At APEC, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping revealed different ideas of Asia’s economic future



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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (front left) joins other world leaders for the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam.
AAP/pool

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Donald Trump has just attended his first APEC leaders’ summit following bilateral state visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. After the NATO summit and G20 earlier in the year, in which he displayed his inexperience and lack of affinity for multilateralism, many feared the worst.

But the comfortable rapport he established with leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as the less formal structures of APEC, meant there was no repeat of the northern hemisphere summer.

APEC was established in 1989 with the leaders’ summit added in 1994, with an ambition to drive economic co-operation and in particular trade liberalisation across the region. While it has been modestly successful in the unglamorous area of trade facilitation – involving largely regulatory streamlining to make the business of international trade smooth – as a co-operative framework it has not achieved any major outcomes.

So when looking at APEC, the real interest is not on the grouping’s economic policy process, but what occurs on the platform that the leaders’ summit provides, as its convening power remains impressive. What did we see in 2017?

Once again, APEC was a forum for discussing a non-APEC trade agreement. The TPP had regularly figured in previous meetings, and this time the 11 remaining members met to try to craft an agreement without the US. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to attend one of the meetings, but it does appear that the 11 have salvaged some kind of a deal.

A string of meetings occurred on the sidelines. Of greatest interest was Trump’s conclave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mostly focused on relationship-building, particularly important given the slate of new leaders in the club. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Moon, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen were all making their debut.

Despite the evidently warm personal relationship that Trump has developed with Xi, the smiles and diplomatic tourism in Beijing are the pleasant facade of what has become a more overt competition for influence in the region. At the 2017 iteration of the meeting Gareth Evans famously described as “four adjectives in search of meaning”, this was plainly in sight.

At keynote speeches to the APEC CEO summit, Xi and Trump laid out their views on the region’s future. Trump’s speech was the second setpiece, following Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS in October, which outlined a belated US strategy to the region. The US aims to sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and Trump’s focus at APEC was on the economic dimension.

Continuing the themes raised in his UN General Assembly speech of September in which Trump declared he expected all countries to pursue their own interests first, he continued his walk away from core principles of its economic engagement of the region. In the past it had pursued large scale multilateral agreements, initially chasing a big free-trade agreement of the Asia Pacific, and more recently the TPP.

Trump said very plainly that there would be no more big agreements, and only bilateral deals based on strict and fairly narrow ideas of reciprocity. The other notable element was a direct statement that the US would no longer put up with predatory practices of other countries, such as IP theft, subsidies and not-enforced trade rules. While he did not name China as his main concern, he didn’t need to.

Trump’s effort to reconcile US rhetorical commitment to an open economic order in the region with his mercantilism stood in contrast to Xi’s approach. Xi painted a picture that seemed much more in keeping with the longer-run trends in Asia’s economic order.

Xi repeated the promise made at Davos that China was committed to economic openness. More specifically, he said China would seek to make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced.

Interestingly, he said China would uphold regional multilateralism as the best means to advance the region’s common interests that were “interlocked”. He also presented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open mechanism that would help advance regional connectivity and even, somewhat surprisingly, described it in fairly economically liberal terms.

To be clear, Xi’s speech was a declaration of what China would do – whether it actually follows through is an open question. Nonetheless, Xi presented a China that would lead an open and inclusive economic order, in some ways as a defender of the status quo. Trump, in contrast, seemed to break with that tradition. Trump’s economic nationalism was on display, and he encouraged others to follow his lead.

Quite where this leaves the region is unclear. We still have to wait to see whether the two speeches of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” becomes an actual strategy. US policy remains hindered by a lack of resourcing in key branches of government.

The ConversationEqually, we have to wait to see what China will actually do. But make no mistake, at APEC 2017, the region’s two biggest powers presented clearly different visions of the region’s economic future.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Trump’s tour of Asia-Pacific is vital for the stability of the region



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From an Australian perspective, Donald’s Trump Asian tour could hardly be more important.
Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Not for several presidential cycles, and perhaps not since Richard Nixon’s visit to China to initial the Shanghai Communique in 1972, has a visit to Asia assumed such significance – and one that is potentially fraught.

US President Donald Trump leaves Washington late this week for a 13-day tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam for APEC, and the Philippines before returning home via Hawaii.

In these two weeks, Trump will be exposed to an Asia-Pacific – or Indo-Pacific – that is undergoing a wrenching transformation against a background of risks to a “long peace”. It is one that has survived more or less intact since the end of Korean War, leaving aside Vietnam.

