Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 3 – The role of regional organizations in building cyber resilience: ASEAN and the EU



This paper explores the role of regional organizations in crafting solutions that are able to address both the scale and cross-border nature of cyber threats, as well as the challenges inherent to an anarchical international system. It focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) and the cybersecurity frameworks they have developed in the last few years. The EU has significantly improved regional cyber resilience and cooperation by setting out ambitious goals, enhancing information sharing and harmonizing practices across its member states. In contrast, ASEAN has a lack of a strong unifying governance or legal framework, which limits the collective capability of the region to capitalize on shared knowledge to prevent and mitigate cyber threats. The paper aims to elaborate on relevant measures that could be implemented in ASEAN based on a comparative analysis with the EU. Despite the stark differences between the two organizations, there is common ground in some areas for the development of policy recommendations aimed at enhancing ASEAN’s cyber resilience, eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel in key policy areas. To this end, this paper analyzes the two organizations’ cybersecurity frameworks in line with the four pillars of cyber capacity building identified by the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) and adjusted to a regional context: overarching regional strategy, institutional framework for cyber threat prevention and response, harmonization of cybercrime and data privacy legislation, and cyber awareness and hygiene.

PacNet #29 – Post Covid-19, the US-China Rivalry Will Only Get Worse

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A version of this was originally published as one of a series of regional commentaries commissioned by the Australian Committee of CSCAP on Asialink Insights (University of Melbourne).

While it’s become commonplace to say that the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a “new normal” in international affairs, it’s not at all clear what that means or indeed what “normal” has been in recent years. Some commentators are seeing the crisis as a “game-changer,” but that is far from certain—the tendency once the crisis has past may well be to simply lapse back into old habits and patterns.

In some areas, patterns and attitudes that are already evident will be accentuated. To take one example, those who have been suspicious of China will have even more reason to be suspicious, while those who have been excusing China and overlooking its negatives will have even more excuses to offer.

Some trends that were already underway will be accelerated. This is so regarding US-China trade. US business was already turning away from China. Xi Jinping’s policies have been discouraging Americans. China’s business culture is increasingly one in which “rule by law” is prevailing over “rule of law,” and anyway market forces have been working against China—it is becoming more expensive. This trend away from China towards other markets and suppliers is likely to be accentuated as China looks less attractive in the wake of the pandemic and others, like Vietnam, where the business culture at this stage is a lot better, become more attractive. In fact, I have been saying for a while now that “China is the present, Vietnam is the future.”

There is an argument to be made that in the commercial world globalisation will be eroded, and it has been in some ways. It is likely, for instance, that as a result of the pandemic the stock-piling of goods judged to be strategically important will become more common at both the national and business levels, and it is likely that more of these sorts of goods will be manufactured at home rather than imported. But at the end of the day business will go where it’s cheapest, and this is likely to lead to more manufacturing opportunities not just for Vietnam but also for Bangladesh, Indonesia, and (for the US) South America as more companies pull out of China.

It’s hard to see the US-China relationship going any way but backwards. This is usually the case in an American election year. This year, with China’s failings more evident and with the pandemic hitting the US so badly, the political class will focus even more on China and in particular the administration will want to blame China.

As to the future of American foreign policy, a lot depends on the result of November’s presidential election. Historically it has been said that US foreign policy is defined more by continuity than change, but that rule will not apply this year: the policies of the two candidates in this election are very different. The pundits are of course making their predictions and many see Trump being re-elected, but this is only April and November is a long way away.

It is important here to understand the context of current US policy making in respect of China. Two distinct views are in play. President Trump sees the relationship almost exclusively in economic terms, transactionally, and seeks instant gratification from it. It doesn’t matter to him that the ruling party in China is communist. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, takes an ideological view: his concern is no longer just about China’s behaviour, it is much more about the fact that the regime is communist. Reflecting this, US embassies have been instructed to stress in all their dealings with their hosts that China is being ruled by a Communist Party. This can turn a struggle for influence into a new ideological Cold War with little opportunity for compromise or cooperation.

Some of China’s diplomacy has been effective as the crisis has developed, extending as it has as far afield as Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific. But it is also being seen for what it is – an attempt to offset the cost of China’s early failings as the pandemic developed. As well, some of what China has done has not gone well—for example, ventilators sent abroad didn’t work. And of course the claim that the US military brought the virus to Hubei was not only silly in itself but triggered a “blame game” from which no one is benefiting.

While it is too early to pick “winners” and “losers” among those responding to the pandemic, it is worth noting that Taiwan has done well in managing the crisis—and as a result its stocks have improved further in Washington. The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea is also seen to have done well, which has already paid dividends domestically. Japan is now facing a second wave, but will probably emerge quite well. ASEAN has been a useful “club” with some notable economic achievements over the years, but it has offered nothing in this particular crisis. There has been no “ASEAN response” to the pandemic; each country has acted on its own.

As to multilateral institutions generally, there is a continuing need for bodies like the WHO, but the Covid-19 crisis has been a timely reminder that many of them—especially the WHO—need serious reform. The extent to which the US plays a part in this will depend, again, on what happens in November.

Ralph Cossa ( is Pacific Forum president emeritus and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies.

