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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.

East Asia Summary: August 18-22, 2021

Afghanistan weighs heavy on the minds of East Asian opinion-makers. China sees in the withdrawal signs of the end of American hegemony and the end of Taiwanese dreams of independence, but in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, the message they received seemed to be that, unlike the late Afghanistan government, they would have to be more resilient and reliable allies.

China
Chinese media is expanding on the significance of the calamitous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decrying the US’s “war-oriented policies” around the region, claiming the fall of Kabul is “the death knell of US hegemony”, and urging it to follow a path of “cooperation”, a word used exhaustively in geopolitically-oriented Chinese headlines in recent days. If the US would act with “good faith”, China would be willing to cooperate.

Chinese media also:

    • attacked US VP Harris’s trip to ASEAN allies around the South China Sea: “By roping in non-regional and uniting regional countries, Washington is trying to gain dominance in making rules in the South China Sea region.”
    • attacked the US’s human rights record stretching from the beginning of slavery to the Tulsa riots to Jeffery Epstein: “The United States is the number one target country for sex trafficking in the world”.
    • expressed dismay at the ‘naivete’ of Indian youths after a survey showed that they trusted the US to the same degree that they distrusted China and Pakistan.
    • attacked CNN for questioning the unity of purpose behind the joint Russia-China anti-insurgency drills
    • attacked AP for running a story by a “psycho” about an alleged secret jail for Uighurs China runs in Dubai
    • denounced a VOA interview of the president of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, Yu Shi-kun, in which Yu argued the US was abiding by a “new one-China policy” and urged the US to establish formal relations with Taiwan
    • decried Japanese “provocations on Taiwan” in response to an announcement that the ruling parties of Japan and Taiwan would hold a “security dialogue”
    • claimed that the US will abandon Taiwan the way it abandoned Afghanistan:
      • “The statements of Sullivan and Tsai show the rapid collapse of the US-supported Afghan government has brought a real shock to the island. Both Washington and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities are diffident about this, and they believe it is necessary to calm the doubts.”
      • The lack of a formal defense guarantee could be America’s way of backing about gracefully: “Will the US abandon Taiwan? Fundamentally speaking, this is a matter of time and situation, and it will not be decided by a few elites in the US and Taiwan. We believe that as long as the mainland’s strength continues to grow, and as long as it prepares fully for military struggles and has a firm will to unify, then there is no doubt the US is doomed to eventually abandon Taiwan. First, there is no official document in the US that requires it to send troops to defend Taiwan.”
    • published a handful of pieces by Japanese academics and politicians, including a former prime minister, praising Chinese contributions to global peace
    • attacked the US’s policy on nuclear weapons: “The ‘first use of nuclear weapons’ policy has become part of Washington’s DNA, and the US uses it to maintain its nuclear hegemony. The Biden administration may consider launching a peace offensive, but the US will never stop preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.” No mention is made of China’s policy on a nuclear first strike, but comes in the wake of stories of an expanding nuclear capability in China and veiled threats of a first strike on Japan.
    • published a number of articles on the “70th anniversary of Tibet’s peaceful liberation” and offered Tibet as an example of China’s human rights record:
      • “That liberation, together with the epochal democratic reform in 1959, has helped Tibet cast away its regressive, autocratic, and isolated past to embrace prosperity and an open future. Nearly 3.65 million people live in the region, up 21.52 percent from 2010. Over 86 percent of the population is Tibetan. Tibet’s average life expectancy increased from 35.5 years in 1951 to 71.1 years in 2019. The region has more than 1,700 sites for Tibetan Buddhist activities with 46,000 monks and nuns.”
    • announced further actions to suppress Hong Kong “terrorism” and reported on the introduction of a bill in the HKSAR assembly that “clarifies offenses of desecration” of Chinese state symbols
    • said virtually nothing about the Korean peninsula

Taiwan
President Tsai commented on worries that the US might abandon Taiwan in a conflict with China, saying that “the values of democracy and freedom and the collective security and prosperity of the international community [are]…essential elements related to the meaning of Taiwan and its existence.”

  • This attitude was less evident in the pieces published in Taiwanese English-language media, which emphasized Taiwan’s geopolitical value to the US, Japan, and South Korea.
  • Others began to think ahead as to what a ‘social defense’ might look like: “Taiwan must take precautionary measures. Such measures should include an announcement that no surrender order will ever be given — thus preventing the home populace from falling for such fake news; a warning to be on the lookout for disinformation spread by China on Line, Facebook and other social media platforms; and a ban on any outbound travel in wartime — thus preventing rich or influential people from escaping Taiwan, which would cause resentment and fracture domestic morale if the rich were able to flee while others had to remain and fight.”
  • “Taiwan’s recent diplomatic breakthroughs have not only been a result of its inherent strengths and the efforts of its diplomats, but the conflict between China and the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic has also been an important driver of these changes.”

One piece in The Taipei Times argued that ethnically Chinese populations in some Southeast Asian states could become the spark for a US-China conflagration that would suck in the entire region: “The increased rivalry between the two great powers might first spill over and lead to a rivalry between and within countries in Asia, particularly those with a significant overseas Chinese population….Chinese-Singaporeans, Chinese-Indonesians or Chinese-Malaysians can still wave their national flags, but so, too, do they wave the Chinese national flag, maybe even higher than their own. This is dangerous. Such a split identity only creates the potential for instability and the weakening of political will. As China continues to claim large parts of the South China Sea and expand its presence there, countries affected by these policies might well be pressured by a segment of their own population to let China have its way.”

