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How Countries in Southeast Asia are Working Together to Accelerate Human Capital Development

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In their decades-long efforts to spur strong economic growth and significantly reduce poverty, countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also successfully improved education and health outcomes for their people. Today, however, ASEAN’s average indicators on education, skills development, and health are below what is expected of its current income levels. These persistent gaps can undermine future growth and prosperity in the region.

To thrive in the global economy, where new technologies will create industries that have yet to be imagined, and where the changing nature of work prizes higher-order skills, ASEAN countries will have to go back to basics – and invest in its children.    

The challenge is significant. Almost a third of children in the region have stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition, making them highly prone to life-long cognitive and physical limitations. These can lead to poor school performance and diminished career prospects overall. And though schooling rates are high across ASEAN, limited education quality generates large learning gaps – 21 in 100 children have low reading comprehension skills at the end of primary school. Some 15% of 15-year-olds living today will not reach the age of 60 mainly due to noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Both issues are partly a result of unequal access to basic services, including healthcare and education, which in turn contributes to widening income inequalities.

ASEAN countries, while linked geographically and economically, have varying levels of life expectancy, job productivity, and education quality. At the core of these challenges is the need among all countries to accelerate human capital development. This month in Bangkok, Thailand, leaders from the region came together to discuss how to take this further.

“Disparity, poverty, education and health, remain a challenge in ASEAN. We have to make Human Capital Development an integral part of our development,” ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi told the ASEAN High-Level Meeting on Human Development on September 9, 2019.

Organized by Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the World Bank and UNICEF, the high-level meeting was designed to facilitate dialogue among member states to share successful policy frameworks and emerging challenges, as well as help identify new approaches to human capital development and move towards a set of common, yet adaptable, policy directions.

ASEAN has their work cut out for them. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index projects that upon adulthood, children born in ASEAN today will be just 59% as productive as they could have been. To change this, political commitment to shift public investments to the right places is critical. 

Thailand, for example, reduced the rates of child stunting from 25 to 11% over the last 30 years through targeted, community-based nutrition programs in areas with high levels of poverty. The successful approach brought together health, agriculture, education, water and sanitation by close community-level coordination to address malnutrition.

Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, shared how Thailand kickstarted its Universal Health Coverage (UHC) scheme in 2002 even though it was still regrouping from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The UHC scheme entitled every Thai citizen to essential health services, and coverage reached 100% in 2018.

“UHC is about national commitment. We don’t have to wait until we are rich to get UHC. We just have to commit,” Anutin said.

Other countries in the region have also performed well in various areas. Vietnam stands out with its high-quality basic education system due to its commitment to education reform and substantial public spending, while Singapore initiated successful schemes to retrain and employ older workers.

Experts presented delegates with data that illustrated how globally, investments in health and education, especially for young children, generates high returns on productivity. It gives the future workforce the necessary cognitive and social skills to navigate a knowledge-based economy. The meeting ended with recommendations for accelerating human capital development in ASEAN. These include fighting malnutrition with nutritious foods and quality healthcare, orienting the entire education system around improved learning for the young and lifelong learning for adults, and achieving UHC to provide everyone with quality health services and financial protection from health-related shocks to their income.

But as Laurence Chandy, UNICEF’s Director of Global Insight and Policy Office, reminded participants, to realize these goals, countries will have to make “fiscal commitments and more importantly set clear policies for implementation that are specific to each country.”

World Bank

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Southeast Asia

The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.

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US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.

A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.

The French Response

When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.

Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.

‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision

The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.

In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.

Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

A new addition to the regional architecture

In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.

It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.

What Australia should be careful about?

No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.

Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.

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Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.

***

After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.

As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.

Déjà vu 1988

Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.

It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.

Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.

Absence of a political consensus

Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.

Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.

When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability

The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.

Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.

At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.

Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.

The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history

With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.

As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.

Regional voices and the road to peace

Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.

Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.

Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.

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Australia’s churn in the Indo-Pacific with India and Indonesia

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The shared vision for a free, open, rules-based, and inclusive Indo-Pacific brings Australia, India, and Indonesia together. Being democracies and maritime powers with overwhelmingly large coastlines, the three countries are natural partners. Australia and India have just inaugurated a ‘2+2’ Dialogue of foreign and defence ministers on September 11. Meanwhile, Indonesia and Australia have conducted seven ‘2+2’ ministerials so far since 2012.

***

The mutual interaction between these countries has improved over the years. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton are on a visit to New Delhi, the Indian capital, from 10-12 September 2021, with the main point of agenda being the commencement of the annual ministerial-level consultations, taking the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to the next level. They are on a four-country Indo-Pacific tour, spread over two weeks that began on September 9, with their first leg being Jakarta, the Indonesian capital where the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also located. The Australian minister-duo will be heading to South Korea and the United States after concluding their India visit.

Looking back on Australia-India ties

2021 has been the fourth year since India and Australia recalibrated their ties in the second avatar of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad 2.0 that came into being in 2017. Last year witnessed several landmark moments in India-Australia relations. Australian PM Scott Morrison and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi held a virtual summit in June, followed by the elevation of bilateral ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and the signing of a naval interoperability pact called the ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’ (MLSA) to access each other’s bases and reciprocal use of each other’s military facilities, including refuelling and repair. Both leaders also agreed on a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ in 2020. The year also saw Australia returning to Exercise Malabar after 13 years, accepting India’s invitation, and both countries participated in the drills for two consecutive years – 2020 and 2021 – along with Japan and the United States. Shared concerns on the disruptive rise of China in the past few years have also brought Australia closer to India.

