PacNet #56 – America and China: Seeking an Updated Foundation for Enduring Engagement

The following is drawn from the introduction to the Regional Security Outlook 2022, prepared by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific 

The US and China bookend the core bilateral axis in the contemporary world. This relationship became increasingly distant over the last 20 years and went into free-fall in 2017-18 when the Trump administration openly stepped away from the broad posture of engagement that had underpinned US policy toward China since 1972. The incoming Biden administration therefore inherited a badly fractured US-China relationship.

Somewhat ironically, as concerns about US-China relations mounted, a widespread propensity to re-assess alignments and policy settings emerged as a helpful source of restraint on the behavior of key states. The proximate trigger for this propensity was, of course, Biden’s election win over Trump. There was some speculation that Beijing also faced new and difficult judgements. This stemmed from international polling suggesting that its policy settings and style of implementation were alienating many global audiences.

From the outset, the Biden administration made clear it agreed that the US posture of engagement toward China had run its course. The new administration believed that China was presenting itself as an ideological alternative to the prevailing liberal order and suggested that US-China rivalry could be characterized as centered on alternative systems of governance. As always, the cumulative stresses and strains of the past rolled over into 2021 and continued to develop as well as to interact with new events and developments. Above all, the COVID-19 pandemic continued its relentless erosion of stability, prosperity, and optimism around the world. Other, more specific concerns included, in particular, Taiwan but also the South China Sea, Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula, and Afghanistan.

The Biden administration could not easily suppress the major qualms about America that political leaderships around the world were grappling with. Although there was unmistakably hesitation in some quarters, Washington encountered a strong residual interest in re-engagement among its allies.

The so-called rules-based order has established itself as something of a lightning rod in the dispute between the US and China. At an initial meeting of senior officials in Alaska in March 2021, the Biden administration sought to have the relationship viewed as a package of selected, broadly agreed, areas of cooperation alongside areas of regulated or bounded competition centered on economic performance. China had for a number of years flagged its reservations about the rules-based order simply by pointing out that it had not been present when the order was framed. In Alaska, however, it expressed a broader and sharper view, characterizing the order—which even Xi Jinping acknowledged had been a decisive factor in China’s spectacular economic success—as a hegemonic construct that precluded fair competition and looked to the building of a new order devoid of these hegemonic characteristics.

This prospective insight into at least one aspect of China’s difficulties with the rules-based order seemed to be confirmed in July 2021 when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi formally presented US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with a package of two lists and three “bottom lines.” The first of these “bottom lines” reportedly reads: The United States must not challenge, slander, or attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This statement confirms that China seeks formal acknowledgement of and acceptance that systems of governance other than liberal democracy/market economies can be fully effective across all criteria and should be assessed without prejudice.

What we have, therefore, is both the US and China saying that the rules-based order has been subverted, with the US highlighting, inter alia, the unqualified concentration of power in the Chinese Communist Party constitutes as an unacceptable threat to fair competition with private enterprise in the West while China insists, also inter alia, that Western notions of democracy and human rights are now so entrenched that they cast a pejorative cloud over its own system of governance even though it performs effectively against “collective” variants of these essential qualities.

All things considered, China and the United States spent the greater part of 2021 posturing and probing for the high ground rather than engaging substantively on practical solutions to the problems bedeviling their relationship. The outlook, therefore, remained somewhat fraught, with the scope for further serious deterioration looking rather stronger than the prospects for constructive engagement.

We cannot delude ourselves. The differences in values and priorities, the associated differences in what is expected of the state and in the sources of the state’s authority are real and deep. The judgement of political, economic, and security commentators is all but unanimous: the events and trends of the recent past appear to have placed the tools, processes, and mindsets that sustain order and stability in the Indo Pacific under alarming cumulative stress. The Cold War resulted in the Indo-Pacific hosting formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities. Then China emerged and engineered the fastest sustained expansion of its military power to major power proportions in recorded history. And all sides are deploying these capabilities to prevent or provoke change. Both sharp surprises like AUKUS and the persistent calculated brinkmanship in the East and South China Seas can be seen as warning signs that the potential rate of change to the status quo is exceeding the region’s absorptive capacity.

It is imperative that the policy community in the Indo-Pacific region demands, encourages, and facilitates efforts to probe, dissect, and unravel the policy settings of the major powers and to develop the space for a coexistence that is stable, peaceful, and competitive—in that order. Above all, this is a task that the ASEAN-managed multilateral security processes—especially the ARF and EAS—should and must be a prominent part of, not least because their inclusive membership is an inherent antidote to the forces of divergence that are currently so strong.

