This month, Malaysia celebrates its 62nd anniversary of Independence, led by 94-year old but digitally savvy Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Singapore also celebrated its 54th National Day this month, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English about how to prepare Singapore for climate change. At the 74th anniversary of Independence, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced an ambitious plan to move the capital from Jakarta to Borneo.
Traveling around ASEAN this month made me realize that while the rest of the world is more preoccupied with the turbulent present, Southeast Asia is already thinking and preparing for the future.
The reason for this is pretty straight forward. At 600 million people with more than US$2.5 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP), ASEAN economies remain one of the youngest and fastest growing region in the world. ASEAN’s success since the 1960s has been built on trade, peace and stability, and dedication to economic growth rather than politics. Its future success hinges on its political neutrality, despite attempts by the Great Powers asking the region to choose sides.
In Hanoi for a Young Scholars Initiative meeting of young academics, I was struck by how Vietnam was already planning for a digital economy by 2030 and 2045.
Having touched 7.1 percent GDP growth in 2018, and with just under 100 million population, Vietnam has been a major beneficiary of China shedding its low-cost industries and the diversification of the Asian global supply chain.
In 2010, Vietnam achieved the World Bank’s middle-income status and at the current trajectory, could be larger than Singapore’s economy by 2029, according to a DBS study.
In order to maintain its growth momentum and to provide jobs for its growing youth, Vietnam envisaged four possible digital futures, as buyer or seller of digital products and services.
In the first Heritage scenario, using traditional engines of growth with low digital transformation, the additional growth could be minimal.
In the second scenario of Digital Exporter, using overseas companies hiring Vietnamese workers for exports, the projection shows some improvement, but only marginal benefits.
The third scenario of Digital Consumer leverages off Vietnam’s own large consumer market, but the amount of current jobs at risk would be one-third higher than the two earlier scenarios.
The fourth scenario of a Digitally Transformed Economy, across all industries and government services, predicted an increase of 1.1 percent additional annual GDP growth, but 38.1 percent of current jobs would be at risk of transformation or disruption.
In essence, Vietnam realizes that its own industries can be cannibalized by relying only on the foreign sector and should therefore have a total domestic transformation that engages digitally with the rest of the world. That scenario lays out a road map that would give priority to infrastructure, network security, increasing digital skills and capabilities, modernizing government, an industry 4.0 and national innovation plan, and significant tax and regulatory reform.
Arriving in Jakarta last week for a conference on digital finance, I was struck how traffic from the airport has significantly improved, while everyone was also very focused on how digital transformation, social justice and climate change would be critical to Indonesia’s future.
The move out of Jakarta, one of the most congested urban conglomerations in the world, would cost $33 billion over 10 years to build the new capital in Kalimantan. But another $40 billion would be spent on transforming Jakarta, as two-fifths of the city is below sea level and parts are sinking due to rising seas and soil settlement.
Indonesia is moving fast into the digital space, because its internet user growth rate is three times faster than the global average, and its internet user community is only 56 percent or 150 million out of its total population of 268 million. President Jokowi understands fully that “data is the new type of wealth for our nation, it is now more valuable than oil”.
But since Indonesia is one of the biggest markets for Google, Facebook, Youtube and WhatsApp, the key to future growth will be the access to data. Will Indonesian companies, government and start-ups have access to data so that they can compete equally with multinationals that are willing to pay for such data? If we as individuals cede our private data to these platform companies, which then sell them as “private income”, when will data become a public good for growth?
One reason why I am optimistic about ASEAN as digital economies is that they are actually more innovative than the present indicators suggest. If you look at the Global Innovation Index 2019, you would find that Switzerland is number 1, the United States (3) and Singapore (8), while Hong Kong, China and Japan are 13, 14 and 15th respectively. On the other hand, Malaysia ( 35 ), Vietnam ( 42 ), Thailand ( 43 ) and Philippines ( 54 ) are behind Latvia ( 34 ) and nearer India ( 52 ).
