Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Vietnam, Thailand take steps to promote bilateral partnership

(ct) Vietnamese National Assembly Speaker Vuong Dinh Hue on 30 August held talks with his Thai counterpart Chuan Leekpai on measures to continue promoting the enhanced strategic partnership between the two countries.

Thailand consolidates its position as Vietnam’s largest trading partner in ASEAN and is the country’s ninth-largest foreign investor, the Vietnamese leader said, urging the two countries to maintain existing contacts and cooperation mechanisms.

As steps to bolster Vietnam-Thailand enhanced strategic partnership, Hue called on the two sides to quickly finalize and sign the action program for the period 2021-2025, as well as other legal documents such as treaties on extradition and legal assistance in civil matters. The Vietnamese NA called on both sides to continue facilitating business activities to reach the $25 billion trade target as soon as possible. He suggested that Thailand invest in areas that match Thailand’s strengths and Vietnam’s needs, including tourism, high-tech agriculture, information technology, and green energy. Moreover, he expected the two countries to resolve pending issues for mutual benefits and enhance working mechanisms under the Mekong sub-region in association with the establishment of the ASEAN Community.

For his part, Chuan Leekpai supported the views of his Vietnamese counterpart on multilateral relations, with emphasis on the importance of maintaining peace and stability to contribute to the development of the region, as well as on the promotion of trade cooperation and the reduction of obstacles to bilateral ties. [Hanoi Times] [Voice of Vietnam]

31 August 2021

Belgium-Vietnam relations: Prime Ministers discuss strengthen investment and trade

(ct) In a phone conversation with Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on August 26, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh called for greater bilateral cooperation, suggesting to strengthen two-way trade and investment.

Chinh said Belgium is one of the important trade partners and the sixth-largest export market of Vietnam in Europe. He emphasized that the two sides’ continued effective implementation of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) along with the early ratification of the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (EVIPA) by Belgium would create an important impetus to promote relations between Vietnam and the EU as well as between Vietnam and Belgium in both economic and strategic terms.

Chinh, furthermore, proposed the Belgian government create favorable conditions for agricultural products while urging the European Commission (EC) to soon remove the ‘yellow card’ for Vietnamese seafood, thus benefiting both Vietnamese exporters and consumers in Belgium and the EU.

De Croo, in turn, affirmed that he would direct relevant Belgian agencies to actively respond to the request of the Vietnamese side. Also, he agreed with Chinh’s views on global and equal access to and mutual support in vaccine issues and pledged to direct its relevant agencies to satisfy the Vietnamese side’s proposals in vaccine issues.

Regarding the East Sea issue, both sides affirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law. [Việt Nam News] [VietnamPlus]

31 August 2021

US Vice President Harris urges Vietnam to join US in opposing China ‘bullying’

(ct/lm) US Vice President Kamala Harris met Vietnam’s top leaders on August 25, offering support in several key areas and to upgrade bilateral relations to a strategic partnership, in an effort to prove that Washington is refocusing on the region and on a broader strategy of countering China.

Harris’ visit to Hanoi capped a high-stakes seven-day tour to Southeast Asia, during which the vice president met with top officials in Singapore – including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – and unveiled a number of new US agreements and aid in areas including cyber-defense cooperation [see AiR No. 34, August/2021, 4].

Speaking at a meeting with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Harris said there was a need to “raise the pressure” on Beijing’s actions “and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims.” Harris also pledged Washington’s help in boosting the Southeast Asian nation’s maritime security, offering more visits by US warships as well as the donation of a third US Coast Guard cutter – subject to congressional approval. [Associated Press]

Further, Harris unveiled an array of new partnerships and support for Vietnam in areas including climate change, trade and the coronavirus pandemic. She announced that Washington will send 1 million additional doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Vietnam, on top of about 5 million shots already provided from the US supply. Additionally, the US will provide $23 million to help Vietnam expand distribution and access to vaccines, combat the pandemic and prepare for future disease threats. [South China Morning Post 1]

Speaking a day after her conversations with Vietnamese leaders, Harris told reporters she had raised issues of human rights abuses and restrictions on political activism. When asked if she received any commitments to secure the release of Vietnamese dissidents, the vice president said the issue was discussed “both with the leaders of the Vietnamese government, as well as with civil society leaders — because it is a real concern for the United States.” [Associated Press] [The Hill]

Harris trip to Hanoi, the first-ever visit by a sitting US vice-president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, sought to build on US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s successful visit last month, during which the two countries a memorandum of understanding that expands support to Hanoi’s efforts to locate and identify Vietnamese killed or missing during the Vietnam War. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

The two-nation tour – Harris’ second international trip in the role – had gained heightened urgency, coming as it did against the larger backdrop of chaotic effort’s by Washington to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul. [Al Jazeera]

But it also provided Harris a taste of the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China. Beijing has seized on the turmoil in Kabul to taunt the US and label it an unreliable partner: Commenting on Harris’ visit to Singapore, China’s Foreign Ministry on August 24 said the United States “arbitrarily launched military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, while claiming to defend the interests of smaller countries.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China] [The New York Times]

Moreover, a three-hour delay in Harris’ schedule handed China a window of opportunity to quickly facilitate a meeting between its envoy and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, during with the ambassador pledged a donation of 2 million vaccine doses, undercutting the subsequent US announcement. The Vietnamese prime minister, thanking the envoy, said his country “does not ally with one country to fight against another,” according to state media. [The Washington Post] [VietnamPlus]

Also at the meeting, the two sides discussed tensions in the East Sea. Chinh emphasized that both countries needed to maintain peace and stability, and properly settle disagreements at sea in the spirit of high-level common perceptions, and reach an agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related matters and compliance with international law. [South China Morning Post 2]

For an analysis of China’s wedge strategy towards the US-Vietnam partnership – which is geared towards reinforcing Hanoi’s neutrality – please consider [The Diplomat].

31 August 2021

Vietnam: More than 3,000 prison inmates set free ahead of September 2

(ct) State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc has approved a decision to release 3,026 inmates who had performed well during their prison terms. Since the Amnesty Law amended in 2018 took effect, this is the first time in four years the President has granted special amnesty. [Voice of Vietnam]

The decision will come into effect on September 1, a day before Vietnam observers its National Day to commemorate President Hồ Chí Minh reading the Declarations of Independence of Vietnam in Hanoi in 1945.

31 August 2021

Vietnam: Prime Minister asks for solutions to exploit and optimize land resources

(ct) Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh called for finding solutions to exploit and optimize land resources during the period of acceleration of the renovation work to make Vietnam soon a predominantly industrialized and modern-oriented country.

Speaking at a conference to gather opinions on the draft Consolidated Report on the Implementation of Resolution No.19-NQ/TW of the 6th Plenum of the XIth Mandate Party Central Committee on Policy Renovation and land laws, the head of government praised the achievements in this area after ten years of implementation of Resolution No.19-NQ/TW. During the meeting, the PM asked the delegates to evaluate the results obtained, the limits, their causes as well as to decide the objectives, the tasks and the major solutions in the future.

The Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam issued a decision to establish a Steering Committee to summarise the 10 years of implementation of Resolution 19-NQ/TW. The Standing Steering Committee has organised 34 meetings, seminars, conferences and workshops to consult agencies, organisations, experts and managers in the field of land. [Việt Nam News]

24 August 2021

Cambodia: Union leader convicted

(nd) A prominent Cambodian union leader and government critic, Rong Chhun, was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting social unrest, after commenting on the border with Vietnam. This is the maximum penalty for Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, an umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students, who was arrested in July 2020. He stated that the demarcation of the eastern border with Vietnam had taken away land from farmers.

He was convicted alongside two other defendants, both arrested during rallies supporting Rong Chhun’s cause. Upon hearing the verdict, Rong Chhun shouted out “It is injustice […] it is implemented based on a plan and order from the ruler. The court is under the influence of a politician, so the court cannot find justice for me.”

Local rights groups as well as the ambassadors to Cambodia from Australia and the US condemned the verdict, emphasizing that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right to peacefully gather.

The lack of independence of the court Rong Chhun pointed to illuminated the sensitive nature of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The former French colonies have not resolved all border areas, causing sometimes violent local incidents. Due to this territorial challenge, Cambodian nationalism has always been spiked with a fear of disappearance through Vietnamese encroachment. Opponents of CPP, which was installed by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, frequently use the CPP’s close ties to Vietnam to claim a sellout of Cambodia.