Ron Huisken (ron.huisken@anu.edu.au) is Adjunct Associate Professor, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU and Editor of the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook.

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PacNet #47 – China’s Challenges and Effective Defense: America’s Conundrum

This assessment draws from the major revision of his assessment of United States-China relations in the forthcoming volume US-China Relations: Perilous Past, Uncertain Future: Fourth Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2022).

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

This writer’s forthcoming book underscores the breadth and depth of challenges to the US-supported open economic and political order posed by the headlong drive of the authoritarian Chinese party-state for ever greater wealth and power at the expense of others. China is determined to have its way in leveraging impressive economic and military power and using many controlling features of the Chinese party-state to carry out intimidating, coercive, and predatory measures at the expense of other countries. Beijing effectively exploits and manipulates the openness of international markets and the social and political order of developed and other countries in seeking regional dominance and ever greater global influence.

The challenges can be grouped in three categories.

First is the challenge posed by over three decades of rapid development of Chinese modern military power tipping the balance in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Chinese territorial expansionism and undermining US alliances and partnerships in seeking dominance in the region.

Second is the challenge posed by China’s similarly longstanding efforts using state-directed development policies to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors having increasingly profound negative impacts on US and Western interests. Beijing does so with state-directed economic coercion, egregious government subsidies, import protection, and export promotion using highly protected and state-supported products to weaken and often destroy foreign competition in key industries. In this way, it recently seeks dominance in major world high-technology industries and related military power.

Third is China’s challenge to global governance. More than any other major power, Beijing leverages economic dependence, influence operations including elite capture, and control of important infrastructure to compel deference to its preferences. In the Indo-Pacific, these practices are backed by intimidating Chinese military power. China’s preferences include legitimating the predatory Chinese economic practices and territorial expansionism, opposition to efforts promoting accountable governance, human rights, and democracy, opposition to US alliances seen as impeding China’s rise, and support for the forceful foreign advances of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the rule of other authoritarian and often corrupt world leaders unaccountable to their citizens.

America’s defense

Over the past five years, US government decisionmakers with full support from bipartisan majorities in Congress have shown ever clearer awareness of the challenges that China poses to the interests of the United States and the open world order it supports. A variety of approaches have been tried, but coming up with an effective strategy to protect America and its partners with a stake in the existing order remains a work in progress.

Perhaps the largest impediment to effective US defense against China’s challenges is an unanticipated result of US policy of engagement begun actively in the 1990s. The Clinton administration endeavored to reduce tensions in US-China relations—no longer bound by common opposition to the Soviet Union and divided by the Tiananmen crackdown and, most notably, by the acute tensions of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996. In particular, US proposed engagement—often seen as a type of enmeshment—served to build interdependence that made China less likely to undertake disruptive measures against the United States. As the United States pursued this engagement, Chinese leaders saw a similar advantage in enmeshing the United States, thereby reducing the likelihood that the United States would take actions provoking China. In general, the results seemed to meet these expectations.

US officials also had expectations that the engagement would lead to moderation and greater conformity by China to US values and goals, which turned out to misjudge Chinese intentions to avoid such changes. For their part, Chinese officials steadily advanced and repeatedly exploited enmeshment of US businesses, universities, and other groups more closely interacting with China. These entities’ dependence on China added to the impressive support China received from developed countries and the international financial institutions directed by leaders from developed countries. The support for China involved economic assistance, financing, technology, and market access. Business and other US organizations dependent on China also guarded against the United States taking stronger actions targeting often illegal and exploitative ways China acquired technology and other intellectual property as well as China’s state-directed international economic practices, protectionist measures, industrial policies, and trade practices out of line with China’s commitments to its agreement in joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. They also guarded against the United States taking stronger actions as Beijing, in the past decade, became more assertive with expansionist ambitions in Asia.

The symbiosis between US and international businesses, universities and others dependent on China and Chinese businesses and specialists has had a bearing on recent US curbs on Chinese access to US high technology. Chinese entities and specialists were often so enmeshed with US enterprises that it was hard to guarantee that breakthroughs achieved as a result of US government billions of dollars of expenditure on high technology innovation would not easily become known by Chinese authorities.

