Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

18 February 2020

Malaysia seeks agreement with Vietnam to stop illegal fishing 

(fs) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the country plans to fight encroachment of deep-sea fishermen from Vietnam in Malaysian waters by working out an agreement between the countries. A similar agreement does already exist between Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam positioned itself open to this idea last year. 141 Vietnamese fishermen were detained for encroachment into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone in 2019.  [The Malaysian Reserve]




11 February 2020

Vietnam: NGOs urge MEPs to postpone Vietnam trade deal vote 

(fs) After the European Union gave green light to the free trade agreement with Vietnam at the end of January [Asia in Review No 4, January/2020, 4], 28 NGOs signed a letter that demanded to postpone the plenary vote next week. In the letter addressed to members of the European Parliament, the NGOs expressed regret that even though Vietnam had failed to fulfill requests to improve human rights to the satisfaction of MEPs, the International Trade Committee (INTA) voted to quickly consent to both agreements, going against recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and ignoring the pleas of NGOs, both international and Vietnamese.

As an example, the letter mentioned the 2019 EP’s refusal of ratification of the EU Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement because of the country’s unwillingness to abide by human rights and the rule of law. In particular, the NGOs urged Vietnam to disclose the legal mechanics behind the frequent use of penal provisions against journalists, lawyers and activists and to release political prisoners and detainees. The MEP’s decision will be made this week. [Human Rights Watch]


4 February 2020

Vietnam Orders Combat Training Jets From Russia

(jk) It was reported last week that Vietnam will buy 12 combat training aircraft from Russia, according to a US$ 350 million deal it has signed last year.  [The Moscow Times]

While Russia is the biggest arms supplier to Vietnam and to Southeast Asia, looking to increase its military footprint in the region (see e.g. Laos, Asia in Review No. 53, December/2019, 5), with the inclusion of China in a recent report on arms production and sales (see background reading), Russia has now dropped to third in the SIPRI rankings of the world’s largest arms producers and sellers, behind the US and China. 


28 January 2020

EU committee greenlights free trade agreement with Vietnam

(fs) The European Committee on International Trade has approved the free trade and investment protection agreements between the EU and Vietnam. This was preceded by almost eight-year negotiations. It is the largest free trade agreement the EU has ever had with a developing country.

Over the next ten years, many elements will be put into effect such as 99 percent of all customs duties on both sides will be abolished, a reduce of non-tariff trade barriers and bureaucratic hurdles by Vietnam, and increasingly introducing international standards and accepting EU certificates, an enhanced emblematic protection of 169 EU and 39 Vietnamese products and the market access for European and Vietnamese companies is to be facilitated. Furthermore, the agreement contains legally binding rules concerning sustainable development in matters of climate, labor and human rights.

The committee also approved an investment protection agreement with Vietnam. Unlike the free trade agreement, this not only has to be adopted by the Parliament and the Council but must also be ratified by each member state afterwards. The vote on the trade deal will be set in the Parliament’s February session in Strasbourg. After Singapore, Vietnam is the second largest EU trading partner in ASEAN. [European Parliament] [DW, in German]


21 January 2020

ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Vietnam, reaffirm UNCLOS and consider US Summit

(jk) Vietnam, holding the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020 convened the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last week, discussing ASEAN’s priorities and regional developments for the year 2020. 

One major theme of the following joint statement referred to the South China Sea and mentioned the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) several times. The Foreign Ministers reaffirmed UNCLOS as “the basis for determining sovereignty, sovereign rights and legitimate interests over maritime areas” and that it “is the overarching framework of legal order for the seas that must be respected by all countries”. [ASEAN

The ministers also tentatively accepted a US proposal for a special summit in Las Vegas, but a final decision has yet to be made. US President Donald Trump invited ASEAN leaders to the United States, a good sign after he disappointed many by not appearing at summits in Southeast Asia on several occasions, including the East Asia Summit. [Bangkok Post]

Were the Las Vegas summit to go ahead, it could have a positive effect on working against some of the less desirable trends (from a US perspective) that are subject of this week’s background reading (below).


21 January 2020

Vietnam: Viettel announces own 5G services  

(fs) The country’s largest telecommunication provider will develop network equipment and software to launch its own 5G network. The military-owned company will both develop civilian and military network services. 