The verdict follows the six-year ongoing crackdown on political and societal opposition, after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017. This prompted a further crackdown, enabling the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all seats in the 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]


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

Vietnam’s first consular office in India opens in Bengaluru

Vietnam opened the first consular office in India in Bengaluru and appointed NS Srinivas Murthy as Honorary Consul of Vietnam in Karnataka. India is Vietnam’s 26th investment partner, while the two countries are aiming to extend their partnership. According to Phan Sanh Chau, Vietnam’s Ambassador in India, the consulate was established to strengthen investment relations between the two countries. The ambassador also mentioned pharmaceuticals, manufacturing of automobile parts and information technology as some of the sectors in which Bengaluru and Vietnam could collaborate. Meanwhile, NS Srinivas Murthy said the ambassador met Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai along with an 18-member delegation to discuss economic and industrial cooperation. Vietnam is already India’s fourth-largest trading partner in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Also addressed during the conference was a proposal for a sister city arrangement between Bengaluru and Danang, Vietnam’s third-largest city. [The New Indian Express] [Deccan Herald]

24 August 2021

US Vice President to visit Singapore, Vietnam

(nd) As part of her visit to Southeast Asia in an effort to rebuild regional ties, US Vice President Kamala Harris met Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to enter a series of agreements, including cybersecurity, climate and public health and economic cooperation, including a dialogue to boost cooperation on supply-chain resilience. They also discussed the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China and Myanmar. Amid the current crisis in Afghanistan, Harris emphasized US commitment to the region and reiterated strategic and economic interests. [Bloomberg]

Following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the chaotic troop withdrawal, the US has faced global criticism, urging Chinese state media to draw a line to Taiwan not being able to depend on the US and being a “weak and unreliable power” [CNBC]. Similar fears rose with respect to South Korea and Japan. While such comparisons are too simplistic, it is still likely to leave a mark on regional ties with Southeast Asia. Even before the withdrawal, many regional governments questioned US commitment to the region. The recent events highlight all the more that the US will prioritize its own interests over those of its allies and partners. With respect to security, for example, the withdrawal has an effect on Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, fighting against a growing presence of the Islamic State, with Afghanistan possibly once again becoming a safe haven for extremist groups. [See article below] Even if the US refers to strategic interests in the region, such are primarily perceived as referring to containing China, prioritizing security and defense relations.

Other experts argue the withdrawal is likely to free up much needed resources to counter China in the region, not only with respect to the South China Sea. Also, with respect to economic regional economic dependency, China looms over the visit, which is why it was considered central to establish trust in the region. To highlight that, a US official was quoted saying Harris’s trip is to show that the US was in Southeast Asia “to stay”, another official commenting she “will make clear throughout the trip that we do have an enduring commitment to the region”.

After three days in Singapore, Harris will visit Vietnam on Tuesday for two days. Her visit is part of a recent diplomatic charm offensive by the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, following Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit in May and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore in July. [See also AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] The Biden administration is the third to promise a renewed focus on this region. Barack Obama’s “pivot” was supposed to redirect US diplomacy away from the Middle East towards the Asia-Pacific, while Donald Trump’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, was directed against Chinese influence. Analysts argue the current US strategy should include economic aspects, given the recent passage if the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and be framed positively, to not be perceived as purely confronting China. [Channel News Asia] [South China Morning Post] [Al Jazeera] [BBC] [Bloomberg] [The Diplomat]


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

Vietnam seeks stronger cooperation with Middle East nations

(ct) Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Quang Hieu on August 19 held an online meeting with nine resident and non-resident ambassadors and chargé d’affaires of Middle Eastern countries to Vietnam. The meeting is part of a series of contact activities between the leaders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ambassadors and Charities of the Middle East – Africa countries to inform about Vietnam’s foreign policy and economic development after the 13th National Party of Vietnam Communist Party congress, discussed major orientations in cooperation between Vietnam and Middle Eastern countries, reviewed and promoted bilateral cooperation in the new situation. Speaking at the event, Hieu highlighted encouraging results of cooperation between Vietnam and the Middle East countries despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 7.3 billion USD in two-way trade in the first half of this year, up 33.5 per cent year on year. Similarly, the diplomats stated that fostering comprehensive engagement with Vietnam has always been a priority, and they recommended measures in politics, diplomacy, economy, trade, and COVID-19 prevention and control to improve bilateral ties in the near future. [VietnamPlus]

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

Similarities between South Vietnam and Afghanistan

(nd) Frequently these days, the rapid fall of Kabul and the chaotic retreat of the US army in Afghanistan have prompted many, often superficial comparisons between the falls of Saigon and Kabul.

According to a recent article in The Diplomat, the one similarity to be acknowledged in order to avoid similar situations in the future is the failure of nation-building due to its underlying imperial logic. While the Vietnam War is often seen as an effort by the allied forces providing local security and development in the villages, it can only be understood in the context of nation-building and thereby, the US’s effort to facilitate the emergence of effective and legitimate governing institutions in South Vietnam.

Due to the thinking that isolated local governments in rural areas are highly likely to succumb to a coordinated insurgency if they do not dispose of a strong, effective central government backing them, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the US tried to implement structures at a central level, hoping such structures would then radiate into the provinces. In Vietnam, the Johnson administration created the Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, which established a tightly integrated presence at every level of the South Vietnamese government. This unprecedented effort, however, according to the author, was also tainted with the imperial flaw, meaning one nation to apply a certain pressure with the desired goal to transform or at least radically redirect the politics of another nation. It is often characterized, however, by a lack of knowledge of the politics, history, and culture of the respective country, assuming is was somehow lacking something fundamental and therefore needs to be saved.

Despite the unparalleled establishment of the Vietnam Training Center, which educated 2,000 nation-builders on the country, its effect was the creation of stereotypes that created even more ignorance towards the local reality. There was no language training, nor with respect to local specialties, resulting in an inability to communicate effectively. And specifically on the local level, the author argues, lies the central battlefield, as seen in Afghanistan and South Vietnam, where the US failed to impose its will on local politics, but rather local politicians reaching deals with the Taliban for the post-US era, and military commanders pocketing money meant for the army. As instable as they are, such governance structures usually collapse under the weight of inherited political and social circumstances, which tend to be ignored by the nation-builders.


24 August 2021

Vietnam Court Sentences Member of ‘Provisional Government’ to Three-Year Prison Term

(ct) On August 16, the People’s Court of Nghe An province conducted a first-instance trial of the criminal case against defendant Tran Huu Duc, charged with the crime of “Activities against the people’s government” under Article 109 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

According to the indictment, from June 2020 to January 2021, Duc used the social network Facebook to contact members of the “Provisional National Government of Vietnam” (PNGV) organization headquartered in the US. He gathered information on Nghe An residents to contact for a referendum on naming a group member, Dao Minh Quan, as president of Vietnam. Duc was also accused of publishing anti-government political information online and defaming officials of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. 

After members of this group were accused of plotting to assault Tan Son Nhat International Airport with petrol bombs ahead of a major holiday the year before, Vietnam authorities classified them as a terrorist organization in January 2018. The group’s leader, Dang Hoang Thien and 14 other members of the group were sentenced in December 2017. Also, in early March, four members of the same family were sentenced for their involvement in the group. All had been charged with subversion.

The PNGV was founded in 1991 by former soldiers and refugees loyal to the South Vietnamese government.  [RFA]

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

Japan resumes meeting with five Mekong countries

(lm) Japan held a virtual foreign ministerial meeting on August 13 with five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River, to reiterate its commitment to the subregion and to reinforce its foreign policy objective of pushing back against Chinese attempts to widen its sphere of influence. [South China Morning Post]

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met virtually with his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam under the 14th Mekong – Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

While this Japan-Mekong meeting takes place annually, it was postponed from its original March date as Tokyo feared that holding it would be seen as recognizing the Myanmar’s military junta which seized power from an elected government. But Japan decided to go ahead after China hosted a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – including Myanmar – in June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2], and the United States also met virtually with the bloc’s foreign ministers on July 14 [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. [Kyodo News 1]

Last week’s virtual encounter saw Japan pledging additional medical support for the five Mekong River countries – all of which are battling with COVID-19 surges due to the highly contagious Delta variant – on top of around 5.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and $68 million worth of medical equipment including oxygen concentrators.