Today, US businesses dependent on China remain influential in US policymaking and argue for greater moderation in dealing with China; they seek exemptions from various administration and legislative restrictions designed to counter Chinese challenges. Many US universities with involvement in China and other American groups and experts with involvement with China also argue for greater moderation. The Council on Foreign Relations is leading efforts by influential foreign policy specialists seeking greater moderation and warning of the dangers of growing tensions in US-China relations.  A common thread in these arguments is that the China threat is exaggerated and that the negatives for the United States flowing from Chinese behavior can be better dealt with through more nuanced approaches featuring negotiations and dialogue.

How US policymakers can create a strategy that counters Chinese challenges and also takes account of significant domestic opposition to such tough measures remains to be seen. Adding to the conundrum facing the Biden administration, its purported strategy of close collaboration with allies and partners to deal with China’s challenges from a position of collective strength faces countervailing pressures. One reason is that most of these countries have similar business and other interests that oppose measures to counter China. Many also do not share the sense of danger and urgency about China’s challenges now seen in Washington.

Robert Sutter (sutterr@gwu.edu) is Professor Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA.

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PacNet #39 – How Public-Private Cooperation Helped Unlock US Assistance on Agent Orange

On Aug. 10, 1961, the United States began spraying aerial herbicides over South Vietnam. The spraying continued for 10 years. Agent Orange, as the herbicides became known, is the most intractable legacy of the Vietnam War. While cooperation on identifying American soldiers’ remains and removing unexploded ordnance started before normalization of relations in 1995, only in 2006 did Washington begin acknowledging responsibility for Agent Orange. It was public-private cooperation that helped break the deadlock and unlock US assistance. Addressing the Agent Orange issue can further advance US-Vietnam bilateral relations and should be a priority for Washington.

Public and Private Progress

Following US President George W. Bush’s 2006 visit to Vietnam, the two countries issued a joint statement in which Washington officially recognized the need to address Agent Orange’s consequences. Six months later, the US Congress approved the first annual funding for dioxin remediation in Vietnam. As of 2021, the amount reached $381.4 million, 75% for environmental clean-up and 25% for disability assistance.

The State Department tasked the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with administering the appropriated funds. USAID collaborated with Vietnamese authorities in environmental remediation of dioxin contamination at Da Nang Airport, completed in 2017. Clean-up efforts are underway at the Bien Hoa Air Base, the principal remaining dioxin hotspot.

Separate funds for health and disability programs were appropriated in 2011, starting at $3 million but with increased financial support from Washington in subsequent years. In 2019, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense signed a five-year memorandum earmarking $65 million to assist people with disabilities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided $14.5 million toward this goal, channeling American assistance to Vietnamese with severe disabilities in 10 heavily sprayed provinces.

A network of transnational actors, led in part by the Ford Foundation, was key to these developments.

In 1994, the Vietnamese government agreed to a Canadian proposal to search for residual dioxin in sprayed areas and assigned the work to the 10-80 Committee in the Ministry of Health. Funded by the Canadian government, the 10-80 Committee and Hatfield Consultants, Ltd. conducted the first comprehensive long-term research on dioxin residues in Vietnam. The study confirmed dioxin remained in the soil at a former American base, finding its way up the food chain and into people who returned to the area—the first empirical evidence of residual dioxin’s continuing threat to public health. These findings gave rise to the “dioxin hotspot hypothesis”; that former American bases were the most likely contaminated sites.

However, the Canadian government declined further funding, and the United States and Vietnam stalled in their attempt at a joint epidemiological study. Instead, in 2002, the Ford Foundation offered the 10-80 Committee a grant to test the dioxin hot spot hypothesis on all 2,735 former American bases in Vietnam. The 10-80 Committee-Hatfield 2006 report demonstrated that dioxin contamination was concentrated at three former bases, in Phu Cat, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa. This identified the scope of the environmental hazards and focused US-Vietnam discussions on remediation.

Hanoi had invited the Ford Foundation to Vietnam a decade earlier, and Ford became a grant-maker in several important fields. Still, Charles Bailey, the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam (one of this article’s co-authors), soon realized progress on Agent Orange was paramount. From 2000 to 2011, Ford approved nearly a hundred grants worth $17 million to Vietnamese ministries and research centers, UN agencies, and Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and other American NGOs for pilot programs to develop best practices of direct assistance to Agent Orange victims, locate dioxin hotspots, launch clean-up projects, and continuously raise the issue in the United States. Ford’s initiatives and their partners’ work rekindled interest in some US leaders, encouraging them to channel money to USAID for use in Vietnam.

