Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

20 July 2021

US, Vietnam to solve currency manipulation dispute

(nd) The US and Vietnam announced they have reached an agreement in their currency manipulation dispute. The former administration of Donald Trump gave the designation of currency manipulators to China, Vietnam and Switzerland, withdrawing it against China later, while Biden withdrew it against China and Switzerland. All three remained on the US Treasury’s “Monitoring List” for scrutiny of its currency policies, together with Japan, Korea, Germany, Ireland, Italy, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Mexico. In a twice-yearly analysis, the US Congress lists countries that are likely weakening their own currency against the US dollar to make exports cheaper and imports of American products more expensive. [Asia Times]

20 July 2021

US to visit Southeast Asian countries

(nd) The Pentagon announced that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam later this month. The trip is to demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration gives to the region and the coordination with the regional bloc ASEAN as part of the US’s Indo-Pacific’s architecture. These efforts shall mitigate the economic influence gained by China in the last years. Also, the end of tenure of largely pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte next year is seen as a chance to renew decades-old military ties in the Philippines. [Reuters]

20 July 2021

ASEAN and the EU’s AI legislation

(nd) According to a recent analysis, the EU’s recent draft legislation to harmonize artificial intelligence (AI) rules is unlikely to have direct impact on similar legislation in Southeast Asia. Still, there might be some repercussive effects of it since the objectives of the legislation, risk mitigation for AI systems, is relevant for the region as well. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competitively-priced technology has already been exported through Chinese companies, namely Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua and ZTE, notably in the area of face recognition, raising concerns about security risks and the danger of importing norms and values from the system providers.

Regionally, AI-based systems are not produced largely yet, with the exception of Singapore having launched a national AI strategy for AI-based solutions in the global market. One obstacle therefore for implementing EU rules directly is the lower degree of integration of markets and regulations in the regional bloc as opposed to the EU. Nevertheless, in its first Digital Ministers’ Meeting early this year, ASEAN adopted a Digital Masterplan 2025 with the aim of a regional policy for best practice guidance on AI governance and ethics. A key issue will be regulating cross-border data flows among member states which have localization requirements for personal data. 

The recently adopted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership missed this chance and still enables parties to restrict cross-border data flows, with the sole requirement of non-discriminatory application. Of the signatories, only Singapore and Vietnam implemented the “gold standard” digital trade provisions supporting cross-border data flows. Since most ASEAN members have already formed a national AI strategy, it could be beneficial for the bloc to focus on a sector-based approach to subsequently build a common framework for AI policy consolidation. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Cambodia to chair ASEAN in 2022

(nd) For the upcoming Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN, some core issues were identified in a recent analysis, which in part had been already identified for its last chairmanship in 2012. Back then, Cambodia was criticized for siding with China over conflicting territorial claims at the South China Sea. Cambodia is a non-claimant state to the disputed waters and repeatedly referred to its neutrality, yet ASEAN has to address the desperately needed Code of Conduct issue, which needs a central and united approach of the bloc. 

Similarly, the aftermath of the coup and the situation in Myanmar are yet to be solved, with the violence continuing amid a spike in Covid-19 and unlikeliness of a successful implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus reached during its special summit in April. Additionally, Cambodia itself is criticized for its poor human rights record and has a less strict attitude towards the coup than other bloc members. Another unsolved cross-border issue is the environmental situation in the Mekong Delta region caused by a multitude of big dam projects at the Upper Mekong River.

With all three issues, the growing US-China rivalry is putting even more pressure on the bloc’s members, driving division within and making a united stand harder to achieve. This applies especially given Cambodia’s high economic and military involvement with China. For months, tensions were simmering due to the alleged establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia opposed by the US. While Chinese vaccinations have come under criticism and some bloc members have stopped using Sinovac, Cambodia is exclusively using Chinese vaccinations, showing their high dependence on China. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Philippines probes alleged waste-dumping, maintains patrols in South China Sea

(lp) The US-based geospatial intelligence company Simularity reported that hundreds of ships were dumping raw sewage in the Spratlys, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced to investigate the allegations. [Reuters]

For months, the government has been criticized for allowing China to intrude and exploit Philippine territory. Just recently, China dismissed the 2016 Hague Arbitral Award to the Philippines as ‘nothing more than a piece of waste paper’, which remained uncommented by the Filipino side. At the beginning of his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte did not exert the rights granted to the Philippines in the award but reasserted China has been a generous friend. This contrasts with to a recently much higher level of monitoring and interference by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and has prompted the director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs on Law of the Sea (IMLOS) to suggest that these efforts were motivated by the upcoming presidential elections. [Philippine Star] [Radio Free Asia] [Manila Bulletin]

20 July 2021

United States urge ASEAN members to act on Myanmar, rejects China maritime claims

(mt) Addressing a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 14 urged the group to take joint action to help end violence, restore a democratic transition and release those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]

The virtual session marked the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25, but Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, cancelled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting.

Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with Washington, had wanted the session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

The meeting comes amid rising concerns that the Biden administration has done little to engage ASEAN since taking office in January, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

During the virtual meeting, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. The ASEAN has been showing limits in firmly doing so both due to internal disagreements among group members, but also key foundational principles of the group of non-interference and consensus [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. The US official also asked for the release of all those “unjustly detained” in the country, and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic transition. [Voice of America]

Blinken also emphasized his country’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea at the meeting and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”. [The Diplomat]

The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did hot on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea [see also AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].   On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found that Beijing’s claim to “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” established in the “long course of historical practice” in the disputed waterway were inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.

20 July 2021

Vietnam: Tightening requirements for social media providers

(nd) The Vietnamese government is tightening its grip on social media, regulating livestream activity on platforms like Facebook and Google, citing efforts to curb fake news. According to a draft decree, operators shall be obliged to provide contact information of account operators with more than 10,000 followers or subscribers. Current legislation only covers domestic social media providers such as Zalo. According to an estimate, the top 10 Vietnamese social media platforms have 80 million users combined, while foreign competitors like Facebook have 65 million users, YouTube with 60 million users and TikTok 20 million. The yet unapproved draft will require these providers to block or remove flagged content within 24 hours upon “justified” requests by Vietnamese individuals and affected organizations.

