Asia in Review Archive
Date of AiR edition
31 August 2021
Laos: President urges Party’s propaganda organ to work harder
(ct/lm) President and General Secretary of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Thongloun Sisoulith told the propaganda body of the LPRP’s Central Committee to be more diligent in properly advocating the Party’s guidelines and policy. Speaking at the fifth congress of the Propaganda and Training Board, Sisoulith told called on participants to ensure that propaganda and training matters are more efficient and thorough. [Vientiane Times]
24 August 2021
South Korea supports training program of the publishing sector in Lao PDR
(ct) Lao PDR and the Republic of Korea are partnering to support the publishing sector in Vientiane Capital, Lao PDR through the Cultural Partnership Initiative (CPI) Program. The program is hosted by the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE) and aims to promote international cultural cooperation and cultural industries in the partner country. The online training course will take place for 8 weeks from August 17 to October 8 in Lao PDR. The Vientiane Times reported this project cooperation will support the national ICT policy of the government of Lao PDR by recognized Information and Communication Technology as an increasingly crucial tool for achieving socio-economic and educational development. Moreover, it also seeks to bring Lao PDR into the information age by creating the required human resources and institutions, human capability, sectoral circumstances, and legal frameworks for leveraging and utilizing ICT to address the country’s issues and requirements. [The Vientiane Times]
24 August 2021
Vietnam to attend ASEAN’s AIPA-42
(ct) A Vietnamese National Assembly (NA) delegation led by NA Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue attended the 42nd General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA-42) in Brunei on August 23. According to the agenda, the first plenary session focused on several issues including women’s empowerment, climate change, cyber security, and international economic integration. In his welcoming remarks, the AIPA-42 President and Speaker of the Legislative Council of Brunei noted that the theme of this year’s General Assembly highlights parliamentarians’ important role in supporting the ASEAN vision of a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible community towards the ASEAN Community in 2025. Also, NA Chairman Hue presented a key-note speech on the situation in the region and throughout the wider, highlighting the role of multilateral cooperation of ASEAN. [Việt Nam News]
24 August 2021
ASEAN not as effective and quick on Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s foreign minister says
(mt/lm) The 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc (ASEAN) has not been as effective on the crisis in Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview last week, as protests and a violent crackdown continue in the country.
Calling the situation in Myanmar “dire”, the Singaporean top diplomat said ASEAN was trying to be constructive, facilitate dialogue and deliver humanitarian assistance. He also said that his country and the regional bloc had “maintained lines of communication” with Myanmar’s shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta, the National Unity Government. [South China Morning Post]
Singapore is small but wields strong economic and political influence in Southeast Asia: The city-state is Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, overtaking China in 2019 to bring in more than $24 billion of investments through lucrative real estate projects, banking, shipping, sand exports and construction, as well as arms sales. [The Irrawaddy]
In June, Singapore supported a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in June, which called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders. Besides Singapore, ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam voted in favor of resolution. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]
Earlier this month then, alongside with Indonesia and Malaysia, it “pushed for tougher language” in a communique published following the appointment of Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]
Balakrishnan said he hoped there would be progress to report on Yusof’s visit to Myanmar before the 39th semi-annual ASEAN summit in November. But he also cautioned that the military had to grant the envoy access to all stakeholders for the visit to be meaningful.
17 August 2021
Japan resumes meeting with five Mekong countries
(lm) Japan held a virtual foreign ministerial meeting on August 13 with five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River, to reiterate its commitment to the subregion and to reinforce its foreign policy objective of pushing back against Chinese attempts to widen its sphere of influence. [South China Morning Post]
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met virtually with his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam under the 14th Mekong – Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
While this Japan-Mekong meeting takes place annually, it was postponed from its original March date as Tokyo feared that holding it would be seen as recognizing the Myanmar’s military junta which seized power from an elected government. But Japan decided to go ahead after China hosted a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – including Myanmar – in June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2], and the United States also met virtually with the bloc’s foreign ministers on July 14 [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. [Kyodo News 1]
Last week’s virtual encounter saw Japan pledging additional medical support for the five Mekong River countries – all of which are battling with COVID-19 surges due to the highly contagious Delta variant – on top of around 5.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and $68 million worth of medical equipment including oxygen concentrators.
Foreign Minister Motegi expressed full support for the appointment of Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar to mediate between the military and pro-democracy protesters [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. Further, conveying concerns about the military’s nullification of the country’s November general election, the Japanese top diplomat called for a dialogue among all parties concerned and “expressed his strong expectations for a constructive response from Myanmar”. [Kyodo News 2]
17 August 2021
Laos, Russia to start joint military exercise
(ct) The press office of Russia’s Eastern Military District reported on Wednesday that troops of Russia and Laos kicked off joint drills in the Primorsky Region in the Russian Far East. The “Laros-2021” drills foresees firings by tank crews and tactical episodes with a live-fire exercise and will last through August 19. Moreover, a cultural and recreational program and sports competitions are also scheduled for the personnel of the two countries participating in the joint manoeuvres. In total, about 500 servicemen of the two countries are involved in the exercise, about 100 units of military equipment, including Su-25 attack aircraft and Ka-52 air defence attack helicopters. The Laotian servicemen will use the Russian armoured vehicles provided to them. [Laotian Times]
17 August 2021
Laos: State enterprises to be reformed amid immense budget deficit
(ct) Due to incredibly large amount of debts, Laos launched a new program ordering high-ranking state officials to return their luxury vehicles, modernizing the country’s tax collection system, and producing goods for export to build reserve in foreign currencies. Also, state-owned enterprises have to increase their management transparency. Laos has a history of government corruption, and was ranked 130 out of 134 by Transparency International report of 2020. Due to inefficient management, state enterprises further burden the already tight budget, which has been hit by the global pandemic.
In early February, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has told authorities in charge to reform state investment and ensure spending is effective, as part of measures to strengthen the macro-economy and prevent a crisis in the coming years. [Laotian Times] [The Star] [Radio Free Asia]
17 August 2021
Laos-China Railway scheduled to open in December
(ct) During the 10th Laos-China Railway Project Construction Committee Meeting in Vientiane Capital, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning and Investment, Mr Sonexay Siphandone announced the Laos-China Railway is scheduled to officially open in early December this year. Sonexay said that as of July 25, the construction of the railway was 93.82 per cent complete and will be completed in November. Authorities are resolving several final issues, including compensating individuals who have been affected by the railway project and dealing with areas where the railway crosses highways. Additionally, the Laos-China railway project will bring in locomotives, electric multiple unit (EMU) trains and other equipment to conduct the first trial run of the railway in October. [Laotian Times 1] [Vientiane Times]
The Lao-China railway, which is part of six international economic corridors under China’s China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an integral part of the China Economic Corridor. China remains the largest foreign investor in Laos. [Laotian Times 2] According to a 2018 report of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Laos was the one Southeast Asian country risking significant debt distress as a result of loans from China, in large part due to large infrastructure project, like hydropower dams and railways. [The Diplomat] [Radio Free Asia]
17 August 2021
Indo-Pacific forces from 21 partner nations kick off SEACAT
(lm) Maritime forces from Indo-Pacific partner nations on August 10 began the 20th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) naval exercise in Singapore and virtually. [Al Jazeera] [NavyTimes]
Signifying the largest iteration to date, this year’s exercise involves ten ships and more than 400 personnel. 21 nations participate, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.
This year’s also presents a new element by incorporating international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, whose objective is to create an even more realistic scenario to “enhance understanding and adherence to accepted rules, laws, and norms,” the US Navy said in a statement. Participants include United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet]
The SEACAT exercises commenced just a day after more than 10,000 troops from China and Russia began a major exercise, West-Interaction 2021, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]
Last year, the event was conducted as part of a virtual symposium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
10 August 2021
Lao: National Assembly Opens First Extraordinary Session of the Ninth Legislature
(ct) The first extraordinary session of the National Assembly’s ninth legislature was opened on the morning of August 5th, 2021 under the chairmanship of President of the National Assembly Xaysomphone Phomvihane.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Lao National Assembly Chairman Saysomphone Phomvihane emphasized that the National Assembly deputies will consider and approve basic important issues of the country, including the Government’s report on the National agenda on address economic and financial difficulties, the Government’s report on the National agenda on drug issues ad.
Moreover, they will consider and approve amendments to laws related to the national agendas including Law on Tax Management, Law on Value Added Tax, Law on Income Tax, Law on Excise Tax, and Law on Narcotic Drugs. [Laotiantimes]
Additionally, Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh said the government had set the target to implement the national agendas within two and a half years or by the end of 2023. [Vientianetimes] The Lao Government will also report to the National Assembly on the situation of Covid-19 prevention and control and measures to deal with the impact on the economy due to the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic.
10 August 2021
Cambodia: Hun Sen to lay out Cambodia’s ASEAN chair plan
(nd) With respect to Cambodia taking over the ASEAN chair from Brunei in less than five months, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the challenges for ASEAN on the day that marks its 54th anniversary after its foundation on August 8, 1967, pointing to the global pandemic, as well as the rivalry between China and the US.
Additional issues according to Hun Sen were the pace of societal transformation due to technology, climate change and degradation of the environment.
To achieve its goals, ASEAN, according the Cambodian leader, shall, after overcoming repercussion of the global pandemic, implement its five comprehensive recovery framework goals, including enhancement of health systems, strengthening of human security, maximizing the potential of the intra-ASEAN market, by broadening economic integration and improve digitalization.
According to observers, key challenges are maintaining peace and stability amid geopolitical rivalry, as well as Mekong water issues, transnational crime and poverty. It will be the third chairmanship of Cambodia which became an ASEAN member state in 1999. [Phnompenh Post]
10 August 2021
Vietnam: President to pay an official visit to Laos
(ct) President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his wife visited Laos August 9-10 at the invitation of General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President of Laos Thongloun Sisoulith. During the visit, President Phuc held talks with Party General Secretary and President Thongloun, meet with Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh and National Assembly Chairman Saysomphone Phomvihane, receive several senior leaders, and visit several former senior leaders of Laos. During these talks and meetings, both sides announced to discuss measures to deepen their bilateral relationship, special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and Laos. [Vietnamnews] In June, a high-ranking delegation of the Lao Party and State also paid an official friendship visit to Vietnam. It was the first foreign visit of Mr Thongloun Sisoulith as General Secretary and President of Laos for the 2021-2026 term. President Phuc and Lao Party General Secretary and President Thongloun agreed to closely coordinate to promote cooperation between the two nations more comprehensively and practically. [see Asia in Review No. 25, June/2021, 6]
10 August 2021
Swiss VP to travel to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam
(ct) Switzerland’s Vice President, Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is on an official visit to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as part of the Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy 2020-2023, aiming to expand its engagement in Asia and step up cooperation. Switzerland aims to achieve this objective through bilateral exchanges and a dialogue partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In Thailand, Mr Cassis held talks with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), human rights and the crisis in Myanmar. Also, he met with the minister of health and environment to discuss the challenges posed by the pandemic and climate change. The visit marked the 90th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries [FDFA] [Bangkok Post] The main focus of the visit to Laos was development cooperation. At the signing ceremony on August 4 in Vientiane, the Lao government signed a cooperation agreement with the Swiss Government in the fields of technical, cultural, economic and financial and new humanitarian aid worth 65 million USD. Mr Cassis also inaugurated a new consular agency in Vientiane. [FDFA] [Vientiane Times] In Hanoi, Mr Ignazio Cassis met with the vice president, prime minister, foreign minister and three other members of the Vietnamese government. He emphasized the significance of the diplomatic connections between Switzerland and Vietnam in the past 50 years, which extends beyond the political and the multilateral sphere to technical and economic cooperation, trade and investment, research and science, culture, tourism and people to people contacts. The two Ministers agreed to increase delegation exchanges and visits between high-ranking leaders, ministries, sectors and localities to enhance mutual understanding and trust and further cooperation post-COVID-19.
Switzerland is supporting the transition process in Vietnam and the country’s effort to develop its economy. Negotiations on a free trade agreement between the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Switzerland is a member, and Vietnam has been underway since 2012. Therefore, during talks in Hanoi, he called for a speedy conclusion to negotiations on the free trade agreement between EFTA and Vietnam. [VOV 1] Minister Son thanked Switzerland for their donation of medical equipment and further asked for their support in that realm. [VOV 2]. Furthermore, in a ceremony virtually to announce a cooperation program for 2021-2024 between Vietnam and Switzerland, the Swiss government has decided to grant CHF 70 million (nearly US$80 million) to assist Vietnam to improve its business and enhance the competitiveness of the private sector. [VOV 3]
10 August 2021
ASEAN to grant “dialogue partner” status to Britain
(nd) In an important step in Britain’s post-Brexit mission to build strong bilateral diplomatic ties with the region, it was granted “dialogue partner” status by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Upon its exit of the European Union in 2020, Britain aimed to shift its market from Europe to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This grants Britain high-level access to ASEAN summits, furthering hopes to build cooperation with respect to climate change and security. For a deeper economic cooperation, Britain has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision marks the end of a 25-year moratorium to award third parties the bloc’s highest institutional partnership. [Reuters] [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]
10 August 2021
EU to support Lao exports to European market
(ct) Through training sessions for government officials and related parties, the EU is assisting in the export of Lao commodities to the European market. On August 2, the political officer at the EU in Laos, Francois Pravongviengkham, and Saysana Sayakone, director-general for Foreign Trade Policy at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, co-chaired a training session in Vientiane. The training was designed to improve officials’ understanding of market trends as well as Laos’ export potential. [Phnompenhpost] [The Star] It forms part of a 2019 initiate when the EU aimed to support Laos through The ASEAN Regional Integration Support-Lao PDR Trade-Related Assistance (ARISE Plus). [European Commission] The program, worth €5 million, provided trade-related assistance to promote more sustainable, broad-based and inclusive growth, increase climate change resilience while fostering job creation, and sets out to match the priorities put forward by the Lao government.
