Southeast Asia Summary: August 5-9, 2021

The meaning of “ASEAN centrality” seems to be on the minds of much of Southeast Asia as the economic union tries to grapple with the crisis in Myanmar and the growing dispute in the South China Sea.

A piece in The Jakarta Post questions ASEAN’s capacity to deal with Myanmar. Because Southeast Asia is such a critical region, ASEAN should be based on integration rather than cooperation, it says. Cooperation is fit for a common market but not political goals. Since a consensual approach is unlikely to make any real headway in Myanmar, despite Indonesia’s best efforts, ASEAN should scale down its ambitions and aim for “a public health truce” to build “humanitarian corridors” in order to avoid a “humanitarian crisis”. India and Japan have “cynically” outsourced their Myanmar policy to ASEAN. Thus, the crisis in Myanmar can only be solved by the US and China; Indonesia should not remain bound within an ASEAN framework on the Myanmar question.

In The Irrawaddy, a representative of the democratic National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), however, insists that any humanitarian aid from ASEAN and other outside organizations be channeled through “the emerging federal democratic union” and not the junta, despite how desperate conditions in the country are.

Yet another writer in The Irrawaddy claims that the US, China, and the rest of the world have outsourced their Myanmar policy to ASEAN which is bent on appeasement of the junta. ASEAN has prioritized post-COVID economic rejuvenation and great power competition, and the US is eager to massage ASEAN’s ego to gain the latter’s assistance in checking China. In short, nobody is interested in resolving the Myanmar crisis.

But Nareerat Wiriyapong writes in The Bangkok Post that it is not too late for the West to use leverage to press ASEAN on Myanmar.

With high-ranking members of the Biden administration streaming in and out of Southeast Asia, many in the region are pondering US intentions in the region, urging ASEAN neutrality in the midst of US-China competition, and questioning US commitment and capabilities. Writers in Thailand and Indonesia have noted that many of these US visitors are focusing their attention on Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines while their respective countries are being relatively ignored.

The Jakarta Post claims that President Jokowi’s shift of a combat group to the Natuna Sea “to intercept foreign vessels, especially Chinese ones” was “a strategic shift” and a signal to the incoming Biden administration that Jakarta was willing to chart a different course after having edged Indonesia closer to China under Joko’s reign. In response to this calculated risk, the US has spurned Jokowi. Biden’s policy in Asia is “disorganized” and “incoherent”, and he has treated Indonesia ‘abysmally’; his only reference to Indonesia being that it might have to move its capital because Jakarta is physically sinking. Indonesia has been snubbed by the US, and Jakarta will have to wait and see what the US wants.

A Thai guest columnist in The Irrawaddy worries that Garuda Shield, a joint US-Indonesia military exercise, might displace the Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand as US attention shifts to the South China Sea and Thailand is seen as shifting towards China. The writer noted the attention America is paying to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines and warns that ASEAN members who openly join the Quad could destabilized ASEAN. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he also noted, spoke of “the central role of ASEAN” rather than “ASEAN centrality”.

Perhaps Vietnam best encapsulates ASEAN’s South China Sea conundrum. VietnamPlus claims that ASEAN and the EU have the same position on the “East Sea” (what Vietnam calls the South China Sea), namely that the waterway should not be ‘militarized’. Vietnam News reports that the spokesperson for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Vietnam will not be drawn into a global power competition and that the country is working to strengthen ties with both China and the US. The Vietnam Times says that ASEAN cooperates with the EU, the US, the UK, and Russia, but that “Japan is considered the most reliable and comprehensive partner of ASEAN in many fields”. China is not even mentioned. In another Vietnam Times article, it says that China is violating Vietnamese sovereignty by performing drills on the Paracel Islands (what the Chinese call Xisha), and Vietnam forms a united front with ASEAN, the US, and Japan on the South China Sea.

The Bangkok Post published a piece questioning America’s ability to pay for a war over Taiwan, which lies at the easternmost edge of the South China Sea.

The Manila Times says that ASEAN must avoid getting tangled up in US-China competition and that ASEAN needs ‘cohesion’ and “solidarity”. And, The Straits Times says, “The US should know that while most of Asia welcomes its presence, this is predicated on it being a benign player and not one that stokes fights, particularly against a close neighbour like China.”

With national elections only nine months away in the Philippines, accusations about which potential contenders are American or Chinese stooges are flying, but must of the rhetorical energy is spent on domestic jockeying.

