Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Philippines to file diplomatic protest with China

(nd) Following China’s firing of flares to warn off Filipino surveillance planes in the contested South China Sea, the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest. As Filipino military planes overflew the disputed waters, Chinese outposts located on islets in the Union Banks fired five warning shots in mid-June, according to an internal military report that was made public last week. In the report included were images showing that China continued to expand developing islands in the South China Sea.

It is unclear why the incident was made public this late, but it coincided with then-reports on the Filipino navy stepping up patrols in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), accompanied by announcements to file diplomatic protest with China over the continued presence of Chinese ships. In March, the Philippines first flagged a presence of over 200 Chinese fishing boats, allegedly manned by Chinese militia.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea for itself, overlapping with EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the dispute, but China claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ as well. In an International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruling from 2016, the court rejected China’s claims in favor of the Philippines, which was ignored by China. In January, China passed a law, allowing its coast guard to fire at ships intruding in the claimed area. [Radio Free Asia]


31 August 2021

Philippines: Inner PDP-Laban conflict to continue

(nd) In the latest episode of the ongoing rift between two factions of the ruling PDP-Laban party, the group led by boxer Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao tried to remove President Rodrigo Duterte as party chairman by electing their own. Duterte’s supporters subsequently denied legitimacy to the vote, urging Duterte remained chairman. Pacquiao and his allies in the party elected Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III as chairman.

The tension began when Pacquiao was elected as the party’s president. In June, Duterte and Pacquiao parted over the latter’s criticism of the president’s stance on the South China Sea. Last month, Pacquiao was ousted as party president. His faction is supporting Pacquiao’s potential presidential bid, while the Duterte group is pushing for a Senator Christopher “Bong” Go and President Duterte tandem. The head of the Philippines’ election commission announced to decide based on documents and the party’s constitution, which faction is the legitimate representative of PDP-Laban. [Manila Bulletin] [South China Morning Post]

On Monday, Go declined the endorsement, which according to observers opens doors for Sara Duterte once again. After the daughter-father tandem topped opinion polls, Rodrigo Duterte openly favored Bong over her, prompting a tough statement. The relatively independent-minded daughter has established parallel parties and political coalitions, most prominently the Mindanao-based but nationally oriented Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), and is now bidding for her own presidency, which prompted spokesman Harry Duque to reassure there was neither a rift in the party not the First family. This, however, makes way for another top contender, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son of former dictator, is in talks with the competing factions of PDP-Laban, possibly running as Sara Duterte’s vice president. [Voice of America] [Asia Times]

31 August 2021

Philippines: Bill to raise sex consent age, introduce gender-neutral language

(nd) Two senators endorsed the passage of a bill to increase the age for determining statutory rape from 12 to 16 years of age and provide a gender-neutral protection to children. Senate Bill (SB) 2332 was supported by Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri. The wording of the law will now reflect that rape is committed “by a person against any person” instead of the previous “by a man who shall have carnal knowledge of a woman.”

A study by the government supported by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund Philippines in 2015 asked 3,866 children and young people aged 13 to 24, showing that one-in-four children (24.9 percent) reportedly suffered from any form of sexual violence in any setting. Data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development collected between 2015 and 2017 showed that most victims of rape and child incest were between the ages of 14 and below 18, which is way above the current minimum age of under 12 years old. Additionally, about 17.1 percent of children from 13 to 18 years old experienced any form of sexual violence while growing up, according to a 2020 National Bureau of Investigation report. [The Manila 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

Philippines, Australia to boost cooperation

(nd) The Philippines and Australia signed an agreement to boost logistical support and cooperation amid regional security challenges. The Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) was commented to deepen longstanding defense relations, being similar to an existing pact between Australia and India from 2020, allowing for the mutual access of military bases. Without naming the South China Sea as one of such challenges, Australia is one of the Philippines’ top supporters against China’s expansive claims, also overlapping with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. 

Already in 2012, Australia and the Philippines signed the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement, enabling Australian troops to enter the Philippines, which helped rapid deployment of medical help after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in 2017 Australia sent troops to fight militants linked to the Islamic State who took over the city of Marawi.

Meanwhile, following the full restauration of the VFA with the US recently, the USS Charleston arrived in the Philippines on Monday for a port call, the first since 2019. [Benar 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.

24 August 2021

India and Vietnam to conduct naval exercise in the South China Sea

(ct) On August 18, India and Vietnam carried out bilateral maritime exercise in the South China Sea. Accordingly, the VPNS Ly Thai To missile corvette of the Vietnamese navy and INS Ranvijay and INS Kora of the Indian navy carried out joint drills in the South China Sea with formation content and communications under the Western Pacific Navy’s Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). The exercises included surface warfare exercises, weapon firing drills and helicopter operations. According to the Indian Ministry of Defense‘s statement,

 frequent interactions between the navies of Vietnam and India over the years have enhanced the interoperability and adaptability of the two countries’ forces. [India Today

Both Vietnam and India are wary of China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific. In a webinar between the defence ministries of the two countries in April, New Delhi offered to assist Vietnam in the construction and maintenance of warships, building upon its earlier assurance of further assisting the country in modernizing and training its armed force. Also, India is in advanced talks with Vietnam to sell Brahmos hypersonic missiles and Akash surface-to-air missile defence systems. But its export remains undecided since selling Brahmos missiles to Pacific countries can be seen as a challenge to China.  [The Times of India] [The Times of India 2] [The Wire] [Naval Post]

24 August 2021

Philippines: Duterte to announce his vice-president candidacy

(nd) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to run for the ruling PDP-Laban party as vice president in next year’s election, arguably prolonging his hold on power in another position. This would likely mean a continuity of the government’s programs. During the national assembly on September 8, Duterte is expected to endorse his aide and incumbent senator Christopher “Bong” Go to be the presidential candidate for next year’s election. Observers say his candidacy as vice president was a backdoor to the presidency, taking over when the ally-president Go resigns. 

Another incentive for Duterte to run for vice-president is arguably the immunity the position grants, shielding him from possible legal action coming from the ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his war on drugs.

The presidential office is limited to one consecutive six-year term. The president and vice president are elected separately in polls, with candidacies for next year’s election have to be filed by October. [Reuters] [Inquirer] [Nikkei 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.

17 August 2021

South China Sea: China ends fishing moratorium in disputed waters

(lm) Thousands of Chinese trawlers headed out into the South China Sea on August 16, as the 3.5-months long fishing memorandum in waters hotly contested by Beijing and its neighbors ended. [Global Times] [South China Morning Post]

China on April 27 had announced an annual fishing moratorium in the waters it claims in the South China Sea, which constitute a vital fishing area crucial for the country’s food security. Imposed since 1999, Beijing claims the restrictions a part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology.

This year’s moratorium, which came into effect on May 1, was considered the toughest ever, with a number of new technologies such as satellite positioning, video surveillance and big data management used for maritime law enforcement.

The trawlers will be competing for catches with fleets from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, which also lay claims to the South China Sea.

Other countries have accused China of mobilizing fishermen and their boats as part of a “gray-zone” strategy — coercive force short of war — to occupy reefs in the disputed waterway – claims that Beijing denies. Analysts say China maintains the sea’s most obvious maritime militia, although it had in recent years reduced the involvement of civilians in its maritime disputes, in favor of enhancing its coastguard and other official law enforcement forces [see also AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

17 August 2021

Philippines: Pacquiao possibly to be expelled from PDP-Laban

(nd) The ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) has threatened to expel Sen. Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao. Allegedly, Pacquiao plans convert his local party the People’s Champ Movement (PCM) into a national party. Evidence for this move comes from minutes to a PCM meeting in December 2020, circulated in social media, showing that the central committee of the PCM led by Pacquiao met to amend the party’s constitution and by-laws for it to become a national political party.

PCM was founded by Pacquiao in 2009 as a regional political party, closely affiliated with the PDP-Laban.

Pacquiao’s expulsion would be the latest of a string of tensions between him and the faction of Energy Minister Alfonso Cusi. In July, Cusi was elected as PDP-Laban’s president after Pacquiao’s ousting. Additionally, the call from party members to urge Rodrigo Duterte to run again was opposed by Pacquiao. [Manila Times]

17 August 2021

Philippines: 16 communist guerrillas killed 

(nd) In an air, sea and ground operation against communist guerrillas, government forces killed 16 in the country’s East. The death toll could rise as fighting continues. There were no casualties on government side reported.

The New People’s Army (NPA) is the military wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). NPA has been waging one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies, which began in 1969. In 2017, Rodrigo Duterte ended peace talks, accusing the rebels of carrying out deadly attacks despite the negotiations. Both CPP and NPA were declared as terrorist organizations last year. CPP’s political wing, the National Democratic Front, was added in June and its bank accounts frozen. [Benar News]

17 August 2021

Philippines: Court to dismiss libel case against journalist Maria Ressa

(nd) Last week, one of several lawsuits against Rappler journalist Maria Ressa was dismissed. 

The cyber-libel case was about her report on a college professor allegedly taking money in exchange for good grades. Ressa has been targeted frequently because of her critical reports on President Rodrigo Duterte, published on news outlet Rappler, for which she does the editing. Ressa was named Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for fighting media intimidation, which has raised international concern about the harassment of journalists in the Philippines. In this case and the previous libel case she faced, the complainants withdrew and the cases were dismissed. A conviction for cyber-libel over a 2012 article linking a businessman to illegal activities is pending appeal, facing up to six years in jail.

Duterte has called Rappler a “fake news outlet” sponsored by American spies. Ressa has a dual Filipino-US citizenship. [Channel News Asia]

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

Philippine representative to Taiwan to explain top priorities

(nd) The recently appointed Philippine representative to Taiwan, Gilberto Lauengco, announced his top priorities for his position, naming the promotion of the welfare of Filipino workers and enhancing trade and agricultural development between the two countries. 150,000 Filipino workers are in Taiwan currently. Lauengco has been active in speaking for Filipinos living abroad, urging the Taiwanese government to include them in the national vaccination scheme after a cluster of 123 infected Filipinos was uncovered, a call which was later joined by his counterparts of Indonesia and Thailand. With respect to bilateral trade, Lauengco aims to simplify investment procedures, and streamline the visa application process in an effort to attract Taiwanese investment to the Philippines. Additionally, he wishes to implement Taiwanese agricultural technologies in the Philippines and have student exchange programs to learn agricultural skills. Upon a question, Lauengco clarified he was granted significant leeway to navigate the official constraints of Manila’s “one China” policy. [Taiwan News]

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

India deploys warships in South China Sea to expand security ties with friendly countries

(lm) India is sending four warships into the South China Sea on a two-months deployment that will include exercises with friendly countries, signaling New Delhi’s intent to play a bigger role in regional efforts to counter China. [Reuters]

The task force, which includes a guided-missile destroyer, guided missile frigate, anti-submarine corvette and guided-missile corvette, will depart India early this month, the country’s Defense Ministry announced on August 2, without giving a specific departure date. [CNN]

As part of their deployment, the warships will take part in the annual Exercise Malabar, along with the United States, Japan and Australia. The four countries make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue a loose strategic coalition that is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. [South China Morning Post]

In other bilateral exercises during the deployment, the Indian warships will work with naval units from South China Sea littoral states, including Singapore (SIMBEX), Vietnam, Indonesia (Samudra Shakti), and the Philippines. [Voice of America]

The South China Sea has become a hotbed of naval activity in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a British aircraft carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth transited the disputed waterway, while an American surface action group, and forces from China’s People’s Liberation Army staged exercises in it. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]

Last week, Germany also sent a frigate to the South China Sea for the first time in almost two decades, as part of efforts by Berlin to show an “increased presence” in the region and demonstrate solidarity with allies and “like-minded” partners. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

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]

10 August 2021

Philippines: VP to claim to unify opposition

(nd) Vice President Leni Robredo from the Liberal Party (LP) announced her aim to unite the opposition to support a single candidate for the 2022 elections. Robredo stressed the country could not endure another six years of the same kind of governance as the one established by President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Downplaying rumors about her own possible bid for the presidency run, Robredo reiterated the broader importance of the election, considering the mismanagement of the pandemic and economic repercussions. Ever since Duterte took office, him and Robredo were at odds, but her criticism grew louder amid the current health crisis. 

Besides Robredo, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Senators Panfilo Lacson, Grace Poe, Richard Gordon, and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio are rumored to run for office. So far, only Lacson has openly stated his political plans. 

Recently, Robredo talked with Lacson and Gordon for a possible unity coalition for 2022. Their talks, however, ended unfavorably with their inability to agree on a unification plan. Additionally, Robredo confirmed to be in “exploratory” talks with Senator and boxer Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao used to be the president of the ruling PDP-Laban but was effectively ousted during a party assembly on July 17. In preparation for the 2022 elections, the faction of Energy Secretary Al Cusi declared all leadership positions in the party as vacant. Following, Cusi was elected to take over Pacquiao’s post.              

Still, other key opposition figures, like LP vice chairman, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, are in favor of Robredo’s strategy in an effort to boost the opposition’s chances of winning the upcoming election. [Inquirer] [Rappler]

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]

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

Philippines reverses course, renews key military agreement with the United States

(nd) Following months of uncertainty, the Philippines have walked back on a decision to end a crucial military agreement with the United States, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced on July 30 during a visit by her US counterpart Lloyd Austin. [Channel News Asia] [France24] [USNI News]

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), originally signed in 1988, facilitates the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for counterterrorism cooperation, disaster relief operations, and hundreds of training engagements each year. It also makes possible the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a 2014 deal under which US forces are to gain access and fund upgrades to Philippine military bases for, among other things, a strengthened deterrent against Chinese aggression. [CNN]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had previously vowed to terminate the agreement, but had repeatedly pushed back the expiration date, most recently in June after months of negotiations between the two sides [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. Many analysts had interpreted the about-face as a sign that the Philippine leader was worried about China’s growing military assertiveness.

3 August 2021

US Secretary of Defense Austin visits Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines to fortify regional ties

(ct/nd/lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was on a Southeast Asia swing last week, meeting with leaders in Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, in an effort to rebuild ties after monthslong absence by US top officials in a region that has been aggressively courted by China. [U.S. Department of Defense]

Austin’s visit was the first by a US Cabinet member to Southeast Asia since President Biden took office in January. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in late May and early June and Japan, South Korea and Mongolia last month before heading to China for talks that appeared to do little to ease deeply strained ties.

