Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

Philippines: Senate Bill seeks to criminalize ‘red-tagging’

(ll) Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon has filed a bill that seeks to criminalize and punish red-tagging activities. ‘Red-tagging’ refers to the blacklisting or vilification of groups or individuals as state enemies (terrorist and/or communist), regardless of their actual political beliefs, group affiliations, or actions. [Inquirer

The bill or “Act Defining and Penalizing Red-Tagging” aims to address the impunity that has accompanied the threats and killings of teachers, lawyers, activists that have been red-tagged. The proposed Act comes after the Supreme Court denounced the threats, killings of lawyers, judges. 

The bill has been supported by the Makabayan bloc, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Church leaders. But it was frowned upon by the National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who has been accused of performing red-tagging activities in the name of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). [CNN] [Manila Bulletin]

Moreover, the Supreme Court (SC) pressed the government to stop enforcement of Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) due to ‘red-tagging’ of the Association of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and Confederation for Unity Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE). The SC is also expected to hear the oral arguments of the government on April 6, though the government has requested that the hearing be postponed until April 23. [Manila Bulletin]

30 March 2021

Philippines: More demands against China’s vessels in South China Sea

(ll) After years of avoiding provoking China, the Philippines unexpectedly invoked the 2016 Hague ruling which rejects most of China’s claims over the South China Sea. The Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs also cited the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, which would be triggered if a Philippine state-owned vessel were attacked. Besides France and the US last week, this week Japan, Australia, Vietnam, EU, and Canada have expressed concerns over the remaining 183 Chinese vessels at the South China Sea. [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Even though China belittled these concerns, the Philippines has deployed more Navy ships in response to various demands from Filipino diplomats to show force against China. In fact, the Philippine ambassador to Iraq, Generoso de Guzman Calonge, even proposed that the Philippines should install mobile missiles in Palawan, one of the country’s westernmost islands. [South China Morning Post] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, Philippine security forces are verifying a satellite image, which shows only around 50 of the Chinese vessels left. [Manila Bulletin 3]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Abu Sayyaf hostage rescued; leader captured

(nd) Philippine troops rescued a 15-year-old Indonesian national held by Abu Sayyaf since January 2020. In the operation, security forces also captured the group’s leader, Majan Sahijuan. The teenager was the last missing of five Indonesians kidnapped on January 16, 2020 in waters off Lahad Datu, in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah, working for a Malaysian fishing firm. [Benar News]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Stand-off over South China Sea reef

(nd) On Sunday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded about 200 Chinese vessels, presumably militia boats, to leave the Whitsun Reef, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China, and also Vietnam. The Philippines considers it part of their exclusive economic zone. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the territory. The US has backed the Philippines and expressed concerns over the presence of the boats in the disputed waters, accusing China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security”. Tension is the waters are on the rise, with a recent Chinese law passed, allowing Chinese coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels. 

President Rodrigo Duterte has had friendly ties with China since taking office in 2016, but in 2020 unexpectedly referred to an international arbitration ruling invalidating China’s historic claims to the entire sea. China has invested in infrastructure funds and trade in the Philippines and has recently donated Covid-19 vaccines amid an alarming spike in coronavirus infections. [South China Morning Post]

23 March 2021

Philippines, France to develop partnership between their naval forces

(lepl) France committed to assist the Philippines in the training and project management required to create the latter’s submarine force. The French Navy and the Philippine Navy expect further ‘strategic partnerships’. [Manila Times]  Against the backdrop of tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea, and China’s unresponsiveness to President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent challenges to the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, Philippines seeks lesser dependence on these two powers. This pursuit is notorious as the Philippines secures Indian-Russian missiles, envisions new defense industrial economic zones, promises to upgrade its naval fleet. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2

23 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte believes in a soon termination to ‘communist’ insurgency

(lepl) With only four out of the 11 rebel fronts in Eastern Visayas still standing, President Rodrigo Duterte expressed optimism that the conflict with the insurgency will soon end. Meanwhile, he has visited the region to talk with the beneficiaries of the Barangay Development Program (BDP), a project of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The project would provide a multi-million development package to communities that completely cut ties with the rebels. This incentive to comply with the Philippine state complements with Duterte’s recent approval of amnesties and land distribution for some ex-rebels. Certainly, these programs are not without conditions: the amnesties exclude Abu Sayyaf members, and the lands cannot be sold. [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Times]

Perhaps in an attempt to clear doubt of any turbid collusion with the rebels, Duterte stated that he had only formed friendships with communist rebels pre-election to win votes, but that he could not satisfy the demands of the rebels as a President without committing treason. [Manila Bulletin 2]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte faces opposition coalition and increasing criticism against human rights violations 

(lepl) President Rodrigo Duterte’s opponents formed 1Sambayan, a coalition that aims to nominate a presidential candidate next year. Besides ineffective responses to the pandemic, the coalition accuses Duterte of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations under his war on drugs. [Benar News]