From an Australian perspective, the Trump Asian tour could hardly be more important, given Canberra’s challenge of balancing its security and economic interests.

An American wrecking ball in the region is the last thing Australia needs, especially one that risks mishandling a North Korean nuclear threat to regional security.

In this regard, Trump’s every utterance, including his contributions to social media, will be scrutinised over the next two weeks by a nervous region.

What is striking about this latest period is the velocity of a geoeconomic shift that is challenging long-held assumptions about US authority in the regional power balance.

Seemingly, the Asia-Pacific region can no longer take for granted a US stabilising role.

As China’s power rises, so does US leverage ebb. This is not a zero-sum game.

The question is how pieces of a kaleidoscope will settle, if indeed they do.

Trump’s Asia tour will enable an assessment of the extent to which the US will remain a reliable regional security partner and a participant in various regional forums.

Former president Barack Obama talked about a “Pacific Century”, involving as it did a US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Trump has not used such terminology.

Indeed, one of his first executive acts was to undo work that had been put into US participation in a region-wide trade initiative – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – aimed partly at countering China’s geoeconomic dominance.

This was a hasty, ill-considered decision that sent all the wrong signals about US commitment to building an Asia-Pacific trading and security architecture.

The other 11 TPP signatories, including Australia, are pressing on with attempts to finalise the trade liberalising protocol, but US absence significantly lessens its weight.

It may be unrealistic – given Trump’s bellicose “America First” pronouncements on trade – but Washington would do its regional credibility no harm if it reversed itself on TPP.

On a visit to Australia last month to launch the first volume of his memoir – Not For The Faint-Hearted – former prime minister Kevin Rudd warned of the risks of the end of a period of relative stability.

His warnings were based on a paper produced by the Asia Society Policy Institute – Preserving the Long Peace in Asia – of which he is president.

In a contribution to the East Asia Forum, Rudd asked the question: how can we save Asia’s “long peace” in light of North Korea’s attempts to develop a ballistic missile nuclear capability?

This has been a crisis long in the making, beginning with the Soviet training of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers after the second world war, the north’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2002, and the subsequent series of ballistic and nuclear weapons tests.

The uncomfortable truth is that for the last quarter of a century, the international community has simply been kicking the can down the road. And now, at one minute to midnight, everyone is scrambling on what to do about it.

In Rudd’s view, the Asia-Pacific needs to develop a security understanding – like the Helsinki Accords in Europe – to deal with security challenges, including North Korea and, more broadly, territorial disputes that threaten regional stability.

His preferred option is to bolster the East Asia Summit (EAS) as a regional forum to promote peace and stability. He makes the valid point the EAS has, potentially, the regional heft to undertake such a stabilising role.

Disappointingly, Trump is not planning to stay in the Philippines an extra day for this year’s EAS gathering. It might have been time well spent.

Membership, including the ten nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations, plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US, means all the main Indo-Pacific players are participants.

This is how Rudd puts it:

The EAS has the mandate to expand its activities in the security domain. The Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 2005 is clear about this. Furthermore, members of the EAS have all signed the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which commits partners to peaceful dispute resolution. Moreover, the EAS uniquely has all necessary players around the table.

What is required in all of this is American leadership, but as things stand there is little sign of Washington possessing an overarching vision of where it might take the region in the next stage as China continues to expand its power and influence.

In this regard it is hard to disagree with a Lowy Institute paper – East Asia Policy under Trump. It identified a serious case of drift in American engagement with the region under a president whose knowledge of – and interest in – the Asia-Pacific appears limited at best.

US policy on East Asia is thus on autopilot, which presents two distinct risks. First that of a crisis, whether created by the president or events.

The US faces challenges to its economic leadership from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a program of massive infrastructure investment that will enmesh the economies of China and its Asian neighbours, challenges from Chinese attempts to shape regional institutions to its advantage, and to shape a narrative of the region’s future that puts Beijing at its centre.

It also faces challenges from an increasingly capable Chinese military. All this in a region that is becoming increasingly illiberal – and doubtful of US staying power.

This is a fairly bleak assessment of a US ability to engage the Asia-Pacific constructively in this latest period. In fairness to Trump, he remains on a steep learning curve. How all this will play out is anyone’s guess.

What is the case is there is no more important stop of Trump’s itinerary than his visit this coming week to China to engage the newly reinforced ruler Xi Jinping.