10 August 2021
Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi urges Southeast Asian counterparts to safeguard peace in South China Sea
(lm) China’s desire to expand its influence in Southeast Asia was on display last week at the region’s latest ministerial talks, where State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]
Addressing virtually the ASEAN Regional Forum – which gathers foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, including the United States, China and Japan – Wang said interference by countries outside the region constituted the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia]
While Wang did not name the United States outright, his warning came as Washington tries to rally European allies into a coalition to isolate China. Ahead of the meeting, the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in the disputed waterway, while Germany deployed one of its frigates to the Indo-Pacific region. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]
Wang also played up his country’s readiness to conclude a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, announcing that both sides had completed the preamble for the nonaggression pact the two sides have been negotiating since 2017. He also said China would never make further claims in the disputed waterway and promised that his country would not take any unilateral moves to intensify disputes in the region.
After wrapping up his virtual encounter with his ASEAN counterparts, Wang held talks with foreign ministers from four Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines – over three days in the southern city of Nanping. [Associated Press]
10 August 2021
Brunei diplomat appointed ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar
(mt/lm) Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on August 4 appointed Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as their special envoy to Myanmar, after a months-long delay in diplomatic efforts to resolve the coup crisis.
The 10-nation bloc has been under increasing international pressure to act on violence and instability in Myanmar, an ASEAN member. The regional group is hamstrung by its bedrock policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.
In a joint statement published two days after a fraught five-hour online meeting, the ministers also reiterated their concerns about the situation in Myanmar, including reports of fatalities and violence. But they stopped short of calling for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue. According to reporting in the South China Morning Post, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had “pushed for tougher language” in the communique, but some of it was vetoed by the junta representative Wunna Maung Lwin. [South China Morning Post]
Erywan was among at least four candidates proposed by ASEAN, and Myanmar was believed to have preferred Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]. But Indonesia, which traditionally holds significant sway on regional matters, wanted its former Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda to be appointed. Thus, the appointment of Erywan is seen as a compromise by Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s Rotating Chair. [The Irrawaddy]
Further, the junta’s decision to yield to the bloc’s pressure may be seen as an indication that its military rulers are still hoping to rely on ASEAN support as they face international condemnation. For last week’s discussions were held just a day after Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council announced it had become a “caretaker” government, with its current chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlang taking the title of Prime Minister [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]
Some ASEAN lawmakers responded warily to Erywan’s appointment, noting that he led a delegation to Myanmar in June and met only with the junta [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. The special envoy must ensure “he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game” of using ASEAN to gain international legitimacy while it continues its oppressive rule, said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. [Nikkei Asia] [The Washington Post]
According to one report, the special envoy will fly to Myanmar this week to begin talks with the various contending parties, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. He will also oversee the delivery of a humanitarian aid package, with the communique calling for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance to begin work on “policy guidance.” [The Diplomat]
3 August 2021
US Secretary of State Blinken participates in five ASEAN-related virtual ministerial meetings this week
(mt/lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting virtually with his counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week, as the Biden administration seeks to show the region is a priority while also addressing the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. These will be the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. [U.S. Department of State] [Reuters]
Both sides held their first encounter via videoconference on July 14, after Blinken had to cancel the initial meeting over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. During the virtual meeting last month, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]
The virtual encounters come after the Biden administration in its early days was seen as paying little attention to the region of more than 600 million people, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia. Still, analysts say a vital US engagement cannot only rely on military considerations but will also have to provide an economic perspective
But Washington has failed to introduce any large economic projects in the region after the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was nixed by the previous US administration in 2017. It has also excluded itself from one of the world’s biggest trade pacts – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises of fifteen Asia-Pacific economies and has been enthusiastically embraced by China [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The New York Times]
Against this backdrop, US top US officials have made a string of visits to the region in recent months: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week; and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam next month. [see articles in this edition]
3 August 2021
ASEAN foreign ministers discuss special envoy, aid to Myanmar
Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met virtually on August 2 for their annual gathering with the selection of a special envoy for Myanmar and finalizing an emergency plan to help control a coronavirus outbreak that many fear is spiraling out of control high on the agenda. [Associated Press] [Kyodo News]
The meeting was held a day after Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing said that his government would accept the dispatch of the special envoy agreed in April by ASEAN to mediate among the parties and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the country. [see article in this edition]
The dispatch of the special envoy was one of five items agreed upon at an extraordinary ASEAN summit held in Indonesia in late April to discuss the troubles unfolding in Myanmar. The so-called Five-Point Consensus also included the need for the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]
Of the three original nominees for the ASEAN special envoy, Min Aung Hlaing said, his government had agreed to select Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon, adding that “for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards.”
Other nominees include Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002 [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].
People familiar with the discussions said the 10-member bloc wants to designate Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, but are waiting on approval from Myanmar’s military regime. Yusof, who is currently serving as ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, had previously visited the country on June 3 for talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [Al Jazeera]
In their virtual meeting, foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc were also looking to finalize a plan to bring in medicine and medical equipment to Myanmar through the regional bloc’s disaster-response center with the military leaders’ approval. They were also expected to announce some progress in four years of painstakingly slow negotiations with China to craft a “code of conduct” aimed at preventing conflict in the disputed South China Sea.
27 July 2021
Australia to negotiate agriculture work visa for ASEAN nations
(nd) After years of resistance, pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby succeeded to create a new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations. Depending on the vaccination progress, applications might start from November 2021 respectively early 2022. The opposition against it was based on negative experiences in the US, Europe and Gulf states. While Australia wanted to avoid to become a low-skill worker society, a seasonal worker visa was already introduced in 2010, and as of 2021, overseas students were allowed to work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry. Main problems of low-skill guest worker visas are high risks of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks as well as racism. Additionally, foreign workers can present competition to unemployed local in the same sector. Disadvantages for the workers will likely exist with the new visa given the power of the Australian farm lobby. While employers might pay for English testing and the visa itself, travel costs will remain with the workers, and there are frequent reports of workers being forced to pay inflated accommodation rates. These issues are accelerated by the very common creation of labor-hire companies, which calls for effective regulation. Employers with a record for exploiting workers or hiring undocumented workers should be excluded. Additionally, it is argued, minimum wages should apply as well as all relevant information provided to the workers upon arrival. Especially, a complaint mechanism shall be put in place, consisting of industry, union and government body representatives. Union membership of the worker is desirable, also an independent review of the new visa a year after its imposition. [East Asia Forum]
27 July 2021
US boosting efforts to repair its ties with ASEAN
(nd) The upcoming visit of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to ASEAN this month is in line with efforts of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Biden administration to enhance estranged relations with ASEAN nations. While Blinken emphasized cooperation with respect to security in the Indo-Pacific, rejecting once again “unlawful” Chinese claims in the South China Sea, he urged the bloc for a coordinated response to the coup in Myanmar. The mission of Austin highlights the US’s commitment to counter Chinese activity in the disputed waters, visiting frontline states Vietnam and the Philippines, and the regional hub of Singapore, where he is expected to elaborate on US military strategy in the South China Sea. Contrary to Trump, who participated in 2017 but sent lower-level representatives for the following years, Biden will participate in the ASEAN summit later this year. As a mixture of Trump’s neglect of the region and the necessity for aid amid the global pandemic, regional states became more dependent on China. [Channel News Asia]
Yet, an annual survey by the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute found that 61.5% of respondents preferred closer ties to the US than to China. Therefore, the US has been vocal on resolving the situation in Myanmar, has stepped up efforts for its own version of vaccine diplomacy by donating vaccinations, and reassured its commitment to a “free and open Mekong region”, accusing China of destabilizing downstream countries and harming the environment. Reactions by regional leaders after the US-ASEAN summit earlier this month were very positive, calling it a sign of “refreshed commitment” to the region. President of long-time ally Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has long been criticized for his China-friendly stance, which he has modified subsequently with respect to upcoming elections, most notably with reference to the 2016 Arbitration Tribunal award rejecting Chinese maritime claims as well as with frequent actions by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) chasing away Chinese ships operating within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This raises the hope of the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a large-scale, rotational American military presence in the Philippines, before he leaves office. [Asia Times]
20 July 2021
Thailand: NGOs urge not to buy electricity produced by Laos dam
(pr) A group of domestic and international organizations urged the Thai government not to purchase electricity to be produced by the Luang Prabang Dam due to concerns that the dam’s operation will threaten a world heritage site. The project by a Thai-owned developer has already begun and is scheduled to finish in 2027. A heritage impact assessment was not yet completed. Concerns mentioned were the displacement of communities around the dam, environmental impacts from the dam’s construction and operation, and the threat it posed to Luang Prabang City.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the ancient city of Luang Prabang as a world heritage site. It will be on the agenda of the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) taking place throughout this month. The WHC’s draft decision recommended the government to pause construction until the full assessment was carried out. [The Diplomat] According to Lao authorities, all environmental impact assessment reports have been completed but the world heritage impact assessment was rejected by the WHC and demanded to be renewed. The dam is part of a bigger project of 11 Mekong River dams by the Lao government as an economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by selling its produced electricity to countries in the region. [Radio Free Asia]
20 July 2021
ASEAN and the EU’s AI legislation
(nd) According to a recent analysis, the EU’s recent draft legislation to harmonize artificial intelligence (AI) rules is unlikely to have direct impact on similar legislation in Southeast Asia. Still, there might be some repercussive effects of it since the objectives of the legislation, risk mitigation for AI systems, is relevant for the region as well. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competitively-priced technology has already been exported through Chinese companies, namely Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua and ZTE, notably in the area of face recognition, raising concerns about security risks and the danger of importing norms and values from the system providers.
Regionally, AI-based systems are not produced largely yet, with the exception of Singapore having launched a national AI strategy for AI-based solutions in the global market. One obstacle therefore for implementing EU rules directly is the lower degree of integration of markets and regulations in the regional bloc as opposed to the EU. Nevertheless, in its first Digital Ministers’ Meeting early this year, ASEAN adopted a Digital Masterplan 2025 with the aim of a regional policy for best practice guidance on AI governance and ethics. A key issue will be regulating cross-border data flows among member states which have localization requirements for personal data.
The recently adopted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership missed this chance and still enables parties to restrict cross-border data flows, with the sole requirement of non-discriminatory application. Of the signatories, only Singapore and Vietnam implemented the “gold standard” digital trade provisions supporting cross-border data flows. Since most ASEAN members have already formed a national AI strategy, it could be beneficial for the bloc to focus on a sector-based approach to subsequently build a common framework for AI policy consolidation. [East Asia Forum]
20 July 2021
Cambodia to chair ASEAN in 2022
(nd) For the upcoming Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN, some core issues were identified in a recent analysis, which in part had been already identified for its last chairmanship in 2012. Back then, Cambodia was criticized for siding with China over conflicting territorial claims at the South China Sea. Cambodia is a non-claimant state to the disputed waters and repeatedly referred to its neutrality, yet ASEAN has to address the desperately needed Code of Conduct issue, which needs a central and united approach of the bloc.
Similarly, the aftermath of the coup and the situation in Myanmar are yet to be solved, with the violence continuing amid a spike in Covid-19 and unlikeliness of a successful implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus reached during its special summit in April. Additionally, Cambodia itself is criticized for its poor human rights record and has a less strict attitude towards the coup than other bloc members. Another unsolved cross-border issue is the environmental situation in the Mekong Delta region caused by a multitude of big dam projects at the Upper Mekong River.
With all three issues, the growing US-China rivalry is putting even more pressure on the bloc’s members, driving division within and making a united stand harder to achieve. This applies especially given Cambodia’s high economic and military involvement with China. For months, tensions were simmering due to the alleged establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia opposed by the US. While Chinese vaccinations have come under criticism and some bloc members have stopped using Sinovac, Cambodia is exclusively using Chinese vaccinations, showing their high dependence on China. [East Asia Forum]
20 July 2021
United States urge ASEAN members to act on Myanmar, rejects China maritime claims
(mt) Addressing a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 14 urged the group to take joint action to help end violence, restore a democratic transition and release those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]
The virtual session marked the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25, but Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, cancelled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting.
Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with Washington, had wanted the session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.
The meeting comes amid rising concerns that the Biden administration has done little to engage ASEAN since taking office in January, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
During the virtual meeting, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. The ASEAN has been showing limits in firmly doing so both due to internal disagreements among group members, but also key foundational principles of the group of non-interference and consensus [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. The US official also asked for the release of all those “unjustly detained” in the country, and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic transition. [Voice of America]
Blinken also emphasized his country’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea at the meeting and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”. [The Diplomat]
The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did hot on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea [see also AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found that Beijing’s claim to “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” established in the “long course of historical practice” in the disputed waterway were inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.
13 July 2021
Indonesia seeks greater role for Italy in ASEAN
(sa) On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Ambassador to Italy Esti Andayani pushed for greater ASEAN-Italy cooperation in sustainable development at the ‘Italy-ASEAN Partnership for Development: A Look at Sustainable Development’. The Ambassador, who is also chief of the ASEAN Committee in Rome (ACR) noted the benefits of post-pandemic cooperation and highlighted the economic impact of Covid-19. [Antara News]
13 July 2021
Russia backs ASEAN five-point consensus on tackling crisis in Myanmar
(lm) Speaking during a visit to Indonesia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week expressed his country’s support for the Five Point Consensus agreed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the political crisis in Myanmar. [The Straits Times]
The diplomat’s comments assume added significance, coming as they did amid deepening engagement between Russia and Myanmar’s military, even as major global powers sanction its businesses and top leaders and call for a global ban on arms sales to the Southeast Asian country.
Independent news outlet Myanmar Now on July 6 reported that a 20-member Russian delegation led by two high-ranking Navy officers secretly visited Myanmar between June 13 and 19, ahead of its junta leader’s trip to Russia last month, citing a document it said it had obtained. [Myanmar Now, in Burmese]
Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Moscow on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. His visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a delegation led by the country’s Air Force Chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].
Both visits lend weight to arguments that claim Russia is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Moscow – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier.
13 July 2021
United States, ASEAN to hold virtual meeting of foreign ministers on July 14
(lm) The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a foreign minister’s meeting virtually on July 14, marking the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. [South China Morning Post]
Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.
Against this backdrop, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last month embarked on an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]
The rescheduled meeting will be attended by Blinken and all foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN, including Myanmar’s junta-appointed top diplomat. Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with the US, had wanted the virtual session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.
ASEAN previously held a foreign ministers’ meeting with China in Chongqing on June 7 [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] and, more recently, with Russia in Jakarta on July 6.