South Korea
South Koreans appear to be worried about the implications of the US abandonment of Afghanistan, but nearly every piece see this as an opportunity to redouble South Korea’s efforts:

    • One piece in The Korea JoongAng Daily noted that Japan and Taiwan seem to have stiffened their resolve, even in the face of Chinese threats; the only weak link in the chain might be South Korea because of pressure by North Korea to divide domestic opinion in the South on the current joint US-South Korean military exercises.
    • A piece in The Korea Times dismissed claims that South Korea could be the next Afghanistan, arguing that “The Taliban’s return to power offers a valuable lesson to South Korea. Most of all, the country should modernize its own military and strengthen its defense preparedness to fend for itself as the U.S. military cannot stay here forever. It is also necessary to beef up its alliance with the U.S., boost its strategic value and contribute more to regional security, stability and peace.”
    • And The Korea Herald said, “The US alliance is also the pillar of South Korea’s national security. Without it, it is questionable if the South alone can fight off North Korea’s invasion, which will likely be backed up by China. If South Korea becomes more of a burden to its ally rather than being economically or militarily valuable, its alliance can break down anytime. An everlasting alliance does not exist for a country who is neither willing nor trying to defend themselves. From now on, the administration should tighten its security posture and try to further strengthen the US alliance.”
    • More broadly, some expressed hope that South Korea would be able to gain greater freedom to set its destiny as a ‘strong middle power‘: “The Moon Jae-in administration continues to refer to its approach as ‘middle power diplomacy,’ but it has unquestionably carried on the direction of a ‘strong middle power’ strategy. It has produced breakthroughs in terms of peace, and it hasn’t committed the misstep of getting dragged into the turbulence of the US-China rivalry. But it also hasn’t yet produced results. The return of wartime operational control to South Korea, which would serve as a physical cornerstone for the strong middle power identity, looks very likely to remain unfinished.”

North Korea
North Korean media remained true to form, favorably quoting Chinese media on a number of matters: “Chinese Global Times Says China Would Act Immediately If Stationing in Taiwan of American Troops”, “Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Requests Sincere Reflection by U.S. on Its War-Oriented Policies”, “Chinese defence ministry urges Japan to atone for past of aggression”.

North Korea also expressed its strong disapproval of Japan converting the JDS Izumo into an aircraft carrier: “It is Japan’s invariable ambition to launch reinvasion of the Far Eastern region, hold its position as the ‘leader of Asia and thus open a door to the world domination.” North Korea argues that, carriers being offensive weapons, this violates Japan’s defense-oriented constitution.

In line with Chinese media’s line on human rights conditions in the West: “It is well known to the whole world that annually increased procession of refugees is an outcome of social disturbances and bloody disputes of the western manipulation. Despite this fact, refugees are treated like prisoners and detained with parents being separated from children. And it is still connived at and encouraged in the acts of human trafficking, sexual violence, slave labour and excruciating torture, much to the consternation of the world.”

Japan
In Japan, PM Suga and his government are under attack for their handling of COVID.

The Mainichi published a piece arguing that although Japan values peace, it has to accept that the country exists “within the larger world” and it has to respond appropriately in order to maintain peace: “The post-war Japanese made it an absolute condition for peace that they would not wage war themselves, but that is not the issue today. What we face today is neighboring countries’ military buildup and their will to expand their areas of control. For the sake of peace, we need a way to prevent them from doing so. How can we build a relationship that is not offensive or defensive? We are in the midst of a turbulent time”. The image that accompanies the text is that of Xi Jinping, although neither he nor China are mentioned.

 

South Asia Roundup: August 17-21, 2021

Afghanistan
Newspapers from around the region are hemorrhaging stories about the plight of Afghanistan. There are simply too many to give justice to all of them. Pakistan won and America lost. China and India won and lost, respectively, as well, but there are still risks and opportunities for each. Perhaps the most overwhelming sentiment is shock, both at the speed of the Taliban victory and at the uncertainty as to its implications for South Asia and the perceived struggle between the US and China.

In Pakistan, there generally seems to be a sense that the geopolitical chessboard has radically shifted in their favor. There is caution about the possibility of blowback in the form of fear of a resurgence in terror attacks within Pakistan, satisfaction at America’s comeuppance, pleasure at India’s misfortune, and fantasies that Pakistan will have the world by the throat–by turning Afghanistan into a corridor by which Pakistan can economically integrate Central Asian Republics (CARs) and by finally realizing the full potential of the port at Gwadar, both as a hub for CARs/Chinese maritime trade and as a military asset for China to project its power in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. More generally, there is some euphoria at the intuition that America is being displaced by China.

In India, there is some fear about a resurgence of Islamist violence and a rising China, but there are some small hopes that the Taliban will be at least as much of a problem for Pakistan and China as it will be for India. Some anticipate that Afghanistan will not be united long. Others think that the Taliban might not be eager to be dominated by Afghanistan and China and will be open to Indian overtures, that fears of some sort of Sino-Russo-Taliban-Pakistan alliance are overblown. Some think China and its Belt and Road Initiative could be sucked into the same morass that other superpowers have been. Some think China will bankroll the Taliban for mining rights.

In Nepal and Bangladesh, some have been said to celebrate what they see as a Taliban victory over American imperialism, while some fear that China and Pakistan have strengthened too much as a result. Some think that since Pakistan, China, and Russia are likely to recognize the Taliban regime, it is best to start engaging with the victors, as well. There are fears throughout South Asia of a rising tide of Islamist violence.

It should be noted that Afghan sources have stopped posting opinion pieces, although some are still publishing news stories.

India
In India, domestic news was on the backburner, but a handful of issues on the fault lines between the BJP and the opposition were kept simmering.

One poll showed that young, urban Indians were distrustful towards China and Pakistan, oblivious to the Non-Aligned Movement, and overwhelmingly positively disposed to the US.

One writer, a BJP cabinet minister, defended the government and attacked the opposition for their respective performances in the most recent Monsoon Session of the legislative body, praising the former for trying to include the opposition in consideration of legislation and accusing the latter of obstructing the government from conducting its business and then accusing it of steam-rolling them.

A few articles made reference to the rising trend of deadly political violence in North East India, with some blaming Modi and the BJP for reanimating old grievances with their increasingly successful Hindutva campaigns.

Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, apart from worries about a resurgence in Islamist violence, there seems to be rising anxiety about the fate of the Rohingya. ASEAN looks powerless to dislodge the Myanmar junta, and there is thus little prospect of the refugees returning to their homes. Thus, the Bangladeshis feel themselves under greater Western pressure to take steps that might lead to de facto permanent resettlement in the southeast of their country, despite what many perceive as growing friction between the Rohingyas and local Bangladeshis.

Nepal
In Nepal, PM Deuba, still only weeks into his latest stint as leader of the Nepalese government, is under some heat for passing a decree that lowers the threshold by which parties can formally splinter, thus allowing some of those who crossed party lines to install his government the ability to declare a new party, which they promptly did. Deuba and some members of the opposition, particularly Deuba’s predecessor, Oli, came under criticism for having switched positions on the question out of expediency.

Perhaps more seriously, Deuba is also perceived as ruling through decree, just as Oli did (in some ways echoing events in Malaysia), and avoiding dealing with real government business, such as appointing a foreign minister.

Some in India see a push on the part of Deuba to set up a task force to “look into the issue of Chinese incursions into Nepalese territory” in Humla as a shift from Oli’s pro-Beijing drift back towards greater neutrality. This might serve as a consolation prize in India for what is increasingly being perceived as a strategic defeat in the Himalayan border skirmishes with China, if Nepal can hold this course.

Some in the opposition have suggested Deuba raised the China-Nepal border issue to distract from trouble at the Nepal-Indian border, where a Nepalese man died, allegedly at the hands of an Indian border patrol.

Things aren’t looking so good in US-Nepal relations, either. As with the laws on party splits, Deuba and Oli have seemingly switched positions on the $500m on offer from Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), with Oli now against it and taunting Deuba to pass it. What might generally be seen as a relatively innocuous aid program is viewed by many in Nepal as an outright attack on Nepalese sovereignty connected to American plots against China.

Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, some expected the country to be protected from events in Afghanistan due to begrudging cooperation between the US and China to keep the Taliban and their ideological friends contained, but the risk to Sri Lanka depended in some degree on how much President Gotabaya Rajapaksa refrained from antagonizing Muslims.

This comes at the same time that a Catholic cardinal in the country is demanding that the Sri Lankan government stop dragging its feet on an investigation into the Easter bombings now over two years ago. One survivor accused the government of being behind the attack.

Bhutan
Bhutanese opinion pages generally focus on local or public service matters, for example farming, bad weather, traffic, and COVID. Almost no mention is made either of foreign relations or events or domestic politics. But, a piece in The Bhutanese, although not strictly speaking political, touched on a bit of controversy, complaining about the moralistic, unjust, and economically damaging restrictions on Bhutan’s “Drayangs”, something like karaoke bars or nightclubs.

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.

East Asia Summary: August 15-18, 2021

ASEAN has been replaced by Afghanistan as the main topic of interest in East Asia in recent days. China has derided the US failure in South Asia and warned Taiwan that the US would abandon them as they did the Afghans and South Vietnamese. The People’s Daily said Taiwanese media outlets and internet users were questioning US commitment.

A piece in The Taipei Times argued that Taiwan was more analogous to the Taliban in the Taiwan Strait since it was the smaller force and possessed a geographical advantage. Taiwan News says international recognition of the island state is “closer than ever”. “The likes of Lithuania and the Czech Republic are leading the way, but it is inevitable that more will follow. Taiwan’s policy of soft diplomacy is working wonders right now.”

China’s Global Times warned Lithuania, “When the US asks Lithuania to do things out of Washington’s strategic interests, the latter has no ability to say no. This explains why Lithuania, as a small country, has taken the initiative to provoke big countries” but “Lithuania cannot count on the US”.

The Korea JoongAng Daily said alarm bells are ringing in South Korea. Scaled-back joint military drills with the US and lax military discipline evidenced by continued sexual harassment within the force are weakening the military. The lesson from Vietnam and Afghanistan is the importance of being a reliable partner in the alliance. The Korea Herald sounded a similar note, blaming President Moon’s eagerness to reconcile with North Korea for falling morale in the South Korean army.

The North Korean foreign ministry again voiced its objections to the joint US-South Korean exercises, saying that the allies had pushed ahead with the drills “at a time when there is an emerging opportunity of shift in the situation of the Korean peninsula owing to the full restoration of inter-Korean communication channel” and thus “aggravating the situation” in East Asia.

A piece in China Military described the Japanese government as being “deranged” for not signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons(TPNW) and ignoring Japan’s responsibility for World War II. Another piece warned Japan of interfering in Taiwan: “It is time to wake up, inspect your history, and recognize that the perception of a ‘superior Japan that had the divine right to confront China and undermine its sovereignty, and attempting to do it even today as in the Taiwan Straits, is a fallacy.”

South Korean writers noted how President Moon sounded an unexpected note of conciliation. The Korea JoongAng Daily described Moon’s hardline stance towards Japan over the last four years as a “failure”, although Japan shares blame too. The Hankyoreh criticized Japan’s “lurch to the right” as evidenced by Japanese Prime Minister Suga for making no mention of Japan’s responsibility for World War II at a memorial service for Japan’s fallen soldiers.

Japan’s The Mainichi said the “disaster of World War II was brought on by the optimism of the Imperial Japanese Army” and that ordinary Japanese were forced to suffer from the war, much as they are being asked to carry a disproportionate share of the burden of COVID-19. They warned, moreover, of dictatorship in Germany and Japan during World War II rising “under a state of mobilization” and said the Diet needs to be strengthened after the general election at the end of October. The Asahi Shimbun was focused on a brewing succession/constitutional crisis in the Japanese imperial family.

China has continued to attempt to turn the pandemic into a question of human rights, arguing that Beijing has succeeded in protecting the human right to life and subsistence where the US has failed. The China Daily terms this “whole-process democracy”. It also accused the US of being an international superspreader due its mismanagement of the pandemic combined with its sprawling global military presence.

Chinese outlets also trumpeted the Chinese government’s victory over the Civil Human Rights Front in Hong Kong which was recently disbanded. A spokesperson from the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office  said former members “will never escape punishment”.