Within the last months, Vietnam has repeatedly tightened rules on online content, censoring posts and deleting accounts. A cybersecurity law already requires foreign companies to set up local offices and store data in Vietnam. Facebook commented it does not store user data in Vietnam. [The Star]

13 July 2021

Indonesia seeks greater role for Italy in ASEAN

(sa) On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Ambassador to Italy Esti Andayani pushed for greater ASEAN-Italy cooperation in sustainable development at the ‘Italy-ASEAN Partnership for Development: A Look at Sustainable Development’. The Ambassador, who is also chief of the ASEAN Committee in Rome (ACR) noted the benefits of post-pandemic cooperation and highlighted the economic impact of Covid-19. [Antara News]

13 July 2021

Philippines eyes new law measuring legitimate territories in South China Sea

(lp) Retired Supreme Court (SC) associate justice Francis Jardeleza, along with international law consultant Melissa Loja, professor Romel Bagares proposed a new measure to clearly identify by name and coordinates at least one hundred features being claimed and occupied in the South China Sea. This law would increase clarity for the country’s maritime law enforcers to protect national territory. [Manila Bulletin]

Unlike other cases where confrontation was avoided, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) issued a radio challenge which drove away five Chinese, two Vietnamese vessels from Marie Louise Bank. Just like in May, when the PCG called out and forced some Chinese vessels to disperse from Sabina Shoal. [Rappler]

Moreover, the House Committee on Natural Resources approved House Bill No. 36, which declares a portion of the Philippine Rise as a protected area. However, a fisher’s group protested that this bill is insufficient to uphold territorial rights because it covers less than a quarter of the Philippine Rise and does not provide a concrete plan for the future of this area. Moreover, this bill allegedly would prevent local commercial fishing fleets from fishing, while leaving the area exposed to foreign industrial fishing vessels. [Business World]

Meanwhile, the United States reaffirmed their commitment to the Philippines against armed attack in the South China Sea, according to their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Similarly, Canada aired concern over China’s actions in the South China Sea. [CNN] [Mirage News]

13 July 2021

Vietnam, Canada hold bilateral defense consultation

(lm) The 2021 Vietnam-Canada defense consultation took place virtually on July 7, with both sides agreeing to maintain the annual defense consultation and defense policy dialogue, increase high-level meetings, while also strengthening ties in personnel training, UN peacekeeping operations, and maritime security. [VietnamPlus]

Significantly, Vietnam is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia with Canadian resident defense attaché positions. The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation in 2019 and Canadian naval ships visited Vietnam’s Cam Ranh International Port for the first time in June the same year.

Even though Ottawa seeks to maintain a healthy separation from US policy – the Royal Canadian Navy does not engage in US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) – its naval presence in the South China Sea is unmistakably higher compared to years past. A case in point, a Canadian frigate passed by the Spratly Island during a trip from Brunei to Vietnam earlier this year in March, raising the ire of China.

Canada has also upped its partnerships with countries and regional intuitions that govern the South China Sea. In early November of last year, Canadian Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan presented to the 12th South China Sea International Conference in Hanoi, where he noted that his country “opposes unilateral actions that have escalated tensions in the region and undermined stability in the South China Sea”.

13 July 2021

Russia backs ASEAN five-point consensus on tackling crisis in Myanmar

(lm) Speaking during a visit to Indonesia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week expressed his country’s support for the Five Point Consensus agreed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the political crisis in Myanmar. [The Straits Times]

The diplomat’s comments assume added significance, coming as they did amid deepening engagement between Russia and Myanmar’s military, even as major global powers sanction its businesses and top leaders and call for a global ban on arms sales to the Southeast Asian country.

Independent news outlet Myanmar Now on July 6 reported that a 20-member Russian delegation led by two high-ranking Navy officers secretly visited Myanmar between June 13 and 19, ahead of its junta leader’s trip to Russia last month, citing a document it said it had obtained. [Myanmar Now, in Burmese]

Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Moscow on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. His visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a delegation led by the country’s Air Force Chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

Both visits lend weight to arguments that claim Russia is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Moscow – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier.

13 July 2021

United States, ASEAN to hold virtual meeting of foreign ministers on July 14

(lm) The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a foreign minister’s meeting virtually on July 14, marking the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. [South China Morning Post]

Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last month embarked on an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

The rescheduled meeting will be attended by Blinken and all foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN, including Myanmar’s junta-appointed top diplomat. Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with the US, had wanted the virtual session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

ASEAN previously held a foreign ministers’ meeting with China in Chongqing on June 7 [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] and, more recently, with Russia in Jakarta on July 6.

13 July 2021

Singapore says ASEAN to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, as grouping remains deadlocked in selection of envoy

(mt) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to expedite the implementation of the so-called ‘five-point consensus’ plan reached by their leaders to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated on July 7. [The Diplomat]

Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the 10 ASEAN member states in April announced a Five-Point Consensus for resolving the country’s state of grinding emergency. Of the five points, three refer to outcomes desired by the grouping: the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. The other two are mechanisms to achieve these outcomes: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and the dispatch of a delegation to Myanmar to meet all relevant stakeholders. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

But ASEAN leaders failed to agree on a time frame for the implementation of the consensus, and progress has been slow, even on what would appear to be the most straightforward point of consensus: the appointment of a special envoy.

A recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News suggests that there are currently three nominees: Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat; Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002. [Kyodo News]

Citing ASEAN diplomatic sources, the news outlet claims that each of the three candidates is being pushed by their respective government, and that the choice “appears to have become intertwined with the domestic and strategic agendas of the nominating countries.”

A case in point, Indonesia believes that Hassan could establish momentum towards resolving the situation in Myanmar. But the country’s military seems to be leaning toward the Thai candidate, most notably because the military junta “is [said to be] no longer interested in the Indonesian model of democratic transition but prefers the Thai model where the military wields superior political leverage and policy influence.” 

Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3], seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring its border security and commercial interests vis-a-vis Myanmar. Bangkok this week reiterated that it does not have the “luxury of distance”, and thus could not afford to be complacent about what is happening in neighboring Myanmar. [Bangkok Post]


13 July 2021

Vietnam: Former radio journalist jailed

(lm) Authorities in Vietnam on July 9 sentenced a high-profile journalist to five and a half years in prison followed by five hears of house arrest, in the latest in a slew of arrests of reporters who began working for the state media and were arrested after later choosing to work freely and independently.

According to the Hanoi court’s verdict, the defendant – a former editor of state-controlled radio broadcaster Voice of Vietnam – had used his social media account to share “distorted information that caused social concern” in addition to giving interviews to foreign media outlets. [The Straits Times 1]

Earlier this month, Hanoi police officially announced an investigation against a former editor of Phap Luat (The Law), a state-controlled magazine covering legal issues, one week after he was initially arrested on June 24. The arrest warrants list charges of “tax evasion,” which carrya possible seven-year prison sentence under article 200 of the Penal Code. [Reporters Without Borders]

The same charge of tax evasion was also used to arrest another expert on legal issues, Dang Dinh Bach, on June 30 – more than a month after the journalist had gone into hiding.    Dung runs the news channel Chan Hung Nuoc Viet, which reports on corruption allegations and land confiscations. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 20 years in prison. [Voice of America]

In related news, Facebook last week said it had removed a group which had mobilized both military and non-military members to report posts they did not like to Facebook to have them taken down. The group was reportedly connected to Force 47, a at least 10,000-member strong cyber unit established in 2017 to trawl the web and rebut any “wrongful opinions” about Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. [The Straits Times 2]

6 July 2021

Laos President Sisoulith on official visit to Vietnam

(lm) A high-level delegation led by President of Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith, last week paid an official visit to Vietnam last week, marking Sisoulith first overseas trip since he was elected General Secretary of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) earlier in January. 

