Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR5 – US-Singapore: Advancing Technological Collaboration and Innovation in Southeast Asia

About

In this special publication, authors were encouraged to reflect on what stronger US and Singapore cooperation looks like in concrete policy terms amid ongoing geopolitical volatility. Beyond the technical and geopolitical perspectives, the contributions in this edited volume emphasize the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration and sustainability for an enduring US-Singapore strategic partnership.

Download the full volume here.


Table of Contents

Introduction
Mark Bryan Manantan

Setting the overview, Mr. Manantan emphasizes the confluence of geopolitical and technological events over the past year which shaped the foundation of the digital publication. Building on the lessons learned from the Pacific Forum’s inaugural US-Singapore Cyber&Tech Security Virtual Series (2020-2021), and the recently concluded US-Singapore Tech & Innovation Virtual Dialogue (2021-2022), Mr. Manantan advocates to reframe policy conversations. Beyond the narrow, zero-sum competition, the US-Singapore bilateral cooperation must champion resilience, inclusion, and sustainability to catalyze Southeast Asia’s digital transformation.

Chapter 1: Singapore’s sanctions against Russia: What are the long-term implications?
Manoj Harjani

Mr. Harjani assesses the long-term implications of Singapore’s sanctions against Russia. Harjani canvassed the drivers of Singapore’s decision to use export controls on military and select dual-use goods that the Kremlin may use to conduct cyber operations. He also discussed Singapore’s efforts to target cryptocurrency loopholes as part of the city-state’s sanctions package against Russia.

Chapter 2: Defending Supply Chain Cybersecurity: Opportunities for Singapore-United States Cooperation
Andreas Kuehn, Ph.D.

Dr. Kuehn examines the growing importance of supply chain cybersecurity frameworks, given the growing complexity of supply chains and the multiplicity of Information and Communications Technology providers. Going just beyond the “Know your ICT supplier” to ensure accountability and transparency, Kuehn offers practical advice on how Singapore, as an innovation hub in Southeast Asia in cooperation with the US, can test pilot new initiatives to safeguard supply chain cybersecurity at the organizational, industry, and multilateral levels.

Chapter 3: Digitalization and Sustainable Energy in ASEAN
Courtney Weatherby

Ms. Weatherby investigates Southeast Asia’s conundrum on how to meet its carbon emission targets amid increasing pressure on supply chain resilience and energy transitions. Weatherby also highlights the growing role of blockchain technologies in facilitating renewable energy certification given the growing intra-ASEAN energy trade. Reflecting on the outcomes of the US-ASEAN Summit and relatedly the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), Weatherby notes the shared expertise of the US and Singapore in capacity-building to lubricate Southeast Asia’s ongoing energy transition.

Chapter 4: Sustainable Considerations for Inclusive Digital Futures
Natalie Pang, Ph.D.

Recognizing the region’s medium to long-term prospects in the data-driven economy, Dr. Pang examines the urgency of addressing the current gaps and vulnerabilities in Southeast Asia’s digital future. Pang notes the need to fast track digital literacy to address burgeoning concerns over privacy and algorithms, as well as the increasing negative effects of electronic waste or e-waste, mainly from large data centers, that carry environmental and health risks for local communities.

 

Listen to the accompanying podcast episodes on Spotify here.

And on Apple Podcasts here.

PacNet #47 – Time for difficult choices on Myanmar

An earlier version of this article appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Aug. 3, 2022.

The recent executions of four anti-regime activists, including former lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw and civil society leader Kyaw Min Yu, known as Ko Jimmy, by the Burmese junta have caused global uproar. After being knocked from international news coverage by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and food insecurity, Myanmar’s civil war is back in the headlines. But the United States and other foreign governments remain hesitant to fully embrace the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) or take riskier steps to help push the military from power. Instead, they issue condemnations, tinker with sanctions, and pass the buck to the “five-point consensus” that Myanmar’s neighbors in ASEAN negotiated with the junta more than a year ago. But the five-point consensus was dead on arrival, and assumptions about how the opposing forces would fare on the battlefield have been decisively proven wrong. It is time to make some difficult choices about Myanmar policy.

Since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup in which the Burmese military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the United States and other partners have condemned and withheld recognition from the junta. Even countries such as China and India, which went easy on the condemnation and maintained official ties with the military, were initially ambiguous about the junta’s legitimacy. Beijing has since acknowledged the government of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, but Delhi and many others remain circumspect. Things have gone no better for the generals on the international stage. ASEAN has refused to accept Min Aung Hlaing’s participation in leader-level summits, though it has allowed junta appointees to represent Myanmar at the ministerial level in some cases. At the United Nations, China and the United States agreed to defer any decision on credentialing a new Burmese ambassador, leaving the former National League for Democracy’s emissary—a fierce critic of the junta—to represent the country for the time being.

Faulty assumptions

US officials have had frequent public and private engagements with NUG officials. So have leaders from Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and some ASEAN members. Washington has directed much of its humanitarian assistance for Myanmar to civil society organizations with close connections to the NUG. But Washington has not recognized the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar, nor has it allowed the NUG access to $1 billion in frozen Burmese government assets held in the United States. And the US government has not extended security assistance to anti-junta forces in Myanmar, despite increasing calls to do so in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. A small fraction of the assistance delivered to Kyiv could decisively turn the tide of battle in Myanmar. So why hasn’t any of this happened?