The choices assume added significance, because among the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, those are the three that are most strategically aligned with the United States and most supportive of a robust American presence in the region. They are also the three in which some attention from Washington is likely to deliver concrete progress in the short to medium term, according to analysts. [The New York Times] [Center For Strategic & International Studies]

The centerpiece of the secretary’s time in Singapore was his speech at a lecture organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. It was intended to reassure allies and partners that Washington was still invested in the region after not having showed high-level diplomatic attention for half a year. [see also article in this edition].

Austin’s visit to Singapore was also aimed at making progress on some crucial bilateral partnerships. While meeting with his counterpart Ng Eng Hen, the two reaffirmed the importance of the US-Singapore defense relationship, which is critical to Washington’s naval presence, in particular.

Both sides also reaffirmed previous agreements, including the 2019 renewal of the pact that allows American access to Singaporean facilities, and plans for Singapore Air Force F-16s and F-35s to train in Guam. Significantly, the two top officials said they would continue “discussions on U.S. force posture initiatives,” a sign that the city-state is open to additional US access in the future. [The Straits Times]

In Vietnam on July 29, Austin sought to nudge forward security ties that have been steadily deepening amid shared concern about China’s activities in the South China Sea.

He arrived in the midst of the crippling COVID-19 pandemic and just days after Washington shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam. The trip also came just days after the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative formally closed a Section 301 investigation into alleged currency manipulation by Vietnam [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. This followed a deal between the US Treasury Department and State Bank of Vietnam, putting to rest a years-long sticking point in the relationship and removing the risk of sanctions. [Office of the United States Trade Representative] [Voice of America]

Austin met with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc to discuss cooperation on COVID-19. Together with is Vietnamese counterpart, he also signed a memorandum of understanding that expands support to Vietnam’s efforts to locate and identify Vietnamese killed or missing during the Vietnam War.

After leaving Vietnam, Austin headed to the Philippines and scored a significant success when its President Rodrigo Duterte restored a pact governing the movement of US troops in and out of the country, something strategically vital for Washington’s efforts to counter China. [The Hill] [see article below]

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.

3 August 2021

Philippines: Faustino appointed next Chief of Staff of Armed Forces

(nd) Lt. Gen. Jose Faustino was appointed as the next Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) by President Rodrigo Duterte, replacing Gen. Cirilito Sobejana. Faustino, however, is set to retire in November, prompting Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier to hint that a “higher position” was waiting for Faustino. Currently, Faustino is the commander of the Joint Task Force for peace and security in Mindanao. [News Info]

27 July 2021

Vietnam: Prime Minister to talk to Duterte

(ct) Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to coordinate closely in fostering the Viet Nam-Philippines relations across fields on the occasion of the 45th founding anniversary of the diplomatic ties between the two ASEAN member states. Specifically, the focus lay on their strategic partnership with respect to the South China Sea and their response to the global pandemic. Both sides agreed to expand bilateral cooperation to new areas such as digital transformation, digital economy, e-commerce, and green economy.

Also, they agreed to enhance cooperation and mutual support at multilateral mechanisms like the UN and ASEAN, coordinate closely in implementing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). [Vietnamnews] Economic cooperation between the two countries has increased, with the bilateral trade turnover more than doubled in the last ten years. The Philippines is the fifth-largest trading partner and Vietnam’s largest rice importer [Vietnamtimes] [DFA]

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]

27 July 2021

Already strained China-UK relations to worsen over aircraft carrier presence in the South China Sea

(dql) Reflecting the UK’s determination to establish a strong and persistent military presence in the Indo-Pacific, the United Kingdom aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth entered the South China Sea and arrived in Singapore on Tuesday, in defiance of warnings from Beijing to stay out of the region. The HMS Queen Elizabeth is leading a Royal Navy’s carrier strike group visiting over 40 countries as part of a 28-week global deployment which began in May. The strike group involves – among other foreign warships – also the US destroyer USS The Sullivans, the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen and the U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Attack Squadron. [Newsweek] [Defense News]

On Monday eight ships of the carrier strike group conducted for the first time a passage exercise with the Republic of Singapore Navy. [Straits Times]

Earlier last week, the Queen Elizabeth and the carrier strike group conducted complex maritime exercises with the Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal, followed by a joint military exercise with the Royal Thai Navy over the weekend. A series of multinational exercises in the Philippine Sea is next on the agenda as well as the participation in the Exercise Bersama Gold, together with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. [Hindustan Times] [Bangkok Post] [Navy Recognition]

Also last week, London announced a permanent deployment of two warships in Asian waters after the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and escort ships after sailing to Japan in September. [Aljazeera]

Meanwhile, British Ministers are looking into ways to block China’s involvement in future UK nuclear power projects, possibly affecting the Sizewell C project, a project to construct a nuclear power station in Suffolk, in which state-owned China General Nuclear is set to play a key role. [The Guardian]

27 July 2021

Philippines: Supreme Court to rule on Duterte’s ICC decision

(nd) The Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that the president can unilaterally withdraw from international agreements if they are found to be contrary to the 1987 Constitution or laws, backing president Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw from the Rome Statute. Still, the court ruled, the Philippines are obligated to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which includes the possibility of “government actors” to be prosecuted for actions committed before the withdrawal, dismissing Duterte’s claim of a lack of ICC’s jurisdiction. 

The Rome Statute established the ICC, the first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The request for a formal inquiry by former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is currently pending before the Pre-Trial Chamber, which is composed of three ICC judges. [Manila Standard]

27 July 2021

Philippines: Radio commentator gunned down

(nd) Radio commentator Reynante Cortes was shot dead after leaving dyRB radio station in the morning. Cortes was an outspoken critic on local issues, which could be the motive according to the police. 

The Philippines regularly ranks among the world’s deadliest countries for journalists and media workers. Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, Cortes was the 22nd media worker to be killed. [Benar News]

27 July 2021

Philippines: Duterte’s State of the Nation Address

(nd) In his sixth State of the Nation Address (SONA), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued to support what critics refer to as his soft stance towards China, which is still supplying 60% of the country’s vaccinations. Although he reinforced that he wants to cooperate with all countries, he did not clarify the still open issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, which will likely be subject of debate during US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines.

He did not admit failures in his brutal war on drugs but called it far from over. Before his speech, hundreds of activists protested against his handling of the pandemic and his rights abuses. Instead of addressing the dire situation due to Covid-19, he repeated threats he made against his “enemies” earlier. In 2016, Duterte promised to fight corruption, crime and illegal drugs, and announced a unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, waging a decades-long armed insurgency. Not only did he not accomplish these promises but he is likely to face a trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the war on drugs, following the announcement of the ICC prosecutor’s office in June to request an investigation.

Despite all this, Duterte remains unusually popular for a president in his last term, and due to his majority support in Congress, he is expected to urge lawmakers to pass bills to complete his tax agenda, and to open the economy to foreign investors. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asia 1] [Nikkei Asia 2] [Manila Times]

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.

20 July 2021

Philippines: Labor leader to file complaint against red-tagging

(nd) Last week, leaders of labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) filed formal complaints against online red-tagging by state-sponsored social media pages before the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). They argue that the Duterte administration and his anti-insurgency task force orchestrated the online red-tagging of labor leaders. They are also demanding for the posts to be taken down. Although red-tagging has resulted in many violent deaths already, there are no laws criminalizing the activity. [Rappler]

20 July 2021

Philippines: Pacquiao to lose party leadership

(nd) Philippine senator, boxer and possible contender of current president Rodrigo Duterte, Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao in a vote last week lost his post as party president of the ruling party. Pacquiao used to support Duterte’s war on drugs but criticized him for being too soft with China and not rigorously enough fighting corruption. 

The vote was called by faction of the ruling democratic party, led by Duterte ally Alfonso Cusi, who was elected party president. The vote was necessary because officials were past their two-year term limit. Duterte remained chairman. Pacquiao, who is currently training for a title match in the US, took oath as the party’s president in December and has not yet announced his presidential bid. [Nikkei Asia]

20 July 2021

Philippines: Duterte-Duterte as president and vice president

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte said he might run for Vice President (VP) in what critics say an effort to receive legal immunity from any potential lawsuits. However, Far Eastern University (FEU) law dean rebuked Duterte, saying that the constitution does not guarantee the VP’s immunity. [Rappler] Moreover, Duterte claimed he would seek help from the Supreme Court in case he is unfairly brought into the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his controversial war on drugs. [Manila Bulletin]

Meanwhile, according to an opinion poll of 2,400 respondents by Pulse Asia, Duterte had 18% support for a vice presidency and his daughter Sara 28% for the presidential position, ranked number one in candidates. Duterte is legally barred from a second term, but critics have circulated his plan to retain power as a number two, taking over from a resigning president. Months after denying running for presidents and following comments by Rodrigo Duterte he would not want his daughter to be president, Sara, his successor as Davao mayor, announced to be open to run for presidency only last week. [Reuters]

20 July 2021

Philippines: Anti-‘communist’ funds to be revisited?

(lp) The Philippine National Police’s (PNP) has barely utilized the anti-insurgency allocation it received from the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) for 2020. The PNP says it can transparently spend the remaining funds before the year ends. [Rappler] Otherwise, Bayan Munda and the rest of the Makabayan bloc would oppose and block the additional P40 billion Barangay Development fund (BDF) that the NTF-ELCAC would request for 2022, since the currently allocated money has not been accounted for yet. [Inquirer]

Meanwhile, the Philippines and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signifying a mutual commitment to enhance the country’s capabilities to detect and prevent terrorists using passenger data. [Philippine News Agency]

Most recently, the Anti-Terrorist Council (ATC) designated the National Democratic Front Party (NDF) as a terrorist organization, so the government can now move to freeze their assets. According to the Council’s ruling, they had “verified and validated information” that the NDF “committed, or attempting to commit, or conspire in the commission of the acts defined and penalized” under the ATA (Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020), and it is “organized, controlled, acting on behalf of or at the direction of, and operated by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) — a designated terrorist organization”. [Manila Bulletin

20 July 2021

US to visit Southeast Asian countries

(nd) The Pentagon announced that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam later this month. The trip is to demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration gives to the region and the coordination with the regional bloc ASEAN as part of the US’s Indo-Pacific’s architecture. These efforts shall mitigate the economic influence gained by China in the last years. Also, the end of tenure of largely pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte next year is seen as a chance to renew decades-old military ties in the Philippines. [Reuters]

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

Philippines probes alleged waste-dumping, maintains patrols in South China Sea

(lp) The US-based geospatial intelligence company Simularity reported that hundreds of ships were dumping raw sewage in the Spratlys, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced to investigate the allegations. [Reuters]

For months, the government has been criticized for allowing China to intrude and exploit Philippine territory. Just recently, China dismissed the 2016 Hague Arbitral Award to the Philippines as ‘nothing more than a piece of waste paper’, which remained uncommented by the Filipino side. At the beginning of his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte did not exert the rights granted to the Philippines in the award but reasserted China has been a generous friend. This contrasts with to a recently much higher level of monitoring and interference by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and has prompted the director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs on Law of the Sea (IMLOS) to suggest that these efforts were motivated by the upcoming presidential elections. [Philippine Star] [Radio Free Asia] [Manila Bulletin]

13 July 2021

Philippines: Supreme Court to decide anti-terrorism law by end of 2021

(lp) The Supreme Court (SC) hopes that the decision on 37 petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020 can be handed down by Dec. 2021. The SC had conducted oral arguments on the petitions and had required the parties to submit their respective memorandum, which were received only a few weeks ago. [Philstar]

13 July 2021

Philippines: Cops charged with homicide over anti-illegal drugs operation that killed a minor

(lp) Ten police officers were charged with homicide this week for killing a minor during an anti-illegal drugs operation last month. The complaint filed in the City Prosecutor’s Office against the ten policemen, including the head of the team of operatives from the Laguna PPO Intelligence Branch PCapt Fernando Credo, was based on the complaint-affidavit of the teenager’s mother. [Manila Bulletin]

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

Philippines: Assistance after plane crash killed over fifty, injured dozens

(lp) The Philippine Red Cross provides psychological first aid to those affected by the C-130 aircraft that crashed in Patikul, Sulu. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will procure more aircraft to improve their fleet. The AFP recently received five million Philippine pesos worth of financial assistance from lawmakers, other stakeholders for the victims of the crash. [Manila Bulletin] [Philippine News Agency]

The United States Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III offered to provide any additional assistance that is possible, including for the crash response and potential identification of victims. [Rappler]

13 July 2021

Philippines eyes new law measuring legitimate territories in South China Sea

(lp) Retired Supreme Court (SC) associate justice Francis Jardeleza, along with international law consultant Melissa Loja, professor Romel Bagares proposed a new measure to clearly identify by name and coordinates at least one hundred features being claimed and occupied in the South China Sea. This law would increase clarity for the country’s maritime law enforcers to protect national territory. [Manila Bulletin]

Unlike other cases where confrontation was avoided, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) issued a radio challenge which drove away five Chinese, two Vietnamese vessels from Marie Louise Bank. Just like in May, when the PCG called out and forced some Chinese vessels to disperse from Sabina Shoal. [Rappler]

Moreover, the House Committee on Natural Resources approved House Bill No. 36, which declares a portion of the Philippine Rise as a protected area. However, a fisher’s group protested that this bill is insufficient to uphold territorial rights because it covers less than a quarter of the Philippine Rise and does not provide a concrete plan for the future of this area. Moreover, this bill allegedly would prevent local commercial fishing fleets from fishing, while leaving the area exposed to foreign industrial fishing vessels. [Business World]

Meanwhile, the United States reaffirmed their commitment to the Philippines against armed attack in the South China Sea, according to their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Similarly, Canada aired concern over China’s actions in the South China Sea. [CNN] [Mirage 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

Japan, Philippines hold first ever joint air force drills

(dql) In a historic first, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Air Force on Monday kicked off four-day joint exercises near Manila. The drills cover training in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, involving an ASDF C-130H strategic transporter. [Nippon]

The drills come on the heels of an agreement between Japan’s Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in May to strengthen diplomatic relations as both Tokyo and Manila are locked in separate territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, respectively.

