and the surrounding countries are stable.

Yet, Indonesia must face several challenges. Apart from numerous secessionist movements, some of which have been successful, it must also cope with illegal fishing, smuggling, unauthorized immigration and piracy. The latter was once a major problem, but it has been greatly reduced thanks to multilateral efforts and by improving the living conditions of coastal areas.

Terrorism is also a matter of concern, and several attacks have already taken place.

In economic terms, even though Indonesia’s national strategy emphasizes the cohesion of the state and aims to limit foreign meddling, most of its hydrocarbons and of its resources in general are exploited by foreign corporations. In addition, there is a great disparity between urban areas like Jakarta and the rest of the country, especially outside Java.

Indonesia’s power

Indonesia can be considered a middle power, but it is definitely a rising one. Its GDP is the largest in South-East Asia, and in 2017 it amounted to 3.25 trillion measured in US dollars of the same year in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. This ranked the country as the world’s 7th largest economy, and it is projected to become the 4th by 2050. Indonesia’s steady 5% growth rate is helped by low inflation, a budget deficit under control and a public debt representing just 29% of the GDP. Moreover, saving is quite high at around 32% and investments are flowing in, thus paving the way to a continued growth. The trade balance is positive, driven by the export of commodities like oil, gas, coal, metals and palm oil; but also many other low added-value products such as clothing and electric components. Always in terms of PPP, its per capita GDP reached 12,700 dollars in 2017: a still low figure, but a remarkable progress from past levels. Unemployment is only 5.5%; yet, agriculture still retains 32% of the workforce and around 10% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, with 21% remaining at risk. The country also has real problems in terms of corruption and inequality, and must face notable environmental challenges: rising sea levels, deforestation, and extreme weather are already causing notable losses to its economy and are menacing its human security.

Indonesia’s armed forces are also evolving. It spends about 0.8% of its GDP on defence; and in spite of the emphasis given to the sea, the Army has a greater importance than the Navy. Land forces, notably marines and special forces units trained for asymmetric warfare, are indeed important for such a fragmented country; but the Navy remains underdeveloped. It mainly relies on corvettes, and having only 8 frigates and less than 5 diesel-electric submarines seems insufficient, even though it has a good park of minesweepers and there are talks to buy more subs. Similarly, the Air Force only counts around 40 fighters and some attack aircraft. These two branches have quite advanced equipment and are better than those of most ASEAN countries, but Indonesia will need to expand them to affirm itself as a regional power and to cope with challenges like China’s rise.

Conclusion: Indonesia’s foreign policy today

The maritime dimension, control over the straits, internal stability, autonomy from foreign influences and an active regional role have been the cornerstones of Indonesia’s foreign policy for decades. In 1955, Indonesia held a conference in Bandung that marked the birth of the non-aligned movement of states that did not want to side with neither the US nor the USSR.

Today, it still keeps this stance. Regionally, it supports integration through the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN; and it aspires to become its leader. In its relations with external powers, notably the US and China, it attempts maximizing its autonomy by keeping ties with all of them. Indonesia maintains good political and trade relations with both, but it is worth mentioning that it hosts a significant Chinese diaspora which represents around 1% of the population and runs many successful business activities. At the same time, it also cooperates with other powers. Japan and India are important economic partners and security cooperation is growing, especially with the latter. Indonesia also trades with European countries; which are also important arms suppliers.

It is expected that Indonesia’s foreign policy will continue along this line in the next future: trying to maintain its partnership with multiple countries so to maximize its benefit and freedom of action. But in the evolving international scenery of the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintain a strong presence all while China and India are rising, it will be hard for Indonesia not to take sides.

Will Vietnam clash with China over the South China Sea?

Bilateral relations between China and Vietnam are not as easy as it may seem. At a first glance, they may be expected to maintain a positive and flawless partnership due to the similar political system. However, a deeper analysis reveals various divergences between the two countries, whose relations are becoming more conflictual with each passing year.

