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.

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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.

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

ABSTRACT

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

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 (Ralph@pacforum.org) is Pacific Forum president emeritus and WSD-Handa Chair in Peace 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.

PacNet #27 – Comparative Connections Summary- May 2020 Issue

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- MAY 2020 ISSUE

REGIONAL OVERVIEW

THE PANDEMIC SPREADS AND THE WORLD RESPONDS

BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM

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.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS

COVID-19 OVERTAKES JAPAN AND THE UNITED STATES

BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO

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.

US-CHINA RELATIONS

US-CHINA RELATIONS HIT NEW LOWS AMID PANDEMIC

BY BONNIE GLASER, CSIS & KELLY FLAHERTY, CSIS

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.

US-KOREA RELATIONS

FAILING TO FIND COMMON CAUSE

BY ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM & HARRY KAZIANIS, CENTER FOR NATIONAL INTEREST

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.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC, ASEAN BRACES FOR ECONOMIC PAIN

BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

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.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

FROM LOW PRIORITY TO HIGH TENSIONS

BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE

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.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS

CORONAVIRUS EMBITTERS CROSS-STRAIT RELATIONS

BY DAVID G. BROWN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

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.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

TESTING TIMES

BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK

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.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS UNDER QUARANTINE

SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

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.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS

SINO-JAPANESE RELATIONS: IN A HOLDING PATTERN

BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

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.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS

PRAGMATIC STABILITY, LATENT TENSIONS

BY MINTARO OBA, WEST WING WRITERS & JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

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.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS

ENDING STRATEGIC DISTANCING IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY

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-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

GREAT DISRUPTION: UNCERTAINTY OVER THE INDO-PACIFIC

BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY

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

“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 (tenny@suou.waseda.jp) 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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