13 July 2021
Singapore says ASEAN to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, as grouping remains deadlocked in selection of envoy
(mt) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to expedite the implementation of the so-called ‘five-point consensus’ plan reached by their leaders to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated on July 7. [The Diplomat]
Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the 10 ASEAN member states in April announced a Five-Point Consensus for resolving the country’s state of grinding emergency. Of the five points, three refer to outcomes desired by the grouping: the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. The other two are mechanisms to achieve these outcomes: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and the dispatch of a delegation to Myanmar to meet all relevant stakeholders. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]
But ASEAN leaders failed to agree on a time frame for the implementation of the consensus, and progress has been slow, even on what would appear to be the most straightforward point of consensus: the appointment of a special envoy.
A recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News suggests that there are currently three nominees: Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat; Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002. [Kyodo News]
Citing ASEAN diplomatic sources, the news outlet claims that each of the three candidates is being pushed by their respective government, and that the choice “appears to have become intertwined with the domestic and strategic agendas of the nominating countries.”
A case in point, Indonesia believes that Hassan could establish momentum towards resolving the situation in Myanmar. But the country’s military seems to be leaning toward the Thai candidate, most notably because the military junta “is [said to be] no longer interested in the Indonesian model of democratic transition but prefers the Thai model where the military wields superior political leverage and policy influence.”
Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3], seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring its border security and commercial interests vis-a-vis Myanmar. Bangkok this week reiterated that it does not have the “luxury of distance”, and thus could not afford to be complacent about what is happening in neighboring Myanmar. [Bangkok Post]
6 July 2021
Indonesia: Indonesia taps into allies to tax overseas citizens
(sa) An amendment to the general provisions and taxation procedure law will soon allow the Directorate General of Taxation authority to seek assistance from partners in collecting taxes from overseas citizens. The Director General of Taxation at the Finance Ministry Suryo Utomo revealed the plan at a working meeting at the House of Representatives (DPR) in Jakarta on June 5, 2021.
Suryo disclosed that Indonesia has received word from 46 partner countries in gaining their assistance on taxing Indonesians living abroad, while further disclosing that the Government has signed avoidance of double taxation agreements with 13 other countries, namely, Algeria, the United States, Armenia, the Netherlands, Belfia, the Philippines, India, Laos, Egypt, Suriname, Jordan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. [Antara]
The amendment comes at a time when Indonesia mulls raising the tax rate on the ultra-wealthy and fears of those Indonesians leaving for abroad and taking their assets with them. [South China Morning Post]
6 July 2021
Laos President Sisoulith on official visit to Vietnam
(lm) A high-level delegation led by President of Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith, last week paid an official visit to Vietnam last week, marking Sisoulith first overseas trip since he was elected General Secretary of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) earlier in January.
On June 28, the first day of the delegation’s visit, Sisoulith and Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, witnessed the signing of agreements between their countries on issues ranging from political cooperation and business to and culture, arts and tourism. Among those signed are the agreements on the Vietnam – Laos Cooperation Strategy for 2021 to 2030; and on their bilateral collaboration for 2021 to 2025. [The Laotian Times]
Later that day, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Vuong Dinh Hue, hosted a reception for the visiting delegation. Both sides agreed on the need for the their legislatures to increase high-level visits and meetings, and intensify collaboration and exchange of experience, especially in institution building, law making, and supreme supervision over the operation of State agencies. [VietnamPlus]
29 June 2021
British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]
This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]
The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.
The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]
Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]
The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]
29 June 2021
Growing presence of private security companies in Mekong region
(dql) According to findings of the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Chinese businesses with risky investments in economic development zones in the Mekong region are increasingly turning to China-based private security firms for protection. Among the 49 foreign private security firms operating in Cambodia and Myanmar, 29 are China-based ones.
Given the range of services these companies provide to Chinese businesses and tourists – including running safety trainings for companies, developing security apps for tourists, and providing armed guards for individuals or property as well as even conducting pandemic control activities – the report concludes: “Chinese private security companies are increasing China’s soft power in Mekong countries. They also, down the line, could serve as vectors of hard power.” [C4ADS] [The Diplomat]
29 June 2021
China holds Belt and Road conference
(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.
Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]
29 June 2021
Laos-Vietnam relations: Deepening cooperation
(dql) During a meeting between General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Central Committee and Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, both leaders agreed on close coordination to promote cooperation between the two nations more comprehensively and practically. They also discussed cooperation between the two nations at multilateral forums, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Greater Mekong Sub-region, as well as collaboration among Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
After the meeting, the two countries signed a series of agreements on Monday to strengthen their “friendly and cooperative ties,” in several areas including investment, business, information, culture and tourism.
22 June 2021
8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus
(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.
Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]
The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.
The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.
Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]
The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]
The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]
15 June 2021
Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism
(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]
At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]
But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]
What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.
8 June 2021
China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers
(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.
High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.
Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]
With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]
8 June 2021
Cambodia and Switzerland cooperate on Mekong Region Cooperation Programme
(ad) Last week, the Cambodian-Swiss Governmental Consultation was organized to oversee the Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Programme 2022-2025, where representatives from Cambodia and Switzerland met to discuss progress on preserving the Mekong River.
The discussion was predominantly focused on governance and economic development. They also exchanged inputs on climate change impacts and better natural resource management. The Swiss government is set to grant $13 million per year between 2022 and 2025. Since 2002, Swiss government has given grants worth $142 million to Cambodia for its development. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]
8 June 2021
ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement
(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]
ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]
On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]
The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].
But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.
Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]
In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]
The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.
ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]
1 June 2021
ASEAN member states want to drop proposed UN call for Myanmar arms embargo
(lf) All ASEAN member states, excluding Myanmar, have proposed watering down a UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country, in a bid to win the unanimous support, “especially from all countries directly affected in the region”. Observers believe that ASEAN member states are afraid sanctions would restrict the influence the bloc could have on Myanmar’s military leadership. [The Straits Times]
The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, European Union and United States. A previous vote on the non-binding resolution scheduled for May 18 was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].
While many western nations have put targeted sanctions on junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a combined 38 senior figures and also black-listed military conglomerates, ASEAN nations have so far largely avoided measures that would hit the junta’s finances.
The Myanmar junta in late April rebuffed a plan by ASEAN leaders to help end violence in the country, saying any “suggestions” would need to fit with its stated road map and come after “stability” is restored. Leaders of the nine countries, together with coup chief Min Aung Hlaing, had earlier appeared to reach a five-point “consensus” during a special summit that included an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special emissary to mediate talks between all parties in Myanmar [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].
18 May 2021
Mekong River Commission receives French grant to improve river monitoring network
(ad) The French government has donated $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. The funding, made available through the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), will span four years from 2021 to 2025. [Mekong River Commission]
The MRC is a regional/intergovernmental organization, consisting of member states Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2007, MRC has established 60 hydro-meteorological stations along the river to improve recording and forecasting the river dynamics.
The new funding is a follow-up to two other grants of EUR 4 million France had donated for the first two phases from 2007 to 2022. Since 2006, France has granted the MRC over 10 million euros to support river monitoring, flood and drought management, climate change, and environmental management. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]
11 May 2021
EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership
(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]
Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]
Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.
Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.
For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].
27 April 2021
Agreement during ASEAN summit to prompt anti-coup activist call for continuation of protests
(lf) The long-awaited summit between the ASEAN member states on the crisis in Myanmar has been concluded with an agreement on five points: to end the violence, hold a constructive dialogue between all parties, send an ASEAN envoy, accept aid of and enable entry for the ASEAN envoy. Furthermore, the states agreed on a constructive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, as well as a strong ASEAN role in the further development of the crisis. However, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, did neither set a timeline for the end of violence, nor did he specifically agree to end the killing of civilians immediately or to release political prisoners. The meeting was the first international cooperation on the crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations, the US and China view ASEAN as the adequate body to best deal with the situation. [Reuters 1]
Myanmar’s anti-coup protestors were disappointed by the outcome. Activist groups stated that the agreement did not reflect the realities of the ground in Myanmar, and did not make up for the around 750 people killed by the military since the coup began. While the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, commenting he discussed the country’s “political changes”, they made no mention of the consensus on an end to violence. [Voice of America] Activists were in particular disappointed over the weakened stance on the release of political prisoners, as a draft paper prior to the summit featured the release of political prisoners as one of the consensus points. Since the coup over 3,000 people have been detained. Therefore, activist have called for a continuation and deepening of the Civil Disobedience Movement and protests. Activists urge civilians to boycott schools and to stop paying their electricity bills and agricultural loans. [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]
Already before the summit, the ASEAN bloc received widespread criticism for only inviting the military and in particular the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to the table for a discussion on the situation, and not a representative of the National Unity Government. State leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Rodrigo Duterte did not attend the summit. [South China Moring Post]
Shortly after the meeting, the junta announced to “positively consider” the agreement. On Monday already, one man was shot dead in Mandalay. [Reuters 4]
27 April 2021
Thailand: Mekong River Commission meeting
(nd) Later this year, the 28th meeting of the Mekong River Commission will be held by Thailand in an effort to mitigate impact of dams on member countries. April to May shows the transition from dry season to rainy season, which will make volatile water levels peak. The Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) and the Foreign Affairs Ministry were assigned to work together with China on the joint management of water, as well as draft a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cooperation for water management between Thailand and Laos with respect to hydro-power supply. [Bangkok Post]
27 April 2021
Press Freedom in Southeast Asia
(nd) Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released the World Press Freedom Index, revealing an increased repression and attacks on free press worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has globally been used as a pretext to impose repressive legislation and narrow the range of permitted speech for the sake of public health. According to the index, which evaluates 180 countries, journalism is seriously impeded in 73 nations and constrained in 59 other, making up 73 percent of the countries evaluated.
Vietnam, 175th place, only above Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, has intensified its crackdown on dissent leading up to the five-yearly congress in January 2021, arresting and sentencing bloggers and journalists. Malaysia fell 18 places to the 119th, prompted by the passage of an “anti-fake-news” ordinance to contain criticism on the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the state of emergency, as well as an investigation against media outlet Al Jazeera for a documentary on the situation of migrant workers during the pandemic, and proceedings against online news portal Malaysiakini, which was found guilty of contempt of court. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]
A similar “anti-fake-news” decree designed for the pandemic was issued by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last March, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his crackdown on civil society and the press with similar new powers to hinder reporting. The Philippines continued its “war on drugs”, which is also directed against media, suspending the license of the country’s largest TV broadcaster, ABS-CBN, for its critical reporting, and targeting its editor, Maria Ressa, with judicial campaigns. Myanmar, 140th place this year, but likely to drop to the bottom due to the February 1 coup and the deadly crackdown on civilians, was commented to be set back 10 years by these events.
Contrarily, Timor-Leste made it to the 71st place, with RSF noting that “no journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in Timor-Leste since this country of just 1.2 million inhabitants won independence in 2002.” [RSF] [The Diplomat]
27 April 2021
Laos: Regional countries to fight for influence over China
(nd) Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have moved this year to offer new help or reaffirm the benefits of previous aid to Laos. In an effort to reinforce their respective bilateral ties, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have reached to Laos to give aid. Japan aims to advance a strategic partnership, has offered about $1.8 million to open Covid-19 vaccine storage facilities, and announced to support upgrades to international airports. Thailand also vowed to support Laos with the pandemic and has helped in education, agriculture and health. Vietnam has developed a 2021-2030 cooperation strategy and a five-year cooperation agreement.
Development aid in total has reached up to 15% of Lao GDP, helping the economy to grow at an annual average of 5.8% during the past five years. Chinese payments to Laos have reached $11 billion per year, with financing and investment making the sum even higher. Therefore, countries in the region hope to lessen China’s influence, mostly due to its domination of the Mekong River and its flow. To mitigate this, the US last year launched the aid plan Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Japan and Vietnam have additional quarrels with China over the South China Sea. While those countries aim at pushing back China’s influence on Laos, the latter is mostly dependent on China, to which it owed $ 250 million for the construction of a 400-kilometer, $5.9 billion China-invested railway, according to the International Monetary Fund. [Voice of America]
27 April 2021
Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges
(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.
Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.
The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.
Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.
At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]
Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”.
The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]
In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]
27 April 2021
UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia
(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.
Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia.
Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]
20 April 2021
ASEAN leader to meet on April 24
(lf) The leaders of the members of ASEAN have finally agreed to meet in Jakarta on April 24 on the situation in Myanmar. The ongoing violent conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed group causes the neighbor country to worry about a civil war. Coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. [Thai PBS world]
ASEAN has long struggled for a cohesive response to the situation. It is rooted in ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference, which was invoked frequently by members, and it therefore lacks a mechanism for regional action. While the international community has condemned the coup with some imposing sanctions, the responses have not been successful yet. [East Asia Forum]
Ahead of the meeting, Southeast Asian states were discussing the possibility of sending a humanitarian aid mission, in order to foster dialogue between the military and the protestors. [Reuters]
20 April 2021
Laos: UN expert calling for release of prisoners
(nd) A recent UN human rights expert’s statement is calling for the immediate release of three Lao workers, serving long prison terms for criticizing the government on social media. They were arrested in 2016, seemingly forced to confess wrongdoings and sentenced to harsh prison terms mid-2017 in a non-public trial. They were never allowed to contact lawyers. According to the expert, national security laws were misused to prevent legitimate human rights work.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of political prisoners in Laos, according to the US State Department annual human rights report of 2020. [Radio Free Asia]
20 April 2021
Laos: Another deal made with Chinese companies for land developments
(py) Following a MoU with Lao authorities, Chinese firm Jia Run will conduct feasibility studies for land developments in the southern Lao’s Attapeu province with an investment volume of up to 152 million USD. There have been concerns over growing Chinese influence in the country. Up to now, Chinese investments and land concessions for development purpose have been notorious for their backlashes on local and the environment, as well as alleged labor law violations. Criticism of the government may lead to a prison sentence, making protests unlikely. Meanwhile, President Thongloun Sisoulith has puzzled Laotians in his latest speech by urging citizens to report any wrongdoings of the police but warned social media users not to post anything critical of the government leadership. [Radio Free Asia 1][Radio Free Asia 2] [China Dialogue]
13 April 2021
Laos: Christian leader freed from prison
(nd) After serving his term for over a year in prison, Lao Pastor Sithon Thippavong, was released on Friday. He was convicted over charges of “disrupting unity” and “creating disorder,” for organizing religious services without authorities’ permission. Upon his arrest, he refused to sign a document renouncing his Christian faith.