Similarly, the international human rights coalition Investigate PH affirmed in its report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) that the Philippine state obstructs justice through its failure to hold police and military accountable and its censorship of challenges to unjust laws. However, the accusations were trivialized and vilified by the Presidential Communications Secretary in a series of tweets, which Investigate PH refuted. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Meanwhile, a joint statement by academics in the Philippines and abroad condemned the attacks on and killings of activists, which engender an undemocratic environment of fear and intimidation. This declaration follows a memorandum by the Department of Interior and Local Government that red-tagged a teachers’ union. [Manila Bulletin 3]

Even though top officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) agreed that the killings of lawyers should be thoroughly investigated, the PNP tasked itself for this investigation. This move resembles those criticized by Investigate PH because it facilitates impunity. In fact, most adult Filipinos agreed in a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth,” illustrating the impunity that the PNP obscures. [Manila Bulletin 4] [Manila Bulletin 5]

A key element of contention is the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, which activist groups and international organizations have declared unconstitutional and petitioned to stop implementing. After three suspensions, the oral arguments of these petitions will continue on March 23. Nonetheless, the government is expected to press the Supreme Court to dismiss these petitions on the basis that the ATA does not violate constitutional provisions. [Manila Bulletin 6]

In a rare, unprecedented move, the Supreme Court en banc issued a statement condemning the killings of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors, and promised to look into institutional changes to better protect them. This is to answer mounting pressure from lawyers demanding decisive action. Until the end of April, the Supreme Court asks courts and law enforcement agencies to provide “relevant information to shed light on the number and context of each and every threat or killing of a lawyer or judge within the past 10 years.” [Rappler]


23 March 2021

Philippines: Residents to oppose the division of Palawan, potentially against China’s interests

(lepl) Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte signed an Act that would split Palawan into three provinces. Last week, opposition Senator Leila de Lima applauded the residents’ opposition to the division of Palawan. Due to its natural resources and its proximity to the West Philippine Sea, the division of Palawan could have benefitted China’s interests of territorial expansion. In fact, the Save Palawan Movement protested that the measure would debilitate the voting power of each province, serving a gerrymandering agenda that endangered Philippine sovereignty. [Manila Bulletin]

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]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

16 March 2021

Philippines: Decision rendered on Duterte’s withdrawal from ICC

(nd) A petition charging President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral decision to pull out if the International Criminal Court (ICC) was denied by the Supreme Court. The en banc, unanimous vote rendered that the subject has become academic and moot, but still set out guidelines on when a treaty can be unilaterally withdrawn. Whether Duterte is legally required to get the concurrence of the Senate does not have a clear textual basis, just a requirement for concurrence of two thirds of the Senate for the ratification is found in the Constitution.

Duterte’s decision came when the ICC decided launch a preliminary examination into human rights abuses amid his war on drugs. According to the ICC, such withdrawal does not affect an ongoing examination. According to the Rome Statute, proceedings opened before a country’s withdrawal can continue even after such withdrawal from the ICC. The ICC is in the midst of determining the opening of an investigation.

The recent guidelines by the yet unpublished court decision are likely to also clarify issues around the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, which was also unilaterally revoked by Duterte. [Rappler]

16 March 2021

Philippines: “Shoot to kill” order being implemented

(nd) Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced on Thursday that police and military forces are now implementing President Duterte’s ‘shoot to kill’ order against communist rebels. We specified the order was against those who would not surrender, but continued to fight the government and were ready to kill. Still, security forces would encourage the rebels to surrender. 

Duterte’s shoot to kill order is seen as the motivation behind the recent shootout killing nine people in a raid last week. Police upholds that the operation was covered by arrest warrants and therefore legal. Also, the killed opted for a shootout with the police. [Manila Bulletin]

Meanwhile, Duterte’s allies have started a campaign to persuade him to run for vice president in next year’s general election, enabling him to keep his influence in the second highest office despite the one-term limit. [Nikkei Asia]

16 March 2021

Philippines: Mayor shot dead by police

(nd) In what was referred to as a mistaken encounter, police killed city mayor Ronaldo Aquino and two of his aides, next to two of the police officers. According to the police report, the fire was open from Aquino’s security aides and returned from the officers, who were on a routine patrol.

In the past, a number of mayors and provincial officials linked to illegal drugs have been ambushed and killed by unknown gunmen, in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown, that has created a culture of impunity. Aquino was said to not be involved in illegal drug dealings. The Department of Justice was ordered to investigate. Left-wing and human rights groups have condemned the killings. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, a group of activists called Cyber PH for Human Rights hacked into the government’s main website and block access to it as a protest against alleged human rights violations by authorities. [Benar News 1] The government has announced to track down the group. The UN and EU have expressed concerns over the deaths of the nine killings during raids last week. [Benar News 2]


9 March 2021

Philippines, India to reach agreement over supersonic missiles

(nd) In an effect of turning into an arms exporter, India signed a contract with the Philippines for the sale of “defense material and equipment”, which are likely to include BrahMos cruise missiles. The Indian BrahMos missile is considered to be the fastest supersonic missile in the world, travelling at three times the speed of sound and able to be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and ground launchers. The missile itself has a range of 290 kilometers. It is likely the Filipino interest is due to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, urging the Philippines to strengthen their defense capabilities, also in light of a recent Chinese law, allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels.