Meanwhile, a Philippine Air Force plane carrying troops bound for counterinsurgency operations in the southern Philippines crashed on the southern island of Jolo on Sunday. Of the 96 soldiers and crew members aboard, 49 were killed. [Aljazeera]

6 July 2021

Philippines: Human Rights Watch demands dropping of new militia plans

(dql) Human Rights Watch has called on the Philippine government to drop its plan to organize new militias, citing the potential of worsening the country’s “disastrous human rights situation,” and “its long history of arming civilians in militias or other organized groups that have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other rights violations committed with impunity.”

The call refers to an announcement of Philippine National Police chief, Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, last month saying that the “Global Coalition of Lingkod Bayan Advocacy Support Groups and Force Multipliers,” has been established, consisting of eleven “international and local organizations,” and supposed to assist the government in fighting crime and illegal drugs as well as the country’s long-running communist insurgency. [Human Rights Watch]

29 June 2021

Philippines receives arms, HIV-prevention drugs from the US

(lp) The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) received 183 million Philippine pesos worth of weapons, defense equipment from the United States (US), including machine guns, mortars, communication equipment, personal protective equipment, night fighting equipment, and other combat and support equipment. [Manila Bulletin]

Moreover, the US launched the P500 million President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in the Philippines and donated over twenty thousand bottles of HIV-prevention drugs or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help the Philippines’ Department of Health. [Philippines News Agency]

29 June 2021

Philippines: One hundred more Chinese ships in Philippine territory

(lp) A report by the US-based geospatial intelligence firm Simularity reported that Chinese vessels increased from 129 in mid-May to 238 in mid-June. As of late, not much debate has happened regarding China’s continuous incursion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. But Senator Risa Hontiveros recently called on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to summon China’s ambassador to the Philippines once again to inquire about their increasing presence. [Manila Bulletin]

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

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

Philippines: Those refusing vaccination to get arrested?

(lp) Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to arrest those who refuse vaccinations. While the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo attempted justifying arrest as a means to maintain ‘national security’ amidst a national health emergency, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) clarified that Duterte’s threat has no legal basis. [Philippine Star] [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin]

29 June 2021

Philippines: Arming civilian groups to reduce crime?

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed support for the idea of arming a recently launched coalition of citizen volunteers, the Global Coalition of Lingkod Bayan Advocacy Support Groups and Force Multipliers, to increase the forces of the government for keeping peace and order in the country. Duterte’s call to arm the coalition received overwhelming criticism, rejection from senators, the left-wing organizations’ alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, and civil groups arguing the move would only intensify violence, crime, impunity. [Inquirer 1]

Before arming civilians, the government should consider preventing abuse, eradicating impunity at the hands of existing law enforcement agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP). Besides the cherry-picked 81 cases of deaths in drug war operations being reviewed by the Department of Justice, irregularities committed by law enforcers resulted in the Supreme Court acquitting six persons jailed in illegal drugs cases. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Standard]

Moreover, arming civilians is even more dangerous when considering the administration’s armed conflict against the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), who recently killed one, injured two civilians in their attack against a construction site in Lanuza. In another recent encounter, the military killed an NPA member who had killed a farmer. Meanwhile, fifteen barangays, the country’s smallest administrative units,received twenty million Philippine pesos as part of anti-NPA projects, 316 will follow until 2022. But the benefits of these programs might be jeopardized by arming civilians. [Philippine News Agency] [Inquirer 2] [Manila Bulletin 2]

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]

22 June 2021

Japan-Philippines relations: Memorandum on space cooperation concluded

(dql) Japan and the Philippines signed a space cooperation agreement which provides a framework for potential cooperation in various fields, including space applications, satellite development, capacity building for space technology, space science and space exploration, as well as space industry promotion.

The agreement follows earlier cooperation between the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in the development of satellites in this year. [Inquirer.Net]

In a separate development, Japan’s parliament approved a bill that allows private business operators to explore and use space resources and other non-living resources in outer space, on the Moon and other celestial bodies. Japan is after the US, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates the fourth country to have a law for the exploration and exploitation of space resources. [Space News]


22 June 2021

Philippines: International Criminal Court eyes probe on human rights violations

(lp) The outgoing prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda sought authorization from The Hague Tribunal to open a full investigation into the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing ‘war on drugs’. The case will be soon turned over to Bensouda’s successor, Karim Khan. [Al Jazeera]

On the one hand, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) urged the government to cooperate in this investigation. Moreover, families of war on drugs victims welcomed the prosecutor’s move. The Child Rights Network (CRN) also supports this investigation because it would give justice to 122 children who died during the war on drugs. [GMA Network] [Deutsche Welle] [Manila Bulletin 1]

On the other hand, the government dismissed the deaths of civilians as mere ‘collateral damage’. Moreover, an ally of the Duterte administration challenged prosecutor Bensouda’s credibility because she had been included in the specifically designated national (SDN) list of the US government under former President Donald Trump. Similarly, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) deplored the prosecutor’s move arguing that the Philippine government has already taken steps to ‘address’ the war on drugs, such as the recent finalization of the United Nations Joint Program on Human Rights. [ABS-CBN] [Philippine Star] [Inquirer]

The ICC probe would not interfere with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ongoing review of cases involving deaths in illegal drugs operations, according to a Justice. [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, police killed a sixteen years old teen during an anti-drug operation in Laguna, and Army soldiers killed, besides other two individuals, a twelve years-old child during an alleged encounter with ‘communist’ rebels. Just like Duterte has repeatedly encouraged soldiers to kill ‘rebels’ throughout his war on drugs, he gave a reward of eleven million Philippine pesos to some military units for killing reportedly NPA leaders. [Rappler] [Benar News] [Manila Times]


15 June 2021

Philippines: No escalation of territorial dispute, xxtension of cooperation agreement with the United States.

(lp) Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said this week that the dispute over the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea is not too important to undermine bilateral relations between these countries. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the 46th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the Philippines, all while ignoring the latter’s diplomatic protests with Chinese ships on Philippine territory. In turn, President Rodrigo Duterte did not mention the territorial dispute, but rather celebrated, hoped for long-lasting diplomatic ties with China. [ABS-CBN] [Philippine Star 1]

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture (DA) claimed that the increased presence of Bureaus of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) operatives in the South China Sea boosted the confidence of Filipinos to catch fish in the area. Moreover, the Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) visited Pagasa Island, which is eyed to convert into a logistics hub for their forces deployed in the area, to assert the Philippines’ claims over the territory. Furthermore, the alliance of activist fisherfolk groups PAMALAKAYA held a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy to denounce China’s incursion into Philippine territory. [Philippine News Agency] [Reuters] [SupChina]

Besides a bill to identify the Philippines’ maritime zones, some Filipino officials are pushing for increased strength of the AFP maritime forces, preservation of coral reefs, protection of the deep sea. [South China Morning Post] [Philippine Star 2] [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin 1]

During a recent assembly, the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China vowed to avoid activities that could escalate tension in the contested South China Sea. Meanwhile, Duterte extended the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US for six more months so that he can review it more closely. He had previously demanded the US to explain their inaction in the 2012 Panatag standoff, when China took islands from the Philippines, before discussing the VFA. [Manila Standard] [Manila Bulletin 2] [Radio Free Asia]



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.

15 June 2021

Philippines: Duterte rejects peace talks with rebels

(lp) After the landmine attack reportedly committed by the New People’s Army (NPA), President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not pursue peace talks with ‘communist’ rebels. Later, the Philippine National Police (PNP) lamented that the NPA did not turn over suspects behind the attack, even though it did recognize its participation. However, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) incorrectly accused three persons slain during the alleged encounter as NPA members, even though they are reportedly just farmers. [The Manila Times] [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin]

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]

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

Philippines: ‘Communist’ rebels accused of landmine explosion, burning bus, and ambush

(lp) The Philippine National Police (PNP) will probe the landmine explosion in Masbate, and the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) will also investigate the burning of a passenger bus in North Cotabato allegedly committed by members of the New People’s Army (NPA). Moreover, President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the attack on troops involved in a food aid mission in Quezon reportedly conducted by NPA members. What is more, Duterte emphasized that he will not engage in peaceful dialogue with NPA members until such attacks stop. [ABS-CBN] [Manila Bulletin] [GMA Network]

NPA members were recently classified as ‘persona non grata’ through resolutions emitted by 84 percent of local government units (LGUs). [Manila Times]

8 June 2021

Philippines: Anti-insurgency funds an extended election budget?

(lp) The PDP-Laban party showed its support for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) when more than 100 national council members unanimously passed a resolution to support the retention of 16.4 million Philippine pesos at the party National Convention. In contrast, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon vowed to oppose next year’s budget of the NTF-ELCAC arguing it would be used in the interests of the dominant party during the election season. [Manila Bulletin] [Rappler]

8 June 2021

Philippines: Release of drug war police records does not threaten national security

(lp) Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon confirmed that drug war police records do not involve national security, after President Rodrigo Duterte invoked it to justify that the government cannot release them. Moreover, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) criticized Duterte’s claim as a regression of the government’s alleged commitment to uphold human rights. [CNN] [Rappler] [Inquirer]

Against this background, it is difficult to foresee what impact the funds would have set to be provided by the United Nations (UN) to help the Philippine government curb reported human rights violations during illegal drugs operations. [Manila Bulletin]

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued in October 2020 a resolution on technical cooperation and capacity-building for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. [AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, more than 100 human rights organizations have issued an open letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmund and Secretary of Justice Guevarra Secretary voicing  “profound and urgent concern” over the “gravity of [the human rights] situation,” and demanding that they – among others – “[s]top the killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, judicial harassment, threats and red-tagging against human rights defenders,” and “[c]onduct prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into the killings, arrests, detentions, searches and other forms of persecution of human rights defender.” [FIDH]

1 June 2021

Malaysia: Eight Abu Sayyaf group members handed over to the Philippine authorities

(tcy) On May 28, Malaysian security forces handed the eight members of the Abu Sayyaf group previously detained in Beaufort on May 8 over to the Philippine security forces. The detainees include a ‘sub-leader’ in the Abu Sayyaf group wanted by the Philippine security forces. The Sabah police commissioner said that security and intelligence control would be stepped up to track down the remaining members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the state. [Bernama]

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].

1 June 2021

Philippines to investigate police liability for suspects’ deaths during Duterte’s admin

(lp) The Philippine National Police (PNP) allowed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review only 61 cases where police officers involved have reportedly been found administratively and criminally liable for murder. While Vice President Leni Robredo lauded this move, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and Human Rights Watch distrusted it because it allegedly cherry-picks too few cases amongst the much-greater number of almost eight thousand deaths in official law enforcement operations. Such cherry-picking or tokenism was also performed in the DOJ review that covered only 328 cases where the PNP did not follow protocol or examined cops’ weapons after they killed allegedly armed suspects resisting arrest. [Manila Bulletin] [Rappler]

Meanwhile, two elderly consultants to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) were killed in separate incidents. Their deaths increases the number of NDFP consultants killed to six since peace talks between the Front – a coalition of revolutionary social and economic justice 

organizations, agricultural and trade unions, indigenous rights groups, leftist political parties, and other related groups – with President Duterte collapsed in 2017. []

1 June 2021

Philippines to get Russian, South Korean, Turkish armament

(lp) The Philippines will get 90 Russian-made troop carriers, as announced by the Philippine Department of National Defense. The two countries also seek to strengthen their ties in the areas of vaccine, defense, space and energy cooperation. Moreover, the Department of National Defense (DND) will buy patrol vessels, submarines from South Korea for the Philippine Navy. And the Philippine Air Force expects to receive a first pair of Turkish T-129 attack helicopters in September. [Philippine Information Agency] [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin]


1 June 2021

Philippines lifts short suspension for travel to work in Saudi Arabia

(lp) The Philippine government lifted on Saturday a one-day suspension of travel to Saudi Arabia to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), which temporarily left over 200 OFWs stranded at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). The suspension was lifted because the Saudi government clarified that, contrary to the Philippines’ worry, OFWs would not have to cover the costs of mandatory ‘institutional quarantine’ and other COVID protocols. [Arab News]

Meanwhile, the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) is seeking the influx of Saudi investors to expand their engagement beyond the industries of engineering, architecture, design. [Manila Bulletin]


1 June 2021

Philippines increases protests, patrols against China’s presence in the South China Sea

(lp) During President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, the Philippines has already lodged one hundred diplomatic protests against China for the latter’s repeated, continuous incursion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Despite their numbers, these protests have hardly kept Chinese vessels in line. On the other hand, the Philippines has recently boosted patrols in the area, thereby, at least, increasing the country’s monitoring capacity. [The Star] [South China Morning Post]

Despite these protests and patrols, the income of Filipino fisherfolks has dramatically plummeted due to, at least partially, the continued presence of Chinese vessels in fishing grounds in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros warned that amendments to the Public Service Act (PSA), which would permit complete foreign ownership of public utilities, could facilitate China’s control over critical infrastructure in the Philippines. [Manila Bulletin] [ABS-CBN]

25 May 2021

Philippines: Marawi City to rehabilitate before end of Duterte’s term

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte was urged to certify a bill compensating victims of the five-months long war in Marawi. On March 23 of 2017, the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute Group took control of Marawi City, and the war against the government resulted in the killing of nearly one thousand terrorists and 250 government troops and civilians, injury of 1400, displacement of around 1.1 million residents. [Manila Standard]

Even though the war ended more than three years ago, the city is still undergoing rehabilitation. The government provided emergency assistance, water, food, clothing, financial and livelihood support, health services, hygiene and sanitation, biometric profiling to internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the first phase of rehabilitation from November 2017 to October 2018. Moreover, the government removed debris, recovered and detonated explosive devices during the second phase of rehabilitation from October 2018 to February 2020. Finally, the government is expected to complete the rehabilitation of infrastructure projects inside the most affected areas by December 2021 in accordance with the third phase of rehabilitation. [Manila Bulletin]

25 May 2021

Philippines, Australia to increase cooperation

(lp) The Philippines wants to buy six naval vessels from an Australian firm, but negotiations are still ongoing, as Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson confirmed ongoing talks with the Philippine Department of National Defense over Australia providing six offshore patrol  vessels, worth approximately 600 million USD, through shipbuilder Austal, an Australian-based global ship building company and defense prime contractor specializing in both defence and commercial vessels. 