Foreign Minister Motegi expressed full support for the appointment of Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar to mediate between the military and pro-democracy protesters [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. Further, conveying concerns about the military’s nullification of the country’s November general election, the Japanese top diplomat called for a dialogue among all parties concerned and “expressed his strong expectations for a constructive response from Myanmar”. [Kyodo News 2]

17 August 2021

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

UN Vietnam coordinator to leave office

(ct) On August 12, during the meeting with outgoing UN Resident Coordinator Kamal Malhotra, President Phuc reaffirmed that Vietnam attaches great importance to multilateralism and international law and supports the United Nations’ (UN) central role in promoting international solidarity and cooperation to address global challenges, maintain peace and security, and achieve world prosperity. Vietnam will continue to be an active member of the international community and the UN, actively and responsibly contribute to the UN Security Council, and participate in UN peacekeeping missions, while promoting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, said Phuc. He added the country will run for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council for the 2023 – 2025 tenure. In reply, Malhotra thanked Vietnamese public agencies and sectors for their assistance for UN organizations. Malhotra affirmed Vietnam has an increasingly important role and voice in the UN thanks to its active and responsible participation in and contribution to common affairs of the international community and the UN. He added that the highest priority of UN organizations now is to support Viet Nam’s COVID-19 response, especially in accessing vaccines through the COVAX Facility and in the transfer of vaccine production technologies so that Viet Nam can be self-sufficient in vaccine. [Việt Nam News]

17 August 2021

Vietnam: PM orders law revision to solve difficulties in investment, business

(ct) Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has sent a dispatch to several ministers, ordering a revision of laws to address difficulties in investment and business amid the complex developments of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PM asked to speed up the process of amending and supplementing legal regulations that are causing challenges for investment, production and business activities in the fields specified in 29 laws related to State management of 10 ministries. In addition, for the remaining local recommendations on the amendment and supplementation of regulations, the Government Office should be assigned to send them to ministries and ministerial-level agencies for further review. [Việt Nam 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

Vietnam: Party Central Committee officials and business leaders punished 

(ct) The 20th session of the Anti-Corruption Steering Committee decided to particularly focus on the draft report on the progress and results of the implementation of the work program of the Central Steering Committee for the prevention and fights against corruption.          

The Party Central Committee’s Inspection Committee has proposed punishment for seven centrally-managed officials as well as multiple other leaders and officials of State enterprises in the first half of this year. According to the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption, more than 70 Party committees, over 8,000 Party members had been punished in the first half of this year. Furthermore, 27 public security officials and 16 military officials were punished for corruption and other wrongdoings. [Vietnamnews] These actions follow the direction, tasks and solutions for socio-economic development for the five years 2021-2025, the document of the XIII Congress has set forth radical policies and solutions on anti-corruption. The guidelines include preventing and handling corrupt acts in order to protect the legitimate interests of the State, agencies, organizations and citizens. Hence, making an important contribution to maintaining socio-political security, preserving the regime and ensuring the country’s socio-economic development sustainably.

10 August 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to lay out Cambodia’s ASEAN chair plan

(nd) With respect to Cambodia taking over the ASEAN chair from Brunei in less than five months, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the challenges for ASEAN on the day that marks its 54th anniversary after its foundation on August 8, 1967, pointing to the global pandemic, as well as the rivalry between China and the US. 

Additional issues according to Hun Sen were the pace of societal transformation due to technology, climate change and degradation of the environment.

To achieve its goals, ASEAN, according the Cambodian leader, shall, after overcoming repercussion of the global pandemic, implement its five comprehensive recovery framework goals, including enhancement of health systems, strengthening of human security, maximizing the potential of the intra-ASEAN market, by broadening economic integration and improve digitalization. 

According to observers, key challenges are maintaining peace and stability amid geopolitical rivalry, as well as Mekong water issues, transnational crime and poverty. It will be the third chairmanship of Cambodia which became an ASEAN member state in 1999. [Phnompenh Post]

10 August 2021

Vietnam: President to pay an official visit to Laos 

(ct) President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his wife visited Laos August 9-10 at the invitation of General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President of Laos Thongloun Sisoulith. During the visit, President Phuc held talks with Party General Secretary and President Thongloun, meet with Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh and National Assembly Chairman Saysomphone Phomvihane, receive several senior leaders, and visit several former senior leaders of Laos. During these talks and meetings, both sides announced to discuss measures to deepen their bilateral relationship, special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and Laos. [Vietnamnews] In June, a high-ranking delegation of the Lao Party and State also paid an official friendship visit to Vietnam. It was the first foreign visit of Mr Thongloun Sisoulith as General Secretary and President of Laos for the 2021-2026 term. President Phuc and Lao Party General Secretary and President Thongloun agreed to closely coordinate to promote cooperation between the two nations more comprehensively and practically. [see Asia in Review No. 25, June/2021, 6]

10 August 2021

Swiss VP to travel to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam

(ct) Switzerland’s Vice President, Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is on an official visit to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as part of the Swiss Foreign Policy Strategy 2020-2023, aiming to expand its engagement in Asia and step up cooperation. Switzerland aims to achieve this objective through bilateral exchanges and a dialogue partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In Thailand, Mr Cassis held talks with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), human rights and the crisis in Myanmar. Also, he met with the minister of health and environment to discuss the challenges posed by the pandemic and climate change. The visit marked the 90th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries [FDFA] [Bangkok Post] The main focus of the visit to Laos was development cooperation. At the signing ceremony on August 4 in Vientiane, the Lao government signed a cooperation agreement with the Swiss Government in the fields of technical, cultural, economic and financial and new humanitarian aid worth 65 million USD. Mr Cassis also inaugurated a new consular agency in Vientiane. [FDFA] [Vientiane Times] In Hanoi,  Mr Ignazio Cassis met with the vice president, prime minister, foreign minister and three other members of the Vietnamese government. He emphasized the significance of the diplomatic connections between Switzerland and Vietnam in the past 50 years, which extends beyond the political and the multilateral sphere to technical and economic cooperation, trade and investment, research and science, culture, tourism and people to people contacts. The two Ministers agreed to increase delegation exchanges and visits between high-ranking leaders, ministries, sectors and localities to enhance mutual understanding and trust and further cooperation post-COVID-19. 

Switzerland is supporting the transition process in Vietnam and the country’s effort to develop its economy. Negotiations on a free trade agreement between the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Switzerland is a member, and Vietnam has been underway since 2012. Therefore, during talks in Hanoi, he called for a speedy conclusion to negotiations on the free trade agreement between EFTA and Vietnam. [VOV 1] Minister Son thanked Switzerland for their donation of medical equipment and further asked for their support in that realm. [VOV 2]. Furthermore, in a ceremony virtually to announce a cooperation program for 2021-2024 between Vietnam and Switzerland, the Swiss government has decided to grant CHF 70 million (nearly US$80 million) to assist Vietnam to improve its business and enhance the competitiveness of the private sector. [VOV 3]

10 August 2021

ASEAN to grant “dialogue partner” status to Britain

(nd) In an important step in Britain’s post-Brexit mission to build strong bilateral diplomatic ties with the region, it was granted “dialogue partner” status by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Upon its exit of the European Union in 2020, Britain aimed to shift its market from Europe to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This grants Britain high-level access to ASEAN summits, furthering hopes to build cooperation with respect to climate change and security. For a deeper economic cooperation, Britain has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision marks the end of a 25-year moratorium to award third parties the bloc’s highest institutional partnership. [Reuters] [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

10 August 2021

Vietnam not to ‘join forces with one country in opposition of another’, Foreign spokesperson

(ct) The spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs underlined Vietnam’s consistent foreign policy of not “joining forces with one country in opposition for another.” When questioned about frequent visits by high-ranking US officials during a news conference held online from Hanoi, she emphasized Vietnam’s stance of “independence, self-reliance, multilateralism, diversification, and promoting ties with partners, especially key partners” and that “Vietnam always attaches great importance to consolidating and strengthening relations with China and the US, which are two of Vietnam’s biggest partners in many fields.” In April, the Chinese Defense Minister paid an official visit to Vietnam at the invitation of his counterpart. After that, on June 8, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son in Chongqing [Vietnamplus]. Last week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin also visited Vietnam during his Southeast Asia tour and just a short time afterwards, the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would visit Vietnam and Singapore in August. [See also AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1] [Nikkei Asia]

The US provided 5 million doses of vaccine (Moderna), China donated 500,000 doses of Sinopharm, with any assistance and support from partners declared as “valuable and very appreciated.” The Vietnamese diplomat also noted that in order to increase the quantity of vaccinations available in the country, Vietnam would diversify its vaccine supplies and is in active negotiations with many countries, partners, and vaccine manufacturers across the world. [Vietnamnews]

10 August 2021

Vietnam demands China to stop violations in Paracel islands

(ct) Vietnam urged China to stop and not repeat military drills on its Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands, asserting that they violate Vietnam’s sovereignty. The Maritime Safety Administration of China’s Hainan Province has announced plans to hold military exercises near Vietnam’s Paracel (Hoàng Sa) archipelago and southeast of Hainan Island from 6 August to 10 August. In their response, the Foreign Ministry asserting drills on Vietnam’s Paracel Islands violate Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands, which is in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the South China Sea (DOC), further creating tensions, also with respect to current negotiations between China and ASEAN on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (SOC), as well as the maintenance of peace, stability and cooperation at the SEA. Moreover, the Foreign Ministry reiterated that Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly (Truong Sa) islands in accordance with international law. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last Tuesday claimed during the ASEAN-China session, which is part of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting and related meetings, that the situation in the East Vietnam Sea has been stable thanks to the joint efforts of China and ASEAN.  [Vietnamnews] In March this year, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had handed over a diplomatic note demanding China to respect its sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagoes, also opposing China’s live-fire drills and construction plan in Hoang Sa. [Vietnamnet]

10 August 2021

UNSC Open Debate on Maritime Security

(nd) At the virtual United Nations Security Council (UNSC) high-level debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security – A Case for International Cooperation”, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasized the necessity of a global solution to maritime security. He suggested to setup a network of initiatives and mechanisms on regional maritime security, including a mechanism on information sharing, which shall be coordinated by the UN. Inter alia, he pointed to the importance of having a comprehensive rule-based approach, referring to international law, the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.