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PacNet #27 – Comparative Connections Summary- May 2020 Issue

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The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the international community’s ability to respond, and looks to take a heavy and enduring toll on the global economy. International focus on the pandemic should not cause us to overlook other significant events: increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, growing China-Australia tensions, the non-summit between President Trump and ASEAN leaders, South Korean elections, and a dispute over host nation support which raised questions about the ROK-US alliance. Meanwhile, the disappearance of Kim Jong Un from the public eye raised questions about how prepared the world is for dealing with a sudden leadership change on the Korean Peninsula.




It took time for Tokyo and Washington to understand the scope of the COVID-19 crisis, as the virus continues to spread in both Japan and the United States. The routine that would normally define US-Japan relations has been set aside, but it is too early to draw inferences about what this pandemic might mean for the relationship, for Asia, or indeed for the world. At the very least, the disease confounded plans in the United States and Japan for 2020. COVID-19 upended the carefully developed agenda for post-Abe leadership transitions in Japan and threw President Trump, already campaigning for re-election in the November presidential race, into a chaotic scramble to cope with the worst crisis in a century.




The COVID-19 virus sent US-China relations into a tailspin as 2020 opened. Recriminations flew over who was responsible for the virus that killed hundreds of thousands of people and brought economic activity to a halt. The Trump administration took a series of measures against Chinese media organizations and journalists in the United States, which provoked Beijing to expel US journalists working in China. The Phase 1 trade deal was signed, and some tariffs were lifted, though the COVID-19 outbreak hampered China’s ability to purchase the promised amount of US goods and services. With the 2020 US presidential election picking up speed, Trump campaign strategists are actively targeting China.




The US impasse with both Koreas carried over into 2020, with little official contact with North Korea and negotiations with South Korea over troop burden-sharing going into overtime. The global pandemic forced all three governments to make sharp adjustments, with President Trump reaching out to both Seoul and Pyongyang to either offer or solicit assistance. But in both cases, the rifts appear too deep to forget, even in the face of a shared catastrophe like COVID-19.




Many Southeast Asian countries’ growth rates have been stripped to near zero by COVID-19, and leaders expect a crisis that could exceed that of the Asian Financial Crisis. The pandemic defined Southeast Asia’s diplomatic relations from March, with high-level meetings moved to video conferences. The US-ASEAN summit, scheduled for March 24, was postponed but no new date has been announced. With US elections ramping up and questions about the COVID-19 pandemic outstanding, a 2020 US-ASEAN summit appears unlikely.




For most of the first four months of 2020, China’s generally low priority treatment of Southeast Asia featured cooperation on the coronavirus, standard treatment of South China Sea issues, and a visit by Xi Jinping to Myanmar. However, April saw tensions rise in the South China Sea, with an increase in US criticism of Chinese actions and US military moves against Chinese challenges as well as Chinese initiatives and ongoing provocations.




After President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election and her Democratic Progressive Party retained its legislative majority, COVID-19 dominated the news, further embittered cross-strait relations, and provoked a sharp confrontation over Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization. Beijing conducted more military operations near the island in response to concern that Taiwan is pushing independence, and the Trump and Tsai administrations strengthened ties. The opposition Kuomintang chose a younger, reform-minded leader following the latest in a series of defeats.




Inter-Korean relations stayed frozen in the early part of 2020. ROK President Moon Jae-in’s outreach was hardly reciprocated by Kim Jong Un, whose sister snapped back when Seoul mildly criticized Pyongyang’s missile launches in March. For both Koreas the challenge of COVID-19 was overwhelming, yet the North refused any cooperation on this. In April Moon’s liberal party scored a big win in parliamentary elections; two DPRK defectors gained seats for the conservative opposition. Kim caused a global media frenzy by briefly vanishing from view. Moon has less than two years left in office, so Kim’s shunning of him looks short-sighted.




The outbreak of COVID-19, first in China and then in South Korea, placed plans for a highly anticipated summit between Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in on hold. Beijing and Seoul’s priorities focused on fighting the virus together through aid exchanges, a new inter-agency mechanism led by their foreign ministries, and multilateral cooperation with Japan and ASEAN. As cases spread across borders, political frictions emerged over entry bans and relief supplies. The public health crisis triggered efforts to mitigate its socioeconomic repercussions, raising questions over  long-term US influence. The virus also dramatically interrupted the normal diplomatic and economic interactions between China and North Korea.




Politically, the major news in Japan-China relations was that Xi Jinping’s long-anticipated state visit was postponed. While the coronavirus was a factor, the two sides had also been unable to agree on the text of the Fourth Communiqué, and there was considerable opposition within Japan to the visit due to issues between them. Several major Japanese companies announced major investments in the People’s Republic of China, even as the Japanese government agreed to subsidize companies to move their supply chains out of the country.




In the first months of 2020, Japan and South Korea maintained pragmatic stability despite a brief flare-up over travel restrictions. The need to prioritize recovery from COVID-19 pushed both countries to focus on domestic issues. With the landslide victory of the ruling Democratic Party in April parliamentary elections in South Korea, it is not likely that Seoul’s approach to bilateral disputes with Tokyo will undergo fundamental change anytime soon. With the US presidential election six months away, stalemate in US-South Korea military cost-sharing talks and volatility surrounding North Korea form an important backdrop to uncertainties in the South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship. By September, we may know whether it is pragmatic stability or latent tension that is the defining force in South Korea-Japan relations in 2020.