Historical background

China and Vietnam are both the cradle of ancient civilizations, but we can start examining their history since the two states took their current form in the aftermath of WWII.

After more than a century of intromissions and abuses from the part of Western powers and Japan, in 1945 China was devastated by war and politically divided. After a long and destructive civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, which dated back to the 30s and was temporarily suspended to form a unified front against the Japanese invasion, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949 following the victory of the Communists under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. On their part, the Nationalists took refuge in Taiwan, where they founded a state that still remains de facto separated from the mainland. Still, the PRC was weak and isolated. It had very few allies apart from the Soviet Union; whose assistance was not sufficient to spark a sensible economic growth. Virtually all the other powers, especially the United States, were hostile to China. Moreover, Beijing’s relations with Moscow soon started deteriorating, to the point that the two seemed to be on the brink of war in 1969, when a series of border clashes took place.

Vietnam also had a troubled history following the end of WWII. France, the ancient colonial power, restored its control over the country after the brief Japanese occupation during the conflict. Yet, the Vietnamese soon started an insurgency that ultimately ousted the French in 1954. Following the negotiations that ended the war, Vietnam was divided in two states separated by the 17th parallel: the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the pro-American Republic of Vietnam in the south. But peace did not last long. One year later, a communist armed movement known as Vietcong was already active in the South, where it tried to overthrow the pro-Washington government. As the situation deteriorated, the US gradually escalated its support to the South, to the point of sending combat troops in the mid-60s. But the massive deployment of forces was not enough to defeat the Vietcong supported by the North and its allies, namely China and the USSR.

By the late 60s, then, both China and Vietnam were communist countries hostile to the US. Yet, things would soon change. After secret talks, the Nixon administration announced an unexpected diplomatic opening to the PRC, which culminated in the President’s visit to the country in 1972. This move was mainly driven by a double fold strategic logic. First, the US wanted to exploit the Sino-Soviet Split to its own advantage by putting the two communist states against each other and thus increase pressure on the USSR. Second, the Americans hoped to convince China to reduce its support to North Vietnam and thus facilitate the negotiations to end of the Vietnam War; and effectively a diplomatic settlement in this sense was reached in 1973. In spite of this, two years later the North launched a full-scale invasion of the South with its regular military forces. Strained by the long and costly war, the US decided to abandon Vietnam; which was therefore reunited under the communist regime.

Since then, the relations between Vietnam and China rapidly deteriorated. On spite of the similar political system, their alignment to the USSR and other regimes in South-East Asia led them to a short war in 1979 where both sides claimed victory; but their relations gradually normalized after the conflict. Later, China started implementing economic reforms, which sparked an extraordinary economic boom that still continues today; albeit at a slower pace. Vietnam followed its example, and today it is a fast-growing economy in full modernization. In both cases, this was not accompanied by political opening, and the respective Communist parties continue being the centre of the political system in each country. But during the past decade, bilateral relations have been worsening once again over a series of issues; and the trend seem to consolidate.

Sino-Vietnamese Disputes

The first and most important dispute existing between Vietnam and China is the one over the Paracel and Spratly islands, both located in the South China Sea, or SCS. This is very complex issue that goes way beyond the Sino-Vietnamese relations; as it involves overlapping claims by multiple countries over a strategic area for maritime trade that is also a rich fishing ground and is believed to host hydrocarbon reserves. Here it is sufficient to say that both China and Vietnam advance claims on the two archipelagos; but it is important to note that the Paracel are all occupied by the PRC. In fact, Beijing considers practically the whole of the SCS as its possession according to the “Nine-Dash Line” theory; and has been increasing its military presence in the area by conducting patrols, by expanding existing islands or even by building artificial ones, and by positioning military hardware and bases on their soil. Its activities have raised much concern in Vietnam and other riparian states; but due to their division and to the marked power imbalance in its favour, China has managed to gradually but firmly stabilizing its position in the SCS.

