Over Coffee #2 – Maritime security with a side of democracy

A recap of weekly events, from 1 December to 9 December, ideally discussed over some coffee. My recommendation this week is Smoking Barrel’s Dynamite house blend, which uses a mix of Brazil and Toba Aek Raja beans (newer batches replace the Brazil with Sindoro beans), resulting in a reasonably bright white coffee with hints of chocolate (this is not a sponsorship deal).

This week’s notable events includes ARNEX-2021, gray-zone strategy, and the opening of the Bali Democracy Forum.

ASEAN-Russia naval exercise (ARNEX-2021) recently concluded. It was the third pan-ASEAN naval exercise held with an external party, the first being ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise in 2018 (ACMX) and ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise in 2019 (AUMX). The joint exercise, taking place for three days in the Malacca Strait, was attended by Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Brunei (the Philippines participated virtually). Russian ambassador to ASEAN, Alexander Ivanov praised the exercise, claiming it was a “historic moment” and a “new page in strategic partnerships” with ASEAN countries.

Despite its novelty, Ian Storey criticized the exercise as being a “rich dose of symbolism” for both sides. On ASEAN’s side, the exercise serves as a means to showcase its ability to conduct inclusive diplomacy with great powers. The exercise may also be interpreted as being part of ASEAN’s flair for the ceremonial. On Russia’s side, the exercise serves to boost Russia’s defense diplomacy with ASEAN, increasing its positive profile. This does not change the fact that existing Russian relations with ASEAN remain underdeveloped. Observers should then be wary of equating the exercise with increased Russian commitment in the Indo-Pacific.

Evan Laksmana’s commentary on Indonesia’s lack of strategy in responding to China’s gray-zone tactics was an interesting read. This follows a recent report by Reuters exposing China’s protests against Indonesian maritime activity in the Tuna Block, north of the Natuna Islands and within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

In response to the protest, Indonesian authorities remained firm, citing Indonesia was exercising its sovereign right. In addition to making diplomatic statements and issuing notes verbale, Indonesia has often responded to China’s illegal incursions by showcasing its military might in the North Natuna Sea. These “show-the-flag” operations have limited effect, argues Laksmana, especially when the primary maritime security agents—the Navy and the Coast Guard— continue to struggle with their lack of resources. While they may make for great photo ops and a momentary surge in nationalism, at the end of the day, Indonesia requires a far more creative strategy to counter China’s gray-zone tactics.

In other news, the 14th Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) kicks off in Bali as a hybrid event. Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, called for countries to “be honest” with themselves. “Are international economic norms and regulations developed in a democratic manner, in the interests of all countries?”, she questions. She then called for global vaccine equality and inclusivity to aid faster recovery.

It would also seem China remains intent on promoting itself as a being on par with other democratic states… but by defining ‘democracy’ on their own terms. This comes after Joe Biden’s controversial “Summit for Democracy” which excluded China and Russia. Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, in a recorded statement, called out the “arrogance and bias of the West against other civilizations“, all the while promoting its own form of “democracy with Chinese characteristics”. This refers to a recent white paper released by the Chinese State Council titled “China: Democracy that Works“.

That’s all for this week! Tune in next week for some more coffee recommendations and discussions on niche topics.

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