Narendra Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to preside over a UNSC Open Debate, called maritime routes “the lifelines of international trade”, emphasizing free and uninterrupted maritime trade for the global economy and development. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that “Conflict in the South China Sea, or in any ocean would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce”, referring to “dangerous encounters […] and provocative actions to advance unlawful maritime claims […that] intimidate and bully other states from lawfully accessing their maritime resources.” The open debate shall help to facilitate international maritime cooperation, and respond to natural and manmade, traditional and non-traditional threats to maritime security, such as environmental changes, maritime disputes, piracy and terrorism. [Hanoi Times] [Voice of Vietnam]

3 August 2021

Vietnam: Civil society to fill in for authorities?

(ct) With civil society groups taking initiative to fight the pandemic, authorities in Vietnam risk becoming marginalized after failing to manage the global health crisis, according to an analysis in The Diplomat. [The Diplomat]

According to the author, Luke Hunt, people are increasingly hesitant to go to hospitals and medical facilities for examinations and treatments following the implementation of social distancing rules. As a consequence, multiple doctors and experts, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and some other provinces, have joined to offer a free health consultation campaign.

Vietnam has recorded about 115,000 COVID-19 cases and 524 deaths, mostly in the south, with more than 62,000 cases confirmed in Ho Chi Minh city alone. The government’s failure in managing the vaccination rollout, specifically amid the potent Delta variant, have raised concerns. Just 0.4 percent of Vietnam’s 96.5 million people have been fully vaccinated, with 4.5 percent receiving their first jab.

3 August 2021

Vietnam: 15th National Assembly concludes first session, grants vast powers to PM to contain pandemic

(ct/lm) Vietnam’s 15th National Assembly (NA) wrapped up its first session on July 28 after nine days of sitting, three days earlier than schedule than previously planned due to rising COVID-10 concerns. [VietnamPlus]

Constitutionally, the National Assembly is the highest government organization and the highest-level representative body of the Vietnamese people. Ultimately, however, the ruling Communist Party has great influence over the legislature, after it secured 485 out of 499 seats in elections in May. [AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

Significantly, the NA approved a resolution giving the government of re-elected Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh centralized power for swift decision-making, in a bid to bring a spike in coronavirus infections, primarily in the southern region surrounding Ho Chi Minh City, under control.

The prime minister can impose particular communications restrictions and take other measures to prevent the disease from spreading quickly. Moreover, these include yet-to-be-legislated measures, as well as the government’s ability to bypass some important phases in the creation of new legal frameworks in order to combat COVID-19. [Nikkei Asia]

These powers are valid until the end of December 31, 2022, and the government must report to the NA on the application of these special measures at the upcoming session.

In addition, lawmakers decided on the number of the members of the NA Standing Committee, organization structure of the government and the number of Cabinet members. They also elected and approved the appointment of 50 high-ranking state leaders and four judges of the Supreme People’s Court.

3 August 2021

Vice President Harris to visit Vietnam, Singapore, as United States court Southeast Asia

(ct/lm/nd) US Vice President will travel to Singapore and Vietnam next month to fortify regional ties with Southeast Asian nations, as the Biden administration looks to counter Chinese influence in the region and globally. [The Hill]

Harris will be the first US Vice President to visit Vietnam, and the highest-ranking official from the Biden administration to visit the Indo-Pacific, and Asia overall. Importantly, the announcement of her trip comes just days after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s own trip to Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, which focused on offering support to Southeast Asia nations as territorial rifts with China unfold. [see article in this edition]

The White House did not provide details on the dates of the trip. But analysts consider Harris’ trip the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts aimed at emphasizing Washington’s renewed commitment to Southeast Asia, given US President Biden’s focus on Asia as a linchpin of his foreign policy agenda.

Despite China and Vietnam’s communist ties, Hanoi has emerged as a key American partner and a vocal opponent of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. However, members of the Biden administration have said the US’ relationship with Vietnam will remain limited until the country makes progress on human rights issues. [Reuters]

The vice president’s visit affirms the strength of the relationship between the US and Singapore, according to reporting in the Business Times. Harris will meet with Singapore leaders to discuss ways to cooperate in areas such as defense, digital trade and cyber security. [CNBC]

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

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.

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

Vietnam: Defense Minister to hold talks with British counterpart

(ct) Vietnam’s Defense Minister General Phan Van Giang held talks with UK Secretary of State for Defense Robert Ben Lobban Wallace in Hanoi. This is the first official visit to Vietnam by the British Defense Minister to Vietnam following the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership (2010-2020). The main topics were freedom of navigation and upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea as well as the mitigation of the Covid-19 pandemic, with which the British supported Vietnam in experience and vaccination doses. [Vietnamnews

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

India, Pakistan, Vietnam join Russian Naval Parade

(lm) Vessels and crews from India, Pakistan and Vietnam were among more than 50 vessels and 4,000 troops that participated in Russia’s Navy Day parade last week. The annual review of maritime forces took place on July 25 in the port city of St. Petersburg, the hometown of President Vladimir Putin. [RadioFreeEurope] [Vietnam Express]

While overseeing the naval parade, President Putin said his country would carry out an “unpreventable strike” if it was in the country’s interests. He also lauded his country’s hypersonic missiles as “still unrivaled in the world.” The comments came after a successful test of a hypersonic Zircon cruise missile last week and as tensions in the Black Sea remain high following an altercation between a British warship and the Russian military in the waters around Crimea in June. [Reuters]

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]

20 July 2021

US, Vietnam to solve currency manipulation dispute

(nd) The US and Vietnam announced they have reached an agreement in their currency manipulation dispute. The former administration of Donald Trump gave the designation of currency manipulators to China, Vietnam and Switzerland, withdrawing it against China later, while Biden withdrew it against China and Switzerland. All three remained on the US Treasury’s “Monitoring List” for scrutiny of its currency policies, together with Japan, Korea, Germany, Ireland, Italy, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Mexico. In a twice-yearly analysis, the US Congress lists countries that are likely weakening their own currency against the US dollar to make exports cheaper and imports of American products more expensive. [Asia Times]

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]

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

Vietnam: Tightening requirements for social media providers

(nd) The Vietnamese government is tightening its grip on social media, regulating livestream activity on platforms like Facebook and Google, citing efforts to curb fake news. According to a draft decree, operators shall be obliged to provide contact information of account operators with more than 10,000 followers or subscribers. Current legislation only covers domestic social media providers such as Zalo. According to an estimate, the top 10 Vietnamese social media platforms have 80 million users combined, while foreign competitors like Facebook have 65 million users, YouTube with 60 million users and TikTok 20 million. The yet unapproved draft will require these providers to block or remove flagged content within 24 hours upon “justified” requests by Vietnamese individuals and affected organizations.

Within the last months, Vietnam has repeatedly tightened rules on online content, censoring posts and deleting accounts. A cybersecurity law already requires foreign companies to set up local offices and store data in Vietnam. Facebook commented it does not store user data in Vietnam. [The Star]

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 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

Vietnam, Canada hold bilateral defense consultation

(lm) The 2021 Vietnam-Canada defense consultation took place virtually on July 7, with both sides agreeing to maintain the annual defense consultation and defense policy dialogue, increase high-level meetings, while also strengthening ties in personnel training, UN peacekeeping operations, and maritime security. [VietnamPlus]

Significantly, Vietnam is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia with Canadian resident defense attaché positions. The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation in 2019 and Canadian naval ships visited Vietnam’s Cam Ranh International Port for the first time in June the same year.

Even though Ottawa seeks to maintain a healthy separation from US policy – the Royal Canadian Navy does not engage in US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) – its naval presence in the South China Sea is unmistakably higher compared to years past. A case in point, a Canadian frigate passed by the Spratly Island during a trip from Brunei to Vietnam earlier this year in March, raising the ire of China.

Canada has also upped its partnerships with countries and regional intuitions that govern the South China Sea. In early November of last year, Canadian Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan presented to the 12th South China Sea International Conference in Hanoi, where he noted that his country “opposes unilateral actions that have escalated tensions in the region and undermined stability in the South China Sea”.