On June 28, the first day of the delegation’s visit, Sisoulith and Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, witnessed the signing of agreements between their countries on issues ranging from political cooperation and business to and culture, arts and tourism. Among those signed are the agreements on the Vietnam – Laos Cooperation Strategy for 2021 to 2030; and on their bilateral collaboration for 2021 to 2025. [The Laotian Times]

Later that day, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Vuong Dinh Hue, hosted a reception for the visiting delegation. Both sides agreed on the need for the their legislatures to increase high-level visits and meetings, and intensify collaboration and exchange of experience, especially in institution building, law making, and supreme supervision over the operation of State agencies. [VietnamPlus]

6 July 2021

Vietnam’s Deputy PM holds phone talk with US National Security Advisor Sullivan

(lm) Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh on July 1 held a phone conversation with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, during which both sides reiterated their shared commitment to their 2013 Comprehensive Partnership. They also discussed ways to deepen cooperation between their countries in areas such as maritime security, the Mekong region, combatting climate change, and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. [VietnamPlus]

Because Vietnam is currently serving as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Sullivan also touched on the dire humanitarian and human rights situation Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a conflict between rebels and government forces has led to thousands of deaths and displaced 1.7 million people. [The White House]

29 June 2021

Laos-Vietnam relations: Deepening cooperation

(dql) During a meeting between General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Central Committee and Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, both leaders agreed on close coordination to promote cooperation between the two nations more comprehensively and practically. They also discussed cooperation between the two nations at multilateral forums, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Greater Mekong Sub-region, as well as collaboration among Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

After the meeting, the two countries signed a series of agreements on Monday to strengthen their “friendly and cooperative ties,” in several areas including investment, business, information, culture and tourism. 

Furthermore, the agreements on the Vietnam-Laos cooperation strategy for 2021-2030 and on their bilateral collaboration for 2021-2025 were signed. [Vietnam+] [Xinhua]

29 June 2021

British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]

This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]

The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.

The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]

Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]

The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]

29 June 2021

Growing presence of private security companies in Mekong region

(dql) According to findings of the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Chinese businesses with risky investments in economic development zones in the Mekong region are increasingly turning to China-based private security firms for protection. Among the 49 foreign private security firms operating in Cambodia and Myanmar, 29 are China-based ones.

Given the range of services these companies provide to Chinese businesses and tourists – including running safety trainings for companies, developing security apps for tourists, and providing armed guards for individuals or property as well as even conducting pandemic control activities – the report concludes: “Chinese private security companies are increasing China’s soft power in Mekong countries. They also, down the line, could serve as vectors of hard power.” [C4ADS] [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

China holds Belt and Road conference

(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.   

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]

22 June 2021

Vietnam expands maritime militia off country’s southern coast

(lm) Vietnam has deployed a new squadron of its maritime militia off the country’s southern coast, in the latest effort to bolster its naval presence amid growing tension in the South China Sea, according to a report by Nikkei Asia. [Nikkei Asia]

The Permanent Maritime Militia Unit consists of nine ships and platoons equipped with light weapons for paramilitary operations. It is the second squadron to be established within two months, after another unit comprising more than 130 crewmembers was deployed in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, an oil and gas industrial center in southern Vietnam. [see also AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

Establishing the new squadron in Kien Gian, the country’s southwesternmost province, illustrates the importance Hanoi attaches to the territory’s strategic location – Kien Gian faces into the Gulf of Thailand – as it expands oil and gas exploration and transportation in the area.


22 June 2021

8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus

(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.

Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]

The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.

The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]

The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]

15 June 2021

Cambodia to battle human trafficking with Vietnam and US

(ad) Vietnamese representatives in Cambodia have received numerous reports on Vietnamese citizens being targeted and cheated by human trafficking rings. According to the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia, these rings are led by Chinese nationals and include Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals as well. The Vietnamese agencies have contacted authorities in Cambodia to combat and save victims. Human trafficking rings have been targeting migrant workers due to job losses during the pandemic. [Khmer Times]

On a similar note, the US has reaffirmed its commitment to battling human trafficking in Cambodia. The US embassy stated that “Human trafficking affects people in every country on earth, and the United States encourages stronger efforts in Cambodia to prosecute traffickers, protect victims and prevent human trafficking”. With human trafficking on the rise due to the pandemic, it is a serious cause of concern. [Phnom Penh Post]

15 June 2021

Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism

(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]

At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]

What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.


8 June 2021

Cambodia and Switzerland cooperate on Mekong Region Cooperation Programme

(ad) Last week, the Cambodian-Swiss Governmental Consultation was organized to oversee the Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Programme 2022-2025, where representatives from Cambodia and Switzerland met to discuss progress on preserving the Mekong River.

The discussion was predominantly focused on governance and economic development. They also exchanged inputs on climate change impacts and better natural resource management. The Swiss government is set to grant $13 million per year between 2022 and 2025. Since 2002, Swiss government has given grants worth $142 million to Cambodia for its development. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

8 June 2021

ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement

(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]

On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]

The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.

Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]

In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]

The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.

ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

8 June 2021

China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers 

(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.

High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]

With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

1 June 2021

Philippines increases protests, patrols against China’s presence in the South China Sea

(lp) During President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, the Philippines has already lodged one hundred diplomatic protests against China for the latter’s repeated, continuous incursion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Despite their numbers, these protests have hardly kept Chinese vessels in line. On the other hand, the Philippines has recently boosted patrols in the area, thereby, at least, increasing the country’s monitoring capacity. [The Star] [South China Morning Post]

Despite these protests and patrols, the income of Filipino fisherfolks has dramatically plummeted due to, at least partially, the continued presence of Chinese vessels in fishing grounds in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros warned that amendments to the Public Service Act (PSA), which would permit complete foreign ownership of public utilities, could facilitate China’s control over critical infrastructure in the Philippines. [Manila Bulletin] [ABS-CBN]

1 June 2021

ASEAN member states want to drop proposed UN call for Myanmar arms embargo

(lf) All ASEAN member states, excluding Myanmar, have proposed watering down a UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country, in a bid to win the unanimous support, “especially from all countries directly affected in the region”. Observers believe that ASEAN member states are afraid sanctions would restrict the influence the bloc could have on Myanmar’s military leadership. [The Straits Times]

The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, European Union and United States. A previous vote on the non-binding resolution scheduled for May 18 was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

While many western nations have put targeted sanctions on junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a combined 38 senior figures and also black-listed military conglomerates, ASEAN nations have so far largely avoided measures that would hit the junta’s finances. 

The Myanmar junta in late April rebuffed a plan by ASEAN leaders to help end violence in the country, saying any “suggestions” would need to fit with its stated road map and come after “stability” is restored. Leaders of the nine countries, together with coup chief Min Aung Hlaing, had earlier appeared to reach a five-point “consensus” during a special summit that included an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special emissary to mediate talks between all parties in Myanmar [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].


