PacNet #23 – May is a major opportunity for US relations with Asia—especially economically

Despite Washington’s understandable focus on the Ukraine war, the United States and key leaders of Asia meet this month and the stakes are high. With timing that now looks skillful, the White House unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy 13 days in advance of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. But the welcome strategy was missing its key economic component. A subsequent announcement of the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) was an improvement, but contained little detail.

The problem is that key segments of each US political party now abhor trade agreements, whether beneficial or not. This is a serious impediment for the US policy of rebuilding alliances and strengthening partnerships, especially in Southeast Asia. ASEAN members all know well China’s power and influence and each has a significant trade relationship with China. But each worries that China’s economic and military strength may become too great. Most Southeast Asian countries, then, welcome US investment and its political weight balances outlooks and that poses no threat to anyone’s sovereignty. But ASEAN and most countries must not be asked to choose. Doubts about American attitudes remain, as do questions over whether the United States will be present if times become hard. Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—through soaring energy and food costs alone—means that geo-politics weighs much more heavily than it did last year.

Washington will seek to prove this month—despite the day-to-day pressures of supporting Ukraine after the Russian attack—that it can concurrently work on all the important issues. In mid-May, President Biden and his foreign policy team will meet in Washington for a special summit with ASEAN leaders from 8 of the 10 ASEAN members. The two absentees are the Philippines—in the middle of its election—and Myanmar’s power grasping army; Myanmar has missed ASEAN’s own meetings and is facing what amounts to a civil war. The ASEAN leaders in Washington—including Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore—will meet with President Biden in person as COVID-19 fears and travel restrictions diminish. Perhaps the United States will become a “Comprehensive Strategic Partner” of ASEAN, as was the case of China last year.

Following the ASEAN summit, President Biden will fly to Japan for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) meeting, a fine chance to meet with new leaders of Japan—Prime Minister Kishida Fumio—and South Korea’s newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol. But even more attention will focus Biden’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. For various reasons, India has chosen not to join with the United States and European Union in providing arms to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.

The world is truly multi-polar now, and many countries—often privately horrified—have not joined the West in opposing Russia’s attack. This is seen in not joining US-EU sanctions and in abstaining from UN resolutions. Some are leery of irritating China, always quick to punish middle countries that displease its “wolf warrior” officials. India has long seen itself as Russia’s friend and also wants to be seen as no one’s follower. Some of this is hard to swallow for Americans. But the period of what some saw in the 1990s as the “unilateral moment” is gone. On the possible Chinese domination of all of Asia, India and America have largely common views. But US-India cooperation is never smooth and always involves what some see as contradictions. The United States has to show patience, understanding and humility around India, as well as a helpful approach with other relationships. Nostalgia among too many Americans for a kind of early Cold War world influence is futile. Dreams of isolation from the world are worse.

In Southeast Asia no country has a more difficult task than Vietnam in balancing its foreign policies and diplomacy. A leader of ASEAN, Vietnam has been at the forefront of both security and economic issues, especially the South China Sea and China’s “Nine Dashed Line” assertions. Its relatively open economy has been growing slowly but steadily. Although Japanese and Korean investments have blossomed, “next-door” geography to China requires Vietnam to have major economic involvement with its giant neighbor. For Vietnam, China’s maritime claims as well as its developing outsize influence with Laos, Cambodia, and even Thailand are cause for concern. Every Vietnamese also knows of the centuries of disputes with China. There is a great opportunity for US-Vietnam relations to further improve.

All this underscores the importance of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, accompanied by a high level delegation, attending the US-ASEAN summit in Washington. Vietnam’s leadership role in ASEAN has grown and US-Vietnam relations have been improving since normalization in 1995. Relations are strong in many areas. Despite memories of the war, Vietnam is a prime choice for American companies concerned with interruptions in their supply chains. Vietnam has an educated workforce, youthful demographics, and an improving ability to move finished goods. High-technology producers are noticing. Tourism is a strong post-pandemic prospect for Vietnam, at several price points. It has great beaches and quality hotels. As Vietnamese cuisine becomes better known around the world, it can draw “foodie” travelers.