Charlie V. Manalo, in The Manila Standard, argues that Bongbong Marcos’s declaration that he is willing to run has had a domino effect on coalition-building and coalition-crumbling. Marcos, son of the late dictator, lost by a hair in the previous vice-presidential race to Leni Robredo, who is herself trying to piece together an anti-Duterte coalition for 2022, and is believed to enjoy grassroots support in parts of the country, enough perhaps to aim for the presidency.

Robredo, one of the leaders of the anti-Duterte 1Sambayan coalition, has come under criticism for communicating with Senator Ping Lacson, a presidential candidate who claims to be neither pro- nor anti-Duterte but who chose Senate President Vic Sotto III as his running mate, a person deemed a Duterte stooge by some. A writer in The Inquirer says that her meeting with Lacson underlined 1Sambayan’s failure to forge an anti-Duterte coalition. A piece in The Manila Standard writes the grouping off, as well.

Joel Ruiz Butayan in The Inquirer takes Robredo critics like Senator Trillanes IV to task for reaching out to Lacson et al. Most Filipinos are not interested in the drug war and China, so there is no room for political ‘purism’.

Rigoberto Tiglao in The Manila Times says that Philippine democracy is not threatened by any ‘skillful authoritarianism’ on President Duterte’s part but perhaps by the lack of a strong opposition. 1Sambayan are “ridiculous” anti-China “stooges” of the US; Robredo has lost credibility; Lacson cannot handle money; Pacquiao is busy boxing; Manila Mayor Isko Moreno is too inexperienced in politics and playing leading roles in films. For good measure, he goes on to note that authoritarian states handled the COVID crisis much better than democratic ones. Another piece in the same paper insists that it is virtually impossible that China was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak and that “credible accounts…have zeroed in on Fort Detrick” in the US.

A similar diatribe in The Manila Standard–but apparently more in Marcos’s camp than Duterte’s–argues that Marcos only lost the vice-presidency to Robredo because of a coalition of Yellow (i.e., liberal/left) hypocrites made up of an arrogant oligarchy, a sacrilegious Catholic Church, communists disguised as militant nationalists, and American money. Lacson is not pro-Duterte but an American stooge, and his running mate is a toilet comedian. 1Sambayan is an anti-China party.

With the Malaysian parliament reconvening in September for a vote of confidence, attention in the country is also largely consumed by jockeying between and within the various coalitions. The leading candidates for the position appear to be Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, former prime minister Najib Razak (UMNO loyalist), Ismail Sabri (UMNO defector), and the incumbent Muhyiddin Yassin.

Beneath the struggle for the prime-ministership is the struggle for leadership of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party which, by announcing its withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin, triggered the upcoming vote of no-confidence. After Ahmad Zahid, ostensibly the head of UMNO, announced the party was pulling out of the coalition, a number of UMNO members, including Ismail Sabri, stayed in Muhyiddin’s cabinet. Joceline Tan for The Star notes how dangerous this was for Sabri, especially after PM Muhyiddin seemed to embarrass the king, especially since UMNO grassroots supporters tend to be strongly royalist. Nevertheless, Ahmad Zamid, the man perhaps most responsible for threatening Muhyiddin’s rule, now finds himself in trouble as a party leadership vote has suddenly become imminent after a government oversight body ruled that the leadership contest could not be delayed due to COVID (a decision regarded as suspicious by a politician writing in Malaysiakini).

Tony Pua, a leading light in the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), has suggested, according to more than one story in Malaysiakini, that the outcome of the current battle within UMNO and the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, could be that UMNO simply assumes command of the PN, and that it will then be able to pardon alleged kleptocrats like Najib Razak. Thus, he is said to argue, it might in fact be better to keep PN in power until the next general election. But, one of those Malaysiakini pieces counters, if the PN is indeed “killing” citizens due to inept handling of the COVID crisis, as the opposition claims, it is hard for the opposition to tell Malaysians to “tolerate” the regime until it is ready to compete.

It has to be noted that not much mention was made of Anwar Ibrahim and perhaps even less of Mahathir Mohamad, as the ball appears to be in Muhyiddin’s court, for all of the difficulty he might otherwise be in.

Finally, in Thailand, as in Malaysia and the Philippines, COVID is shaking the political status quo up. Protests have reignited. A piece in Khaosod says that protesters are motivated by the perceived mismanagement of the COVID crisis by the government while others are motivated by the idea of ‘monarchical reform’ and that the more radical, republican elements of the latter group could both exacerbate the COVID crisis and turn off potential allies.


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