Following the coup, most foreign governments believed that the junta would brutally and efficiently consolidate a new military regime. The scope and resilience of the opposition, both civil and armed, surprised the international community at least as much as it did the junta’s generals. Those faulty early assumptions help explain why the United States and others were slow to embrace the NUG—supporting a doomed resistance would only cause more bloodshed and economic pain for average Burmese citizens. But after a year and a half, grassroots People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and older ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), continue to effectively resist the junta. On their best days, the regime’s forces might control half of the country. Two dry seasons have now come and gone—the periods when the junta is at its strongest due to advantages in air and artillery power—and the military has made no appreciable gains. Despite killing over 2,000 civilians, arresting almost 15,000, and burning more than 28,000 homes to terrorize the population into compliance, large swaths of the Bamar (Burman) heartland in Magwe and Sagaing Regions remain outside regime control. The Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, Kachin Independence Organization, Chin National Front, and Arakan Army have expanded the frontier territories under their control, with the latter seizing most of Rakhine State. Given battlefield conditions, it is hard to see how the junta can win by force of arms. The choices, then, are either victory for the opposition or a protracted civil war that leads to state collapse in the center and de facto independent fiefdoms on the margins.

Being resigned to a junta victory might explain why the United States and others withheld support for the NUG in the beginning, but it has been clear for many months that the armed resistance is holding its own. Several other factors explain why that still has not been enough to garner recognition or military assistance. It is unclear how much command and control the NUG exerts over the PDFs, many of which remain wholly independent. And the NUG can make no claim to either control or effectively represent the EAOs, which are the most effective resistance to the junta. The Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, Kachin Independence Organization, and Chin National Front are providing support and limited coordination against their shared enemy. But they do not yet trust the Bamar-dominated NUG. After decades of civil war and the disappointment most EAOs felt with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which they viewed as betraying her earlier promises of federalism and inclusivity, it will take more than vague promises to bring them into a confederacy. Most other EAOs, including the powerful Arakan Army and the myriad narco-armies in Shan State, remain content to sit on the sidelines and watch the Bamar have it out.

Toward a new confederation

The NUG does seem more sincere in its goal of a future federal system than any previous Burmese regime. It has established a National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) with representatives from across the spectrum of ethnic organizations, including the Rohingya, who, after a particularly intense wave of violence in 2016 and 2017, were formally declared by the United States to be victims of genocide following decades of state-sponsored persecution. The NUCC is seeking to establish a new federal charter that can garner support from a wide array of EAOs and ethnic civil society organizations. In the absence of such a charter, it is easy to see why many EAOs would believe they are better off carving out their own autonomous piece of the uplands and letting the center collapse. History has taught them that any Bamar-dominated government will inevitably turn its guns in their direction. For the same reason, it would be irresponsible for outside parties like the United States to provide military support to the NUG in the absence of a political roadmap with substantial buy-in from a critical mass of EAOs. Otherwise, it seems all too likely that this civil war will just transition into the next, when a victorious Bamar government seeks to reimpose control over territories in Chin, Kachin, Karen (Kayin), Karenni (Kayah), and especially Arakan (Rakhine) states that have been lost since the coup.

But if the NUCC process does succeed and the NUG transitions into a truly inclusive federal opposition government with support from most of the EAOs, then the United States should quickly extend it diplomatic recognition as the legitimate representative of the peoples of Myanmar. Washington should be prepared to allow such a government to tap the Burmese state funds currently held in the United States, champion its participation in regional and international forums, and be prepared to deliver military equipment and training to the EAOs and PDFs under that government’s control.

In the meantime, Washington should ensure that the both the NUG and EAOs understand what could be unlocked by the expansion and success of the NUCC process. The United States has no say in what a future Myanmar looks like—a strong federal state, a weak confederacy, or even independence for areas like Arakan—but it should make clear that it will put diplomatic and economic resources behind the survival of whatever system the NUG and EAOs negotiate. Those resources could be powerful incentives for hesitant parties like the Arakan Army or many of the armed organizations in Shan State to throw in their lot with the NUG. This could also offer Washington leverage in ensuring the rights of Rohingya in northern Arakan State. The NUG has already promised them the right of safe return and citizenship, but it has no power to enforce that. Either the military or the Arakan Army will decide the fate of Rohingya in Myanmar. Washington should make resources for the latter conditional on the guarantee of Rohingya rights as part of a political roadmap through the NUCC.

What is happening in Myanmar is a revolutionary war against a brutal, intractable regime that has no interest in compromise. Sanctions and diplomacy will not appreciably affect the outcome. Either the junta will lose on the battlefield or the state will fracture. As soon as the NUG and its compatriots have a viable roadmap to avoid state collapse, the United States and its allies should help it achieve victory.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #39 – Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia

The murder of Abe Shinzo on July 8 was a profound political shock to Japan and to the world. He was not the incumbent prime minister, and his death did not directly affect the current decision-making process of the Japanese government. Yet, he was the living legend who significantly shaped Japan’s domestic and foreign policy during the 2010s.

Domestically, he led the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, and his word influenced Japan’s diplomatic and security discourse, notably his remarks on “nuclear-sharing” and “doubling the defense budget.” Internationally, his diplomatic visibility was also strong, as he was the norm entrepreneur who facilitated the “Indo-Pacific” narrative through Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept from 2016.

Located at the center of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia was a region Abe consistently engaged, considering it vital for Japan’s peace and prosperity.

Japan has engaged with ASEAN and each individual Southeast Asian state continuously since its adoption of the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977. Abe made his mark, however, by increasing Japan’s diplomatic visibility and commitment. Once Abe assumed his second prime ministership at the end of 2012, he enthusiastically conducted comprehensive engagement with Southeast Asia. In 2013, the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation, Abe made visits to all ASEAN member states, hosted summit meetings, and successfully concluded the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting in Tokyo. In 2014, Abe made a speech at the 13th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on “Peace and prosperity in Asia, forevermore,” pushing for stronger international maritime stability, particularly in the East and South China Seas, where China’s assertiveness was growing. In 2014 and 2015 he focused on summit diplomacy to reassure Southeast Asian states that Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation of Article 9 (allowing Japan to exercise a right to collective self-defense) would not be a threat or a destabilizing factor to East Asia.