India has offered the Philippines a 100-million-dollar soft loan to acquire the missiles last December with a possible extension. The deal could facilitate India’s entry as an exporter in the global defense market. Besides the Philippines, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates announced their interest, reportedly India had talks with Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. [Wio News]



9 March 2021

US to bolster deterrence in South China Sea

(nd) As part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative that the US Indo-Pacific Command has submitted to Congress, the US plans to upgrade its regular deterrence against China with a network of precision-strike missiles along the so-called first island chain, and integrated air missile defense in the second island chain. The first island chain describes land features in the western Pacific stretching from Japan, to Taiwan, and through Philippines and Indonesia in the South China Sea. The second island chain is located further to the east, starting in Japan and running through Guam. An estimated around $27 billion will therefore be invested through fiscal year 2027. The bill suggests to modernize and strengthen the presence of US forces, improve logistics and maintenance capabilities, carry out joint force exercises and innovation, improve infrastructure to enhance responsiveness and resiliency. The amount is a 36% increase over the planned spending, showcasing the level of alarm with respect to Chinese activity in the South China Sea, aiming to avoid a permanent change of the status quo.

With respect to the implementation of the plan, China objected earlier against the US to place missiles in allied countries, e.g. South Korea. According to a Japanese defense white paper, the US has about 132,000 troops stationed in the Indo-Pacific. China’s military renewal is ongoing, holding a diverse missile arsenal. China holds about 1,250  ground-based, intermediate-range missiles, while the US has none due to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the development of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km until 2019. The Chinese arsenal makes the traditional Navy and Air Force centered US approach less feasible, and the deployment of intermediate range missiles in the Indo-Pacific a subject of discussion between the US and Japan. Right now, none of the US’s missiles in Japan could reach China, and deploying weapons there could lead to diplomatic tensions. About 55,000 US troops are stationed in Japan, forming the largest contingent of American troops abroad. [Nikkei Asia] [Radio Free Asia]

9 March 2021

Philippines: Nine killed in anti-insurgency operation

(nd) Following the killing of 9 activists and arrest of 6 in four provinces close to Manila over the weekend, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on Monday said the government failed to counter widespread killings in the country. Two days before the raids, President Rodrigo Duterte said in a press conference on ending the communist insurgency: “I’ve told the military and the police that if they find themselves in an armed encounter with the communist rebels, kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.”

The CHR said the amount of people killed was alarming, referring to the wide-spread impunity among security forces and the pattern of red-tagging. CHR set up an investigative team but also called on the government to probe the incidents. According to rights group Karapatan, at least 318 individuals have been killed in the course of the government’s counterinsurgency. With respect to the government’s war on drugs, the cited number of victims was at least 6,039, with a five times higher estimate according to human rights groups. [Rappler] [Benar News]

2 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte to thank Xi, criticize VFA

(nd) When personally welcoming the donated Sinovac vaccines by the Chinese government, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would like to travel to China and to thank Chinese President Xi Jinping for the donation of 600,000 doses. [Manila Bulletin 1]

In the same conference, Duterte said the renewing of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US would put the Philippines between two armed forces, in case the US stored armaments in the country. Last year, Duterte unilaterally terminated the VFA, which was later withdrawn. Last month, Duterte implied the US should pay if it wants to have American bases in the Philippines. In light of the continuously rising tension in the South China Sea, the US promised to ensure freedom of navigation and the seas in the contested region, which is strategically relevant. [Manila Bulletin 2]

2 March 2021

Cross-strait relations: PLA and Taiwanese concurrently hold military exercises in the South China Sea

(dql) Amid high running cross-strait tensions, China and Taiwan are holding military drills at the same time in the South China Sea. According to a notice of Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA), the Tawainese military conducted a round of live-fire exercise on Monday on the Taiwan-held Pratas Islands. Similar drills are scheduled to be staged next week. China, meanwhile, kicked off on the same day a month-long military exercise west of the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province. [Focus Taiwan1] [South China Morning Post]

In an earlier show of force, at least 10 Chinese bombers belonging to the Southern Theatre Command conducted maritime strike exercises in the South China Sea, immediately after the Lunar New Year Holiday which ended on February 17. The drills involved China’s most advanced H-6J bomber. [Global Times 1]

Further fueling the tensions, last week the US was also present in the disputed region. While various reconnaissance aircraft as well as the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable carried out surveillance missions in the South China Sea, a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer transited through the Taiwan Strait. [Global Times 2] [Focus Taiwan 2]

Meanwhile, two US lawmakers have introduced a resolution calling for the US government to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and end the “one China policy.” It also urged he government to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan, and support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations. [Taiwan News]

2 March 2021

Philippines: Justice official to admit wrongdoings in war on drugs

(nd) Philippine Justice Secretary said that law enforcement personnel had flawed “standard protocols” in most drug raids, admitting that the Philippine National Police have intentionally killed suspects in the five-year going war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte. Analysts believe this could spark further international pressure on the government, and thereby, limit deadly force against suspects.