While this may look like a trivial quarrel over very small islets and rocks, in reality it has a major geostrategic significance. Legitimately controlling a piece of land that is recognized as an island (and not a simple rock) allows states to rightfully claim the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone around it. Applied to the SCS archipelagos, this means exerting control over vast maritime spaces that are rich in fish and that may host energy resources. Moreover, the SCS is an essential crossing area for sea trade; therefore, any conflict in the area would seriously disrupt the naval traffic with huge consequences for the global economy. Finally, over time the dispute has taken a symbolic relevance, which exacerbates national animosity and further complicates a peaceful resolution of the issue. Notably, a tense standoff between the two countries took place in 2014 following China’s drilling activities in disputed waters, and in March 2018 Vietnam decided to back down and cancel an important oil project in the area. In this sense, it is also important that Vietnam is modernizing its armed forces; with a particular focus on submarines, fighters and fire-and-forget anti-ship missiles. These are all weapon systems that would be useful in the case of a clash with China in the SCS, and it appears indeed that Vietnam is reshaping its military doctrine in this specific optic.

But there are also other divergences between the two countries. Linked to the SCS dispute, an important issue to consider is China’s economic presence in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese fear that the new economic zones established by their government will end up being dominated by Chinese investors. This has created social tensions that have erupted in violent protests in June this year, with demonstrators openly accusing China and its assertive policy in the SCS. Another problem is the question of waterways; notably the Mekong and the Red River, which both originate in Chinese territory. This has significant implications. First, it means that the PRC can control their flow; with major consequences for Vietnam’s agriculture, which still represents an important part of its economy. Second, and linked with the previous aspect, it means that Vietnam is vulnerable to water pollution generated by Chinese factories located upstream.

Another issue is China’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN; a regional multilateral organization meant to promote dialogue and cooperation of which Vietnam is part. In regards to ASEAN, China has always been careful not to discuss the SCS dispute during the organization’s meetings, where it could be put in minority by the other states. In contrast, by applying an effective “divide & rule” strategy, the PRC has been capable of dealing with the issue directly with each member; where it can negotiate from a position of force. Moreover, China is expanding its influence over all of ASEAN members; but Vietnam is resisting. This does not exclude some positive trends in Sino-Vietnamese relations. Bilateral trade is important: in 2016, the PRC accounted for 13% of Vietnam’s export for a total worth 26.8 billion dollars; and 31% of the goods that Vietnam purchased came from China, meaning 60 billion dollars in value. Also, in spite of the disputes of the previous year, in 2015 the two countries pledged to keep positive relations. Still, it is clear that Vietnam is concerned over China’s growing leverage over other Southeast Asian countries and over its activities in the SCS; and is therefore reacting.

As a matter of fact, Vietnam is building its ties with other countries in a clear attempt to hedge against China. Hanoi tries not to provoke Beijing and officially continues to apply its “Three No Policy”; meaning no alliance, no foreign military bases on its territory and no relations with a country against a third one. Yet, it is now allowing foreign navies to access the strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for supply and repair; even though it still refuses to lend it to another country. But this example shows that in practice Vietnam is fostering closer political, economic and even military cooperation with other powers like India, Japan, Australia and most importantly the US. Washington is also involved in the SCS dispute, not as a claimant state but as an international security provider, and especially as the guarantor of freedom of navigation. Considering the importance of the SCS for maritime trade, which is essential for the global economy, the US is naturally concerned by China’s actions in the region and is therefore willing to deepen its ties with riparian states to counter its influence. Vietnam is particularly important, due to its geographic location and because it is among the most powerful countries in the area. During an official trip in 2016, former President Barack Obama lifted the embargo on arms sales to Vietnam; and in March 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited Vietnam. Considering the troubled past between the two countries, these are quite notable developments.