The Abe administration also intensified its economic, strategic, and defense engagement with Southeast Asia. In 2015, Abe launched the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” to provide financial assistance, mainly to Southeast Asia, for infrastructure development that would fully comply with international standards, while competing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative—which had alternative standards. After Abe announced the FOIP strategy in 2016, Japan has continuously emphasized the importance of ASEAN centrality and unity, culminating in “the ASEAN-Japan Summit on Cooperation on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in 2020. In 2016, Japan launched the Vientiane Vision to enhance defense cooperation with ASEAN, which was later upgraded as Vientiane Vision 2.0 in 2019. Also, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force consistently exhibited its defense presence in Southeast Asia, conducting military exercises with regional states through the Indo-Pacific Deployment every year since 2019.

These initiatives were not spawned as ad-hoc or one-shot diplomatic efforts that the then-prime minister created as ceremonial actions. Abe had a clear strategic vision that the future of the balance of power in East Asia, including Southeast Asia, would shift with the rise of an assertive China. Considering China’s growing presence in the East and South China Seas and increasing Chinese economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, Abe persistently highlighted the importance of stable maritime security, ensuring the sea lines of communication, the freedom of navigation and overflight, international law, as well as rules-based infrastructure development in line with the highest international standards. Although Japan was in relative decline vis-à-vis China—whose military expenditures surpassed Japan’s in the mid-2000s and whose GDP passed Japan’s in 2010—Abe was not intimidated and facilitated independent strategic thinking to defend his country’s national interests and regional stability. The FOIP was the embodiment of such thinking.

Abe’s diplomatic stance also contributed to promoting Southeast Asian states’ hedging strategy. As strategic rivalry was growing between the United States and China, Southeast Asian states aimed to “hedge”—avoiding taking sides and gaining economic and security benefits from both sides—including even those who tend to lean toward either China (such as Cambodia) or the United States (like Singapore). Japan’s relatively independent stance helped Southeast Asia pursue a hedging behavior by enhancing cooperation with Japan rather than the United States or China. The ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute Survey from 2019 to 2022 suggests as much, indicating that ASEAN considered Japan the best strategic option in 2020 and the second best in 2021 and 2022 after the European Union.

To be sure, Southeast Asian states did not always appreciate Abe’s strategic posture. On the contrary, they frequently expressed concerns about Abe’s strong anti-China attitude, which might destabilize East Asian peace and security. For example, Singapore expressed its regret about Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine in 2013, fearing that this would increase tension and ruin trust with regional states. In 2016 and 2017, when Japan launched FOIP and began to hold Quad meetings regularly, several ASEAN member states raised questions about Japan’s stance toward ASEAN and were hesitant to support its strategic initiative. However, Abe did not merely dismiss those criticisms. He incorporated them into his existing strategic thinking and attempted to strike a balance between Japan’s interests and Southeast Asia’s concerns. This is evidence of Abe’s willingness to hear ASEAN’s voice, which made Japan the most trusted major power for Southeast Asia, according to ISEAS Yusof-Ishak surveys from 2019 to 2022.

Unlike a traditional Japanese leader, Abe was not a consensus-builder but a strong believer in his own strategic and political vision, which polarized opinion, particularly in the domestic realm. However, his strategic posture produced positive outcome for Japan—making Japan diplomatically more visible in Southeast Asia and gaining more trust from regional states. He will be remembered as a proactive strategic leader who matched words with deeds, raising Japan’s diplomatic status in Southeast Asia.

Kei Koga (kkei@ntu.edu.sg) is assistant professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and affiliated with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #34 – Why ASEAN should heed the distant tolling of bells

It is hard to know what deft (or otherwise) diplomacy is going on behind the scenes in ASEAN-led architecture in the lead-up to the season of summitry, most importantly the East Asia Summit (EAS). This includes the range of precursor senior officials meetings which often set the conditions for ministerial and leaders-level meetings later in the year. But diplomacy will need to be deft to find a position that at least balances the concerns of all EAS partners with respect to Russia’s participation.

Based on public-facing statements and commentary, right now it appears there is no balance. ASEAN does not seem to have taken action that has imposed costs on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, acknowledged the concerns of other EAS members, or expressed ASEAN condemnation of Russia’s actions.

ASEAN foreign ministers did issue three statements in relation to Ukraine: one calling for restraint and de-escalation on Feb. 26; one calling for a ceasefire on March 3; and one about the killing of civilians and humanitarian access on April 8.

While this was welcome, these statements did not mention Russia. They thus did not challenge Russia’s reprehensible actions.

ASEAN countries also largely supported the UN General Assembly resolution on March 2, which “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded Russia’s immediate, complete, and unconditional withdraw from Ukraine territory (Laos and Vietnam abstained); and on March 24 in relation to the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine (Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam abstained). But only the Philippines voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to suspend Russia on April 7.

ASEAN’s statements and each country’s UN voting record indicates the limits of action for individual ASEAN members and ASEAN as a bloc. Singapore, however, has been the most forward-leaning, applying sanctions against Russia).

Cambodia, as the chair of ASEAN, with Indonesia as chair of the G20, and Thailand as chair of APEC, issued a joint statement on May 4 saying: “we are determined to work with all our partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation.”

Russia no doubt was pleased to see this, stating publicly that the statement represented “an important contribution to strengthening multilateralism, building an atmosphere of cooperation and trust, mutual respect and a reciprocal consideration of interests, not only in the region but also globally.”