The statement is seen as an effort to calm UN leaders given the latest findings of the International Criminal Court Prosecutor and a rights council resolution to support the Philippines in capacity building passed in October last year. International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda after that found “reasonable basis” for crimes against humanity within the government’s anti-drug campaign, with law enforcement agents not following “standard protocols” in more than half of the cases. Duterte was elected in 2016 and promised a drug-free Philippines. He still enjoys high approval rates within the Philippine population. [Voice of America]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Police raid in indigenous school

(nd) Following a police raid in a school for displaced indigenous children in Cebu, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the move as part of a string of “violent incidents” in recent years targeting indigenous communities. The police arrested seven people for allegedly training students, among them minors, to become guerrillas for the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). NPA has been waging insurgencies for more than fifty years and is Asia’s longest-running armed rebellion. HRW commented since Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, the military has alleged that tribal schools have links with the NPA, with Duterte threatening to bomb these schools.

Allegedly, six parents asked the police for help to recover their children. Police was further criticized for enforcing custody of the children in a non-child-friendly way. The Save Our Schools Network said 178 tribal schools have been closed since 2016, forcing children to go to cities like Manila or Cebu to seek education. [Benar News]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte critic de Lima acquitted of one charge of three

(nd) A notorious critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, former chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights Sen. Leila de Lima was acquitted on one of three drug charges she has been in prison for four years but will remain incarcerated. Allegedly, de Lima accepted protection money from jailed drug dealers while serving as justice minister in 2017. De Lima always denied the charges as baseless.

Already when he served as mayor in Davao, de Lima investigated in extrajudicial killings by a death squad allegedly set up by Duterte. After Duterte became President in 2016, de Lima pushed for a Senate inquiry into killings linked to his administration’s drug war, for which Duterte publicly excoriated her. National and international human rights organization followed de Lima’s fate and called for her release since. [Benar News]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte approves amnesty for Muslim and communist rebels

(nd) To counter ongoing insurgencies, President Rodrigo Duterte approved an amnesty program, enabling Muslim and communist rebels to return to normal life, if they surrender their weapons. The program still has to be approved by Congress. Duterte’s predecessors signed peace deals with three rebel groups, which have not been fully enforced. The largest armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is temporarily administering an autonomous region in the south while disarming its fighters. Former insurgents of the communist New People’s Army are included in the program. Excluded however, are Abu Sayyaf and groups linked to the Islamic State, and the program will not cover kidnappings for ransom, massacres, rape, terrorism, drug trafficking and certain atrocities never covered by amnesties, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and torture. Resolving Muslim and communist insurgencies within his term, which ends mid-2022, was Duterte’s promise. [South China Morning Post]

23 February 2021

Philippines furthers attack the US over Visiting Forces Agreement

(nd) Following last week’s demand for the US to pay the Philippines to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), President Rodrigo Duterte accused the US of keeping arms depots in the country and turning Subic Bay into an American military base. The US vacated Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base after the end of the Cold War in 1991 and 1992, respectively. They were transformed into freeports and investment zones. Duterte did not present evidence for his claims, alleging he heard it from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The US did not directly comment on the issue, but responded with the same statement as last week, emphasizing their alliance and security cooperation.

On Monday, Duterte defended his past comments and reinforced that the Philippines would be dragged into a war between China and the US.

The VFA was first signed in 1999 and provides large-scale joint military exercises, and governs the US military presence in the Philippines. Last year, Duterte already threatened to terminate the agreement. The decision was suspended twice already. [Benar News] [See also AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]


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]

16 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]

16 February 2021

Non-claimant states to patrol in South China Sea 

(nd) Amid growing tension in the disputed waterway, two US aircraft carrier strike groups and a French nuclear attack submarine accompanied by a support ship recently patrolled in the South China Sea. According to a report in early January, Germany is considering to send a naval frigate in summer. These deployments highlight an increasing role of non-claimant states in the South China Sea, following so far not successful diplomatic efforts. For the US, it was the second dual aircraft carrier operation in about six months, emphasizing its promotion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. US allies Japan and Australia have also participated in military exercises in the last months. A growing number of countries, including the US, Australia, Indonesia, France, Germany, and Japan, have rejected the extensive Chinese claims. China criticized the patrol as a show of force, which was detrimental to regional stability and peace, and reiterated their interest in protecting Chinese sovereignty. [Benar News]

16 February 2021

Philippines: Military seek to deploy more assets to South China Sea

(nd) As a reaction towards a newly passed Chinese Law, the Philippine military commander announced to deploy more assets to the South China Sea to safeguard fishermen. In January, China’s National People’s Congress passed a Law, which places the coast guard under military command and allows it to open fire on foreign boats in the disputed waterways. [See also AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] Earlier, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced not to file a protest against the law before the United Nations. [See also AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, which was rejected in a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016. China never recognized the ruling. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not enforce it but was seeking closer ties to China, distancing himself from traditional ally the United States. Only in 2020, Duterte spoke before the UN General Assembly and stated the ruling was “beyond compromise” and already “part of international law.” [Benar News]

16 February 2021

US, Philippines to demand more financial support to defense

(nd) With his comments over the weekend, the US has to pay if they want to continue a troop deployment agreement, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte opened another chapter concerning the Visiting Force Agreement (VFA). Last year, Duterte unilaterally cancelled the agreement, whose withdrawal has since then been extended twice. The VFA is both vital to US strategy in Asia as well as to the under-resourced Philippine forces. 