May offers a fine opportunity for Washington and its Asian allies and friends—none more so than Hanoi—to improve their mutual standings. This month is a chance to fill in details to Washington’s IPEF—such as digital economies. Perhaps Vietnam’s army may even wonder whether its Russian weapons supplies are still the best choice. With the world’s second-most proven reserves for rare earth metals—key to automobiles and other batteries—Vietnam also has other resources to impress the world.

Active diplomacy with Asia is on the calendar this month and the White House does not need to dominate headlines. But it can move forward in many ways—not everything, but real movement. First would be the Quad with a steady hand involving India. Could the Quad—formally or not—welcome South Korea as at least a party to discussions? As for ASEAN, the Biden administration will have reaffirmed its unshaken involvement—especially to Vietnam and Indonesia. Summer and fall will also require follow up with each ally and partner. Keeping our interests in sight—all the time—is what will bring meaningful diplomatic progress.

James A. Kelly (kellypacf@aol.com)) is chairman of the Pacific Forum Board of Directors, and the former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

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

PacNote #11 – Announcing Two New Issues & Insights Conference Reports

Pacific Forum, with the support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), organized the U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue and the U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue. Written by Jeffrey Ordaniel with co-principal investigators David Santoro and Robert Girrier, the just-released Issues & Insights Conference Reports contain key findings and recommendations from the discussions.

The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations

Washington and Hanoi left behind their past as Cold War adversaries and upgraded their relations into a comprehensive partnership in 2013. The relationship has since flourished considerably and rapidly. The next logical step is to elevate the relationship into a strategic partnership, i.e., a deepened security engagement. That process has already begun, but more work is needed, and urgently, given the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea. The region continues to face growing security challenges – from irredentist claims and blatant sidestepping of the rule of law in many of the region’s maritime spaces, to the threat of pandemics and cybersecurity. So far, most Track 2 U.S. engagements with Viet Nam have centered on issues pertaining to development, empowerment, and historical reconciliation. The time is now ripe for a security-focused dialogue involving the two countries’ top strategic thinkers to build on current gains, underscore opportunities for deeper defense cooperation, generate sound and actionable policy and operational recommendations, and highlight the importance of a tighter partnership to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and the broader region.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on U.S.–Viet Nam security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence.

Read Issues & Insights, Vol. 21, CR1 The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations here: https://pacforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/US-Vietnam-Issues-and-Insights-2021.pdf

The United States and Indonesia: Re-Converging Strategic Interests in the Indo-Pacific

The United States and Indonesia, the world’s second and third largest democracies, form a consequential relationship in the Indo-Pacific. However, despite common values and shared interests, U.S.-Indonesia relations have yet to realize their full potential, especially on the security front. Many strategic imperatives should drive closer U.S. security engagements with Indonesia. These include Jakarta’s leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other key regional institutions, its outsized role in promoting the security of vital sea-lines of communications and trading routes, its location as the archipelagic nation connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its shared interest with the United States in countering violent extremism and other trans-national threat networks, and its activist and independent foreign policy. These realities, when leveraged, can facilitate a more coordinated and effective response to a multitude of geopolitical, economic, and security challenges in the region, and can advance the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision.

The Biden Administration has made clear that the Indo-Pacific is a “top priority,” an enduring theme through several U.S. administrations. U.S. officials have also stressed that the United States will seek to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” While this framing alone is unlikely to generate in-depth Indonesian cooperation, Jakarta is interested in working with the United States to stand up to China when needed and take a leading role in ensuring Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Indonesia), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on the bilateral security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence. The organized panels were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Indonesia and in the United States of the two countries’ converging and diverging interests, defense and foreign policy doctrines, and views on key regional and global security issues.