According to the Law on the Evangelical Church, Lao Christians are allowed to conduct services and preach throughout the country and to maintain contacts with believers in other countries, which in practice only works in the capital and other larger cities, while in rural areas, Christians are subject to disrespect and discrimination. Despite some progress observed in 2019, such cases of abuse in rural areas remain common, according to a report by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in May 2020. [Radio Free Asia]
13 April 2021
Laos: Chinese Casino King to expand the empire out of the Golden Triangle SEZ
(py) Zhao Wei, the chairman of the King Romans Group, which since 2007 has been operating the tourism and gambling enclave in northern Laos, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ), is now exploring to expand his business out of the triangle. Zhao has recently visited Saravan in southern Laos to meet and discuss the possibility of developing agricultural and tourism development projects with the governor. Besides, Zhao’s company is also conducting a feasibility study in Pek district in northern Laos near the 3000-year-old UNESCO plain of jars. As of now, no concession agreement has been made. The company plans to build a traditional medicine factory, a golf course and a tourist attraction on the 150-hectare land. Scholars said Zhao’s growing presence all over Laos epitomizes the closer ties between Laos and China and the consequent changing physical and economic landscape in the country. In the same vein, the casino magnate also stroked a deal to build a $50 million port on a loosely patrolled area of Mekong upstream of the GTSEZ, which expert said could facilitate greater commercial activity, both legal and illegal, in Laos. In 2018, the US Treasury Department introduced sanctions on Zhao for engagements in criminal activities such as drug, human and wildlife trafficking, money laundering and bribery, which are believed to be committed under the Kings Romans Casino.
Recently, Laos has been very successful in attracting foreign direct investment and aids. During the talks between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister of Laos, Phankham Viphavanh, Suga confirmed to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two by pledging about 1.8 million USD to set up cold chain facilities to store Covid-19 vaccines in Laos and agreeing to support the improvements of international airports. [The Diplomat] [Radio Free Asia] [The Laotian Times]
6 April 2021
Laos: Benefitting from strategic interest in the region
(py) Laos has been receiving both monetary and military assistance from the great powers in recent years. This trend seems to stay intact as Southrast Asia gains more strategic importance in the years to come. Since December 2020, Russian troops have been getting rid of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in an area of around 500 hectares in Xieng Khouang province to build a new airport and military facility. The airport will be both for civilian and military use. In 2019, the two nations also held a joint-military exercise after Russia donated an air force training center to Laos. Russia has also agreed to provide Laos with the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, enough to cover 25 percent of Laos population. Experts said the efforts show the country’s importance to Russia in strengthening defense cooperation in Southeast Asia. Recently, the US has also provided Laos with medical and laboratory equipment worth 600,000 USD through the Unites States Agency for International Development (USAID). Since the outbreak, the US has contributed almost 8 million USD to help Laos combat the spread of Covid-19. Parallelly, Laos has also recently received a new batch of Chinese Sinovac vaccines containing around 800,000 doses. [The Laotian Times 1] [The Laotian Times 2] [Radio Free Asia]
6 April 2021
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam low on US report on human rights
(nd) According to an annual US State Department report, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the press last year, holding political prisoners and interfering with the rights of citizens to peacefully protest. All three record cases of arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, and torture in police custody. Laos last year tightened its grip on online freedom, removing critical postings. While corruption was investigated, human rights abuses remained unpunished.
After the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the beginning of 2021 saw a politically motivated mass trial in absentia against leaders and activists. The government also engages in efforts to censor free media, through control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets, pushing them into self-censorship.
For Vietnam, the report mainly pointed to restrictions on political participation and a lack of independence of the judiciary, as well as arbitrary arrests and killings by the government. Reportedly, political prisoners were tortured in custody. Running up to the Communist Party Congress in January 2021, the government cracked down on independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities to mute criticism. [Radio Free Asia]
6 April 2021
Laos: Political nepotism
(py) High-ranked positions in Laos’s government have been mainly given to the children from influential families, with 7 out of 17 cabinet members coming from only the well-off Siphandone and Phomvihane families. Scholars pointed out that such practice of nepotism in the country invalidates the importance of qualifications for the jobs. To investigate such topics seems impossible as Vientiane’s inspection office has little power to examine the top officials. Laos’ ranking in the Transparency International index has dropped from 130th in 2019 to 134th in 2020. The scope of limited transparency also extends to other realms as the government has denied access to the case of state violence against the Hmong and rejected all alleged wrongdoings by international observers. The Hmong, who fought under US advice against the communist forces in the Vietnam War, reported growing violence from government troops to clear the site for development and foreign investment. The US state of department also reported cases of arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings and torture in police custody in Laos. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2] [Radio Free Asia 3]
30 March 2021
Laos: Inaugural session of 9th National Assembly appoints new President and Prime Minister
(py) The inaugural session of the 9th National Assembly concluded on March 26, following a five-day sitting that elected state leaders and approved development targets. [The Star]
On March 22, the Assembly elected hitherto Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith as the country’s new President, entrusting a popular leader with rebooting an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. At the 11thNational Congress of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) held in January, Sisoulith was elected the party’s general secretary, and hence de facto leader of Laos, making him the first civilian with no military background to serve in the top job [see AiR No. 3, January/ 2021,3]. Assuming Thongloun’s old post of prime minister is hitherto Vice President Phankham Viphavanh. Both men will serve five-year terms. [Nikkei Asia 1] [The Laotian Times 1]
The session also approved the 9th five-year National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP) for 2021 to 2025, which set an average annual GDP growth target of at least 4 percent. Moreover, the State Inspection Authority has been separated from the government and will from now on be supervised by the office of the President instead. Lately, state inspection had revealed that the country had experienced losses of about $100 million in the past five years due to corruption. [The Laotian Times 2] [The Laotian Times 3]
In a trend referred to by some observers as cases of “inherited power”, seven out of the 17 newly appointed Cabinet members are related to either the family of Kaysone Phomvihane, the first leader of the Communist LPRP and the country’s de facto leader from 1975 until his death in 1992, or General Khamtai Siphandone, a former President and leader of the LPRP. [Radio Free Asia]
The appointment of hitherto Minister of Industry and Commerce, Khemmani Pholsena, as minister in charge of the presidential office assumes added significance. For Pholsena is a former schoolmate of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and observers believe her ties to the Chinese president having influenced her transfer. [Nikkei Asia 2]
In fact, China is the largest creditor nation for Laos, accounting for about 50 percent or $5.9 billion of the country’s foreign debt, according to available reports. Large-scale projects backed by Chinese funds, such as hydroelectric dams and a flagship high-speed railway, have propped up Laos’s economic growth, which had hit the 6 to 7 percent range annually.
But the coronavirus pandemic has not spared Laos either, compounding its financial strain in 2020. In its latest assessment published on March 26, the World Bank stated that Laos was had large external financing needs, but also predicted the country’s economic growth to rebound to around 4 percent in the medium term. [Bloomberg] [World Bank]
23 March 2021
Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military
(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]
Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]
Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1]
Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]
With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.
The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962. [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]
Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]
According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]
Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]
In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]
The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]
According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]
The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]
Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]
23 March 2021
Laos: Possible premature construction of dam to raise concerns among villagers
(py) Laotians living near Luang Prabang dam’s construction site claimed that the government has already commenced its construction even before the international approval is completed. Temporary ports, service roads and workers’ camp with a water supply and land clearance have already been 99 percent completed. Expected to commence operation in 2027, the 1,460 megawatts and 3 billion US$ Luang Prabang dam will contribute to Laos plan to be the battery of Southeast Asia, which will displace 581 families and communities in the northern provinces of Luang Prabang and Oudomxay. Though the deputy manager mentioned that 70 percent of the compensation has been paid, stories from displaced residents of other dam constructions show a gloomy future waiting for the displaced with too little and delayed payments or poor living conditions of the provided land. [Radio Free Asia]
23 March 2021
Laos: Clash between Laotian soldiers and insurgents
(py) A clash between Lao government troops and insurgent groups in Xaysomboun province resulted in one death. After the clash, the soldiers started patrolling the area and blocked any individual from entering the site between Thathom district’s Vangkhan Point and Sobjae Point. The entrance ban will be in place until March 30. Laos has been tackling periodic shootings, ambushes and bomb attacks since 2000. [Radio Free Asia]
16 March 2021
Laos: SMEs continue to suffer
(py) More than one-third of small to medium-sized businesses in Laos have permanently shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such drastic closures were expected since almost a quarter of the country’s approximate 100,000 SMEs are in the tourism sector. On top of this, despite the goal to be the battery of ASEAN, the Laotian government has recently raised the domestic price of electricity, further weakening such businesses. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]
9 March 2021
Laos: From land-locked to land-linked?
(py) Laos, a landlocked country, has seen more connectivity in recent years, especially with China, promising a greater connectivity. The Boten-Vientiane railway, part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), is expected to be completed within December 2021. If Laos is able to experience economic growth through it, it could help China guard off criticism over the alleged debt trap coming with participation in its BRI projects. Though this route is the least economically important in Southeast Asia, Laos is the most politically stable country, especially in comparison with Thailand and Myanmar. Additionally, the Chinese-Laos Vangvieng-Vientiane highway was completed last December. In September 2020, a new law on real estate property was enacted, allowing for the first time foreigners the right to own a unit or a suite inside a condominium.
Still, analysts worry that the new legislation could attract buyers from mainland, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. The rapidly growing demand in the residential sectors has been connected to growing foreign investment in the country, with China being the number one foreign direct investor in Laos.
Laos has also been active in incorporating technology to boost customs efficiency. The government has installed the Automated System for Customs Data at 24 of its border posts, saving cost and time for the cross-border movement of products in general. Many experts believe Laos’ recent developments could pave the way for the country to become the next hotspot for investments, mimicking the development in Cambodia. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2] [The Laotian Times] [East Asia Forum]
2 March 2021
Laos: Thai court to reject appeal concerning Pak Beng dam
(py) A Thai court denied to hear an appeal on a case concerning Laos’s Pak Beng dam project. In 2017, two Mekong resident groups filed a petition to retract an environmental assessment performed by Thai agencies. Meanwhile, Laos’ government issued a decree, which requires all hydropower operators to inform authorities whenever dam reservoirs reach maximum storage or when river levels downstream fall to a critical level. [Voice of America] [Benar News]
The Pak Beng Dam project, developed by Chinese Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd, is one of several Chinese-related developments and business projects in Laos that has triggered a Chinese language education boom. In 2018, Chinese investments accounted for 79 percent of all Foreign Direct Investment in Laos. [Radio Free Asia]
23 February 2021
Laos: Chinese company sets to begin studies for iron mining
(py) A Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Laotian province Xaysomboun and China’s Tai Xan Meng Sion-Lao Minerals Corporation earlier this month allows the Chinese company now to begin feasibility studies in the area, while local residents and environmentalists worry about polluted rivers and fields.
Though on paper, residents are often ensured safety from pollution and side-effects of the construction, infrastructure projects in Laos have been notorious for not keeping their promise with Laotians displaced and unheard.
The backlashes of mega-projects, especially dam constructions, also go beyond the border. Lately, a Thai NGO, Fair Finance Thailand, has called on several Thai financial institutions to withhold loans for the Luang Prabang dam project until a risk-mitigation study is done. Laos’s recent economic growth has been mainly due to concessions to China, Thailand and Vietnam for natural resources. Not long ago, Laos had asked China to restructure its debt and rejected the IMF’s loan, China could pressure Laos to make more concessions of its natural resources. [Radio Free Asia] [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]
23 February 2021
Laos: Two Critics of the Lao Government disqualified for reelection
(py) Shortly ahead of Sunday’s general elections in Laos, two government critics known for openly denouncing corruption among the country’s leaders have been removed from the list of eligible candidates for reelection. Both had held seats in the country’s eight parliament and were to run again in general elections. The National Election Committee spokesperson stated that the two had been removed only due to the fact that both candidates have reached retirement age.
Even though the spillover effect of the Thai democracy movement in Laos was evident when Laotians came up with the hashtag “if Lao politics was good on Twitter last year,” and pointed out the shortcomings in their country, there is no widespread political dissent due to the government’s close surveillance and the chilling effects of harsh punishments against dissenters. [Radio Free Asia] [South China Morning Post]
23 February 2021
ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace
(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.
Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.
A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.
Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.
Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]
In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.
The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.
In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]
16 February 2021
Mekong river level remains low
(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.
Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]
16 February 2021
ASEAN-EU strategic partnership
(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.
Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.
The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.
The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.
Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]
16 February 2021
ASEAN to have less trust in China
(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.
China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]
16 February 2021
Laos, Russia to provide military aid
(py) The Russian government provided Laos with military engineering vehicles and vehicle maintenance equipment. Laos and Russia have long fostered a close defense relationship covering military education, law enforcement, and military equipment purchase. More than 3,000 Laotian officers from the Lao People’s Army have been trained at Russian military academies. On December 10 last year, the two countries had their first joint military exercise with more than 500 soldiers and numerous tanks from both sides.
The joint exercise came at a time when their military cooperation and arms trade was extended significantly, as well as security coordination. According to analysts, Laos is a stepping stone for Russia to become more engaged in the region in the future and establish a military presence. Between 2010 and 2017, Russia has sold $6.6 billion in arms to Southeast Asia, while the U.S. sold $4.58 billion, and China $1.8 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Ever since the war in Ukraine, Russia remained estranged from the West and has been on the look for new partners. For the quick success of its engagement, the Russian ambassador to Laos pointed to the vote of Laos of Cambodia against an UN resolution on Crimea. The ambassador added, he was not worried to strain ties with China over its military engagement in Southeast Asia, and China would prefer if the region was equipped with Russian rather than American weapons.
16 February 2021
Laos: Elections for National Assembly and Provincial Council Seats starts soon
(py) Representatives for the National Assembly will be elected February 21. The election is every five years. Out of 224 candidates, 49 are women. 4.3 million electorates across Laos will vote for 164 MPs. Additionally, 789 candidates, including 227 women, are now standing for election to the Provincial People’s Councils. [Laotian Times]
9 February 2021
Water levels on Mekong River along Thai-Lao Border fails to bounce back
(py) End of December last year, Chinese authorities have announced to significantly reduce water levels due to equipment testing at China’s upriver Jinghong Dam. Although the equipment testing was supposed to have ended on 24th January, the water level has not been restored yet. Analysts commented the extreme low might be temporary, with China’s dry season releases usually to begin around this time of year. China has been criticized for creating water shortage for downstream countries, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, through its 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river. China agreed to share its data with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in October 2020. [Radio Free Asia] [Reuters]
9 February 2021
ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar
(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.