In his criticism, Duterte was referring to the rising tension in the South China Sea and the danger of an emerging war, which will be detrimental to the Philippines. Therefore, Duterte argued, the Philippines were not receiving enough military assistance from the US. To back Duterte’s point, the Presidential Spokesman pointed to data from a Stimson Center report, showing that from 2002 to 2017 the Philippines received the least amount of counter-terrorism aid among 12 countries, highlighting they were only receiving a quarter of the amount Pakistan was receiving. The chart only referred to counter-terrorism aid, with all countries listed above the Philippines also ranking higher on the 2020 Global Terrorism Index. Under the VFA, the Philippines receive other benefits, such as aid in cases of disaster and a Mutual Defense Treaty with the US. Also, the US embassy stated mid last year that the Philippines were the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region, with an amount of $650 million worth military equipment, excluding military training.

Without further intervention, the VFA will terminate August 9. Due to his attacks on US foreign policy and a tendency towards China, relations between the Philippines and US have been complicated since Duterte took power in 2016. [Reuters] [Rappler]

16 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

Philippines: Duterte pushes for charter change

(nd) Fueling speculations President Rodrigo Duterte aims to extend his term past 2022, he has tasked allied congressmen to initiate the constitution amendment process to remove the term limit. The Philippine constitution of 1987 was written after the People Power movement removed dictator Marcos and therefore contains provisions restricting the power of the executive, limiting the terms of president and vice president to a single six-year term. This attempt is not new: Then-President Fidel Ramos introduced a charter change proposal in 1997, which prompted public outrage and massive protests led by the Catholic Church. His successor, rebranded charter change into “Constitutional Correction for Development” to win public support and claimed to only remove nationalistic provisions, like requiring a majority-Filipino ownership of certain assets and investment operations. His successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her allies in 2009 were aiming at a constitutional amendment without including the opposition-dominated Senate, which also triggered broad protests.

Recently, it was announced Duterte wanted to solely focus on “economic” charter change to push foreign investment and fight repercussions of the pandemic, but will including overhauling the party list system to support the government’s anti-communist campaign. Likely, previous suggestions will be revived, such as the removal of the ban on foreign bases, the ban on nuclear weapons, a prohibition of political dynasties, and to insert “responsible” in the bill of rights with respect to freedom of speech and expression. Despite the pandemic, Duterte’s administration made it its priority to pass an anti-terror law, which saw extrajudicial killings and the shutdown of a critical media network. Therefore, civil society groups opposed a possible charter change, citing the erosion of the checks and balances in government and a possible rise of an authoritarian government. [The Diplomat]

9 February 2021

Philippines: Further red-tagging, while anti-terror law is on scrutiny

(nd) In the latest demonstration of labelling of alleged communists and sympathizers, infamously referred to as “red-tagging”, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. called out Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter Tetch Torres-Tupas. Nationwide media as well as human rights groups spoke out in support of Torres-Tupas. The report in question was about tribe members asking for the Supreme Court’s permission to join petitions against the anti-terror law. Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments for 37 petitions pending against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in an effort to declare it unconstitutional. The government argued the law was necessary to fight militant groups, but rights groups both domestically and internationally criticized the increased powers of security forces on mere suspicion and warrantless detention up to 24 days.

Such statement and threats against activists and journalists are not countered by the government. Last year, the free channel of national broadcaster ABS-CBN was shut down, and head of news webpage Rappler, Maria Ressa, was convicted of cyber libel. According to the UN Human Rights Office reporting, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists were killed due to their work between 2015 and 2019. Last month, an over 32-year-old agreement to ban soldiers from entering the University of the Philippines’ campus was nullified alleging a communist breeding ground, which is recruiting for the New People’s Army (NPA)

Last week, retired judges Antonio Carpio and Conchita Morales were red-tagged for outspokenly opposing the Anti-Terrorism Act, which Parlade referred to as “sedition” in a Facebook post. His post also mentioned left-wing lawmakers Ferdinand Gaite, Carlos Zarate and Sarah Elago by name. It was brought to the Supreme Court hearing as an example of a clear threat designed to intimidate petitioners, which the court “noted”.  

