Southeast Asia Summary: August 20-24, 2021

  • There seem to be three takes on the Afghanistan debacle in Southeast Asia:
    • Some are concerned about the conditions in Afghanistan itself, and accuse the US of pulling out too haphazardly or accuse the US of having no business invading the country in the first place.
    • Some, particularly in Singapore and the Philippines, worry about Afghanistan exporting ideology and fighters to the region.
    • Many are worried more about what the US’s failure in Afghanistan implies about American geopolitical will and competence.
  • US VP Kamala Harris will visit Vietnam from August 24-26. Her talks with the Vietnamese government are “aimed at further intensifying the countries’ comprehensive partnership, for the sake of the two peoples and for regional and global peace, stability, cooperation, and development”. As a Thai op-ed published around the region describes it, “Vietnam is the key country in ASEAN in standing up to China” in Washington’s eyes.
  • The US’s reputation is still taking a battering in Southeast Asia, perceived as being self-interested, ineffectual, and dangerous by many writers. Among allies around the South China Sea, it is hoped that Harris will be able to soothe fears of an American betrayal.
  • In the Philippines, the primary foreign policy concern continues to be Chinese claims on Philippine waters in the South China Sea. A piece in the Philippine Business World, after recounting the results of an opinion poll that showed modest public support for taking a stronger line with China said, “Even if our President seems to be playing for China’s team, we, the citizens, are not hopeless….Until we elect a President who defends Philippine sovereignty in word, action, and policy, the best we can do is resist.”
  • Myanmar, like Thailand and Malaysia, has been preoccupied with matters close to home. One piece in The Irrawaddy suggested that the junta’s new plan to refurbish the (relatively new) capital demonstrated how out of touch the generals had become:
    • Even as Min Aung Hlaing reeled off his bizarre instructions on the future of Naypyitaw, Myanmar continued its rapid descent into a failed state. Its prisons are full of politicians, elected representatives, activists, journalists and physicians. The economy has collapsed, violence rages in the cities and the countryside unabated, and many of the country’s young and educated citizens have fled to foreign shores. Explosions, shootings and targeted assassinations have become commonplace in the center of Yangon and Mandalay, as well as in many other parts of the country. The international community has condemned the regime’s atrocities and Western governments have slapped it with sanctions. Most of the world—including some neighbors—has been reluctant to provide the regime with much-needed legitimacy.
  • Like Malaysia, Thailand is still largely consumed with its political crisis. The reason the Prayut government has been under increased pressure is the handling of the COVID crisis.
    • One issue of particular interest lately is the procurement of Chinese-made COVID tests (in addition to more purchases of Sinovac). Viewing them as sub-standard, the Thai Rural Doctors Society (RDS), a group of physicians seen as distant (literally and figuratively), from the Bangkok military-industrialist-royalist complex, has come out against the Lepu Medical Technology tests, partly on the grounds that they have not been approved by the US FDA. Others have portrayed RDS’s vocal objections as part of a broader challenge to the pillars of the Thai polity.
  • Although the US has been criticized for acting “from calculations of their own interests in which other countries are tactically expendable”, as Singapore’s The Straits Times put it, China is not perceived as being much better.
    • The Bangkok Post published two pieces in recent days about the Mekong River, one of which concluded that China “will have a challenge to prove that the countries’ friendship remains strong. [China] can’t just resort to diplomatic rhetoric. Of course, being dubbed as a ‘younger sibling’ and ‘one family’, will make Thais’ hearts glow. Yet the proof of fraternity will be seen in the river that runs unimpeded.”
    • Although most of the takes on the US’s performance in Afghanistan were negative for various reasons, one piece in The Straits Times suggests China might struggle to handle the hot potato the US just dumped in its lap in South Asia, and the US might have greater freedom of maneuver.
  • ASEAN will be ‘carefully vetting’ the positions Singapore and Vietnam take in the wake of VP Harris’s visit to the two ASEAN states, and they will be watching to what degree the US criticizes Cambodia’s close relationship with China, a piece in Myanmar’s The Irrawaddy says.
  • Malaysia continues to be consumed by internal political concerns as a new prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, is installed. Ismail is a compromise candidate from within the Malay-Muslim dominated ruling coalition. There is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether his government will be any more stable than his predecessor’s as Ismail grapples with the COVID pandemic, endemic corruption, and increasing calls for constitutional reform.
  • Malaysian writers have not shown much interest in regional crises as of late, and US VP Harris will not be making a stop there.
  • Singapore is US VP Kamala Harris’s first stop on her tour of Southeast Asia. The Straits Times said her visit “is an opportunity for the Biden administration to emphasise the centrality of South-east Asia in its ongoing engagement with the wider Indo-Pacific region”. It is important, it continued, to show that the US valued Southeast Asia in and of itself.
  • “Nobody is going to defend Singapore if we do not have the capability and political will to defend ourselves”, says a piece in The Straits Times.

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