These scores are essentially weighted in ways like the famous IQ tests, which were essentially Euro-centric in bias. In the digital space, innovation and ability to capture markets are very much in the SPEED x SCALE x SCOPE framework. China was able to compete rapidly with the US, because of the scale of its internal market (800 million internet users), high speed broadband infrastructure available, and scope of hybrid services across multiple sectors (Alibaba and WeChat).
Clearly, within ASEAN, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines have scale, with populations over 100 million each. ASEAN’s real strength is the youth of the population, already digitally savvy and moving into middle and higher income ranges. Hong Kong and Singapore score highly, but that is due to the higher weighting given to institutions, infrastructure and market sophistication, as you would expect from world-class cities. But Singapore came only 34th in terms of creative output, and Hong Kong came 33rd in terms of knowledge and technology outputs.
It is precisely because the ASEAN countries have youth, diversity of culture and access to world-class knowledge, as well as strategic geographical location, that they will become the cutting edge digital future. And since they are, as prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic rightfully claims, ‘champions of multilateralism’ so much needed in a ‘theatre of brewing expectations’, that of ‘still worryingly bilateral’ Asia.
No economy today can afford to be complacent. Least of all in terms of flawed indices. To think that Hong Kong, considered by the Heritage Foundation to be number one in economic freedom, can descend into protests because of an intergenerational dispute over the rule of law and inequality, means that we need a root-and-branch review of how to compete in a complex digital world.
An earlier version of this text appeared in Jakarta Post under the title: A digital August in ASEAN.
Vietnam’s strategic interests in East Vietnam Seas/South China Sea
Vietnam assumed the chairmanship of the UN Security Council in March 2021 and it is expected to raise issues related to the development and security challenges in different theatres. While carrying out the responsibilities as the chairperson it is expected to also raise issues which concerned its own interest particularly sovereignty over Paracels and Spratly islands. One of the primary areas of interest includes developments in the East Vietnam Sea or the South China Sea, and how China is making assertive postures by deploying its advance ships as well as coast guards patrol boats to demarcate the area of his its influence and control. In this context the developments which have been seen in Whitsun reef is a matter of concern, and if this continues then China would be outlining its strategic maritime space, de facto, where there will not be any claims of the ASEAN claimant countries. The Chinese imposed maritime order which includes creating fictitious Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), controlled fishing zones as well as outlining areas which would be banned fishing areas for the fishermen of other countries. This would create problems among the claimant countries as China is trying hard to command and control areas such as Reed bank, Vanguard Bank and other adjoining areas which belong to Indonesia, and Philippines.
Acknowledging the fact that the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea has not taken shape and still in a very formative stages where almost all claimant countries have claimed parts of or complete areas in the South China Sea. In this context, it is critical that the ASEAN nations should resolve their differences and workout a common draft which would outline zones of control and cooperation. On the other hand, Vietnam can call all the countries to stop construction activities and create South China Sea as the Zone of Peace, Freedom, And Neutrality. Also, it can invite international observers and develop better channels with the international media-persons so as to highlight ecological disaster that China is bringing to those islands. Vietnam can also undertake joint sails with other countries to define freedom of navigation and rightful claim to exploitation of resources coming under the Exclusive Economic Zones.
Apart from this Vietnam can engage a large scale dialogue between the ASEAN countries involving academics, media-persons, strategic thinkers and international legal experts so as to resolve the impasse with the Chinese in the long run. Vietnam can initiate safety markers in the region which can outline navigational safety and ensure safe passage of ships. The ASEAN countries could develop and synchronise their historical narrative so as to expose Chinese history in this context. With regards to extended continental shelf there is need for dialogue at the highest platforms such as UNSC and also initiate a side meeting during the deliberations in the international sea bed authority. This would create a comprehensive counter narrative to the Chinese claims and help the international community to keep tab of the developments in this region. Vietnam should also highlight that how nagging issues such as Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, South Ledgeand the Horsburgh Lighthouse have been resolved between Singapore and Malaysia, at the same time India has accepted to Bangladesh’s maritime claims in the Bay of Bengal region. The narrative which should be germinating in this context should be sound and should open new ideas so that this issue could be resolved within a time frame. Vietnam can also Commission an international committee of experts who can suggest viable changes in the code of conduct draft which can be acceptable to all the claimant countries. Lastly, Vietnam has to take leadership role highlighting these issues at the right forums and therefore this contentious issue should be addressed in a proper way.
