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Building cohesive societies: Southeast Asian states take on gargantuan challenge

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Several Southeast Asian governments and social movements are seeking to counter mounting polarization and inter-communal strife across the globe fuelled by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in exclusionary rather than inclusionary terms.

In the most high-brow of various initiatives, King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with support from the Singapore government.

Singapore president Halimah bint Yacob has mooted the conference as a high-level forum involving religious leaders akin to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that for the past 17 years brings together annually senior Asian, European and US government officials in what is Asia’s foremost security forum.

In what amounts to a timely strategic effort to tackle what may be one of the most fundamental threats to peace and security, the conference reflects a growing concern that global polarization and civilisationalism could fuel inter-communal tensions and militancy in Southeast Asian societies.

It crowns a separate Indonesian initiative that targets religious reform and Malaysian willingness to speak out on controversial or sensitive issues.

Southeast Asian concerns include fear that Rohingya lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh with no prospects could radicalize, the possibility of extremists capitalizing on the fact that reconstruction of the devastated southern Philippine city of Marawi has stalled two years after it was overrun by jihadists, and the danger that suspected sleeper cells of groups like the Islamic State will seek to disrupt the region’s social fabric.

“The social fabric of many communities is stressed by extremism, exclusivism and polarisation. It is important for us to grow trust across communities. This will always be a work in progress, so it is an effort we must constantly invest in,” Ms. Yacob said on the eve of the Singapore conference.

King Abdullah, in a separate statement, warned that “attacking and excluding others, insulting other peoples and their faiths and convictions – this is no way forward. The future lies in unity and respect, not division and stereotypes.”

Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah’s warnings were designed to be an anti-dote to rising prejudice and racism fuelled by the rise of supremacism of various stripes and Islamophobia as well as increased anti-Semitism that often is encouraged by world leaders for ideological or opportunistic reasons.

For Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah, the concern is not a far-from-my-bed show.

Human rights activists were taken aback when Myanmar leader, Nobel peace prize winner and one time human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi agreed earlier this month during a visit to Hungary with far-right, staunchly anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban that both Southeast Asia and Europe were struggling with the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Southeast Asia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are home to the world’s most populous and foremost Muslim democracy, Indonesia, as well as Malaysia that has been among the most outspoken in criticizing Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya and one of the few Islamic countries to speak out about China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

To King Abdullah, Ms. Yacob’s backyard must look like something approaching paradise. Conflict characterizes all of his kingdom’s borders.

Moreover, the Middle East, beyond Jordan’s immediate borders, is wracked by civil wars, national conflicts and regional rivalries that all involve aspects of prejudice, right-wing nationalism, militancy and sectarianism.

Add to that, the world is holding its breath as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran square off in the Gulf in a dangerous dance that threatens to spiral out of control.

Less highbrow but no less ambitious, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, has launched a campaign with Indonesian government backing to “reinterpret and recontextualize” Islam.

The campaign amounts to more than simply confronting ultra-conservatism and militancy. It is a pushback against the notion that secularism and pluralism are expressions of a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms and embracing concepts of pluralism. That would likely lead to a weakening of autocrats’ grip on power.

Similarly, political scientist and Islam scholar Ahmet T. Kuru throws down a gauntlet in a forthcoming book by arguing that the notion of Islam rejecting a separation of religion and state is based on “a fabricated hadith” or saying of the Prophet Mohammed that has since been perpetuated.

Singapore’s conference like Nahdlatul Ulama’s initiative constitute accepting a gargantuan but critical challenge posed by civilizationalist leaders who reflect deeply rooted currents in societies irrespective of their political systems and/or notions and myths that have been nurtured over centuries.

Inclusiveness is the magic wand touted by all seeking to halt a slide toward societies characterized by fragmentation, political polarization and inter-communal discord. Yet, the enormity of the challenge lies in addressing deep-seated grievances and challenging taboos.

Discussing the rise of populism in the West, politics scholar Matthew Goodwin identifies what he terms the four Ds that drive democracy’s turmoil: distrust of political institutions that have become less representative; the destructive impact of fear of loss of national identity, culture and way of life; ethno-national deprivation fuelled by liberal elites’ focus on migrant and minority rights; and the dealignment of significant segments of the electorate with the traditional parties they long supported.

Mr. Goodwin’s four Ds are likely to challenge cohesiveness even if, as Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper notes, their foremost political beneficiaries are being sucked into the swamp they vowed to drain.