25 May 2021

Philippines, China to ease tensions in South China Sea

(lp) During the sixth meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea, the Philippines and China committed to ease tensions in the South China Sea through dialogue, to increase cooperation in fisheries, marine research and protection. However, it is highly unlikely that China will respect the Philippines’ maritime claims, especially because multiple investigations have confirmed the continuous expansion of Chinese maritime militia in the area. Moreover, talks regarding the payment to Filipino fishers whose boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel in 2019 are scheduled for June 2. [Philippine Star 1] [Radio Free Asia] [ABS-CBN 1]

Though avoiding direct confrontation, the Philippines has been signaling its intent to protect the country’s waters. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) installed lighted ocean buoys to assert sovereignty over the Philippine Rise area, which might be a site for oil exploration. Moreover, the PCG said it has intensified its training exercises in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the National Security Council (NSC) signed an agreement with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to implement satellite technology which will provide continuous, detailed monitoring of the country’s exclusive economic zones. The Philippines is also to acquire Israeli missile-capable patrol boats. [Business Mirror] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Inquirer 1] [The Defense Post]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte considered meeting with the country’s ex-presidents to discuss issues pertaining to the South China Sea, as an alternative to a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, which he deemed inconsequential. However, Duterte might drop both meetings because he prefers not to antagonize China that explicitly. Duterte is also still undecided whether to renew the Visit Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States this year. [Manila Standard] [Philippine Star 2]

25 May 2021

Malaysia: Two Vietnamese fishing boats seized for entering Malaysian waters

(tcy) The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) of Kelantan has seized two Vietnamese fishing boats for encroaching and fishing in the national territorial waters. Kelantan MMEA director, Maritime Captain Muhd Nur Syam Asmawie Yaacob said that the two boats did not have permits to catch fish under the Fisheries Act 1985, and that all the fishermen had also violated the Immigration Act 1959/63 as they did not possess valid identification documents. The offence is punishable by fine of up to RM6 million against the skipper and RM600,000 on every crew if found guilty [Malay Mail]

25 May 2021

China-Vietnam relations: President Nguyen calls on President Xi to handle maritime issues according to international law

(dql) In a phone with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for greater bilateral cooperation, suggesting to expand trade and promote high-level infrastructure connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi, furthermore, assured that China was ready to provide Vietnam help in combatting the pandemic. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

Nguyen, meanwhile, proposed to strengthen the two countries’ cooperation against Covid-19 and to increase the quality of trade and investment ties. At the same, he also suggested that both sides “handle maritime issues “in accordance with the law and based on international rules such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and continue to coordinate at multilateral forums.” [VN Express]

25 May 2021

Vietnam: Election held for largely rubber-stamp legislature dominated by ruling Communist Party

(lm) Legislative elections were held in Vietnam on May 23 to elect members of the National Assembly and the People’s Councils at all levels for the 2021-2026 term. Results of the elections are expected in June. [Reuters]

The elections follow the twice-a-decade National Congress of the ruling Communist Party (VCP), which saw the appointments of the country’s top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – for the coming five-year term [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

Constitutionally, the National Assembly is the highest government organization and the highest-level representative body of the Vietnamese people. Ultimately, however, the VCP – one of the last ruling communist parties in the world – has great influence over the legislature and, as in previous elections, is expected to dominate the polls and extend its rule for the next five years. 

For the National Election Commission, established by the NA and responsible for organizing the election, is headed by Vuong Dinh Hue, a high-ranking party member who earlier this year was appointed Chairman of the National Assembly.

Moreover, the law mandates a particular significant role in electoral nominations of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of mass movements largely subservient to the ruling Communist Party. Specifically, endorsement by the Front is generally required (in practice, if not in theory) to be a candidate for election.

In addition to a vetting process that favors VCP members, at least two independent candidates have been arrested, and several others subjected to harassment and intimidation by police for their involvement in the election and for criticizing government policies. [The Diplomat]

It does not come as a surprise, then, that some 92 per cent of 868 candidates standing for the 500-seat legislature are party members, including most of the party’s decision-making politburo and all 180 members of its Central Committee. Further, only 74 independent candidates are standing in the election, down from the 97 in the previous elections in 2016, while local media say the number of assembly deputies who were not party members halved over the last three elections. [The Straits Times]

18 May 2021

Vietnam expands fishing militia in South China Sea, according to Chinese research organization

(lm) Vietnam is building up its maritime militia in the South China Sea in an apparent response to Chinese efforts to dominate the disputed waterway, according to research by the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies. [Voice of America]

While the European Union has estimated that about 8,000 fishing boats and 46,000 fishermen are part of Vietnam’s maritime militia, the Chinese research organization numbers the militia between 46,000 to 70,000 personnel. It says 13 platoons with a combined 3,000 people operate near the sea’s contested Paracel Islands and another 10,000 people operate armed fishing boats off southern Vietnam.

When not catching fish, these trained fishermen participate in a broad range of paramilitary work, sometimes in cooperation with the Vietnamese navy. In fact, in 2009, Vietnam had passed a law that authorizes its maritime militia to conduct sea patrols and surveillance and confront and expel ining foreign vessels in defense of Vietnamese-controlled islands and reefs.

Both Beijing and Hanoi have a long history of maritime militia and proficiency in mobilizing fishermen and their boats as part of a “gray-zone” strategy —coercive force short of war— to occupy reefs in the South China Sea. Analysts say China maintains the sea’s most obvious maritime militia, although Beijing had in recent years reduced the involvement of civilians in its maritime disputes, in favor of enhancing its coastguard and other official law enforcement forces.

18 May 2021

Vietnam, Thailand agree to foster enhanced strategic partnership

(lm) Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh held phone talks with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-ocha on May 12, during which the two leaders agreed to coordinate closely in further developing the enhanced strategic partnership between the two countries. [VietnamPlus]

18 May 2021

Mekong River Commission receives French grant to improve river monitoring network

(ad) The French government has donated $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. The funding, made available through the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), will span four years from 2021 to 2025. [Mekong River Commission]

The MRC is a regional/intergovernmental organization, consisting of member states Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2007, MRC has established 60 hydro-meteorological stations along the river to improve recording and forecasting the river dynamics.

The new funding is a follow-up to two other grants of EUR 4 million France had donated for the first two phases from 2007 to 2022. Since 2006, France has granted the MRC over 10 million euros to support river monitoring, flood and drought management, climate change, and environmental management. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Vietnam: Mother, son convicted for land right activism

(lm) A court on May 5 sentenced a mother and her son to eight years imprisonment followed by three years’ probation after being convicted for posting online articles and livestream videos criticizing the government for its handling of a deadly land-rights clash last year. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Police raided a village in the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi in January of last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site. The village leader and three police officers were killed during the clash; dozens of villagers arrested. The woman and her two sons played prominent roles in informing the public about the incident through their social media platforms. [Amnesty International]

Meanwhile, Vietnamese authorities have suspended one of the country’s social media platforms, fining the business over $4,000 and revoking its license for eight months in a move further tightening government control over the sharing of information online. [Radio Free Asia 2]


4 May 2021

Vietnam opposes Chinese annual fishing moratorium

(lm) The Vietnamese government has again rejected a recent Chinese fishing ban imposed on waters in the South China Sea and called on Beijing to comply with international laws. [The Star]

China on April 27 announced an annual fishing moratorium in the waters Beijing has claimed in the South China sea. The ban, which came into effect on May 1 runs until September 16 and covers parts of the Gulf of Tonkin and waters surrounding the Paracel Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam. Imposed since 1999, Beijing claims the restrictions a part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology [see also AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2].