While it does not make explicit references to Russia, the trilateral statement indicates that the chairs of these three international groupings will not exclude Russian participation.

Make no mistake, despite the waves of mis- and disinformation and fallacious narratives, Russia’s actions are a breach of international law, both in the principle of its invasion as well as in its ongoing execution—particularly as there are multiple reports detailing violations of the laws of war, and crimes against humanity occurring at the hands of Russian officers and soldiers.

But this is not just a breach of international law. It is also a trampling of the principles that ASEAN purports to hold dear—including sovereignty, non-interference, and the rule of law. These are the principles ASEAN has captured in its own Charter, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which, as a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, Russia is a party.

ASEAN has constantly voiced (almost in desperate, anxious tones) the need to maintain its centrality in the region’s institutional architecture. But centrality requires credibility. ASEAN risks its credibility by not taking stronger action.

ASEAN’s consensus-based and conservative approach means that it proceeds at the pace of the slowest member and lowest level of comfort to take action. ASEAN consensus is also influenced by the longstanding relations that some ASEAN members have with Russia, including on military sales. Through this approach, ASEAN seeks to maintain the status quo, to avoid confrontation with major powers or having to “choose sides.” That approach, however, constrains ASEAN’s ability to respond with agility to the shifting geostrategic reality and overlooks the threats to its longer-term interests.

Many countries in the region want ASEAN to maintain credibility and relevance, and believe it is important for regional stability. If ASEAN is to do so, it must take a stance against breaches of international law and (for the most part) universally accepted principles. Otherwise, those principles are moot.

Failure to take action is to legitimize and normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It ignores not only Ukraine’s current plight, but also Russia’s threats to other countries in Europe—including Sweden and Finland, who see the writing on the wall and have shifted their long-standing position about NATO membership.

It is important to recognise ASEAN’s rationale for not wanting to take sides. But this is not about taking sides with any one country. This is about taking the side of principle. It is essential to reinforce regional stability, security, and prosperity.

Expelling Russia from international fora where Moscow participate with Southeast Asian countries would be a step too far for ASEAN. But finding a better balance would be in order. A good start would be an explicit acknowledgement that Russia is the aggressor.

It is time ASEAN stepped up to demonstrate why it has become an integral part of the regional political architecture. Doing so will prove its value as a key platform in shaping and reinforcing norms of behavior.

Patrick O’Connor is the pseudonym of a non-American diplomat and former military officer who has worked on and studied Southeast Asia extensively. He has had several diplomatic postings throughout the Indo-Pacific and in Ukraine.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #9 – Biden struggles as China advances in Southeast Asia

The Joseph Biden administration’s priority to compete more vigorously with China in Southeast Asia features strong efforts but widely publicized shortcomings. The latter consist of insufficient attention because of higher priorities, economic programs competing poorly with China-led trade and infrastructure initiatives, and lagging official postings dealing with Southeast Asia. What gets less attention are Beijing’s remarkable efforts to advance regional leadership over the past year, using a wide range of persuasive and coercive measures that overshadow US initiatives and curtail ASEAN members cooperating with the United States in ways Beijing opposes. Chinese efforts and the resulting Southeast Asian reluctance to cooperate with the United States are the most important obstacles in struggling Biden government efforts to outcompete China in the region.

Chinese advances overshadow US initiatives

China’s success in spreading influence in Southeast Asia since the 2020 US election is one of the most remarkable advances Beijing has made in countering the United States in the Indo-Pacific over the past decade. Keenly attentive to Biden’s proposed efforts to compete more effectively with China in Southeast Asia—and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific—Beijing has relied on ever-expanding Chinese influence in Southeast Asia to eclipse and offset US initiatives. For more than a year, Chinese officials and media have devoted more attention to Southeast Asia than any other foreign policy topic apart from relations with the United States. President Xi Jinping closely identified with the efforts in Southeast Asia, weighing in with authoritative initiatives; Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been peripatetic throughout the region. Beijing has used a combination of impressive positive incentives and coercive mechanisms to impose its will in the region, thereby sidelining the United States.

In particular:

  • Beijing took advantage of former President Donald Trump’s absence from East Asian Summit and APEC  leaders meetings in November 2020 to conclude an agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), excluding the United States; and to highlight Xi’ Jinping’s initiative to join the other major regional trade agreement, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the United States rebuffed.
  • Wang Yi visited leaders in nine Southeast Asian countries from October 2020-January 2021 and then held in-person meetings in China in April with four regional foreign ministers.
  • Secretary of States Antony Blinken’s failed video conference with ASEAN counterparts in late May contrasted sharply with Wang’s successful two days of in-person meetings with the ASEAN foreign ministers in China in early June.

China-ASEAN relations have prospered. For example:

  • ASEAN-China trade grew 20% and approached $800 billion in 2021 and the opening of the $6 billion Chinese highspeed railway in Laos underlined Chinese widespread infrastructure investment in ASEAN.
  • China was the leading source of medical supplies and vaccines for Southeast Asian countries.
  • China used its control of headwaters of rivers important to Southeast Asian development, providing unique leverage on down-river countries.
  • It sustained good relations with the Myanmar junta and ASEAN, putting Beijing in a much better position than the United States to deal with the crisis.
  • The Chinese military, coast guard, and maritime militia ably controlled and advanced China’s enormous claim to most of the South China Sea against weak Southeast Asian claimants.

