UK to send ‘colossal’ warships to South China Sea
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson in a bilateral meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop said the UK wants to send “two new colossal aircraft carriers to the region” next year. Johnson did not specify exactly where the carriers would be sent, but “the region” was commonly interpreted as the South China Sea (SCS) because the flamboyant secretary added that the operation was designed to “vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”
While Johnson cited principles such as freedom of navigation, rules-based international order and free trade to justify the potential British naval presence in “the region”, the reasons why the UK wants to flex muscle in the Asia Pacific remain unclear. His statement expectedly drew criticism from China, putting what David Cameron hailed the “golden era” in the two countries’ relationship into question.
Hitting back the day after, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang criticised “other countries” for insisting on stirring up trouble when regional countries are making efforts to promote peace and stability in the SCS.
More bluntly, China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times warned that the UK risks disgracing itself for two main reasons. First, patrolling the SCS is not in the genuine national interest of the UK; it appears that the UK is instigated by the US and its Asia-Pacific allies such as Australia (which allegedly lobbied hard for British military presence during Johnson’s visit to Canberra). Second, the UK simply wants to assert a sense of identity when Brexit is weakening its clout, and London is blinded by the memories of Falklands War of 1982 and the 1840 Opium War. As such, the newspaper warned that for the UK to “maintain its self-esteem”, it should “be capable of telling the difference between right and wrong and thinking independently” and not follow the “paper tiger” (the US) and “paper cat” (Australia) in a quest for self-humiliation.
Migration continues to be pressing issue for EU
Issues around migration and how to stem the flow from North Africa into the European Union (EU), mainly into Italy, remain of concern for the EU and its member states. Italy had over 85,000 arrivals this year, which is a 10% increase compared to 2016. Against this background French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday (27 July) that the French government had plans to create “hotspots” in Libya this summer, in order to “avoid people taking crazy risks when they are not all eligible for asylum.” However, Macron’s office later downplayed the plans, saying there were no question of “hotspots” in Libya if “security conditions are not met”.
Another source close to Macron later told the Associated Press the plan included “advance points” in Libya, as well as neighbouring Niger and Chad. A French source told EUobserver that Macron meant asylum requests should be treated as closely as possible to the migrants’ countries of origin. The European Commission treated the proposal with reserve, Natasha Bertaud, a Commission’s spokeswoman, said the EU would need time to “define exactly what is being proposed” and what Macron meant by “hotspot”, since the so-called EU hotspots, established in Greece and Italy, are facilities where migrants are identified, registered, and where they can request asylum. Nevertheless, a spokesman for Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz welcomed Macron’s ”important contribution to the closure of the Mediterranean route and stopping illegal migration”. Kurz, as well as the Hungarian government, have been pushing for the opening of refugee camps in Libya in order to prevent people from coming to Europe. Around 30 camps already exist in Libya for migrants and displaced people. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), operate in about 20 of them, in close cooperation with the EU.
Meanwhile, the EU continues its effort to prevent people smugglers from doing business in the Mediterranean. Therefore, on Thursday (27 July), a commission spokesman said that the EU was “ready to move to the next phase”, in which EU ships would intervene in Libyan waters. Also Italy is considering to send its navy into Libyan waters, after the Libyan Prime Minister (PM), who represents the UN-backed unity government, made a request for help. The Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni, was quick to reply to the request and called it “a possible turning point” in the migration crisis. At the same time the Italian government issued a code of conduct for NGOs, since their boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations in the Mediterranean, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year. Italy and other EU member states have been concerned that NGOs are not only facilitating but in fact encouraging people smuggling from North Africa. However, the aid groups seem to be split over this code of conduct and on Monday (31 July) five aid groups refused to sign up to the Italian government’s code of conduct, while three others backed the new rules.
However, Stefano Stefanini, the former permanent representative of Italy at NATO, wrote in an opinion piece in Politico, that “Italy can handle the immediate emergency, but the EU has to do more to tackle the causes of the crisis.” Issues around migration have to be tackled at source . Therefore, he suggests that the EU should take three main steps: 1. a stabilisation process for Libya, 2. systematic programme to repatriate economic migrants and 3. offer aid and job creation opportunities to African countries in exchange for curb of illegal migration.
EU-ASEAN enhanced cooperation in the Trumpian era
As ASEAN’s 50th anniversary (8 Aug) draws nearer, several newspapers in Southeast Asia this week ran articles reflecting on the past, present and future of ASEAN. In an article widely published in newspapers and websites across the region, Endy M. Bayuni, Editor-in-Chief of The Jakarta Post, highlighted the differences between the EU and ASEAN. A key difference, to Bayuni, is that the EU “places more emphasis on members having shared values and principles” whereas nothing more than geography that binds 10 ASEAN countries together. In other words, the EU is a community and ASEAN is merely a neighbourhood consisting of a group of extremely diverse countries including an absolute monarchy (Brunei), communist states (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), military junta (Thailand), semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia) and struggling democracies (Philippines, Indonesia and now Myanmar).
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of formal EU-ASEAN relations, starting in 1977. However, the inter-bloc relations have been largely chequered, hitting a bottom in 1990 following the poll outcome in Myanmar. Kavi Chongkittavorn, who penned an opinion piece in Bangkok Post, suggested that the US under the Trump administration is strengthening the “half-baked”, “love-hate relationship” between the EU and ASEAN. The EU is eager to step into the US place to assume global leadership, and ASEAN responded favourably by extending an invitation to the European Council President Donald Tusk as the guest to attend the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) in November. That said, Kavi advised in the article that the EU should show its commitment to ASEAN, reflecting on the reasons why ASEAN insistently refuses to admit the EU permanently to the EAS or designate the 28-nation bloc as ASEAN’s strategic partner despite a long history of inter-regional engagement.
In the latest move to show their solidarity, senior officials from ASEAN and the EU are working on a joint statement on climate change and the Paris agreement which Trump pulled the US out of in June, according to The Myanmar Times. The joint statement is significant because it will be the first time that both sides agreed to confirm their commitment to the climate accord and intensify technical cooperation. “After the US left the Paris agreement, the EU wants ASEAN to show their unity,” an official from Myanmar told the Yangon-based newspaper.
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