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]


13 July 2021

Vietnam: Former radio journalist jailed

(lm) Authorities in Vietnam on July 9 sentenced a high-profile journalist to five and a half years in prison followed by five hears of house arrest, in the latest in a slew of arrests of reporters who began working for the state media and were arrested after later choosing to work freely and independently.

According to the Hanoi court’s verdict, the defendant – a former editor of state-controlled radio broadcaster Voice of Vietnam – had used his social media account to share “distorted information that caused social concern” in addition to giving interviews to foreign media outlets. [The Straits Times 1]

Earlier this month, Hanoi police officially announced an investigation against a former editor of Phap Luat (The Law), a state-controlled magazine covering legal issues, one week after he was initially arrested on June 24. The arrest warrants list charges of “tax evasion,” which carrya possible seven-year prison sentence under article 200 of the Penal Code. [Reporters Without Borders]

The same charge of tax evasion was also used to arrest another expert on legal issues, Dang Dinh Bach, on June 30 – more than a month after the journalist had gone into hiding.    Dung runs the news channel Chan Hung Nuoc Viet, which reports on corruption allegations and land confiscations. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 20 years in prison. [Voice of America]

In related news, Facebook last week said it had removed a group which had mobilized both military and non-military members to report posts they did not like to Facebook to have them taken down. The group was reportedly connected to Force 47, a at least 10,000-member strong cyber unit established in 2017 to trawl the web and rebut any “wrongful opinions” about Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. [The Straits Times 2]

6 July 2021

Laos President Sisoulith on official visit to Vietnam

(lm) A high-level delegation led by President of Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith, last week paid an official visit to Vietnam last week, marking Sisoulith first overseas trip since he was elected General Secretary of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) earlier in January. 

On June 28, the first day of the delegation’s visit, Sisoulith and Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, witnessed the signing of agreements between their countries on issues ranging from political cooperation and business to and culture, arts and tourism. Among those signed are the agreements on the Vietnam – Laos Cooperation Strategy for 2021 to 2030; and on their bilateral collaboration for 2021 to 2025. [The Laotian Times]

Later that day, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Vuong Dinh Hue, hosted a reception for the visiting delegation. Both sides agreed on the need for the their legislatures to increase high-level visits and meetings, and intensify collaboration and exchange of experience, especially in institution building, law making, and supreme supervision over the operation of State agencies. [VietnamPlus]

6 July 2021

Vietnam’s Deputy PM holds phone talk with US National Security Advisor Sullivan

(lm) Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh on July 1 held a phone conversation with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, during which both sides reiterated their shared commitment to their 2013 Comprehensive Partnership. They also discussed ways to deepen cooperation between their countries in areas such as maritime security, the Mekong region, combatting climate change, and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. [VietnamPlus]

Because Vietnam is currently serving as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Sullivan also touched on the dire humanitarian and human rights situation Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a conflict between rebels and government forces has led to thousands of deaths and displaced 1.7 million people. [The White House]

29 June 2021

Laos-Vietnam relations: Deepening cooperation

(dql) During a meeting between General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) Central Committee and Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, both leaders agreed on close coordination to promote cooperation between the two nations more comprehensively and practically. They also discussed cooperation between the two nations at multilateral forums, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Greater Mekong Sub-region, as well as collaboration among Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

After the meeting, the two countries signed a series of agreements on Monday to strengthen their “friendly and cooperative ties,” in several areas including investment, business, information, culture and tourism. 

Furthermore, the agreements on the Vietnam-Laos cooperation strategy for 2021-2030 and on their bilateral collaboration for 2021-2025 were signed. [Vietnam+] [Xinhua]

29 June 2021

British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]

This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]

The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.

The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]

Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]

The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]

29 June 2021

Growing presence of private security companies in Mekong region

(dql) According to findings of the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Chinese businesses with risky investments in economic development zones in the Mekong region are increasingly turning to China-based private security firms for protection. Among the 49 foreign private security firms operating in Cambodia and Myanmar, 29 are China-based ones.

Given the range of services these companies provide to Chinese businesses and tourists – including running safety trainings for companies, developing security apps for tourists, and providing armed guards for individuals or property as well as even conducting pandemic control activities – the report concludes: “Chinese private security companies are increasing China’s soft power in Mekong countries. They also, down the line, could serve as vectors of hard power.” [C4ADS] [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

China holds Belt and Road conference

(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.   

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]

22 June 2021

Vietnam expands maritime militia off country’s southern coast

(lm) Vietnam has deployed a new squadron of its maritime militia off the country’s southern coast, in the latest effort to bolster its naval presence amid growing tension in the South China Sea, according to a report by Nikkei Asia. [Nikkei Asia]

The Permanent Maritime Militia Unit consists of nine ships and platoons equipped with light weapons for paramilitary operations. It is the second squadron to be established within two months, after another unit comprising more than 130 crewmembers was deployed in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, an oil and gas industrial center in southern Vietnam. [see also AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

Establishing the new squadron in Kien Gian, the country’s southwesternmost province, illustrates the importance Hanoi attaches to the territory’s strategic location – Kien Gian faces into the Gulf of Thailand – as it expands oil and gas exploration and transportation in the area.


22 June 2021

8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus

(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.

Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]

The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.

The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]

The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]

15 June 2021

Cambodia to battle human trafficking with Vietnam and US

(ad) Vietnamese representatives in Cambodia have received numerous reports on Vietnamese citizens being targeted and cheated by human trafficking rings. According to the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia, these rings are led by Chinese nationals and include Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals as well. The Vietnamese agencies have contacted authorities in Cambodia to combat and save victims. Human trafficking rings have been targeting migrant workers due to job losses during the pandemic. [Khmer Times]

On a similar note, the US has reaffirmed its commitment to battling human trafficking in Cambodia. The US embassy stated that “Human trafficking affects people in every country on earth, and the United States encourages stronger efforts in Cambodia to prosecute traffickers, protect victims and prevent human trafficking”. With human trafficking on the rise due to the pandemic, it is a serious cause of concern. [Phnom Penh Post]

15 June 2021

Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism

(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]

At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]

What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.


8 June 2021

Cambodia and Switzerland cooperate on Mekong Region Cooperation Programme

(ad) Last week, the Cambodian-Swiss Governmental Consultation was organized to oversee the Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Programme 2022-2025, where representatives from Cambodia and Switzerland met to discuss progress on preserving the Mekong River.

The discussion was predominantly focused on governance and economic development. They also exchanged inputs on climate change impacts and better natural resource management. The Swiss government is set to grant $13 million per year between 2022 and 2025. Since 2002, Swiss government has given grants worth $142 million to Cambodia for its development. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

8 June 2021

ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement

(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]

On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]

The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.

Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]

In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]

The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.

ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

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]

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]

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].


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]

25 May 2021

Malaysia: Two Vietnamese fishing boats seized for entering Malaysian waters

(tcy) The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) of Kelantan has seized two Vietnamese fishing boats for encroaching and fishing in the national territorial waters. Kelantan MMEA director, Maritime Captain Muhd Nur Syam Asmawie Yaacob said that the two boats did not have permits to catch fish under the Fisheries Act 1985, and that all the fishermen had also violated the Immigration Act 1959/63 as they did not possess valid identification documents. The offence is punishable by fine of up to RM6 million against the skipper and RM600,000 on every crew if found guilty [Malay Mail]

25 May 2021

China-Vietnam relations: President Nguyen calls on President Xi to handle maritime issues according to international law

(dql) In a phone with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for greater bilateral cooperation, suggesting to expand trade and promote high-level infrastructure connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi, furthermore, assured that China was ready to provide Vietnam help in combatting the pandemic. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

Nguyen, meanwhile, proposed to strengthen the two countries’ cooperation against Covid-19 and to increase the quality of trade and investment ties. At the same, he also suggested that both sides “handle maritime issues “in accordance with the law and based on international rules such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and continue to coordinate at multilateral forums.” [VN Express]

25 May 2021

Vietnam: Election held for largely rubber-stamp legislature dominated by ruling Communist Party

(lm) Legislative elections were held in Vietnam on May 23 to elect members of the National Assembly and the People’s Councils at all levels for the 2021-2026 term. Results of the elections are expected in June. [Reuters]

The elections follow the twice-a-decade National Congress of the ruling Communist Party (VCP), which saw the appointments of the country’s top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – for the coming five-year term [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

Constitutionally, the National Assembly is the highest government organization and the highest-level representative body of the Vietnamese people. Ultimately, however, the VCP – one of the last ruling communist parties in the world – has great influence over the legislature and, as in previous elections, is expected to dominate the polls and extend its rule for the next five years. 

For the National Election Commission, established by the NA and responsible for organizing the election, is headed by Vuong Dinh Hue, a high-ranking party member who earlier this year was appointed Chairman of the National Assembly.

