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Southeast Asia

High-tech China-US arms race threatens to destabilise East Asia

Written by James Samuel Johnson.

After decades of peace, East Asia is racked with tension – and its two dominant military powers are jostling for supremacy in an extremely alarming way.

The US and China are accumulating increasingly advanced military systems to enable and enhance the assets they already have. With the Trump administration’s foreign policy still unclear and China’s aspirations to regional supremacy as ambitious as ever, they are racing to deny each other the upper hand by rolling out new military assets. Continue reading “High-tech China-US arms race threatens to destabilise East Asia”

One award and two elections: ASEAN and the South China Sea

Written by Peter Kreuzer.

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the elections of Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump to President of the Philippines and the United States respectively have triggered a host of changes to the dynamics of contestation over sovereignty, sovereign and maritime rights in the South China Sea. To recap, in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration dealt a serious blow to Chinese claims on the region, arguing that China’s nine-dash-line is not in accordance with the modern law of the sea as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The court argued that none of the South China Sea elevations qualify as islands in a legal sense and therefore none of them can generate their own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The court also ruled that a number of elevations, most prominently the Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef, were low tide elevations. This means, in short, that they must be considered a part of the Philippine EEZ. Continue reading “One award and two elections: ASEAN and the South China Sea”

Why Fresh Thinking on the South China Sea is a Problem

Written by Kerry Brown.

Almost certainly one of the headaches that a new American president will have to start engaging with when they finally come into office in a year and a half’s time will be the complex claims and counter-claims over sovereignty and maritime borders in the South and East China Sea. Issues that once seemed remote and largely academic are now at the forefront of geopolitical worries, because what was once a sleepy stretch of water in amidst a group of developing countries with little trade or global political status has now become the precise opposite – prime territory linking the 21st century’s most dynamic, economically important countries. The stakes have risen stratospherically because of this. Continue reading “Why Fresh Thinking on the South China Sea is a Problem”

Vietnam-ASEAN Relations: A Retrospective

Written by Ramses Amer.

In 2015 Vietnam celebrates two major anniversaries. First, it is 40 years since war ended in Vietnam with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, which paved the way for the formal reunification of Vietnam the following year. Second, it is 20 years since Vietnam gained membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 28 July 1995.

 Vietnam’s relations with ASEAN and its five founding member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – have seen major transformation over the past 40 years in particular during the period 1975-1995. In the context of the current situation with Vietnam fully integrated into the ASEAN framework for regional co-operation and with a Vietnamese as Secretary General of ASEAN it seems a long time ago when the relationship between Vietnam and ASEAN was characterised by animosity and deep differences.

The relationship 1975-1995

During the period of 1975-1995 Vietnam’s attitude towards ASEAN was inconsistent, with a lingering Vietnamese perception of the Association as being anti-Vietnamese. When Vietnam attempted to diversify its overall foreign relations out of the limited orbit of socialist countries in 1976 and 1977, efforts were made to improve and expand contacts with the ASEAN member states. However, Vietnam also continued to criticise the ASEAN countries, one accusation being that the Association was too closely linked to the USA. Vietnam’s policy of engagement was reinforced in 1978 as Vietnam sought to gather regional diplomatic support in its deepening conflict with Cambodia.

This process of rapprochement with the ASEAN member states came to an abrupt halt as a result of Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia in late December 1978. The Cambodian conflict 1979-1991 became the dominant issue in Vietnam-ASEAN relations. This led to a confrontation between Vietnam and ASEAN which centred on the situation in Cambodia, with ASEAN actively opposing Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia both regionally and internationally. The second half of the 1980s saw a gradual improvement of relations between Vietnam and individual ASEAN member states. However, full normalisation of relations between Vietnam and ASEAN was only achieved following the formal settlement of the Cambodian conflict in October 1991.

With the Cambodian conflict removed from the agenda, relations between Vietnam and ASEAN were allowed to flourish. This can be seen from Vietnam’s gradual integration into the existing regional framework in Southeast Asia. Vietnam acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1992. It became a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which held its first official meeting in 1994. Vietnam was admitted as a full member of ASEAN on 28 July 1995. This displayed a remarkable shift in relations between Vietnam and ASEAN during a period of 20 years.

Missed opportunity?

Was there a missed opportunity back in the 1970s? Was the potential of rapprochement fully explored during the period 1975 to 1978? Once the Cambodian conflict came to dominate the relationship from early 1979 further rapprochement was not possible, but could more have been achieved before the emergence of the Cambodian conflict? In order to assess this issue it is necessary to take into account the specific conditions that prevailed and it is not correct to judge the developments through the lenses of the situation that prevailed in the 1990s or today.

First, the importance of ideology in inter-state relations was of high relevance in the 1970s, but of much less relevance after the end of the Cold War. Thus, this ideological factor was detrimental to an enhanced rapprochement between Vietnam and ASEAN in the period 1975-1978. Second, the legacy of the Vietnam War and the perception of ASEAN as being too closely linked to the USA did negatively affect its relations with ASEAN in the 1970s, but it was of less or no relevance in the 1990s. Third, the international status of ASEAN was much less developed and prominent in the 1970s as compared to the early 1990s when ASEAN had emerged as an important actor through its influential role in the international diplomacy of the Cambodian conflict. Fourth, in the 1970s member-states of ASEAN had yet to emerge as fast growing economies, while in the 1990s several of them went through a process of fast economic growth and development.