The Philippines harbors Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency, which Duterte pledged to end during his presidential term. [South China Morning Post] [Benarnews]

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]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte to criticize EU over Covid-19 vaccine

(nd) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accused the European Union (EU) of restricting exports of vaccines against Covid-19, particularly AstraZeneca, which according to Duterte was “held hostage” by the EU. The British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca announced a shortcoming in delivery last week, which prompted a critical response by the EU. Subsequently, the EU decided to tighter scrutinize exports, potentially blocking them for their own usage. The Philippines registered among the highest number of confirmed cases in Asia and has not managed to secure sufficient vaccines in comparison the other countries. Overall, Duterte alleged, the ASEAN member states would lack the economic power the EU has in order to secure vaccines. [Reuters]

2 February 2021

Chinese survey vessel data in South China Sea analyzed

(nd) According to analyses of ship data conducted by Nikkei, Chinese survey vessels increased the scope of research into foreign countries exclusive economic zones (EEZ). According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, prior consent is necessary, which was not sought in the cases identified. The automatic identification system data from 32 Chinese survey vessels for 12 months until November 2020 were analyzed. The data that is collected by survey vessels can both be used for civilian and military purposes, and is also useful for submarine operations. Specifically, increased action was registered near Guam, which has rich resources of cobalt, manganese and other seabed minerals. Given the US base in Guam, the conducted surveys seem to be rather security linked. Sometimes, survey vessels are accompanied by the Chinese Coats guard, sparking further tension. According to the International Maritime Organization, the US has 44, Japan 23 and China 64 registered survey vessels built in or after 1990.

This comes amid other Chinese actions to increase its influence over the Asia Pacific region. In September 2019, China established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. The encroachment in the EEZs of Southeast Asian countries is registered almost on a daily basis. On the basis of historic rights, China claims almost the entirety of the disputed waters for itself, which was rejected by an international tribunal ruling in 2016. [Nikkei Asia]

2 February 2021

Philippines files diplomatic complaint against China’s new coast guard law

(nd) China passed a law placing the coast guard under military command, giving it authority to open fire against foreign vessels in the South China Sea. The Philippines filed a diplomatic complaint. Earlier, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin commented the passage of laws in China was “none of our business”. His reverse came after news reports about Philippine fishermen being blocked by the Chinese coast guard to enter fishing grounds in the Spratly island chain. President Rodrigo Duterte was called upon to firmly “denounce China’s bullying immediately” and all ASEAN members to take multilateral steps against China’s aggression. In a statement on social media on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said “forces in the Philippines” had “fabricated and spread relentlessly fake news”, and it law has been “misinterpreted”, although it was “a normal domestic legislative activity.” [Radio Free Asia]

In the disputed waters, China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, overlapping with the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. China’s claims were rejected in a tribunal ruling in 2016, which was emphasized prominently by Duterte last year for the first time. ASEAN and China are negotiating so far unsuccessfully for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. [Radio Free Asia]

In a call, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reassured Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin of their defense support with respect to the South China Sea, even in the event of an attack. He called China’s latest law a “threat of war”. Blinken reinforced the administration of Joe Biden’s rejects China’s claims in the disputed waters. [Reuters

2 February 2021

China, Philippines to cancel development contract

(nd) A contract to develop Sangley Point International Airport by a consortium of China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC), which is blacklisted by the US, and Philippine MacroAsia Corp., was cancelled due to “various deficiencies” in required documents. The project volume was US$10 billion. In September 2020, the Duterte administration insisted on pursuing the project despite US sanctions on CCCC and 23 other Chinese firms and individuals for being involved in the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Then, it was emphasized that Duterte would “not follow the directives of the Americans because we are a free and independent nation, and we need investors from China.” The recent decision to cancel the contract was commented to have no connection to the US decision. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Philippines and signed a deal to build a cargo railway, which will connect former US base at Subic with the former US air base Clark International Airport. In 2018, the Philippines and China signed 29 bilateral deals with respect to infrastructure projects forming part of Duterte’s “build, build, build” initiative. [Radio Free Asia][See also AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2] [The Diplomat]

On a separate occasion, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana referred to the US “as a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific region and a counter-balance to China”, adding that 2021 promises “a new era for the U.S.-Philippines relations under a new U.S. president who seeks to reclaim America’s status as a world leader.” [Radio Free Asia]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Head of BAARM to open dialogue with militants

(nd) The head of the transitional government of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM) in the southern Philippines, Murad Ebrahim, announced he made contact with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf Group in an effort to convince them to join the government and cease militant activity. The militant groups are linked to the Islamic State and were reportedly open to collaboration. Murad also leads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former armed separatist group who signed a peace treaty with the central government, which prompted the BIFF to form and break away.

Murad’s term as interim head of government is set to expire next year. Currently, he is advertising for a 3-year extension, referencing ongoing security threats by pro-IS militants and the coronavirus pandemic, which have prevented the implementation of crucial reforms. To that end, a proposed law is currently with the Philippine Congress. Last year, multiple fatalities were accounted for by suicide bombings on Jolo in southern Sulu, both carried out by Abu Sayyaf. BIFF’s scope of action is focused on Mandanao Island, with an increase in frequency of attacks. Last week, three died in a roadside bombing suspected to be executed by BIFF. [Benar News]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Independent probe into extrajudicial killings launched

(nd) “Investigate PH” was founded by the International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) in order to conduct an independent investigation of the killings in relation to the so-called war on drugs. The international civil society organization is supposed to bring more information and evidence to the preliminary examination of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been going on for almost three years. A preliminary report by ICHRP is scheduled by the first week of March and to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the ICC.

Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, said she has “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity were committed within the war on drugs, with a formal investigation yet unopened. This step requires the determination that the Philippines did not sufficiently investigate and prosecute the cases themselves. Earlier, the UN Technical Assistance Program was set up to provide better training and resources, based on the assumptions that their lack was the reason for the shortcomings on resolving the cases. During the visit of a High-Level Human Rights Delegation last year, it was reported the Ministry of Justice was not open to meetings and until today has not made their report public and shared information. Following the ICC’s complaint against the Philippines, they withdrew from the ICC and threatened Bensouda with arrest if she was to enter the country.

Officially labelled a war on drugs, the administration of Duterte installed a climate of impunity, enabling thousands of extrajudicial killings. The “red-tagging” of political critics have resulted in a broader crackdown on civil society. According to a report by the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2020, the death toll of police and vigilante operations under Duterte is believed to exceed 25,000. Still, the UNHRC in October 2019 decided against a probe into the cases but started a technical assistance program, criticized by domestic and international rights groups.

Local groups investigating human rights violations in the Philippines have often become victims of extrajudicial killings and are reportedly receiving frequent death threats. In 2019, the ICC launched an investigation into Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya, but denied such action with respect to China and the Uyghur Muslims. While President-elect Joe Biden’s administration announced to declare the actions against Rohingya people a “genocide”, the US has been reluctant to condemn rights violations under Duterte. A bill to suspend arm sales to the Philippines remains pending since October. [Rappler] [The Diplomat]

26 January 2021

Philippines: Nissan to end assembly work

(nd) Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan announced to end its car assembly operations in the Philippines, making 133 assembly workers redundant. The reason cited was to “optimize production” amid global recession. Nissan has closed plants and laid off some 42,500 workers globally since 2019. The current move was expected since sale numbers for the assembled Almera model were low.

Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippine automotive market is one of the most open, with locally assembled products making up only 7%. As a comparison, Thailand imposes a 80% Most Favored Nation tariff rate on built-up units from outside the ASEAN bloc, while Indonesia has a total of only 7% of imports. [Rappler]

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]

26 January 2021

Philippines, China to sign infrastructure contracts

(nd) During a visit of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China and the Philippines have signed contracts for the construction of a bridge link to Davao City in Mindanao and a cargo railway in Luzon. It represents a contribution to president Rodrigo Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure initiative, which was launched in 2017 and plans to spend 8 to 9 trillion pesos (roughly US$160 billion to US$180 billion).

The railway project with estimated costs of US$940 million will the highest-funded G-to-G cooperation project between China and the Philippines, and will through ports, railways, and airports connect the Subic-Clark corridor with New Clark city in the long run. The bridge will provide a transportation link between Metro Davao and Samal Island, with estimated costs of US$400 million. Additionally, the government plans to build four energy facilities, ten water resource projects and irrigation systems to raise agricultural output; and five flood control facilities. [Asia Times]

19 January 2021

Philippines: Student protests

(nd) Following a government decision to allow security forces to patrol all campuses of the University of the Philippines (UP) in suspension of a 1989 agreement with the defense ministry, Philippine students and activists launched protests in various parts of the country. In its effort to end the country’s Maoist-led rebellion, which remains one of the world’s longest insurgencies with more than 40,000 people killed, the government argues that the university is a breeding ground for communist rebels, claiming a number of UP students were members of the communist party’s armed wing.  [Channel News Asia]

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. 


19 January 2021

Philippines: Further discussions on proposed charter amendment

(nd) Amid worsening Covid-19 numbers, discussions on the proposal of a charter change, the so-called Cha-Cha, continue. Members of the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments reiterated that prospective changes would make the country more investment friendly with regards of land ownership and stake holding in companies, in order to boost the Covid-19-striken economy. Critics however see it as an attempt to crackdown on leftist party-list groups and the communist insurgency. One option would be if Congress turns itself into a constituent assembly, through a resolution passed by both chambers. 

Previous attempts for a charter change were opposed by the Senate, which now is tilting in President Rodrigo Duterte’s favor, making an extension of his office term realistic, with allies in both chambers of Congress appearing to be pushing the proposed charter changes. Following the 1987 constitution though constitutional changes were designed difficult, requiring a three-quarter majority and mandating an independent bicameral legislature as check on the executive, but the constitution is ambiguous if that majority can also be found in a combined constituent assembly. The 1987 constitution and its formalities were prompted by Ferdinand Marcos’s attempt to exceed his fixed term by 14 years. [South China Morning Post]

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]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Bakamla armed against rising tensions in the South China Sea

(nd) Last month, the civilian maritime force, Bakamla, in the northern Natuna Island armed its vessels with machine guns due to recurringly intruding vessels from China and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not consider itself as a claimant sate in the South China Sea, China’s historic fishing right claims overlap with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move is delicate due to its possible effect on bilateral relations. China is Indonesia’s largest trade partner, with a trade volume of US$79.4 billion in 2019. With the efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is dependent on vaccination, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac having arrived in early December.

