Asia in Review Archive

Brunei

Date of AiR edition

News summary

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]

23 February 2021

Indonesia to rally among ASEAN for a joint stance on coup in Myanmar

(nd) In an effort to promote among ASEAN member states a common stance on the coup in Myanmar, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Brunei last week. Brunei currently holds the ASEAN chair. She already discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and is expected to meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday.

Retno commented, Indonesia “prioritised” efforts to ensure a democratic transition in Myanmar, and has held talks with regional foreign ministers and counterparts in India, Australia, Japan and Britain, and the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener. Last week, Indonesia and Malaysia called for a special ASEAN meeting on the coup. The member states responses were mixed, but mostly in adherence to their principle of non-interference, calling it an internal affair.

According to analysts, Indonesia is looking for a better response to the military coup both regionally and internationally, underlining its regional role as peacekeeper and communicator. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Indonesia is reportedly pushing Southeast Asian countries to agree on an action plan over Myanmar’s coup that would keep the junta to its promise of holding elections, involving also monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive. [Reuters]

 

23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

23 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]

23 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]

 

9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]

22 December 2020

ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021

(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.

15 December 2020

ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects

(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]

24 November 2020

Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium

(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]

17 November 2020

South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor

(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.

This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat

17 November 2020

ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally

(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.

A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]

Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.

At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.

Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]

The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]

Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]

17 November 2020

East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response

(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.

The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]

10 November 2020

ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen

(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]

3 November 2020

Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership

(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.

The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]

27 October 2020

Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts

(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]

The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

6 October 2020

Brunei, Singapore to sign MoU

(nd) To strengthen diplomatic ties, Brunei Darussalam and the Republic of Singapore have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish collaborative social development programs including protection for children, the elderly, women, and persons with different abilities. Official bilateral relations between the ASEAN members were established in 1984.

Meanwhile, Singapore announced visitors from New Zealand and Brunei are now allowed to travel to and from the island city-state, solely undergoing a Covid-19 test upon arrival. [The Star] [eTurbo News]

6 October 2020

Brunei: Charge for frequent cross border travelers

(nd) Brunei started imposing entry charges on travelers – foreign or national – travelling through its border posts by land. A Frequent Commuters Pass (FCP) to ease the financial burden on daily commuters and students was announced. Malaysian media reported on local requests for a government-to-government arrangements to ease the burden of affected Sarawakians, particularly those in Miri, Limbang and Lawas, leaving concrete proposals up to the federal government.

Earlier this year in a letter to the Brunei government, Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan requested in a letter the postponement of the implementation, which was postponed until October 1. [Borneo Post] [Borneo Bulletin]

 

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]

22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

8 September 2020

Brunei: New Armed Forces Commander 

(nd) After his appointment, the new Commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces – a usually an officer with the rank of a Major General – has been received with his predecessor at a royal audience attended also by the Crown Prince and Senior Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office. The 460.000 country’s forces have 10.000 active troops. [Borneo Bulletin]

8 September 2020

Brunei: Missile successfully fired at RIMPAC 2020 exercise

(nd) The Royal Brunei Navy’s (RBN) vessel Kapal Diraja Brunei (KDB) Darulehsan successfully participated in this year’s Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), launching a missile in the Live Firing Event ‘Sinking Exercise’ (SINKEX) serial. The vessel has now achieved full operational capability. [Borneo Bulletin]

Hosted by the United States Navy, RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime exercise held biennially in Honolulu, Hawai’I, the latest bringing 20 ships and 10 nations together. Its goal is to exemplify defense or military diplomacy, which means the cooperative use of military in peacetime, building trust and preventing conflicts through creating stability. RIMPAC was first held in 1971 with participants from the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Other regular participants are Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Chile, Colombia, Peru, France and the Netherlands. Observer nations — which are involved in RIMPAC at the strategic level and use the opportunity to prepare for possible full participation in the future — include China, India, the Philippines, Ecuador Mexico, and Russia. Critics said the focus of the maneuvers to be more on depicting the defense potential rather than to function on a diplomatic level. [Washington Post]

30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]

 

30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]

30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]

 

28 April 2020

INTERPOL crackdown on terrorist routes in Southeast Asia

(jk) An INTERPOL-led operation from mid-February to mid-March involving law enforcement from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines led to the arrest of over 180 individuals, allegedly involved in human trafficking and terrorism. The operation took place along known common routes used by terrorist and organized crime groups in the border area of the involved countries, for example the Sulu and Celebes Seas, which have repeatedly been the focus of terrorist for kidnappings and human trafficking. Law enforcement was able to rescue a number of human trafficking victims and seized illegal firearms and explosives. [INTERPOL]

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]

Date of AiR edition

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28 May 2019

Criminalization of gay sex in Brunei and Singapore in the spotlight

(ls) Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has returned an honorary degree awarded by Oxford University after a global backlash for introducing the death penalty for gay sex and adultery. Nearly 120,000 people had signed a petition by April calling on the university to rescind the honorary law degree awarded in 1993 to the sultan. [Reuters]

In a separate development, Li Huanwu, a grandson of Singapore’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, revealed on Friday he had married his boyfriend in South Africa. Sex between men remains illegal in Singapore under Section 377A of the Penal Code. [South China Morning Post] In a 2011 interview, the late Lee Kuan Yew said about homosexual couples, “They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone.” [YouTube]

11 December 2018

Brunei: China hopes to set an example for cooperation

(jk) According to the [Voice of Asia] news outlet, China has invested over $4 billion in Brunei, one of the ASEAN states that is at the same time a claimant state in the South China Sea.