In the first four months of 2020, as COVID-19 raged throughout the world, Russia and China increased, and even intensified, their diplomatic interactions, mutual support, and strategic coordination. Patience for maintaining an informal entente, rather than an alliance, seemed to be running thin. This happened even as the city of Moscow’s own brief “Chinese exclusion” policy evoked sharp dissonance in China’s public space. These developments occurred against the backdrop of a Middle East crisis and political shakeup in Russia. As the rest of the world sank into a state of despair, disconnect, and devastation, the two large powers moved visibly toward each other amid an increasing backlash from the US, particularly regarding China’s early actions in the pandemic.




Japan and Southeast Asia faced completely different situations in 2019 and 2020 because of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Japan-Southeast Asia relations were continuously positive. One of the major developments among Southeast Asian states was the creation of the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” (AOIP) which resonated with the principles in Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept. As a result, Japan expressed explicit support for AOIP. Functionally, they made progress, particularly in the fields of defense, infrastructure development, and digital, as illustrated by various Japanese initiatives—“Vientiane Vision2.0,” “Initiative on Overseas Loan and Investment for ASEAN,” and “Data Free Flow with Trust.” As such, both Japan and Southeast Asian states began to synthesize their respective visions of the Indo-Pacific and to establish concrete cooperative mechanisms. Diplomatic momentum was put on halt in 2020 as COVID-19 spread. While Japan, Southeast Asian states, and ASEAN made efforts to coordinate counter-measures, share information and best practices, and provide mutual assistance through teleconferences such as the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 in April 2020, each state faces different social and political situations, making it difficult to cooperate. As such, great uncertainty looms over Japan-Southeast Asia cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

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PacNet #23 – How ASEAN Should Respond to China’s South China Sea Tactics

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“The South China Sea is a major issue in the heart of ASEAN’s own region. For ASEAN not to address it would severely damage its credibility. ASEAN must not take sides on the various claims, but it has to take and state a position which is neutral, forward-looking, and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues.” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

The South China Sea territorial disputes are among the region’s most critical issues. The first clash occurred in 1974 between the People’s Republic of China and South Vietnam around the Paracel Islands. In 1988, another open conflict erupted between China and a now-unified Vietnam in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, a different conflict between China and the Philippines highlighted Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, Kalayaan. What is the main reason for this territorial dispute? Scholars point to reasons such as natural resources, fisheries, sea lines of communication, and maritime strategy.

ASEAN member states push the South China Sea as one of the top agenda items because of Beijing’s aggressive efforts to enforce its claims. Although China clearly states that they prefer to discuss the dispute within a bilateral framework rather than multilateral, ASEAN as a regional organization continues to work with other organizations from the UN to resolve the dispute peacefully.

In 1976, ASEAN introduced the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the informal code of conduct for the South China Sea, based on notions of conflict avoidance. In 1990, Indonesia initiated an informal meeting, the Workshop Process on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, which ended with the Declaration on Code of Conduct (DCOC). However, in early 1992, China passed the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas, reiterating China’s claims in the South China Sea and stipulating the right to use force to protect islands and their surrounding waters. Months later, in July 1992, ASEAN responded, with ASEAN’s foreign minister signing the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea to promote the informal code of conduct based on self-restraint, the non-use of force, and peaceful resolution of disputes.

It took years for ASEAN and China to commit to and sign the DCOC, which brings both parties to work towards a COC in line with the TAC and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. Both parties agreed to maintain the status quo over the islands and promote cooperation in the South China Sea. ASEAN and Beijing held a second meeting called the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DCOC). Both parties agreed on six projects scheduled to be implemented from 2006 with funding support from the ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund (ACCF). Despite having those projects together, China made a statutory declaration to the UN secretary-general that it would reject any arbitration over military activities, as well as sea and territorial disputes. Furthermore, in 2007, China conducted military exercises around the Paracel Islands, which raised strong protests from Vietnam. China has not only conducted military exercises but also established the Sansha administrative district in Hainan Island, responsible for managing the Paracel and Spratly islands.

In 2011, ASEAN and China adopted the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC, which enhanced the practical cooperation in the South China Sea. Months later, ASEAN and China issued a Joint Statement of the Fourteenth ASEAN-China Summit. China promised to work with ASEAN countries on the adoption of a consensus-based COC in the South China Sea to maintain peace, cooperation, security, and stability in the region. Chinese Primer Wen Jiabao also planned to establish ASEAN-China Maritime Corporation Fund. The National Institute for South China Sea Studies held a seminar on “Implementing DOC: Maintaining Freedom and Safety of Navigation in the South China Sea,” showing China’s willing to work together with ASEAN in developing the sea. During the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN failed to issue the joint communique, yet Indonesia helped ASEAN with crafting ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Seaand released it on July 20, 2012.

ASEAN had moved to keep its diplomacy focused on legally codifying the DOC in a binding COC. Initiated by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN brought China to the diplomatic table to complete the COC agreement. Moreover, Natalegawa made a so-called “zero draft” for a COC with the DOC as its foundation, yet Beijing insisted that the drafting of COC had to start from scratch. The negotiation started in 2013 with the formation of a working group and, until 2015, the group had not moved beyond procedural issues. ASEAN gives China control of the timetable agreement, yet Beijing keeps mentioning that there can be no COC until the DOC is fully implemented. As China holds the DOC hostage by continuing to assault other claimants’ rights, it looks like China is using it as a delaying tactic to change the status quo of South China Sea disputes.

