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7 December, 2017 00:00 00 AM

Rohingya crisis beyond Arakan

Our mental maps of the world, including our perceptions of where regions begin and end, can have profound consequences on strategic behaviour
Masihul Huq Chowdhury
Rohingya crisis beyond Arakan

Amid mounting global pressure, Myanmar today agreed to take back tens of thousands of Rohingyas who fled the country to Bangladesh following a military crackdown that has been dubbed as "ethnic cleansing" by the US. Over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since August when the military intensified crackdown against alleged militant outfits of Rohingya Muslims. Following weeks of talks, the two neighbours signed an 'Arrangement' on return of displaced Myanmar persons sheltered in Bangladesh, according to a foreign office statement. The "Arrangement", the statement said, stipulated that "the return (of Rohingyas) shall commence within two months" while a Joint Working Group would be established within next three weeks and a "specific bilateral instrument (physical arrangement) for repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner". The geo political importance of the region and the largest exodus of refugee are predominantly due to the underlying economic reason. The debate of who is the winner or who has lost ground through this arrangement needs to be understood at the backdrop of the history.

As much as 50 percent of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, which sees three times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and more than five times than that of the Panama Canal, making the waters one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes. More than half of the world’s top ten shipping ports are also located in and around the South China Sea, according to the International Association of Ports and Harbors. As intra-ASEAN trade has markedly increased—from 29 percent of total ASEAN trade in 1980 to 41 percent in 2009—maintaining freedom of navigation has become of paramount importance for the region. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that roughly 80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent by value is transported by sea. Of that volume, 60 percent of maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea carrying an estimated one-third of global shipping. Its waters are particularly critical for China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, all of which rely on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea and, by extension, the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean. As the second-largest economy in the world with over 60 percent of its trade in value travelling by sea, China’s economic security is closely tied to the South China Sea. For many of the world’s largest economies, the South China Sea is an essential maritime crossroads for trade. Over 64 percent of China’s maritime trade transited the waterway in 2016, while nearly 42 of Japan’s maritime trade passed through the South China Sea in the same year. The United States is less reliant on South China Sea, with just over 14 percent of its maritime trade passing through the region.

The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. An estimated US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea and many non-claimant states want the South China Sea to remain international waters. To promote this, several states, including the United States conduct "freedom of navigation” operations. The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spartly and Paracel Islands and various boundaries in the Gulf of Torkin. There are further disputes, including the waters near the Indonesian Natuna islands which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea. Claimant states are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes. In July 2016, an arbitration tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the UN convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the PRC's maritime claims in Philippine vs China. The PRC does not recognise the tribunal and, its ruling being unenforceable, ignored it, insisting that the matter should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other claimants. Commodity shippers are intently watching North Korea’s missile tests and Trump’s rhetoric to see if the tensions escalate into activity that could disrupt commodity flows into those countries. While it remains a war of words for now, intensification could lead to higher insurance rates for vessels, exclusion zones or port disruptions, which may increase transport costs and force route changes, according to shipping analysts, academics and industry consultants. Three of the world’s five biggest importers of crude oil share borders or seas with North Korea. Virtually all of Japan and South Korea’s crude imports, as well as the vast majority for China, come via seaborne shipments. Combined, the three countries receive about one-third of the 39.9 million barrels of oil that flows around the world daily in giant tankers, according to Clarkson Plc. About 40 percent of the world’s finished and semi-finished steel exports originate from China, South Korea and Japan. The three countries also account for about 84 percent of the world’s iron ore seaborne trade, according to Citigroup, and 47 percent of the world’s seaborne imports of metallurgical coal, according to UBS Group AG. Four of China’s northern customs districts near North Korea receive about 47 percent of the country’s oil imports and 63 percent of its anthracite coal, according to the General Administration of Customs. The country isn’t as dependent on waterborne imports as Japan and South Korea, as it has pipelines and land links to bring in some oil, natural gas and coal, and it can always re-route tankers to southern ports or move commodities by land.“Energy imports to China may encounter some short-term inconveniences such as diversion to other ports, but overall it won’t be affected much as China’s energy supply is now quite diversified and the Korean peninsula is not a source of supply,” said Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University’s China Center for Energy Economics Research. Oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia via the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the volume that transits the Panama Canal. While, some two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports flow through the South China Sea.

Our mental maps of the world, including our perceptions of where regions begin and end can have profound consequences on strategic behaviour. For decades there has been a sharp division between what we understand to be the regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia. The line between them effectively cuts the Bay of Bengal in two. These perceptions have inhibited a proper analysis of the strategic dynamics of the area. The String of Pearls is a geopolitical theory on potential Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean-region. It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan. The sea lines run through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Lombak straits as well as other strategic maritime centres in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh the Maldives and Somalia.  This has never been used by official Chinese government sources, but it is often used in Indian media.  The emergence of the String of Pearls is indicative of China's growing geopolitical influence through concerted efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, expand and modernise military forces, and foster stronger diplomatic relationships with trading partners. In 2015, it was announced that the city and port would be further developed under CPEC at a cost of $1.62 billion, with the aim of linking northern Pakistan and western China to the deep water seaport. The port will also be the site of a floating natural gas field facility that will be built as part of the larger $2.5 billion Gwadar-Nawabshah segment of the Iran - Pakistan gas pipelines project. Construction began in June 2016 on the Gwadar Special Economic Zone, which is being built on 2,292 acre site adjacent to Gwadar's port. In late 2015, the port was officially leased to China for 43 years, until 2059. Sittwe Port is a deepwater port constructed by India in 2016 at Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal. Situated at the mouth of the Kalad River, the USD 120 Million port is being financed by India as a part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, collaboration between India and Myanmar. The project is aimed at developing transport infrastructure in south-western Myanmar and north-eastern India. Kyaukpiu is a major town in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar. It is located on the north western corner of Yanbe Island on Combermere Bay, and is 250 miles (400 km) north-west of Yangon, which connects the rice trade between Kolkata and Yangon. The Chinese government insists that China's burgeoning naval strategy is entirely peaceful in nature and is only for the protection of regional trade interests. An analysis by The Economist also found the Chinese moves to be commercial in nature.  Although it has been claimed that China's actions are creating a security dilemma between China and India in the Indian Ocean, that has been questioned by some analysts, who point to China's fundamental strategic vulnerability establish of a deep sea port (DSP) has become strategically very critical for Bangladesh considering its potential impact on the accelerated development and economic growth of the country. Such a port will allow the country to reap the benefit of connectivity that China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative offers. In this respect the proposal to construct a deep sea port at Sonadia deserves special attention. However, the distance from landlocked states of India to the proposed deep sea port in Sonadia, if and when established, will be less than one quarter of the distance to Kolkata and will always remain as the first economic option for their international trade.

The writer, a banker by profession, has worked both in local and overseas market with various foreign and local banks in different positions



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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