In spite of some positive signs, the trends described above seem to indicate that economic exchanges and diplomatic promises are not enough to prevent tension. Both powers are indeed acting to secure their own national interest, with China reinforcing its positions in the SCS and Vietnam modernizing its military and fostering ties with the US and other countries. In a broader context of US-China competition, it seems that Vietnam will play an increasingly important role; but at the same time, this will put it in a collision course with the PRC, with potentially detrimental consequences for international security and for the regional stability of an area marked by territorial disputes. Only time will tell what will happen, but it seems that Sino-Vietnamese relations will follow a downgrading course in the coming years.

The Geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal

The Bay of Bengal is located in the North-East region of the Indian Ocean, and is bounded by Bangladesh to the North, Myanmar and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India to the East, India and Sri Lanka to the West. Some of the major sea ports in the Bay of Bengal include Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam in India and the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh making the region (of the Bay) a crucial economic hub. With an area of 2,173,000 square kilometres, the Bay of Bengal is the largest Bay in the world which is at the forefront of Asia’s experience of climate change[1]. Over the years the significance Bay of Bengal have been on the rise largely owing to the rapid economic growth of the littoral nations and the major powers involved in the bay.[2]

Brief History

Throughout the medieval, early modern and modern periods of world history from the indigenous city-states as well as empires, later to the British Empire the Bay of Bengal had been a singular civilisation united by a rice culture and common coastline that kept bringing trade and migrants along its shores.[3] Historically the Bay of Bengal has played a significant role of a connector- where trade, commerce and culture were intertwined for centuries. However in the early 20th century the British Empire used the Bay of Bengal for trade and other related activities, causing a significant increase in shipping between British India and British Burma. Yangon (Burmese Capital) was fascinatingly turned into one of the busiest ports in the world for migrant arrivals alongside the likes of New York; with majority of the flow from India towards Burma (now known as Myanmar)[4]. Strong ties between Burma and India developed as a direct consequence of the migration, which followed a downward curve in the years following the partition of India in 1947 and the Burmese independence in 1948 from Japanese occupation since world war II.[5]

Economic and Security issues

Bay of Bengal is rapidly becoming an area of key economic and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. A crucial geopolitical development was the creation of a regional body- the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand- which seeks to promote regional cooperation and engagement in the area particularly between the two major geopolitical blocs of the region- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However BIMSTEC’s focus is solely economic with their main objective being supporting free trade hence it does little to provide any support in terms of maritime security issues that have particularly grown in recent years with respect to Chinese and Indian interests.[6]

Crucial geopolitical factors concerning the Bay of Bengal

China’s economic and security interests over the past few decades have resulted in greater Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China has been successful in developing strong economic relations with major Bay of Bengal countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar primarily through infrastructure development projects that include pipelines, roads and railway, port-development and power-plant construction.[7] Key strategists from India expressed concerns over the rising Chinese influence in the outposts of the Indian Ocean which they fear could enable China to turn them into military bases encircling India.[8] Although it is argued that China’s interests are more economic in terms of ease of connecting to the other parts of the world on their West, it has not stopped India from taking precautionary steps by making rapid developments in modernising their naval capabilities as well as developing multilateral and bilateral naval ties with key players of the Bay of Bengal.

China-India relations in the Bay of Bengal

China and India are playing a strategic and economic tug-of-war in Myanmar among other littoral nations along the Bay of Bengal. China has recently assisted in building key ports in Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka and according to recent reports it is funding the development of the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, while having reached an multi-billion dollar agreement to build a major deep sea port in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.[9] China already have a significant presence in Myanmar with the gas pipeline connecting China’s Yunnan Province with Myanmar’s major Rakhine state already in operation and a parallel oil pipeline that is supposed to soon begin operations.[10] Since the launch of India’s Look East Policy in the 1990s it has strengthened its political, economic and strategic ties with South East Asian countries and beyond [11], with more actions being considered in order to have leverage over China. It is safe to say that while India had other priorities such as the inward economic orientation and preoccupation with troubled land borders mainly in the North and the North West, it was the growing influence of China’s maritime influence that prompted India’s strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal through its Look East Policy.[12] India and China are locked into this strategic competition for naval dominance as well as influence in the Indian Ocean’s littoral states and it can be argued that China might just have the edge due to its closer connections to some of the major littorals- i.e. Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The island nation of Sri Lanka also has strong economic ties with both India and China, with a growing regional and security cooperation with the former. However the recent takeover of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port by China has had significant impacts- one of which is lessening the country’s debts to China, who has made a lot of investments in Sri Lanka over the years.[13]