ASEAN keeps trying to clarify the status of the South China Sea dispute, yet Beijing has a different perspective and mentions that there is no sense of urgency over it. China’s delaying tactic has worked very well as it seeks to militarize its artificial islands in the Spratlys. With diplomacy stuck, it is better for ASEAN to maintain neutrality as its collective response and concentrate on promoting cooperation and joint development. For ASEAN member states, the most beneficial action to address China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is acting like rationalists who combine the realist and liberalist approach. As a realist, it is important to show and maintain national security around the disputed islands by having good relations with other non-claimant great powers, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, or India. ASEAN member states also need to act like liberals by engaging in economic cooperation and join in the development of disputed areas with Beijing.

The Philippines case, which brought the South China Sea case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), has shown that confrontation alone will produce no results. As Graham Allison argues, China, like all great powers, will ignore international legal verdicts. As Thucydides’ summarized in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—it is commonly understood that the PCA and the International Court of Justice, along with the International Criminal Court, only work for small powers.

Despite China’s disregard of international law, it is important for ASEAN to continue promoting the DOC and COC to keep ASEAN as a credible organization in the region.

Tenny Kristiana ( is a member of Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. She has achieved her second postgraduate degree in International Relations from Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University.

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PacNet #18 – ASEAN-US relations: An agenda for a rescheduled summit

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The ASEAN-US Summit, originally scheduled for mid-March in Las Vegas, became yet another entry on a growing list of international events cancelled because of the Covid-19 contagion. Last month, the planned visit of President Xi Jinping to Japan this April was similarly postponed. Although the late cancellation notice—two weeks before the event—may have infuriated some in ASEAN, the delay allowed both sides to focus on the fight against the pandemic. It also gives time to reassess priorities in a rapidly changing region.

This year marks the 43rd anniversary of ASEAN-US dialogue partnership and the fifth anniversary of their strategic partnership. The relationship has weathered many twists and turns, but recent trade, democracy, and human rights issues add further strains. This said, a confluence of security and economic interests sustains the vitality of relations. The United States wants to stay engaged in a dynamic region at the center of its most consequential geographic theater. Meanwhile, as the comprehensive strength of its big northern neighbor grows, ASEAN’s desire to keep its autonomy and sustain engagement with all great and middle powers intensifies.

US trade policy under the Trump administration has unsettled many in Southeast Asia. Tariff imposition and currency manipulator designation affect Washington’s ties with regional countries, including Vietnam, the present ASEAN chair. Last month, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam also lost their preferential trade benefits after the Office of the US Trade Representative narrowed the list of eligible countries. This raised worries about the fate of regional exports to the lucrative US market.

In the last three years, democracy and human rights have also become difficult to discuss. The Thai military junta remained in power in last year’s elections, widely considered rigged. In January, the International Court of Justice asked Myanmar to undertake measures to prevent genocide against its Rohingya minority. In the Philippines, human rights groups railed against abuses in the conduct of a controversial drug war. The cancellation of the US visa of the drug crackdown’s former chief enforcer and now lawmaker—Senator Ronald dela Rosa—became the immediate trigger for Manila’s decision to upend a two-decade old military agreement with Washington.

But challenges aside, larger economic and security agendas raised the stakes for convening a special summit. Overlaps between US’ vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific provide common ground to go forward. An alternative infrastructure funding scheme to rival China’s Belt and Road, recent incidents over the South China Sea, and concerns over growing Chinese strategic investments in the region will certainly be on the table.

With the launching of the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) in early January, the Blue Dot Network is now beginning to take shape. The Blue Dot is a joint US-Japan-Australia infrastructure undertaking announced by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross during the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Thailand last November. DFC was established by the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, a bipartisan bill signed into law by Trump in 2018. It merges the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Development Credit Authority formerly under the US Agency for International Development. The new agency more than doubles OPIC’s previous investment cap to $60 billion and is equipped with new financial tools allowing it to provide equity investments, technical assistance, and feasibility studies. If certified “blue dot” projects can entice more private capital to underwrite infrastructure projects in the region, it will certainly offer a viable counterweight to Chinese state-backed financing under the Belt and Road. Indonesia will be one of the first countries to receive $5 billion in DFC funding for infrastructure, energy, and digital technology projects.

While the jury is still out on how the Blue Dot will fare, the creation of the DFC is a welcome development. The US apparently realizes that it needs to do more than call out and criticize Chinese investments. By enabling DFC with more capital and flexibility, it sends a strong signal that the US, alongside its partners, can compete in the infrastructure space and offer regional countries a more sustainable source of finance without the fear that accrues from sovereign-backed credit.

Washington is also likely to reiterate concerns over Huawei, although it might face an uphill battle in rolling back the strides by the Shenzhen-based tech giant in the region, including in 5G. This said, US interest in buying a controlling stake in either Nokia or Ericsson represents a new twist to be keenly watched, especially by Vietnam, which is building its own network infrastructure without Chinese equipment. If the US can induce a merger between the two Scandinavian players and secure a controlling, if not substantial, stake, the new entity may have a better chance in competing with Huawei, the industry leader. Vietnam’s progress and the inroads of alternative suppliers like South Korea’s Samsung may also encourage regional countries to review their 5G strategies.

In the South China Sea, while US freedom of navigation operations increased under the Trump administration, it remains to be seen how to tie this to a broader strategy of pushing back against continued Chinese interference in the economic activities of smaller littoral states. Reassurance and expression of support for UNCLOS, navigational and overflight freedoms, lawful uses of the sea, and peaceful resolution of disputes will likely show up in a joint statement again. How this will change the situation on the ground is another matter.