Moreover, in a video message, marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between both countries, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison assured that the two countries will continue to cooperate to promote prosperity and freedom in the Indo-Pacific region. [CNN] [Philippine Star]


25 May 2021

Philippines, Japan to increase cooperation

(lp) Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga informed Philippine President Duterte during a phone call that Japan is slated to release a loan for 20 billion Japanese Yen which will help finance the Philippines’ pandemic response measures. Moreover, Duterte thanked Suga for Japan’s funding of subway and railway projects in the Philippines. Furthermore, the two leaders agreed to cooperate toward the maintenance of peace and stability in the East and South China Sea. [Manila Bulletin]

At the virtual Nikkei Future of Asia Conference on May 21, Duterte encouraged Japanese firms to invest more in the Philippine agricultural sector, public health system, agro-industrial business corridors. [Philippine Star]


25 May 2021

Philippines to protect Filipinos in Israel

(lp) The Philippines plans to restrict travel of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) to Israel in response to the escalation of conflict between the Israeli state and the militant group Hamas. Besides facilitating in-country evacuation away from conflict, the Philippine government prepares to evacuate Filipinos who wish to return to the Philippines, in compliance with its obligation to protect Filipinos in and out of the country. While the Philippines lauded the ceasefire pact between the Israeli state and the militant group Hamas, it has not communicated any change of plans. [Asian News International] [Manila Bulletin]

Moreover, the Philippines might have to review its employment agreements with Israel whenever the former allows OFWs to travel there again. For instance, the Philippine government could address these workers’ accusations that they are underpaid, forced to live in crowded spaces, hazardous working conditions. Or it could urge Israel to stop deporting OFWs if they marry or give birth. [The New York Times]

25 May 2021

Philippines, China to ease tensions in South China Sea

(lp) During the sixth meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea, the Philippines and China committed to ease tensions in the South China Sea through dialogue, to increase cooperation in fisheries, marine research and protection. However, it is highly unlikely that China will respect the Philippines’ maritime claims, especially because multiple investigations have confirmed the continuous expansion of Chinese maritime militia in the area. Moreover, talks regarding the payment to Filipino fishers whose boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel in 2019 are scheduled for June 2. [Philippine Star 1] [Radio Free Asia] [ABS-CBN 1]

Though avoiding direct confrontation, the Philippines has been signaling its intent to protect the country’s waters. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) installed lighted ocean buoys to assert sovereignty over the Philippine Rise area, which might be a site for oil exploration. Moreover, the PCG said it has intensified its training exercises in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the National Security Council (NSC) signed an agreement with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to implement satellite technology which will provide continuous, detailed monitoring of the country’s exclusive economic zones. The Philippines is also to acquire Israeli missile-capable patrol boats. [Business Mirror] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Inquirer 1] [The Defense Post]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte considered meeting with the country’s ex-presidents to discuss issues pertaining to the South China Sea, as an alternative to a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, which he deemed inconsequential. However, Duterte might drop both meetings because he prefers not to antagonize China that explicitly. Duterte is also still undecided whether to renew the Visit Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States this year. [Manila Standard] [Philippine Star 2]

18 May 2021

Vietnam expands fishing militia in South China Sea, according to Chinese research organization

(lm) Vietnam is building up its maritime militia in the South China Sea in an apparent response to Chinese efforts to dominate the disputed waterway, according to research by the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies. [Voice of America]

While the European Union has estimated that about 8,000 fishing boats and 46,000 fishermen are part of Vietnam’s maritime militia, the Chinese research organization numbers the militia between 46,000 to 70,000 personnel. It says 13 platoons with a combined 3,000 people operate near the sea’s contested Paracel Islands and another 10,000 people operate armed fishing boats off southern Vietnam.

When not catching fish, these trained fishermen participate in a broad range of paramilitary work, sometimes in cooperation with the Vietnamese navy. In fact, in 2009, Vietnam had passed a law that authorizes its maritime militia to conduct sea patrols and surveillance and confront and expel ining foreign vessels in defense of Vietnamese-controlled islands and reefs.

Both Beijing and Hanoi have a long history of maritime militia and proficiency in mobilizing fishermen and their boats as part of a “gray-zone” strategy —coercive force short of war— to occupy reefs in the South China Sea. Analysts say China maintains the sea’s most obvious maritime militia, although Beijing had in recent years reduced the involvement of civilians in its maritime disputes, in favor of enhancing its coastguard and other official law enforcement forces.

18 May 2021

Philippines: Counter-terrorism, anti-insurgency operatives to intensify

(lp) In response to the reported raid conducted by Islamic State (IS)-linked Bansamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) last week, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to launch an all-out offensive operation against BIFF if officials from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) could not help the Philippine government to quell the latest threat. Moreover, the Senate is to decide whether BARMM election polls will be deferred due to a concern that violence might escalate. Meanwhile, a non-Moro coalition of indigenous peoples opposes the deferment of elections because it infringes on their rights. [CNN] [Inquirer 1]

Meanwhile, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) appointed six additional spokespersons under the justification that the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) has increased its insurgent propaganda. Ironically, this comes after many Senators and various civil actors urged the government to reduce the funds of NTF-ELCAC due to its involvement in red-tagging activities and its questionable efficiency to eliminate insurgency. High-rank officials refused to reduce these funds since they are allegedly directed towards development projects that keep insurgency elements away, just as those started this week. The NTF-ELCAC and the Philippine National Police (PNP) are under the watch of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) for possibly having falsely accused more than 200 people of being rebels that recently surrendered. [ABS-CBN] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Inquirer 2]

Furthermore, the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) released a list of persons named as ‘terrorists’, including the chairman of the CPP-NPA. The list also includes most peace consultants in the Philippines, which the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) lawyers’ group explained had already been cleared by a trial court in Manila because they proved to be unconnected with the CPP-NPA. Those listed face criminal charges beyond only those stipulated by the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) enacted in 2020, which include the freezing of relevant assets.[Rappler 1] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, the Supreme Court (SC) heard the last oral arguments regarding the 37 petitions challenging the constitutionality of the ATA. Just like the government side had argued last week, retired Associate Justice Francis H. Jardaleza said that all petitions should be dismissed because the SC cannot override pending cases that are being tried in regional courts using the ATA. Moreover, Jardaleza held that the petitioners did not claim direct, personal, or constitutional injury, thereby lacking legal standing. On the other hand, former Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno claimed the SC should resolve the petitions with a balance between the protection of individual rights and the necessities of national security. [Rappler 2]


18 May 2021

The Philippines pushes the US away as Chinese vessels tighten control

(lp) Even though President Rodrigo Duterte has at times expressed a defeatist stance against China’s continuous intrusion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones, he emphasized that he will not withdraw the country’s patrol ships from the South China Sea. There are almost 300 Chinese Maritime Militia ships scattered across the area, some of which have obstructed Filipino fishers and coastguard patrols away from resource-rich Scarborough Shoal and other traditional fishing grounds. The Philippine government encouraged Filipino fishers to defy this fishing ban imposed by China. [Kyodo News] [Radio Free Asia] [ABS-CBN 1] [South China Morning Post 1] [Taipei Times]

Duterte emphasized that he will not allow any foreign intrusion into the Philippine Rise area, days after former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate President Vicente Sotto III suggested allowing China to conduct oil exploration in the area. Last month, Duterte said he would confront China if the latter extracted oil from the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. On the other end, Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned Duterte years ago against exploring for oil in the contested area. [Cebu Daily News] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Meanwhile, the Philippines and the US have finished a month-long training to strengthen maritime law enforcement. This comes just days after Duterte asked the US to leave the Philippines out of any armed conflict, reiterating his disapproving stance that it was the US who arranged a deal in 2012 to pull out from Scarborough Shoal and allowed China to take possession of this disputed territory. [Philippine Information Agency] [Philippine News Agency]

The Philippines attempts to increase its arms capacity to defend itself from China. For instance, officials are planning to procure attack submarines. However, Duterte also said that it would be ‘fine’ if the US does not provide arms to the Philippines. The US, though, recently approved Turkey to sell a military helicopter to the Philippines. Still, if no new Visiting Forces Agreement is signed, the US would have to pull out troops involved in counter-terrorism missions, which the Philippine government has been intensifying as the end of Duterte’s administration approaches. [Business Mirror] [ABS-CBN 2] [Manila Bulletin 2] [Middle East Eye] [South China Morning Post 2]

Duterte also expressed reluctance to seek help from the United Nations because China could veto any action to validate the Philippines’ claims to their exclusive economic zones. Most recently, Duterte instructed his Cabinet members to refrain from talking about the South China Sea issue in public. [Philippine Star] [Reuters]

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].

11 May 2021

Philippines: Government recapture market from Islamic State-linked armed organization

(lepdl) Armed men from the Islamic State (IS)-linked Bansamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) reportedly raided a public market in Datu Paglas, a municipality in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. But government forces gained control of the market soon after. They are also implementing tight security in several areas of Mindanao to prevent a war like that of the Marawi City siege in 2017, which lasted five months, killed, injured, displaced thousands. [CNN] [Manila Bulletin]

The BIFF attack happened as millions of Filipino Muslims prepared for their Ramadan fasting. Thus, the BIFF attack has been criticized for ‘disrespecting’ Islamic faith. President Rodrigo Duterte has recently declared May 13 an official holiday for Eid’l Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan month. [Benar News]

Moreover, the BIFF attack occurred as the budget for anti-insurgency agencies has been challenged.

11 May 2021

Philippines: Anti-insurgency agency rejects calls for defunding, reorganizing

(lepdl) The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) faces calls to be defunded, with parts of the budget to be re-allocated to Covid-19 programs. However, the NTF-ELCAC has argued that its budget prevents the re-emergence of ‘communist’ insurgency in over 800 ‘cleared’ towns through development projects. The Senate has questioned the unusually quick release of anti-insurgency agency’s budget during the past weeks. [Inquirer]

Moreover, the NTF-ELCAC faces calls to dismiss spokesperson Lt. General Antonio Parlade Jr for his involvement in red-tagging activities and his alleged violation of the 1987 Constitution for being an active member of the armed forces in a civilian position in the government. However, the NTF-ELCAC decided not only to retain Parlade, but also to acquire eight more spokespersons. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2]

The Supreme Court (SC) is hearing the oral arguments of the government to keep the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) enacted in 2020 and widely seen by its critics as seen to endangering human rights in the country. Most recently, the SC has challenged the loopholes of the most controversial provisions of the law.  

In turn, the NTF-ELCAC claimed that, once these oral arguments end, it will file cases against organizations allegedly supporting ‘communist’ insurgency, aiming – among others – to achieve the disqualification of nine groups from next year’s general election.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates have formally urged the Canadian government to stop providing anti-terrorism aid to the Philippines, citing an “epidemic of human rights violations.” [Rappler 1] [Rappler 2] [GMA]

4 May 2021

Philippines: Anti-Terrorism Act on trial

(lp) The government asked the Supreme Court (SC) to dismiss the 37 petitions that challenge the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which was enacted in 2020. The petitions accuse the ATA of facilitating red-tagging activities to oppress dissent or disrupt democratic processes. The government contends the ATA protects Filipinos not only from the threats of terrorism, but also from economic and financial insecurity. The Philippines shall pass an anti-terrorism law soon, otherwise the country might be blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental anti-money laundering watchdog, for failing to comply with international obligations. Moreover, the government argued that the ATA is involved in some pending trials and has been invoked against the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army. Furthermore, the government claimed that since the petitioners allegedly did not suffer any injury from ATA’s implementation, they lack legal standing to challenge the Act. [Manila Bulletin]

However, recent criticism against the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has called attention to the possible role of ATA in facilitating red-tagging activities. [Manila Standard] The oral arguments with the SC are expected to resume on May 4.

4 May 2021

Japan to equip Philippine military

(nd) Japan supplied self-defense equipment to the Philippines to strengthen defense ties in the wake of facing an ever more aggressive China in the East and South China Sea. In 2015, Japan altered its foreign aid charter, enabling the government to support foreign armed forces in noncombat areas through official development aid, including for disaster relief, infrastructure building and coast guard activities. August last year saw a $100 million agreement to enable Mitsubishi Electric Corp. to export an air radar system to the Philippines armed forces. The latest deal has an estimated ODA of 120 million yen ($1.1 million). Upon the completion of the delivery, trainings by Japanese forces will take place. [Jakarta Post]

4 May 2021

Philippines to remain patrolling South China Sea

(lp) Chinese ships still remain in parts of the South China Sea over which the Philippines has territorial claims. What is more, China urged the Philippines to “respect China’s sovereignty and rights” through a cease of maritime exercises in the area. Moreover, the Chinese Ambassador to Manila named the territorial conflict as mere “differences”, despite being summoned some weeks ago in request to remove the Chinese vessels from Philippine territory. [Manila Bulletin 1]

In turn, the Philippines continue to patrol the South China Sea with military and non-military ships, rejecting China’s plea to back off. According to a maritime expert, the diplomatic protests recently issued might have resulted in the decreasing presence of Chinese vessels in the area. Moreover, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) distributed relief supplies to fishermen to alleviate the negative impacts that Chinese incursion and continued patrols they might be incurring. [South China Morning Post 1] [Benar News] [ABS-CBN 1]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte communicated his lack of confidence that the US or the UN will assist the Philippines if conflict escalates. Duterte also claimed he considers China a “good friend” to which he owes a debt of gratitude for their vaccine donations. [Manila Bulletin 2] [ABS-CBN 2]

Via social media platform Twitter, the war of words got ugly, with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr calling China an “ugly oaf” and demanding it “get the f*** out” of Philippine maritime waters. It prompted analysts to warn of an actual war respectively further tensions as Chinese reaction. [South China Morning Post 2]

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

Philippines seeks abolition of Kafala system in West Asia

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte called for the abolition of the kafala system, which gives employers control over the mobility and legal status of foreign workers in a country. Duterte condemns the system because it increases the vulnerability of Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) to abuse and exploitation. Many Filipinas become OFWs because service work abroad allegedly provides greater financial security than the local job market. However, the link between local financial insecurity and the vulnerability caused by the Kafala system has made Filipino women targets of scams and human trafficking schemes. Moreover, immigration officers in the Philippines are under investigation for their involvement in such schemes. [Arab News] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Duterte had banned work for Filipinos in Kuwait in 2018 due to the abuse, exploitation, and murder of OFWs. Moreover, in March of this year Duterte signed a labor pact with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to halt trafficking of Filipinos via Dubai. The pact allows local recruitment agencies to deploy Household Service Workers (HSWs) legally in cooperation with Tadbeer, the new UAE labor office, which will handle the entry of all HSWs into Dubai. The two countries had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to protect migrant workers. [Straits Times] [Manila Bulletin 2] [Khaleej Times]