In 2007, Ford helped establish a track-2 channel, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford convened the Group, which comprised eminent citizens, scientists, victims’ supporters, and policymakers from both countries. In 2010, the group published its 10-year comprehensive Plan of Action. The plan set goals and detailed the required steps on disability assistance and clean up, calling for $300 million from the United States and other donors. In 2019, US assistance surpassed that benchmark, and many of the goals were being achieved.

This story in Vietnam is told mainly as a government matter, but philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation can play a role in such circumstances. When government-to-government cooperation was at an impasse, Ford acted as a facilitator and trust-builder. It had the freedom, resources, and courage to help solve the problem.

Public-Private Cooperation

Still, support from US leaders was critical. The most prominent advocate is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who used evidence from the 10-80 Committee-Hatfield dioxin hotspot studies to push for US involvement in environmental remediation and aid to Agent Orange victims. His seniority in the Senate led him to spearhead these initiatives, and in 2015 he said that the United States had “a moral obligation to do something about [the Agent Orange legacy].”

Tim Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy advisor, and Michael W. Marine, US ambassador to Vietnam from 2004 to 2007, led the effort to arrange funding on the ground. Having witnessed first-hand the damages of Agent Orange in Vietnam and talked to Vietnamese representatives, they were determined to bring about joint US-Vietnam actions in mitigating consequences of dioxin and helping impacted Vietnamese.

Without such leadership, US assistance to Agent Orange victims would not have been possible.

Charles Bailey worked closely with Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang and his colleagues, Dr. Le Ke Son (head of the Vietnam government’s coordinating committee on Agent Orange), as well as Rieser, Marine, subsequent US ambassadors, and the Dialogue Group to ensure continuing progress. Last July, at the launch of the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative, Deputy Minister of Defense and Senior Lt. General Hoang Xuan Chien thanked the Ford Foundation, and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed appreciation for the “practical support from philanthropists at home and abroad” in his letter to Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims on Agent Orange Awareness Day.

What’s Next

Problems remain. USAID-sponsored activities remain limited and do not reach all potential victims inside or outside priority provinces. Many victims and advocates are bitter that the US government recognizes dioxin-related illnesses suffered by American war veterans but not among Vietnamese. A recent lawsuit against former American Agent Orange producers is a reminder that it is critical to pay more attention to victims’ needs and concerns. Also, the Agent Orange legacy in Laos and Cambodia remains unaddressed. The lessons from US-Vietnam cooperation in this regard could inform future US efforts in helping these two countries mitigate dioxin consequences.

Overcoming sensitivities will not be easy, but while the same was true two decades ago, Hanoi and Washington now have even greater incentives to remove barriers to closer bilateral relations. A victim-centered approach requiring US direct assistance to the victims and recognition of their plight will not only address the Agent Orange issue and promote justice for the victims but can also increase confidence and cooperation between Vietnam and the United States.

Phan Xuan Dung (PHAN0057@e.ntu.edu.sg) is a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum. He obtained an MSc degree in Asian Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and a BA in International Relations from Tokyo International University in Japan.

Charles Bailey (charles.baileyadv@gmail.com) headed the Ford Foundation in Vietnam from 1997 to 2007 and then directed the Agent Orange programs at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute until 2014. He is the author, with Le Ke Son, of From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the US, and Agent Orange.

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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.
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PacNet #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont (pdupont.au@gmail.com) is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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PacNet #9 – The Quad’s Future is Tied to Soft Security

This piece is based on authors’ presentations/views at the SPF NUS-ISAS Joint Seminar on “Institutionalizing the Quad: Can it Seize the Momentum for the Future?” held on January 20, 2021.

There has been much dialogue over the future of the Quadrilateral process (Quad 2.0) involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific, with many envisioning a militarization of the Quad or a securitization of the Indo-Pacific through security-centric agreements. Such debates extend to the extreme of proposing an Asian equivalent to NATO in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contended in October 2020 that formalizing the Quad could help build a “true security framework” to meet the challenges posed by Beijing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has asserted that the Atlantic Alliance “must become global” and departing US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun affirmed that some speculative discussions on the prospects of forming an “Indo-Pacific NATO” had taken place on the sidelines of the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Such remarks further fuel discussions of a potential militarized Quad, a grand coalition in the Indo-Pacific to contain an increasingly assertive China.