Moreover, the law mandates a particular significant role in electoral nominations of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of mass movements largely subservient to the ruling Communist Party. Specifically, endorsement by the Front is generally required (in practice, if not in theory) to be a candidate for election.

In addition to a vetting process that favors VCP members, at least two independent candidates have been arrested, and several others subjected to harassment and intimidation by police for their involvement in the election and for criticizing government policies. [The Diplomat]

It does not come as a surprise, then, that some 92 per cent of 868 candidates standing for the 500-seat legislature are party members, including most of the party’s decision-making politburo and all 180 members of its Central Committee. Further, only 74 independent candidates are standing in the election, down from the 97 in the previous elections in 2016, while local media say the number of assembly deputies who were not party members halved over the last three elections. [The Straits Times]

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

Vietnam, Thailand agree to foster enhanced strategic partnership

(lm) Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh held phone talks with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-ocha on May 12, during which the two leaders agreed to coordinate closely in further developing the enhanced strategic partnership between the two countries. [VietnamPlus]

18 May 2021

Mekong River Commission receives French grant to improve river monitoring network

(ad) The French government has donated $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. The funding, made available through the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), will span four years from 2021 to 2025. [Mekong River Commission]

The MRC is a regional/intergovernmental organization, consisting of member states Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2007, MRC has established 60 hydro-meteorological stations along the river to improve recording and forecasting the river dynamics.

The new funding is a follow-up to two other grants of EUR 4 million France had donated for the first two phases from 2007 to 2022. Since 2006, France has granted the MRC over 10 million euros to support river monitoring, flood and drought management, climate change, and environmental management. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Vietnam: Mother, son convicted for land right activism

(lm) A court on May 5 sentenced a mother and her son to eight years imprisonment followed by three years’ probation after being convicted for posting online articles and livestream videos criticizing the government for its handling of a deadly land-rights clash last year. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Police raided a village in the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi in January of last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site. The village leader and three police officers were killed during the clash; dozens of villagers arrested. The woman and her two sons played prominent roles in informing the public about the incident through their social media platforms. [Amnesty International]

Meanwhile, Vietnamese authorities have suspended one of the country’s social media platforms, fining the business over $4,000 and revoking its license for eight months in a move further tightening government control over the sharing of information online. [Radio Free Asia 2]


4 May 2021

Vietnam opposes Chinese annual fishing moratorium

(lm) The Vietnamese government has again rejected a recent Chinese fishing ban imposed on waters in the South China Sea and called on Beijing to comply with international laws. [The Star]

China on April 27 announced an annual fishing moratorium in the waters Beijing has claimed in the South China sea. The ban, which came into effect on May 1 runs until September 16 and covers parts of the Gulf of Tonkin and waters surrounding the Paracel Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam. Imposed since 1999, Beijing claims the restrictions a part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology [see also AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2].

4 May 2021

Malaysia to detain Vietnamese fishing boats

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has chased away three Vietnamese vessels, which were trying to prevent MMEA from detaining Vietnamese fishing boats that have encroached into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, off Kuala Terengganu. Since last June, 87 foreign fishing boats and 960 crew members have been found encroaching Malaysian waters. [Bernama]

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]

4 May 2021

South Korea-Vietnam relations: Foreign Ministers discuss bilateral ties

(dql) South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held phone talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son on Wednesday to discuss bilateral ties and regional issues. Both ministers agreed to cooperate on promoting the strategic cooperative partnership of the two nations as next year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The top diplomats assessed that the two nations have continued bilateral trade and investment despite the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to continue cooperation to facilitate trips by essential workers including business people. 

In particular, Chung expressed concerns over Japan’s planned release of radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean. The ministry said that Son, in turn, stressed transparency, responsibility and safety with regard to the marine environment. [KBS]

27 April 2021

Laos: Regional countries to fight for influence over China

(nd) Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have moved this year to offer new help or reaffirm the benefits of previous aid to Laos. In an effort to reinforce their respective bilateral ties, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam have reached to Laos to give aid. Japan aims to advance a strategic partnership, has offered about $1.8 million to open Covid-19 vaccine storage facilities, and announced to support upgrades to international airports. Thailand also vowed to support Laos with the pandemic and has helped in education, agriculture and health. Vietnam has developed a 2021-2030 cooperation strategy and a five-year cooperation agreement.

Development aid in total has reached up to 15% of Lao GDP, helping the economy to grow at an annual average of 5.8% during the past five years. Chinese payments to Laos have reached $11 billion per year, with financing and investment making the sum even higher. Therefore, countries in the region hope to lessen China’s influence, mostly due to its domination of the Mekong River and its flow. To mitigate this, the US last year launched the aid plan Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Japan and Vietnam have additional quarrels with China over the South China Sea. While those countries aim at pushing back China’s influence on Laos, the latter is mostly dependent on China, to which it owed $ 250 million for the construction of a 400-kilometer, $5.9 billion China-invested railway, according to the International Monetary Fund. [Voice of America]

27 April 2021

Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges

(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.

Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.

The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.

Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.

At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]

Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”. 

The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]

In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]

27 April 2021

UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia

(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.

Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia. 

Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]


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

Report warns of shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand

(lm) In a submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Switzerland-based organization International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has warned that journalists and media workers in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam face an increasingly repressive legal landscape. 

In the report, the group expresses its concern about the fragility of press freedom in the three countries, highlighting the enactment of new laws and the emergence of practices that are incompatible with human rights law and standards aimed at restricting information and expression on the coronavirus pandemic. The ICJ also underscores the continued abuse of existing laws equally incompatible with human rights law to arbitrarily restrict information and expression during the pandemic, by explicitly targeting journalists and social media users. [ICJ]

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]

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]

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

Vietnam: Pham Minh Chinh inaugurated as new Prime Minister

(lm) Vietnam’s National Assembly on April 5 confirmed the nomination of Pham Minh Chinh as the country’s next prime minister, replacing hitherto Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who was confirmed as the country’s new president, a predominantly ceremonial role. [South China Morning Post]

Chinh’s nomination by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (VCP) came as surprise the prevailing norm was that the senior deputy prime minister with responsibility for the economy – Vuong Dinh Hue in this case –replace a retiring prime minister. Chinh, a former head of the party’s powerful and influential Central Organization Commission, on the other hand, lacks experience in the government bureaucracy. [Channel NewsAsia]

Chinh’s confirmation followed the twice-a-decade national congress of Vietnam’s Communist Party, held this year in January, when the appointments of Vietnam’s top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – were determined for the coming five-year term. [AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]

His promotion is widely considered as part of a “grand compromise” between the two wings o the VCP, which also included the come-back by General Secretary and President Nguyễn Phú Trọng, who was able to muster support for a second exemption from the retirement age and his unprecedented retention for a third term as party leader.


6 April 2021

Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam low on US report on human rights 

(nd) According to an annual US State Department report, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the press last year, holding political prisoners and interfering with the rights of citizens to peacefully protest. All three record cases of arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, and torture in police custody. Laos last year tightened its grip on online freedom, removing critical postings. While corruption was investigated, human rights abuses remained unpunished. 

After the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the beginning of 2021 saw a politically motivated mass trial in absentia against leaders and activists. The government also engages in efforts to censor free media, through control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets, pushing them into self-censorship.

For Vietnam, the report mainly pointed to restrictions on political participation and a lack of independence of the judiciary, as well as arbitrary arrests and killings by the government. Reportedly, political prisoners were tortured in custody. Running up to the Communist Party Congress in January 2021, the government cracked down on independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities to mute criticism. [Radio Free Asia]


6 April 2021

Vietnam: Facebook user sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing government online

(lm) A Facebook user was sentenced to four years in prison on March 31 for sharing his grievances online about how the local government had handled a dispute over his family’s land.

Taken into custody in September of last year, the defendant had complained to provincial authorities and other government departments to ask for compensation payments after his family’s house and land had been confiscated to make way for construction of a wastewater plan. Frustrated by officials’ refusal of his requests, the defendant then shared his frustrations on Facebook, leading to his arrest. [Radio Free Asia]

In a one-day trial, meanwhile, another Facebook user was sentenced to ten years in prison, with three years of probation to be served after his release. The man was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code for sharing posts and videos calling for the establishment of a “National Congress” to replace the current National Assembly. [Taipei Times]

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]

30 March 2021

Vietnam: Dissident writer sent back to serve 12-year term after losing appeal

(lm) An appeals court upheld on March 24 the 12-year prison sentence handed down to a dissident writer and co-founder of human rights group “Brotherhood for Democracy” in December, sending him back to prison to serve his full term without hearing any arguments from his lawyer. [Radio Free Asia]

The man had been arrested in April last year and charged with “activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s Government” under Article 109 of Vietnam’s 2015 Criminal Code for social media postings exposing government corruption and human rights abuses. The Brotherhood for Democracy is not recognized by the Vietnamese government, and many of its members have been imprisoned since its founding in 2013 [see AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2].

