Southeast Asia Summary: August 9-12, 2021

The South China Sea continues to be on the minds of much of Southeast Asia.

A piece in The Jakarta Post argued that Indonesia, Australia, Timor-Leste, and Papua New Guinea, as well as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and France should create “a multilateral grouping” that sets “matters of maritime security in the Southwest Pacific as a priority”. This grouping “could balance out any external force that would seek to influence the vacuum that is the Southwest Pacific”.

VietnamPlus emphasized in multiple pieces that renewed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations (most notably with China) must be “consistent with international law, especially UNCLOS 1982”, the basis of China’s 2016 arbitral loss to the Philippines. The site reported that the prime minister of Vietnam told a UN Security Council meeting that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 was nothing less than “the Constitution of oceans and seas” and that “maritime security is a global issue and therefore requires a global solution” (a suggestion rejected by the Chinese foreign minister). The site also reported that Laos and, in another article, Cambodia agree that maritime disputes should be settled through international law, including UNCLOS.

Cambodia’s The Khmer Times expressed concern that ASEAN and other regional forums were becoming “over-securitized” and too prone to “China-bashing”. The US had achieved a short-term victory in shepherding European partners into the Indo-Pacific strategy, “contain[ing] China’s rise on multilateral platforms in the Asia-Pacific and…portray[ing] China as the devil”, but this was a long-term risk for ASEAN, which is too weak and divided to resist US pressure.

Philippine publications were rather more hawkish towards China. An article in Business World affirmed the Vietnamese position that the South China Sea requires a governance regime anchored in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines were all strongly in favor of an open South China Sea, but China’s aggressive moves during the Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations had forced ASEAN states to “resort to legal measures outside of the yet evolving regional code”. China’s resistance to a COC anchored in UNCLOS meant that “ASEAN should strengthen the cooperative security institutions it has built”, “strengthen ASEAN centrality”, strengthen “defense level security arrangements” and “jointly safeguard against…unintended consequences”.

Articles in The Manila Standard and The Manila Times said President Duterte’s decision to renew the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was a necessary counter to China. The former said China was “within spitting distance” of Luzon from Scarborough Shoal. The Manila Times also wrote, ostensibly about the US’s treatment of Afghan interpreters, that America has a moral obligation to look after those who put their lives on the line defending US interests.

ASEAN is “stronger and bolder than evera writer in The Bangkok Post declared, yet made no mention of the South China Sea, made two references to China (and how much money it had donated), one reference to maritime security (the UK supports it), and said, with reference to the crisis in Myanmar, that there will be further discussions. Even more boldly, “changes will…be made” “where deemed necessary” in decision-making processes.

Perhaps this reflects, as The Bangkok Post itself said elsewhere, the Thai solution to Myanmar: sit on the problem while violence is being committed. This, in contrast to the more aggressive approaches favored by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Erywan Yusof, ASEAN’s newly appointed envoy to Myanmar, is tasked with bringing about a cessation of violence, initiating mediation, and arranging for humanitarian aid to the country, but ASEAN cannot even agree to banning arms sales to the junta. But, appointing an envoy is “better late than never”.

Singapore’s The Straits Times also tries to strike an optimistic tone about ASEAN negotiations with Myanmar. That the junta accepted Erywan over Virasak Futrakul, its preferred choice, suggests perhaps that the regime is “helpless” against the pandemic and recognizes it cannot confront it alone. On the other hand, the military dictatorship has no interest in restoring democracy. ASEAN and other regional partners like China and India have to protect against the greatest danger, namely state collapse in Myanmar.

An article in Myanmar’s The Irrawaddy does not think the generals will back down either. It notes the Thai military’s close relationship with Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (the military), perhaps a partial explanation why they had preferred the Thai Virasak. Erywan is insisting on “full access to all parties” in the Myanmar conflict, but it is unknown when he will be able to visit the country again.

Meanwhile in Thailand, ThaiPBS said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is the most vulnerable he has been since he led a military coup to oust Yingluck Shinawatra’s government seven years ago. An article in the Thai Enquirer reports that Thailand’s Fragile State Index (FSI) score has been falling for six years. In the aforementioned ThaiPBS article, the next “ousting Prayut” rally will be held August 15; The Nation says the opposition will submit a motion of no confidence on August 16 on the grounds of mishandling of the COVID crisis and corruption; and a piece in Thisrupt says “the Health Ministry is pushing an amnesty bill” partly “to protect persons or groups of people designated to find or manage the vaccine”, including the health minister. A report in The Nation also reports on speculation that Prayut will call a snap election after the budget is passed, with budget deliberations expected to last from August 18-20.

If Prayut is at his weakest, this is Thaksin Shinawatra’s best chance to return from exile to lead the country, says another piece in ThaiPBS. Prayut, it says, may be hoping that the threat of Thaksin’s return might bring back “harsh memories about the tumultuous red-shirt uprising over a decade ago” and thus make his own regime look more palatable.

Political Prisoners of Thailand expects violence to increase as the military is called in to back up police.

To the south, Malaysia is also undergoing a political crisis. Prime Minister Muhyiddin has the small minority, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim the big one, writes one in Malaysiakini.

Two more writers in Malaysiakini located the root of the crisis in Malaysia in the ideology of “Ketuanan Melayu Islam” (i.e., supremacy of Malay-Muslims). James Chin writes that the previous Pakatan Harapan government fell because of the perception that prime minister Mahathir was too influenced by the (ethnically Chinese) Democratic Action Party (DAP). This association is also crippling Anwar Ibrahim from presenting a convincing alternative to Muhyiddin’s government, which would have already collapsed if the Malay establishment were not so fearful of a DAP-led coalition (the DAP is the largest single party in parliament).

Chin continues, the Muhyiddin government is the first in the history of the country to be led solely by Malay Muslims, and yet after less than two years, it is consumed by a power struggle between UMNO and Bersatu, the two most powerful Malay parties. The lesson is that the Malaysian system can only tolerate one dominant Malay party at a time.

S Thayaparan picks up on this theme, saying Malaysia is caught in the contradiction of not being able to produce a viable all-Malay government and yet not willing to accept a meaningful role by minorities. Moreover, in the previous Pakatan Harapan government, DAP bent over backwards to accommodate Malay sensibilities, yet were still attacked. The Malay establishment is riddled with corrupt kleptocrats, yet minority parties are politically irrelevant and minority communities are coopted through economic incentives.

Finally, the Philippines is also struggling to produce a united opposition to a Duterte-backed candidacy in next year’s presidential election. According to a piece in The Philippine Inquirer, that might be because the strength of President Duterte’s position is still unclear, and parties backed by “big bucks” might be biding their time. The Lacson-Sotto ticket, broadly aligned with Duterte, is “viable”, but the strength of a Go-Duterte or Duterte-Duterte candidacy remains to be seen.

An article in Business World says that the long list of opposition candidates belies an opposition vacuum, and that such a condition could give rise to another dictatorship.

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