Furthermore, dams and dredging in the Mekong River can be tackled during a sideline sub-regional meeting of the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative. More dams in the upper and middle reaches of the river are being financed and built by Chinese companies. The proposed dredging of sections of the river to improve navigation may provide another outlet to the sea for the landlocked southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan and also facilitate greater integration of mainland Southeast Asia with China. But these projects may inundate new areas, affect water volume in downstream countries, and adversely impact communities and the ecosystem dependent on the mighty river.

As is the case with democracy and human rights promotion, there is worry that environment may also take a backseat in the summit, especially if greater emphasis is placed on economics and security. The host’s withdrawal from the multilateral Paris Climate Change Agreement last November undermines its leadership in tackling regional environmental issues such as forest clearing, haze, and rising sea levels that threaten coastal communities.

China’s expanding influence certainly looms large in America’s grand strategy. But the Indo-Pacific is about more than countering China. Besides, getting more, not fewer, allies and partners provides a better platform to engage Beijing in a wide range of conversations from security, trade, investment, and global governance to technology and people-to-people exchanges. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, acknowledged this, hosting all 10 ASEAN leaders in Sunnylands, California in 2016—the same venue where he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping three years earlier. Hence, if the rescheduled ASEAN-US summit proceeds from that genuine recognition, it may be a good starting point.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo ( is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and is taking his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C. He writes on Asian security and connectivity affairs.

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 #17 – Modi, Trump and Strategic Convergence in the Indo-Pacific

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President Donald Trump’s visit to India from Feb. 24-25, his first, represents an important moment in United States-India relations. Potential fracture lines were avoided and the way cleared for ongoing convergence. Having secured re-election with a strong majority in May 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents an important ongoing feature for US strategic calculations. Good personal chemistry between the two leaders remains evident.

One noteworthy aspect of Trump’s trip is that the US president did not go off script, sticking to a measured line of drawing India into convergence on the Indo-Pacific. Limits remain clear, in the shape of India’s much vaunted “strategic autonomy,” which makes any formal alliance a non-starter. Nevertheless, India is of high value for US strategy, as expressed in the Robert Blackwell and Ashley Tellis article in Foreign Affairs Sept-Oct. 2019 titled “The India dividend,” where “New Delhi remains Washington’s best hope in Asia” for constraining China, on account of India’s sheer size and weight.

Trump’s trip to India showed continuing Indian convergence with the US over delicate but deepening constraint of China, and opportunities for further development. This was evident in the joint statement released in February, entitled “Vision and Principles for the United States-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.” To what extent did this represent the US drawing India into its fold? What was Modi signing up to?

On the economic front, while no overall trade deal was announced, the two leaders agreed that good progress was made and that they expected an early signing. Extended military cooperation was flagged in the joint statement, where Modi and Trump “pledged to deepen defense and security cooperation, especially through greater maritime and space domain awareness and information sharing; joint cooperation; exchange of military liaison personnel; advanced training and expanded exercises between all services and special forces; closer collaboration on co-development and co-production of advanced defense components, equipment, and platforms; and partnership between their defense industries.”

In that vein, specific sales were announced: around $3 billion worth of American military helicopters, mostly for the Indian Navy. Its significance was not in the amount, but that it continues India’s slow move away from dependency on a pro-China Russia towards increasing military sales with the United States, and strengthens maritime cooperation between the US and India. The statement formally noted an “early,” i.e. impending, signing of a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which will enable exchange of geo-spatial information, and complete the foundational military agreements already made.

The key significance of the visit was “Strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific,” an extended section of the joint statement. This is the first time a joint summit has had an explicit “Indo-Pacific” underpinning. The strategic imperative remains evident: the US feels threatened by China’s advance into the West Pacific and India feels threatened by China’s advance across the Indian Ocean. Strategic logic is simple; this common Indo-Pacific challenge posed by China is driving India-US strategic cooperation.

In the Indo-Pacific section of the joint statement, a close alignment of values was evident, in its affirmation that “a close partnership between the US and India is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. This cooperation is underpinned by recognition of ASEAN centrality.” The inclusion of the moniker “inclusive” nods toward not appearing as overt containment of China. Still, the statement went on to pinpoint China-centred concerns: “adherence to international law and good governance; support for safety and freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the seas; unimpeded lawful commerce; and advocacy for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law.”

The advocacy by both leaders of “freedom of navigation and overflight” was a clear reference to the South China Sea, and indicated tacit Indian acceptance of the legitimacy of United States’ freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, increasing in frequency, which China of course objects to.

In a shot against China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative, the joint statement noted that “India and the United States remain committed to sustainable, transparent, quality infrastructure development in the region.” More specifically, and perhaps most significantly, Modi recorded India’s “interest” in the US Blue Dot Network (BDN) infrastructure initiative, a counter to China’s MSR initiative in the Indo-Pacific, which already has Australia and Japan on board. Both India and the US are now boycotting China’s MSR initiative.

Modi and Trump also agreed in the joint statement that “India and the United States took note of efforts towards a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and solemnly urged that it not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law.” We can note their caveat on it being a “meaningful outcome,” as well as not being an agreement in which China restricts the involvement of outside countries like India and the United States.

The US can be happy with Modi’s agreement in the joint statement to “strengthen” three  mechanisms; namely the 2+2 foreign and defense ministers mechanism (started in 2018), the India-US-Japan trilateral summits (a format started in 2011, but in 2015 upgraded to foreign ministers level and with trilateral naval exercises also initiated), and the India-US-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral consultations (restarted in 2018) over which some Indian hesitations have been apparent. Further India-US cooperation was on show with their convening, from March 20 onward, of weekly Quad-plus discussions, in which the four Quad members were joined by New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea (but not China) to coordinate responses to the Covid-19 virus.