 

South Asia Round-up: August 13-17, 2021

The big story in South Asia has unsurprisingly been the fate of Afghanistan, what it will mean for the respective countries in the region (including China), and what it says about their neighbors (and the US). Pakistan, India, the US, and the Afghan government get most of the blame.

Each of these countries are accused, for lack of a better word, of being the greatest beneficiaries of what has happened, depending on who one reads. China and extremists across the region are also seen as beneficiaries by many. The biggest geopolitical loser is undoubtedly seen to be the US, but Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and China are also seen as being losers, again, depending on who one reads. 

Who are the geopolitical winners and losers in Afghanistan?

Return Of The Taliban – Colombo Telegraph (Sri Lanka)
With the victory of the Taliban, China is encircling India.

Taliban rule in Afghanistan now seems inevitable | The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
US credibility as an ally is shattered; South Asia must prepare for increased extremism.

After the fall (nation.com.pk) (Pakistan)
With the victory of the Taliban, ISIS “will strike back in this region particularly against Pakistan and China duly supported by India.”

US interests behind fall of Kabul | By Waseem Shabbir – Pakistan Observer (pakobserver.net) (Pakistan)
“The US particularly wants this chaotic atmosphere solely to impede China’s progressivism westwards through its mega BRI project.”

Taliban Takeover (nation.com.pk) (Pakistan)
The Taliban victory is the worst possible outcome for Pakistan.

Frustrated Indian and Afghan governments (tribune.com.pk) Pakistan
The expulsion of Indian influence from Afghanistan is “a Pakistani wish being fulfilled by the advancing Taliban”.

American abdication: Afghan civil society is in mortal danger. As Kabul falls, questions abound on US reliability as an ally (indiatimes.com) (India)
America abandons its allies; India will have to be prepared to stand alone against the rising tide of extremism.

How Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan could signal rise of Bangladesh-based terror group (theprint.in) (India)
India and Bangladesh are on high alert for Islamist infiltrators aiming to attack India.

Taliban’s Suhail Shaheen Was Sure of Seizing Afghanistan Again, Even in 2001 | OPINION (thequint.com) (India)
The US is unfaithful and incompetent. The Taliban victory deeply damaged American authority.

Afghan collapse, US rout, Pak gain – The Economic Times (indiatimes.com) (India)
American credibility has been damaged. The “China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus” is growing stronger.

Afghanistan Crisis: How will Russia, China & Pakistan make use of the vacuum? | OPINION (thequint.com) (India)
The Taliban victory has strengthened China, Russia, and Pakistan at the expense of India.

Presence of Taliban fans and apologists in India is a warning sign (opindia.com) (India)
Pakistan, China, and the Taliban will seek to sow chaos in India.

Implications of the Evolving Situation in Afghanistan | ORF (orfonline.org) (India)
China is unlikely to make any big moves in Afghanistan, for fear that a mistake could have repercussions in Xinjiang.

OP-ED: Is ARSA a threat to Bangladesh? | Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh)
The Rohingya militant group is closely monitored by Bangladeshi security services, turning them into a “toothless tiger”.

ED: We need to stand strong against extremist sentiments | Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh)
Bangladesh must be extremely careful of the inspiration jihadis might receive from witnessing events in Afghanistan.

Kabul falls. What’s next? | The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
The Taliban still likely has close links with groups like al-Qaeda, so the world must be careful.

 OP-ED: Yet another picture of headless Gods | Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh)
“[I]nstances of intolerance towards any religion other than Islam (our state religion) has become as common as breathing in Bangladesh.” Watch out for Hefazat-e Islam.

The people of Afghanistan are not fleeing from the Taliban. They are fleeing from Sharia law (theprint.in) (India)
“Islam is inherently anti-women, anti-human-rights, and against the freedom of speech and expression”; fundamentalists in Bangladesh are cheering the Taliban on.

Who’s to blame?

Kabul besieged (kathmandupost.com) (Nepal)
The US and its allies didn’t know what they were doing in Afghanistan.

CIA’s turn to admit to its fiasco – Newspaper – DAWN.COM (Pakistan)
The US was using human rights as an excuse to wreck Afghanistan.

Humility and humanity (tribune.com.pk) (Pakistan)
American politicians and pundits have made fools of themselves, and they still don’t understand that they never knew what was happening on the ground.

Causes of failure within Afghanistan (nation.com.pk) (Pakistan)
The Afghan government was inept.

Chaosistan is here. Who’s to blame? (indiatimes.com) (India)
The Pakistanis conned the US.

Afghanistan is Burning — the UNSC’s Helpless Pleas Won’t Sway the Taliban | OPINION (thequint.com) (India)
The Afghans were betrayed by the Americans.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has Rajapaksas all over. It may import autocratic values from CCP model (theprint.in) (India)
The Rajapaksa dynasty is being seduced by the Chinese model of autocratic development.

Ostracising The Sri Lankan Police: Redeeming Sinhalese Culture From Its Brute Savagery – Colombo Telegraph (Sri Lanka)
China is shielding the Sri Lankan government from answering for war crimes.

Ideological & Class Contradictions In China’s Education Sector – Colombo Telegraph (Sri Lanka)
China is stamping down on the tech and education sectors, the engines of middle class prosperity, which is the basis for Communist legitimacy.

A hit job against a President gone horribly wrong | Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka)
Those who complain about corruption on the part of the Rajapaksas hate how effective they were at ending the civil war.

Ranil does it again: Attacks the Army attacking the enemy | Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka)
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is selling Sri Lanka and the military out to the West after the Rajapaksas saved the country.

Nepal

Cyber Intelligence for National Security – myRepublica (Nepal)
In light of the Pegasus spying scandal in India, Nepal needs to beef up its cyber-security to protect itself against India and China.

Build bridges (kathmandupost.com) (Nepal)
Nepalis are angry about the death of a man allegedly at the hands of an Indian border force.

