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After Threat of Rift, Philippines Looks to Reset Ties With China

Just months after pledging on the campaign trail to sail a jet ski into the South China Sea to defend Manila’s territorial sea claims, the Philippines leader has threatened to cut relations with the United States.

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Picture of China and Philippines officials in a meeting. Wikimedia Commons

A visit by the Philippine’s recently elected, and feisty, President Rodrigo Duterte to China this week is being watched closely for signs of a shift in ties between the two countries, which have been battered for years over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Until recently, China was the Philippines biggest security threat. Relations hit rock bottom, following an international tribunal ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claim to almost all of the disputed waters.

But now, just months after pledging on the campaign trail to sail a jet ski into the South China Sea to defend Manila’s territorial sea claims, (something Duterte now tells Al Jazeera was just election hyperbole) the Philippines leader has threatened to cut relations with the United States.

He has also suggested that he might start courting China and Russia instead.

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No small task

But getting Beijing and Manila on track after years of tensions is no small task, analysts say.

Duterte is traveling to China with a group of more than 200 businessmen and boosting economic ties between the two countries is a key priority of the visit, says Aileen Baviera, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center.

FILE - Protesters rally outside of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, June 10, 2016. Relations between China and the Philippines have been strained following an international court's ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claims to large parts of the South China Sea.
Protesters rally outside of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, June 10, 2016. Relations between China and the Philippines have been strained following an international court’s ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claims to large parts of the South China Sea.

“As far as the new Philippine government is concerned there is strong interest in placing emphasis on economic relations to get more trade, investment and participate in China’s infrastructure development programs,” Baviera says, adding that is something the two have not done in a long while.

Japan is the Philippines biggest trade partner, but Hong Kong is not far behind Tokyo in the lineup. Manila is looking for China’s help to build up its railway system and guarantees for its workers overseas.

Fishermen in the Philippines who have been kept from trolling parts of the South China Sea because of territorial disputes hope the visit will help them regain access to fish, while the two sides talk.

Baviera says that while it is unlikely they’ll be able to reset that issue during the visit, talking could help pave the way to new approaches and new initiatives.

President Duterte says he will not give any ground when it comes to the Philippines’ sovereignty in the South China Sea, but also notes he will not be inflexible.

“We will stick to our claim, we do not bargain anything there. We continue to insist that that’s ours and that the tribunal, the international decision will be taken up,” he says. “But there will be no hard impositions. We will talk and maybe paraphrase everything in the judgment and set the limits of our territories.”

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A Filippino fisherman removes tow ropes of his boat before heading out into the South China Sea, in Masinloc, Philippines, Nov. 8, 2015. Fishermen in the Philippines hope Duterte's visit to China will help them regain access to disputed waters.
A Filippino fisherman removes tow ropes of his boat before heading out into the South China Sea, in Masinloc, Philippines, Nov. 8, 2015. Fishermen in the Philippines hope Duterte’s visit to China will help them regain access to disputed waters.

China as savior

While the two countries still remain divided over that issue, they are finding other areas of common ground.

Duterte has lashed out at the United States and the European Union over their criticism of his controversial war on drugs. Beijing has offered to help in the effort and has invested in the construction of a drug rehab center.

China’s Foreign Ministry says that during Duterte’s visit this week, he will participate in anti-narcotics activities and both countries’ anti-narcotics departments have begun to explore cooperation.

From the economy to the war on drugs Beijing is portraying itself as the Philippines’ savior. Duterte has not been shy about how much he apparently needs China as well.

The headline for an interview between Duterte and China’s state-run Xinhua News agency quotes him as saying, “Only China can help us.” In the interview, he says that in addition to loans and Beijing’s help in building up its railways and economic cooperation is more important that talking about disputes.

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“War is not an option,” he was quoted as saying.

Beijing too is expecting some deliverables.

An opinion piece published Monday in the party-backed Global Times was cautiously optimistic about the visit, noting that differences were too great to be resolved in just one visit.

“The significance of Duterte’s visit will depend on whether any specific deals will be inked in the days to come,” the article says. “As long as there are agreements between the two sides, big or small, they might bring about a turning point in Sino-Philippine relations.” (VOA)

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China-ASEAN Naval Exercise Hopes to Build Rapport Among Rivals

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China's frigate Huangshan is seen anchored in the waters off RSS Singapura Changi Naval Base
China's frigate Huangshan is seen anchored in the waters off RSS Singapura Changi Naval Base, May 15, 2017, in Singapore. China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will engage in naval exercises next year. VOA

 proposed for next year will ease a stalemated dispute over the South China Sea by letting adversaries meet one another’s front-line personnel and work on common issues, experts in the region say.

Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen and his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan agreed Monday to plan for the first maritime exercise with ships from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Singaporean defense ministry said on its website. Singapore will lead the association next year.

Beijing has angered four Southeast Asian states by expanding its coast guard and military presence in the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract of water rich in fisheries and fuel reserves. Claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines overlap that of China, which calls nearly the whole sea its own.

China-ASEAN Naval Exercise would break down suspicion by letting naval personnel meet one another, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, political and security affairs fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Foreign ministries, he added, would be in charge of handling disputes.

“I think it’s good to have the joint exercise,” Chalermpalanupap said. “At least interpersonal contact, that will be important.”

Nonpolitical focus

Joint exercises will be especially welcomed if they cover search and rescue work or efforts to stop piracy at sea, said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University. The countries must avoid politics to ensure the success of any maneuvers, he said.