Beijing’s less overt but common means of influence were:

  • efforts influencing Chinese diasporas in Southeast Asia;
  • leveraging Chinese-provided transportation, communication, and other infrastructure to compel recipients’ deference to Chinese requirements;
  • routinely accommodating corrupt regional leaders in economic agreements, winning their support;
  • fostering China’s state penetration of local media, gaining positive publicity; and
  • leveraging Chinese tourists dominating this regional industry to advance Chinese ambitions.

Against this background, ASEAN and most Southeast Asian states remained publicly silent in the face of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Southeast Asian governments followed a broader pattern avoiding criticism of an ever-widening range of Chinese policies, knowing that doing so would prompt Chinese punishment. In contrast, Southeast Asian officials freely criticized US policies and practices.

Wrapping up advances in 2021, Xi Jinping hosted a summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue on Nov. 22. He announced that China-ASEAN relations were elevated from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, which meant more security cooperation along with deep economic and diplomatic cooperation. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement will also be upgraded. China will donate 150 million doses of COVID vaccine to ASEAN members and pledged an additional $1.5 billion in development assistance over the next three years.

China had already provided ASEAN with 360 million doses of the COVID vaccine (versus the US count of 60 million by December 2021). China-ASEAN trade reached $684 billion in value in 2020 and reached $703 billion in the first 10 months of 2021, representing a growth of 20 percent. (US-ASEAN trade was $308 billion in 2020).

Significantly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte offered a rare public rebuke of Chinese coercion in the South China Sea. Xi, however, ignored Duterte’s intervention and with seeming confidence in China’s control of the overall situation emphasized the mendacious claim that China will “never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries.”

Meanwhile, Chinese hard tactics advanced in the South China Sea. The Chinese Coast Guard and Maritime Militia undermined Philippines control of its claimed waters. Indonesia reportedly was warned against undertaking gas and oil development in areas claimed by China and a Chinese survey vessel spent seven weeks conducting seabed mapping inside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Malaysia’s developing oil and gas in its EEZ, also claimed by China, were regularly harassed by Chinese Coast Guard ships. In October, Malaysia protested a Chinese survey vessel operating in the Malaysian zone.

Outlook

China resolutely employs blandishments and coercion in Southeast Asia. The Biden administration lags behind, still working on developing elements of a recently announced Indo-Pacific Strategy that deals with the shift, over the past five years, from a policy in Asia premised on sustained constructive engagement with China to a policy based on acute competition with China. The unilateral and often erratic measures of the Trump administration accelerated US relative decline in Southeast Asia. The Biden government emphasizes enduring strong rivalry with China and reassurance of allies and partners against the unilateral and unpredictable America first policies of the Trump government. However, the possibility of a return of Donald Trump to the White House (or the election of a Trumpist) suggests that US reliability cannot be taken for granted.

For now, the Biden administration seems determined to advance relations with Southeast Asia in areas those governments believe will not upset Beijing. The pace and intensity of US efforts will no doubt depend on numerous developments in the world. Reflecting a more fundamental obstacle to US ambitions, Beijing is effective in countering American initiatives, while persuading or cowing regional interest in cooperating more closely with the United States in ways opposed by China.

Robert Sutter (sutterr@gwu.edu) is professor of practice of international affairs, George Washington University, USA. His most recent book is US-China Relations: Perilous Past, Uncertain Present (fourth edition) Rowman & Littlefield 2022. For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #34 – Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 1 of Issues & Insights Vol. 21-SR2, edited for length. Read the full article or download the entire volume here.

Many have called for stronger rule of law in maritime Indo-Pacific over the past decade. From Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to the capitals of Southeast Asia, leaders and policymakers stress international law, as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation to address maritime challenges. Year-after-year, ASEAN has repeated the same refrain regarding “the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” In April 2021 US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide also expressed shared opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” and reiterated “shared interest in a free and open South China Sea governed by international law, in which freedom of navigation and overflight are guaranteed,” consistent with UNCLOS. Yet, a strong rules-based maritime order appears elusive.

Despite apparent regional consensus on the benefits of a rules-based maritime order, why do tensions keep rising and the applicability of international rules and norms to the region’s maritime spaces continue to weaken? Authors of “Advancing a Rules-based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific,” an Issues & Insights edited volume, provide three categories of answers: lack of good faith, inherent weaknesses in regional multilateral mechanisms, and the politics surrounding “great-power competition.”

First, some countries continue to insist on maritime claims already declared invalid or without basis under international law by a competent, authoritative international tribunal. There is, therefore, a lack of good faith vis-à-vis adherence to related international legal regimes. In the South China Sea, Beijing insists on its nine-dash line, a claim rejected in July 2016 by an arbitration tribunal constituted in The Hague under Annex VII of UNCLOS. China has also sought to reverse Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, not through peaceful means such as judicial procedures, but coercive maneuvers in the East China Sea.

This lack of good faith and blatant disregard for international law is evident in Beijing’s dispatch of fishing vessels with maritime militia to neighboring states’ exclusive economic zones that fall within the discredited nine-dash line. China has also used its Coast Guard and other government vessels to question the longstanding control and jurisdiction of many Indo-Pacific littoral states over their waters, and to change the status quo. In maritime security parlance, these actions are called gray-zone operations—activities not rising to the level of an armed attack but consequential enough to achieve security or political objectives.

Regional states struggle to respond to these types of activities. For US allies, Washington’s security commitment is triggered by an “armed attack,” not gray-zone challenges. Hence, deterrence through collective defense has been difficult. The Philippines, for instance, lost Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 because of a failure to respond to Beijing’s gray-zone maneuvers. Many in Japan have expressed concerns about China’s intrusions into the waters of the Senkaku Islands as well. For instance, how to respond to Chinese government vessels, which under international law enjoy sovereign immunity, entering the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands and refusing to leave isn’t obvious. Some actions could very well trigger war. For other regional states, dealing with an increasing Chinese presence in their waters is more difficult owing to factors such as insufficient maritime domain awareness and weak offshore law enforcement capacity.