Editorial: The government must clarify its vision for the country – Nepal Live Today Nepal Live Today (Nepal)
The one-month-old government of Prime Minister Deuba is inert and expectations are rapidly falling.

Bhutan

A flood of questions | Kuensel Online (Bhutan)
Agriculture in Bhutan.

A Covid-19 responsibility test? | Kuensel Online (Bhutan)
Despite very high rates of vaccination, lockdowns are likely to be needed for the foreseeable future.

Maldives

Democracy hijacked: JSC edition | Maldives Financial Review (mfr.mv) (Maldives)
The Speaker of parliament, Mohamed Nasheed, has too much power over the judiciary since constitutional reforms were enacted.

Speaker Nasheed, wary of returning after assassination attempt, requests leave extension | SunOnline International (Maldives)
The opposition accepts that Nasheed might best stay in London to recover from the terror attack on him, but the parliament needs a speaker at home.

Bangladesh

The Lie Manufacturing Agency of Pakistan | The Asian Age Online, Bangladesh (dailyasianage.com) (Bangladesh)
Pakistani intelligence is waging a campaign to turn Bangladesh against its ally, India, and to reunite with Pakistan.

Independence Day: Pakistan & Bangladesh |By Tariq Khalil – Pakistan Observer (pakobserver.net) (Pakistan)
Bangladesh can only be safe if it reunites with Pakistan.

Bangabandhu’s Dream & Sheikh Hasina | The Asian Age Online, Bangladesh (dailyasianage.com) (Bangladesh)
India supports Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina working to realize the dream of a Golden Bengal that her father had before he was assassinated 46 years ago this week by allegedly Pakistani sympathizers.

India

Skirmishes between Mizoram and Assam (nation.com.pk) (Pakistan)
The BJP has created a religious fault line in the Indian North East where there were already linguistic, cultural, and ethnic fault lines.

In 2023 Tripura Polls, Trinamool Must Look Beyond Banking On Mamata (thequint.com) (India)
In the North East, the resurgent Trinamool Congress (TMC) is trying to break through the grip of the BJP.

Kashmir: What next ? | By Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai – Pakistan Observer (pakobserver.net) (Pakistan)
|“Kashmir is on the brink of genocide.”

With ‘Partition Horrors Day’, BJP’s Ire At Mamata’s Khela Hobe Divas is Ironic | OPINION (thequint.com) (India)
The BJP is flustered by Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.

A national grand alliance – Telegraph India (India)
Regional opposition parties need Congress to lead them against the BJP but Congress is lethargic.

Sonia Gandhi writes: Indian democracy needs to be repaired and revitalised (indianexpress.com) (India)
The BJP has turned parliament into a rubber stamp.

For BJP, Caste-Based Census Is A Can Of Worms. Seven Reasons Why | OPINION (thequint.com) (India)
The BJP doesn’t believe in caste, so it doesn’t want to measure it.

Pakistan

The need to retract | By Malik M Ashraf – Pakistan Observer (pakobserver.net) (Pakistan)
The rise of Hindutva in India is proof that Muslims were right to create a separate homeland.

Silencing the media – Newspaper – DAWN.COM (Pakistan)
Media organizations across Pakistan are opposed to the creation of what will be a draconian Pakistan Media Development Authority.

Defending intra-party differences – Newspaper – DAWN.COM (Pakistan)
A long overdue debate is occurring within the opposition PML-N party about whether to challenge the military establishment or coexist with it.

Southeast Asia Roundup: August 12-16, 2021

Topic: AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan makes us ask, has the United States been doing its best to defend true values or has it been trying to protect its interests and bailing on dependents when it can? (Thailand)

Any notion of reliance on the US should be quashed (Thailand)

Afghanistan’s fall shows US is fading, temperamental, and unreliable; should never be trusted again (Thailand)

Expect Afghanistan’s terror to spread (Philippines: Bloomberg)

The US has lost credibility in Afghanistan (Philippines)

Topic: MYANMAR

US & China more preoccupied with each other than Myanmar (Singapore)

Will ASEAN legitimize the Myanmar junta in November? (Indonesia)

ASEAN divided by US-China rivalry, democracy-autocracy, elitist-populist pressures (Myanmar)

Next two years in Myanmar will be destructive (Myanmar)

ASEAN is definitely destined to fail in Myanmar (Myanmar)

There have never been any reformists in the Myanmar military (Myanmar)

Topic: CHINA

US politicians should learn from China’s experience in infrastructure building, instead of scheming how to slow China down (Philippines)

Origin tracing of COVID-19 requires close cooperation from around the world (Philippines)

China has played an important role in the efforts to fight Covid-19 and in helping other countries rebuild their economies during the pandemic, and COVID origins should not be politicized (Cambodia)

Hongkongers ponder their future in China’s tight embrace (Malaysia)

In failing to conduct a proper investigation when the pandemic began, we may well have let the Chinese Communist Party get away with millions of deaths (Philippines)

Topic: ASEAN & SOUTH CHINA SEA

ASEAN divided by US-China rivalry, democracy-autocracy, elitist-populist pressures (Myanmar)

The US should make the world look more like EU and ASEAN before Trump can be reelected in 2024 (Singapore)

US deepening its commitments in Asean, and more strategic engagement will follow (Thailand)

VN reports international academic support for Vietnamese stance in South China Sea (Vietnam)

ASEAN divided by US-China rivalry, democracy-autocracy, elitist-populist pressures (Thailand)

ASEAN being fragmented by US-China rivalry, political instability in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Philippines (Philippines)

ASEAN states should not start expelling each other (Cambodia)

Topic: MALAYSIA GOVERNMENT CRISIS

Now that Muhyiddin has resigned from the prime ministership after his appeal for support was rejected, Malaysians face the difficulty of who to choose to lead the next government and how to choose them. There is no clear majority for any candidate, a general election is widely considered too chaotic in the midst of the pandemic, and parliament might face COVID restrictions of its own when it comes to time to vote for a new prime minister.