4 May 2021

Malaysia to detain Vietnamese fishing boats

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has chased away three Vietnamese vessels, which were trying to prevent MMEA from detaining Vietnamese fishing boats that have encroached into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, off Kuala Terengganu. Since last June, 87 foreign fishing boats and 960 crew members have been found encroaching Malaysian waters. [Bernama]

4 May 2021

Philippines to remain patrolling South China Sea

(lp) Chinese ships still remain in parts of the South China Sea over which the Philippines has territorial claims. What is more, China urged the Philippines to “respect China’s sovereignty and rights” through a cease of maritime exercises in the area. Moreover, the Chinese Ambassador to Manila named the territorial conflict as mere “differences”, despite being summoned some weeks ago in request to remove the Chinese vessels from Philippine territory. [Manila Bulletin 1]

In turn, the Philippines continue to patrol the South China Sea with military and non-military ships, rejecting China’s plea to back off. According to a maritime expert, the diplomatic protests recently issued might have resulted in the decreasing presence of Chinese vessels in the area. Moreover, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) distributed relief supplies to fishermen to alleviate the negative impacts that Chinese incursion and continued patrols they might be incurring. [South China Morning Post 1] [Benar News] [ABS-CBN 1]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte communicated his lack of confidence that the US or the UN will assist the Philippines if conflict escalates. Duterte also claimed he considers China a “good friend” to which he owes a debt of gratitude for their vaccine donations. [Manila Bulletin 2] [ABS-CBN 2]

Via social media platform Twitter, the war of words got ugly, with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr calling China an “ugly oaf” and demanding it “get the f*** out” of Philippine maritime waters. It prompted analysts to warn of an actual war respectively further tensions as Chinese reaction. [South China Morning Post 2]

4 May 2021

South Korea-Vietnam relations: Foreign Ministers discuss bilateral ties

(dql) South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held phone talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son on Wednesday to discuss bilateral ties and regional issues. Both ministers agreed to cooperate on promoting the strategic cooperative partnership of the two nations as next year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The top diplomats assessed that the two nations have continued bilateral trade and investment despite the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to continue cooperation to facilitate trips by essential workers including business people. 

In particular, Chung expressed concerns over Japan’s planned release of radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean. The ministry said that Son, in turn, stressed transparency, responsibility and safety with regard to the marine environment. [KBS]

27 April 2021

Laos: Regional countries to fight for influence over China

(nd) Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have moved this year to offer new help or reaffirm the benefits of previous aid to Laos. In an effort to reinforce their respective bilateral ties, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have reached to Laos to give aid. Japan aims to advance a strategic partnership, has offered about $1.8 million to open Covid-19 vaccine storage facilities, and announced to support upgrades to international airports. Thailand also vowed to support Laos with the pandemic and has helped in education, agriculture and health. Vietnam has developed a 2021-2030 cooperation strategy and a five-year cooperation agreement.

Development aid in total has reached up to 15% of Lao GDP, helping the economy to grow at an annual average of 5.8% during the past five years. Chinese payments to Laos have reached $11 billion per year, with financing and investment making the sum even higher. Therefore, countries in the region hope to lessen China’s influence, mostly due to its domination of the Mekong River and its flow. To mitigate this, the US last year launched the aid plan Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Japan and Vietnam have additional quarrels with China over the South China Sea. While those countries aim at pushing back China’s influence on Laos, the latter is mostly dependent on China, to which it owed $ 250 million for the construction of a 400-kilometer, $5.9 billion China-invested railway, according to the International Monetary Fund. [Voice of America]

27 April 2021

Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges

(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.

Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.

The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.

Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.

At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]

Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”. 

The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]

In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]

27 April 2021

UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia

(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.

Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia. 

Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]


27 April 2021

Agreement during ASEAN summit to prompt anti-coup activist call for continuation of protests

(lf) The long-awaited summit between the ASEAN member states on the crisis in Myanmar has been concluded with an agreement on five points: to end the violence, hold a constructive dialogue between all parties, send an ASEAN envoy, accept aid of and enable entry for the ASEAN envoy. Furthermore, the states agreed on a constructive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, as well as a strong ASEAN role in the further development of the crisis. However, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, did neither set a timeline for the end of violence, nor did he specifically agree to end the killing of civilians immediately or to release political prisoners. The meeting was the first international cooperation on the crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations, the US and China view ASEAN as the adequate body to best deal with the situation. [Reuters 1]

Myanmar’s anti-coup protestors were disappointed by the outcome. Activist groups stated that the agreement did not reflect the realities of the ground in Myanmar, and did not make up for the around 750 people killed by the military since the coup began. While the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, commenting he discussed the country’s “political changes”, they made no mention of the consensus on an end to violence. [Voice of America] Activists were in particular disappointed over the weakened stance on the release of political prisoners, as a draft paper prior to the summit featured the release of political prisoners as one of the consensus points. Since the coup over 3,000 people have been detained. Therefore, activist have called for a continuation and deepening of the Civil Disobedience Movement and protests. Activists urge civilians to boycott schools and to stop paying their electricity bills and agricultural loans.  [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

Already before the summit, the ASEAN bloc received widespread criticism for only inviting the military and in particular the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to the table for a discussion on the situation, and not a representative of the National Unity Government. State leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Rodrigo Duterte did not attend the summit. [South China Moring Post]

Shortly after the meeting, the junta announced to “positively consider” the agreement. On Monday already, one man was shot dead in Mandalay. [Reuters 4]

27 April 2021

China endangers peace in the South China Sea, EU says

(dql) The European Union (EU) has accused China of endangering peace and stability in the South China Sea, citing “the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef,” claimed by China, Philippines, and Vietnam. Criticizing “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order,” Brussels urged all parties to abide by the ruling in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration which rejected most of China’s claim to sovereignty in the sea. [EEAS] [Reuters]

The statement comes shortly after the Foreign Ministers of the 27 EU member states last week adopted the adopted the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” which, among others, called for “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, in the interest of all.” [AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]

27 April 2021

Report warns of shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand

(lm) In a submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Switzerland-based organization International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has warned that journalists and media workers in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam face an increasingly repressive legal landscape. 

In the report, the group expresses its concern about the fragility of press freedom in the three countries, highlighting the enactment of new laws and the emergence of practices that are incompatible with human rights law and standards aimed at restricting information and expression on the coronavirus pandemic. The ICJ also underscores the continued abuse of existing laws equally incompatible with human rights law to arbitrarily restrict information and expression during the pandemic, by explicitly targeting journalists and social media users. [ICJ]

27 April 2021

Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

(nd) Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released the World Press Freedom Index, revealing an increased repression and attacks on free press worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has globally been used as a pretext to impose repressive legislation and narrow the range of permitted speech for the sake of public health. According to the index, which evaluates 180 countries, journalism is seriously impeded in 73 nations and constrained in 59 other, making up 73 percent of the countries evaluated. 

Vietnam, 175th place, only above Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, has intensified its crackdown on dissent leading up to the five-yearly congress in January 2021, arresting and sentencing bloggers and journalists. Malaysia fell 18 places to the 119th, prompted by the passage of an “anti-fake-news” ordinance to contain criticism on the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the state of emergency, as well as an investigation against media outlet Al Jazeera for a documentary on the situation of migrant workers during the pandemic, and proceedings against online news portal Malaysiakini, which was found guilty of contempt of court. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

A similar “anti-fake-news” decree designed for the pandemic was issued by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last March, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his crackdown on civil society and the press with similar new powers to hinder reporting. The Philippines continued its “war on drugs”, which is also directed against media, suspending the license of the country’s largest TV broadcaster, ABS-CBN, for its critical reporting, and targeting its editor, Maria Ressa, with judicial campaigns. Myanmar, 140th place this year, but likely to drop to the bottom due to the February 1 coup and the deadly crackdown on civilians, was commented to be set back 10 years by these events. 