Finally, the statement said that “Prime Minister Modi and President Trump looked forward to enhanced maritime domain awareness sharing among the United States, India, and other partners.” This is indicative of India’s and the United States’ naval relationships with countries like Australia and Japan, but also France, Vietnam, and Indonesia—all of whom have concerns about China and are strengthening defense links with both India and the US. This is all part of an emerging cross-bracing strategic geometry in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese state media’s attempts to undermine such US-India convergence were evident. Its state-run Global Times on Feb. 23 said that“Modi must maintain strategic independence of Trump pressure tactics.” The next day, as Trump arrived in India, it stressed continuing divisions. On Feb. 25, as the trip concluded, the Global Times was somewhat dismissive, claiming India “won’t do US bidding against China.” Indian opinion was very different, with the New Delhi Times reporting that “China’s intransigence drives India to US fold.”

In retrospect, Trump’s visit and the agreements made represent not so much the US getting India to do its “bidding,” but rather this ongoing and mutually recognized “strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific” directly acknowledged for the first time at this summit level. Washington now has a good opportunity to further deepen strategic cooperation with India during 2020.

David Scott ( is a prolific writer, Indo-Pacific analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, member of the Center for International Maritime Security, and Associate Member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies.

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.

YL Blog #23 – Pragmatism Versus Principles: How Regional Actors Are Navigating the China-U.S. Standoff in the Indo-Pacific


The 33rd Asian Pacific Roundtable, held 24 to 26 June 2019, was enveloped by two major developments in the region: the start of the U.S.-China trade dispute and the publication of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which commits to “sustain American influence in the region to ensure favorable balances of power and safeguard the free and open international order.” With the background of the major power standoff, it was clear that Southeast Asian nations were questioning how to navigate what was often characterized as a binary security choice: side with China or the United States.  However, in reality, the various roundtable discussions at the APR, revealed that few ASEAN countries felt compelled to choose between the U.S. and China. Rather, the question they seemed to be grappling with was how to best utilize the current focus on their region to support their national interests and how to continue engaging with China without being negatively affected.

This was perhaps best exemplified in the selection and placement of the second plenary session on Asia-Europe partnership in which they explored how the EU can get more involved in the security arena in Southeast Asia. Speakers emphasized how the EU’s involvement would help balance the global power structure and act as a pacifying force between China and the U.S. The session came off as a weak plea for someone else to get involved in the region and provide more security resources (I read, “money”) and asked for a strong commitment from the EU to stay involved. Is this a desire to side with the U.S. vision for the region but maintain a face of not openly siding with the U.S.? Probably not. The EU has many shared interests with the U.S. For example, France updated its Indo-Pacific Strategy in May 2019 and highlighted the nuclear threat of North Korea, the militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea, terrorism, and the dangers of climate change.  However, the plenary speakers, rather than call for a free and open Indo-Pacific, kept emphasizing that China’s rise would not be stopped and that the region has to engage with China, and one speaker positively noted the common stereotype that Europe is soft on China. Southeast Asia is looking for partners that will work with China. 

Are we all in a Catch-22 scenario? One of the Japanese speakers astutely asked, is there a free and open Indo-Pacific that includes China? That would be ideal, but the threat the region and international order face is one in which a rising power is trying to gain enough influence to re-write an economic system in its favor at the expense of weaker states. In the first plenary session, Colby Eldridge from the Center for New American Security, broad-stroke described the U.S. intents in the region as one of checking the rising strength and assertiveness of China in the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his recent opinion piece, he says, “The interests of the US are in preserving and protecting the sovereign freedom of nation states, so that we can trade and interact with them without undue encumbrance.” He goes on to address Southeast Asia saying, “You may not be interested in strategic reality, to paraphrase Russian intellectual Leon Trotsky, but it is interested in you. That choice is not between total affiliation with the United States or with China. But it is a choice as to whether you will preserve your sovereignty and national freedom.” A fellow Young Leader brought to my attention a recent incident in the Philippines in which President Duterte absolved China of any militant when a Chinese ship did a hit-and-run of Philippine fisherman in Philippine waters. Wanting to pursue a positive relationship with China meant not asserting the state’s maritime sovereignty. Where will this lead in the long run?

The U.S.-China standoff overshadowed a conference that is supposed to focus on ASEAN. No one in the region wants to pick a side on that. Does the US want people to pick a side? Yes, but not a pro-US side, rather a pro-Free and open Indo-Pacific vision for the region, which would require states to stand up to Chinese abuse of national sovereignty and predatory lending. Unfortunately, the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems to be synonymous to a message of “U.S., yes; China, no.” Southeast Asian states are being pragmatic, but what will be the cost on them and the international order in the long term? It is regrettable to mention than in the face of a bilateral security choice, multilateral efforts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership may have been the better strategic choice for a region that doesn’t want to choose only between the U.S. and China.  

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #6 – Three Scenarios for the Quad and for ASEAN

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The reunion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) in 2017 sparked concerns on several grounds, including perceptions that it would be a threat to multilateralism centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as a means to contain China. Originally banded together for aid efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, the group – consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – initially appeared to reflect a renewed convergence of strategic interests between these four major democracies in the region. Over time, however, questions have been raised about the Quad’s viability.