27 April 2021

Philippines to tolerate Chinese fishing, but displays disapproval

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte said he would tolerate ‘non-commercial’ fishing by China in Philippine territory of the South China Sea, as long as Filipinos are not prevented from fishing themselves. Filipinos have reported huge losses in their fish catch due to overfishing by Chinese vessels. The employment and food security of Filipinos are threatened not only by overfishing, but the cumulative damages to the maritime ecosystems caused by Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Besides local governmental and civil society groups, the US has expressed concerns over Chinese illegal fishing and ecosystem destruction in the area. The European Union (EU) also called for the crafting of a legally binding Code of Conduct to reduce tensions in the South China Sea. In turn, the Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) instructed their foreign ministers to hold meetings with China and the US to improve multilateral ties. Moreover, the EU released a new policy aimed at increasing its influence in the Indo-Pacific through areas from security to health. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Inquirer 1] [Voice of America] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Nonetheless, Duterte has not signed any fishing treaty in the South China Sea with China. Rather, the Philippines showcased its disapproval of Chinese incursion by filing two additional diplomatic protests against China. Similarly, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) deployed more ships and planes to increase patrols in the area. Moreover, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is considering building structures in the South China Sea to assert the country’s sovereignty. The Philippines has not been building these structures per Articles 60, 80, 246 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But since China already violated this agreement, the AFP awaits the consideration

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]


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

China endangers peace in the South China Sea, EU says

(dql) The European Union (EU) has accused China of endangering peace and stability in the South China Sea, citing “the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef,” claimed by China, Philippines, and Vietnam. Criticizing “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order,” Brussels urged all parties to abide by the ruling in the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration which rejected most of China’s claim to sovereignty in the sea. [EEAS] [Reuters]

The statement comes shortly after the Foreign Ministers of the 27 EU member states last week adopted the adopted the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” which, among others, called for “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, in the interest of all.” [AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]

27 April 2021

Philippines: Police clearance would result in labor rights violations 

The Philippine National Police (PNP) proposed that transactions with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) should require police clearances. However, Senators and labor groups have criticized this proposal because it would violate workers’ right to privacy, and consequently their right to join labor unions. Such mandatory collection of personal information would further endanger workers because of the red-tagging activities the PNP has been involved in. Moreover, a police clearance would run contrary to President Rodrigo Duterte’s orders to reduce bureaucracy (or ‘red tape’), since there is already a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) clearance in place. [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin]

27 April 2021

Philippines urged to increase climate change mitigation efforts

(lp) Greenpeace says the Philippines should commit to more unconditional action in its Paris Agreement pledge, which was submitted last week. According to Greenpeace, the Philippines should be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than the stated 2.71 percent without foreign assistance. Moreover, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) called on local government units (LGUs) to invest in the development of risk resiliency projects. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Philippine News Agency]

Parallelly, President Rodrigo Duterte stressed the need to pursue efforts that make the Philippines ‘climate-resilient’. However, Duterte’s message came days after he ordered a mining moratorium to be lifted, despite criticism from civil society and government officials. In fact, the Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CEC) accused the national government of causing the country to incur an ‘ecological deficit’ of P680 billion during the pandemic. Moreover, Philippine banks were criticized by the Withdraw from Coal (WFC) campaign for significantly funding local coal projects. It seems that WFC’s encouragement to advance sustainable energy projects has worked, since the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) committed to completely step away from financing coal by 2037. [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin 2] [Rappler]


27 April 2021

Philippines: Community pantries red-tagged, anti-insurgency funds challenged

(lp) Filipinos have set up hundreds of community pantries as an exercise of mutual aid to provide food and counter financial insecurity, amid the pandemic and inefficient response of the government. These community pantries were quickly red-tagged (accused of being affiliated with communist insurgents) by government authorities. Those at the front of red-tagging activities are ranking officials of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., Hermogenes Esperon Jr. [The New Lens] [Rappler 1] [Inquirer 1]

Along other government authorities, many civil society actors, including the Commission for Human Rights (CHR) and student organizations, strongly condemned the intimidation and harassment of red-tagging activities. Moreover, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is to investigate police officers involved in red-tagging. Furthermore, the Senate filed a resolution to condemn red-tagging of community pantry organizers. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte has encouraged community pantries to continue operations. [CNN] [ABS-CBN] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Due to the latest red-tagging activities, several government officials called for funds to be reduced from the NTF-ELCAC and redirected for financial assistance of those most affected by the pandemic. However, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque and Senate President Vicente Sotto rejected these calls because the budget of the NTF-ELCAC is allegedly used to promote the development of communities cleared of communist insurgency. Without this ‘development’, people would be vulnerable to recruitment by communist insurgency groups. In response, some Senators challenged the efficiency of these development projects, some of which are already being implemented by other agencies. [Inquirer 2] [Rappler 2] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, a ‘gag order’ was issued by Esperon against Parlade and another NTF-ELCAC spokesperson, instructing them to “desist from issuing further statements on the community pantries.” However, critics say that a gag order is not enough, and they should be removed from office. [CNN]

20 April 2021

Philippines seeks cooperation with Russia, India, France, Denmark

(lp) Besides securing 20 million Sputnik V vaccine doses from Russia, the Philippines expects further bilateral cooperation in defense, trade, investment, health. [Nikkei Asia]

The Philippines also expects vaccine supplies from India. In March, they maintained negotiations with the Serum Institute of India to not only obtain Novavax and AstraZeneca vaccines, but also to begin local production of vaccines in the Philippines. However, the latter was not mentioned in a recent phone conversation between the two countries’ leaders. [PhilStar 1] The Philippines just granted emergency use authority to Covaxin vaccines, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech. [PhilStar 2] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Moreover, the Philippines and France reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate in similar fields, especially in light of France’s new role as Development Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [Manila Bulletin 2]

Meanwhile, the Philippines also seeks AstraZeneca vaccines that were left suspended in Denmark due to reported cases of negative side effects. In fact, the Philippines will resume the use of AstraZeneca vaccines after public health organizations conducted a two-week evaluation, concluding that the benefits outweigh the risks. This decision illustrates the shortage of vaccine supplies the Philippines faces. [Manila Bulletin 3] [Inquirer 1]

Furthermore, the Philippine Department of Science and Technology (DOST) emphasized the need to provide incentives for pharmaceutical firms to manufacture vaccines in the country, in addition to the five to six year-income tax holiday and preferential treatment in biddings. For now, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is negotiating with six firms to begin local vaccine production by late 2022. [Inquirer 2]


20 April 2021

Coordination in the South China Sea: Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia

(lp) Last week, the Philippines and Malaysia reaffirmed their commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation signed in 1994. Similarly, Vietnam and Malaysia announced that they will sign a MOU this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security. Moreover, Malaysia and Indonesia will pursue a joint development of oil and gas elds on their maritime boundaries. These latest cooperation form part of a broader effort to find unified ranks towards China, dating back some years. Analysts welcomed the move, which could solidify the bargaining position of Southeast Asian Nations towards China, which prefers unilateral agreements. The biggest obstacle to such joint action were called “intramural differences” by experts among themselves, such as conflicts over illegal fishing, which are concentrating resources and limiting bargaining power. [Manila Bulletin] [South China Morning Post]

20 April 2021

Philippines to increase patrols in South China Sea, summons Chinese envoy

(lp) The Philippines summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huan Xilian and demanded that China withdraw all its vessels from Philippine maritime zones. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese vessels dispersed across these zones increased to at least 261. [Reuters 1] [Rappler]

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continued to patrol the South China Sea, not using warships or air forces that China could misinterpret as a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the US and the Philippines proceed with Balikatan, a two-week joint naval war exercise, which some officials worry could heighten tensions with China. Moreover, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called on the US for caution in their patrols, referring to the powerful US Navy’s 7th Fleet stationed in Japan. The US and the Philippines attempt to show military power without triggering war. [Bangkok Post] [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Most recently, the AFP also refuted rumors of a coup allegedly motivated by President Rodrigo Duterte’s inaction against China’s incursion. In stark contrast with his previous attitude towards Beijing, Duterte responded that he is willing to confront China, but he believes it would be futile and bloody. What is more, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US would not be activated if the Philippines starts the war, instead of being attacked. [CNN] [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) is verifying reports that China is undergoing deep-sea drilling in the South China Sea. This was reported by China’s state news agency, Xinhua, who did not specify where the drilling activity took place. Duterte claimed that, if these reports verify that China is drilling in Philippine territory, he would send warships to lay claim to the resources that China must “share.” [Manila Bulletin 2] [Reuters 2]

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

Philippines: Moratorium on new mining deals lifted through executive order

(lp) President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order to lift a nine-year moratorium on new mineral agreements in the country to increase revenues. Some officials welcome it as a way to pay the debts incurred throughout the pandemic, which also reduced the revenues from business process outsourcing (BPO) and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the two major industries of the country. [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin 1]

However, it raised concerns among pro-environment and other civil groups, who see environmental, humanitarian, and economic dangers. This is due to the Mining Act of 1995, still in place, which incentivizes foreign mining corporations to extract resources through the depletion and contamination of water, disruption of ecosystems, displacement of communities, disenfranchisement of millions. Therefore, the environmental repercussions would outweigh some two percent of royalties. [Manila Bulletin 2

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) called on the government to seek public participation in the review and renegotiation of existing mining agreements. [Manila Standard]

20 April 2021

Philippines submits Paris Agreement pledge 

(lp) As part of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, the Philippines committed on April 15 to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent between 2020 and 2030. Of the 75 percent target, only 2.71 percent will be undertaken unconditional of international funding or other support, while the rest is conditional on these factors. Though a low unconditional number, the government expects it to be continuously updated. [Reuters]

Nonetheless, the recent Executive Order to lift the mining moratorium contradicts this commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. [Rappler]

On April 16, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) urged the country’s researchers, policymakers to support technologies, policies that promote the country’s economic growth and environmental sustainability. [Manila Bulletin]

20 April 2021

Philippines: Urgent to protect children from sexual abuse, forced labor

(lp) In 2020, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported more than double the number of convictions against online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) than in the previous years. The DOJ attributes this increase in convictions to plea bargaining deals with offenders who agreed to plead guilty to lesser offenses. While the number of convictions seems laudable, it probably represents only a fraction of the sexual offenses against children, which have tripled during the pandemic lockdown. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Reuters]

Meanwhile, domestic abuse against children and women has increased during the pandemic as a result of normalization of violence and insufficiency of protections for children and women. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also disclosed on April 14 that child labor and unfair labor practices are prevalent in the mining communities in Romblon, Southwestern Philippines. The CHR urged the government to increase efforts to protect street children from violence. [Manila Bulletin 2]

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) vowed to intensify efforts to protect children through policies and partnerships that enhance the Philippine Plan of Action to End Violence Against Children (PPAEVAC). The Plan outlines six strategies: promotion of good parenting, appropriate monitoring of service providers that have direct contact with youths, comprehensive communication to promote non-violent social norms, mobilization of youths to participate in promoting good social norms, direct service delivery to youths, monitoring of previous strategies. [Manila Bulletin 3]

13 April 2021

Philippines, Hungary, Italy to sign agreements to enhance science and technology sectors

(lp) The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) officials met with Hungarian, Italian ambassadors to the Philippines to discuss possible scientific and technological partnerships. Some of the areas that require collaborative research and development include agriculture, health, industry, energy, and emerging technologies. [Manila Bulletin]

13 April 2021

Philippines: Tensions remain high in South China Sea

(lp) The Philippines filed two more diplomatic protests against China’s incursion into Philippine territory, but these have been largely neglected by China. Thus, the Philippines is seeking support from allies to make China retreat. [CNN]

The US assured that it will defend the Philippines in case of any attack on a state-owned vessel, as stated in their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Moreover, the US Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group showcased this commitment to prevent China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. The Philippines welcomed these developments and even proposed to hold joint naval thrills with the US, while emphasizing it attempts to resolve the tensions with China through diplomatic channels. [Benar News] [Manila Bulletin 1] Motivated by this latest incursion, the Philippines is to discuss the conditions of the MDT with the US. In particular, the Philippines hopes to expand the trigger of the MDT to include attacks on public citizen vessels. Moreover, the Philippines demanded that the US provides real-time access to their intelligence data on the South China Sea. [CNN] [Manila Bulletin]

To resume an annual training which was cancelled last year due to the pandemic, the two will start a two-week joint military exercise from April 12. [Channel News Asia]

Japan is also wary of China’s expansionism, as it spotted a Chinese aircraft and five escort vessels passing throughJapan’s key waterways off Nagasaki and Okinawa. Japan also confirmed its allyship with the Philippines, but vowed to avoid war and promote peace in the South China Sea. Thus, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is planning visits to the Philippines and India during April, and talks with US President Joe Biden. [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, two Chinese missile-attack crafts allegedly harassed a Philippine vessel carrying journalists investigating the impacts of China’s incursion on Filipino fishermen. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Department of National Defense (DND) have announced investigations. Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced that the “Task Force Pagsasanay” will improve training of its personnel on navigation along various waters, and maintenance and logistical operations. [The Diplomat] [Manila Bulletin 3]

13 April 2021

Philippines: Senate employees’ union red-tagged as communist

(lp) The National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) chief Alex Monteagudo accused Senate employees’ union SENADO of being infiltrated by supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines, its armed wing New People’s Army, and political arm National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDF). The Senate President Vicente Sotto III belied this accusation. Previously, the Anti-Terrorism Act proponent Sotto opposed the Bill. No. 2121 criminalizing red-tagging. But after being red-tagged himself, Sotto is now inclined to support the bill.