Maritime disputes

Bangladesh, India and Myanmar have had their fair share of disputes regarding maritime territories. One of the most recent disputes was between Bangladesh and Myanmar as tensions were building when South Korea’s Daewoo began natural gas exploration for Myanmar in what Bangladesh claimed was their waters, prompting Bangladesh to submit a continental shelf claim to the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Largely owing to Myanmar’s conflicting claims, the events led up to the mobilisation of naval forces along the disputed area although eventually a conflict was avoided.[14] The disputes were largely settled by the International Tribunal for the Land of the Seas (ITLOS) in 2012 and 2014 respectively.[15]

Myanmar relations with the littoral nations

Myanmar is regarded as a key player in the strategic equation along the Northern region of the Bay of Bengal that is fiercely contested by China and India. Myanmar have seen growing economic ties with India since the World War II while China have also been developing ties through various means primarily comprising infrastructure support.  Myanmar signed its first bilateral trade deal with India in 1970 and has been gradually increasing in volume since. According to some of the latest figures available, Indian exports to Myanmar totalled US$1.1 billion (1111.19 million) in the FY 2016-17 while imports were worth US$ 1 billion (1067.25 million), making it the fifth largest trade partner with Myanmar, despite trade said to remain below potential.[16] On the other hand Bangladesh and Myanmar established diplomatic ties in 1972 which resulted in progressing bilateral relations in the subsequent years. However in the mid-seventies as President Thein Sein’s government transformed Myanmar’s military government into a quasi-civilian government the bilateral relations never realised their full potential.[17] The end of their military rule in 2011 brought about a new glimmer of hope, however the recent Rohingya crisis has hindered any progress as Bangladesh are hosting a million refugees and have constantly failed in their repatriation due to the Bangladeshi government failing to have reached an agreement with the Myanmar government led by Aung (San) Suu Kyi.

Security/strategic issues

China are the largest trade partners to both Bangladesh and Myanmar and is also the biggest supplier of conventional arms to both the countries. Bangladesh had recently purchased two submarines from China to bolster its naval forces causing tensions in India, with Indian analysts claiming it “greatly enhances the mistrust between Delhi and Dhaka”.[18]

While most of the issues were regarding the littoral nations and China, major actors such as Japan, alongside China have significant interest in the Bay of Bengal, as they access it through the Malacca Strait for the purpose of trade in goods and energy.[19] One of the most significant reasons for China’s growing presence is to find reliable oil supplies and secure unencumbered SLOCs.

India on the other hand had been working towards a “Bay of Bengal community” envisaging greater security cooperation with the littoral nations.[20] It is obvious that other actors play a significant role however the Bay of Bengal does have significance for India’s own best interests as well as data from 2013 reveals that 95 percent of India’s foreign trade by volume and 75 percent by value were conducted by sea.[21] The economic growth also led to India’s expansion of its Navy as it claims is for the safety of the Ocean’s SLOCs regarding it a critical move to support and protect for themselves and for the global community.[22]