Yet, the fact that the Quad continues to meet – mostly at the senior officials’ level, although its inaugural foreign ministerial meeting was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – suggests that despite challenges, the four-member arrangement is likely to become a salient aspect of the regional security architecture. It would thus be worthwhile to consider how it could interact with ASEAN going forward, given that the latter is generally considered the primary multilateral organization in the Indo-Pacific. Here, we discuss three possible scenarios in which the Quad may evolve, and how ASEAN should respond.

Scenario One: Strengthened military cooperation

This scenario suggests the commencement of Quad meetings involving defense ministers or senior officials in the defense ministry, or even the inauguration of military exercises among the four countries. Annual Malabar joint naval exercises are already carried out between the United States, India, and Japan. Including Australia as a permanent participant would be a significant gesture pointing to a more coordinated quadrilateral security arrangement. To be fair, quadrilateral military exercises appear unlikely. For instance, India refused Australian participation to the 2017 and 2018 Malabar exercises despite Canberra’s bids to be part of the major multilateral naval drill. A meeting among defense senior officials, however, may be easier to achieve.

One way for ASEAN to respond to such a scenario would be to reinforce the idea of regional defense cooperation through the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a platform that involves the 10 ASEAN member states and dialogue partners such as Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. While the ADMM-Plus is certainly not meant to compete with the Quad, its strength vis-à-vis the latter is its inclusivity. Promoting ADMM-Plus defense cooperation, be it through joint military exercises or other forms of interaction, would thus be useful in underlining the importance of an open and inclusive regional security architecture.

Scenario Two: The Quad falls apart

Quad 1.0 fell apart shortly after it was conceived when Australia walked away in consideration of Chinese sensibilities. While nuanced differences among the Quad countries have narrowed since, the viability of the grouping is uncertain insofar as it lacks a convincingly cohesive vision and an operational agenda. More significantly, the viability of the group remains largely susceptible to each country’s relations with China. In recent months, we have seen a significant warming of ties between Japan and China, with the two countries heralding a “new era” of bilateral relations. Following its non-aligned tradition, India has a conventionally different approach in dealing with China compared to Japan and Australia, which are US allies. On the other hand, Washington has dropped the niceties, suggesting that the Quad could be used to ensure that China “retains only its proper place in the world.” Given these differences, it is difficult to say that the Quad will not fall susceptible to the same reasons that led to its falling apart the first time, especially if the United States envisages the group as taking some sort of coordinated action against Beijing.

Despite debates about the Quad’s challenge to ASEAN centrality, the dissolution of the Quad may not necessarily be beneficial to ASEAN as a second suspension of the Quad could embolden revisionist powers to try to change the regional status quo. If the Quad falls apart again, the best option for ASEAN would be to seize the opportunity and reinforce its central place in the regional security architecture. This means strengthening ASEAN’s capacity as an independent actor and emphasizing the relevance of ASEAN-centric platforms to regional countries.

Scenario Three: The status quo

This is the most likely scenario for the Quad in the foreseeable future, as regular consultations among the four countries continue without significant stepping up of cooperation. For what it is worth, the revival of the Quad provides a useful dialogue mechanism for discussions to be had over shared values and interests in the region. At the same time, it is clear that the Quad countries have varying priorities and perceptions of the region. The fact that the Quad meetings so far have failed to produce a single joint statement signals the struggle within the grouping to reconcile views on critical issues. It is thus realistic to expect that the Quad maintains its status quo for the time being.

Here, ASEAN should work to ensure that even as the Quad continues its consultative dialogue, the “hub” of the broad multilateralism remains through ASEAN. This means, for example, providing a reason for all four Quad members to continue committing to ASEAN-centric platforms. In this sense, ASEAN should consider how it could continue to serve the interests of its dialogue partners. This could involve, as some have advocated, making the leaders-level East Asia Summit the premier regional forum for exchanges and discussions on strategic issues. Ensuring that non-ASEAN countries have a reason to consistently engage with ASEAN would serve the latter’s objectives in the context of ASEAN centrality and relevance. Going forward, the Quad’s value is expected to remain in the potential that it holds more than that of which it demonstrates. It is important for ASEAN to adopt a commensurate approach in response.

Amanda Trea Phua ( is a Senior Analyst with the United States Programme and Sarah Teo ( is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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PacNet #4 – Despite Stumbles, US Engagement with ASEAN Runs Deep

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This article originally appeared in Global Asia and is republished with permission

The regrettably low-level US representation at the annual summits convened in November in Bangkok by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) were met by intricate displays of ASEAN’s displeasure. Neither, fortunately, reflect the structural strengths and scope of US-Southeast Asia relations that stem from the alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and the core aspirations of Southeast Asia.

The interrelated aspirations of countries in ASEAN are nation and state building, ensuring strategic autonomy or agency, and asserting centrality in convening and thereby partially shaping extra-regional interactions. The US—through the core aspects of its diplomacy, commerce, security, and civil society cooperation with Southeast Asia—supports, imperfectly, these ambitions. The region’s high-demand signal for the US as the partner of choice and Southeast Asia’s serious, though mostly privately expressed, anxiety about Chinese assertiveness is evident in the headline-grabbing notice and care it gives to US attendance at regional gatherings, and more consequentially, in the off-front-page mutual efforts to build and sustain bilateral relations.