Bakamla was authorized last summer to procure weapons, and ships were fitted with remote-controlled Stabilised Naval Gun Systems in December. This was also in response to an increase in calls from parliament and the public, in an effort to curb anti-China groups. Analyst therefore did not interpret the latest move as a toughening of Indonesia’s position but rather an effort to prevent an escalation. The same logic applies to Vietnamese fishing boats, due to an unresolved overlap of the respective EEZ claims. While an increase in arms might serve as a deterrence, the numbers of ships are still outweighed by those of the Chinese coastguard, which is why Bakamla still relies on larger ships of the Indonesian Navy.

Experts expect Chinese naval actions to be more focused on the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam this year, while it usually carefully balanced its moves to not be putting pressure on all claimant countries at the same time, possibly to avoid a multilateral reaction. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

Philippines: President to push for Charter amendment

(nd) President Rodrigo Duterte asked lawmakers to amend the 1987 Constitution to change the party-list system to protect it from being abused by those linked to communist rebels and groups who according to the President are calling for a “fall of the government”. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in an interview that Duterte wanted to go after leftist party-list groups in the House Makabayan bloc, which he has long accused of acting as front for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its armed wing New People’s Army (NPA), and its political arm National Democratic Front (NDF).

According to a House insider, during a meeting in December Duterte instructed the Senate President to get rid of the party-list system altogether, warning that he otherwise will have to resort to the military to fight the groups. [Rappler]

12 January 2021

Philippines: Probe into killing by off-duty cop

(nd) Following the shooting of a mother and son by a police officer off duty in December, lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate called for probes into the case of police brutality and possibly a police reform bill. Reform suggestions include the requirements for entering the police force shall be raised, covering psychological exams and training in the de-escalation process. Also, policemen shall have a deeper knowledge of the legal elements of an offence to avoid illegal acts by officers. To further deter such action, prosecution of officers shall be more effective and litigated outside the police power. Over this case, lawmakers mentioned a need to reinstitute capital punishment. [The News Lens]

12 January 2021

Philippines: President opposes probe into vaccination to bodyguards

(nd) Following attempts to probe into how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bodyguards received shots of a Chinese-developed coronavirus vaccine in September and October, while no vaccine has been officially approved to date, the President angrily opposed such investigations, telling members of the elite bodyguard to “stay put in the barracks” and ignore summons to appear before a Senate inquiry into the matter. He reiterated that their action was justified, trying to keep the President safe. Following Duterte’s comments, the military announced it cancelled its own investigation into the matter. The Congress can still launch investigations or summon officials. The vaccine doses were developed by Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned drug maker. [See also AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] [Radio Free Asia]


5 January 2021

Philippines: Budget allocation criticized

(nd) Following the passage of the budget bill totaling 4.5 trillion pesos (US$93.7 billion) for 2021, three-quarters of the amount will be used for operating expenses of government ministries, including debt payments, with the majority of the rest being attributed to an infrastructure building campaign, despite president Rodrigo Duterte’s pledge to invest in the country’s health care system amid the ongoing pandemic. Analysts view this as a move to cement his legacy by realizing large-scale infrastructure projects and possibly paving the way for his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, as his successor. [South China Morning Post]

5 January 2021

Philippines: Indigenous people killed on Panay Island

(nd) In police operations on Panay Island, nine people were killed and 17 others were arrested, all being indigenous people associated with the Panay Tumandok community. Previously, they were red-tagged and accused by the military as members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Therefore, the operation was labelled as regular law enforcement activity aimed to curb the proliferation of firearms and explosives on Panay Island.

House Deputy Minority leader Carlos Isagani Zarate condemned the incident, linking it to the killing of six farmers by state forces in Negros Oriental in December 2018, and calling the two cases “questionable and bloody operations,” that is “apparently becoming the norm.” [Rappler]

5 January 2021

Philippines: Military given unapproved Covid-19 vaccines

(nd) According to the Philippine defense minister, unapproved COVID-19 vaccines were given to President Rodrigo Duterte’s military security, after having been smuggled into the country.  They were obtained without governmental authorization and knowledge, yet, the move was called “justified” for it was a means of protecting the troops and the president. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate the case and reiterated importing, distributing or selling unapproved vaccines was illegal. Opposition lawmakers criticized the “VIP treatment”, while local governments are struggling to get budgets to obtain vaccines.  [Nikkei Asia]

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]

5 January 2021

China warns UK against sending its largest warship to the South China Sea 

(dql) China has warned the United Kingdom and other Western powers not to send warships to the South China Sea, adding that it would take “necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty”. The warning is a response to the Royal Navy’s announcement that its Carrier Strike Group, centered on Britain’s largest ever warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, had achieved initial operating capability, ready to deploy.

Over the past years, UK defense officials have been stating that the carrier’s first deployment would include Asia and the Pacific on a route from Britain that would likely take it through the South China Sea. [CNN] [International Business Times]