Southeast Asia Summary: August 16-19, 2021

Even in Southeast Asia, attention has largely shifted from disputes about ASEAN and the South China Sea to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and its implications.

As in previous days, many see American betrayal or myopia as the root cause of the defeat there. Some see the rapid withdrawal as part of a plan to destabilize China’s western border while putting more direct pressure on China’s eastern and southern coasts. Some see America having lost its willingness to defend “the Pax Americana that is still the basis of world order”, and the message in places like Taiwan and Japan is that they are on their own. Yet others point out that It wasn’t long after the fall of Saigon that the Soviet Union fell. And, in at least one instance, we see a stiffening of resolve of US allies rather than defeatism:

American attempts to augment both the Afghanistan and South Vietnamese military forces failed miserably. As events unfolded, the US had no choice but to abandon the countries and let nature take its course. This is the reason Singapore requires a powerful military defence force to safeguard the security of our nation. Investments in state-of-the art military hardware and relevant training for soldiers make for a capable, credible and deterrent fighting force. This is an existential issue and must not be compromised under any circumstances.

Few seem to expect any great benefits to China or its Pakistani ally in the US defeat:

 [A]lthough Pakistan has supported the Taleban over the decades and China therefore has some important levers over the new rulers in Kabul…the Taleban is not great at either keeping its promises or its fighters in check, and…Pakistan regularly promises far more than it can deliver. (The Straits Times)

Naturally, some worry of Afghanistan again becoming “a source of global instability”. Others argue that a civil war amongst Taliban factions is more likely to break out sooner or later and “the rest of the world will rapidly lose interest”, but there is a question of who will end up recognizing the Taliban regime. China, Pakistan, and Russia seem likely, but also Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and perhaps Indonesia.

One trend that seems to be strengthening in the last few days is a tendency to identify domestic factions in various Southeast Asian countries as aligned either with the US or China. In Thailand, as clashes in Bangkok intensify, anti-government protesters are being accused of being CIA stooges, while anti-government groups hint at ties between the military-royalist complex and Chinese interests.

In the background is the diminishing importance of the Thai-US Cobra Gold military exercises, partly because of pandemic precautions and partly because America has more friends in the region than it used to: “Washington’s extraordinary attention and favour to Hanoi have caused high blood pressure among Thailand’s top military leaders”, yet Thailand is still the is the only place in mainland Southeast Asia that gives the US unlimited access”.

Coincidentally, Tuoi Tre News reported the UK agreeing both with Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea and the importance of resolving disputes under UNCLOS 1982, during what the paper described as “the first-ever official visit to Vietnam of a UK defense minister”.

Although Indonesia has been in close contact with the Taliban in recent months, President Jokowi is suspected by domestic militants of being controlled “by Chinese interests”. This week, a largely ethnic-Chinese neighborhood in Jakarta was accused of refusing to fly the Indonesian flag on Independence Day. Meanwhile, Defense Minister and frequent presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto said both that Indonesia should act as a “bridge” between the US and China and, somewhat in the vein of PRC human rights rhetoric made this week, that there “must be meaningful equality, there must be concrete and real welfare for the people, and the state must be present to protect the whole nation and people”.

Indonesians, according to The Jakarta Post, have “been losing faith” in Jokowi’s leadership during the pandemic. On his Independence Day speech he mentioned a number of global challenges including “rising geopolitical dynamics”, but somewhat uncharacteristically for a Indonesian president, neglected foreign affairs entirely.

President Duterte of the Philippines also gave a public address on the COVID situation in his country, during which he was said to have sounded downtrodden: ‘Life won’t be the same again. The virus will continue to claim lives. No more going out at night for leisure. Mobility restricted. Vaccines are not enough.’ He also said China was offering vaccines with “no strings attached”, but the Philippines will continue to protect its claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte and other politicians continue swapping allegations as to who is selling the Philippines out to China.

Among possible opponents to Duterte’s clique in next year’s presidential election, much of the talk appeared to center around VP Robredo, Manila Mayor Ikso Moreno, and Senator Grace Poe, with the debate revolving around questions about the degree to which to credit moral/ideological purity and electoral cross-appeal. Moreno seems to fit the bill to some degree, but came under criticism for allegedly attempting to capitalize on his COVID infection.

Although the wrangling in Malaysia has lacked much of a geopolitical element, there is certainly an anti-ethnic-Chinese element to it, according to many accounts earlier in the week. Muhyiddin’s ouster from the prime ministership was perceived as internecine warfare amongst a Malay-Islam First oligarchy and, thus, the outcome was likely to favor someone from within that coalition, although some still hoped for a victory by Anwar Ibrahim.

As for Myanmar, state media urged people, especially artists, to have a more “constructive attitude” towards improving the country and warned citizens not to be taken in by fake news of an imminent “demonetization” of certain bank notes.

The Irrawaddy warned against the “creeping recognition of the Myanmar junta” on the part of ASEAN and other multilateral organizations by holding meetings with junta representatives manning the Myanmar chair.

Myanmar Now reports that the Arakan Army were taking over much of Rakhine State.

Cambodian Op-Ed pages largely republished Russian and Chinese articles about the great progress being made by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the “humiliating” US withdrawal in Afghanistan, and the unfairness of the Taliban being allowed on Twitter when US conservatives are barred. This, while “UN human rights experts” expressed concern over the extended detention of activists in Cambodia, and a trade unionist was jailed for claiming that the Cambodian government was secretly ceding territory to Vietnam.

Finally, The Laotian Times reported that China continues to be the biggest investor in Laos, especially big infrastructure projects like the Lao-China Railway, and Radio Free Asia reports that anonymous state officials in Laos is on track to default on its sovereign debt.

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