Asia in Review Archive
Date of AiR edition
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
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).