‘Red-tagging’ refers to the blacklisting or vilification of groups or individuals as state enemies (terrorist and/or communist), regardless of their actual political beliefs, group affiliations, or actions. [Manila Bulletin]


13 April 2021

Philippines: Police Chief, officers dismissed over death of alleged curfew violator

(lp) Two police officers of General Trias City in the Province of Cavite were dismissed because they abusively forced curfew violators to do excessive physical exercise as punishment, which killed a local resident. The chief of police Lt. Col. Mario Solero was dismissed for allegedly trying to cover up this abuse of power. Earlier, he had denied any abuse by the local police. [Inquirer]

Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is preparing a case of homicide against two security officers who beat Ernanie Jimenez to death for violating curfew in Calamba, Laguna. [Manila Bulletin]

6 April 2021

Philippines: Conflict renews between the military and Bangasmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)

(ldl) Clashes have continued since the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) fired mortars at alleged Bangasmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) areas on March 18. The conflict has forcibly displaced more than 66,000 people from their homes in the southern Mindanao province.

The BIFF separated from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) when, in 2014, the latter agreed to cease armed struggle against the government in exchange for the establishment of an autonomous region. The region, called Bangasmoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), was established in 2019 and its government endeavored to deter insurgent militancy. 

The BARMM government is collaborating with the MILF and the AFP to disband the BIFF. This is part of the Philippine government’s commitment to eliminate ‘communist’ insurgency by 2022. But the government has repeatedly been accused of using its anti-insurgency campaign to escape accountability after harassing, arresting, and killing activists and Duterte critics. [The Diplomat

6 April 2021

Philippines: Mining sector transparency to be investigated by international initiative

(ldl) The Philippine mining sector, besides not being too significant for economic growth, has killed many individuals protecting the land, displaced indigenous peoples, and damaged the environment. But in 2012, the Philippines joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to try to increase the accountability of the mining sector. In April, the EITI will examine the extent to which the Philippine mining sector has implemented processes that ensure its accountability in relation to civil society and the environment, and enables civil actors to participate in and contribute to how mining is done in the country. Local communities’ right to be consulted before the construction of a mine has been violated frequently in the past. Mining is central to the Philippines yet untapped resources of gold, nickel and copper deposits. [The Diplomat]


6 April 2021

Philippines: Chinese vessels remain in the disputed South China Sea, illegal facilities spotted in Philippines’ islands

(ldl) The Philippines confirmed that most of the Chinese vessels that were stationed nearby Whitsun Reef did not depart away from these disputed areas, but rather dispersed across other Philippine islands in the South China Sea. Moreover, four vessels from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) were also sighted at the Panganiban Reef, a Philippine exclusive economic zone. Furthermore, the Philippines also found that several facilities had already been illegally built on some of the areas that Chinese vessels are patrolling around. [Manila Bulletin]

The Philippines continues to demand China leave the area, but China still claims sovereignty over it and has warned Philippine aircrafts and ships against getting any closer. Meanwhile, the Philippines affirmed its commitment to strengthen ties with the United States, with whom the Philippines shares a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). [The Diplomat] [Channel News Asia]

China committed to continue promoting Covid-vaccine cooperation with the Philippines and expressed willingness to work with ASEAN countries to regulate multilateral relations in the South China Sea. However, China’s desire to ‘maintain stability in the region’ probably requires that multiple countries relinquish their claims over the South China Sea. Most recently, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China, less than two weeks after lodging another diplomatic protest. [Manila Bulletin] [Inquirer]

According to Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana, China intends to occupy more territory, given the continued presence of militia in the disputed waters. The Chinese boats were located in the Whitsun Reef, within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and sheltering from bad weather conditions, according to Chinese diplomats. This was rebuked by Lorenzana, after 44 vessels were still at the Whitsun Reef despite improved weather conditions. In 2016, an international tribunal dismissed China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea. China does not recognize the ruling and has built artificial islands equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangars for fighter jets. [Nikkei Asia]

30 March 2021

Philippines: Senate Bill seeks to criminalize ‘red-tagging’

(ll) Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon has filed a bill that seeks to criminalize and punish red-tagging activities. ‘Red-tagging’ refers to the blacklisting or vilification of groups or individuals as state enemies (terrorist and/or communist), regardless of their actual political beliefs, group affiliations, or actions. [Inquirer

The bill or “Act Defining and Penalizing Red-Tagging” aims to address the impunity that has accompanied the threats and killings of teachers, lawyers, activists that have been red-tagged. The proposed Act comes after the Supreme Court denounced the threats, killings of lawyers, judges. 

The bill has been supported by the Makabayan bloc, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Church leaders. But it was frowned upon by the National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who has been accused of performing red-tagging activities in the name of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). [CNN] [Manila Bulletin]

Moreover, the Supreme Court (SC) pressed the government to stop enforcement of Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) due to ‘red-tagging’ of the Association of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and Confederation for Unity Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE). The SC is also expected to hear the oral arguments of the government on April 6, though the government has requested that the hearing be postponed until April 23. [Manila Bulletin]

30 March 2021

Philippines: More demands against China’s vessels in South China Sea

(ll) After years of avoiding provoking China, the Philippines unexpectedly invoked the 2016 Hague ruling which rejects most of China’s claims over the South China Sea. The Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs also cited the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, which would be triggered if a Philippine state-owned vessel were attacked. Besides France and the US last week, this week Japan, Australia, Vietnam, EU, and Canada have expressed concerns over the remaining 183 Chinese vessels at the South China Sea. [Rappler] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Even though China belittled these concerns, the Philippines has deployed more Navy ships in response to various demands from Filipino diplomats to show force against China. In fact, the Philippine ambassador to Iraq, Generoso de Guzman Calonge, even proposed that the Philippines should install mobile missiles in Palawan, one of the country’s westernmost islands. [South China Morning Post] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Most recently, Philippine security forces are verifying a satellite image, which shows only around 50 of the Chinese vessels left. [Manila Bulletin 3]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Abu Sayyaf hostage rescued; leader captured

(nd) Philippine troops rescued a 15-year-old Indonesian national held by Abu Sayyaf since January 2020. In the operation, security forces also captured the group’s leader, Majan Sahijuan. The teenager was the last missing of five Indonesians kidnapped on January 16, 2020 in waters off Lahad Datu, in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah, working for a Malaysian fishing firm. [Benar News]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Stand-off over South China Sea reef

(nd) On Sunday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded about 200 Chinese vessels, presumably militia boats, to leave the Whitsun Reef, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China, and also Vietnam. The Philippines considers it part of their exclusive economic zone. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the territory. The US has backed the Philippines and expressed concerns over the presence of the boats in the disputed waters, accusing China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security”. Tension is the waters are on the rise, with a recent Chinese law passed, allowing Chinese coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels. 

President Rodrigo Duterte has had friendly ties with China since taking office in 2016, but in 2020 unexpectedly referred to an international arbitration ruling invalidating China’s historic claims to the entire sea. China has invested in infrastructure funds and trade in the Philippines and has recently donated Covid-19 vaccines amid an alarming spike in coronavirus infections. [South China Morning Post]

23 March 2021

Philippines, France to develop partnership between their naval forces

(lepl) France committed to assist the Philippines in the training and project management required to create the latter’s submarine force. The French Navy and the Philippine Navy expect further ‘strategic partnerships’. [Manila Times]  Against the backdrop of tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea, and China’s unresponsiveness to President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent challenges to the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, Philippines seeks lesser dependence on these two powers. This pursuit is notorious as the Philippines secures Indian-Russian missiles, envisions new defense industrial economic zones, promises to upgrade its naval fleet. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2

23 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte believes in a soon termination to ‘communist’ insurgency

(lepl) With only four out of the 11 rebel fronts in Eastern Visayas still standing, President Rodrigo Duterte expressed optimism that the conflict with the insurgency will soon end. Meanwhile, he has visited the region to talk with the beneficiaries of the Barangay Development Program (BDP), a project of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The project would provide a multi-million development package to communities that completely cut ties with the rebels. This incentive to comply with the Philippine state complements with Duterte’s recent approval of amnesties and land distribution for some ex-rebels. Certainly, these programs are not without conditions: the amnesties exclude Abu Sayyaf members, and the lands cannot be sold. [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Times]

Perhaps in an attempt to clear doubt of any turbid collusion with the rebels, Duterte stated that he had only formed friendships with communist rebels pre-election to win votes, but that he could not satisfy the demands of the rebels as a President without committing treason. [Manila Bulletin 2]

23 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte faces opposition coalition and increasing criticism against human rights violations 

(lepl) President Rodrigo Duterte’s opponents formed 1Sambayan, a coalition that aims to nominate a presidential candidate next year. Besides ineffective responses to the pandemic, the coalition accuses Duterte of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations under his war on drugs. [Benar News]

Similarly, the international human rights coalition Investigate PH affirmed in its report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) that the Philippine state obstructs justice through its failure to hold police and military accountable and its censorship of challenges to unjust laws. However, the accusations were trivialized and vilified by the Presidential Communications Secretary in a series of tweets, which Investigate PH refuted. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2]

Meanwhile, a joint statement by academics in the Philippines and abroad condemned the attacks on and killings of activists, which engender an undemocratic environment of fear and intimidation. This declaration follows a memorandum by the Department of Interior and Local Government that red-tagged a teachers’ union. [Manila Bulletin 3]

Even though top officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) agreed that the killings of lawyers should be thoroughly investigated, the PNP tasked itself for this investigation. This move resembles those criticized by Investigate PH because it facilitates impunity. In fact, most adult Filipinos agreed in a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth,” illustrating the impunity that the PNP obscures. [Manila Bulletin 4] [Manila Bulletin 5]

A key element of contention is the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, which activist groups and international organizations have declared unconstitutional and petitioned to stop implementing. After three suspensions, the oral arguments of these petitions will continue on March 23. Nonetheless, the government is expected to press the Supreme Court to dismiss these petitions on the basis that the ATA does not violate constitutional provisions. [Manila Bulletin 6]

In a rare, unprecedented move, the Supreme Court en banc issued a statement condemning the killings of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors, and promised to look into institutional changes to better protect them. This is to answer mounting pressure from lawyers demanding decisive action. Until the end of April, the Supreme Court asks courts and law enforcement agencies to provide “relevant information to shed light on the number and context of each and every threat or killing of a lawyer or judge within the past 10 years.” [Rappler]


23 March 2021

Philippines: Residents to oppose the division of Palawan, potentially against China’s interests

(lepl) Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte signed an Act that would split Palawan into three provinces. Last week, opposition Senator Leila de Lima applauded the residents’ opposition to the division of Palawan. Due to its natural resources and its proximity to the West Philippine Sea, the division of Palawan could have benefitted China’s interests of territorial expansion. In fact, the Save Palawan Movement protested that the measure would debilitate the voting power of each province, serving a gerrymandering agenda that endangered Philippine sovereignty. [Manila Bulletin]

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]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

16 March 2021

Philippines: Decision rendered on Duterte’s withdrawal from ICC

(nd) A petition charging President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral decision to pull out if the International Criminal Court (ICC) was denied by the Supreme Court. The en banc, unanimous vote rendered that the subject has become academic and moot, but still set out guidelines on when a treaty can be unilaterally withdrawn. Whether Duterte is legally required to get the concurrence of the Senate does not have a clear textual basis, just a requirement for concurrence of two thirds of the Senate for the ratification is found in the Constitution.

Duterte’s decision came when the ICC decided launch a preliminary examination into human rights abuses amid his war on drugs. According to the ICC, such withdrawal does not affect an ongoing examination. According to the Rome Statute, proceedings opened before a country’s withdrawal can continue even after such withdrawal from the ICC. The ICC is in the midst of determining the opening of an investigation.

The recent guidelines by the yet unpublished court decision are likely to also clarify issues around the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, which was also unilaterally revoked by Duterte. [Rappler]

16 March 2021

Philippines: “Shoot to kill” order being implemented

(nd) Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced on Thursday that police and military forces are now implementing President Duterte’s ‘shoot to kill’ order against communist rebels. We specified the order was against those who would not surrender, but continued to fight the government and were ready to kill. Still, security forces would encourage the rebels to surrender. 

Duterte’s shoot to kill order is seen as the motivation behind the recent shootout killing nine people in a raid last week. Police upholds that the operation was covered by arrest warrants and therefore legal. Also, the killed opted for a shootout with the police. [Manila Bulletin]

Meanwhile, Duterte’s allies have started a campaign to persuade him to run for vice president in next year’s general election, enabling him to keep his influence in the second highest office despite the one-term limit. [Nikkei Asia]

16 March 2021

Philippines: Mayor shot dead by police

(nd) In what was referred to as a mistaken encounter, police killed city mayor Ronaldo Aquino and two of his aides, next to two of the police officers. According to the police report, the fire was open from Aquino’s security aides and returned from the officers, who were on a routine patrol.

In the past, a number of mayors and provincial officials linked to illegal drugs have been ambushed and killed by unknown gunmen, in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown, that has created a culture of impunity. Aquino was said to not be involved in illegal drug dealings. The Department of Justice was ordered to investigate. Left-wing and human rights groups have condemned the killings. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, a group of activists called Cyber PH for Human Rights hacked into the government’s main website and block access to it as a protest against alleged human rights violations by authorities. [Benar News 1] The government has announced to track down the group. The UN and EU have expressed concerns over the deaths of the nine killings during raids last week. [Benar News 2]


9 March 2021

Philippines, India to reach agreement over supersonic missiles

(nd) In an effect of turning into an arms exporter, India signed a contract with the Philippines for the sale of “defense material and equipment”, which are likely to include BrahMos cruise missiles. The Indian BrahMos missile is considered to be the fastest supersonic missile in the world, travelling at three times the speed of sound and able to be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and ground launchers. The missile itself has a range of 290 kilometers. It is likely the Filipino interest is due to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, urging the Philippines to strengthen their defense capabilities, also in light of a recent Chinese law, allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels.

India has offered the Philippines a 100-million-dollar soft loan to acquire the missiles last December with a possible extension. The deal could facilitate India’s entry as an exporter in the global defense market. Besides the Philippines, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates announced their interest, reportedly India had talks with Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. [Wio News]



9 March 2021

US to bolster deterrence in South China Sea

(nd) As part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative that the US Indo-Pacific Command has submitted to Congress, the US plans to upgrade its regular deterrence against China with a network of precision-strike missiles along the so-called first island chain, and integrated air missile defense in the second island chain. The first island chain describes land features in the western Pacific stretching from Japan, to Taiwan, and through Philippines and Indonesia in the South China Sea. The second island chain is located further to the east, starting in Japan and running through Guam. An estimated around $27 billion will therefore be invested through fiscal year 2027. The bill suggests to modernize and strengthen the presence of US forces, improve logistics and maintenance capabilities, carry out joint force exercises and innovation, improve infrastructure to enhance responsiveness and resiliency. The amount is a 36% increase over the planned spending, showcasing the level of alarm with respect to Chinese activity in the South China Sea, aiming to avoid a permanent change of the status quo.