Apart from these there is a need for another unified proposition from the ASEAN countries with regards to the territorial seas in the South China Sea islands and why the international community should undertake oil exploration activities in the region as the retreat of many oil companies would outline the fact that China dominates the maritime space. Also there should be a Coastguard forum which could look into the peaceful resolution of disputes. Also the forthcoming meeting of ASEAN could look into the drafts of CoC and suggest minimum common acceptance in this context .The ADMM plus meeting and the related meeting should look into meeting certain objectives such as constraining naval exercises in the region form all major players. China has been highlighting that the exercises have vitiated the atmosphere and have created a sense of tension.
In conclusion one can say that there is a need for sensitisation of the international community and also getting commitment from all players so that SCS should not become a theatre of intense military rivalry and tension which would impact the livelihood of fishermen and also maritime trade and commerce for all the countries in its periphery.
Waterworld: Moscow Betting on the South China Sea
Troubled waters in South China Sea
The waters of the South China Sea are troubled. The latest weeks have not been that quiet in that geopolitical area. On the one side, the Spratly Islands continue to be under the spotlight, as Chinese vessels have been detected by the Philippines within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On the other side, Manila’s coast guard has lately been engaged in a naval drill in the disputed waters. President Duterte clearly stated that he will not undermine his country’s sovereignty by withdrawing its vessels from patrolling national waters.
As tensions mount, Vietnam is not twiddling its thumbs. Lately, Hanoi has in fact been building up its own maritime militia, which patrols the area around Hainan, the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. China believes this to be a covert operation in order to spy on the Chinese military infrastructure and ships.
Russia’s stake in the wrangle
Located thousands of kilometers away, Russia may look like a full-fledged outsider of this dispute. Still waters run deep. Back in 2016, Vladimir Putin spoke of a “greater Eurasian partnership”. As the Russian Federation has been engaged in its pivot to Asia for almost ten years, links with a number of major Asian countries—both bilaterally and multilaterally through organizations (like the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN)—are strong and definite.
Moscow is clearly not interested in claiming any of the disputed waters, islands or reefs of the South China Sea. Still, it pursues its own stake, which is mainly linked to its economic and strategic interests.
Only by going beyond official rhetoric, one can possibly understand Russia’s goals within this geopolitical context. During the 2016 G20 Summit in China, Vladimir Putin clearly stated that any third-party interference within this quarrel would be condemned by Russia.
According to the official statements, Moscow advocates for a peaceful resolution of the dispute among the parties involved. The Russian Federation stands firm on the adherence to international law and UNCLOS, while supporting the 2002 ASEAN-China Joint Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The latest years have been fruitful for Russia’s economic links with several Asian and South-East Asian countries. Let’s just think about its relations with the main claimants within this dispute. Moscow is the leading trade partner with Vietnam, has secured itself a close and comprehensive partnership with China and is clearly interested in deepening its ties with ASEAN countries.
As Russia is not a newborn in the energy and defense sectors, it tries to take advantage of its skills in order to get the most of it within this region, too. However, this has to do not with economic concerns only. Security matters just as well.
Between Hanoi, Manila, New Delhi and Beijing
Despite not being directly involved in the territorial dispute, Moscow still plays a double role. On the one hand, it has been pursuing a strategy of hedging within that specific regional complex. On the other hand, the disputed South China Sea must be understood within a larger systemic framework of international relations.
By using the term “hedging”, we refer to as a set of intertwining policies between engagement, integration and containment with the aim of bumping up one’s security. As different regional actors are involved, this is the strategy that Russia has so far used in order to preserve a sort of geopolitical stability.