The China talks, in the lead-up to APEC in Vietnam, are the linchpin of Trump’s Asian foray. The two leaders exchanged a visit in April this year when Xi visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago.

On that occasion, a novice American president was feeling out his main rival for global leadership. This was a getting-to-know-you opportunity.

However, on this occasion more will be expected of a Trump-Xi encounter on issues like North Korea, concerns over China’s mercantilist behaviour, and its assertiveness in the South China and East China Seas.

While it would be unrealistic to expect a “grand bargain” to emerge between the leaders of a new bipolar world, what is needed is some clear guidance about US priorities amid the confusion that has accompanied Trump’s nine months in the White House.

Laying out some sort of vision for US engagement in the region should be a minimum requirement at a time of considerable uncertainty.

Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in a CFR blogpost:

The president can allay regional fears that the United States is commitment-phobic, by reinforcing at each step Washington’s allies and partners are the cornerstone of US engagement in the region. Reiterating the US commitment to freedom of navigation, free trade, and political freedoms will also reassure regional actors that it still makes sense to buy into a regional order underpinned by a US alliance system. Of course, this trip is only the first step in putting the United States on firmer ground in Asia, after many months of confusing signaling and disruptive initiatives.

The ConversationExpectations for Trump’s engagement with the region may be low, but the same could not be said for the stakes at a time of considerable uncertainty and risk.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China-India border dispute a grim sign for stability in Asia


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The standoff on the Doklam Plateau makes it difficult for either Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping to back down.
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Conflict was almost baked into Asia’s post-1945 international order. Taiwan’s contested status following the communist victory in China’s civil war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula are only the most obvious and volatile of Asia’s military hotspots.

Yet one of the region’s most striking features was the way in which, from the 1970s, it was able to foster a remarkably stable international environment in spite of the visible flashpoints in almost all corners of the region. The growth and prosperity enjoyed by so many people would not have been possible had the countries of the region not worked out how to manage their often vast differences.

That period of stability is coming to an end. Asia’s great powers are increasingly jostling with one another for influence, and as they do the region’s old wounds open up again.

The high altitude military stand-off between India and China at the Doklam Plateau, near the tri-border of Bhutan, India and China, is an acute example of how these old problems have been reinvigorated by Asia’s geopolitical flux.

India and China share a border in excess of 3,000 kilometres in length, much of which is disputed by the two behemoths. This has long been a source of friction, including a short and nasty war in 1962 that India lost in humiliating fashion. Most of these have occurred in India’s north on the Chinese side of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Doklam stand-off is notable because it is in the north-east of the country. It started on June 16 when Chinese PLA engineers began work to extend a road that is within territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but in which Beijing has been operating freely since at least 2005. The work appeared to be an effort to extend the road closer to India’s border.

In response, Indian military forces crossed the border on June 18 into what it regards as Bhutan – a country with whom Delhi has an agreement to guide its foreign policy – and prevented the road from being constructed.

Beijing’s response to the deployment of Indian forces has been incandescent rage. This is in stark contrast to previous cross-border tensions and standoffs, when China has generally approached the matter with a degree of caution and calm, in public at any rate.

The fulmination is the result of China’s belief that the PLA is operating on sovereign Chinese territory and that India has intervened in its affairs for strategic advantage. This is a particularly neuralgic issue for the PRC.

Since then, both sides have mobilised their forces with at least 100 soldiers on either side eyeballing one another, while India has moved thousands more into close supporting positions.

The public rhetoric on either side is hardening. China has carried out military drills and declared that it is easier “to move a mountain than to shake the PLA”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly stated that the standoff was entirely India’s fault, and that the troops had to get out of China.

India in turn has accused China of reneging on its agreement not to change the status quo and has rallied international support by using the standoff as another example of China acting as a disruptive force.

Neither disputes the basic facts – China was building a road towards India’s border, while India does not deny contesting PLA forces beyond its own borders – so what motivated their risk-taking?

Delhi’s reasoning is slightly easier to discern. India is at a military disadvantage in most of the border disputes with China. This area is one in which Delhi has the upper hand. It believes China was taking preparatory steps to negate that advantage.

India is also acutely aware that the tri-border area is very close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land that physically connects India to its eastern states that lie between Bangladesh, China and Burma. Defending the corridor is a first order priority for India.

China’s claims that it was merely road building in its own land are disingenuous. It knows that the territory is in dispute with Bhutan and is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. This was not just a bit of civil engineering, nor was it a case of a rogue PLA unit operating without central clearance.

