Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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]