The People’s Republic of China undoubtedly represents the most crucial player in the dispute. The latest months have confirmed how deep the comprehensive and strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow is. Just some time ago, the two countries announced a joint project for a moon research station and increased cooperation within the joint venture Arctic LNG-2. Cooperation in the defense field has been sped up too. Not so long ago, Beijing has purchased some of Moscow’s top military technologies, such as Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile systems.
In 2016, the two parties have carried out a joint naval drill in the waters of the contested South China Sea. This was interpreted by the international community as the expression of Russia taking the Chinese side. The same year, the Hague International Court spoke out in favor of the Philippines, ruling that the Chinese territorial claims were unfounded. This happened at a time when Russia could possibly face the same situation with Crimea, so the Russian rhetoric of external non-interference within conflicts was reiterated, as had already been the case with the Western engagement in Libya or Iraq.
Even if in Hangzhou Vladimir Putin chose to publicly express his support on China about the international ruling, Russia continues to flaunt its neutral stance. For instance, Moscow has never publicly supported China’s concept of the nine-dash line, since the Chinese concept of establishing sovereignty on account of historical rights clearly contradicts international law. Still, this may be a source of disagreement, as China does not fully recognize the same idea for what concerns Russian claims in the Arctic.
The People’s Republic of China is not the only country which collaborates with Russia in that area. Vietnam, for instance, appears to be the Russian gate to South-East Asia, both in economic and security terms. Crucial energy and economic deals have been signed between the two parties—not only within the Eurasian Economic Union.
Lukoil, Gazprom and Rosneft have been deeply involved in the development of oil and gas fields also within the disputed waters of the South China Sea, much at China’s discontent. In 2018, the Russian state oil company, Rosneft, initiated drilling in the Lan Do “Red Orchid” offshore gas field. The Chinese Foreign Ministry harshly replied by condemning this act.
The reminiscence of the Cold War has become the foundation for integration between the two countries in the defense field as well. In 2012, the entente was elevated up to the grade of a comprehensive strategic partnership. With the situation in the South China Sea worsening, Hanoi has lately been expanding its arms purchases from Russia, as it has happened with the Project 1241 corvettes. Beyond arms sales, Russia plays a major role in fostering the Vietnamese military capabilities, which are also aimed at countering any threat within the South China Sea.
The Philippines is another country with which Russia has been cooperating in the energy field. In 2019, President Duterte asked Russia to carry out offshore oil and gas exploration in what he defines the “West Philippine Sea”, namely the South China Sea, once again placing Moscow at the center of the dispute.
Countering the systemic threat
Imagining Russia’s actions in the South China Sea as mere hedging measures in order to preserve geopolitical stability in a crucial region would be a huge mistake. As the West continues to perceive Moscow and Beijing as systemic rivals, the reverse is also true.
The United States’ reorientation towards Asia under President Obama has been considered as a sort of systemic pressure on Russia. Through Moscow’s lenses, Washington is seeking to maximize its influence in the dispute and in the area by strengthening ties with its Asian partners as well as through the QUAD format. This is also shown by the U.S. willing to modernize its military bases in Okinawa and Guam. This is why Moscow would like to resist the so-called “internationalization” of the conflict, as claimed by Korolev.
Moscow has in fact been helping Hanoi in modernizing a former Cold War base at Cam Ranh Bay by supplying Kilo submarines and providing training programs. In November 2014, an agreement was signed permitting to use this naval facility by Russian military forces. This led to a quarrel with the United States, as Russian bombers were patrolling over an area too close to Guam. Russia’s interest in reestablishing a permanent presence in the South China Sea is thus also directed against the United States’ aspirations in the area and represent a real balancing strategy.
Moscow is, of course, not the only one balancing here. China fears a U.S. intervention too. Aleksander Korolev has an interesting intuition on the issue. In fact, despite Moscow’s military cooperation with Hanoi, Beijing appears to coexist with it, as it prevents Vietnam from aligning with Washington.