With respect to the implementation of the plan, China objected earlier against the US to place missiles in allied countries, e.g. South Korea. According to a Japanese defense white paper, the US has about 132,000 troops stationed in the Indo-Pacific. China’s military renewal is ongoing, holding a diverse missile arsenal. China holds about 1,250  ground-based, intermediate-range missiles, while the US has none due to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the development of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km until 2019. The Chinese arsenal makes the traditional Navy and Air Force centered US approach less feasible, and the deployment of intermediate range missiles in the Indo-Pacific a subject of discussion between the US and Japan. Right now, none of the US’s missiles in Japan could reach China, and deploying weapons there could lead to diplomatic tensions. About 55,000 US troops are stationed in Japan, forming the largest contingent of American troops abroad. [Nikkei Asia] [Radio Free Asia]

9 March 2021

Philippines: Nine killed in anti-insurgency operation

(nd) Following the killing of 9 activists and arrest of 6 in four provinces close to Manila over the weekend, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on Monday said the government failed to counter widespread killings in the country. Two days before the raids, President Rodrigo Duterte said in a press conference on ending the communist insurgency: “I’ve told the military and the police that if they find themselves in an armed encounter with the communist rebels, kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.”

The CHR said the amount of people killed was alarming, referring to the wide-spread impunity among security forces and the pattern of red-tagging. CHR set up an investigative team but also called on the government to probe the incidents. According to rights group Karapatan, at least 318 individuals have been killed in the course of the government’s counterinsurgency. With respect to the government’s war on drugs, the cited number of victims was at least 6,039, with a five times higher estimate according to human rights groups. [Rappler] [Benar News]

2 March 2021

Philippines: Duterte to thank Xi, criticize VFA

(nd) When personally welcoming the donated Sinovac vaccines by the Chinese government, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would like to travel to China and to thank Chinese President Xi Jinping for the donation of 600,000 doses. [Manila Bulletin 1]

In the same conference, Duterte said the renewing of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US would put the Philippines between two armed forces, in case the US stored armaments in the country. Last year, Duterte unilaterally terminated the VFA, which was later withdrawn. Last month, Duterte implied the US should pay if it wants to have American bases in the Philippines. In light of the continuously rising tension in the South China Sea, the US promised to ensure freedom of navigation and the seas in the contested region, which is strategically relevant. [Manila Bulletin 2]

2 March 2021

Cross-strait relations: PLA and Taiwanese concurrently hold military exercises in the South China Sea

(dql) Amid high running cross-strait tensions, China and Taiwan are holding military drills at the same time in the South China Sea. According to a notice of Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA), the Tawainese military conducted a round of live-fire exercise on Monday on the Taiwan-held Pratas Islands. Similar drills are scheduled to be staged next week. China, meanwhile, kicked off on the same day a month-long military exercise west of the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province. [Focus Taiwan1] [South China Morning Post]

In an earlier show of force, at least 10 Chinese bombers belonging to the Southern Theatre Command conducted maritime strike exercises in the South China Sea, immediately after the Lunar New Year Holiday which ended on February 17. The drills involved China’s most advanced H-6J bomber. [Global Times 1]

Further fueling the tensions, last week the US was also present in the disputed region. While various reconnaissance aircraft as well as the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable carried out surveillance missions in the South China Sea, a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer transited through the Taiwan Strait. [Global Times 2] [Focus Taiwan 2]

Meanwhile, two US lawmakers have introduced a resolution calling for the US government to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and end the “one China policy.” It also urged he government to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan, and support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations. [Taiwan News]

2 March 2021

Philippines: Justice official to admit wrongdoings in war on drugs

(nd) Philippine Justice Secretary said that law enforcement personnel had flawed “standard protocols” in most drug raids, admitting that the Philippine National Police have intentionally killed suspects in the five-year going war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte. Analysts believe this could spark further international pressure on the government, and thereby, limit deadly force against suspects.

The statement is seen as an effort to calm UN leaders given the latest findings of the International Criminal Court Prosecutor and a rights council resolution to support the Philippines in capacity building passed in October last year. International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda after that found “reasonable basis” for crimes against humanity within the government’s anti-drug campaign, with law enforcement agents not following “standard protocols” in more than half of the cases. Duterte was elected in 2016 and promised a drug-free Philippines. He still enjoys high approval rates within the Philippine population. [Voice of America]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Police raid in indigenous school

(nd) Following a police raid in a school for displaced indigenous children in Cebu, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the move as part of a string of “violent incidents” in recent years targeting indigenous communities. The police arrested seven people for allegedly training students, among them minors, to become guerrillas for the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). NPA has been waging insurgencies for more than fifty years and is Asia’s longest-running armed rebellion. HRW commented since Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, the military has alleged that tribal schools have links with the NPA, with Duterte threatening to bomb these schools.

Allegedly, six parents asked the police for help to recover their children. Police was further criticized for enforcing custody of the children in a non-child-friendly way. The Save Our Schools Network said 178 tribal schools have been closed since 2016, forcing children to go to cities like Manila or Cebu to seek education. [Benar News]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte critic de Lima acquitted of one charge of three

(nd) A notorious critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, former chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights Sen. Leila de Lima was acquitted on one of three drug charges she has been in prison for four years but will remain incarcerated. Allegedly, de Lima accepted protection money from jailed drug dealers while serving as justice minister in 2017. De Lima always denied the charges as baseless.

Already when he served as mayor in Davao, de Lima investigated in extrajudicial killings by a death squad allegedly set up by Duterte. After Duterte became President in 2016, de Lima pushed for a Senate inquiry into killings linked to his administration’s drug war, for which Duterte publicly excoriated her. National and international human rights organization followed de Lima’s fate and called for her release since. [Benar News]

23 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte approves amnesty for Muslim and communist rebels

(nd) To counter ongoing insurgencies, President Rodrigo Duterte approved an amnesty program, enabling Muslim and communist rebels to return to normal life, if they surrender their weapons. The program still has to be approved by Congress. Duterte’s predecessors signed peace deals with three rebel groups, which have not been fully enforced. The largest armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is temporarily administering an autonomous region in the south while disarming its fighters. Former insurgents of the communist New People’s Army are included in the program. Excluded however, are Abu Sayyaf and groups linked to the Islamic State, and the program will not cover kidnappings for ransom, massacres, rape, terrorism, drug trafficking and certain atrocities never covered by amnesties, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and torture. Resolving Muslim and communist insurgencies within his term, which ends mid-2022, was Duterte’s promise. [South China Morning Post]

23 February 2021

Philippines furthers attack the US over Visiting Forces Agreement

(nd) Following last week’s demand for the US to pay the Philippines to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), President Rodrigo Duterte accused the US of keeping arms depots in the country and turning Subic Bay into an American military base. The US vacated Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base after the end of the Cold War in 1991 and 1992, respectively. They were transformed into freeports and investment zones. Duterte did not present evidence for his claims, alleging he heard it from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The US did not directly comment on the issue, but responded with the same statement as last week, emphasizing their alliance and security cooperation.

On Monday, Duterte defended his past comments and reinforced that the Philippines would be dragged into a war between China and the US.

The VFA was first signed in 1999 and provides large-scale joint military exercises, and governs the US military presence in the Philippines. Last year, Duterte already threatened to terminate the agreement. The decision was suspended twice already. [Benar News] [See also AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]


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

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

Non-claimant states to patrol in South China Sea 

(nd) Amid growing tension in the disputed waterway, two US aircraft carrier strike groups and a French nuclear attack submarine accompanied by a support ship recently patrolled in the South China Sea. According to a report in early January, Germany is considering to send a naval frigate in summer. These deployments highlight an increasing role of non-claimant states in the South China Sea, following so far not successful diplomatic efforts. For the US, it was the second dual aircraft carrier operation in about six months, emphasizing its promotion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. US allies Japan and Australia have also participated in military exercises in the last months. A growing number of countries, including the US, Australia, Indonesia, France, Germany, and Japan, have rejected the extensive Chinese claims. China criticized the patrol as a show of force, which was detrimental to regional stability and peace, and reiterated their interest in protecting Chinese sovereignty. [Benar News]

16 February 2021

Philippines: Military seek to deploy more assets to South China Sea

(nd) As a reaction towards a newly passed Chinese Law, the Philippine military commander announced to deploy more assets to the South China Sea to safeguard fishermen. In January, China’s National People’s Congress passed a Law, which places the coast guard under military command and allows it to open fire on foreign boats in the disputed waterways. [See also AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] Earlier, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced not to file a protest against the law before the United Nations. [See also AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, which was rejected in a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016. China never recognized the ruling. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not enforce it but was seeking closer ties to China, distancing himself from traditional ally the United States. Only in 2020, Duterte spoke before the UN General Assembly and stated the ruling was “beyond compromise” and already “part of international law.” [Benar News]

16 February 2021

US, Philippines to demand more financial support to defense

(nd) With his comments over the weekend, the US has to pay if they want to continue a troop deployment agreement, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte opened another chapter concerning the Visiting Force Agreement (VFA). Last year, Duterte unilaterally cancelled the agreement, whose withdrawal has since then been extended twice. The VFA is both vital to US strategy in Asia as well as to the under-resourced Philippine forces. 

In his criticism, Duterte was referring to the rising tension in the South China Sea and the danger of an emerging war, which will be detrimental to the Philippines. Therefore, Duterte argued, the Philippines were not receiving enough military assistance from the US. To back Duterte’s point, the Presidential Spokesman pointed to data from a Stimson Center report, showing that from 2002 to 2017 the Philippines received the least amount of counter-terrorism aid among 12 countries, highlighting they were only receiving a quarter of the amount Pakistan was receiving. The chart only referred to counter-terrorism aid, with all countries listed above the Philippines also ranking higher on the 2020 Global Terrorism Index. Under the VFA, the Philippines receive other benefits, such as aid in cases of disaster and a Mutual Defense Treaty with the US. Also, the US embassy stated mid last year that the Philippines were the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region, with an amount of $650 million worth military equipment, excluding military training.

Without further intervention, the VFA will terminate August 9. Due to his attacks on US foreign policy and a tendency towards China, relations between the Philippines and US have been complicated since Duterte took power in 2016. [Reuters] [Rappler]

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]

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]

9 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte pushes for charter change

(nd) Fueling speculations President Rodrigo Duterte aims to extend his term past 2022, he has tasked allied congressmen to initiate the constitution amendment process to remove the term limit. The Philippine constitution of 1987 was written after the People Power movement removed dictator Marcos and therefore contains provisions restricting the power of the executive, limiting the terms of president and vice president to a single six-year term. This attempt is not new: Then-President Fidel Ramos introduced a charter change proposal in 1997, which prompted public outrage and massive protests led by the Catholic Church. His successor, rebranded charter change into “Constitutional Correction for Development” to win public support and claimed to only remove nationalistic provisions, like requiring a majority-Filipino ownership of certain assets and investment operations. His successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her allies in 2009 were aiming at a constitutional amendment without including the opposition-dominated Senate, which also triggered broad protests.

Recently, it was announced Duterte wanted to solely focus on “economic” charter change to push foreign investment and fight repercussions of the pandemic, but will including overhauling the party list system to support the government’s anti-communist campaign. Likely, previous suggestions will be revived, such as the removal of the ban on foreign bases, the ban on nuclear weapons, a prohibition of political dynasties, and to insert “responsible” in the bill of rights with respect to freedom of speech and expression. Despite the pandemic, Duterte’s administration made it its priority to pass an anti-terror law, which saw extrajudicial killings and the shutdown of a critical media network. Therefore, civil society groups opposed a possible charter change, citing the erosion of the checks and balances in government and a possible rise of an authoritarian government. [The Diplomat]

9 February 2021

Philippines: Further red-tagging, while anti-terror law is on scrutiny

(nd) In the latest demonstration of labelling of alleged communists and sympathizers, infamously referred to as “red-tagging”, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. called out Philippine Daily Inquirer reporter Tetch Torres-Tupas. Nationwide media as well as human rights groups spoke out in support of Torres-Tupas. The report in question was about tribe members asking for the Supreme Court’s permission to join petitions against the anti-terror law. Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments for 37 petitions pending against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in an effort to declare it unconstitutional. The government argued the law was necessary to fight militant groups, but rights groups both domestically and internationally criticized the increased powers of security forces on mere suspicion and warrantless detention up to 24 days.

Such statement and threats against activists and journalists are not countered by the government. Last year, the free channel of national broadcaster ABS-CBN was shut down, and head of news webpage Rappler, Maria Ressa, was convicted of cyber libel. According to the UN Human Rights Office reporting, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists were killed due to their work between 2015 and 2019. Last month, an over 32-year-old agreement to ban soldiers from entering the University of the Philippines’ campus was nullified alleging a communist breeding ground, which is recruiting for the New People’s Army (NPA)

Last week, retired judges Antonio Carpio and Conchita Morales were red-tagged for outspokenly opposing the Anti-Terrorism Act, which Parlade referred to as “sedition” in a Facebook post. His post also mentioned left-wing lawmakers Ferdinand Gaite, Carlos Zarate and Sarah Elago by name. It was brought to the Supreme Court hearing as an example of a clear threat designed to intimidate petitioners, which the court “noted”.  

The Philippines harbors Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency, which Duterte pledged to end during his presidential term. [South China Morning Post] [Benarnews]

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]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Duterte to criticize EU over Covid-19 vaccine

(nd) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accused the European Union (EU) of restricting exports of vaccines against Covid-19, particularly AstraZeneca, which according to Duterte was “held hostage” by the EU. The British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca announced a shortcoming in delivery last week, which prompted a critical response by the EU. Subsequently, the EU decided to tighter scrutinize exports, potentially blocking them for their own usage. The Philippines registered among the highest number of confirmed cases in Asia and has not managed to secure sufficient vaccines in comparison the other countries. Overall, Duterte alleged, the ASEAN member states would lack the economic power the EU has in order to secure vaccines. [Reuters]

2 February 2021

Chinese survey vessel data in South China Sea analyzed

(nd) According to analyses of ship data conducted by Nikkei, Chinese survey vessels increased the scope of research into foreign countries exclusive economic zones (EEZ). According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, prior consent is necessary, which was not sought in the cases identified. The automatic identification system data from 32 Chinese survey vessels for 12 months until November 2020 were analyzed. The data that is collected by survey vessels can both be used for civilian and military purposes, and is also useful for submarine operations. Specifically, increased action was registered near Guam, which has rich resources of cobalt, manganese and other seabed minerals. Given the US base in Guam, the conducted surveys seem to be rather security linked. Sometimes, survey vessels are accompanied by the Chinese Coats guard, sparking further tension. According to the International Maritime Organization, the US has 44, Japan 23 and China 64 registered survey vessels built in or after 1990.