Second, while ASEAN-led institutions remain important to advancing a rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific, they are not designed to address high-stakes security issues, especially involving the great powers. The “ASEAN Way” of non-interference and consensus in decision-making constrains regional mechanisms’ effectiveness in dealing with maritime disputes. They allow for discussions on some functional cooperative engagements, but do not shape the strategic environment in ways that strengthen the rule of law. For instance, the so-called South China Sea Code of Conduct never materialized despite countless meetings between ASEAN and China since 1995. Moreover, as Kyoko Hatakeyama discusses in her Issues & Insights piece, the Quad has struggled to achieve a united front necessary to prop up maritime rule of law because its four participating countries have different threat perceptions, priorities, and approaches vis-a-vis China.

Finally, the framing of maritime issues as part of the US-China “strategic rivalry” or “competition” has been counterproductive. Many regional states do not want to take part in that competition. More importantly, that framing has led to two narratives that prevent many states from taking stronger positions based on international law: 1) false equivalence that equates legitimate US maritime operations and regional presence as akin to China’s disruptive, illegal, and domineering behavior; and 2) an impression that Washington and Beijing are forcing Southeast Asians to take sides between them—hence strong pushback from regional leaders and decision-makers. As a result, when the United States or its allies and partners insist on adherence to international law, some regional states hear an anti-China push. Instead of “competition with China,” the United States and its allies and partners should focus on advancing a rules-based maritime order in which all countries, big and small, can benefit.

This volume dissects the multifaceted maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific from multiple perspectives, and explores policy options to advance a more rules-based maritime order. Shuxian Luo surveys six maritime crises between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and between Japan and the Republic of Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima, arguing that crisis prevention should be a priority.

Ishii Yurika’s paper explains how the unique structure of Japan’s national security law has created challenges by hampering seamless coordination between Japan Coast Guard and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and effective alliance between Japan and the United States. Kanehara Atsuko’s chapter contends that in the maritime security context, the “rule of law” consists of three principles: making and clarifying claims based on international law, not using force or coercion to drive claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means.

Nguyen Thi Lan Huong highlights the importance of international law vis-à-vis the use of force at sea. She assesses China’s new Coast Guard law and its conformity with international law. Hatakeyama Kyoko focuses on the Quad, arguing that its embrace of two contradictory goals—maintain a rules-based order based on international law and promote a prosperous region without excluding China—makes it difficult to develop a framework for cooperation and set a clear purpose.

Virginia Watson proposes several recommendations, arguing that the “intensification of China’s global efforts to hard-wire geopolitical and security conditions alongside its hefty economic influence” have made the traditional alliance approach of the United States ineffective. Finally, John Bradford argues that the key to addressing the Indo-Pacific’s multifaceted challenges is improved governance capacity among the region’s coastal states and that maritime governance capacity-building, in particular, should be a priority for the US-Japan Alliance.

Jeffrey Ordaniel (jeffrey@pacforum.org) is Director for Maritime Security at the Pacific Forum. Concurrently, he is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at Tokyo International University in Japan.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #20 – Strengthening Transboundary River Governance is Key to ASEAN Centrality

The following is adapted from a report on the “Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance,” a half-day virtual conference organized by the East-West Center and hosted by the US Department of State that convened partners and stakeholders from across the Indo-Pacific region to share best practices and lessons learned related to the cooperative development and management of transboundary rivers.

The “Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance” was designed to bring together a range of government and non-government expertise to chart a path forward to strengthen transboundary river governance on the Mekong. To that end, specific policy recommendations were made for key stakeholders that can serve as a roadmap for measurable next steps. The key stakeholders include the Mekong River Commission (MRC); Mekong region national governments; regional organizations such as ASEAN and ACMECS; international stakeholders active in the region; and local and civil society organizations.

The policy recommendations articulated at the conference are also aligned with key objectives of the September 2020 Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) agreed to by the foreign ministers of the Mekong countries and the US secretary of state. Key alignments between the conference recommendations and the official work of the MUSP include the prioritization of the Mekong region as an integral part of ASEAN—whose development is key to ASEAN achieving its vision of community. This should be done by first synergizing and creating complementarities between the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and other sub-regional cooperation frameworks such as ASEAN and ACMECS.

Efforts should be made to strengthen economic connectivity, sustainable water, natural resources, and environmental protection and conservation. Non-traditional security challenges such as health, transnational crime, and illicit trafficking in persons, drugs, and wildlife, as well as expanding human capital development (including women’s empowerment) must be addressed. Transparent and cooperative water data-sharing mechanisms should be created.

Adding to this, creating transparent and cooperative water data sharing mechanisms via tools such as MekongWater.org and the Mekong Water Data Initiative will help to improve coordination and response to natural disasters from floods and drought. Finally, cooperation among Mekong countries, the United States and development partners such as Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea, as well as members of the Friends of the Mekong should be enhanced.

The following is a list of specific policy recommendations by conference speakers and participants to ensure that transboundary river governance is conducted in such a way as to 1) maximize outcomes that benefit all stakeholders and 2) align with the objectives of the MUSP.

