Vietnam, Myanmar foster ties with India, illustrating the art of balancing relations with great powers

The presidents of Vietnam and Myanmar visit New Delhi to strengthen cooperation with India. Kenya launches military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia following the kidnapping of aid workers. The US sends advisors to help fight the Lord's Resistance Army, and a recent poll reveals the Afghan population's perception of the situation in its country. All this in today's security briefing.

Last week, Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang paid a four-day visit to India, aimed at deepening ties between the two countries. Six agreements were signed after Sang met with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, the most noteworthy of which regards oil and gas exploration by an Indian state-owned company, ONGC Vindesh, in waters disputed by Vietnam and China in the South China Sea. Chinese criticism regarding the Indian exploration plans, already voiced last month when Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna visited Hanoi and announced that India would go ahead with operations notwithstanding China’s opposition, re-emerged after the signing of the agreement, most harshly in the form of an editorial  in the Chinese newspaper Global Times. Entitled ‘India-Vietnam joint work must be halted’, the editorial said ‘China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries.’ During the visit, both countries further agreed to target a bilateral trade volume of $7 billion by 2015, while also stating their willingness to soon finalise the envisaged free trade agreement between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The same week, Myanmar’s president, retired general Thein Sein, also visited New Delhi for four days in a bid to increase trade and cooperation, especially in the energy sector as Myanmar has important natural resources both China and India are eying, given their growing energy demands. India, who said it would develop Myanmar’s port of Sittwe in 2008 but has failed to deliver on its promise so far, also announced it is lending Myanmar $500 million in credit for a variety of infrastructure projects, while the latter said it would encourage more investment from the former. Moreover, both countries discussed border security issues, a major concern for New Delhi, as insurgents groups from its northeast have set up camps along the frontier with Myanmar.

The openSecurity verdict: The recent developments are a success for India’s ‘Look East Policy’, initiated in 1991 in order to foster cooperation with individual Southeast Asian states and ASEAN as a whole. Focussing primarily on economic ties in the beginning, India and its Southeast Asian partners have increasingly expanded the scope of cooperation to include other issues, such as defence and security. With some of these countries, such as Myanmar, India has strong historical ties, although relations in the past have been difficult at times due to New Delhi’s support for the democracy movement around Aung San Suu Kyi, which, however, it eventually abandoned to take a more pragmatic stance towards its neighbour.

For Southeast Asian states, an eastward looking India provides an array of opportunities, and is especially useful for balancing Chinese influence in the political, economic and defence realm in the region. However, while these are objectives in their own right, benefits are often to be derived from making use of both China’s and India’s interest in a given country. As Reuters correspondent Frank Jack Daniel points out, ‘Myanmar is hoping competition between the two Asian rivals will earn it a better deal for resources such as gas and access to the Indian Ocean for its shores, for which China has so far paid bottom-dollar.’ The case of Vietnam is slightly different, as India’s presence through oil and gas exploration projects helps underlining Hanoi’s stance vis-à-vis China regarding disputed waters and the Vietnamese willingness not to bow to Beijing’s pressure on the issue.

But both Myanmar and Vietnam know there are limits to alienating China, as underlined by the visits of the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong to China the same week as Sang’s trip to New Delhi, and of Myanmar’s vice-president, Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is visiting Beijing later this week. Trong, accompanied by a vice prime minister and six ministers, held talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao during a five-day trip to Beijing. While underlining their willingness to develop ties, both parties signed a six-point agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues that led to tensions between Beijing and Hanoi earlier this year. Myanmar vice-president is likely to address the row between the two countries following the former’s suspension of a $3.6 billion dam project, developed by a Chinese state-owned power company, China Power Investment.

Balancing relations with regional great powers and extracting benefits from the same is indeed a tricky endeavour, but Southeast Asian states have had some practice at the game, which also includes other actors such as the United States and Japan.

As far as India is concerned, the predominant feeling as conveyed  by the media is that it should make use of the opportunities that are presenting to itself in both Vietnam and Myanmar. In the case of Vietnam this may include offending China; in the case of Myanmar, delivering on its promises regarding infrastructure projects and supporting the recent developments that suggest Myanmar is willing to depart from being a pariah state would help New Delhi strengthen ties with its neighbours – and, ultimately, countering Chinese influence in its near-abroad.

Kenya launches military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia

On Saturday, the Kenyan government, in an unusual move, announced the launch of cross-border operations against al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia which is held responsible for the kidnapping of foreigners in Kenya, with Kenyan internal security minister George Saitoti saying that ‘our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all.’ On Thursday, two Spanish women working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), a French NGO, were kidnapped in the Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest, in northern Kenya. However, it remains unclear whether al-Shabab is behind this and other abductions of foreigners that are seen as threatening the tourist industry and foreign investment.

Responding to the incursion of Kenyan soldiers, tanks and aircrafts into southern Somalia on Sunday, al-Shabab warned that it would carry out attacks in Kenya, saying that ‘we will defend ourselves. Kenya doesn’t know war. We know war. The tall buildings in Nairobi will be destroyed.’ Al-Shabab’s capability to strike abroad was demonstrated in 2010, when it killed 74 people in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in retaliation to Uganda’s contribution to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

US sends military advisors to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army

Last Friday, US president Barack Obama said he had ‘authorized a small number of combat equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield.’ Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group which has undertaken brutal campaigns against civilians, killing, raping, maiming and kidnapping villagers in the border region between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. Human rights organizations that had been advocating for more US engagement welcomed the decision. Obama also said that the forces will “not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defence.’

The US already sent counter-terrorism advisers and provided support worth millions of dollars to the Ugandan army during the previous administration. But the Ugandan army failed in its attempt – operation ‘Lighting Thunder’ carried out in late 2008 – to crush the LRA, although it eventually managed to destroy its communications and kill several rebels. In 2010, the US adopted  the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act’, underlining its commitment to help defeat the LRA, while the International Criminal Court issued an arrest-warrant for Kony in 2005. Observers say the US support in going after Kony results from its interests in freeing up Ugandan troops to redeploy them in the African Union mission in Somalia that fights al-Shabab, a bigger concern to the US which has been using drones to attack the Islamist group. Others have suggested that US interest in minerals and rare earths in the region explains the recent deployment.        

Poll by German foundation reveals perception of situation in Afghanistan among population

A report, published on Tuesday by the German Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and based on a survey among 5000 persons from five provinces in Afghanistan, reveals the population’s perception of the state of affairs in the country ten years after the on-set of the conflict. The study, which is “not representative but offers nonetheless a good indication of the prevailing opinion among the population”, addresses issues such as confidence in the Afghan administration, the perception of the security situation in the country, the image of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the perceived possibility of a civil war after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

The majority of respondents (60 per cent) believe that the possibility of civil war breaking out after ISAF troops leave the country in 2014 is high, while a similar number (56 per cent) perceives ISAF as an occupying force. Moreover, only 39 per cent believe ISAF provides security and peace. 22 per cent of respondents are satisfied with the current security situation. The study makes a noteworthy finding as far as Afghanistan’s ties with its neighbours are concerned: while only 58 per cent believe it is important to strengthen ties with Pakistan - a considerably lower figure than in 2010 (79 per cent) - 76 per cent believe relations with India should be deepened, followed by 70 per cent who deem it important to move closer to Iran and 64 per cent who would welcome closer ties with the US.          

About the author

Radu Nikolaus Botez is a graduate student in International Security at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po Paris) and former managing editor of InFocus, a student-run international affairs magazine he co-founded. He is currently interning with a think tank in New Delhi.