Who will it be? – New Sarawak Tribune

Can Anwar be the next prime minister? (malaysiakini.com)

It has to be Anwar – and no one else (malaysiakini.com)

Is Muhyiddin offering olive branch or poisoned chalice? (malaysiakini.com)

Snap polls the solution but it’s risky – New Sarawak Tribune

Confidence vote in Parliament is not foolproof either — Hafiz Hassan | What You Think | Malay Mail

Lurching from one crisis to another – New Sarawak Tribune

Topic: THAI POLITICAL CRISIS

In Thailand, the opposition has put forward a motion of no confidence that will be debated by the beginning of September. Worries about escalating violence on both the part of the protesters and the government are increasing, with the following article in The Bangkok Post saying, “Gen Prayut did not have any serious intent to pursue reconciliation or make use of parliamentary means that could have averted violence and prevented political deadlock — lessons those who take the reins of power in this country should have learnt long before the 2014 coup.”

Empty talk stokes unrest 
Opposition submits no-confidence motion against PM, 5 ministers 
Pro-democracy group plans march to PM house today 
A violent interlude II | Political Prisoners in Thailand 
The Paranoid State’s Top-secret List of Enemies 
Anti-govt protesters must avoid violence 
Which side will the court take, justice or the general? – Thisrupt 
Updated: Arnon’s 13th 112 charge | Political Prisoners in Thailand 
Opinion: We don’t condone the violence but we understand it – Thai Enquirer 
 

Topic: PHILIPPINE RACE

In the Philippines, the opposition is looking for its standard bearer in next year’s presidential election, but it is still not clear who will be running from Duterte’s side. If the expectation is that the president will run for vice president in the coming election, there is still a debate about who the presidential candidate would be. At present, it seems that Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s stock is on the rise with the opposition while Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, is being considered as a possible running mate for either of the Dutertes.

Robredo and Moreno as opposition candidates – Manila Standard

Wanted: An opposition coalition | Inquirer Opinion

PDP’s folly, BBM’s gain – Manila Standard

East Asia Summary: August 11-15, 2021

East Asia’s English-language press has a lot on its mind, including Chinese designs on Okinawa, the US-ROK military drills, the status of Taiwan, Lithuania, human rights, COVID strategies, the South China Sea, Afghanistan, and China’s role in the global order.

China Military explained that China opposes the military drills in South Korea, because they were not being used to make South Korea safer but to drag the South into the Indo-Pacific alliance. The exercises would be “a major obstacle to settlement of the Korean peninsula issue”, and South Korea should pursue an “independent national defense strategy”.

The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed with China’s take but reversed the causality somewhat, saying that military exercises “would bring a real danger to East Asia and, by extension, to the Indo-Pacific region as a whole”.

The Korea Herald took note of China’s opposition to the exercises: “In a move seen as extending a broader support to the North, a Chinese Communist Party organ Tuesday carried an editorial highlighting the solidarity between Beijing and Pyongyang on its front page.” The paper thought this hypocritical of China, since it was conducting joint exercises with Russia at the time of publication, as The Pyongyang Times reported.

The Japan Times argued that it would be difficult for countries to turn from America to China because China is internally unstable, it is closing its economy off from the rest of the world, and it is undemocratic and unpeaceful.

The Taipei Times and The Korea Times both published a piece by a Chinese scientist in the US that argues China’s belief in its inexorable rise is based largely on flawed demographic data. “The West, too, is buying into this narrative. In underestimating China’s demographic challenges, Western leaders are overestimating its economic and geopolitical prospects. They see a fire-breathing dragon when what stands before them is really a sick lizard. This raises the risk of strategic miscalculation on both sides.”

China Military published pieces blaming the US for the debacle in Afghanistan. Echoing the claims of the collapsing Afghan state, one says that holding peace talks with the Taliban “strengthened the legitimacy of the Taliban both domestically and internationally”, and that civil war would likely spill over into “neighboring countries”. The other said that the Taliban one could “reasonably condemn” the Taliban “for providing a safe haven for terrorists”.

In alignment with some Pakistani expectations about a role for China in Afghanistan, The Taipei Times published a piece argued that “Beijing sees the withdrawal as a strategic opportunity to expand its foothold in South Asia, which could enable Beijing to challenge India’s predominant position in the region.” Another piece there thinks Beijing thinks it has a historical mandate to territories once under the Tang Empire, and that Afghanistan is a “plan B” if China ‘fails’ in Taiwan.

Yet another piece in The Taipei Times argues for a strategic partnership with India based on Taiwan’s expertise in the petroleum sector.

Somewhat closer to home, a piece in The Taipei Times argued for a bolstering of Taiwan’s coast guard capabilities to counter China’s “intelligence gathering under the guise of fishing vessels” conducted “in Taiwan’s territorial waters and air defense identification zone to the east”.

The China Daily reports that China’s Taiwan affairs spokesman “urged the United States to stop sending wrong signals to “Taiwan independence” separatists, after a so-called US-Taiwan coast guard cooperation mechanism held its first meeting.” “[I]f the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces dare to provoke, ‘we have the right to take all necessary measures to stop them,” another Daily piece continued.

The Global Times threatened Taiwan with war over President Tsai Ing-Wen’s possible attendance at the US-sponsored Summit for Democracy to be held virtually in December. If Tsai Ing-Wen attends (e.g., “allowing Tsai to attend a meeting and show on the screen with the heads of various countries and governments”), “Beijing will respond more intensely than it did in 1995” when it fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in response to Lee Deng-hui’s visit to the US. More specifically, “PLA fighter jets will fly over the island…The fighters will declare that the land underneath is Chinese territory…If the Taiwan military dares to open fire on the PLA fighters, the large number of missiles aimed at Taiwan’s military targets from the mainland and our bomber fleets will make a decisive answer and write history.”