30 March 2021

Vietnam: Two brothers facing death refuse to plead for amnesty, assert innocence

(lm) Two brothers, who were sentenced to death last September for their roles in a deadly clash with police last year over land rights at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi have refused to appeal for amnesty in the case, saying the request would amount to a confession of their guilt. [Radio Free Asia]

Earlier this month, the Hanoi People’s High Court had upheld the sentences against six defendants in the case, including the death sentences imposed on the two brothers, who had been convicted of murder and resisting law enforcement. [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]

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

Vietnam: Facebook user arrested for publishing writings criticizing the government

(lm) Police in Vietnam arrested on March 9 a Facebook user on accusations of using the social media platform between 2018 and 2020 to allegedly defame the government and distorting its policies, in the latest of a string of arrests aimed at shutting down online criticism of the country’s one-party communist state. The Provincial Public Security website said he will be held in pretrial detention for four months. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison. [Radio Free Asia 1]

The man used Facebook to post articles on human rights abuses and allegations of corruption by state of officials, among others. Further, he had recently declared his intention to run as an independent candidate in the 15thNational Assembly elections, which are scheduled to take place on May 23. [Voice of America]

Separately, a court sentenced on March 18 four people on charges of activities to overthrow the people’s government” for participating in research for the Provisional National government of Vietnam, a claimed government in exile. Headquartered in the United States, the provisional government was founded in 1991 by soldiers and refugees that had been loyal to the South Vietnamese government prior to the country’s unification under communist rule in 1975. In 2018, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security classified the provisional government as a terrorist organization. [Radio Free Asia 2]

23 March 2021

Vietnam: First member of Hien Phap group released after serving full prison term

(lm) The first member of the Hien Phap civil society organization was released from prison on March 9 after serving a sentence of two and a half years. The woman left prison in poor health with weakened eyesight, a digestive disorder and a tumor growing in her chest. [Radio Free Asia]

Formed in 2017, the Hien Phap Group had played a major role in calling for protests that rocked Vietnamese cities in June 2018 in opposition to a proposed cybersecurity law and a law granting concessions of land to Chinese businesses. In a trial closed to family members, all eight group members were found guilty last year under Article 118 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code for “disturbing security” and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and six months to eight years. An appeals court upheld the prison terms of four of the group’s activists in January [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2].

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

Vietnam: Court upholds sentences for six Dong Tam defendants, including two death sentences

(lm) The Hanoi People’s High Court upheld the sentences on March 9 against six defendants who were among a group of 29 villagers tried for their roles in a deadly clash with police over land rights at the Dong Tam commune outside the capital Hanoi last year. Reported violations of due process by the three-judge panel hearing the case included barring one lawyer from conferring with his client and stopping lines of questioning into sensitive aspects of the case. [Radio Free Asia] [Nasdaq]

During the appellate trial, the procuracy had recommended that sentences conferred by the lower court last September be upheld, including two death sentences for two brothers convicted of murder and resisting law enforcement [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. The brothers’ father was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site.

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

China installing a missile base near border with Vietnam?

(dq) Following satellite images, China is believed to build a surface-to-air missile base 20 kilometers from its border with Vietnam, as a long-term precaution and near-term warning to neighboring countries. [VoA]

9 March 2021

Vietnam: Appeals hearing for Dong Tam Land-rights activists scheduled

(lm) A high people’s court opened on March 8 an appeal trial for six defendants jailed last year following a deadly land-rights clash at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi. [Radio Free Asia] [VietnamPlus]

Le Dinh Kinh, the retired local official, was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site. At the first-instance trial, a court in September last year sentenced both of his sons to death, ruling that they had helped mastermind resistance against the police [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. The other 27 people on trial were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to 15 months of probation.

9 March 2021

Vietnam: 13th Party Central Committee convenes second plenum

(lm) The 13th Central Committee (CC), the highest decision-making body within Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV), concluded its second plenary conference on March 9. During the two-day sitting, the CC’s 200 members discussed the working agenda of the entire tenure, as well as the nomination of candidates for high-ranking positions in State organs. [VietnamPlus]

Elected by the all-important National Congress, the current CC comprises of 180 full or voting members and 20 alternate or non-voting members. Of the 180 full members, 120 were incumbents who had already served a full term or more on the CC. The first plenum was held on February 1, the last day of the thirteenth National Congress, to elect the Political Bureau (or Politburo) and the CPV’s leader, the General Secretary. Previously, the thirteenth Congress had adopted a special resolution permitting incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, an unprecedented third term in office while retaining party rules limiting future officials to two terms [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

According to experts, there are at least to possible clouds on the horizon.

In a surprising development, the new CC elected only eighteen members to the Political Bureau, one below the target of nineteen from a field of over twenty candidates. Vietnamese insiders call an even number of Politburo members unstable because it could delay decision-making when votes are tied, which in some cases could undermine the authority of Trọng.

The second cloud concerns the future health of General-Secretary Trọng who will turn 77 in April. While he was re-elected for an unprecedented third term, there are questions about whether he still has the clout to serve as kingmaker after his recent ill-health: Trọng suffered a stroke last April and reportedly has not fully recovered, potentially undermining his ability to impose his political will.

Importantly, Trong’s close confidant Tran Quoc Vuong [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] was not given special consideration for his age and was removed from both the Political Bureau and the CC. Hitherto Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who was seen as the front-leader on Vietnam’s COVID-19 response [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3], if confirmed, will move from an executive position to the ceremonial role of the state president.

Meanwhile, the only female leader in one of the top four leadership posts – secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly – Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who served as chairperson of the National Assembly, was replaced by Vuong Dinh Hue.

For a comprehensive analysis of Vietnam’s current leadership, please consider articles published by the [Australian Institute of International Affairs] and the [East Asia Forum].

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

Vietnam to apply for seat in United Nations Human Rights Council

(lm) Vietnam made public on February 22 its intensions to seek membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) for the 2023-2025 term. According to the country’s foreign minister, Vietnam has been endorsed as the ASEAN candidate for this post in competition with candidates from other countries in the United Nations (UN)’s Asia and the Pacific representational grouping. [Radio Free Asia] [VNExpress]

The UN HRC has 47 members elected for staggered three-year terms using the United Nations regional grouping system. The Asia and the Pacific Group consists of 55 Member States (27.5 percent of UN members) and is the second largest regional group by number of member states after the African Group. The Group has 13 seats on the UN HRC.

23 February 2021

Vietnam: State media bloggers held on defamation charges for criticizing provincial leaders

(lm) Two journalists employed by official media are being held by police on charges of “abusing press freedoms” after they shared articles online accusing provincial leaders of corruption. The arrest came five weeks after the sentencing by a court of three independent journalists – all prominent members of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN) – on charges of spreading propaganda against the state [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Radio Free Asia]

23 February 2021

Vietnam: Jailed Vietnamese blogger held in isolation, denied visits in mental hospital

(lm) A Vietnamese journalist held in a mental hospital while awaiting trial for criticizing Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (VCP) was denied visits from supporters on February 17, with authorities saying he is being kept in isolation as a “political case.” [The 88 Project]

A member of an online advocacy group, the blogger had been arrested in 2018 on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s criminal code. In 2019, he was transferred to a mental hospital. If convicted, he could serve up to seven years in prison. [Radio Free Asia]

23 February 2021

Vietnam: Military general appointed country’s new propaganda chief

(lm) Vietnam has named Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia to head the Commission for Propaganda and Education of the ruling Communist Party’s (VCP) Central Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the country’s tightly controlled media. [Radio Free Asia]

Prior to his appointment, the senior military officer had overseen the creation of Force 47, a 10,000-strong cyber unit established in 2017 to trawl the web and rebut any “wrongful opinions” about the VCP. Thus, observers believe that Nguyen’s appointment may mark the beginning of a tighter control of articles about the politically sensitive relationship between Vietnam and China. Nguyen may also more tightly manage the use by Party members of Vietnam’s media to expose other Party members’ violations of the law or Party regulations. [The Diplomat]

23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

Mekong river level remains low

(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.

Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]

16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]

16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]


16 February 2021

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

Vietnam: Police say prisoner died after fall, revising earlier suicide claim

(lm) Police in Vietnam said on February 11 that a prisoner who died in their custody last month had been severely injured after he fell, contradicting their earlier claim that he had committed suicide. [Radio Free Asia]

The prisoner, who had been detained since last November on charges of disrupting public order, fell and hit his head while resisting prison escorts at a detention camp in Ho Chi Minh City, according to a representative of the camp.