Australia and India have joined hands with Japan for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) last year for the diversification of supply chain risks across a group of supplying nations instead of being dependent on just one or a few and for ensuring the free flow of goods, apparently with China in mind, with which both countries have deep-rooted economic and trade links. Both India and Australia are victims of Beijing’s bullying in different arenas. If territorial disputes with China form a major part of Indian security concerns, for Australia it is the trade and tariffs-related tensions. Both countries are also apprehensive of Chinese telecom companies and their technological edge, particularly regarding 5G trials and rollout.

Australia was the first country in the world to ban Chinese firms of next-generation technology Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials due to the alleged links of these companies with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which if allowed could’ve been used against Australia’s national security interests one day, capitalising on increased tensions between the two countries. Under Chinese law, companies that operate in Chinese territory are obligated to co-operate with the country’s intelligence services. With China upping the ante in the Himalayan frontiers with India that resulted in a bloody skirmish in eastern Ladakh in June last year, New Delhi has also taken similar steps like the banning of Chinese mobile applications and not permitting Chinese firms from participating in the 5G trials in India.

In a subtle reference to China while addressing an event organised by an Indian think-tank during the recently-concluded visit to India, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that Canberra seeks a region in which the rights of all states, large and small, are respected with a strategic balance, in which ‘no single dominant power dictates outcomes for others’. Today, India-Australia ties cover a wide range of areas that goes beyond maritime security and defence cooperation such as science and technology research, economic and multilateral cooperation, innovation and entrepreneurship, agriculture and water resources management, education, culture, tourism and people-to-people ties.

Looking back on Australia-Indonesia ties

The Indonesian archipelago lies to the north and northwest of Australia. Both countries are immediate maritime neighbours and touch upon both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The governments of Indonesia and Australia have held seven ‘2+2’ Ministerial Dialogues so far. In the recently concluded such dialogue, issues that were discussed include defence cooperation, the pandemic, the situation in Myanmar, an ASEAN member-nation, and also the regime change in Afghanistan.

Notably, both countries have enhanced their military-level cooperation in the recent ‘2+2’ meet with the joint decision to renew the defence cooperation arrangement (DCA) that was agreed in 2012. With a new framework, Indonesian defence personnel will be trained in Australian military academies, along with their Australian counterparts, for the very first time. Soon, it is expected that both militaries would conduct joint military exercises in Australian soil, along with maritime drills.

Indonesia and Australia have crossed the milestone of 70 years of diplomatic ties just last year and their cooperation in counter-terrorism operations have improved considerably from the early 2000s, particularly in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings that also included Australian victims, but it followed a brief period of strained ties owing to Indonesia’s intervention in East Timor and its alleged military excesses and spying.

In 2006, both countries signed the landmark Lombok Treaty, named after an Indonesian island lying east of Bali, which set out a ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’ that covered both traditional and non-traditional challenges to security. This commitment was reiterated in 2014 with the signing of a Joint Understanding on a code of conduct on the same between the two countries. Even though there have been ups and downs on their ties, both countries have been conducting ‘2+2’ ministerial-level consultations annually since 2012. Indonesia and Australia have signed a Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation in 2017 that took their ties to the next level, and in the following year it was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

While Indonesia represents the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ that distances itself from great power rivalries, Australia is one of the four partners in the Quad, which accepts the centrality of ASEAN as essential for their conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific. Even though balancing Chinese assertion is one of the non-explicit objectives of the Quad in which Australia is part of, as evident from Exercise Malabar, Indonesia seems least concerned with antagonizing China. In fact, Jakarta is a key participant of China-sponsored Maritime Silk Road, a key component of Beijing’s trillion-dollar project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, these differences have not prevented the both countries from cooperating in the realms of military, diplomatic, economic and maritime cooperation. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said in the latest ‘2+2’ Dialogue with her Indonesian counterpart that Canberra welcomes a ‘healthy competition’ based on rules and norms, on a ‘level-playing field’, rather than the one that risks sliding into a conflict. However, she played down the need for direct ASEAN-Quad consultations.

An emerging trilateral and the way ahead

The emerging Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral sheds light on the Asia-Pacific’s evolving mini-lateralism and a multipolar order that has its beginnings in 2017 with the Senior Officials’ Strategic Dialogue held in Bogor, Indonesia, with the three countries participating. Further such meetings were followed in Canberra in 2018 and New Delhi in 2019. As the US-China great power rivalry continues to take a new shape, this trilateral of the three maritime middle-powers would further enrich multilateralism and the overall regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Common interests that bind Australia, India, and Indonesia include a rules-based, free, and inclusive maritime order in the region, and the respect for international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral could also complement the Quad and other trilaterals and minilaterals in the region such as the Australia-India-Japan and the Australia-France-India groupings. India’s ‘Act East’ policy, Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy, and Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ policy are well-capable of effectively finding strategic convergence with each other.

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