“They would have to really focus on the exercise at hand and all sides should not try to in any way, shall we say, proclaim sovereignty during the exercise,” Oh said.

China began to expand in the sea in 2010 by reclaiming land to build artificial islands, some apparently for military use. It’s ready to deploy radar systems and fighter jets on some, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under American think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies.

China’s coast guard ships, oil rigs and unilateral fishing bans in disputed waters have further riled Southeast Asian countries.(VOA)

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End of Doklam Standoff with China Satisfies India, but It Will Not Weaken its Shield

For India, the lesson is that even though the standoff has been resolved, future flare-ups cannot be ruled out

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Doklam Standoff
In this Oct. 16, 2016 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the signing ceremony by foreign ministers during the BRICS summit in Goa, India. China and India may have ended a tense border standoff for now, but their longstanding rivalry raises questions about the possibility of meaningful cooperation at the annual summit of the BRICS grouping encompassing Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. VOA
  • China has abandoned plans to construct road on the high mountain junction lying between India, Bhutan, and China calling for the end of Doklam standoff
  • Indian officials maintain that China has withdrawn its bulldozers and road construction equipment
  • India will be even more vigilant in the months and years to come, not just in Doklam but in the several other sectors as well

Aug 31, 2017: As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to China for a summit of emerging nations starting Sunday, there is a sense of quiet satisfaction in New Delhi at the resolution of their most serious border confrontation in decades in a disputed Himalayan plateau.

Strategic road

For now it appears China has abandoned plans to build a contentious road on the high mountain junction lying between India, Bhutan and China that sparked the standoff between the two countries.

Indian officials maintain that China has withdrawn its bulldozers and road construction equipment.

Map shows border disputes between China and India.

Map shows border disputes between China and India

Beijing has sidestepped the issue, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying saying it will take into consideration factors such as weather “to make relevant construction plans in accordance with the situation on the ground.”

Also Read: Japan comes Out in Full Support for India in its 2-month Long Military Standoff with China at Doklam 

It was in mid-June that Indian troops moved into the Doklam Plateau to obstruct China from building a road in the Himalayan junction disputed between Bhutan and Beijing. That led an infuriated China to accuse Indian troops of trespassing into territory to which it had no claim and demand their withdrawal.

India in turn said the status quo should be restored. It says that has happened as soldiers from both sides have pulled back.

China has announced that its troops will patrol the region, but New Delhi says that happened in the past also.

Stronger India

Strategic experts say India scored by standing its ground for 2½ months despite the strident rhetoric from its powerful neighbor about the prospect of a full-blown conflict if Indian troops did not withdraw from Doklam.

“For the first time, I think the Indian government held its nerve in a crisis. Delhi in particular is known to lose its nerve, and that has not happened,” said strategic analyst Bharat Karnad at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Although Doklam is disputed between Bhutan and India, Indian troops moved in swiftly to stop the construction because the area serves as a buffer that keeps China away from a strategic strip of territory that connects India to its northeast.

FILE - Exile Tibetans shout slogans during a protest to show support with India on Doklam standoff in New Delhi, India, Aug. 11, 2017.
FILE – Exile Tibetans shout slogans during a protest to show support with India on Doklam standoff in New Delhi, India, Aug. 11, 2017. VOA

Lingering bad feelings

But although the crisis has been defused, it has further frayed ties and has deepened mistrust between the Asian giants, analysts say.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said Wednesday that New Delhi should learn lessons from Doklam and prevent similar incidents from happening again.

For India, the lesson is that even though the standoff has been resolved, future flare-ups cannot be ruled out.

“The problem is essentially the aggressive stance that China has adopted on all territorial matters with all countries and here the manner in which it has tried to alter the status quo on the ground by building this road, which we have stopped,” said Jayadeva Ranade, a former China specialist at the Indian government’s National Security Advisory Board. He warned that they might repeat Doklam next year or try something else.

Lessons learned

Indeed, India will be even more vigilant in the months and years to come, not just in Doklam but in the several other sectors along their 3,500 kilometer Himalayan boundary that remains disputed despite decades-long negotiations. That was underlined by India’s army chief, Bipin Rawat, just a day before the formal announcement of the agreement.

“My message to my people is that remain prepared, it can happen again, and therefore do not let your guard down,” he said.

However for the time being there is a sense of relief that the crisis is over, especially because the spat had pulled in Bhutan, India’s tiny neighbor, which feared being caught in the middle of the two huge Asian countries and whose ties with India might have been jeopardized had the conflict flared.

Commentators say the resolution of the dispute also sent a message to other countries that China is not unchallengeable.

Countries embroiled in disputes with China in the South China Sea and elsewhere can look at this crisis as a case study on how to avoid escalation with the Asian giant while sticking to their position, according to Michael Kugelman, South Asia’s deputy director at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“The fact that India stood its ground before eventually fashioning a resolution is something that many other countries will take notice of and try to learn lessons from,” he said.

The forthcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in China might have played a role, according to several reports. New Delhi had refused to confirm Modi’s attendance at the meeting until the crisis was resolved. As he leaves this weekend, India feels it has sent a message that it reached an equitable agreement with China, but their recent tensions may well loom over the meeting. (VOA)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

ALSO READ: Flashback to Terror: 1993 Mumbai Blasts Judgement to Hail on June 27 After 24 Years

Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)