This comes amid other Chinese actions to increase its influence over the Asia Pacific region. In September 2019, China established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. The encroachment in the EEZs of Southeast Asian countries is registered almost on a daily basis. On the basis of historic rights, China claims almost the entirety of the disputed waters for itself, which was rejected by an international tribunal ruling in 2016. [Nikkei Asia]

2 February 2021

Philippines files diplomatic complaint against China’s new coast guard law

(nd) China passed a law placing the coast guard under military command, giving it authority to open fire against foreign vessels in the South China Sea. The Philippines filed a diplomatic complaint. Earlier, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin commented the passage of laws in China was “none of our business”. His reverse came after news reports about Philippine fishermen being blocked by the Chinese coast guard to enter fishing grounds in the Spratly island chain. President Rodrigo Duterte was called upon to firmly “denounce China’s bullying immediately” and all ASEAN members to take multilateral steps against China’s aggression. In a statement on social media on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said “forces in the Philippines” had “fabricated and spread relentlessly fake news”, and it law has been “misinterpreted”, although it was “a normal domestic legislative activity.” [Radio Free Asia]

In the disputed waters, China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, overlapping with the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. China’s claims were rejected in a tribunal ruling in 2016, which was emphasized prominently by Duterte last year for the first time. ASEAN and China are negotiating so far unsuccessfully for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. [Radio Free Asia]

In a call, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reassured Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin of their defense support with respect to the South China Sea, even in the event of an attack. He called China’s latest law a “threat of war”. Blinken reinforced the administration of Joe Biden’s rejects China’s claims in the disputed waters. [Reuters

2 February 2021

China, Philippines to cancel development contract

(nd) A contract to develop Sangley Point International Airport by a consortium of China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC), which is blacklisted by the US, and Philippine MacroAsia Corp., was cancelled due to “various deficiencies” in required documents. The project volume was US$10 billion. In September 2020, the Duterte administration insisted on pursuing the project despite US sanctions on CCCC and 23 other Chinese firms and individuals for being involved in the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Then, it was emphasized that Duterte would “not follow the directives of the Americans because we are a free and independent nation, and we need investors from China.” The recent decision to cancel the contract was commented to have no connection to the US decision. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Philippines and signed a deal to build a cargo railway, which will connect former US base at Subic with the former US air base Clark International Airport. In 2018, the Philippines and China signed 29 bilateral deals with respect to infrastructure projects forming part of Duterte’s “build, build, build” initiative. [Radio Free Asia][See also AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2] [The Diplomat]

On a separate occasion, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana referred to the US “as a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific region and a counter-balance to China”, adding that 2021 promises “a new era for the U.S.-Philippines relations under a new U.S. president who seeks to reclaim America’s status as a world leader.” [Radio Free Asia]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Head of BAARM to open dialogue with militants

(nd) The head of the transitional government of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM) in the southern Philippines, Murad Ebrahim, announced he made contact with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf Group in an effort to convince them to join the government and cease militant activity. The militant groups are linked to the Islamic State and were reportedly open to collaboration. Murad also leads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former armed separatist group who signed a peace treaty with the central government, which prompted the BIFF to form and break away.

Murad’s term as interim head of government is set to expire next year. Currently, he is advertising for a 3-year extension, referencing ongoing security threats by pro-IS militants and the coronavirus pandemic, which have prevented the implementation of crucial reforms. To that end, a proposed law is currently with the Philippine Congress. Last year, multiple fatalities were accounted for by suicide bombings on Jolo in southern Sulu, both carried out by Abu Sayyaf. BIFF’s scope of action is focused on Mandanao Island, with an increase in frequency of attacks. Last week, three died in a roadside bombing suspected to be executed by BIFF. [Benar News]

2 February 2021

Philippines: Independent probe into extrajudicial killings launched

(nd) “Investigate PH” was founded by the International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) in order to conduct an independent investigation of the killings in relation to the so-called war on drugs. The international civil society organization is supposed to bring more information and evidence to the preliminary examination of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been going on for almost three years. A preliminary report by ICHRP is scheduled by the first week of March and to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the ICC.

Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, said she has “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity were committed within the war on drugs, with a formal investigation yet unopened. This step requires the determination that the Philippines did not sufficiently investigate and prosecute the cases themselves. Earlier, the UN Technical Assistance Program was set up to provide better training and resources, based on the assumptions that their lack was the reason for the shortcomings on resolving the cases. During the visit of a High-Level Human Rights Delegation last year, it was reported the Ministry of Justice was not open to meetings and until today has not made their report public and shared information. Following the ICC’s complaint against the Philippines, they withdrew from the ICC and threatened Bensouda with arrest if she was to enter the country.

Officially labelled a war on drugs, the administration of Duterte installed a climate of impunity, enabling thousands of extrajudicial killings. The “red-tagging” of political critics have resulted in a broader crackdown on civil society. According to a report by the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2020, the death toll of police and vigilante operations under Duterte is believed to exceed 25,000. Still, the UNHRC in October 2019 decided against a probe into the cases but started a technical assistance program, criticized by domestic and international rights groups.

Local groups investigating human rights violations in the Philippines have often become victims of extrajudicial killings and are reportedly receiving frequent death threats. In 2019, the ICC launched an investigation into Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya, but denied such action with respect to China and the Uyghur Muslims. While President-elect Joe Biden’s administration announced to declare the actions against Rohingya people a “genocide”, the US has been reluctant to condemn rights violations under Duterte. A bill to suspend arm sales to the Philippines remains pending since October. [Rappler] [The Diplomat]

26 January 2021

Philippines: Nissan to end assembly work

(nd) Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan announced to end its car assembly operations in the Philippines, making 133 assembly workers redundant. The reason cited was to “optimize production” amid global recession. Nissan has closed plants and laid off some 42,500 workers globally since 2019. The current move was expected since sale numbers for the assembled Almera model were low.

Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippine automotive market is one of the most open, with locally assembled products making up only 7%. As a comparison, Thailand imposes a 80% Most Favored Nation tariff rate on built-up units from outside the ASEAN bloc, while Indonesia has a total of only 7% of imports. [Rappler]

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]

26 January 2021

Philippines, China to sign infrastructure contracts

(nd) During a visit of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China and the Philippines have signed contracts for the construction of a bridge link to Davao City in Mindanao and a cargo railway in Luzon. It represents a contribution to president Rodrigo Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure initiative, which was launched in 2017 and plans to spend 8 to 9 trillion pesos (roughly US$160 billion to US$180 billion).

The railway project with estimated costs of US$940 million will the highest-funded G-to-G cooperation project between China and the Philippines, and will through ports, railways, and airports connect the Subic-Clark corridor with New Clark city in the long run. The bridge will provide a transportation link between Metro Davao and Samal Island, with estimated costs of US$400 million. Additionally, the government plans to build four energy facilities, ten water resource projects and irrigation systems to raise agricultural output; and five flood control facilities. [Asia Times]

19 January 2021

Philippines: Student protests

(nd) Following a government decision to allow security forces to patrol all campuses of the University of the Philippines (UP) in suspension of a 1989 agreement with the defense ministry, Philippine students and activists launched protests in various parts of the country. In its effort to end the country’s Maoist-led rebellion, which remains one of the world’s longest insurgencies with more than 40,000 people killed, the government argues that the university is a breeding ground for communist rebels, claiming a number of UP students were members of the communist party’s armed wing.  [Channel News Asia]

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. 


19 January 2021

Philippines: Further discussions on proposed charter amendment

(nd) Amid worsening Covid-19 numbers, discussions on the proposal of a charter change, the so-called Cha-Cha, continue. Members of the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments reiterated that prospective changes would make the country more investment friendly with regards of land ownership and stake holding in companies, in order to boost the Covid-19-striken economy. Critics however see it as an attempt to crackdown on leftist party-list groups and the communist insurgency. One option would be if Congress turns itself into a constituent assembly, through a resolution passed by both chambers. 

Previous attempts for a charter change were opposed by the Senate, which now is tilting in President Rodrigo Duterte’s favor, making an extension of his office term realistic, with allies in both chambers of Congress appearing to be pushing the proposed charter changes. Following the 1987 constitution though constitutional changes were designed difficult, requiring a three-quarter majority and mandating an independent bicameral legislature as check on the executive, but the constitution is ambiguous if that majority can also be found in a combined constituent assembly. The 1987 constitution and its formalities were prompted by Ferdinand Marcos’s attempt to exceed his fixed term by 14 years. [South China Morning Post]

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]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Bakamla armed against rising tensions in the South China Sea

(nd) Last month, the civilian maritime force, Bakamla, in the northern Natuna Island armed its vessels with machine guns due to recurringly intruding vessels from China and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not consider itself as a claimant sate in the South China Sea, China’s historic fishing right claims overlap with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move is delicate due to its possible effect on bilateral relations. China is Indonesia’s largest trade partner, with a trade volume of US$79.4 billion in 2019. With the efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is dependent on vaccination, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac having arrived in early December.

Bakamla was authorized last summer to procure weapons, and ships were fitted with remote-controlled Stabilised Naval Gun Systems in December. This was also in response to an increase in calls from parliament and the public, in an effort to curb anti-China groups. Analyst therefore did not interpret the latest move as a toughening of Indonesia’s position but rather an effort to prevent an escalation. The same logic applies to Vietnamese fishing boats, due to an unresolved overlap of the respective EEZ claims. While an increase in arms might serve as a deterrence, the numbers of ships are still outweighed by those of the Chinese coastguard, which is why Bakamla still relies on larger ships of the Indonesian Navy.

Experts expect Chinese naval actions to be more focused on the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam this year, while it usually carefully balanced its moves to not be putting pressure on all claimant countries at the same time, possibly to avoid a multilateral reaction. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

Philippines: President to push for Charter amendment

(nd) President Rodrigo Duterte asked lawmakers to amend the 1987 Constitution to change the party-list system to protect it from being abused by those linked to communist rebels and groups who according to the President are calling for a “fall of the government”. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in an interview that Duterte wanted to go after leftist party-list groups in the House Makabayan bloc, which he has long accused of acting as front for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its armed wing New People’s Army (NPA), and its political arm National Democratic Front (NDF).

According to a House insider, during a meeting in December Duterte instructed the Senate President to get rid of the party-list system altogether, warning that he otherwise will have to resort to the military to fight the groups. [Rappler]

12 January 2021

Philippines: Probe into killing by off-duty cop

(nd) Following the shooting of a mother and son by a police officer off duty in December, lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate called for probes into the case of police brutality and possibly a police reform bill. Reform suggestions include the requirements for entering the police force shall be raised, covering psychological exams and training in the de-escalation process. Also, policemen shall have a deeper knowledge of the legal elements of an offence to avoid illegal acts by officers. To further deter such action, prosecution of officers shall be more effective and litigated outside the police power. Over this case, lawmakers mentioned a need to reinstitute capital punishment. [The News Lens]

12 January 2021

Philippines: President opposes probe into vaccination to bodyguards

(nd) Following attempts to probe into how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bodyguards received shots of a Chinese-developed coronavirus vaccine in September and October, while no vaccine has been officially approved to date, the President angrily opposed such investigations, telling members of the elite bodyguard to “stay put in the barracks” and ignore summons to appear before a Senate inquiry into the matter. He reiterated that their action was justified, trying to keep the President safe. Following Duterte’s comments, the military announced it cancelled its own investigation into the matter. The Congress can still launch investigations or summon officials. The vaccine doses were developed by Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned drug maker. [See also AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] [Radio Free Asia]


5 January 2021

Philippines: Budget allocation criticized

(nd) Following the passage of the budget bill totaling 4.5 trillion pesos (US$93.7 billion) for 2021, three-quarters of the amount will be used for operating expenses of government ministries, including debt payments, with the majority of the rest being attributed to an infrastructure building campaign, despite president Rodrigo Duterte’s pledge to invest in the country’s health care system amid the ongoing pandemic. Analysts view this as a move to cement his legacy by realizing large-scale infrastructure projects and possibly paving the way for his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, as his successor. [South China Morning Post]

5 January 2021

Philippines: Indigenous people killed on Panay Island

(nd) In police operations on Panay Island, nine people were killed and 17 others were arrested, all being indigenous people associated with the Panay Tumandok community. Previously, they were red-tagged and accused by the military as members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Therefore, the operation was labelled as regular law enforcement activity aimed to curb the proliferation of firearms and explosives on Panay Island.

House Deputy Minority leader Carlos Isagani Zarate condemned the incident, linking it to the killing of six farmers by state forces in Negros Oriental in December 2018, and calling the two cases “questionable and bloody operations,” that is “apparently becoming the norm.” [Rappler]

5 January 2021

Philippines: Military given unapproved Covid-19 vaccines

(nd) According to the Philippine defense minister, unapproved COVID-19 vaccines were given to President Rodrigo Duterte’s military security, after having been smuggled into the country.  They were obtained without governmental authorization and knowledge, yet, the move was called “justified” for it was a means of protecting the troops and the president. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate the case and reiterated importing, distributing or selling unapproved vaccines was illegal. Opposition lawmakers criticized the “VIP treatment”, while local governments are struggling to get budgets to obtain vaccines.  [Nikkei Asia]

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

China warns UK against sending its largest warship to the South China Sea 

(dql) China has warned the United Kingdom and other Western powers not to send warships to the South China Sea, adding that it would take “necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty”. The warning is a response to the Royal Navy’s announcement that its Carrier Strike Group, centered on Britain’s largest ever warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, had achieved initial operating capability, ready to deploy.

Over the past years, UK defense officials have been stating that the carrier’s first deployment would include Asia and the Pacific on a route from Britain that would likely take it through the South China Sea. [CNN] [International Business Times]