Read Issues & Insights, Vol. 21, CR2 The United States and Indonesia: Re-Converging Strategic Interests in the Indo-Pacific here: https://pacforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/US-Indonesia-Issues-and-Insights-2021.pdf

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, CR 2 — The United States and Indonesia: Re-converging Security Interests in the Indo-Pacific

About this Report

Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia (CSIS), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. Thought leaders from the United States and Indonesia, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials, participated in the dialogue. This report contains the general summary of the discussions.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. This is not a consensus document. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.

The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsors, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email jeffrey@pacforum.org.


Key Findings and Recommendations: U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue

The United States and Indonesia, the world’s second and third largest democracies, form a consequential relationship in the Indo-Pacific. However, despite common values and shared interests, U.S.-Indonesia relations have yet to realize their full potential, especially on the security front. Many strategic imperatives should drive closer U.S. security engagements with Indonesia. These include Jakarta’s leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other key regional institutions, its outsized role in promoting the security of vital sea-lines of communications and trading routes, its location as the archipelagic nation connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its shared interest with the United States in countering violent extremism and other trans-national threat networks, and its activist and independent foreign policy. These realities, when leveraged, can facilitate a more coordinated and effective response to a multitude of geopolitical, economic, and security challenges in the region, and can advance the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision.

The Biden Administration has made clear that the Indo-Pacific is a “top priority,” an enduring theme through several U.S. administrations. U.S. officials have also stressed that the United States will seek to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” While this framing alone is unlikely to generate in-depth Indonesian cooperation, Jakarta is interested in working with the United States to stand up to China when needed and take a leading role in ensuring Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Indonesia), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on the bilateral security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence. The organized panels were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Indonesia and in the United States of the two countries’ converging and diverging interests, defense and foreign policy doctrines, and views on key regional and global security issues. Doing so would achieve:

  1. increased awareness and understanding in the United States about Indonesian thinking related to regional security issues such as maritime security threats brought about by China’s expansive claims and assertiveness; nonproliferation; and nuclear security;
  2. increased awareness among Indonesian policy circles of U.S. security priorities related to the Indo- Pacific in general, and Indonesia and Southeast Asia in particular. In sum, these new expert insights and contextual recommendations advance the security relations of the two countries.

The dialogue’s agenda underwent extensive pre-dialogue “socialization” with key stakeholders from both the United States and Indonesia to ensure that topics for discussions and eventual actionable recommendations generated are relevant to the national security interests and priorities of both countries.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.


Click here to download the full report. 

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.

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.

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 #21 – The Philippine and Indonesian Militaries’ War On Covid-19, and What it Means for Reform

Faced with limited resources and poor health care systems, Indonesia and the Philippines have used their militaries to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are known for their heavy reliance on military resources. The Covid-19 response has proven this dependency as the two presidents put military men in charge of task forces to handle the pandemic, hoping the organizational effectiveness of the armed forces would produce a fruitful outcome. While this pragmatic approach might be useful in the short term, continuation of this strategy could strain civil-military relations in the long term.

Indonesia: Personal Ties and Critical Legacy of Territorial Structure

Jokowi’s appointment of Doni Monardo, a three-star army general and a former commander of the Army’s Special Force (Kopassus) and the Presidential Security Details (Paspampres), as the head of National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) is unsurprising, as leadership of the organization has traditionally been held by military officers since its inception, relying on their strong leadership, vast networks, and ability to provide a swift response in times of emergency. However, Monardo’s appointment, plus the inclusion of a number of senior military figures on the task force, such as Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto and Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto, present implications both for inter-military dynamics and civil-military relations.

Having military figures on the central structures has had a domino effect on the task force at the regional level. Jakarta Military Command Chief Maj. Gen. Eko Margiyono was appointed head of Jakarta’s new emergency hospital. Monardo and Margiyono are close associates in the army. In 2010, Margiyono replaced Monardo as the group A commander of the Paspampres. Both have also served as the commander of Kopassus. For Monardo to work with someone he trusts and is familiar with arguably enhances coordination with the central government.