Thus, as seen from Vietnam’s perspective ASEAN and its individual member-states were not perceived to be able to assist Vietnam in its economic development in the 1970s. Evidently, Vietnam’s perception of ASEAN had changed by the early 1990s and consequently seeking closer ties and eventually membership became foreign policy priorities for Vietnam. Thus, the rapprochement during the period 1975-1978 went as far as it was possible in the context that prevailed during that period.

Main achievement at 20 years of membership

It is in the field of conflict management that the main achievement of Vietnam’s regional integration can be seen. Vietnam has made considerable progress in such efforts since it became a member of the Association in 1995. The progress has certainly been facilitated by Vietnam’s membership because overall relations have been further strengthened with its fellow ASEAN members. Improved relations may also help explain why the disputes have become more manageableas well aswhy a number of them have been resolved either through joint development schemes or through formal delimitation agreements. Thus, it can be argued that the active and committed policy of peaceful management of border disputes implemented by the Vietnamese government is paying dividends. The progress achieved indicates that several of Vietnam’s neighbours are pursuing similar policies.

The progress made in managing its border and maritime issues between Vietnam and other member-states of ASEAN demonstrate that the TAC principle of peaceful management of disputes is being implemented in Vietnam’s relations and its ASEAN neighbours. This is another indication of Vietnam’s commitment to and continued integration into the regional framework of collaboration and integration in Southeast Asia.

This overall positive trend in the management of Vietnam’s border disputes contributes to the ASEAN goal to promote peace and security in Southeast Asia. It is also positively contributing to improving inter-state relations between the member-states of ASEAN. It can even be argued that the positive developments relating to the management of Vietnam’s border disputes have contributed to increase the credibility of ASEAN’s approach to conflict management as well as to strengthen it.

Ramses Amer is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden and previously a Senior Research Fellow at Stockholm University. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Hong Kong’s Window on China, Mahathir, and Democratic Change

Written by William Case.

We know much about what Southeast Asia’s leaders think of China. They are divided in their outlooks, but we can reasonably group them. Among those in closest proximity to China, some leaders have come to resent what they see as the country’s imperiousness, manifest in the skewed terms of its infrastructural projects and energy deals, the rapacity of its claims in the South China Sea, and the pugnacity of its frontier traders and migrant retailers. By contrast, other leaders value their territorial nearness, welcoming Chinese investment in rail lines, ports, dams, and mines. In addition, they may find refuge in the penumbra of China’s authoritarian rule, whether they too operate Communist parties, a rare military government, or a hybrid form of personal dictatorship. Further away from China’s borders, leaders in Southeast usually grow more detached. But even here, we sometimes find leaders who are effusive, hailing China as a boon for the region, a driver of economic advance, and a barrier to US interference. One such opinion leader is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia.

We also know much about what, in turn, China’s leaders think of their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Those whom it regards as ingrates or irritants, it openly berates as unworthy of national office. But for those whom it views as forthcoming, it may even designate their country as a “comprehensive strategic partner.” On this count, we see how China has returned Mahathir’s good will. As President Xi Jinpeng journeyed to the APEC meeting in 2013, he stopped over in Kuala Lumpur to engage Najib Razak, currently Malaysia’s prime minister. But he paid a call on Mahathir too. And in reciprocating, an awestruck Mahathir proposed that a Zheng He Institute be set up—contrasting starkly with the bitterness he registers toward Malaysia’s citizens of Chinese ancestry, despite their co-ethnicity with Xi and the admiral.

But apart from Xi, what might more ordinary people in China think of Mahathir and Malaysia? At this level, we know much less about attitudes toward Southeast Asia’s leaders. But recently, here in Hong Kong, we were given a glimpse.

Mahathir still holds great sway in Malaysia. He has also discovered a calling as a professional speaker overseas. And in October last year, he came to Hong Kong to address an afternoon gathering of “pro-establishment” political figures and business elites. For the purpose, a large function room was requisitioned in the Wanchai Convention Centre. And its many tables were filled with guests, notwithstanding the high price of tickets and the commonness of the lunch. I went too, relishing this rare chance to see Tun. But what, I wondered, could have been the draw for local Hong Kongers? Few seemed to know very much about Malaysia. But they knew enough that they admired the firm managerial hand that during his long tenure, Tun had been famous for wielding.

At the time of Mahathir’s visit, Hong Kong was well into the second month of its Occupy Central movement. Initially planned by veteran “pan-democrat” activists, as they are called, street action was energized now by student protesters. And as they gained momentum, swelling in numbers and combativeness, pro-establishment figures grew steamed. Hence, their motivation for seeking out Tun.