Other challenges to stability

There is little doubt about the significance of the Bay of Bengal to the Asia’s rising powers however there are some challenges especially for its low-lying littorals. Currently, the Bay is being reshaped by population growth, climate change, overexploitation of fisheries, degradation of critical habitats, pollution, and deteriorating water quality and it is getting increasingly clear that multilateral cooperation is vital for the littorals, especially important is that they keep aside their political differences to work together while maintaining a healthy competition. Currently there is already an initiative known as the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project designed to improve the lives of the coastal populations through improved regional management of the Bay of Bengal environment and its fisheries, and countries that are involved are as follows- Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.[23]

What’s Next

The geopolitics surrounding the Bay of Bengal is probably one of the most complex issues in the continent if not the world, with the region comprising a diverse range of social, economic and political factors. However there is little doubt that the key actors involved with the Bay of Bengal all have a crucial role to play in the progress of the region and for themselves in relation to prospects of regional strategic security and economic cooperation and transformation of the (developing) nations.


[1] http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/research/2014/01/27/the-bay-of-bengal-in-global-history/

[2] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[3] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/critical-bay-bengal

[4] King’s College Discussion. “The Bay of Bengal: Rise and Decline of a South Asian Region”. YouTube.

[5] https://www.mea.gov.in/images/pdf/Indian-Migrants-Myanmar.pdf ; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33973982

[6] https://southasianvoices.org/bay-of-bengal-indias-centerpiece-springboard/

[7] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[8] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[9] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-myanmar-ink-deal-for-port-on-bay-of-bengal-third-in-india-s-vicinity/story-Lbm4IwOMuqrNvXGv4ewuYJ.html ; https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/china-to-build-port-in-myanmar-third-in-indias-neighbourhood-1944916


[11] http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/indien/11043.pdf

[12] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/chinese-takeaway-bengals-bay/

[13] https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/navy-league/2018/04/09/sri-lanka-cedes-major-port-to-china-fueling-tensions/

[14] https://amti.csis.org/the-bangladeshmyanmar-maritime-dispute-lessons-for-peaceful-resolution/

[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RskGT2pUiIY

[16] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/MYANMAR_August_2017_new.pdf

[17] https://www.myanmarisis.org/publication_pdf/final-version-myanmar-bangladesh-relations-mmedits-ah2-1wpFhW.pdf

[18] https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-chinas-submarine-deal-with-bangladesh-matters/

[19] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[20] https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-wants-bay-bengal-be-688774.html

[21] Hughes, L., 2014. Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 4 – India’s Maritime Strategy. Future Directions International. [online] January 30 2014. Available at: http://www.futuredirections.org. au/publications/indian-ocean/1516-examining-the-sino-indian- maritime-competition-part-4-india-s-maritime-strategy.html

[22] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[23] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

Will North and South Korea Ever Reunite?

Since the end of the War in 1953, the Korean peninsula is divided by a frozen conflict that still awaits a definitive settlement. The recent developments as the signs of detente between North and South Korea or the meeting between the former’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump leave some hope of a peaceful resolution of the Korean issue. But will it actually be the case?

The historical background

After having been under Japanese domination for nearly four decades, in 1945 Korea was divided in two occupation zones separated by the 38th parallel: the Soviet one to the north, and the US-led Allied one in the south. While the original plan was to ultimately restore an independent and unified Korean state, in practice things unfolded differently. As the Cold War emerged, the disagreements between Moscow and Washington led to the establishment of two different states: a pro-communist one ruled by Kim Il-sung in the north, with Pyongyang as capital, and an authoritarian but pro-American one in the south, whose government was based in Seoul. The former took the name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, while the latter became known as the Republic of Korea, shortened in RoK. The efforts to reach a common agreement over the reunification of the Peninsula were all unproductive, and the situation stalled until 1950 when North Korea invaded the South.