Notwithstanding the merits of such a debate, it is worth exploring how the Quad can be institutionalized in the region, instead of only instigating a competitive power framework. This holds utmost importance, with new US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aiming to “carry forward” the Quad format as a “fundamental foundational” aspect of America’s Indo-Pacific policy, further highlighted with the Biden administration’s recent proposal to hold a leadership summit of Quad members. For more than a decade and a half, the idea of Quad has survived in Indo-Pacific, starting with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian Parliament in 2007, which triggered the debate over the Quad process. Since the mechanism’s revival in 2017, Quad member states have held several high-level and high-profile ministerial meetings, symbolizing the significance of the grouping in their foreign outlooks. While Chinese expansionism is the central motivating factor, a lack of commonality over whether to “contain China” or, instead, manage China’s influence and rise remains among Quad members, evidenced by the lack of a joint statement. How can member states institutionalize the Quad process while building a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific?

Above all, an attempt to institutionalize the Quad must be drawn on a practical and soft security framework that can gradually transform into a cohesive security (and, perhaps subsequently, a military) unit, shaped by the changing geopolitical situation. The goal of the Quad process, as it appears in their respective official statements, is to preserve a “rules-based order” in Indo-Pacific; a soft security framework must be drawn on their political, economic and ideological commonality. More importantly, such a framework must have a non-military connotation even though it would imbibe some maritime security features. Alongside such a soft security apparatus, the institutionalization of the Quad will invariably depend on building an exclusive Indo-Pacific identity, drawing its strength from democratic ideas and norms. The Quad is a political process, tied to immense soft and hard security objectives. Therefore, before (or alongside) exercising its military-economic muscles, the Quad must initiate deeper cultural and ideological diplomacy tracks to build political synergy that could eventually—given the right strategic circumstances—translate to a tighter security, and eventually a military, arrangement in the Indo-Pacific. Like NATO, driven not only by the Soviet threat but also to promote European political integration, Quad states must seek to establish solidarity and synergy before militarization.

Extending such a soft power network to further an Asian NATO equivalent entails careful political, economic, strategic, and ideological maneuvering among Quad members, who have had a clear divide in their China policies in the last two decades. In the post-pandemic period all Quad states, including the US, continue to share strong economic or multilateral interactions with Beijing. The latest EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is a reminder that the “China connect” is a strategic reality in regional and global affairs—and Quad countries are no exceptions. Regardless whether the Quad becomes a formalized platform, all member states will need to deal with China in regional and global affairs. Although Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar military exercises undoubtedly strengthens arguments for a securitized (or even militarized) framework in the Indo-Pacific under the aegis of the Quad, Canberra’s addition does not necessarily imply creating a larger regional nexus aimed at managing China militarily. The Quad must have a value-driven approach, having drawn its strength from the “rule of law,” preserving freedom of navigation and aiming to implement democratic ideals with a “free and open” framework.

The Quad states must, firstly, invest in capability development efforts to create multi-layered networks among educational institutions, promote think tank forums in concert with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, and build scholarships or fellowship opportunities that promote ideological exchanges. Ultimately, the aim must be to build and sustain a stronger Indo-Pacific intellectual chorus challenging authoritarian and unilateral ideals and initiatives. The Quad countries need to promote a model for annual dialogues among think tanks, universities, and thinkers who could establish a platform for enhancing and amplifying such ideals. In this vein, an Indo-Pacific university or defense university in the region, with joint investment by Quad countries, could also boost intellectual exchanges and studies on how to strengthen Indo-Pacific security through coordinated political and economic engagement, while building an identity for the region and boosting purposeful maritime cooperation and effective maritime governance.

For instance, the evolution of BRICS from an abstract assembly to a concrete consortium of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa illustrates this effect. As a grouping of ambitious rising powers, BRICS has tried to influence global governance debates in its favor, even if India and China are not on the same frequency over a range of matters. More importantly, BRICS has emerged as a cohesive unit to promote the New Development Bank (NDB) as an institution the Indo-Pacific region needs. If Quad states can draw inferences from the BRICS’ model while promoting a rules-based, fair, and equitable banking culture within the Indo-Pacific, it can expedite and form overtures to a maritime nexus and connectivity-focused infrastructure development, eventually boosting and complementing supply chain networks.