However, in a report published in January, the mother of the prisoner said she received notice from the police on that her son had taken his own life and requested her to receive his body. Upon retrieval from the city’s forensic center, the mother said she found many bruises on her son’s body. Thus, she decided to petition the city’s supreme people’s procuracy, the people’s procuracy, and the director of the police to investigate her son’s death. [Tuổi Trẻ, in Vietnamese]


9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

2 February 2021

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

Vietnam: Jailed blogger refuses to appeal sentence, destroys petition form

(lm) A jailed Vietnamese blogger has refused to appeal his 11-year prison term, after prison guards attempted to dictate the document’s wording. A prominent member of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN), the jailed man is one of three dissident journalists who had been found guilty of charges for spreading propaganda against the state earlier this month [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Separately, villagers in Dong Tam village on January 27 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Vietnamese activist Le Dinh Kinh, while plainclothes police loitered about keeping close tabs on the gathering. [Radio Free Asia 2]

Le Dinh Kinh, the retired local official, was shot dead by police who had entered the village in January last year, trying to secure construction of a fence around land officials were trying to seize next to an airfield. A court in September sentenced both of his sons to death, ruling that they had helped mastermind resistance against the police [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].

2 February 2021

Vietnam: Nguyen Phu Trong re-elected as general secretary of ruling Communist Party

(lm) During the first days of the ongoing 13th National Congress of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV), incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, has won a rare third term as party chief. Previously, a leaked list of candidates for the politburo’s offices had Trọng earmarked as one of two designated “special cases” that have already passed the customary age for retirement [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. Thus, observers say securing a third term implies that other party factions do not view Trọng as a threat to their long-term race to power. [Reuters]

In the run-up to the all-important congress, the future of Trọng’s rule seemed uncertain, after he had suffered a stroke last April and has reportedly not fully recovered since [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. Frail but in strong command for now, the committed Marxist-Leninist becomes Vietnam’s longest-serving party chief since Le Duan, who ruled with an iron fist after the 1969 death of Vietnam’s founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. He has also held the largely ceremonial role of the country’s president since his predecessor died in 2018.

Beyond the leadership question, the other key area addressed during the congress is the five-year economic plan, as the delegates are to officially endorse economic targets the CPV intends to set that are meant to help the country emerge from the lower-middle-income level by 2025 and gain developed nation status by 2045. Having emerged as an attractive destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and a new hub for low-cost manufacturing in Asian supply chains, Hanoi is now seeking to leverage the economic advantage it gained as one of the few countries to have expanded its gross domestic product in 2020 [see also AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asia


26 January 2021

Vietnam: Facebook user gets seven-year term for ridiculing leadership

(lm) A Vietnamese court sentenced an activist to seven years in prison on January 20 over her Facebook posts addressing issues deemed sensitive in the one-party communist state, including proposed laws on special economic zones and cybersecurity, as well as environmental issues. [Voice of America]

The sentencing come as authorities in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi further tightened security in the city ahead of the ruling Communist Party (CPV)’s 13th National Congress, a meeting held every five years to approve future policy and select new leaders [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. City authorities on January 21 directed officials to resolve outstanding cases of petitioner complaints at Hanoi’s central office, calling on police at the same time to disperse large public gatherings likely to cause security problems during the politically sensitive event. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

26 January 2021

Vietnam: Communist Party congress to pick new leadership, approve future economic policies

(lm) Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV) gathered on January 25 for its 13th National Congress – the first since 2016 – to approve future policies and select new leaders amid talks over whether the current party chief will stay. Over the course of nine days, the 1,587 delegates will elect the 200-member Central Committee, which will choose between 15 and 19 of its members to serve on the Politburo, the highest party body. [Deutsche Welle] [BBC]

A week before the congress, the list of candidates for the politburo’s offices emerged, despite threats of punishment against leakers of what authorities calls secret information. Decided upon during the CPV’s 15th plenary session – the last under the outgoing leadership group – the list has circulated widely on social media and in other reports. [Radio Free Asia]

Against all expectations, incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, is set to continue as party chief. Trọng, who suffered a stroke last April and has reportedly not fully recovered since, was widely expected to step down in the run-up to the all-important congress [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

What is more, Trọng is one of two designated “special cases” that have already passed the customary age for retirement, indicating that the party’s politburo could not reach a consensus about who to recommend as his successor. The other person earmarked as “special case” is incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocratic and non-ideological candidate [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3], who is likely to succeed Trọng as president.

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

Malaysia: Vietnamese fishermen arrested

(nd) Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has arrested 16 Vietnamese fishermen off Terengganu state. The fishermen were using fake registration numbers. Among other states, Malaysia and Vietnam have claims to the South China Sea that overlap. Recently, tension rose in the disputed waters due to Chinese military action. [Reuters]

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

Vietnam: Authorities intensify repression ahead of all-important 13th National Congress

In the run-up to the all-important 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1], authorities have added new information controls, setting up an “Anti-Fake News Center”. Further, in a stern warning to potential candidates and media, an official overseeing the confidential election told state media that anyone responsible for leaking or publishing false or secret information about the process would be punished under Vietnamese law. [Hanoi Times] [Radio Free Asia]


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

Vietnam: United States, European Union demand release of three journalists jailed earlier this month

(lm) The United States and European Union have called on Vietnam to immediately release three Vietnamese journalists, who were handed jail sentences between 11 and 15 years for spreading propaganda against the state earlier this month [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

In a statement, the US Embassy in Hanoi slammed the conviction of the three journalists on January 6, calling the sentences handed down “the latest in a worrisome trend of arrests and convictions aimed at Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution.” In a similar vein, the EU noted that the right to freedom of expression was guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution and by international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that Vietnam has signed and joined. [Radio Free Asia

12 January 2021

Vietnam: Appeals court upholds prison terms for four activists

(lm) An appeals court on January 8 upheld prison terms handed down last year to four activists convicted of planning protests on Vietnam’s National Day in 2018. Arrested in September 2018, the four were part of a group of eight named by police as members of the Hien Phap civil society organization, a network of activists formed to call for the rights to freedom of speech and assembly as promised under Article 25 of Vietnam’s Constitution. In a trial closed to family members, all eight were found guilty last year under Article 118 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code for “disturbing security” and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and six months to eight years. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Separately, a court in the country’s southern Dong Nai province on January 7 sentenced a Facebook user to a year in jail for “offending” local officials he said had mismanaged local land disputes. [Radio Free Asia 2]

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]

5 January 2021

Vietnam: Authorities begin trial of dissident journalists, as National Congress approaches

(lm) A court has found three dissident journalists guilty of charges of spreading propaganda against the state, handing them jail sentences of between 11 and 15 years. All prominent members of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association (IJAVN), the three men had been charged with “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain distorted information about the people’s government”. [Al Jazeera]

Tuesday’s verdicts are the latest in a continuing crackdown against political dissidents, activists, and other independent voices as the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) prepares for its National Congress, which is scheduled commence on January 25. To forestall any disturbance to the country’s landmark political event, dozens of people have been detained, according to human rights groups. [The Diplomat]

Days before his trial, the health of one of the three journalists had significantly deteriorated, his wife alleged on December 31, citing the harsh conditions in which her husband is being held. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Vietnam: Battle lines are drawn for Vietnam’s future leadership, as all-important National Congress looms

(lm) Taking place against the larger backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and increasingly dysfunctional Sino-US bilateral relations, the 13th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is scheduled to commence on January 25. Held every five years since 1976, the National Congress is the supreme party organ: In electing the party’s Central Committee, it decides on the new leadership and sets Vietnam’s socioeconomic plans for the next five years. More broadly speaking, it also provides an indication of how the new leadership will respond to the pressing internal challenges and navigate the increasingly volatile external environment. [The Diplomat

With less than a month to go before the convening, speculation is growing over the fate of the country’s top leader. While the incumbent General Secretary of the CPV and President of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, is widely expected to step down, there are questions about whether he still has the clout to serve as kingmaker after his recent ill-health: Trong suffered a stroke last April and reportedly has not fully recovered, potentially undermining his ability to impose his political will as an ailing lame duck. [Asia Times]

Among those talked about to succeed Trong as General Secretary of the CPV is Tran Quoc Vuong, a party veteran who currently heads the party’s Inspection Commission and serves as a standing member of the party’s Secretariat. His main competition, that is, is incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocratic and non-ideological candidate [see AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3].

While his role as anti-corruption czar has made Vuong some powerful intraparty enemies, it has also secured him the support of Trong, who is seen as embodying tradition, unswerving faith in Marxism-Leninism and moral rigor. Gauging the chances of the two potential candidates, observers also put emphasis on the fact that the position of general-secretary has always been secured by those from the north of the country – home of Vietnam’s political elite. This would put Vuong, coming from Thai Binh in northern Vietnam, in a better place than Phuc, who comes from a province in central Vietnam. [Asia Nikkei]