US president Donald J. Trump, Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babis are all fighting off allegations of wrongdoing.

The allegations and their legal entanglements mean that they risk losing the high ground on issues of corruption, alongside immigration and security, a key pillar of their recent success.

Putting forward an optimistic argument, Mr. Kuper notes that concerns about migration and security no longer top Europeans’ agenda with younger voters mobilising around climate change.

Polls, however, suggest that the popularity of leaders accused of illegitimately benefitting from wrongdoing or questionable practices and their political parties have lost little of their allure despite climate change increasingly becoming a major concern.

Populists’ current Teflon effect means that building cohesive societies will have to involve finding a middle ground between majoritarian concerns and concepts of diversity, multiculturalism and minority rights.

It amounts to manoeuvring minefields and treading on uncharted territory irrespective of culture and political system.

In the absence of the perfect blueprint, countries like Singapore, New Zealand and Norway have in their own ways taken a lead in attempting to make inclusion a pillar of policy.

While inter-communal harmony has long been a driver of Singapore’s social and economic policies, New Zealand and Norway responded to traumatic acts of political violence by bucking the trend towards polarization, profiling and concepts of us and them by saying not me instead of me too.

The proof is in the pudding.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who became an icon of compassion and inclusivity with her response to the killing of 50 people in March in two Christchurch mosques, recalled a Muslim woman reacting to the government’s response by telling her that, despite having been a target, she had “never felt more at home (in New Zealand) than she had in the last 10 days” since the attacks.

Singapore’s creation of a global forum in which opposing views and grievances are aired constitutes a vital contribution towards creating the environment for the building of more cohesive societies. It is a vital cog in a mesh of attempts to achieve legal reform and call out abuse and violations of human rights.

Taken together, they hold out the promise of a concerted effort to counter debilitating prejudice and bias even if a truly cohesive, harmonious society may prove to be a utopia.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

A Reflection on the 2019 White Paper on Vietnamese National Defense

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Authors: Do Quynh Anh & Yang Yizhong

Among more than one dozen of the neighbor states of China, Vietnam is of special interest in terms of their mutual relations which are based upon the past legacies, current ideologies and geopolitical concerns. Henry Kissinger wrote in his work On China that “Vietnamese national identity came to reflect the legacy of two somewhat contradictory forces: one the one hand, absorption of Chinese culture; on the other hand, opposition to Chinese political and military domination from time to time. As a result, Vietnam has confronted China with unprecedented psychological and geopolitical challenge”.

This comment is not exaggerated if we look at that Vietnamese have eyed their northern neighbor with suspicion and even fear. Yet meanwhile viewed from China, a strategic nightmare of encirclement might appear if a hostile power(s) work on a coalition with Vietnam, no matter which power is, such as the United States, Japan or the Soviet Union. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, this nightmare seemed to approach rapidly because Vietnam and the Soviet Union formed allies in 1978 and then invaded Cambodia by force. In light of this, China seemed to be in an exceptionally vulnerable position as both north and south of China’s borders were threatened by a two hostile powers. The strategic encirclement of China did disappear in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. However, with the rapid rising of China over the past decade, the United States has been more proactive and even outrageous to bring forth in 2010-11 a U.S. “pivot” toward Asia and primarily against China. Since then, the United States has openly made efforts to forge a kind of Asian-version NATO, which would cover its core allies such as Japan and Australia, but certainly Washington eyes India and Vietnam in particular.

It is self-evident that the United States has increased its FDI into Vietnam and even tried to woo the liberal leadership in Hanoi by lifting former arms embargo against the communist-regimes, previously including Vietnam. In order to persuade Hanoi to side with it, Washington has used all kinds of means from political, economic, educational, cultural and even to military to approach Vietnam. Yet, what has Vietnam responded to the United States and its strategic encirclement of China in terms of the bilateral relations and regional stability?

True, Vietnam is a weaker power in comparison to China in all the hard terms. Thus it is sensible for Hanoi to seek for a stronger power to be its strategic partner if not an ally. In light of the de facto alliance between China and Russia, which were the vital allies during the Vietnamese war 45 years ago, Vietnam is also necessary to go to the United States for help. As Stephen Walt argued, when confronted by a significant external threat, states may either balance or bandwagon. Here balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing or a perceived threat. In theory and practice as well, states will select their alliance partners on the basis of whether they would ally against or with the external threat.