Exploiting the surprise effect, its troops captured Seoul and almost managed to occupy the whole Peninsula. The international coalition created to defend the South, patronised by the United Nations and headed by the US, struggled to stop the advancing enemy. But then, the US organized a counter offensive. With a bold amphibious landing at Inchon, they cut the supply lines of the North’s armies and pushed them back to the initial positions. Acting beyond the UN directive, the allied forces proceeded further north, taking Pyongyang and almost reaching the Yalu river, Korea’s border with China. Feeling threatened, the PRC intervened in support of its North Korean ally in December 1950. The coalition was expelled from the North’s territory, and the communist troops conquered Seoul a second time. But once again, the US and its allies counterattacked and retook the city in March 1951. the situation stabilized along the 38th parallel, and no notable changes occurred until the signature of an armistice in 1953. While this practically put an end to the conflict, a true peace treaty was never signed, and as such the Korean War is officially still unresolved.

Since then, the situation has stalled. The South maintained an authoritarian regime for several decades, before becoming a democracy in 1987 and beginning a period of rapid economic growth that turned it in one of the world’s most dynamic economies. The North, under the leadership of the Kim family, has remained a ruthless, isolationist, heavily-militarized and economically fragile dictatorship centred upon the Juche ideology; a peculiar combination of communism, nationalism, Korean tradition and cult for the ruler.

The geopolitical situation in Korea

As of today, the Korean peninsula remains divided, and this deeply influences the foreign policy of the two Korean states and of the other powers implied in the area.

First, since Korea is relatively small, both states are exposed to a potential attack coming from the other and/or its allies; notably as both capitals, and especially Seoul, are close to the border. This “proximity curse” is a central factor in the security dilemma that they face and that will be examined later. Second, there are the political factors. South Korea is allied with the US, which maintains bases and troops on its territory and that has even the power to take command of the South Korean military in case of war. The two countries regularly hold joint manoeuvres that anger the DPRK; who, on its part, is allied with China. The two states are tied by a 1961 treaty that establishes that the PRC is the security guarantor of the North. Its commitment is not total, however, as it would intervene only if the DPRK were attacked, and not if it would launch an offensive. In this regard, it is notable that amid the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017, the Chinese communicated that they would defend North Korea if the US attacked it.

As a matter of fact, the Korean Peninsula holds a particular geostrategic significance for both China and America, especially now that they are engaged in a broader competition in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. For the PRC, North Korea is a buffer zone separating its territory from the US-allied South, and therefore do not want the Pyongyang regime to collapse. This is why it keeps the 1961 treaty alive and continues supplying the DPRK with essential goods without which its economy would collapse. But at the same time, the division of Korea is also a problem, the risk remains that a war involving the US may break out in China’s backyard; in which case it would have to choose between seeing the American forces reaching the Yalu and creating a unified Korea under Washington’s influence or intervening and battle the US military to prevent this outcome. On it part, America is also facing a dilemma in Korea: remaining committed to protecting the South is important to preserve the credibility of its security engagements and to maintain a useful military presence in the area; but at the same time it also faces the risk of being involved in a conflict that may escalate to include China.

Finally, there are two other powers that have some interests at stake in the Peninsula. The first is Japan, who is equally concerned over the possibility of being directly or indirectly involved in a war and who sees North Korea’s missiles and nuclear program as a threat to its security. The second is Russia, who would not see favourably a further extension of America’s influence in the region.

In short, all the powers involved in the issue do not want a conflict. Yet, the risk of war remains real; because the two Korean states and their allies are trapped into a complicated security dilemma.

The security dilemma in Korea

Both the RoK and the DPRK continue to live as if the war could restart at any time. The two states maintain considerable military forces along the border, ready to respond in case of attack; even though no party wants to launch an offensive. But the looming threat of an escalation, most likely during a crisis, remains sufficient to keep both in alert. As a matter of fact, the security dilemma is very strong here; also because of the aforementioned “proximity curse”, Most of the DPRK’s forces are concentrated along the frontier. In particular, it has massed hundreds of artillery pieces ready to unleash a rain of fire on the highly-populated Seoul area; which would cause uncountable victims and terrible material damage, with huge repercussions on the financial-economic plan as well. This is already a very powerful deterrent against any attack on the North by the South or its main ally, the US; but at the same time it is the reason why the RoK wants to be ready for war and maintains its close alliance with the Americans: it considers this as the only way to dissuade the North from attempting to reunify the Peninsula by force. But this and the US presence in South Korea, in turn, is what motivates Pyongyang to keep its armed forces ready for attack: the massive damage it could inflict on the South is an extremely effective mean of dissuasion; probably equal and even superior to its nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear programme