Contrarily, Timor-Leste made it to the 71st place, with RSF noting that “no journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in Timor-Leste since this country of just 1.2 million inhabitants won independence in 2002.” [RSF] [The Diplomat]

20 April 2021

Coordination in the South China Sea: Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia

(lp) Last week, the Philippines and Malaysia reaffirmed their commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation signed in 1994. Similarly, Vietnam and Malaysia announced that they will sign a MOU this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security. Moreover, Malaysia and Indonesia will pursue a joint development of oil and gas elds on their maritime boundaries. These latest cooperation form part of a broader effort to find unified ranks towards China, dating back some years. Analysts welcomed the move, which could solidify the bargaining position of Southeast Asian Nations towards China, which prefers unilateral agreements. The biggest obstacle to such joint action were called “intramural differences” by experts among themselves, such as conflicts over illegal fishing, which are concentrating resources and limiting bargaining power. [Manila Bulletin] [South China Morning Post]

20 April 2021

Philippines to increase patrols in South China Sea, summons Chinese envoy

(lp) The Philippines summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huan Xilian and demanded that China withdraw all its vessels from Philippine maritime zones. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese vessels dispersed across these zones increased to at least 261. [Reuters 1] [Rappler]

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continued to patrol the South China Sea, not using warships or air forces that China could misinterpret as a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the US and the Philippines proceed with Balikatan, a two-week joint naval war exercise, which some officials worry could heighten tensions with China. Moreover, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called on the US for caution in their patrols, referring to the powerful US Navy’s 7th Fleet stationed in Japan. The US and the Philippines attempt to show military power without triggering war. [Bangkok Post] [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Most recently, the AFP also refuted rumors of a coup allegedly motivated by President Rodrigo Duterte’s inaction against China’s incursion. In stark contrast with his previous attitude towards Beijing, Duterte responded that he is willing to confront China, but he believes it would be futile and bloody. What is more, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US would not be activated if the Philippines starts the war, instead of being attacked. [CNN] [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) is verifying reports that China is undergoing deep-sea drilling in the South China Sea. This was reported by China’s state news agency, Xinhua, who did not specify where the drilling activity took place. Duterte claimed that, if these reports verify that China is drilling in Philippine territory, he would send warships to lay claim to the resources that China must “share.” [Manila Bulletin 2] [Reuters 2]

20 April 2021

ASEAN leader to meet on April 24

(lf) The leaders of the members of ASEAN have finally agreed to meet in Jakarta on April 24 on the situation in Myanmar. The ongoing violent conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed group causes the neighbor country to worry about a civil war. Coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. [Thai PBS world]

ASEAN has long struggled for a cohesive response to the situation. It is rooted in ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference, which was invoked frequently by members, and it therefore lacks a mechanism for regional action. While the international community has condemned the coup with some imposing sanctions, the responses have not been successful yet. [East Asia Forum]

Ahead of the meeting, Southeast Asian states were discussing the possibility of sending a humanitarian aid mission, in order to foster dialogue between the military and the protestors. [Reuters]

13 April 2021

Philippines: Tensions remain high in South China Sea

(lp) The Philippines filed two more diplomatic protests against China’s incursion into Philippine territory, but these have been largely neglected by China. Thus, the Philippines is seeking support from allies to make China retreat. [CNN]

The US assured that it will defend the Philippines in case of any attack on a state-owned vessel, as stated in their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Moreover, the US Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group showcased this commitment to prevent China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. The Philippines welcomed these developments and even proposed to hold joint naval thrills with the US, while emphasizing it attempts to resolve the tensions with China through diplomatic channels. [Benar News] [Manila Bulletin 1] Motivated by this latest incursion, the Philippines is to discuss the conditions of the MDT with the US. In particular, the Philippines hopes to expand the trigger of the MDT to include attacks on public citizen vessels. Moreover, the Philippines demanded that the US provides real-time access to their intelligence data on the South China Sea. [CNN] [Manila Bulletin]

To resume an annual training which was cancelled last year due to the pandemic, the two will start a two-week joint military exercise from April 12. [Channel News Asia]

Japan is also wary of China’s expansionism, as it spotted a Chinese aircraft and five escort vessels passing throughJapan’s key waterways off Nagasaki and Okinawa. Japan also confirmed its allyship with the Philippines, but vowed to avoid war and promote peace in the South China Sea. Thus, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is planning visits to the Philippines and India during April, and talks with US President Joe Biden. [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, two Chinese missile-attack crafts allegedly harassed a Philippine vessel carrying journalists investigating the impacts of China’s incursion on Filipino fishermen. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Department of National Defense (DND) have announced investigations. Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced that the “Task Force Pagsasanay” will improve training of its personnel on navigation along various waters, and maintenance and logistical operations. [The Diplomat] [Manila Bulletin 3]

13 April 2021

Vietnam: Pham Minh Chinh inaugurated as new Prime Minister

(lm) Vietnam’s National Assembly on April 5 confirmed the nomination of Pham Minh Chinh as the country’s next prime minister, replacing hitherto Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who was confirmed as the country’s new president, a predominantly ceremonial role. [South China Morning Post]

Chinh’s nomination by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (VCP) came as surprise the prevailing norm was that the senior deputy prime minister with responsibility for the economy – Vuong Dinh Hue in this case –replace a retiring prime minister. Chinh, a former head of the party’s powerful and influential Central Organization Commission, on the other hand, lacks experience in the government bureaucracy. [Channel NewsAsia]

Chinh’s confirmation followed the twice-a-decade national congress of Vietnam’s Communist Party, held this year in January, when the appointments of Vietnam’s top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – were determined for the coming five-year term. [AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]

His promotion is widely considered as part of a “grand compromise” between the two wings o the VCP, which also included the come-back by General Secretary and President Nguyễn Phú Trọng, who was able to muster support for a second exemption from the retirement age and his unprecedented retention for a third term as party leader.


6 April 2021

Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam low on US report on human rights 

(nd) According to an annual US State Department report, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the press last year, holding political prisoners and interfering with the rights of citizens to peacefully protest. All three record cases of arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, and torture in police custody. Laos last year tightened its grip on online freedom, removing critical postings. While corruption was investigated, human rights abuses remained unpunished. 

After the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the beginning of 2021 saw a politically motivated mass trial in absentia against leaders and activists. The government also engages in efforts to censor free media, through control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets, pushing them into self-censorship.

For Vietnam, the report mainly pointed to restrictions on political participation and a lack of independence of the judiciary, as well as arbitrary arrests and killings by the government. Reportedly, political prisoners were tortured in custody. Running up to the Communist Party Congress in January 2021, the government cracked down on independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities to mute criticism. [Radio Free Asia]


6 April 2021

Vietnam: Facebook user sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing government online

(lm) A Facebook user was sentenced to four years in prison on March 31 for sharing his grievances online about how the local government had handled a dispute over his family’s land.

Taken into custody in September of last year, the defendant had complained to provincial authorities and other government departments to ask for compensation payments after his family’s house and land had been confiscated to make way for construction of a wastewater plan. Frustrated by officials’ refusal of his requests, the defendant then shared his frustrations on Facebook, leading to his arrest. [Radio Free Asia]

In a one-day trial, meanwhile, another Facebook user was sentenced to ten years in prison, with three years of probation to be served after his release. The man was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for sharing posts and videos calling for the establishment of a “National Congress” to replace the current National Assembly. [Taipei Times]

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]

30 March 2021

Vietnam: Dissident writer sent back to serve 12-year term after losing appeal

(lm) An appeals court upheld on March 24 the 12-year prison sentence handed down to a dissident writer and co-founder of human rights group “Brotherhood for Democracy” in December, sending him back to prison to serve his full term without hearing any arguments from his lawyer. [Radio Free Asia]

The man had been arrested in April last year and charged with “activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s Government” under Article 109 of Vietnam’s 2015 Criminal Code for social media postings exposing government corruption and human rights abuses. The Brotherhood for Democracy is not recognized by the Vietnamese government, and many of its members have been imprisoned since its founding in 2013 [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2].

30 March 2021

Vietnam: Two brothers facing death refuse to plead for amnesty, assert innocence

(lm) Two brothers, who were sentenced to death last September for their roles in a deadly clash with police last year over land rights at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi have refused to appeal for amnesty in the case, saying the request would amount to a confession of their guilt. [Radio Free Asia]

Earlier this month, the Hanoi People’s High Court had upheld the sentences against six defendants in the case, including the death sentences imposed on the two brothers, who had been convicted of murder and resisting law enforcement. [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]

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

Vietnam: Facebook user arrested for publishing writings criticizing the government

(lm) Police in Vietnam arrested on March 9 a Facebook user on accusations of using the social media platform between 2018 and 2020 to allegedly defame the government and distorting its policies, in the latest of a string of arrests aimed at shutting down online criticism of the country’s one-party communist state. The Provincial Public Security website said he will be held in pretrial detention for four months. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison. [Radio Free Asia 1]

The man used Facebook to post articles on human rights abuses and allegations of corruption by state of officials, among others. Further, he had recently declared his intention to run as an independent candidate in the 15thNational Assembly elections, which are scheduled to take place on May 23. [Voice of America]

Separately, a court sentenced on March 18 four people on charges of activities to overthrow the people’s government” for participating in research for the Provisional National government of Vietnam, a claimed government in exile. Headquartered in the United States, the provisional government was founded in 1991 by soldiers and refugees that had been loyal to the South Vietnamese government prior to the country’s unification under communist rule in 1975. In 2018, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security classified the provisional government as a terrorist organization. [Radio Free Asia 2]

23 March 2021

Vietnam: First member of Hien Phap group released after serving full prison term

(lm) The first member of the Hien Phap civil society organization was released from prison on March 9 after serving a sentence of two and a half years. The woman left prison in poor health with weakened eyesight, a digestive disorder and a tumor growing in her chest. [Radio Free Asia]

Formed in 2017, the Hien Phap Group had played a major role in calling for protests that rocked Vietnamese cities in June 2018 in opposition to a proposed cybersecurity law and a law granting concessions of land to Chinese businesses. In a trial closed to family members, all eight group members 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. An appeals court upheld the prison terms of four of the group’s activists in January [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2].

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

Vietnam: Court upholds sentences for six Dong Tam defendants, including two death sentences

(lm) The Hanoi People’s High Court upheld the sentences on March 9 against six defendants who were among a group of 29 villagers tried for their roles in a deadly clash with police over land rights at the Dong Tam commune outside the capital Hanoi last year. Reported violations of due process by the three-judge panel hearing the case included barring one lawyer from conferring with his client and stopping lines of questioning into sensitive aspects of the case. [Radio Free Asia] [Nasdaq]

During the appellate trial, the procuracy had recommended that sentences conferred by the lower court last September be upheld, including two death sentences for two brothers convicted of murder and resisting law enforcement [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. The brothers’ father was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site.

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

China installing a missile base near border with Vietnam?

(dq) Following satellite images, China is believed to build a surface-to-air missile base 20 kilometers from its border with Vietnam, as a long-term precaution and near-term warning to neighboring countries. [VoA]

9 March 2021

Vietnam: Appeals hearing for Dong Tam Land-rights activists scheduled

(lm) A high people’s court opened on March 8 an appeal trial for six defendants jailed last year following a deadly land-rights clash at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi. [Radio Free Asia] [VietnamPlus]

Le Dinh Kinh, the retired local official, was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site. At the first-instance trial, a court in September last year sentenced both of his sons to death, ruling that they had helped mastermind resistance against the police [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. The other 27 people on trial were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to 15 months of probation.

9 March 2021

Vietnam: 13th Party Central Committee convenes second plenum

(lm) The 13th Central Committee (CC), the highest decision-making body within Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV), concluded its second plenary conference on March 9. During the two-day sitting, the CC’s 200 members discussed the working agenda of the entire tenure, as well as the nomination of candidates for high-ranking positions in State organs. [VietnamPlus]

Elected by the all-important National Congress, the current CC comprises of 180 full or voting members and 20 alternate or non-voting members. Of the 180 full members, 120 were incumbents who had already served a full term or more on the CC. The first plenum was held on February 1, the last day of the thirteenth National Congress, to elect the Political Bureau (or Politburo) and the CPV’s leader, the General Secretary. Previously, the thirteenth Congress had adopted a special resolution permitting incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, an unprecedented third term in office while retaining party rules limiting future officials to two terms [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

According to experts, there are at least to possible clouds on the horizon.

In a surprising development, the new CC elected only eighteen members to the Political Bureau, one below the target of nineteen from a field of over twenty candidates. Vietnamese insiders call an even number of Politburo members unstable because it could delay decision-making when votes are tied, which in some cases could undermine the authority of Trọng.

The second cloud concerns the future health of General-Secretary Trọng who will turn 77 in April. While he was re-elected for an unprecedented third term, there are questions about whether he still has the clout to serve as kingmaker after his recent ill-health: Trọng suffered a stroke last April and reportedly has not fully recovered, potentially undermining his ability to impose his political will.

Importantly, Trong’s close confidant Tran Quoc Vuong [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] was not given special consideration for his age and was removed from both the Political Bureau and the CC. Hitherto Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who was seen as the front-leader on Vietnam’s COVID-19 response [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3], if confirmed, will move from an executive position to the ceremonial role of the state president.

Meanwhile, the only female leader in one of the top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who served as chairperson of the National Assembly, was replaced by Vuong Dinh Hue.

For a comprehensive analysis of Vietnam’s current leadership, please consider articles published by the [Australian Institute of International Affairs] and the [East Asia Forum].

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

Vietnam to apply for seat in United Nations Human Rights Council

(lm) Vietnam made public on February 22 its intensions to seek membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) for the 2023-2025 term. According to the country’s foreign minister, Vietnam has been endorsed as the ASEAN candidate for this post in competition with candidates from other countries in the United Nations (UN)’s Asia and the Pacific representational grouping. [Radio Free Asia] [VNExpress]

The UN HRC has 47 members elected for staggered three-year terms using the United Nations regional grouping system. The Asia and the Pacific Group consists of 55 Member States (27.5 percent of UN members) and is the second largest regional group by number of member states after the African Group. The Group has 13 seats on the UN HRC.

23 February 2021

Vietnam: State media bloggers held on defamation charges for criticizing provincial leaders

(lm) Two journalists employed by official media are being held by police on charges of “abusing press freedoms” after they shared articles online accusing provincial leaders of corruption. The arrest came five weeks after the sentencing by a court of three independent journalists – all prominent members of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN) – on charges of spreading propaganda against the state [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Radio Free Asia]

23 February 2021

Vietnam: Jailed Vietnamese blogger held in isolation, denied visits in mental hospital

(lm) A Vietnamese journalist held in a mental hospital while awaiting trial for criticizing Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (VCP) was denied visits from supporters on February 17, with authorities saying he is being kept in isolation as a “political case.” [The 88 Project]

A member of an online advocacy group, the blogger had been arrested in 2018 on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s criminal code. In 2019, he was transferred to a mental hospital. If convicted, he could serve up to seven years in prison. [Radio Free Asia]

23 February 2021

Vietnam: Military general appointed country’s new propaganda chief

(lm) Vietnam has named Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia to head the Commission for Propaganda and Education of the ruling Communist Party’s (VCP) Central Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the country’s tightly controlled media. [Radio Free Asia]

Prior to his appointment, the senior military officer had overseen the creation of Force 47, a 10,000-strong cyber unit established in 2017 to trawl the web and rebut any “wrongful opinions” about the VCP. Thus, observers believe that Nguyen’s appointment may mark the beginning of a tighter control of articles about the politically sensitive relationship between Vietnam and China. Nguyen may also more tightly manage the use by Party members of Vietnam’s media to expose other Party members’ violations of the law or Party regulations. [The Diplomat]

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

Mekong river level remains low

(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.

Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]

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]

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

Vietnam: Police say prisoner died after fall, revising earlier suicide claim

(lm) Police in Vietnam said on February 11 that a prisoner who died in their custody last month had been severely injured after he fell, contradicting their earlier claim that he had committed suicide. [Radio Free Asia]

The prisoner, who had been detained since last November on charges of disrupting public order, fell and hit his head while resisting prison escorts at a detention camp in Ho Chi Minh City, according to a representative of the camp.

However, in a report published in January, the mother of the prisoner said she received notice from the police on that her son had taken his own life and requested her to receive his body. Upon retrieval from the city’s forensic center, the mother said she found many bruises on her son’s body. Thus, she decided to petition the city’s supreme people’s procuracy, the people’s procuracy, and the director of the police to investigate her son’s death. [Tuổi Trẻ, in Vietnamese]


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]

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]

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

Vietnam: Jailed blogger refuses to appeal sentence, destroys petition form

(lm) A jailed Vietnamese blogger has refused to appeal his 11-year prison term, after prison guards attempted to dictate the document’s wording. A prominent member of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN), the jailed man is one of three dissident journalists who had been found guilty of charges for spreading propaganda against the state earlier this month [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Separately, villagers in Dong Tam village on January 27 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Vietnamese activist Le Dinh Kinh, while plainclothes police loitered about keeping close tabs on the gathering. [Radio Free Asia 2]

Le Dinh Kinh, the retired local official, was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, trying to secure construction of a fence around land officials were trying to seize next to an airfield. A court in September sentenced both of his sons to death, ruling that they had helped mastermind resistance against the police [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].

2 February 2021

Vietnam: Nguyen Phu Trong re-elected as general secretary of ruling Communist Party

(lm) During the first days of the ongoing 13th National Congress of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV), incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, has won a rare third term as party chief. Previously, a leaked list of candidates for the politburo’s offices had Trọng earmarked as one of two designated “special cases” that have already passed the customary age for retirement [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. Thus, observers say securing a third term implies that other party factions do not view Trọng as a threat to their long-term race to power. [Reuters]

In the run-up to the all-important congress, the future of Trọng’s rule seemed uncertain, after he had suffered a stroke last April and has reportedly not fully recovered since [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. Frail but in strong command for now, the committed Marxist-Leninist becomes Vietnam’s longest-serving party chief since Le Duan, who ruled with an iron fist after the 1969 death of Vietnam’s founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. He has also held the largely ceremonial role of the country’s president since his predecessor died in 2018.

Beyond the leadership question, the other key area addressed during the congress is the five-year economic plan, as the delegates are to officially endorse economic targets the CPV intends to set that are meant to help the country emerge from the lower-middle-income level by 2025 and gain developed nation status by 2045. Having emerged as an attractive destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and a new hub for low-cost manufacturing in Asian supply chains, Hanoi is now seeking to leverage the economic advantage it gained as one of the few countries to have expanded its gross domestic product in 2020 [see also AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asia


26 January 2021

Vietnam: Facebook user gets seven-year term for ridiculing leadership

(lm) A Vietnamese court sentenced an activist to seven years in prison on January 20 over her Facebook posts addressing issues deemed sensitive in the one-party communist state, including proposed laws on special economic zones and cybersecurity, as well as environmental issues. [Voice of America]

The sentencing come as authorities in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi further tightened security in the city ahead of the ruling Communist Party (CPV)’s 13th National Congress, a meeting held every five years to approve future policy and select new leaders [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. City authorities on January 21 directed officials to resolve outstanding cases of petitioner complaints at Hanoi’s central office, calling on police at the same time to disperse large public gatherings likely to cause security problems during the politically sensitive event. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

26 January 2021

Vietnam: Communist Party congress to pick new leadership, approve future economic policies

(lm) Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV) gathered on January 25 for its 13th National Congress – the first since 2016 – to approve future policies and select new leaders amid talks over whether the current party chief will stay. Over the course of nine days, the 1,587 delegates will elect the 200-member Central Committee, which will choose between 15 and 19 of its members to serve on the Politburo, the highest party body. [Deutsche Welle] [BBC]

A week before the congress, the list of candidates for the politburo’s offices emerged, despite threats of punishment against leakers of what authorities calls secret information. Decided upon during the CPV’s 15th plenary session – the last under the outgoing leadership group – the list has circulated widely on social media and in other reports. [Radio Free Asia]

Against all expectations, incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, is set to continue as party chief. Trọng, who suffered a stroke last April and has reportedly not fully recovered since, was widely expected to step down in the run-up to the all-important congress [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

What is more, Trọng is one of two designated “special cases” that have already passed the customary age for retirement, indicating that the party’s politburo could not reach a consensus about who to recommend as his successor. The other person earmarked as “special case” is incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocratic and non-ideological candidate [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3], who is likely to succeed Trọng as president.

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

Malaysia: Vietnamese fishermen arrested

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has arrested 16 Vietnamese fishermen off Terengganu state. The fishermen were using fake registration numbers. Among other states, Malaysia and Vietnam have claims to the South China Sea that overlap. Recently, tension rose in the disputed waters due to Chinese military action. [Reuters]

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

Vietnam: Authorities intensify repression ahead of all-important 13th National Congress

In the run-up to the all-important 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1], authorities have added new information controls, setting up an “Anti-Fake News Center”. Further, in a stern warning to potential candidates and media, an official overseeing the confidential election told state media that anyone responsible for leaking or publishing false or secret information about the process would be punished under Vietnamese law. [Hanoi Times] [Radio Free Asia]


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

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]