Taking into account all the concerns, on November 25 Vietnamese government published the2019 White Paper on its national defense and highlighted self-sufficiency and reaffirmed the consistent “Three No’s” policy. More precisely, the White Paper confirms that “Vietnam will not form military alliances with other countries, will not align with one country against another, and will not allow foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, adding “not use force or threaten to use force in international relations.” The White Paper includes three parts: strategic context; a framework for defense policy; and the development of the Vietnam People’s Armed Forces. Yet, meanwhile the White Paper outlines a commitment to “introduce modern equipment” and continue to build defense and diplomacy ties with the international community. More other priorities are contained in the White Paper such as the requirement to continue to enhance Vietnam’s self-reliance by “building and enhancing weapons and equipment”, and to provide a level of defense investment that is “in line with the country’s economic development”.

In effect, the 2019 White Paper is seen as a sort of public diplomacy by Vietnam with a view to showing its good-will to the international community as in 2020 Vietnam will host 20 ASEAN military-defense conferences and activities, which are regarded as the primary task of Vietnam’s diplomacy for the years of 2018-20. More than this symbolic role, Vietnam is well-aware that rising U.S.-China tensions over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea have increasingly pressured other states, particularly within Southeast Asia, to choose sides. As a key maritime counterclaimant to China’s expansive sovereignty claims in the region, Vietnam in the last a few years has played a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, Hanoi has been working directly with Beijing on confidence-building measures to prevent total Chinese domination of the South China Sea. As Vietnam has worked with China to enhance mutual understanding through pragmatic cooperation between the two countries and two parties. On the other hand, Vietnam is actively pushing back against China by bolstering defense ties to major powers with a stake in maintaining the rules-based international order.

Yet, some scholars argued that the common refrain on the latter point, however, is that no one should get overly excited about Vietnam’s balancing because of the challenges inherent in its “Three Nos” defense policy—that is, no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil. In effect, the Three Nos first made an appearance in Vietnam’s 1998 defense white paper and then reappeared in subsequent papers issued in 2004 and the most recent in 2009. The policy is also mentioned in Hanoi’s new Law on National Defense, which was passed in June and took effect on January 2019. It is quite sure that the Three Nos policy complicate the Trump administration objective, per the National Security Strategy, to bolster Vietnam ties to counter Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and broader Indo-Pacific. Growing U.S.-Vietnam defense ties in the last a few years—headlined in March by the first U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War—appeared to stumble this past fall when Hanoi abruptly cancelled 15 defense engagements for 2019. Hanoi’s decision was probably largely the result of disgruntlement over American crusade against the communists globally, but it also was, at least in part, due to growing concerns with America’s will and capacity to resist the rise of China.

To be sure, there will always be setbacks in diplomacy, yet Vietnamese leaders are very familiar with ancient Chinese statecraft and well employed its principles to significant effect against looming external threats. Historically, they took China against France and then sided with China and the Soviet Union combating the United States, followed by using the Soviets against China. Now both China and Vietnam have realized that the next context is already unfolded between themselves, for example, Vietnam in May 2019 hosted India for an unprecedented joint naval exercise in the South China Sea. It is hard to envision any country other than China that the exercise was aimed at deterring. The same could also be argued about the U.S. aircraft carrier visit. Either way, these occurrences are likely to be relatively rare, since it is patently risky for Hanoi to fully engage in military cooperation with Washington for the sake of both the terms of ideology and national security.

Fortunately, Hanoi has been quite welcoming of many foreign naval port calls to its shores, including from the United States, India, Japan, Australia, European powers, Russia, China, and others. In light of this, Vietnam necessarily makes the engagement fit within the Three Nos policy or keeps the balance of power politics relatively quiet. If Hanoi sees a benefit in a particular defense exchange, it is also the core of classical diplomacy.

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What Jokowi’s anti-radicalism cabinet can do for Indonesian security

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Jokowi second terms have been preoccupied with the issue of radicalism following the shocking attack to former coordinator minister of politics, law and security, Wiranto. The attack has re-write insecurity of radical movement in Indonesia.

Just in time after the attack, Jokowi needs to prepare his new cabinet as he won the presidential election for the second time. Some promising names have surprised the people namely Nadiem Makariem, Erick Tohir and former Jokowi’s opponent in the election, Prabowo Subianto. But this has not surprised me as much as Jokowi decision to entice 6 former military general to the cabinet.