Many think that China’s move is punishing India for its tilt to Washington and its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. The timing was unmistakably intended to embarrass Modi.

It was not by accident that the incident was timed so that it would cast a shadow over the prime minister’s participation in the G20 summit and a meeting with Xi Jinping. It also signalled that, contrary to his strong-man persona, Modi is not able to control the country’s borders and core interests.

Some also see the effort as an attempt to wedge Bhutan. Beijing has been courting Thimpu in the way it has successfully cultivated other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. This appears to be a fairly Machiavellian means of pushing another of India’s close partners into the China column.

MIT’s Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes, has argued that while China probably did intend to push some strategic agenda, it probably miscalculated the strength of India’s response.

There has been far too much hyperbole about the prospects of this leading to a nuclear war – that is extremely unlikely – but it is also unlikely that this will end in a quickly negotiated diplomatic settlement of the kind that has resolved previous border stand-offs.

Both have positioned themselves in ways that will make backing down quickly very difficult. This crucial bilateral relationship is now at a low ebb, and as the standoff is likely to drag on for a long time, a frosty Sino-India relationship looks set to remain in place.

When we think of difficult great power relationships in Asia, US-China and Japan-China ties tend to predominate. But the crisis in the difficult terrain of the Doklam Plateau reminds us not only that India is an Asian great power, but that the tenor of its relations with China is of crucial strategic significance.

Equally, the tension is a sign of Asia’s new contested and complex geopolitics. This is a world in which American influence is marginal – not just because US Asia policy is on autopilot – and one in which old and long running animosities have been revived by the combustible blend of ambition and wealth.

The ConversationHow Doklam is resolved will tell us a good deal about the extent to which Asia’s great powers can accommodate one another’s interests and recreate the stability of the past. The prospects do not look good.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Asia’s dangerous new geopolitics


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Reuters/KCNA

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

The first week of July is not normally one that brings great events in world politics. Around that time, the northern hemisphere normally shifts into summer holiday mode.

Recently, this has become less true. Coups in Egypt, Turkey, and a terror attack in France have bucked the trend. Asia’s early part of July 2017 has also defied the languorous tendencies of the seventh month.

Presenting it as a gift to the US on its national day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved his isolated country now has the ability to fling death and destruction across the Pacific. Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s declaration that it “won’t happen”, North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and is now within touching distance of a viable nuclear weapon capability.

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China’s approach to the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong sought to underscore Beijing’s power and prestige. But it only succeeded in reminding us of the party state’s insecurities and increasingly militarised approach to its regional dealings.

The over-the-top martial parades, China’s first aircraft carrier sailing into the harbour city, and President Xi Jinping’s powerful warnings not to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland” made clear China’s intent to signal that it is firmly in charge of the upstart entrepot.

However, Xi did so in a manner which reminds us of the party-state’s military instincts and its thin skin.

In the Himalayas, China and India had another of their high-altitude standoffs as Chinese military engineers constructed roads and buildings in territory that is disputed, as well as in land that no one regards as anything other than Bhutan.

Tensions have escalated, with China’s ambassador in New Delhi reminding India of the “bitter lesson” of the 1962 border war.

And in the South China Sea, the US deployed B1 bombers to fly over the disputed features – much to China’s chagrin.

The Trump administration stayed its hand in trade and the South China Sea in the belief China could restrain North Korea. But North Korea’s test shows the White House either that Beijing wasn’t trying hard enough, or that it does not have necessary leverage over Pyongyang.

Either way, the Sino-American relationship, which had seemed in reasonably good condition following the “citrus summit” at Mar-a-Lago, is entering a much more difficult phase.

It is hard to recall a time at which Asia’s geopolitical circumstances have been this fraught – at least since the 1970s. The region, which had enjoyed one of the most settled strategic circumstances, is now in a period in which its great powers not only don’t trust each other but are beginning to contest one another’s interests militarily.

Over the past 40 years, American leadership has been vital to Asia’s stability. Its dominant military power provided public goods and kept regional rivalries in check. Economically, it provided much-needed capital, and its large home market was open for export opportunities.

But US leadership is visibly waning. The credibility of US power and influence is openly questioned while its economic openness is also in doubt. Rising powers realise this and are jostling for advantage.

In response, defence spending is on the rise, as countries take steps to secure their interests in an increasingly uncertain world. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test is only the most visible example of a region that is arming itself in the face of a shift in the balance of power.