The second critical variable for institutionalizing the Quad entails drawing lessons from the post-Cold War era, especially regarding creation of institutions. If China’s belligerence is the biggest motivator for the Quad to strengthen its guard in the Indo-Pacific, then China’s institution-building capabilities should merit equal deliberations and discussions among Quad countries. The gradual evolution and formalization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), from the informal, low-profile Shanghai Five to a well-established multilateral organization, is a successful example of Chinese enterprise in this area. The “Shanghai Five” was meant to address boundary disputes and cross-border terrorism between China and the Central Asian countries. Over time, Beijing systematically expanded the grouping’s canvas to include economic, political, and security objectives, thus building a cohesive multilateral institution in Eurasia. Today, such comprehensiveness has become the hallmark of China’s deepened and broadened security approach, aptly reflected in the SCO charter. Beijing defines security beyond expedient military terms, touching upon critical economic and political domains. To compete with China, let alone build a cohesive military unit to this effect, the Quad members must first find synergy within their own strategic objectives across the spectrum—to expedite a network of intellectual engagement commensurate with their objectives in the region.

Given the onset of a new administration in the White House, and the political uncertainty in Japan owing to its upcoming October 2021 election, the time has come to invest greater thought vis-à-vis the Quad process and guide its intellectual future. Rather than a mechanism aimed only at contesting China, the Quad must emerge as a soft and succinct regional cohesive grouping that promotes a culture of democratic ideals and links intellectual persuasion with the Indo-Pacific architecture to further its acceptance and institutionalization.

Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.” 

Ippeita Nishida is a Senior Research Fellow of the International Peace and Security Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), Tokyo.

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 #8 – Rebooting the UN-US Partnership: Global Goals Require Indo-Pacific Focus

The Indo-Pacific region has seen a rise in political instability in recent years. The Trump administration and China have been at loggerheads, through the WHO, in formulating a global approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The region has experienced a rise in human rights violations, evidenced by the bitter treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian crackdowns in Thailand and Cambodia. The Indo-Pacific has also witnessed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Indo-China border, eliciting a defensive posture from regional powers such as Australia, Japan, and India.

In full view of political and human rights crises in the Indo-Pacific, the UN has remained silent. It has failed to enact reforms to its major organs, such as the Security Council. It has failed to bring meaningful reform to the Human Rights Council, which remains populated by serial violators, including China and Iran, as well as its inability to find its voice on rights violations against Muslim populations in China, Myanmar, and India. The UN has remained “concerned” over India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act and subsequent Hindu violence toward Muslims, China’s housing of Uyghur Muslims, or the plight of the Rohingya, but has not insisted through Special Procedures that independent investigators gain exclusive access to the most sensitive areas. China, like other autocratic regimes in the region, has repeatedly denied or stalled invitations to UN experts wanting to conduct official visits.

Despite these shortcomings, the incoming Biden administration represents an opportunity to reinvigorate ties between the US and the UN. Doing so could catalyze economic growth and provide stability in the Indo-Pacific. Regionwide, there is no shortage of challenges that need concrete solutions, including institutional reforms—both at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council—and a more robust climate change agenda.

Past and present American administrations have discussed reform at the United Nations, chiefly in the Security Council. Static since 1945, the aging body needs to be made fit for purpose in the modern era. To accomplish this, additional permanent members should be added—with two equally qualified candidates in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have lobbied for years with limited support. India has been an active participant in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe and Japan has been a leading contributor of development assistance (ODA) for decades. Their constant presence on the Security Council, combined with changes to veto powers, would add two vital allies capable of defending the international order and keeping the peace. Adding a third new permanent member from Africa would win concessions from the African continent—which has contributed proposals in the past that have received little recognition in the General Assembly. One of the principle strengths of the United Nations is its commitment to the equality of states, vested in Article 2 of the UN Charter. The Security Council is a forum where Great Powers exert influence on global affairs, yet to maintain that influence, the US needs a proactive Security Council that can both provide support to multilateral initiatives and advance its interests, as well as hold human rights violators and autocratic regimes accountable.