At the end of the day, Russia—despite its geographic location and seemingly neutral stance—does care about the South China Sea dispute and has a role in it indeed. Keeping a low profile does not necessarily mean indifference. At least, this is not the case.
From our partner RIAC
The National Unity Government in Myanmar: Role and Challenges
The continuing crisis in Myanmar has got a new momentum when the elected parliamentarians of the National League for Democracy (NLD), along with ethnic groups have formed National Unity Government (NUG) based on federal democratic principles. It marks a new milestone of the anti-Junta struggle after about three months of protests and civil disobedience movement since the military takeover on 1 February 2021. It is considered a parallel civilian-led government against the military-led State Administration Council (SAC).It has come into being when the country has been facing its worst crisis ever, along with the complex political dynamics. As we see claims and counterclaims from NUG and the military regime, it is worthwhile to understand the role and challenges of the NUG.
Formation of the Government
The opponents of Myanmar’s junta formally announced the establishment of a National Unity Government (NUG) on 16 April, 2021.It came in the wake of mounting brutality and murders of protesting civilians by the ruthless military regime. The NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH. Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. In the new government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and former House Speaker under the NLD government, is the country’s prime minister, while President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi retain their positions. The vice president is Duwa Lashi La, the president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.
It has unveiled a 20-page Federal Democracy Charter, which is based on an interim constitution drafted between 1990 and 2008 by NLD lawmakers elected in 1990 and ethnic armed forces in Myanmar’s border areas. The goal of the NUG is to establish an alternative government – a sort of internal government-in-exile – that can compete with the junta for international recognition and spearhead what is likely to be a long campaign to defeat it. The NUG is aimed at uniting anti-coup groups, ethnic armed organizations, and other opponents of the junta. It has pledged the “eradication of dictatorship” and the creation of an inclusive federal democracy “where all citizens can live peacefully”.
Reckoning the Role of the NUG
Roadmap for a Democratic Government
The Federal Democracy Charter provides a roadmap for a democratic government of Myanmar abolishing the current constitution. It includes plans to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution. Diversity and consensus mark the formation of the NUG, which addresses the multi-ethnic and multi-national nature of the state of Myanmar. The NUG hopes that it will bring all ethnic nationalities on board as it represents the great diversity and strength of this great nation of Myanmar. The new government aims at maintaining inclusiveness in the governance system aligning all ethnic groups. Calling it “the peoples’ government” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing emphasized the unity between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking ethnic minority groups. The understanding between and among the democratic forces as well as ethnic groups and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) organizers may facilitate peace and unity in Myanmar.
Pressure on the Military Regime
The formation of NUG will exert a major political pressure on the post-coup military regime. The two-part charter of NUG lays out a plan to “weaken the governance mechanisms” of the military regime by discrediting the Tatmadaw, support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and make arrangements for “national defence” by forming a federal army. Representatives of the NUG state that there will be “no compromise” between their Government and the military regime unless the group’s demands are met. These demands include: restoring the country’s democratically elected leaders and parliamentarians from the November election, ending to violence against civilians, removing soldiers from the streets, and releasing political prisoners. Meanwhile, many argue that Myanmar is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state and stands on the brink of civil war at an unprecedented scale.
Managing Support of the Ethnic Groups
The formation of NUG offers new hope for Myanmar to increase interactions with diverse ethnic and religious groups. The 10 ethnic armed organizations’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) has given its unwavering support to Myanmar’s striking civil servants and the ousted government’s Federal Democracy Charter. Some ethnic communities have already termed it as Myanmar’s “spring revolution” and pledged to join the fight against the junta if it doesn’t stop the killing immediately or meet calls to restore democracy. Analysts say that plans to unite ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burman people will take time, but that the signs of cohesion are slowly forming, including National Unity Government in accordance with the will and demand of ethnic political parties, ethnic armed resistance organizations, and mass protest movements. Notably, the inclusivity and diversity of the nature of the formation of the shadow government is likely to forge consensus building it halting the outrage of the military.