Declining US leadership predates Trump’s election. But the sense of uncertainty has been badly exacerbated by the absence of a coherent Asia policy from his no-longer-new administration.

US policy in Asia is largely on autopilot, with the direction set by the Obama administration remaining in place. But this is due to inertia; it is not a considered strategy. If this continues, it will amplify the destabilising actions taken by those across the region who are unsettled by this uncertainty.

China’s position in the region is changing swiftly. Its gains in the South China Sea are unlikely to be reversed, and its infrastructure initiatives – both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative – are being widely welcomed.

Equally, China has taken the opportunity of Trump’s unwillingness and inability to lead to present its rise as a positive force on a range of issues – most obviously on climate change and the global economy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s globe-trotting efforts to build the country’s reputation has seen him complete more than 60 trips abroad since his election in 2014. While there is some way to go to turn his ambition for India’s international heft to match its demography and civilisational legacy, it is modernising its military capacity and expanding its international influence.

As the standoff with China shows, it will be no pushover. Crucially, India sees the current period of flux as one of historic opportunity.

The region’s lesser powers are also playing their part in this geopolitical drama. Like Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe sees opportunity in these circumstances. He is pushing for Japan to be able to do far more militarily – something that is contentious at home and abroad. And even with its very limited capacity, Japan is proving a thorn in Chinese ambition.

Many others, such as Australia, the Philippines and Korea, are positioning themselves in relation to a larger contest for influence in Asia.

For decades, Asia’s countries took comfort from a stable balance of power underwritten by US might and economic openness. This allowed rapid economic growth. But that wealth is now powering ambition that, when paired with America’s declining influence and sense of purpose, has created an increasingly unstable Asia.

The ConversationUnfortunately, there will be many more months and weeks ahead like July 2017’s first week.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indigenous People Forced Off Their Land


The link below is to an article that reports on the increasing numbers of indigenous people being forced of their land in Asia.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/02/indigenous-people-turned-off-land

Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ


Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’

NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.

A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.

Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.

Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.

Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.

A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.

While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.

Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.

“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”

Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.

Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”

“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”

While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.

“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”

In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See,  “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)

Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims in Bekasi, Indonesia Oppose Another Church Building


Islamists decry ‘center of Christianization’ in West Java, where anti-Christian hostilities fester.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 13 (CDN) — Islamic organizations have mounted a campaign against the planned construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in West Java Province, where Christian leaders report 20 other churches have faced Muslim hostility since 2009.  

Muslim leaders said plans for the Mother Teresa church in the Lippo Cikarang property project in the Cikarang area will make it the largest church building in Bekasi City. Adang Permana, general chairman of the Bekasi Islamic Youth Movement, said Bekasi area Muslims oppose the church building because they fear it will become “a center of Christianization,” according to the Islamic website Hidayatullah.com.

“This church will become the center of apostasy and clearly disturb the faith of Bekasi citizens, who are mostly Muslims,” Permana said, according to the website. “In addition to rejecting this parish church, we also call for the disbanding of all unauthorized churches in Bekasi Regency [City],” he stated. A church leader, however, said area residents had approved the presence of the church.

Adang said opposition to the church was based in the Islamic roots of the city.

“Historically, sociologically, and demographically, Bekasi cannot be separated from Islam, with the cleric K.H. Noer Ali as one of the founders and developers of the city,” Adang told Hidayatullah.com. “Because of this, we reject the church.”

H.M. Dahlan, coordinator of United Muslim Action of Bekasi, also expressed fear that the church would become a center of Christianization in Bekasi.  

“Bekasi Muslims reject the presence of this church,” Dahlan said in a letter that he has circulated among mosques in the Bekasi area. In it he states that plans for the Mother Teresa church would make it the largest church building in southeast Asia. The letter has reportedly generated much unrest among area residents.

At a recent press conference, Dahlan said Unified Muslim Action of Bekasi, along with “all Muslims, mosque congregations, leaders of women’s study groups, Quranic schools, and Islamic education foundations have firmly decided to reject the construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in Cikarang and request that the Bekasi Regency cancel all [construction] plans.”

The Islamic groups also called on Bekasi officials to clamp down on “illegal churches” meeting in homes and shops and to block “all forms of Christianization” in the area. Local government officials frequently stall Christian applications for building and worship permits, opening the way for Islamic groups to accuse churches of being “illegal.”