On the human rights front, the UN could facilitate reform proposals for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration walked away from the Council in 2018, with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the body a “hypocritical and self-serving organization.” The Secretary-General António Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate the reform of the Council by mandating the norm of taking into account the contribution of potential candidates to the Council, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. While the US is sure to return to the Human Rights Council under a Biden administration, it should back a proposal that would help eliminate states with poor human rights records, such as limiting Council seats to just one term or increasing the threshold to win a seat from a simple plurality to a two-thirds majority. Abandoning the Human Rights Council, rather than advocating for its reform is short-sighted thinking—a decision that left American allies in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan and Australia, in the lurch.

Climate change is another area of cooperation where the United Nations can engage with the Biden administration. Biden has already signaled as much by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. While Asia’s economic engine now fuels the global economy, it is responsible for more than 50% of global greenhouse gasses through rapid industrialization. The Indo-Pacific needs to make climate change a higher priority, particularly in light of recent natural disasters. The US should address a number of climate vulnerabilities by dramatically upscaling humanitarian and disaster response exercises, as seen in the Cobra Gold and Tiger Triumph exercises with Thailand and India. Climate change needs to be viewed, including by the US as a security threat. Global temperature changes facilitate seawater rise, create storm surges, and strain fisheries. Climate change pressures put stress on bilateral relations, particularly in ASEAN, which are at risk of violent naval confrontations as a result of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Biden administration would be wise to adopt a coherent national strategy on climate change, a glaring hole in Trump’s anti-science doctrine, which ignored Department of Defense warnings, particularly on the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

A focus on environmental initiatives would not only bolster Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but other states in the region such as Japan, Australia, and India with Free and Open Indo-Pacific visions and mutual environmental concerns. China need not be excluded from the group; the 2nd Belt Road Forum recently demonstrated Beijing is placing greater emphasis on the environment in BRI projects. Promoting crosswalks through the convening power of the UN can kill two birds with one stone, contributing to climate change cooperation in the Indo-Pacific while moving the China-US rivalry away from a zero-sum approach. The UN should avail itself of this opportunity. The UN could provide cooperation mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts in the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea and South Asia. Piggybacking on pre-existing initiatives such as the US-Mekong Partnership or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region may be a template for expanded multilateral cooperation.

To reinvigorate its partnership, America and the UN must proactively adopt policies that resonate with the Biden administration’s multilateral and internationalist inclinations. Institutional reform, human rights, and climate change cooperation are key areas of synergy in the broader Indo-Pacific.

Mark S. Cogan (mscogan@kansaigaidai.ac.jp) is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka; and a communications consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Twitter handle:@markscogan.

Dr. Stephen Nagy (nagy@icu.ac.jp) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo; a distinguished fellow with Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation; a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

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 #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

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PacNet #5 – North Korea Doubles Down on a Dead End

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Korea Society.  

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The American economist, Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under the Nixon and Ford administrations, made this observation. However, the fundamentally unreformed, immutable North Korea continues to test the limits of Stein’s principle as it enters its eighth decade of what has become a no-exit political and economic drama.

In his report to the Eighth Korean Worker’s Party Congress this past week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted the country’s previous five-year plan (2016-2020) had failed and laid out a new five-year economic plan. (North Korean economic plans have had a checkered and blurry history. We tally the new plan as the country’s 11th.)

Unfortunately for the people of North Korea, the new plan does not offer a credible framework for overcoming the gale-force headwinds howling down on the North Korean economy. Most likely, North Korea’s economy contracted in 2020 more than any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Sanctions and the COVID border closure with China have sharply cut back both state-led and non-state trade and have crimped the inflow of renminbi. That, coupled with Pyongyang’s measures to wring hard currency from the special donju class of entrepreneurs and financiers, have dried up sources of domestic hard-currency investment, as seen in the shutdown of the informal foreign exchange market. Under these circumstances, the North Korean economy has been pushed to the brink, again.

Overall, the policy emphasis of the Party Congress report highlights the importance of strengthening centralized control and autonomy. Chairman Kim pointed out that “a precious foundation for making sustained economic development by our own efforts was provided.” The focus on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-supported development are refrains that echo juche concepts championed by Kim’s father and grandfather.

Yet Kim admitted to setbacks in the past plan. He said “economic construction failed to hit the expected strategic goals,” growth objectives from that plan “fell a long way short” and the standard of living “could not be improved remarkably.” He admitted to internal problems and that “serious mistakes” were made in economic management. Technology was insufficiently utilized, and labor operated in an “irrational work system” with “incompetent” and “obsolete” working methods. Yet he insisted that such shortcomings and mistakes were forced by undisciplined deviations from an intrinsically good plan and by external factors.