The decision can be seen as a sign of Vietnam’s effort to bypass China and its leading telecommunication company Huawei, consequently giving in to the pressure it has received from the U.S. about boycotting Huawei for reasons of national security. Viettel has more than 110 million customers in Southeast Asian countries Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.  [Financial Times]


7 January 2020

A closer look at Vietnam’s defence white paper of 2019 

(jk) In November 2019, for the first time in ten years, Vietnam released its Defence White Paper amid increasing tension with China in the South China Sea and an overall changing security environment. [Radio Free Asia] This article looks at the White Paper in more depth from an American perspective and interprets it as a clear message to China that it’s continued coercion may lead to closer defence relations with the US. While Vietnam does try to continue to balance its defence relationships, the authors claim that “Vietnam’s latest defense white paper is full of warnings to China and opportunities for the United States.” [War on the rocks]


7 January 2020

Japan and Vietnam vow to deepen cooperation

(dql) Taking aim at China, the foreign ministers of Japan and Vietnam at a meeting in Hanoi expressed their shared commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the South China Sea and agreed on close maritime security cooperation. They also agreed to work together to realize complete denuclearization of North Korea as well as to bring more countries into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. [Japan Times]

Vietnam holds the ASEAN chairmanship this year and is non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021.

31 December 2019

Vietnam: Former minister sentenced to life imprisonment

(fs) A Vietnamese court sentenced the former minister of information and communications for life in a corruption case that also included over a dozen other official executives who received lengthy prison terms. He was sentenced for taking bribes during his time in office in the range of US$ 3 million to manage the purchase of the digital television service AVG on behalf of the state-owned mobile network operator MobiFone. [Vietnam News]

24 December 2019

Vietnam: Increased cross-border hacking activities and cyber espionage

(ls/fs) According to reports, a group which is believed to be tied to the Vietnamese government and known as APT32 has increased its cyber espionage activities, particularly in Southeast Asia where the automotive industry has been a key target. The hacking group’s exploits have included intellectual property theft, the same activity for which Chinese hackers are well-known. Experts say that the Vietnamese hackers have emulated some of China’s cyber methods, though on a significantly smaller scale. Vietnam is part of a growing group of countries that are developing and buying cyber capabilities. [South China Morning Post 1]

At the same time, Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich stated that cyberspace has become a “new territory”, which in spite of its many benefits also arises itself as a new battlefield and therefore must be reckoned with. Due to frequent training, cooperation and mobilization of resources and equipment, Lich affirmed that the country’s military is prepared to “well handle situations in cyberspace” [tui tre news]

Meanwhile, Singapore suffered from a major cyber-attack on the personal data of about 100,000 defence personnel. Sensitive information held by two security force vendors, including full names, identification details, and a combination of contact numbers, email and residential addresses could be included in the potential data exposure. Earlier this year, the personal data of more than 4,000 people was compromised after Singapore Red Cross’ website was hacked. Last year, the non-medical personal particulars of about 1.5 million patients were illegally accessed and copied during a hack, which also tried to get hold of the private medical details of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. [South China Morning Post 2]

17 December 2019

Vietnam and US strengthen economic bond 

(fs) In the course of the reception of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) in Hà Nội, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc declared to adjust the country’s economic environment to improve the situation for foreign enterprises in Vietnam, including those from the U.S. Concurrently, Phúc encouraged U.S. businesses to pay attention to the Vietnamese market and its economic possibilities. Regarding Vietnam’s upcoming position as the ASEAN Chair in 2020, the U.S. assured its support in this matter. [Viet Nam News]

Over the last year, Vietnam has largely profited from the ongoing US-China trade war, since a number of U.S.-based companies transferred their production locations from China to Vietnam or are in the process of doing so in order to avoid punitive duties.

3 December 2019

China and Vietnam vow to work together on peaceful solution in disputed waters

(dql) Last week, China and Vietnam held a vice-ministerial level meeting to discuss border cooperation on land and maritime issues. Beijing and Hanoi agreed to join efforts for a peaceful resolution in disputed waters. 

The meeting came after earlier in November the months-long Vanguard Bank standoff between China and Vietnam had ended, but also after Vietnam announced that it, while prioritizing bilateral dialogue, was also considering the possibility of filing a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over China’s claims. [South China Morning Post]

3 December 2019

Vietnam jails 3 more activists over political Facebook posts

(jk) Three people have been jailed for anti-government posts on Facebook deemed to defame the ruling Communist Party and the state last week. Earlier in November, two others had been jailed on similar charges and an Amnesty International spokesman said previously that at least 16 people had been arrested this year prior to that. [Reuters]

26 November 2019

Vietnam: More bloggers facing prosecution

(ls) Vietnamese authorities continue to crack down on government critics. Last week, police arrested blogger and independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, accusing him of “dangerous” anti-state actions, including “fabricating, storing, and disseminating information, as well as other materials opposing the Vietnamese government.” He is the founder and president of the outlawed Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam. [VOA]

