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Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s Development needs both ASEAN & China

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Authors: Thet Thu Thu Aye and Jamal Ait Laadam

Although Myanmar is one of the least developed countries in the world, it does have a couple of advantages to become an economically middle-level income and politically stable country in Asia. Geographically surrounded by China, India and Indochina, Myanmar is rich in terms of natural resources and has strategic importance as well. In addition, Myanmar won independence even earlier than its neighbors. Yet, during the Cold War, the leadership of Myanmar (then Burma) declared that it did not want to join ASEAN, which was seen as an imperialist pawn given its policy of neutrality. Officially speaking, Myanmar was admitted into ASEAN in 1997, yet the two sides saw each other with suspicion and uncertainties. One of the main reasons is that Myanmar could receive all kinds of its needs including security from China. However, politically since the 1990s, the pro-democracy leader of the country Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to the leaders of the ASEAN calling on the regional grouping to “nudge Burma towards democracy”. Yet, the reply was cautious as it said that since the ASEAN had advocated a policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar, it would do little good now to take a more confrontational approach. Due to this, it is pragmatic not to pursue a policy of exclusion, including economic sanctions simply because it was not likely to achieve the desired end.

But the last three decades of the 20th century witnessed the sea-changes all over the world: China’s start of economic reform, then the end of the Soviet Union as an ideological beacon, and meanwhile increased globalization of trade and FDI. In light of this, many ASEAN member states re-evaluated their interests and oriented the policy tools to meet the new situation. One aspect of this approach was the rekindling of ASEAN’s interest in Burma as a means to fortify its security, economic and political position. With the perception among ASEAN members evolved that China posed more of a threat at a time when the US security presence in East Asia obviously diminishing, this spurred interest in a security arrangement that would come to include China and Myanmar. Equally, by the end of the 1980s, Southeast Asia emerged as one of the most vibrant economic areas in the world. From 1981–90, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the region grew at a steady average of 6.1% per annum, and some countries grew at an even higher rate of 7–10% per annum. Fueling this growth was trade and investment from East Asia, such as Japan, South Korea and later China. Accordingly, ASEAN began to take measures to deepen its integration and engage new markets as its leaders became aware of growing economic competition from other regional trade blocs like North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the EU. One aspect of ASEAN’s action to remain competitive has been its enlargement to include all of Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar included. That means the ASEAN-10 offered a population of about 500 million, an area of 4.5 million square kms and a combined gross national product of US$ 685 billion, a total trade of US$ 720 billion and an ample supply of cheap natural resources. In the long term, Myanmar held the potential of 50 million new consumers for Southeast Asian goods as well as natural resources.

It is true that Myanmar has an abundance of inexpensive natural resources coveted by ASEAN, including lumber, natural gas and minerals. Politically, what had happened in the country also prompted ASEAN’s interest in constructive engagement. Since 1988, Myanmar began to implement far-reaching reforms of its economic system and foreign relations since the military government realized that it would have to seek external assistance to maintain control. As scholar Donald Seekins argued, the open economic policy in Myanmar after 1988 must be understood primarily in power political terms – a device for generating revenues for the military and building a stronger state. One crucial result was the flow of Chinese assistance in terms of military hardware, trade and investment blossomed overnight. In the span of 10 years, trade between Burma and China grew from $15 million to US$ 800 million. One influential aspect of the assistance was increased military training and hardware. From 1991 to 1995, about US$ 740 million of approximately US$ 1 billion in arms purchased by Burma came from China, including quite advanced weapon such as jet-fighter aircrafts, tanks, armored personnel carriers, radar, 3 frigates with missile capability, patrol boats, rocket carriers and small arms. Along with the Chinese hardware came other types of assistance: infrastructure development projects supported by the Chinese including the construction of a road and railways intended to link China’s landlocked hinterland – Yunnan province – with a deep water port on the Andaman. The infrastructure projects also provided easier access for China to the Indian Ocean. Other policy reforms inspired by the political uprising in 1988 included the liberalizing of foreign investment regulations in Burma, so that the regime could earn hard currency to support the country’s ailing economy. FDI flowed in from ASEAN, now that the terms were conducive to investment. One chief interest was the extraction of natural resources such as timber, gems, and offshore oil exploration. Key foreign investors included Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, along with Big Three from outside ASEAN.