A first aspect is that the US approach toward rules, norms, and values espoused in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) represents more continuity than departure from past policies. Southeast Asia has responded with its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). The convergences between FOIP and AOIP outweigh the differences. Meanwhile, China’s proposed conceptions of regional order (for example, the New Security Concept, and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea) have not even spawned responsive versions, much less synergy, from Southeast Asia. Indeed, the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is viewed with suspicion among some in Southeast Asia for calling for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources only among regional states and China, and restricting the ability of regional states to conduct security relations with the US and its regional allies.

The expectation that China’s economic gravity will inexorably “pull” Southeast Asia toward a common destiny with Beijing confuses laws of nature with unpredictable socio-economic and political trajectories. It was once thought that Japan would economically lead a skein of geese in Southeast Asia. Such expectations also underweight the many ways in which Southeast Asia interacts with the US economically beyond trade (e.g., remittances, capital markets, government securities, and the use of the dollar, to name a few). If, as Southeast Asians appear to fear, a common destiny with China means contending with a Beijing-led hierarchical order, there is little appetite for it in an increasingly integrated region informed by modern nationalism.

A second aspect of the US approach is that it has allies and friends (Japan, South Korea, Australia, UK, France, and India, among others) working cooperatively and proactively with it in Southeast Asia. American allies and partners working together in Southeast Asia multiply US power and engagement in ways that meet Southeast Asian aspirations on issues ranging from Mekong region development to human and drug trafficking to capacity-building in maritime domain awareness. An example is the November 2019 US-ROK Joint Fact Sheet on their regional cooperation efforts.

A third element of the US approach is that it is not an irredentist state in Southeast Asia. It does not articulate flimsy historical claims in the South China Sea in contravention of international tribunal rulings. Put simply, the US does not covet the territory of Southeast Asian countries. Nor is the US a “grudge nurturer” harboring hangovers from history as rapprochements with the UK, Japan, Germany, and Vietnam—and even China—demonstrate.

Finally, the US supports ASEAN, a key vehicle of Southeast Asian aspirations to consolidate their countries, prevent intrusions on their sovereignty, and maintain strategic agency. At times, it seems that the US is more supportive of ASEAN than even some within the association.

Such core aspects of the US approach to Southeast Asia are reflected in specific relationships. In this 187th year of bilateral relations, the US and Thailand may not be at “peak alliance” due to the fortunate absence of a regional war to prosecute, and Bangkok’s own political and foreign policy drift over four decades, but the relationship is enduring and adapting. The 2017 Washington-Bangkok normalization following Thailand’s 2014 coup has paved the way for renewed defense cooperation culminating in the newly announced US-Thailand Joint Vision 2020. On the economic front, Thailand remains a growing investment destination for US companies, and trade squabbles over the generalized system of preferences (GSP) involve only a fraction of total two-way trade. Meanwhile, the 121-year-old US-Philippine relationship, which has seen its own share of ups and downs, remains more robust in reality than rhetoric and general reporting would suggest. US-Philippine cooperation during the siege of Marawi, maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea, ongoing efforts to fully implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and most importantly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reassurances on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), provide ballast despite some political turbulence in relations.

Washington remains a significant trade, investment, remittance, and employment partner for Manila. The vital US-Singapore strategic relationship, though not an alliance, has been enhanced twice in five years. A key provision permitting US forces access to Singapore’s military facilities for transit and logistics support was extended in September 2019 for 15 years. And in December the countries announced establishment of a Singapore Air Force permanent fighter training detachment on Guam. Singapore also remains a massive trade, investment, and corporate headquarters partner for the US.

America’s other Southeast Asian partnerships continue to develop. The US-Vietnam relationship is witnessing steady improvements on both the commercial and defense sides of the ledger. Of course, there are constraints and disagreements, but Hanoi’s receptivity to mutual high-level visits and public displays of defense cooperation are examples of its interest in improving ties with Washington in its ASEAN chairmanship year. New partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia continue to develop across the spectrum of cooperation, and renewed full diplomatic re-engagement with Myanmar has not been derailed despite the human rights atrocities there.

Current US-Southeast Asia relations are wider and deeper on both sides than in the past two generations. Beyond official and traditional commercial and security ties, the engagements between US and Southeast Asian civil societies are less well known. There are over 90 sister relationships between the US and Southeast Asian countries that help to build local people-to-people connections as well as educational, familial, and business relations. Some 7.4 million Americans trace their ethnic origins to Southeast Asia. Remittances from the US to the region range from 56% of the total for Vietnam to 19% for Laos. Myriad educational exchanges and scholarships ranging from the Fulbright Program to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) bring tens of thousands of Southeast Asians to the US—but alas, not enough Americans to Southeast Asia.

Tourism between the US and Southeast Asia is robust, with some 5 million people exchanging visits. It is no wonder that among major regional countries, the US is viewed by publics as their key ally or partner—even as the same publics, including in the US, view China’s economic development as welcome. These “everyday” but generally “out of sight” US-Southeast Asia interactions undergird the official alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and Southeast Asia’s core aspirations, despite public relations stumbles such as the level of US representation at Southeast Asia summits in Bangkok in November. There is no room for complacency and lots of hard work lies ahead, but there is no need to panic about U.S.-Southeast Asia relations.

Dr. Satu Limaye ( is Vice President of the East West Center and Director, East West Center in Washington and Senior Advisor, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the creator of the Asia Matters for America Initiative, founding editor of the Asia-Pacific Bulletin, and an editor of Global Asia.

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.