This week, blogger Pham Van Diep is facing trial on charges of posting, liking, and sharing information on Facebook in violation of article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, which criminalizes publication or distribution of information “that aims to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” He had repeatedly used blogs, and later his Facebook account, to address human rights abuses. [Human Rights Watch]

26 November 2019

Vietnam allows formation of independent trade unions

(ls) In an historic move, Vietnam has adopted an amended Labour Code that allows the formation of independent trade unions. The law will take effect in 2021 and is expected to pave the way for the ratification of several free trade agreements Vietnam has signed, including one with the European Union. The new law also improves collective bargaining rights, strengthens protections against discrimination at work, and enhances protections for younger workers. The EU-Vietnam FTA, which was signed in June this year, includes a chapter on sustainable development, such as implementing international standards on labour rights. It still needs the approval of the European Parliament. [Straits Times]

19 November 2019

Vietnam: 12-year jail term handed to Australian retiree in Vietnam for “terrorist activities against the state” 

(jk) A 70-year old Vietnamese-Australian retiree was convicted over his membership of the Viet Tan political party, which is critical of the Vietnamese government. It is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Vietnam since 2016. According to the police statement he gave US$400 to a second party to fund the operations of Viet Tan. [South China Morning Post]

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

5 November 2019

ASEAN: Vietnam assumes ASEAN chairmanship under “Cohesive and Responsive” Theme

(jk) Following the closing ceremony of the 35th ASEAN Summit and related summits in Bangkok on November 4, the ASEAN chairmanship for 2020 was passed on to Vietnam. Vietnamese PM Phuc stated in his speech that Vietnam’s theme for the ASEAN Year 2020 will be “Cohesive and Responsive”. He laid out that Vietnam will focus on “fostering the bloc’s sustainable cohesiveness through consolidating solidarity and unity, increasing economic connectivity, further intensifying the values and identities of the ASEAN Community, improving the efficiency of ASEAN’s apparatus, and stepping up relations with the bloc’s partners in the global community.” [Saigon Online]

29 October 2019

South China Sea: Philippines lifts moratorium as Vietnam prepares for new tensions with China

(ls) The Philippines will lift a 2018 moratorium on foreign scientific research in its exclusive economic zone so it can exploit marine resources. The previous ban was issued in February 2018 on an area called the Benham Rise, which the United Nations in 2012 declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. This year, two Chinese research vessels were spotted in Philippine-controlled waters, which became the subject of a diplomatic protest in August. In another incident, the Philippines protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels. Earlier this month, however, the Philippines welcomed the Russian oil firm Rosneft to explore the waters. [Reuters 1]

Meanwhile, a Chinese oil survey vessel that has been in the center of a tense standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea left Vietnamese-controlled waters after more than three months. According to observers, it is likely that now China will send an oil rig to drill in the area where the vessel had conducted seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which could result in a sharp rise of tensions. However, also Vietnam has partnered up with Rosneft. [Reuters 2]

22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]

22 October 2019

Vietnam: DreamWorks movie banned for displaying Chinese “nine-dash line”

(jk) The Vietnamese government has banned screenings of a DreamWorks animated movie, after finding that the film contains a map showing the controversial U-shaped dotted line, indicating China’s claims over the South China Sea. Other affected countries, such as the Philippines or Malaysia have also criticised or ordered to cut the scene from the movie, and after about a week, Malaysia has followed suit and also decided not to screen the movie. The so-called “nine-dash line” is a common feature on Chinese maps and even passports, but other countries reject Beijing’s claims which have no basis in contemporary international law. [Reuters]

15 October 2019

Duterte, following Vietnam, invites Rosneft to explore oil and gas field in South China Sea

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has invited the Russian company Rosneft to conduct oil and gas exploration in the Philippines, including the contested South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). The development needs to be seen against the background that Russian companies, including Rosneft, are already helping Vietnam explore for oil and gas in similarly contested waters. Despite warnings from Beijing, Russian firms have not abandoned the projects. Thus, it appears that Duterte may have adopted Vietnam’s strategy in this regard. [Rappler]