Mekong River Commission (MRC)

It is recommended that the role and capacity of the MRC be strengthened to promote reasonable and equitable use of the Mekong River’s resources. The promotion of good governance, based on rules and norms, as a principle for effective, efficient, and sustainable development is essential. This can be accomplished by supporting the MRC as both a knowledge hub and transboundary river management mechanism with the capacity to resolve conflicts within and outside the region, rather than simply a repository of data and tools. Additionally, the MRC should be supported as it continues to engage with its dialogue partners China and Myanmar. When conditions are met, Mekong region stakeholders and partners should find avenues for collaboration with China for which the MRC can play a central role in dialogues. Furthermore, Mekong region countries and the MRC could be encouraged to consider adopting the principles of international legal treaties such as the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses or adopting the conceptual frameworks and legal guidance of other transboundary treaties such as the Columbia River Treaty and the Boundary Waters Treaty, particularly with respect to independent dispute settlement capacities.

Finally, the MRC could also reconsider amending the 1995 Mekong Agreement to incorporate legally binding principles and procedures as well as permanent platforms for local stakeholder engagement that include these stakeholders in the decision-making mechanisms. Current Mekong region countries’ systems for local stakeholder engagement have been non-permanent, ad hoc, and lacking in tangible impact on policymaking. Strengthening governance by sharing responsibility, delivery, and power among key non-state actor stakeholders will reduce marginalization of these stakeholders, enhance transparency and perceptions of impartiality, improve water solutions, encourage local ownership, and create opportunities for bottom-up innovative inclusion practices.

Mekong Region Countries

Support should be provided for Mekong region countries’ autonomy by holding international neighbors accountable in respecting international law and international borders. Additional support should be given to local law enforcement capacity to combat criminal activities along the Mekong river. Moreover, providing transparent water data-sharing (e.g., mainstream river and tributaries flow data, dam construction, and operations data) can be initiated as a basic form of transboundary collaboration, and a way to address critical challenges posed by climate change, shifting hydrological conditions, chronic droughts, and natural disasters.

Countries should be held accountable to honor their data-sharing commitments. Failure to share data on upstream conditions limits governments’ ability to prepare for and mitigate damage caused by dam operations, as well as to conduct effective disaster management. At the national and local level, transparency in providing information for public consultation creates an enabling environment for local stakeholder participation. Government stakeholders should also ensure that their departments and ministries are staffed with experts on water, energy, and the expertise necessary to inform negotiations, support policy formation and implementation, and recognize the needs of other stakeholders. Finally, Mekong region countries should also be encouraged to pursue alternative development opportunities less dependent on hydropower and extensive water-use production. New technologies and regional cooperation can deliver energy security at significantly lower social and environmental costs, and be more economically viable than environmentally destabilizing dams combined with more frequent droughts.

Regional Organizations and International Partners

International partners and regional organizations should support ASEAN’s efforts in raising the profile of the Mekong region as a core component of ASEAN centrality, with ASEAN potentially playing a more central role in regional development, facilitating policy coordination, and elevating the water governance and water diplomacy of the Mekong region to Southeast Asia’s regional agenda. Moreover, external partners already engaged in strengthening transboundary governance of the Mekong river should complement existing ASEAN efforts such as ASEAN MPAC 2025 and ASEAN’s Vision on the Indo-Pacific. Support for other multilateral Mekong mechanisms, such as ACMECS and CLMV, can help solidify the political will and capability to promote sustainable use of the Mekong River’s resources alongside international partners.

Lastly, international partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and countries in the European Union should be engaged to support sustainable development and share global best practices related to data sharing, scientific analyses, remote sensing, and integrated water resource management. Lessons learned from international technical collaboration through the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube River contributed to the development of Eastern European countries after World War II. Strengthening programming with international partners in Mekong region cooperation can help narrow the development gap among ASEAN member states.

Local Stakeholders

Local issues such as pollution, inadequate resettlement logistics, and damage to livelihoods have affected water infrastructure development across the world, and the formation of both policy and decision-making must account for this. By expanding the problem space beyond water to include protected areas, forestry, fisheries, etc., water diplomacy can move away from being zero-sum to bringing in new actors and opportunities for mutually beneficial solutions on the basis of transparency, trust, and good will.

The inclusive participation of legitimate stakeholders in pursuing sustainable and collaborative management of transboundary waters must be ensured. Tensions over water resources often arise between affected communities and governments or commercial developers, or between the communities themselves. The exclusion of local and non-state actors risks negatively impacting these stakeholders by neglecting to recognize their legitimate interests, or by alienating them due to their exclusion from decision-making processes.

Encouraging a greater inclusion of non-state actors in consultations and decision-making processes can reduce risks, improve planning processes, help governments and economies more quickly reach development goals, and give a sense of identity and ownership of processes and outcomes that work for all stakeholders. The benefits of public stakeholder engagement impact the economic, health, social, and environmental domains.

NGOs can be supported as they engage various stakeholders through briefings for senior government and party officials, training for multi-agency technical staff, consultations with think tanks and CSO networks, diplomatic engagement, analysis, and media op-eds. Adding to this, opportunities for academic exchanges among universities across the Mekong region and with international academic institutions can be fostered through seminars, workshops, training, and collaborative scientific research.

To encourage greater inclusivity, raise public awareness, and help curb predatory infrastructure development, investment in capacity-building efforts should be made. Programs that engage and educate local communities can include scholarships, vocational education and training, fostering civil society organizations, and raising local environmental concerns. Furthermore, stakeholders should make efforts to enhance the role of women. Including gender specialists when conducting local stakeholder engagement will ensure that women are effectively empowered to participate in the process. Adding to this, the inclusion of indigenous peoples ensures policy decisions respect their rights, values, and water uses. It also contributes traditional knowledge to scientific analyses. Local media can be encouraged and empowered to report on the value of the river and the effects of unsustainable practices. Finally, enhancing opportunities for citizen science provides further accountability, validity to credible transboundary river governance tracking, encourages local ownership of river management, and highlights the priorities of local stakeholders.