The Global Times also threatened Japan over Taiwan again, accusing the former of becoming “the most proactive force on the Taiwan question”. After what seem to have been threats to preemptively strike Japan with nuclear weapons in case it interferes with a Chinese attack on Taiwan in recent days, the Times said “those who play with fire will only burn themselves”. Japan must “fully respect the one-China principle” or else it will be “necessary to discuss” Japan “illegally annexing Ryukyu” (Okinawa). In a piece in China Military, entitled “Japan’s defense minister is dangerously playing with fire”, the author said Japan should continue to implement its post-World War II “geo-economic policy” instead of “remilitarizing”.

The Japan Times published a piece arguing for Japan’s Self-Defense Force to be deployed at Shimoji Island’s airport in the Okinawa Prefecture to the east of Taiwan before China creates “a fait accompli” in the Senkaku Islands. The Asahi Shimbun argued that in light of rising tensions involving Japan, the US, China, and Taiwan, “Tokyo should work out a long-term strategy with an eye toward a comprehensive ‘Northeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone,’ the framework of which should also be used to address North Korea’s nuclear development.”

The Global Times called Lithuania a “crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears” that “it will be destroyed again”, after the Baltic state opened a Taiwan Representative Office. The paper also recommended that “China and Russia…strike against a country that has lost its mind”. “China will not allow Lithuania to become an example for other countries to follow”. It also argued, under the assumption that Lithuania was acting under the behest of the US, that China was increasingly likely to “solve the Taiwan question for good” before other “US pawns” use “Taiwan as a bargaining chip”.

The Taipei Times, meanwhile, praised Lithuania’s “courageous decision”, saying that the Chinese Communist Party is enraged because Beijing does not know how to react to a small country defying its will.

The Taipei Times also anticipates Germany assuming a more assertive stance towards China after a new government is elected on September 26.

China Military accused the US of provoking a geopolitical crisis by trying to drag ASEAN into a fight with China in the South China Sea. The US “is not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue”, said The People’s Daily. The Global Times accuses both the US and Japan of wanting to “drag ASEAN members in geopolitical conflicts mainly to create trouble for China.”

A developing ideological front in the geopolitical contest between the US and China is an amalgam of accusations about human rights and COVID-19.

Numerous Chinese and North Korean publications argued that they were “prioritizing the right to subsistence” while the US was prioritizing profits. A piece in The People’s Daily said that China’s drive to “all-round moderate prosperity coincided with comprehensive progress in human rights”. The China Daily said this “represents China’s contribution to the world human rights cause”. “China has put life first in fighting COVID-19”, said another article in The People’s Daily.

This is in contrast to “the serious human rights problems” in the US, according to North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It says hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives and millions are in danger of losing their homes due to lack of income caused by mismanagement of the COVID crisis.

The Taipei Times ran an article from Bloomberg that argued China’s “COVID zero strategy” risks isolating the country for years. “Chinese authorities are increasingly trumpeting their success in containing the virus as an ideological and moral victory over the US and other nations now treating COVID-19 as endemic…It is nearly taboo in China to even suggest a different approach.” The Global Times dismissed such concerns: “What China will do is to adapt to the world’s new normal due to an increase of global interactions while ensuring its domestic line of defense is robust enough against imported infections.”

Says The People’s Daily: “Every single life is treasured. China has launched a protracted war against the virus. The Chinese approach to taming the virus prioritizes the right to life, the most fundamental human right. For the Chinese policymakers, people’s lives are not a tradable option. They are invaluable.” And in another piece, “When China reaches herd immunity through vaccination and when Chinese society can adapt to occasional cluster infections, China will open to the world gradually, the official said…the US deserves to be labeled the world’s No.1 anti-pandemic failure, in addition to being the No.1 political blaming country, No.1 pandemic spreader country, No.1 political division country, No.1 pandemic period turmoil country, No.1 disinformation country and No.1 origins-tracing terrorism country.”

The China Daily then takes the fight to Washington: “That the Biden administration seems unable to prevent the return of the country’s ‘darkest days’ — despite the US having the most abundant supply of vaccines — can only be attributed to its own inability to make the difficult decision to mandate lockdowns where necessary and insist on the public’s adherence to basic prevention and control measures such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.”

This then bleeds into a claim by People’s Daily that the US is “infecting the whole world” due to its refusal to make those “difficult decisions” and to entertaining “farcical lab leak conspiracies”. In another piece, it says, “According to CNN…U.S. spies have failed to associate the deadly pathogen with the Wuhan virology institute”. Instead, the question is why the US ‘refuses’ to be transparent about “the closure of Fort Detrick” in Maryland.

South Asia Summary: August 10-13, 2021

Opinion writers in South Asia are grappling with China’s role in the rapidly changing geopolitical terrain of the region with attitudes varying between India and its neighbors. Indian perspectives seem rather pessimistic, and analysts are looking on the horizon to Tibet and its role in Sino-Indian relations. Pakistan seems to prefer what it sees as China’s “geoeconomic” order as opposed to the US’s “geopolitical” order.

A retired Indian general writes in ThePrint that India is not strong enough to compete with China and won’t be for another 20-30 years. He sees evidence of this in the partial disengagement agreement recently concluded between the two countries. India has effectively agreed to buffer zones within its territory that will become permanent. The problem is that Modi is not leveling with the country about this.

N Sathiya Moorthy, in The New Indian Express, sees India shifting from its traditional bilateral approach with respect to Chinese territorial disputes to internationalization. India should be prepared for increased Chinese “interest” in ‘leftist militancy’ and “interethnic strife” in India’s Northeast as the US draws greater attention to Tibet.

Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, says, in ThePrint, China sees ‘stabilization’ of the situation in Tibet as a fundamental security concern and is ‘obliterating’ Tibetan culture, identity, and religion in that pursuit. It is aggressively colonizing Tibet right up to the borders of Nepal, Bhutan, and India. There is no realistic prospect of a Sino-Tibetan reconciliation, and this will complicate India’s relationship with China further.

Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister, explains in The Indian Express why he thinks China is likely to become more aggressive towards India in “coming months”. In Beijing, there is a toxic mix of strategic anxiety and domestic political machinations that are amplifying each other. As Xi prepares for the 2022 Party Congress, he will need to exhibit “absolute strength” at home and abroad if he wants the party to acknowledge him as leader for life then. This will require “maximum nationalistic fervor” even against Beijing’s long-term strategic goals. It’s possible Xi could change course, but China has yet to implement its disengagement agreements with India, and the world will likely have to wait until September (after the conclusion of the August meetings at Beidaihe) to find out which path China has chosen to take.

Pakistani writers looked at China primarily through the country’s relations with Afghanistan and the United States. If some are looking for China to turn Afghanistan into a corridor by which Pakistan can reach Central Asia, others say that China has the more modest goal of preventing violence from spilling over into Pakistan, Xinjiang, and Central Asia.

A writer in Dawn says China is primarily concerned with Islamic instability and that a political settlement in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest. In The Express Tribune, a former general says that both China and the US have their positive and negative attributes, and it is difficult to tell who will come out on top. India’s incitement of Afghanistan’s “unreasonable and hostile” government makes Pakistan’s US-China balancing act all the more difficult. Shoaib Baloch writes in the Pakistan Observer that, with rising geopolitical stability and the US increasingly allied with an increasingly Hindutva India, Pakistan can no longer afford to maintain its balancing act.

In one article by a member of PM Imran Khan’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs in Pakistan Observer, multiple interpretations seem to be held simultaneously. On the one hand, she says China wants Afghanistan to be a “regional hub”; on the other, she says China sees risk rather than opportunity in the war-torn country. China is outsourcing its Afghan foreign policy to Pakistan and knows it will have to accommodate Pakistani interests there, she goes on. And yet, the solution to political stability and terrorism in Afghanistan and the region is China’s One Belt One Road. Pakistan therefore has begun tilting towards China rather than the US. India barely gets more than a cursory mention.

Looking even farther out, Shazia Cheema says in Pakistan Observer that China should form a new, apolitical socioeconomic bloc in Eurasia. The US is the only country that sees China as a threat, the writer says, and Europe is starting to look towards Chinese geoeconomics/globalization/harmony instead of American geopolitics/war-on-terror/chaos. “China is offering this harmonious world through its Belt and Road Initiative”, and thus Europe should exit Nato.

Farid Erkizia Bakht in Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune also sees a global ideological alternative in China. Beijing’s war on the tech sector is evidence of a Chinese-led change in global power. Technology not only failed to conquer Afghanistan–it bled the American empire dry. The US’s technological solution to COVID (i.e., vaccines) did not outperform China’s low-tech solutions. Now, America’s military-technological complex is shifting to the eastern edge of China in pursuit of a more conventional enemy, where it will offer more of its expensive solutions.

As upbeat as some are about China’s global leadership in the future, others are upbeat about the last two years of Indian rule in Kashmir. A member of parliament from Ladakh describes the “peace and progress” in Jammu and Kashmir in The Indian Express and foresees a “glorious future”. And in Bangladesh’s Asian Age, Matiar Chowdhury says “Jammu and Kashmir under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for peace and development will usher a new era for the people of the region” now that “everybody is living in peace”.

Multiple writers in Pakistan Observer see the situation in Kashmir differently, however. Modi is seen to have “designs to eliminate Muslim and other minorities from India” while the international community is looking the other way, says one. “Zeal” in Pakistan and other Islamic countries is diminishing for Kashmir’s cause, another one notes, despite the “atrocities” in Jammu and Kashmir under India’s “reign of terror”, “especially…after abrogation” two years ago. The writer says Pakistan should take the Kashmir and Afghan issues to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

There were a number of articles in the Indian press critical of both the government’s and opposition’s behavior during the recently concluded Monsoon Session of parliament. Many criticized the government for steamrolling the opposition, and some among them put some of the blame on the opposition for making it so easy to be steamrolled. This point of view was perhaps best caught by Anita Katyal in TheQuint, where she says the government made no attempt to reach out to the opposition as multiple bills were passed without discussion. Yet, the opposition’s “unruly behavior…touched a new low”. The opposition has thus lost public support and the opportunity to question the government.

The Pegasus scandal, wrote one MP from the Bengali Trinamool Congress in ThePrint, required parliamentary protest but the ruling BJP can only be resisted “by participation of regionally strong parties”, as evidenced by TMC’s victory over the BJP in West Bengal elections. The Indian Express placed the emphasis elsewhere. Recent attempts to unify the opposition floundered without leadership from the Congress, yet local parties were cannibalizing Congress support, and there was no political vision no unify them all.

Abhishek Banerjee taunted the opposition in OpIndia. Acknowledging that the opposition could have scored points against Modi’s government by focusing on matters that matter to ordinary Indians, such as rising inflation or COVID failures, Banerjee said that the opposition obsessed over Pegasus and Balakot instead. The good news, he claimed, was that many of the activists who have been leading Congress astray over elitist concerns were now shifting their support to the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee. This is bad for the BJP and Modi, whom the writer described as “a man of the masses” and a “karma yogi”.

In Pakistan, the opposition was criticized for being weak, disorganized, and aimless in Dawn, The Express Tribune, and The Nation.

Meanwhile, as the Taliban rolled over Afghan government positions, the latter two publications offered some new ways of thinking about the Taliban and democracy. Pakistan is the victim of an Afghan-Indian info-op that encourages the international community to sanction Pakistan for its supposed support of the Taliban.

The Express Tribune printed a piece that concluded that “democracy…is wrong” because elections are based on fear, as evidenced in India, Israel, and the US.

And another article in that same publication took Western media to task for “racially profiling” the Taliban. Western media often described the Taliban as barbaric and cruel, but the Taliban spokesman has spoken of inclusivity and civility. The Afghan government, a “child of the West”, has committed atrocities and only an Islamic emirate can resolve the strife. The slaughter portrayed in Western accounts of the Taliban advance has been exaggerated, and the “rationality of the Taliban viewpoint” in not negotiating with those who collaborated with the “enemy” is apparent. The West wants to destabilize Afghanistan to weaken China, Iran, Russia, and Pakistan.

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.