Coordinator ministry of maritime and investment; Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, presidential office stuff; Moeldoko, minister of health; Dr. Terawan, minister of defense; Prabowo Subianto, minister of home affairs; Tito Karnavian and minister of religious affairs; FachrulRazi. It was continuing Jokowi image that has a close relation with military figures.

However, some controversy popping up due to Jokowi decision to choose FachrulRazi as the minister of religious affairs. His background was far from his current position. His statement to prohibit niqab for civil servants has responded with a major disagreement. Fachrul acclaimed that it was in order to prevent radicalization in the governmental office while on the other side believed that the minister was affected by Islamist-radicalism stereotyping.

Aside from that, Jokowi himself declare that his decision to put former general at the ministry of religious affairs was in order to counter radicalization movement. Several strategic posts in the ministry have also fulfilled by a former general, such as the ministry of home affairs and presidential office stuff. Even more, coordinator ministry of politics, law and human rights, Mahfud MD, has spoken loudly in public about radicalism, and eager to challenge whoever believed in the idea of an Islamic state.

Introducing non-traditional approach to Counter radicalization

Jokowi keeps his eyes on radical movement as his efforts to maintain political stability in the country. The appointment of several military generals in the cabinet was in order to take down radicalism that has been threatened state stability. Therefore, some observers nicknamed Jokowi second term as ‘anti-radicalism cabinet’, as he put radicalism as something that we must abolish mercilessly.

However, Jokowi deradicalization efforts have not been able to prevent radical movement. Terrorism expert from University of Indonesia, Ali Abdullah Wibisono, argued in the interview with CNN Indonesia, that only about 30% of former terrorists succeeded to prevent recidivism.

It must be a concern for the government as they are trying to prevent the radical movement by using deterrent effect. This approach has been widely criticized by the experts, as Dugan and LaFree suggest that harsh counter-terrorism measures can have a backlash effect. Take, for example, Said Ali Al-Shihri, who was graduated from Saudi deradicalization program, and return to terrorism as deputy leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen after his released[4].

Jessica Stern suggested that any deradicalization efforts must be based on a clear understanding of what motivates people to join or leave radical movement. She added that ideology is not an important factor of someone decision to be a terrorist, a survey of 516 Guantanamo detainees found that knowing another member of Al Qaeda was better predictor of who becomes a terrorist than was believing in the notion of Jihad.

Assigning former military general in the ministry of religious affairs to deter radicalization was an oversimplified policy, as Stern indicates in her article that deradicalization program should integrate convicted terrorists to religious reeducation, psychological healing, and assistance in finding their job. Given that, deradicalization was not only about political stability, an institution and foremost the government should also ensure personal and economic security of convicted terrorists.

The convicted terrorist might have social pressure and reluctant to accept in society. Moreover, radical groups that affiliated with international terrorism network tend to have wider potential to return in the radical group after rehabilitation. This has been important to determine through comprehensive assessment as well as a holistic understanding of the human security approach. 

Furthermore, political stability and national security have been widely known as Jokowi’s ultimate dream. Yet, the cabinet should not adopt a state-centric perspective to deter radicalization. The radical group has deep rooted societal problems that should be the case for the government to look from a different angle. 

Given that, deradicalization efforts have to starts from acknowledgment to protect human security. Therefore, Jokowi anti-radicalism cabinet need to have a clear understanding on societal problem of radical groups, and minimizing the use of force in order to reduce harsh backlash from the radical movements. 

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Belt and Road Initiative: Challenging South and Southeast Asia

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The euphoria about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Indonesia and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia (SEA) has been felt since 2017, particularly following the country’s participation in the BRI Summit in Beijing that year, where Indonesia (along with other SAARC and ASEAN member states) was expected to receive massive investments from China to support several infrastructure projects.

This year, the debates concerning the BRI are again becoming prevalent after Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as Indonesia’s representative signed 28 BRI projects last April. Among the various debated subjects is the growing concern about the real nature of the BRI. Is that a Chinese developmental initiative or a geopolitical instrument that uses debt-trap as a tool to bring targeted countries into the desired terms.

The BRI as Chinese debt trap

In the realisation of the BRI, China is targeted to spend US $ 4.4 trillion (Rp 62.7 thousand trillion) which is divided into various infrastructure projects in 65 countries. The funds from China will be disbursed from three main institutions, namely the Export-Import Bank of China, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. However, the implementation of the BRI caused various kinds of controversy, one of which was related to the fear of a debt trap.