The Mother Teresa church applied for a building permit in 2006, but the Bekasi government has not yet acted on the application, said a clergyman from the church identified only as Pangestu. He added that his church has met all requirements of 2006 Joint Ministerial Decrees No. 8 and No. 9, but the permit has still not been granted. The 2006 decrees require at least 60 non-Christian residents to agree to the construction of a church building, and the congregation must have at least 90 members.

The parish now worships at the Trinity School auditorium.

Pangestu said the church has provided school funds for poor children, free clinics, and food for needy neighbors.  

“There are no problems between the church and the local people,” Pangestu said.

Mother Teresa Catholic Church began worshiping on Jan. 25, 2004.  The church plans to build on an 8,000-square meter lot near Trinity School.

The objections from Islamic groups are the latest evidence of Islamic hostility to churches. Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, released a statement this week that 36 churches in Indonesia have been attacked, harassed or otherwise opposed since 2009; 20 of the churches were located in West Java, with six of those in the Bekasi area.

The list is growing, Bela said, and does not yet include recent reports of 10 churches that local authorities were opposing in Mojokerto, East Java Province, and three others that were closed down in Tembilahan, Riau Province.

Still, large-scale attacks on Christians do not happen as they did in the 1990s and before, he said.

“Now the attacks on churches happen only sporadically,” Bela reported. “In 2007 I noted 100 cases of attacks, and in 2008 the figure went down to only 40 cases, and until October 2009 I noted only eight cases of attacks on Christian churches. But with an attack on St. Albert Catholic Church on Dec. 17, 2009, the figure of cases went up again.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Force Expat Christian Teacher to Flee Maldives


Mistaking compass she drew for a cross, parents of students threatened to expel her.

NEW DELHI, October 5 (CDN) — Authorities in the Maldives last week had to transport a Christian teacher from India off one of the Islamic nation’s islands after Muslim parents of her students threatened to expel her for “preaching Christianity.”

On Wednesday night (Sept. 29) a group of angry Muslim parents stormed the government school on the island of Foakaindhoo, in Shaviyani Atoll, accusing Geethamma George of drawing a cross in her class, a source at Foakaindhoo School told Compass.

“There were only 10 teachers to defend Geethamma George when a huge crowd gathered outside the school,” the source said by telephone. “Numerous local residents of the island also joined the parents’ protest.”

The school administration promptly sought the help of officials from the education ministry.

“Fearing that the teacher would be physically attacked, the officials took her out of the island right away,” the source said. “She will never be able to come back to the island, and nor is she willing to do so. She will be given a job in another island.”

A few days earlier, George, a social studies teacher, had drawn a compass to teach directions to Class VI students. But the students, who knew little English, mistook the drawing to be a cross and thought she was trying to preach Christianity, the source said. The students complained to their parents, who in turn issued a warning to the school.

Administrators at the school set up a committee to investigate the allegation and called for a meeting with parents on Thursday (Sept. 30) to present their findings. The committee found that George had drawn a compass as part of a geography lesson.

“However, the parents arrived the previous night to settle the matter outside the school,” said the source.

According to local newspaper Haveeru, authorities transferred George to the nearby island of Funadhoo “after the parents threatened to tie and drag her off of the island.”

The teacher, who worked at the school for three years, is originally from the south Indian coastal state of Kerala. Many Christians from Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu state in India are working as teachers and doctors in the Maldives.

Preaching or practicing a non-Muslim faith is forbidden under Maldivian law, which does not recognize any faith other than Islam. The more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims.

A string of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in South Asia, the Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Importing any literature that contradicts Islam is against the law.

Many of the more than 70,000 expatriate workers in the Maldives are Christian, but they are allowed to practice their faith only inside their respective homes. They cannot even get together for prayer or worship in each other’s houses – doing so has resulted in the arrest and deportation of expatriates in the past.

The Maldives was ruled by an authoritarian, conservative Muslim president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years. The nation became a multi-party democracy in 2008 with Mohamed Nasheed – from the largely liberal Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as the new president.

Gayoom’s right-wing party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), however, managed to win a simple majority in the People’s Majlis – as the parliament is known in the Maldives – in the 2009 parliamentary election. The Maldives follows the presidential system.

The DRP-led opposition often criticizes Nasheed’s government, accusing it of being liberal in cultural and religious matters, which DRP leaders claim will have a bearing on the country’s sovereignty and identity.

A key ally of the MDP, the Adhaalath Party, also holds conservative views on religion and culture.

Many in Maldivian society, along with religious and political leaders, believe religious freedom is not healthy for the nation’s survival, although the Maldives does not perceive any threat from nearby countries.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph