Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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]