Sri Lanka is one of the BRI participating countries that must give up on China’s debt. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) project in Sri Lanka which costed US $ 190 million (Rp 2.7 trillion) with an interest of 6.3 percent did not benefit from the airport’s operations.

As a result, the Sri Lankan government is losing money. This made the country unable to pay debts to China. The inability to pay credit or interest, at the end of June 2016, led Sri Lanka to make an agreement with China in the form of equity (surrendering land for lease) for 99 years to the country.

According to a well-known SAARC strategic analyst based in India, Brahma Chellaney, what China does with its BRI is a debt-trap diplomacy effort, where this type of diplomacy is a bilateral relationship that is interwoven on the basis of debt. In its operations, this type of diplomacy involves a creditor country that deliberately extends excessive credit to the debtor country. If the debtor country cannot fulfill its debt obligations, often the creditor country will make it possible to interfere with economic and political conditions in the debtor country.

Acknowledging this, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August 2018 said his country would stop funding-backed projects from China, including a railway line worth US $ 20 billion as there is a possibility that the country would be trapped in huge debts.

“We should avoid binary categorisations… However, a bilateral approach in developmental strategies historically does not bring back satisfactory results. Besides the Bretton Woods instruments – often enveloped in controversies, do not forget developmental champions. All of them are multilateral institutions of fair conditionalities, of balanced and transparent instruments: UNIDO, ADB, but also Islamic Development Bank, OFID or UNCTAD. If not a loan, ask them at least for advice”, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in Kuala Lumpur at the Economic Forum.

Indonesia and lessons from Malaysia 

The same concern is also prevalent in Indonesia, given that the country, in the midst of many of its own problems, the government seemed to be incessantly ambitious to continue to take part in the BRI. It is important to remember that currently Indonesia’s external debt has reached US$387.6 billion at the first quarter of 2019.  It consists of government and central bank external debts of US$190.5 billion that have slightly rose by 3.1 percent (year-on-year) and private external debts of US$197.1 bilion that have rocketed by 12.8 percent (year-on-year).

Although the ratio of Indonesia’s external debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is relatively safe at the level 36.9 percent and S&P Global Rating has just raised the long-term sovereign credit ratio for Indonesia from “BBB-“ to “BBB”, the Indonesia’s economic foundation is very fragile.

In 2018, for instance, the massive capital outflow made significant depreciation of the Rupiah against the US dollar due to the hike of Fed Fund Rates and the contagion of Turkish lira crisis. The currency hit about 15,000 rupiah against the greenbacks, the lowest level since the 1998 financial crisis, and made it one of the worst performing currencies in the region.

The extreme volatility of the Rupiah causes payments of interests and foreign debts more expensive. The 1998 financial crisis provided a precious experience that many companies faced default and the country’s economy experience chaos with economic growth of -13.1%. With such conditions, how come Indonesia dear to magnify its debts by signing massive BRI projects?

There is also a concern that the BRI projects is, instead of profiting Indonesia, putting the country at a disadvantage. One example comes from the Palembang LRT project, which has the same potential as the airport in Sri Lanka, is empty with little visitors. In fact, this project must suffer losses with an operating burden of Rp. 8.9 billion (US$618, 545) per month.

By looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have not been able to improve economic growth and to the gap in inequality – especially in the East – as well as various other disputes, the government’s decision to sign many BRI projects is certainly questionable. Also ironic is that the implementation of infrastructure development in Indonesia remains suffering from overt corruption practices. Instead of aiming at the welfare of society, infrastructure projects often become fields of concern for interested parties. Overall, there is a possibility that Indonesia will face Chinese debt trap is it is not careful, which would have negative impacts on the Indonesian economy.

The government needs to be able to make sure that participating in the BRI would not led to its loss. As what Malaysia has done, Jakarta may need to renegotiate with China on the terms and conditions of those projects. Indonesia must realise that China needs them more than they need China as the planned maritime route under the BRI would not be realised without Indonesia. Malaysian case demonstrates that negotiation is possible with China. Failure to do the above, it would not be surprising if what happened to Sri Lanka would also happen to Indonesia.

*Dendy Indramawan is a research assistant at Jakarta-based Institute for Development of Economics and Finance.

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