Marshaling Regional and Global Support
Garnering regional and global support is the prime motivation behind the NUG. The NUG has already called on Southeast Asian countries to boost their engagement and support for the body. According to the NUG representatives, some nations, including some Western countries and a member country of the Arab World that experienced the Arab Spring, are already intending to formally recognize the NUG as the country’s legitimate government. The joint statement of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting held in London on 5 May 2021 welcomed the creation of the NUG. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government. Many other international groups have called for the NUG’s legitimacy to be recognized. The International Trade Union Confederation recognizes its legitimacy. Two international rights organizations – Fortify Rights and Rohingya Organisation U.K. (BROUK) urged southeast Asian leaders to work with the newly formed anti-coup unity government in Myanmar to restore democracy, putting an end to the illegal military takeover.
ASEAN has a unique role in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Global actors – both states and civil society – strongly argue that ASEAN should work with the newly formed NUG in Myanmar and the broader international community to end the Myanmar military junta’s attacks and ensure a transition to democratic, civilian rule. After filing the case against General Min Aung Hlainga head of the junta leader’s arrival in Jakarta to attend an ASEAN summit, the shadow government has asked the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to arrest the coup leader. A letter to Interpol said Min Aung Hlaing was a criminal and terrorist for his crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and must be tried at both international courts.
Few challenges need to be considered in assessing the future of the NUG. While the shadow government has expectations for expanding support among socio-ethnic and religious groups, more violence may dampen hopes for national reconciliation, as the military junta regime has not retreated from its brutal and repressive moves. The announcement of a new unity government is likely to push Myanmar into a dangerous new phase of its crisis with urban upheaval, a collapsing economy. Internationally, the formation of the NUG will confront foreign governments with the difficult choice of whether to recognize and throw the full force of their support behind the alternative government. Recently, the expelling of the Myanmar Ambassador in London for his support to Suu Kyi created a difficult situation for the U.K. government. The invitation of general Min Aung Hlaing in the ASEAN’s special summit in Jakarta was also a critical choice for ASEAN states to decide whether they would recognize NUG or Tatmadaw.
The move is likely to harden the country’s battle lines since the military coup. The junta has killed 739 people and made 3,370 arrests. There are statements and counter statements between NUG and the junta regime over the formation of unity government. In an apparent response to the NUG’s letter to Interpol accusing general Hlaing, the regime announced that all 24 NUG ministers and two associates have been charged with high treason. It has also declared the NUG an unlawful association. The‘non-interference’ principle of ASEAN, which prohibits involvement in the ‘internal affairs’ of member states, has been violated in the recent move by the ASEAN. It has bolstered the Aung Hlaing government. By inviting Min Aung Hlaing and not NUG representatives to the ASEAN Special Summit, the organization has chosen to intervene and recognize the military regime. This situation has created contradictions and a lack of consensus among the parties who formed the NUG. Diverse comments and different positions of the groups concerned have caused a shadowy situation. For instance, the NUG initially did welcome the five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis during the ASEAN summit. Contrarily, the protesters have rejected the five-point consensus as it has not mentioned political prisoners and vowed to continue their protest campaign. Later on, the NUG declared that they would not negotiate with the military regime against the people’s will, despite calls from the ASEAN for talks. The NUG rejected a joint junta-ASEAN statement which said, ‘all parties shall exercise utmost restraint’.
In conclusion, the very formation of NUG with its projection of establishing a federal democracy is likely to open opportunities for giving a direction to the ongoing protest movement and creating greater understanding among socio-ethnic groups who have long been cherishing autonomy and ending the cycle of military authoritarianism in essence. If the NUG can build consensus and accelerate trust among the stakeholders of the forces of democracy, there is a prospect for success in the coming days for the transition. The key to victory for the NUG will be to keep civil disobedience going in the face of repression and an economic collapse that has already started and gain support and recognition from the domestic and international arena. Most importantly, the role of the international community is critical. Regionally, ASEAN’s role is vital, but so far, it has not demonstrated any credible action, including the special summit decisions. The NUG remains a fragile unity in a country of the almost permanent reign of the military that makes its mission ever challenging.
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