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

Vietnam: United States, European Union demand release of three journalists jailed earlier this month

(lm) The United States and European Union have called on Vietnam to immediately release three Vietnamese journalists, who were handed jail sentences between 11 and 15 years for spreading propaganda against the state earlier this month [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

In a statement, the US Embassy in Hanoi slammed the conviction of the three journalists on January 6, calling the sentences handed down “the latest in a worrisome trend of arrests and convictions aimed at Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution.” In a similar vein, the EU noted that the right to freedom of expression was guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution and by international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Vietnam has signed and joined. [Radio Free Asia

12 January 2021

Vietnam: Appeals court upholds prison terms for four activists

(lm) An appeals court on January 8 upheld prison terms handed down last year to four activists convicted of planning protests on Vietnam’s National Day in 2018. Arrested in September 2018, the four were part of a group of eight named by police as members of the Hien Phap civil society organization, a network of activists formed to call for the rights to freedom of speech and assembly as promised under Article 25 of Vietnam’s Constitution. In a trial closed to family members, all eight were found guilty last year under Article 118 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code for “disturbing security” and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and six months to eight years. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Separately, a court in the country’s southern Dong Nai province on January 7 sentenced a Facebook user to a year in jail for “offending” local officials he said had mismanaged local land disputes. [Radio Free Asia 2]

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]

5 January 2021

Vietnam: Authorities begin trial of dissident journalists, as National Congress approaches

(lm) A court has found three dissident journalists guilty of charges of spreading propaganda against the state, handing them jail sentences of between 11 and 15 years. All prominent members of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN), the three men had been charged with “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain distorted information about the people’s government”. [Al Jazeera]

Tuesday’s verdicts are the latest in a continuing crackdown against political dissidents, activists, and other independent voices as the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) prepares for its National Congress, which is scheduled commence on January 25. To forestall any disturbance to the country’s landmark political event, dozens of people have been detained, according to human rights groups. [The Diplomat]

Days before his trial, the health of one of the three journalists had significantly deteriorated, his wife alleged on December 31, citing the harsh conditions in which her husband is being held. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Vietnam: Battle lines are drawn for Vietnam’s future leadership, as all-important National Congress looms

(lm) Taking place against the larger backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and increasingly dysfunctional Sino-US bilateral relations, the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is scheduled to commence on January 25. Held every five years since 1976, the National Congress is the supreme party organ: In electing the party’s Central Committee, it decides on the new leadership and sets Vietnam’s socioeconomic plans for the next five years. More broadly speaking, it also provides an indication of how the new leadership will respond to the pressing internal challenges and navigate the increasingly volatile external environment. [The Diplomat

With less than a month to go before the convening, speculation is growing over the fate of the country’s top leader. While the incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, is widely expected to step down, there are questions about whether he still has the clout to serve as kingmaker after his recent ill-health: Trong suffered a stroke last April and reportedly has not fully recovered, potentially undermining his ability to impose his political will as an ailing lame duck. [Asia Times]

Among those talked about to succeed Trong as General Secretary of the CPV is Tran Quoc Vuong, a party veteran who currently heads the party’s Inspection Commission and serves as a standing member of the party’s Secretariat. His main competition, that is, is incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocratic and non-ideological candidate [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3].

While his role as anti-corruption czar has made Vuong some powerful intraparty enemies, it has also secured him the support of Trong, who is seen as embodying tradition, unswerving faith in Marxism-Leninism and moral rigor. Gauging the chances of the two potential candidates, observers also put emphasis on the fact that the position of general-secretary has always been secured by those from the north of the country – home of Vietnam’s political elite. This would put Vuong, coming from Thai Binh in northern Vietnam, in a better place than Phuc, who comes from a province in central Vietnam. [Asia Nikkei]