While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.
Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms.
Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]
9 February 2021
Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects
(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.
Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]
2 February 2021
Laos: US Department of Defense to aid the renovation of a medical facility
(py) The US Ambassador to Lao has signed a memorandum to accommodate the Khongsedon District Hospital’s renovation in Salavan Province. The medical facility was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2003. For 20 years, the US Department of Defense and US Army Corps of Engineers have provided more than 4.6 million USD to Salavan Province for humanitarian assistance construction projects. Five years ago, the US-Lao Comprehensive Partnership was established to help Lao meet its sustainable development goals. [The Laotian Times]
2 February 2021
Laos: Chinese company to push soil on farmland from high-speed rail construction
(nd) China Railway Engineering Group (CREG) pushed soil from a railway construction site onto farm plots, gardens, and irrigation systems in northwestern Laos leaving the plots damaged. CREG is building a high-speed rail line to connect China with Laos and other countries in the region as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The famers filed a complaint with the company and requested compensation. The construction began in December 2016 and has affected over a thousand households, with 133 billion kip (U.S. $14 million) in compensation already paid out. The amounts were called inadequate and below market value by landowners.
While the Lao government views the construction of multiple hydropower dams as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial due to their environmental impact, the compensation-lacking displacement of villagers, and questionable financial and power-demand arrangements. [Radio Free Asia]
26 January 2021
Thailand to reject Laos’ report on Sanakham dam
(nd) Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources has rejected Laos’ latest technical report on the Sanakham dam project due to insufficient information on environmental effects and possible compensations for residents. The dam is one of nine large-scale Mekong River mainstream dams forming part of Laos’ economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.” Meanwhile, Laos plans to conduct safety inspections of 79 existing dams on the Mekong. In July 2018, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoi dam collapsed in, killing 71 people in a flood disaster. The dam projects are controversial, not only with regards to displacement of villagers and environmental effects, but also due to questionable financial and power demand arrangements. [Radio Free Asia]
26 January 2021
Laos to receive Russian vaccines
(py) Russia provided the first 1000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccines to Laos’s government after both countries agreed to provide Laos with 2 million doses of vaccines, covering roughly 25% of the Lao populations. Laos already received 2000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine from China and has started inoculating some 200 volunteers and medical workers. [Laotian times] [Russian Embassy in Laos]
26 January 2021
Laos: Lookout on the country’s future set-up
(py) Last week, incumbent Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was announced Secretary-General of the Communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) in its 11th Party Congress. [AiR No. 3, January/ 2021, 3] Following national elections in February, the new government be will be formally revealed, with the other appointments of this congress revealing the direction of the upcoming politics. The positions are distributed in the order of a ranking within the politburo, making it likely that current Vice President Phankham Viphavanh will become the new prime minister. Other appointments show both a heightened emphasis on foreign relations in future politics as well as an influential stronghold of powerful political families. To the already two members of both the Siphandone and Phomvihane family, another member will each be added, signifying how powerful families in Laos still have significant clout over the country’s political future.
As Prime Minister, Thongloun promised to fight corruption but did not go through with it, making it unlikely he will do is as Secretary General. Due to tight family relations through marriage, this cleanup would not benefit anybody’s interests. Laos’s debt to China has reached 45% of its GDP, with the Covid-19 pandemic additionally disabling tourism. As an economic outlook, Laos builds a number of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia”, which is opposed by neighboring states, threatening a rise of regional tensions. [East Asia Forum]
26 January 2021
ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic
(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.
Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]
19 January 2021
China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia
(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]
Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]
Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]
During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]
19 January 2021
Laos: PM Thongloun leader of the communist party
(py) Incumbent Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was elected Secretary-General of the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) which is ruling the one-party state. It is expected that the new leadership will gear the country further towards China. [Nikkei Asia] [Radio Free Asia] [Freedom House]
19 January 2021
China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”
(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043.
The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership.
Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”
As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]
For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017.
12 January 2021
Laos: Collaboration to fight Wildlife Trafficking
(py) A five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Ministry of Agriculture and the World-Wide Fund for Nature Laos Office (WWF-Laos) was signed, including provisions to guarantee that authorities and taskforces have the required means to perform investigations into wildlife crimes, as well as training for law enforcement agencies. This new MoU symbolizes a long-term commitment by WWF to help the Laotian government to actualize Prime Minister Order No. 5 (PMO5) and meet its international responsibility under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Greater Mekong region has become more and more notorious for its increasing cases of wildlife crimes. [The Laotian Times] [WWF]
5 January 2021
ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals
(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.
For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.
Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]
5 January 2021
Laos: Set to build seventh dam
(nd) As part of its ambitious economic strategy to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” Laos is moving forward to build the seventh of nine planned large-scale Mekong river mainstream dams, the 728-megawatt Phou Ngoy Dam, with a projected completion date of 2029.
The environmental and social impact study has just been approved; however, the project has not been submitted to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-government agency to manage the Mekong’s resources, to undergo the Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process yet “because the detailed environmental and social impact study is not yet complete.”
To be affected residents, which might even have to be relocated, are opposed to another Mekong River dam, fueled by reports of villagers displaced by dam projects ending up poorer than they started. The projects are controversial because of their unclear environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements. [Voice of America]
29 December 2020
Laos and China vow to deepen ties
(dql) In a phone talk General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping and General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Bounnhang Vorachith, the former pledged to “open up a new stage and write a new chapter for the relations between the two parties and the two countries in the new era,” based on their joint commitment to “building China-Laos community with a shared future”. Xi highlighted the successful poverty-reduction cooperation as highlight of China-Laos relations in the recent past years, as well as the joint efforts in fighting the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters.
Bounnhang, meanwhile, reassured his counterpart of his country’s willingness to cooperate with China to further advance practical cooperation in all sectors under the Belt and Road initiative, and to enhance greater development of Laos-China relations. [Xinhua] [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]
29 December 2020
Laos-Thailand relations: Bans on Thai seafood imports after the Kingdom saw surges of COVID cases
(py) Laos has imposed bans on the import of seafood from Thailand, which would remain in place until the two sides could come up with measures that could guarantee the safety of seafood imported from Thailand. The action has been rolled out after Thailand’s Samut Sakhon province became the new epicenter of a recent Covid-19 outbreak, with more and more cases being recorded in the nearby regions. [The Laotian Times] [Bangkok Post]
29 December 2020
Laos: Oversea Laotians struggle to get home
(py) Recently, an increasing number of Lao fishermen has been captured in southern Thailand after crossing the border illegally from Malaysia. Most of the fishermen have been working in Malaysia’s fishing industry for several years but have been recently laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Left stranded without jobs and depleted savings, these oversea Lao workers attempted to go back home through bordering southern Thailand, without fear of being arrested. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]
22 December 2020
ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021
(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.
15 December 2020
ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects
(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]
1 December 2020
Laos: MRC urges reassessment of Sanakham hydro power project
(py) In the latest regional forum, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) urged the Lao government and the Sanakham hydro power project developers to broaden its impact assessment of the project and propose additional measures to mitigate the possible impacts of the project, due to catastrophic flood after a dam collapse in 2018. They urged the related stakeholders to use up-to-date data and recent studies and explore compensation mechanisms for those affected. Besides, MRC member countries had also agreed to look into a regional funding mechanism to support the livelihoods and ecosystem restoration projects in the Lower Mekong Basin. [Phnompenh Post] The Sankham hydro power Project would operate year-round and produce 684 megawatts of electricity. [MRC]
1 December 2020
Laos: First Oil refinery to commence in December
(py) The first oil refinery in Laos to start working in December is a joint venture between the Lao-China Petroleum Public Company Limited and Yunnan Construction Company Group, which holds 75% of the shares, the Lao State Fuel Enterprise holds 20%, and the Lao-China Joint Venture Company holds the remaining 5%. The refinery aims to produce up to one million tons of gasoline, diesel and gas per year, and should be able to supple 60% of Laos’ fuel demand. [The Laotian Times] [China Daily]
24 November 2020
Laos, China to sign tariffs agreement
(py) Under a Preferential Tariff Program, China agreed to remove tariffs on 97 percent of Laotian goods. Similar agreements were signed with Cambodia and Myanmar. The new agreement creates more production in Laos and increases exports to China. Yet, critics say the scheme might benefit China more than Laos more by setting higher standards for products from Lao-owned operations than those from Chinese investors in Laos. [Radio Free Asia]
17 November 2020
South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor
(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.
This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat]
17 November 2020
ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally
(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.
A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]
Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.
At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.
Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]
The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]
Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]
17 November 2020
East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response
(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.
The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]
10 November 2020
Laos: Transmission lines to Cambodia officially launched
(py) Transmission lines to export electricity to Cambodia, as agreed upon between Electricite Du Laos (EDL) and the Electricite Du Cambodge (EDC), were successfully completed. The 18-kilometer transmission line construction project was an investment by EDL and constructed by Chinese-owned companies YEIG and CGGC. [The Laotian Times] Laos is a major transnational energy provider in the region. Power exports take up around two-thirds of the whole hydropower generation and account for 15% of the country’s export earnings. [Asian Development Bank]
10 November 2020
Laos: Demands to investigate pollution from Chinese and Vietnamese farms
(py) Residents of southeastern Laos’ Sekong province urged government authorities to investigate Chinese and Vietnamese-owned farms over their extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. An official of the Department of Planning and Investment announced to investigate, adding that due to the COVID-19 pandemic many investors have not returned to Laos. The concerned banana plantations contributed to US$ 100 million in annual export in 2017 and are a major source of employment in rural Laos. Yet, banana farming is infamous for illness and deaths among workers due to an exposure to chemicals. Additionally, the run-off from the farms polluted near water sources, killing fish and contaminating drinking water. [Radio Free Asia] [China Dialogue]
10 November 2020
ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen
(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]
3 November 2020
Laos to reopen the border to travelers from China
(py) China and Laos have agreed on a fast track scheme to allow Chinese nationals to pass through the Boten border in Luang Namtha, if they have tested negative for COVID-19, been quarantined for 14 days in China, and another 48 hours in Laos. It will commence November 1, a week later also for Vietnamese nationals. Four smaller borders, one on the Border with China and three on the border with Thailand, will open for the crossing of goods. Citizens have expressed their concerns over the short quarantine, while some urged the government to reopen other borders, citing economic hardships. China is Laos’ largest foreign investor, followed by Thailand, with predominantly hydro-power dams and other large-scale infrastructure projects built under the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, Chinese tourist were the third-largest group of tourists, following Thailand and Vietnam, in 2018 and generally make up an important factor to the regional tourist industry. China was the primary source of visitors to Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, and Bali, prior to the spread of Covid-19. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]
3 November 2020
Laos: Unauthorized land concessions revealed
(py) The Chairman of the Government Inspection Authority disclosed that state land in four provinces had been leased on behalf of the government without any formal agreements. Many of the projects on these lands, which include five-star hotel development, agricultural development and a timber plantation, are run without a concession and official registration. [The Laotian Times] The Lao government rents state land with a yearly fee to both domestic and foreign investors, mostly for undeveloped land, with maximums of 50,000 hectares and 50 years. [Open Development Laos]
3 November 2020
Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership
(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.
The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]
Laos: Potential governmental approval for controversial development project
(py) Despite environmentalists’ warnings and villagers’ objections, the controversial Chinese Vang Vieng New Development Zone project is now in its final planning stage with completed feasibility and environmental impact studies. The Chinese Development Group is now proposing the project to the government. Most residents of Vang Vieng are opposed to the development project, arguing possible impact on the tourist industry of Vang Vieng through the destruction of the natural scenery, as well as a dependence on China. 22 Villages will be affected by the development plan.
In Laos, citizens can occupy and sell the right to use land, but not officially own property. Furthermore, the government can reclaim land for public interests, like a national development project. The first of such special economic zones was set up in 2002 to attract foreign investment and boost development, at least 12 have followed. Though the law stipulates that the project owners must guarantee that the living conditions of those displaced will be as good as or better, there have been reports on delayed compensation payments and sometimes lower amounts than originally agreed upon. [Radio Free Asia]
Laos: Over spill of protests on social media
(py) The social media strategies used by Thai and other so-called “Milk-tea-alliance” protesters seem to have inspired calls for change in Laos, where freedom of press is strongly limited. Recently, hashtag #IfPoliticsWasGood” started to trend in Lao, with more than 400,000 posts on social media. Under the hashtag, users have expressed their supports for Thai protesters and called for reforms in their own country where dissidents are blotted out quickly. [The Diplomat]
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s office urged individuals, legal bodies, state and private sectors to register their social media platforms before starting to circulate any information online. [AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1] The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has been notorious for its tight grip of Laos’ freedom of press. In 2016, the prime minister passed a decree that allows foreign media to set up an office in Laos only if they submit their content to the government for censorship before publication. [RSF] In 2018, a female Lao environmentalist criticized the government’s handling of the flood, found herself arrested and charged under article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading “anti-state” propaganda. [Bangkok Post]
Laos: Chinese firm to collaborate on Vehicle Registration System
(py) The government of Laos has authorized Khamphay Sana Group and Hytera to conduct a feasibility study for an integrated vehicle registration and transportation management system. Inter alia, registration certificates and driver’s licenses shall be issued though an integrated computer system, upgrading the procedures for technical examination, sales transfers, leases, and mortgages of vehicles. The two companies would also be responsible for improving the UPS network, infrastructure, and CCTV camera services of the capital’s 19 sub-service and two central service centers. [The Laotian Times ]
Laos: New electric vehicle deal
(py) Electricité du Laos, a state enterprise and GEELY Technology Company, a Chinese-owned firm in collaboration with construction company Krittaphong Group, have forged an agreement on cooperation for the development of electric vehicle sector in Laos. The project aims to promote the use of electric vehicles in Laos along with conducting a feasibility study on vehicle system development, technical service center construction and public charging stations. The country’s first Electric Vehicle Summit was held in April last year, where Electricité du Laos signed an agreement with Vientiane-based EV Lao Company, on testing electric vehicles charging stations. Moreover, Banque pour le Commerce Extérieur Lao Public (BCEL) and EV Lao company jointly launched a smart card system for the payment of charging costs for electric vehicles. [The Laotian Times 1] [The Laotian Times 2] [GEELY]
China to share Mekong river data with downstream countries
(jn) Last Thursday, China signed an agreement with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental organization of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – according to which it will share year-round and current data on water flows of the Mekong. The move was welcomed by other stakeholder nations as helpful in monitoring and forecasting floods and droughts on the important regional waterway. The MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer lauded the agreement as a “landmark in the history of China-MRC cooperation”. The US, previously urged for more transparency on the Mekong’s flow, also praised the data sharing agreement as vital to downstream countries.