Satu Limaye is Vice President of the East-West Center and Director of the East-West Center in Washington. He is also Senior Advisor, China & Indo-Pacific Division at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA Corp) and Senior Fellow on Asia History and Policy at the Foreign Policy Institute at Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies (SAIS).

Ross Tokola is Executive Associate to the Director at the East-West Center in Washington.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #19 – A Moment of Truth (Again) for ASEAN

I understand that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a consensus-based organization that “moves at a pace comfortable to all,” which means at a pace comfortable to its slowest member. I also understand that ASEAN generally adheres to the principle of “noninterference in the internal affairs of one another.” But when one of its members issues orders to “shoot in the head” unarmed peaceful protesters, this goes against everything that ASEAN is supposed to stand for. Its continued inaction in the face of the ruling junta’s assault against the people of Myanmar (Burma) will again raise the question of ASEAN’s viability and utility. Every ASEAN document proclaims the need for ASEAN to remain “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to dealing with security challenges in the region. The time has come for ASEAN to drive.

ASEAN’s Charter cites “(A)dhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” as a basic precept in its preamble. Member States are supposed to act in accordance with “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.” As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a recent tweet, the “principle of noninterference in others’ domestic affairs cannot be used to conceal crimes against humanity; that would be tantamount to ASEAN complicity and consent.” In a separate post, he opined that ASEAN’s noninterference policy “marginalizes ASEAN in the moral esteem of the planet and thereby sidelines it from the centrality it has long sought and attained.”

But what can/should ASEAN do? For starters it can stop issuing anodyne proclamations calling for “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and instead address the problem head-on, as did the Philippine Foreign Ministry’s Statement “On the Violence on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day”: “The Philippines is profoundly dismayed at reports of excessive and needless force against unarmed protesters … We reiterate our call for security forces in Myanmar to exercise restraint and desist from resorting to disproportionate force against unarmed citizens. We remain steadfast in supporting Myanmar on its path to a fuller democracy …” Unfortunately, getting a consensus institution like ASEAN to issue such a public statement remains unlikely; it’s not consistent with “the ASEAN way.”

Nonetheless, ASEAN has at least two vehicles for delivering a quieter message to the generals. One is via a visit by the Troika, consisting of the heads of state of the current, immediate past, and next ASEAN Chair. In this case, that would be, respectively, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Cambodia—not the largest nor most influential messengers in ASEAN—but could easily be supplemented with others for a more impactful effect. However, both ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, which includes China, India, Japan, and the US among others) have Expert and Eminent Persons Groups (full disclosure: I am a member of the latter) which could offer ASEAN’s “good offices” in seeking a solution. The ARF, in particular, is supposed to evolve from a confidence-building mechanism to undertake a preventive diplomacy mission; clearly the current situation in Myanmar is one that is ripe for outside mediation.

There are a number of senior ASEAN statesmen who could head such a delegation. My personal choice would be former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who would bring both personal prestige and the clout of ASEAN’s largest and most influential member to the table. Their message should be a simple one: immediately stop the killing of unarmed peaceful protesters or face being expelled from ASEAN. Better yet, ASEAN should inform the junta that it is prepared to recognize the interim unity government being set up by the CRPH—the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament), comprised mostly by members of parliament who were duly elected in last fall’s national elections. This prospective unity government, which involves a number of ethnic parties as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, would no doubt welcome ASEAN’s intervention (which renders the non-interference clause moot); most importantly, ASEAN’s recognition would de-legitimize the junta, a threat they would have to take seriously.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has taken a number of unilateral measures to pressure the junta to respect the people of Myanmar’s wishes. It also needs to pressure ASEAN to do more.  One vehicle for doing so would be through the Quad, whose four members—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – makes up half the non-ASEAN membership in ASEAN’s premier multilateral offering, the “leaders-led” East Asia Summit (EAS). Collectively, they, preferably with like-minded members New Zealand and South Korea, should inform ASEAN that they will not participate in future EAS meetings as long as a junta-led Myanmar remains in the group. This will, of course, require India—the world’s largest democracy—to get off the fence and finally speak out in defense of democracy for its neighbor. The final two EAS members, China and Russia, should, but are not likely to join this effort; both actually sent representatives to the junta’s March 27 Armed Forces Day parade in the midst of the civilian carnage. The people of Myanmar will remember this.

ASEAN was already in the midst of an identity crisis prior to the Myanmar coup, prompted by calls by leading intellectuals like Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan to censure two of its members—Cambodia and Lao—for putting the interests of their patron state—China—ahead of the interests of the group. Moving at a speed comfortable to them has prevented ASEAN from speaking out forcefully against Beijing’s excesses in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Here ASEAN needs to follow the example set by its track two neighbor, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which adopted an 80% consensus rule which prevents one or two members from preventing the rest from moving forward when necessary. In practice, this rule is seldom applied. Knowing that one does not have a veto usually encourages the finding of a compromise solution.

If ASEAN were prepared to “move at a pace comfortable to none,” i.e., to compromise rather than let a single member (or two) hold the group hostage, then perhaps it could finally put some meaning behind the term “ASEAN centrality.” Right now it just means sitting in the middle of the road and going nowhere.

Postscript: If, as sadly anticipated, ASEAN once again fails to act, it may be time for Indonesia to free itself from its ASEAN shackles and take a unilateral leadership role commensurate with its size and international standing; by sending both a mediator and a message to Naypyitaw, Jokowi would also be sending a powerful message to his erstwhile ASEAN colleagues.  It would be interesting to then see how many, if any, of his fellow ASEAN members would step up along with Jakarta.

Ralph Cossa (ralph@pacforum.org) is WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies and President Emeritus at the Pacific Forum.
PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.