15 October 2019

Power shifts between Laos and Vietnam as new dam opens this month

(ls) In Laos, the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam is scheduled to open this month. It is widely expected to reduce water, fish and sediment to about 50 million people downriver, many in Vietnam. However, Vietnam has not openly protested the dam. Observers consider that this is not only due to the countries’ self-perception as socialist “brothers” but also because of China’s growing influence in land-locked Laos. China has helped build infrastructure, most notably a high-speed rail line and special economic zones. Some of the projects fall under China’s 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative. As Vietnam is witnessing the growing Chinese influence in neighboring Cambodia, analysts say that Hanoi may not want to offend Vientiane and push it closer to Beijing too. [VOA]

At the same time, also Vietnam itself faces the dilemma how to overcome a domestic infrastructure bottleneck to promote economic growth while fending off unwarranted economic and security influences from China. Vietnam needs private capital and technical expertise to build projects in a timely and efficient manner. Reserving these projects for domestic investors may cast doubt on the economic rationality of decision-making. [ISEAS]

8 October 2019

China continues to interfere with Vietnamese fishers within Vietnam’s EEZ

(jk) According to Vietnamese media outlets, Chinese ships continue to harass and chase away local Vietnamese fishermen fishing within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In a latest incident over the weekend, three Chinese vessels drove away a Vietnamese fishing boat and prevented it from fishing just over 110 nautical miles off the coast of central Khanh Hoa Province. Similar incidents keep occurring according Vietnamese media. Last week, a Chinese speedboat prevented Vietnamese fishermen to recover their vessel after it sank in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. [VNExpress]

As for the broader tensions between Vietnam and China, Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer lays out three broad options for the Vietnamese leadership to consider:  (1) continue to muddle through by “cooperating and struggling” with China; (2) back down in order to relieve unrelenting Chinese pressure, the precedent set in the Repsol case in July 2017 and March 2018; and (3) counter-balance Chinese pressure by stepping up security and defence cooperation with the United States by agreeing to raise bilateral relations to a strategic partnership in the near future. [Radio Free Asia]

8 October 2019

Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations

(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen  and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]

1 October 2019

The political economy of social media in Vietnam

(ls) Unlike China where most Western social media platforms are blocked, Vietnam adopts a relatively open approach to these platforms. The Vietnamese government tends to accommodate Western social media platforms by trying to enforce their compliance with local rules through regulatory and economic means rather than blocking them altogether. This instructive piece from ISEAS describes the political economy of social media in Vietnam. [ISEAS]

1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]

Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

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16 July 2019

ASEAN defense ministers meet while Chinese-Vietnamese stand-off in South China Sea continues

(ls) During the 13th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Bangkok, the member countries’ defense ministers have signed the Joint Declaration on Sustainable Security to promote cooperation within ASEAN to counter non-traditional and transnational threats. Among the concept papers that have been adopted are the Terms of Reference of ASEAN Our Eyes and Guidelines for Maritime Interaction. The ministers also stressed the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. [Xinhua]

At the same time, six coastguard vessels – two Chinese and four Vietnamese – have been eyeing each other in patrols around Vanguard Bank in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea since last week. Initially, a Chinese survey ship entered waters near the Vietnamese-controlled reef to conduct a seismic survey. Vanguard Bank is the westernmost reef of the Spratlys and sits within what Hanoi claims is 200 nautical miles of its exclusive economic zone. That claim is contested by Beijing and Taiwan. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

EU-Vietnam free trade agreement finally signed

(ls) Vietnam and the European Union have signed a free trade agreement on Sunday. It will eliminate almost all tariffs for goods traded between Vietnam and the EU’s 28 member countries. The deal, which had been negotiated since 2012, is the EU’s second free-trade agreement in the Southeast Asian region, after one with Singapore. [South China Morning Post]

11 June 2019

Singapore Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries

(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]

However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]

11 June 2019

Vietnamese activist sentenced to six years in prison for online posts

(jk) An environmental activist has been sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” posts on Facebook. He was arrested in September last year and according to his indictment last week, he urged and incited protests on social media. [Reuters] The sentencing is yet another example of a trend in Vietnam towards harsher penalties and shrinking tolerance on behalf of the government towards citizens expressing critical thoughts online.

4 June 2019

34th ASEAN-Japan forum held in Hanoi

(jk) The annual forum held as a dialogue between the two sides took place in Hanoi this week. In addition to Vietnam’s and Japan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, senior officials from all ASEAN countries took part. [VietnamNews]

28 May 2019

Vietnam: Facebook increased content blocking by 500% in second half of 2018

(ls) Facebook increased the amount of content it restricted access to in Vietnam by over 500% in the last half of 2018. Facebook’s said it had made restrictions based on reports from Vietnam’s information and security ministries. The increase happened at a time when Vietnam was tightening internet restrictions, culminating in a cyber security law that came into effect this January. [Reuters]