In the deeper analysis of the shortcomings of the plan, the first factor mentioned is the allegedly “most barbarous sanctions and blockade by the US and other hostile forces.” Next, the report says the economy was hampered by natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic. International sanctions in the face of an unpersuaded regime and the health environment have certainly had major impacts, and the latter has been an unprecedented global shock for North Korea and for every other country. But few countries face as bleak a future as North Korea.

In response, the Party Central Committee will strengthen unified guidance and strategic management over the economy. This involves a policy of micromanagement in various sectors, such as mining, machinery, chemical industries, and power. The invisible hand of Adam Smith will have no place in the new plan, albeit with some market activity likely to be tolerated at times.

But reconsolidating central control is short sighted and unsustainable. Whatever the near-term gains, over the long run, centralization will suffocate the nascent incentives that motivate donju trade and investment activities. Quasi-market activity has likely been the only source of growth in the North Korean economy in the past five years since international sanctions were ratcheted up.

Yet the plan leaves unanswered the question of the sources of financing. North Korea has scant domestic savings, no access to international credit and has squeezed the foreign currency savings of the donju entrepreneurs and financiers. At least, unless it changes course, it will not finance state investment and economic activity over the next five years through inflationary money creation as countries with recent episodes of hyperinflation have done—namely Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

Kim Jong Un’s doubling down on self-reliance and shunning external financial assistance is in reality making a virtue out of necessity. North Korea is the only country bordering China that is not receiving Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure investment. This is probably due to two reasons. One, North Korea is not creditworthy. It has yet to completely restructure its debt arrears to foreign governments and banks incurred in the 1970s, and is thus a very poor credit risk for China’s development banks that finance BRI projects. Moreover, North Korea is likely wary of becoming too dependent on China, even if Chinese investment would boost national income.

Furthermore, because it is blocked by UN Security Council sanctions, Seoul cannot move forward on its offers of new economic cooperation projects for rail and road infrastructure, let alone revive the two Sunshine Policy era projects—the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgangsan Tourism Zone. But even if it could, the lack of economic policy conditionality in the financing of infrastructure and industrial projects will not create the conditions in which reforms could be institutionalized and economic growth sustained. This is also a fundamental flaw in China’s BRI initiative—debt accumulation that does not enhance productivity and growth ultimately destabilizes an economy. The BRI and North-South economic cooperation projects are not a variant of the Marshall Plan, and North Korea would need a true Marshall Plan for sustainable development.

A curious aspect of the Party Congress report is that Kim Jong Un’s analysis of the current state of the North Korean economy is reminiscent of that made by his father, Kim Jong Il, in 1997. At that time, the centrally planned North Korean economy had collapsed from the delayed effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s Council of Mutual Economic Assistance trade network, in which North Korea had participated. That shock was interwoven with natural disasters. In September of that year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sent staff to Pyongyang on their first, and only, fact-finding trip. Data provided by North Korea painted a dire picture—North Korea’s economy was in crisis, with output cut in half inside four years. North Korean officials blamed “natural disasters.” The IMF staff disagreed, laying the blame on North Korean policy makers, citing the need for “a fundamental change in policies” and increase in transparency.

Back in 1997, North Korea had the option of taking a path to economic reform, there was an exit from economic destitution. But in turning its back on the IMF, the leadership showed that it was unwilling to open up the economy and reform. Arguably, in 1997, Pyongyang also had the political ability to do so. Its first nuclear test would take place almost a decade in the future and it therefore did not face the harsh regime of UN and US sanctions that now hobble its economy. Not possessing nuclear weapons in 1997, Pyongyang had not shut the door and bricked up the windows on a possible diplomatic opening which would set the stage for economic engagement with international financial institutions and the US. So now, North Korea has neither the willingness nor the ability to pursue systematic and sustainable economic development.

Because the Party Congress report and new five-year plan do not even hint at a fundamental shift in strategic and economic policy, North Korea is destined to remain in the same situation as the characters in Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist play—locked up in a room in the netherworld, the windows all bricked up, and there is “No Exit.”

Thomas Byrne (thomas.byrne@koreasociety.org) is president and CEO of the New York-based Korea Society and former Asia-Pacific manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.  

Jonathan Corrado (jonathan.corrado@koreasociety.org) is policy director at the Korea Society, a contributor to NK Pro, and a former Korean-English translator for Daily NK.

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