During a meeting last month, the Chinese president met Brunei’s Sultan in Brunei, where they talked about going ahead with joint oil and gas explorations – within the exclusive economic zone of Brunei, in an area claimed by China. Whether or not the joint exploration is to go ahead remains to be seen, similarly to the headline-grabbing MoU that was signed with the Philippines recently. China may fancy its chances with Brunei more however, as significantly less pushback can be expected from a domestically more tightly run country.

Should the joint exploration go ahead, China may hope to set a precedent for other claimant states to follow. The details of the potential joint activities are yet to be worked out. It will be contentious for example whose laws apply to the exploration project. China’s, which claims to have sovereignty over the waters, or Brunei’s within whose jurisdiction the project would technically take place. Other states in the region will look closely and take note.

30 October 2018

China: Xi Jinping demands war preparedness of Southern Theatre Command following first joint China-ASEAN maritime exercises

(dql/jk) During his visit to the Southern Theatre Command which is in charge for the South China Sea and Taiwan, President Xi Jinping in a speech urged the Command to “strengthen its mission … and to concentrate all energies to advance the work on preparing for war.” The Command “must take all complex situations into consideration and perfectionalize all contingency plans”. [Xinhua, in Chinese][South China Morning Post]

Xi‘s speech came shortly after China and ASEAN states held their first joint maritime exercises last week in an effort to ease regional tensions linked to rival claims in the South China Sea. While Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar sent observers, Singapore – the co-organiser of the event-, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei deployed ships to participate in the exercises. 

Eight warships with 1,200 military personnel set sail from China’s southern Guangdong province. A focus of the ongoing drill is maritime safety, as well as search and rescue operations featuring the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). [ATimes]

In addition to the maritime drill off China, armed forces from the PLA, Malaysia and Thailand were also conducting a 10-day drill in areas off Port Dickson in Malaysia. The exercises are an extension of the annual joint exercises between China and Malaysia that began in 2014. [The Nation]

25 March 2018

Brunei: PRC writing checks and advancing its interests

(jk) The Sultanate of Brunei sits on finite reserves of oil and gas which have long guaranteed the countries well-being. Prices for oil have been low however and resources become scarcer making Brunei feel the squeeze and realising its over-reliance on the energy sector. Despite HSBC and others banks closing down their business in Brunei recently [The Scoop], the Bank of China (BOC) has opened up shop there in 2016 with an eye on facilitating foreign direct investment from China. Brunei has a neglectable domestic market and with dwindling resources has become less attractive to HSBC and other international actors. Clearly, China is happy to fill the void and engage in more “check book diplomacy”, which Brunei undoubtedly is happy about. For China, Brunei is a strategically important country in its OBOR project, as well as a claimant in the South China Sea which the PRC would like to convince to engage in joint-development programmes to its on liking. Surely, writing checks will make the Sultan more agreeable [Asia Times].

25 February 2018

Brunei: The reasons behind the latest cabinet reshuffle

(lh) After the replacement of six prominent ministers by the Sultan of Brunei at the end of January, the cabinet reshuffle indicates a crackdown on high-level corruption. The fact that the new Deputy Minister is the former director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau together and that the Sultan after the reshuffle reinforced the importance of ministers being integer, avoiding corruption, has been the background of this unforeseen shakeup. [ASEAN Today]

18 February 2018

Security in Southeast Asia: Increased cooperation since Marawi

(ls) After years of lukewarm security cooperation between Southeast countries, last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by Islamic State-aligned militants proved to be a game-changer, argues Michael Hart in the Asian Correspondent. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of coordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. In mid-November last year, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established, and last month, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand signed up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the “Our Eyes” initiative. [Asian Correspondent]

4 February 2018

Six ASEAN countries form “Our Eyes” intelligence network

(ls) Six Southeast Asian nations launched an intelligence pact on Thursday aimed at combating Islamist militants and improving cooperation on security threats, overcoming what analysts described as a high level of distrust. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – have signed up to the “Our Eyes” pact according to which senior defence officials will meet every two weeks to swap information on militant groups and develop a common database of violent extremists. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2018

Brunei: Will it become ASEAN’s Greece?

Joelyn Chan describes how energy-rich Brunei struggles with dwindling profits, territorial disputes in the sea and output limits imposed by OPEC. She projects that the extravagant spending habits of Bruneians coupled with the nation’s depleting oil situation might accelerate the nation’s fall. However, she also argues that if Brunei succeeds in diversifying its economy, the country may be able to avoid a fate like Greece’s in Europe [ASEAN Today].

5 January 2018

ASEAN: The new Secretary-General

Dato Paduka Lim Jock Hoi, a top trade official and diplomat from Brunei Darussalam, has assumed office as the new Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Monday. Lim is the 14th ASEAN Secretary-General succeeding Secretary-General Le Luong Minh from Vietnam who completed his five-year term on Dec. 31, 2018 (Manila Bulletin). For more information about Mr. Lim, the ASEAN website provides a portrait of him [ASEAN Website].

6 October 2017

Asia’s Maritime Order

The Philippines will begin important upgrades to its primary outpost in the disputed Spratly group in the South China Sea. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program will finance the paving of an airstrip on the largest Philippine holding in the Spratly group, where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims (The Diplomat). Regarding the exploration of oil and gas resources within disputed areas, China reemphasized its commitment to a lifting of a moratorium and a joint commercial development of the petroleum blocks (Manila Bulletin). At the same time, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte voiced rare praise for the United States, calling it an important security ally, and dismissing historic grievances and his slew of past tirades against Washington as “water under the bridge” (South China Morning Post). Australia, in the meanwhile, needs to shift the focus of military presence from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, if it wants to succeed in coping with emerging security challenges in Asia-Pacific and protect its direct strategic interests (The Australian).