The Mekong is severely impacted by 13 dams in China and Laos, and others along its tributaries, that have significantly altered the natural flow of the 3,100-mile river for more than 60 million people depending on the water source.
China’s dam constructions have come under criticism for contributing to recent droughts that have severely damaged agriculture and depleted fish stocks downstream. Eyes on Earth, a US-based research and consulting firm, reported in April 2020 a striking gap between the volume of rainfall on the Chinese part of the Mekong and the water masses arriving further south. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]
Laos: More Chinese assistance
(py) Following an official visit to Laos by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China agreed to assist Laos across three initiatives as part of its effort to bolster cooperative relations between the two countries. Those will cover Chinese supplies to curb the dengue fever, a rural development infrastructure project and an offer for a generalized system of preferences for duty exemptions and facilitating transport of goods across borders. Besides, an easing of immigration policy was discussed which would grant certain privileges to Chinese individuals with regards to entry and exit procedures, especially diplomatic staff, technical experts and foreign workers. The said fast-track immigration policy was already discussed in September. Foreign Minister Wang also met with the President of Laos, Bounhang Vorachit to discuss further bilateral relations. Laos would be granted priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine once they are ready. Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently on a tour of ASEAN, having visited Cambodia, with Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore as his next destinations. [Laotian times] [AiR NO. 38, September/2020, 4]
Laos: Christians expelled from their homes
(py) Seven Lao Christians in the country’s Saravan province in Laos’ South have been expelled from their homes for refusing to renounce their faith. The evicted Christians now live in the forest putting up with a shortage of rice and food supply. A new piece of legislation was passed last December which allows Christians to practice services and preach their services throughout the country. Though improvements to safeguard the rights and freedom of religious beliefs in Laos have been made, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) still report cases of abuse and violations of religious freedom in Laos, especially in remote rural areas. [Radio Free Asia]
Though the Laos socialist constitution states that it provides the citizens with the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion, religious freedom in Laos has always been an embattled topic. A 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Laos can be found [here].
Laos: Russian vaccine trials
(py) The Laotian Government held meetings with Russia concerning its intention to trial the Russian-made “Sputnik V” vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. According to a report in Lao Phattana News, once passed, the “Sputnik V” vaccine would be imported, produced and tested with volunteers in Laos and implemented by the Pharmaceutical Factory No. 3 State Enterprise in cooperation with Atlantic Pharma. Russia has been successful with its first and second phase of the vaccine with immune response developed within three weeks in 100 percent of volunteers aged between 18 and 60. Many countries have already participated in the clinical trials with the first batch of vaccine in Venezuela arriving last week and recently in the United Arab Emirates. [Laotian Times] [CNBC]
Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential
(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.
In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.
Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.
A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.
Thailand: Higher costs for high-speed rail
(nd) The Thai government announced that another THB 12 billion is needed for the first phase of the high-speed rail from Bangkok to Korat, amounting to THB 50.6 billion in total. The overall budget for the 617-kilometer line that will eventually reach Nong Khai on the border with Laos is THB179 billion (US$5.7 billion). Funds were approved in 2017, following an agreement with China, which is building the railway and extending loans. Following the agreement, three Chinese state enterprises — the National Development and Reform Commission of China, China Railway International and China Railway Design Corporation — are hired, who are expected to design the high-speed train and related systems, train the staff and build the system. The high-speed rail is expected to be completed in 2025.
The line is an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it is assumed that it will eventually extend onward to the city of Nong Khai, across the Mekong River from Lao capital Vientiane. In Laos, there is a railway project under construction connecting the capital with China’s Yunnan province, linking it to the Chinese national high-speed rail network.
Last week, the rail base for the initial segment was completed and the project handed over to the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), which will work with the three Chinese firms to build the railway. Having been postponed earlier, Covid-19 repercussions on Thai economy might cause further delays: According to an economic outlook published by the World Bank, Thailand is facing an economic contraction of between 8.3 and 10.4 percent in 2020 – the worst of any nation in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the possibility for Chinese engineers and laborers to enter Thailand is in jeopardy. [Coconuts Bangkok] [Bangkok Post] [The Diplomat]
Laos: Tightening grip on social media platforms
(py) Authorities have urged parties wanting to operate on social media channels to register their platforms. According to the latest notice by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s office, publishing or circulating information to the public via social media without the permission is prohibited. Perpetrators can be charged in line with relevant provisions of law. This new notice includes individuals, legal bodies, state and private sectors. [Vientiane Times]
Criticism of governments is punishable by law in Laos. In 2018, a female Lao environmentalist raising awareness and funds to help the flood victims found herself arrested and charged under article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading “anti-state” propaganda. [Bangkok Post] Though Laos has made progress in the promotion of human rights, no independent mechanism or body has been established to safeguard human rights in the country. [Human Rights Asean]
29 September 2020
Thailand: Worries over possible Bank of Thailand loan for dam project
(py) NGO’S, the Rak Chiang Kong group and the Thai public sector network of the eight provinces in the Mekong Basin, have expressed their concerns over possible loans from the Bank of Thailand to the construction of the Luang Prabang dam claiming geo-political, sociological and environmental risks.
The construction of the dam would not only be a highly potential natural catastrophe but would also represent a geo-political risk with Chinese power growing in the region. Lead developer of the Luang Prabang Hydropower Project is the “Petroleum Vietnam” enterprise. Some private Thai companies seem to also plan to invest in the project as well. [Prachathai, in Thai]
Dam constructions in the Mekong River basin have always been a controversial issue as the integrity of the entire region depends heavily on the Mekong River. The Mekong River Commission’s secretariat concluded that the Xayaburi dam, which was completed in 2019, did not at that point comply with the World Bank’s standard. According to a Thai geologist, the building of the new dam in an earthquake-prone region could pose a great risk to the famed UNESCO-World Heritage City of Luang Prabang and further cited the dam as ‘’high risk”. [Asia Sentinel]
As a partner in China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), Laos seems to be one of the victims in the debt trap whereby the countries have to compromise their sovereignty after defaulting on their infrastructure-related debts owed to China. Though Laos could approach the International Monetary Fund under its COVID-19 Financial Assistance and Debt Service relief response, the government preferably resort to China as the IMF agreement would demand greater financial transparency. Laos was reported as a country with no significant progress in the 2019 Fiscal Transparency Report by the U.S. Department of State. [See also AiR NO. 37, September/2020, 3]
29 September 2020
ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation
(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.
At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]
29 September 2020
Laos is set to allow foreign ownership under the new condominium law
(py) In 2018, local and foreign investors called on the government to consider passing a condominium law that would allow foreigners to own apartment and condo units, citing that the passage of the law would stimulate growth in the property market. [Asia News Network] Recently, article 132 of the revised law grants foreigners the right to purchase and own the rights to a suite or unit inside a condominium for the life of the building. Besides, foreign nationals are also entitled to sell, lease, mortgage and bequeath the ownership of the unit. Nevertheless, the ownership of an individual unit is not perpetual. The period of the ownership of the individual units depends on the nature of the ownership of the land itself. [VDB Loi]
22 September 2020
Laos considers easing immigration policy for China and Vietnam
(py) According to Lao Phattana Daily, a local news source, the fast-track immigration policy refers to bilateral legislation between Vietnam and China that would allow certain privileges such as a waiver for the 14-day quarantine for individuals including diplomatic personnel, technical experts and foreign labor for special projects. [Laotian Times]
Though Laos has been having the pandemic under control with the last confirmed case reported on 14 August and a total of 22 confirmed cases since the breakout, many fear a second wave could be on the verge with illegal entries to the country. [WHO]
22 September 2020
Laotian-Chinese expressway Vientiane – Vang Vieng is set to open ahead of schedule
(py) On the occasion of the 45th National Day (2 December), the Vientiane-Vang Vieng expressway is set to open ahead of its scheduled completion in 2021. The expressway is the first section of the planned Vientiane-Boten expressway which is jointly planned by the Lao government and Chinese developers, a state construction enterprise from Yunnan province to connect the Capital, Vientiane with the northern province of Luang Namtha which borders China. [Laotian times]
The agreement for Lao’s first expressway between China Yunnan Construction and Investment Holding Group (“YCIH”) and the Lao Planning and Investment Ministry was signed in Vientiane on 4 April 2018. [Xinhuanet]
22 September 2020
Laos: Germany supplies scientific equipment to the MRC to monitor Mekong dam impacts
(py) On 15 September, Germany has supplied equipment, worth around $600,000, to help monitor the impacts of Lao’s Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. The support was part of the German government’s assistance to the MRC’s pilot program on Joint Environment Monitoring of Mekong Mainstream Hydropower Projects (JEM). Reportedly, the German government has already subsidized around 6.45 million euros to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which aims to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related sources for countries in the Mekong River basin. [The Phnom Penh Post] [MRC 1] Mr. Jens Lütkenherm, German Ambassador to Lao PDR, expressed his concerns over the potential environmental and socio-economic backlashes brought about by the two dams. [Laotian times] The constructions of both dams have faced criticisms from concern groups in neighboring countries. In its latest report, the MRC reported that the border area between Lao PDR and Thailand would be hit the hardest in this year’s drought. [MRC 2]
22 September 2020
Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic
(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”
The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]
15 September 2020
ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis
(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]
China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.
In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]
In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]
In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]
Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”
Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]
15 September 2020
Laos’ economic, and thus political, dependence on China growing
(jn/py) The $6 billion China-Laos highspeed railway is on track for completion in just over a year, with the first train scheduled to arrive on December 2, 2021. However, as a partner in China’s Belt and Road Iniative (BRI) Laos seems to have become the latest victim to its so-called debt trap whereby nations are pressed into making sovereignty-eroding concessions after defaulting on their infrastructure-related debts owed to Beijing. Laos has borrowed heavily to invest in several Mekong River hydropower projects as well as the $6 billion high-speed rail project, a key link in China’s BRI design to connect its southern province of Yunnan with mainland Southeast Asia. Since the entailing financial obligations of the railway project seem to have become untenable, the Lao government is now being forced to sell state assets like the majority control of the national electric power grid to a Chinese state-owned enterprise.[The Lao Times ]
Électricité du Laos (EDL), the state-owned power grid, and China Southern Power Grid (CSG), one of China’s state-owned power grids, agreed on a joint venture, Électricité du Laos Transmission Company Limited (EDLT). [The Economist 1] Laos’ foreign exchange reserves have fallen below $1 billion, less than the country’s annual owed debt payments, putting the country on the verge of a sovereign default. News reports suggest that the Lao Finance Ministry has asked China, its biggest foreign creditor with around 45% of Lao’s foreign debt owed to China in 2019 [The Economist 2], to restructure its debts to avoid defaulting.
Last month, Moody’s downgraded Laos to junk territory, from B3 to Caa2, and changed its outlook on the country from neutral to negative due to “severe liquidity stress.” [Asia Times]
Though Laos could approach the International Monetary Fund under its COVID-19 Financial Assistance and Debt Service Relief response, the government made clear that they preferably resort to China as IMF agreement would require greater financial transparency. [Bangkok Post] In 2019, Laos was reported as a country with no significant progress in the 2019 Fiscal Transparency Report by the U.S. Department of State. [U.S. Department of State]
1 September 2020
China, Southeast Asian leaders meet to discuss the Mekong`s plight
(lm) At a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits, leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform. During the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqian promised that Beijing would henceforth share the Lancang River’s hydrological data with the Lower Mekong countries. [The Diplomat]
Established in 2016, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism that brings together the riparian countries of the vital waterway, which begins in China as the Lancang then traverses Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, with water levels across the Lower Mekong Basin down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current monsoon also down by about 70 percent.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Beijing has since constructed 11 giant dams along the mountainous territory of the Upper Mekong to sustain its ever-increasing energy needs. In April this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – refuted a previously published US-funded report that had accused China of deliberately holding back water, significantly contributing to the major drought impacting the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Despite denying the allegations, however, the MRC did call on China for greater transparency in its water data.
In March this year, five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region had declared a state of emergency in face of continued extreme drought and salinity. A result of lobbying from international NGOs and internal reporting, shortly thereafter, the Cambodian government announced a decade-long dam moratorium on the mainstream of the river. The Cambodian moratorium leaves Laos, which commissioned two major dams in 2019, as the only Lower Mekong country pursuing hydropower on the mainstream of the river. [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4] [AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]
Beyond the Lancang/Mekong River`s plight, leaders on Monday also talked about strengthening their cooperation on public health, food supply chains, and a post-COVID-19 recovery of the region’s tourism industry. [TTR Weekly]
25 August 2020
Japanese Foreign Minister visits Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia
(jn) Japanese foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited Laos from August 22-24 to mark the 65th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and Japan. Among several topics, both sides discussed whether to allow long-term residents of each other’s nations, and investors and businesspeople, to travel between the two countries while maintaining the requirement of a fourteen-day quarantine at home or at another designated area. Such travelers would be monitored throughout their stay, but it would make commerce possible, with the Lao side keen to see more Japanese businesses move their operations to Laos. [Laotian Times]
Mr. Motegi also visited Cambodia and Myanmar, where he met with his respective counterparts, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and agreed to reopen borders for expatriates as soon as early September, relaxing travel restrictions that were imposed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the deal between Laos and Japan, expatriates and other long-term residents will be allowed to travel reciprocally provided they self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving and take other precautionary measures. [Nikkei Asian Review 1] [Nikkei Asian Review 2]
25 August 2020
Laos: The missing link in the fight against drugs
(ls) Over the course of the last five years, the production of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine has increased seven-fold in Southeast Asia. The majority of those drugs are from the Golden Triangle, the border region where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. As Thai and Chinese anti-drug efforts concentrated mostly on the border to Myanmar for the past years, large parts of the drug production has been moved to Laos. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific therefore demands stronger efforts with a focus on drug syndicates operating there. [CNN]
18 August 2020
Vietnam, Laos agree to enhance ties
(dql) During phone talks held last week Vietnamese Party General Secretary and State President Nguyen Phu Trong and his Laotian counterpart agreed to further enhance relations between both countries and to continue timely information sharing, close and effective coordination, as well as mutual support in international and regional affairs, in particular within the frameworks of ASEAN, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Mekong sub-region cooperation mechanisms. [The Star]
14 July 2020
Construction of largest railway station of Laos-China railway to begin
(dql) The construction of the Vientiane railway station, the largest railway station of the Laos-China railway, a strategic project under the Belt and Road Initiative, is set to start this week in the capital city of Laos. The station with more than 14.500 square-meter is one of 20 new stations that have been constructed for 6 billion USD 414 kilometre-long rail construction project. It is expected to be operational be end of 2021. [Construction Review]
30 June 2020
At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute
(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.
ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.
On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].
The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.
There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling.
For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.
The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.
The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1].
The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]
30 June 2020
Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute
(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]
30 June 2020
Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful
(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]
Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]
The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]
16 June 2020
Laos declared free of Covid-19
(jn) The Laotian government has declared the country free from Covid-19 last week after the last of only 19 patients was discharged from hospital marking a stretch of 59 days without newly reported infections. At a press conference, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith pointed to countermeasures such as social distancing, border closures and lockdown as vital factors in defeating the spread of the coronavirus.
The government had imposed a national shutdown by the end of March with measures prohibiting all residents to leave their homes except for essential grocery shopping, hospital visits, and any other tasks authorized by the government, such as essential work. The restrictions were loosened in late May, gradually allowing various sectors to reopen, including schools, sporting venues, cinemas, and night markets. [The Laotian Times]
2 June 2020
Laos’ first Civil Code enters into force
(ls) Last week, Laos’ new Civil Code entered into force. It has been drafted over the course of six years. Including the preparatory period, the process took 15 years in total. Previously, contract and property law in Laos were separate, which meant problems of overlap and omission. The Civil Code now combines them into a single piece of legislation. The drafting took place with the continuous advice of Japanese legal experts. Since starting with Vietnam in 1994, Japan has been offering legal advice to Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar. In 2018, Japan’s Justice Ministry’s established an international division to lead the country’s judicial diplomacy. [Nikkei Asian Review]
26 May 2020
Laos on the brink of debt crisis, China ready to step in and expand influence
(jn/jk) Credit Rating Agency Fitch has downgraded its outlook of Laos to negative, even as the long-term default rating is maintained as “B-“. This assessment is reflective of the economic and financial-market effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that have exacerbated the countries’ external financial risks, namely its forthcoming external debt maturities and its low foreign exchange reserves. Outstanding external debt for this year is said to amount to $900 million, and to $1 billion annually from 2021-2023, standing against low foreign exchange reserves of just $1 billion (and a nominal GDP of $20 billion).
About 86% of public debt is held by external creditors in foreign currency, most notably by China, accounting for half of that sum. Fitch has also revised its originally forecasted GDP-growth of 5.5% to just 0.5% for this year.
Of the economic activity resuming after a pandemic-induced lockdown, work at the China-Laos railway (AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2) is the most important factor, even as this project comes with a price tag of more than $800 million for Vientiane for which China has made available a low interest loan. A milestone has been achieved by Chinese engineers last week by completing the drilling of the China-Laos Railway Friendship Tunnel, running through the Laos-China border in the country’s north. [Xinhua]
China’s economic reach further extends to Laos’ energy supply system, for which a subsidiary of the largest Chinese state-owned power producer will erect a 684-megawatt dam for $2 billion at the upper Mekong. Scheduled to be operational by 2028, the dam is envisaged to generate energy for Thailand which so far has not shown any need, but it is certain to impact the downstream of the river as well as local livelihoods, food-security and the environment. Severe droughts are already exacerbated by 11 dams on the Chinese part of the river, leading to record lows in water levels as found in a recent study. [Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI)]
The Chinese cash flow for development projects in Laos is accompanied by an influx of thousands of Chinese skilled workers who are necessary to compensate for the lack of a comparable workforce in Laos. They, too, are an indicator of China’s increasing dominance in the country, while other top investors like Thailand and Vietnam are themselves preoccupied with keeping their economies afloat. Laos’ economic and political dependence would have grown anyway given its novel international train connection and China’s strategic economic commitment, but the economic marks left by the pandemic will help accelerate this trend. [Asia Times] [Fitch Ratings] [Bangkok Post]
19 May 2020
Laos: Former Lao Prime Minister dies at 92
(hg) General Sisavath Keobounphanh – one of the senior members of the first generation of Party revolutionaries and former Prime Minister – has died at the age of 92.
Sisavath Keobounphanh had also served as a member of the Central Committee of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) from the 1st to the 8th session, as a Secretary of the LPRP Central Committee for the 3rd and the 4th session, as a Politburo member during the 4th and the 6th to the 8th session, as well as a Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and a Minister of Interior until he became Vice-President from 1996 to 1998 and then Prime Minister from 1998 to 2001. [Laotian Times]
The state funeral was attended by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, leading a high-ranking delegation of the Vietnamese Party and State apparatus. [Vietnam Plus]
12 May 2020
China advances Belt and Road Initiative in Laos due to few Covid-19 infections
(jn) After anti-coronavirus measures taken by governments in the region caused several weeks of delay, construction has resumed at the new China-Laos railway that is going to be a part of a highspeed train connection between the Chinese town Kunming and Singapore. As part of the global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the railway is envisaged to span more than 400 km through northern Laos and is scheduled to be finished by 2022.
The renewed activity has been facilitated by the particularly small number of 19 officially reported coronavirus cases, the lowest of any other ASEAN member. Even though the mild impact of the coronavirus cannot be independently confirmed, it at least matches a plausible curve in a country with sparse population and infrastructure as well as contactless social etiquette.
China plans to make use of the railway as an alternative transport route for resources like energy and food, and as a way to reduce its dependency on maritime connection hubs. Laos itself is bound to pay $900 million for the $6 billion project, a considerable amount against a GDP of barely $20 billion. In case of default it is expected that Laos will have to pay in land concessions and natural resources. [Asia Times]
31 March 2020
China-Laos railway communication signal project commenced
(jk) Last week, the communication signal project of the China-Laos railway has begun by building a communication tower on the outskirts of Vientiane. The project aims to form the heart of the “entire railway’s train operation command and control system”.
According to Chinese media, “the China-Laos Railway is a strategic docking project between the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Laos’ strategy to convert from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub. The electrified passenger and cargo railway is built with the full application of Chinese management and technical standards.” [Xinuha]
31 March 2020
Mekong River Joint Patrol started
(jk) The Mekong River joint patrol by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand began last week. The four countries will engage in “joint visits, inspections and an anti-drug publicity campaign during the four-day patrol” and will include a focus on the Golden Triangle notorious for illegal drug activity. [Navy Recognition]
11 February 2020
Laos: Authorities ban shrines of local religion
(fs) In Sekong, the southern Laos region, local authorities issued a ban on erecting shrines in front of houses directed at the Talieng ethnic group on grounds of being offensive to Buddhism. While two thirds of Laotians are Buddhist, there are many minority religions spread across the country. In Sekong, 23,000 people are members of the Talieng ethnic group. Although the Laotian Constitution grants freedom of religion, the government limits and represses believers’ right on a frequent basis. [Radio Free Asia]
7 January 2020
Laos receives support from the U.S. to counter human trafficking
(tk) The U.S. has made a commitment to support Laos in its fight against human trafficking by launching a new three-year Laos Counter Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) program. The $2.3 million promised by the Memorandum of Understanding are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking among targeted populations by supporting vocational training and employment opportunities. [Vientiane Times]
31 December 2019
Russia expands military ties with Laos beyond arms sales
(jk) Earlier in December, Russia and Laos launched their first-ever joint military exercise, “Laros 2019” [UrduPoint]. Albeit small, the exercise is seen as significant for bilateral relations as well as for the region as they could set an example for other countries to expand on their military ties with Russia and engage in more exercises, in addition to an already significant arms trade relationship. They also indicate Russia’s ambitions to once again become a more militarily relevant force in a region the Soviet Union was once very active in. [Nikkei Asian Review]
12 November 2019
Indonesia and Laos to cooperate more closely on anti-drugs and human trafficking
(ls) Indonesia and Laos have signed an agreement to cooperate in the fight against transnational organized crimes, including drug smuggling and human trafficking. Both countries also commenced a joint capacity building and training program on transnational crimes and extradition. [Jakarta Globe]
5 November 2019
Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues
(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.
Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]
The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to
Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]
5 November 2019
RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020
(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.
All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]
Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.
This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]
15 October 2019
Power shifts between Laos and Vietnam as new dam opens this month
(ls) In Laos, the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam is scheduled to open this month. It is widely expected to reduce water, fish and sediment to about 50 million people downriver, many in Vietnam. However, Vietnam has not openly protested the dam. Observers consider that this is not only due to the countries’ self-perception as socialist “brothers” but also because of China’s growing influence in land-locked Laos. China has helped build infrastructure, most notably a high-speed rail line and special economic zones. Some of the projects fall under China’s 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative. As Vietnam is witnessing the growing Chinese influence in neighboring Cambodia, analysts say that Hanoi may not want to offend Vientiane and push it closer to Beijing too. [VOA]
At the same time, also Vietnam itself faces the dilemma how to overcome a domestic infrastructure bottleneck to promote economic growth while fending off unwarranted economic and security influences from China. Vietnam needs private capital and technical expertise to build projects in a timely and efficient manner. Reserving these projects for domestic investors may cast doubt on the economic rationality of decision-making. [ISEAS]
8 October 2019
Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations
(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]
17 September 2019
Cambodia and Laos agree to demarcate their border
(ls) The leaders of Cambodia and Laos agreed to step up efforts to complete the demarcation of their border, where disputes have led to armed confrontations in recent years. Currently, 86 per cent of the border has been marked. Cambodia and Laos reportedly dispatched troops to the border region last month in a stand-off over the disputed boundary. There was a similar confrontation in August 2017 when Laos objected to Cambodia’s construction of a road in disputed territory. [Straits Times]
10 September 2019
Lao activist and asylum-seeker goes missing in Thailand
(jk) A man from Laos who fled to Thailand has gone missing after seeking refugee status with the United Nations. He was a political activist who criticized and protested against his government frequently. He was also registered as a person of concern with the UNHCR in December 2017. [Bangkok Post]
After a number of such disappearances in the region of late, human rights group fear that some ASEAN countries may have struck an informal deal to “help” each other when it comes to dealing with their respective dissidents who often flee to neighbouring countries. No such deal has been admitted to by any official side.
Date of AiR edition
16 July 2019
China-Laos railway: Financial challenges of BRI projects again on display
(ls) The rapid progress in the China-Laos railway line has made it a poster child of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, the project is also facing multiple challenges. These are partly connected to the construction through particularly difficult terrain and to conflicts about compensation claims by local populations. Moreover, Laos is facing difficulties in coming up with its share of capital for the project as Chinese banks are exercising greater prudence in disbursing loans, which is a sign that China has doubts about Laos’ ability to repay its debts. It is therefore believed that China is likely to receive bigger shares of the railway’s future income as well as additional mining concessions. [East Asia Forum]
16 July 2019
Laos: Is there an anti-corruption campaign in the making?
(ls) Since Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith came to power in Laos in early 2016, more officials have been dismissed because of graft, and new laws created to tackle it. With growing criticism of corruption within the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, it appears that it is becoming more commonplace to talk about corruption, which was not the case just a few years ago. However, observers insist that the nature of corruption is intimately tied to the operation of the one-party political system in Laos. Similarities may therefore be drawn to the anti-corruption campaigns in China and Vietnam which have largely erve the purpose of bolstering party rule. [The Diplomat]
11 March 2019
Laos: National Green Growth Strategy takes shape, government considers imposing new tariffs on polluting companies
(zf) Earlier this year, President Sisoulith announced a government plan to endorse a set of policy goals aimed at ensuring the clean development of Laos’ economy in the coming decades. While specifics of the plan, called the National Green Growth Strategy, are still being fleshed out, it is a sure sign that Laos plans to take a lead in promoting clean energy in the region. Under the proposed policy direction, the government aims to give tax breaks to industries that utilize practices deemed safe and sustainable for the environment, while imposing higher tariffs on those that fail to meet those standards. Officials have made clear that details regarding the proposed tariffs have yet to be finalized. However, the move is in line with other efforts to follow through with the new policy, which includes lower loan rates on green companies, and a monetary policy directive that gives investment incentives toward cleaner industry. At current rates, the government imposes a 24% tax on all company profits within the country, with extra excise, value-added, and income taxes on top of that. [Vientiane Times]
4 March 2019
Laos: Government prioritizes child protection as U.N. cites continued high malnutrition rates
(zf) Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Social Welfare announced a partnership this week with RADION, an international NGO headquartered in Chiang Mai, looking to increase official capacities in childhood education, welfare, and prevention of exploitation. The program is set to last five years and will cost over $600,000. The policy directive comes amid renewed scrutiny concerning the plight of children in the country. In a statement this week, the U.N. highlighted the large numbers of rural children that remain malnourished, despite the best efforts of international organizations and humanitarian welfare groups.