The military also offers its overarching territorial command structure for the speedy distribution of relief. Following the formation of the task force, Prabowo Subianto requested that the armed forces dispatch an aircraft to pick up medical kits from Shanghai. The military later distributed them to each region across the archipelago, deploying the air force’s aircraft. The Military District Command coordinated distribution.

Territorial command has always been the target of military reform due to its past political interventions under the New Order regime. However, civilian authorities seem reluctant to push more substantial reforms, given that the structure has been a reliable counterpart in times of crisis. The use of army territorial structure in handling the Covid-19 response clearly added another strong justification for maintaining the system.

Philippines: Marawi and Military Work Culture

In mid-March, President Duterte declared the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for the entire Luzon area, followed by the formation of the National Task Force (NTF) on  Covid-19 led by three retired military generals: Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as chairman, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano as vice chairman, and Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr as chief implementer. The three generals are no strangers to one another. They worked together during the five-month Marawi Siege: Lorenzana as the administrator of martial law, Ano as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and chief implementor of martial law, and Galvez as Western Mindanao Command chief.

Bayan Muna party-list lawmakers lambasted the appointment, saying the ECQ is an undeclared martial law and health experts or economists should have been at the wheel. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo was quick to defend Duterte’s choice, arguing that the retired generals’ discipline, working culture, and less bureaucratic nature will be essential in curbing the pandemic.

The appointment of senior military figures also allows rapid deployment of AFP, as there is a high degree of obedience among military men toward their seniors. The implementation of the ECQ requires substantial manpower and logistics, of which AFP’s involvement is urgently needed. First, the enormous number of military officers are useful to help guard checkpoints, as the Philippines National Police (PNP) has limited manpower. Second, the AFP’s transportation capability is immensely useful. As examples, AFP picked up medical equipment from China by using the air force’s C-130 aircraft and delivered laboratory specimens from other regions to Manila using light transport aircraft. Third, AFP and local contractors built a makeshift hospital at the Navy’s Naval Station Jose Francisco to accommodate Covid-19 patients.

AFP has been very attentive to not create public fear in performing its duties in guarding the ECQ, ensuring that its personnel will be minimally armed, only for security reasons.  Duterte, however, blundered when he ordered police and military to shoot any ECQ offenders. Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies might become a stumbling block to AFP in pursuing further reforms.

Covid-19 and the Cost to Inter-Military Dynamics

Although there are criticisms of the Jokowi and Duterte administrations’ over their highly securitized approach, it should not be neglected that public approval of the military in both countries is high. In October 2019, Indonesian newspaper Kompas released a survey that the Indonesian armed forces has a positive image among 96.6% respondents, the highest recorded since the post-reformation era. Similarly, in March 2020, private pollster SWS released a survey that showing 79% of respondents were satisfied with the AFP’s performance, thanks to AFP’s efforts to take back control of Marawi.

Deploying uniformed officers, however, comes with a cost for intra-organizational dynamics. The formation of Covid-19 task forces in both countries primarily exploits patron-client relationships between junior and senior officers to reduce frictions in carrying out necessary measures. Patronage-based appointments will further nurture factionalism that has been a recurring problem in both militaries.

The patronage-based system will also lead to ramifications in responding to the outbreak. This pattern indicates that the civilian leadership relies on a particular group to implement policies. As information related to the Covid-19 outbreak remains vague and scattered, it can trigger competition among different factions to gather information in order to improve their bargaining position among civilian authorities. Subsequently, each faction might be reluctant to share information and civilian authorities will encounter challenges in putting together the puzzle. This trend also raises questions over military professionalism as it indicates that obedience is determined not by the established chain of command or hierarchy, but personal allegiance.

Chaula Rininta Anindya (ischaula@ntu.edu.sg) is a Research Analyst with the Indonesian Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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