Mahathir began by reacquainting his audience with his anti-Western sentiments, which seemed even to have intensified alongside his mounting affections for China. “The West colonized we Malaysians for a hundred years”, he acidly recalled. “China never colonized us. Of course, they could still do so. For they have a fifth column”—again intimating his distrust of Malaysia’s Chinese, though few Hong Kongers in the audience detected this. Rather, they sat enraptured as Mahathir went on to characterize Chinese outside Malaysia as beneficent and nobly intentioned, their country’s economic expansion uplifting all of East Asia. Personally, though, I was less taken with this vintage Mahathirism that the stamina with which it was delivered. Mahathir will soon turn 90. Yet he held the floor for an hour, without notes or nary a stumble. And then he took questions.

Local notables in attendance were quick to queue at the mike. A member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress implored Mahathir, “Tun, can you give us some of your precious advice [about how to deal with the student protesters]?” Mahathir reassured her that they were easily dismissed: as they represent “just a small number, they are not genuinely fighting for democracy.” A spokesman for the anti-Occupy Alliance for Peace and Democracy, doubling as leader of the Silent Majority of Hong Kong, asked similarly how, in his day, Mahathir would have handled the protesters, “who (the spokesman’s voice rising) have blocked our streets and businesses for 28 days?!” Mahathir pursed his lips, then sagely responded, “the best way to handle it is to handle it before the occupying”—thereby preventing a majority ever from forming. But Mahathir then gave more measured counsel than he himself ever took while in power: “beating them is not the solution, of course. [For if you do,] you can be sure that CNN, MNBC, and all the rest will be there”, drawing guffaws from the audience. Better to wait them out, he continued, for “over time they will get tired and other people will turn against them”—which turned out to be quite true. And then, beaming warmly, Mahathir stood back from the lectern, made his way to his table, and took his place alongside Siti Hasmah. He was thunderously applauded.

At my own table, guests were mostly from Hong Kong. But a few hailed from the mainland and even Malaysia. And fired by Mahathir’s insights, they continued discussion, quavering with indignation over Occupy Central. A deceptively petite local woman on my left, a business executive, hissed that what the students needed was “a slap. They are immature and misled.” “But who is misleading them?”, I asked. “Foreign interference. You know who—the US”, she nearly spat. She was evidently more open to Mahathir’s intervention. Sensing this, another guest, a visiting businessman from Malaysia, told us of his taxi ride to the convention center. Darkening with anger, he recounted his having been made to detour by the students. What was more, he had observed them daring to stop police, opening the boots of squad cars, and searching for canisters of tear gas. “I’d like to bring the Malaysian police in here”, he growled. “They’d teach these kids something.” Others at my table nodded in vigorous agreement. “And what do you think?”, I was finally asked. Knowing that no good could come from sharing my views, I replied, “I’ve just made new friends here. I need to learn more before making any judgment.” But though they didn’t learn much from me, I learned much about how they felt about Mahathir. In this part of China, at least, a Malaysian leader had plainly found favor with ordinary Chinese.

William Case is a professor of politics at City University of Hong Kong, Department of Asian and International Studies. Image credit: CC by M Afif/Flickr. 

China and water security in Asia

In 2011 Anatol Lieven wrote that the ‘greatest source of long-term danger to Pakistan’ was dependence on the river Indus and climate change in general. Lieven was in no doubt that water security was a far greater than that of Islamic extremism. The politics of water, one of the major aspects of water security, are complex, far reaching and highly conflictual across Asia. Many issues are tied to China because so many of South and South East Asia’s major rivers originate in the Tibetan Highlands of China. Upstream irrigation projects, hydroelectric and damming schemes and industrial pollution have major implications on those downstream, whether that be from China to India, India to Pakistan, or within countries (such as between Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan or conflicts over the River Cauvery in Southern India).

For China, while aware that its actions have the potential to cause conflicts with downstream neighbours, water is a crucial domestic issue in a country where floods and droughts have been the bane of farmers’ lives for centuries. As the China modernizes, huge efforts have been invested in infrastructure like the Three Gorges Dam and North-South Water Transfer to mitigate the effects of flooding, increase water supply to the arid north and generate electricity to feed the country’s great urbanization project.

In short, water security affects the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Asia and control and use of water resources are a vitally important domestic issue with international ramifications.

Reflecting the importance of water security in Asia and the centrality of China to the region’s resources, the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS) and the China Policy Institute (CPI) have organised this special issue as part of an ongoing commitment to exploring the links and conflicts between China and its downstream neighbours. IAPS and the CPI are collectively organising a new interdisciplinary research strand over the next few months to probe the domestic and international ramifications of this issue across Asia. The collection of posts by renowned specialists from around the world are a valuable starting point. The line-up includes:

Christine E. Boyle (Portland State University)
Katherine Morton (Australian National University)
Sam Geall (University of Sussex)
Darrin Magee (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
Pichamon Yeophantong (Princeton University)
Uttam Kumar Sinha (IDSA),
Robert Wirsing (Georgetown)

IAPS and the CPI will hold an invitation only workshop in the new year. Interested academics and other professionals working on water security in Asia are welcome to contact Dr Jonathan Sullivan with EOI.

Image credit: CC by runner PL/Flickr

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