For example, in the southern province of Sekong, nearly half of the child population suffers from malnourishment according to government sources. In more assessable areas, it was emphasized that the combination of increased economic production, coupled with more reliable access to World Food Programme assistance, has led to better outcomes. According to the WHO, an average of 44% of Laotian children show signs of stunted growth, which is down from 50% several years ago. [Radio Free Asia] [Vientiane Times] [WHO]
23 October 2018
Laos: World Bank’s promotion of dams and Korean company’s role under scrutiny
(ls) About three months after a dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower complex in southern Laos burst, displacing thousands and officially killing at least 40 people, a panel of water experts has warned that the World Bank’s promotion of another dam, the Nam Theun 2 (NT2), fails to deliver on basic promises and fuels the country’s development of sub-standard hydropower projects. About 140 dams are planned to be built in the Lower Mekong basin, including two on the mainstream of the river in Laos that are under construction and two in advanced preparation or planning. [VOA]
In addition, the Korean company building the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam has been accused of altering the structure of the dam to massively boost its profit from the project prior to the disaster. It allegedly lowered the height of auxiliary from designs approved for Korean government assistance. [Asia Times]
23 October 2018
New Laotian land law will bring new challenges
(ls) A new, long-delayed land law is scheduled to be tabled before Laos’ National Assembly next month. According to experts, it may bring greater transparency in land management and modernization of records, but it could also curb the customary rights of rural and indigenous people, and of women. Much of Laos’ land is untitled, and most citizens have customary rights without formal documentation. The government pushes to title all land by 2025. Laos is experiencing rapid transformation due to foreign investment. At the same time, it has committed to keeping 70 percent of its land under forest cover. [Reuters]
9 October 2018
Japan: Countering Chinese influence in Southeast Asia
(dql/ls) Reflecting Japan’s efforts to expand its economic foothold in the Mekong region to counter China’s growing influence, Japan at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo together with the Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan vowed in a joint statement to promote development programs and further improve “connectivity” and “quality infrastructure” projects in the region while also confirming the importance of maintaining the rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. [Japan Times 1]
In a related development, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Prayuth Chan-ocha ahead of the Mekong-Japan summit affirmed both countries’ cooperation in promoting free trade, with the latter voicing Thailand’s readiness to participate in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. [Japan Times 2]
Meanwhile, Japanese troops participated in joint exercises in the Philippines with US and Filipino troops. The exercise, code-named Kamandag (Venom), marked the first time Japanese armoured military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the country adopted a pacifist constitution after its 1945 defeat. A US Marine communications officer said, “it has nothing to do with a foreign nation or any sort of foreign army. This is exclusively counterterrorism within the Philippines.” [South China Morning Post]
9 October 2018
Social media in Laos: Government crackdown vs. freedom of speech on Facebook
(ls) The policing of the internet is becoming more common in Laos, as many internet and Facebook users have received invitations to meet police, or face criminal charges. However, the government crackdown on social media is unlikely to be as severe as in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where cybercrime laws and ministerial decrees are used to jail dissidents. Since the dam collapse in southern Laos, people appear to become more vocal. Back in July, Laotians turned to Facebook when news of the floods was slow to trickle out from government sources. [Al Jazeera]
28 August 2018
Dams along the Mekong: What are the lessons learnt?
(ls) What will be the lessons learnt by last month’s deadly dam collapse in Laos? Despite an order by the Lao government to halt new dam investments, the developers of two hydropower projects move ahead with their construction plans. In response, a coalition of NGOs and community-based groups dedicated to raising public awareness about the risks associated with dams on the Mekong River announced to boycott the prior consultation process, saying that it will destroy the environment, ecosystems, and livelihoods of people in the region. [Radio Free Asia]
An in-depth report by National Geographic lays out the conflicting economic and environmental parameters. Apart from early Chinese developments, the Mekong has stayed undammed largely due to regional cooperation between the four member nations of the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995. Energy needs and the financial incentives of hydropower, however, caused Laos and later also Cambodia and Vietnam to launch several dam projects with widespread environmental and social implications. [National Geographic]
On the positive side, last month’s dam collapse in Laos has produced a collective effort to provide emergency relief, involving Laos’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, fellow ASEAN members, notably Singapore, as well as East Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Two commentaries by researchers of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, discuss the topic of regional responses to disasters in more detail. [RSIS 1] [RSIS 2]
31 July 2018
Laos dam collapse puts social and political costs of energy race into spotlight
(ls) On 23 July, part of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam fractured and collapsed after heavy rainfall, sending a massive torrent of floodwater into the villages along the Xepian River. The catastrophe in Southern Laos has put the country’s ambition to be the “battery” of Southeast Asia into the spotlight again. Motivated by the high energy demands, dam construction in the region has escalated sharply over the last few years. The projects are usually built and operated by private foreign investors who maintain the rights for the hydroelectric plants for 25 to 30 years before they are transferred to the Laotian government. Poor security and environmental standards along with detrimental effects on local communities have produced criticism by civil society organizations. [Deutsche Welle]
The dam collapse may develop to become a challenge to the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party’s legitimacy. Experts expect that officials may face more pressure to incorporate social and environmental protections for rural people in the push for development. In the decades since the LPRP came to power in 1975, the government has pursued an economic model that prioritizes selling off land, timber, minerals and other resources to giant conglomerates from China, Thailand and Vietnam. [The New York Times]
3 July 2018
Laos, Myanmar downgraded in U.S. human trafficking ranking
(ls) The U.S. State Department downgraded Myanmar and Laos to Tier 3, its lowest ranking, in an annual report on human trafficking released today, citing the countries’ failure to make significant efforts to combat the trade. With regard to Myanmar, the report referred to the displacement of Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups, forced recruitment of child soldiers and reports that government officials were complicit in both sex and labor trafficking. [Radio Free Asia]
Efforts by Lao authorities generally failed to raise the country above their previous year’s ranking. Laos remains a source, destination, and transit country for women, children, and men “subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor,” the reports says. A large number of victims, particularly women and girls, are exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex industry while Lao men and boys are forced to work in Thai fishing fleets or on construction sites. [Asia Times]
17 June 2018
Laos: Upcoming review by UN Human Rights Committee
(ls) From July 11 to 12, the UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by its State parties, will examine for the first time the state of civil and political rights in Laos. The treaty body is likely to focus on reports in recent years of forced disappearances and harsh prison terms handed out to critics of the country’s government. [Radio Free Asia]
10 June 2018
China-Laos relations: Laos’ president Bounnhang Vorachithh on state visit in Beijing
(ls) Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachithh met in Beijing to discuss the two communist countries’ future relations. They agreed to further cooperation in several aspects, among them the cooperation in major projects under the framework of the “Belt and Road” initiative. In terms of security cooperation, they agreed to enhance coordination and cooperation in multilateral mechanisms such as the United Nations, East Asia cooperation, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, according to an official statement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the People’s Republic of China are long-time allies due to their similar political systems and ideology. [PRC Foreign Ministry]
20 May 2018
China, Laos vow to boost cooperation on law enforcement, security
(am) China and Laos have pledged to boost cooperation on law enforcement and security and maintain regional stability. The pledge came as visiting Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi held talks separately with Chansamone Chanyalath, Lao minister of national defence and Somkeo Silavong, Lao minister of public security here on Monday.
Zhao said China is willing to work with Laos to boost cooperation in safeguarding national security, anti-terrorism, fighting drug-related crimes, hunt for fled suspects and recovering ill-gotten gains, and fighting against Internet gambling, telecom fraud and illegal immigration, among others. [Xinhua]
29 April 2018
Thailand/Cambodia/Laos: Cooperation to track down political enemies
(ls) Thai immigration police have detained Sam Serey, head of the Cambodian opposition group Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF). A Cambodian official said the government was in discussion with Thailand on the man’s extradition. In 2016, a Cambodian court sentenced Sam Serey in absentia to nine years in prison for plotting an attack. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Sam Serey and his group of plotting attacks in Cambodia, calling him a “traitor”. [Reuters]
In March, Thailand and Cambodia had agreed on cooperation in searching for “fugitives”. Concerns have formed about an authoritarian alliance of sort emerging between the ruling junta in Thailand led by Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen as they seek to suppress dissent and consolidate their authority at home, as Prashanth Parameswaran describes in [The Diplomat].
At the same time, the government of Laos has assured Thailand that Thai political fugitives in Laos will be kept under strict surveillance to prevent them from engaging in lèse majesté activities. The Chief-of-staff of the Lao People’s Armed Forces, on a visit to Thailand, added that “We [Thai and Laos people] are like siblings. (…) we have to help, love and respect each other. We also have to help preserve our traditional rituals and uphold Buddhism so it lasts forever.” [Bangkok Post]
4 March 2018
Laos: Border dispute with Cambodia
(ek) Cambodia undertook live-fire weapons training sessions south of the border with Laos in the contested area OÁlay, in Stung Treng. The military exercise may be a demonstration of force prior to the upcoming elections in Cambodia. A spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Defense stressed, however, that there are no bilateral tensions between the two nations [The Phnom Penh Post].
4 February 2018
Laos: Civil society organizations under tight control
(lh/ls) David Hutt reports that the human rights situation in Laos is getting bleaker. An illustrative point is the ruling Communist Party’s tighter grip on the country’s civil society organizations (CSOs). A new decree that entered into force last November requires the government to approve the establishment of CSOs, to permit their projects and ac-ceptance of donations, to review their assets, and to provide advice and assistance to ensure their operations are in line with party policy, the law, and government regulations. Hutt argues that, since the disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, international interest in Laos’ human rights situation has faded significantly. [The Diplomat]
26 January 2018
Laos/Myanmar: Organized drug crime remains a threat
(lh) Criminal groups in the Mekong Delta area, especially in Laos and Myanmar, are still a major threat to stability and order. According to UNODC’s World Drug Report 2017, several groups raised to significant players in the worldwide production of synthetic drugs. The difficulties to control land and water borders around the Mekong Delta as well as corruption and a lack of law enforcement facilitate the operation of global drug supply chains. [Australian Strategic Policy Institute]
26 January 2018
Laos-Russia relations: Agreement of deepening military ties
(lh) Laos and Russia have long had a close defense relationship that extends across several realms, including military education, law enforcement cooperation, and the purchase of military equipment. But ties have recently become closer, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia tries to deepen ties with Southeast Asian states. At the invitation of the Lao government, a high-level Russian delegation visited Laos earlier this week. Both countries agreed on enhancing their existing long-term partnership by advancing the cooperation between their armies. [Vientiane Times] Against this background, Prashanth Parameswaran analyzes current Russia-Laos military ties for “The Diplomat”. [The Diplomat]
19 January 2018
Laos’ foreign policy between China and Vietnam, and in partnership with Myanmar
(ls) John McBeth describes in the Asia Times how Laos skillfully balances its foreign policy between its mighty neighbors China and Vietnam. Whereas China is heavily invested in mining, hydro power and a (planned) new railway line connecting Kunming and Vientiane, the Lao government agreed to a similar rail link from Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border town of Lao Bao. Also, Vietnam’s foreign direct investment in Laos, mostly in hydro-power, mining, transportation and plantations still claims to match China’s FDI in the country. One explanation for the close Laos-Vietnamese ties is that most Politburo members in Laos are Vietnamese-trained war veterans, and Lao officials still mostly study in Vietnam, not China. [Asia Times]
Regarding Laos’ relations with its other neighbor, Myanmar, the governments of the two countries agreed to enhance bilateral ties and cooperation on the occasion of Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s official visit to the country. The documents comprised MoUs on electricity cooperation, science and technology cooperation, and anti-corruption cooperation. [Eleven Myanmar]
5 January 2018
The CIA’s secret war in Laos
A radio producer and son of a former US spy who was active in a covert operation in Laos in the 1960s explores what he felt when his father eventually told him about his secret past and what he came to discover about an operation code-named Pig-Pen (BBC Radio I).
22 December 2017
China-Laos relations: Beijing’s infrastructure funding rises
In a latest development reflecting an increasing dependence of Laos on Chinese development aid and funding, Vientianne witnessed last month a ground-breaking ceremony led by Chinese President Xi Jinping for the construction of a 90 Mio USD hospital. A prior Chinese infrastructure investment is US$6 billion high-speed rail, of which Laos own roughly 30% and of which the government is confident that it will transform the country into a job-creating modern logistics hub for Chinese trade. With a domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than 2,000 USD, which is one of the lowest rates in Asia, Laos is in dire need of foreign investment and cannot waive Beijing’s influx of money and assistance despite the risk granting Beijing political leverage over the country [Asia Times].
17 November 2017
China: Xi visits Vietnam and Laos following APEC Summit
President Xi has wrapped up consecutive state visits to both Vietnam and Laos this week. Besides economic cooperation, in Vietnam, the South China Sea featured high on the agenda [ABC]. In Laos, infrastructure and cooperation were talked about with the goal of a China-Laos economic corridor [ChinaPlus]. Vietnam and Laos, like China, are ruled by their respective communist parties.
6 October 2017
Rising contenders in Asia: India and China
Within Asia the rising powers India and China are competing for dominance manifest in efforts to assert own’s position vis-a-vis the other across the region and beyond. Military exercises in Djibouti (South China Morning Post I) and a research vessel’s month-long presence in the Pacific Ocean southeast of US territory Guam express China’s ambitions as global player once more. While the US considers the research expedition as directed towards the future build-up of a military base on the island country of Micronesia (South China Morning Post II), India is concerned about the conduct of the first live fire exercise at the Djibouti base. Besides increasing her presence in the region around the Indian Ocean, China continues to advance its influence in Southeast Asia, where Laos and Cambodia are China’s closest allies. However, their respective relation with China differs. While Laos appears to be savvy in navigating the tricky diplomatic waters and faces less risk of “over-reliance” on China, whereas the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said his country is China’s “most trustworthy friend” (Myanmar Times). On the other side, two Indian Navy warships made a goodwill visit to the Philippines this week. The visit, a manifestation of PM Modi’s “Act East Policy”, was boost for bilateral ties and part of commemorations under way marking 25 years of partnership between India and ASEAN. The Indian ships sailed from to visit Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Brunei, and Russia (The Diplomat). Meanwhile, U.S. defence secretary Jim Mattis said that there was a strategic convergence, a “generational opportunity” between the two largest democracies in the world to work together, based on shared interests of peace, prosperity and stability in the region (Times of India I). Furthermore, during the six days long visit of India’s Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff to Vietnam, both countries expressed their strong determination for intensify their strategic partnership and security cooperation (Vietnam News). This meeting comes at a time in which Vietnam is stepping up efforts to build up a robust self-defense on the country’s maritime features in the South China Sea (China Policy Institute: Analysis) while India tries to position itself a regional power to counter not only China’s strategic influence in Southeast Asia (Times of India II), but also its soft power and cultural influence (New York Times).
27 July 2017
No Progress on Rights, Australia Should Use Dialogue to Raise Free Speech, ‘Disappearances’
Beforehand the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch calls upon Australian officials participating in dialogue to urge the Laos government to respect human rights. (Human Rights Watch)
27 July 2017
Lao PDR, Australia Extend Human Rights Cooperation
Deepening the bilateral cooperation between the Lao PDR and Australia, a new AUD 815,000 four-year human rights program was launched in Vientiane on July 18.
(Lao News Agency)