This security dilemma is the main driver at the base of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, as from its perspective it is the only way it can ensure its security in a challenging geopolitical environment.

During the Cold War, the South was still poor and militarily weak, and the DPRK could benefit from the support of two powerful allies, namely China and the USSR. Considering also that it already had formidable conventional retaliation means, it felt safe enough not to need nuclear weapons to guarantee its safety. But the balance of power in the Peninsula gradually changed with time as the RoK developed its economy and filled the military gap with its northern neighbour. In this context, in the late 80s the DPRK was first suspected of having a military nuclear programme. Things turned more complicated for the North in 1991: the Soviet Union fell; and China, whose relations with the US had much improved, was just beginning its economic boom. So, the DPRK was left virtually alone to face the possibility of a conflict, and this reinforced its determination to obtain nuclear weapons. In practice, this choice just worsened the security dilemma, but in the optic of Pyongyang’s regime it was the only guarantee that no one would try to attack the country and topple its government. Moreover, it also gave the DPRK a powerful tool to attract the world’s attention and obtain much-needed economic aid from the international community. As a matter of fact, an agreement with the US was initially reached in 1994, according to which Pyongyang pledged to stop its nuclear programme in exchange of diplomatic recognition and economic assistance.

At first, the deal worked, but things changed once again in the early 2000s. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US President G.W. Bush pledged to counter WMD proliferation with all means and started implementing a preventive war doctrine to eliminate the “Axis of Evil” that threatened America. The DPRK, who was explicitly included in the list and who was already suspected of running a clandestine nuclear programme in spite of the pacts, felt menaced and decided to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and openly admit its quest for nuclear weapons. Being already engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington opted for diplomacy in the context of the Six-Party Talks (or SPT), that included the two Korean States plus the US, China, Japan and Russia. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, which showed that it had achieved its goal and therefore reinforced its position both strategically and diplomatically; as now the point was to disarm it rather than preventing proliferation. After long negotiations, the DPRK accepted once again to end its nuclear programme if it received economic aid. But no actual progress was made afterwards, and the DPRK ultimately abandoned the SPT in 2009. In the meanwhile, it continued making progress and testing nuclear warheads as well as ballistic missiles. When President Trump entered in office in 2017, he decided to apply a “maximum pressure” policy to push North Korea to dismantle its small but dangerous arsenal. After a crisis marked by verbal attacks and military shows of force, Trump and Kim Jong-un decided to talk directly. After meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim went to Singapore in June 2018 to personally discuss with Trump; and negotiations have been under way since then.

What now?

While the recent meetings were certainly historic events, the road ahead still appears to be long. The North has shown some goodwill, but the fundamental issues are still unresolved and most importantly the underlying geopolitical situation has not changed. Korea remains divided, the North’s regime is still in power and wants to remain there, and there is no agreement over the future asset of the Peninsula.

Moreover, the current status quo is somehow convenient for all, as any alteration may result in less convenient outcomes and even in an all-out war. Also, if the US used its military force to attack a foreign country and enforce regime change, the DPRK would once again feel threatened and would probably decide to resume its nuclear programme. Finally, apart from geopolitics, the reunification of Korea would also imply very high cost to develop the former North, and no one really wants to sustain these expenses.

Yet, it cannot be excluded that progress will be made, that the nuclear issue will be solved and that Korea will eventually reunite. But in the short term, no breakthrough is to be expected in the Peninsula.

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