As the region’s largest investor in Myanmar, Singapore’s support for the country’s admission into ASEAN was based upon a different set of concerns. Singapore had little if not nothing interest in human rights issues and no real objections to the Myanmar regime’s treatment of its political opponents, but was concerned about its handling of the country’s economy and particularly its policies towards foreign investment. Through their support of the Myanmar’s status in ASEAN, Singapore hoped to gain influence over the economic thinking of the military leaders and gain greater access to the country’s natural resources and huge market for weapons. Singapore has also long been a major supplier of arms to Burma. Equally, Indonesia’s support had historical roots, given the active role in the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asia-African solidarity. But ultimately it has been geopolitical considerations that tipped the balance of opinion in favor of granting membership to Myanmar. Besides the fear that excluding Myanmar from ASEAN could be viewed as an invitation to China to take a more prominent role in the country, Western condemnation of the regime, culminating in sanctions imposed by the United States, was perceived by some as an attempt to impose alien values on the region. At a time when the supposed superiority of “Asian values” was still a favorite theme of Asian leaders eager to argue that the region’s increasing prosperity was deeply rooted in their countries’ cultures, any attempt by the West to take the moral high ground was met with resentment and derision. For some Asian leaders, particularly Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, but to a lesser extent even others with more liberal views, admitting Myanmar was a way for ASEAN to indicate their rejection of Western condescension. The coincidence of these two events – the admission of Burma into ASEAN and the Asian economic crisis – immediately ignited speculation about a possible Western conspiracy. Meanwhile, after 2000 the EU began to adopt a softer approach towards Myanmar in the hope that some fresh overtures between the government and the opposition groups would emerge. Although some EU member states such as the U.K., Sweden and Denmark have continued to maintain their hardline position, they still want to see political openness and are ready to give in to the argument that sanctions against Burma have not worked; therefore it has become necessary to seek a compromise to end the current political deadlock. They urged Myanmar to solve political conflict through dialogue because only through dialogue will there be a national reconciliation that will bring about a stable and prosperous Myanmar.

In sum, the essence of Myanmar’s foreign policy is to develop friendly relations with all the countries of the world, particularly with its neighbors. Therefore it joined ASEAN with a view to promote regional peace, stability and prosperity through cooperation and integration with the other nations of Southeast Asia. While Southeast Asian leaders continue to hope that ASEAN’s constructive engagement policy serves to mitigate Chinese leverage on Myanmar, some are not at all sanguine about the country’s prospects. For example, Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed his view that “ASEAN cannot rescue Myanmar even if it wants to, and I have the awful feeling rescuing Burma is beyond the capability of even the USA. The Myanmar’s government may resent its growing dependency on China, but it is likely to remain necessary as long as it finds itself isolated from most of the rest of the international community. Particularly, China is not only a great neighbor but also the most vital economic and security partner, followed by Japan and India. As Myanmar’s leader expects China to act as a defender of its interests and image in the world affairs. In light of this, it is reasonable for Myanmar to work together with both ASEAN and China for mutual benefit in the peace and progress.

PhD candidate in International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China.

Southeast Asia

Vietnamese PM Chinh visit to Japan: A new era of cyber, space and defence cooperation

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pham minh chinh

Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited Japan from November 22-25 and discussions about trade, investment, defence, cultural and enhancing political ties took place between the two leaders. The former prime minister of Japan Suga had visited Vietnam in October 2020, and it was his first visit to any foreign country. With the coming of Fumo Kishida new prime minister in Japan, Vietnamese Prime Minister thought it prudent to engage the new political leadership. When recently Kurt Campbell stated that India and Vietnam will be crucial in deciding the fate of Asia and the three countries namely India, Vietnam and Japan have been closely cooperating with one another because of two major factors. The three countries are in the periphery of China and have major stakes in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute. Second, these three economies are promising economies in Asia and are seen to be major harbingers of technology, economic growth and sustainable development. 

The visit of Vietnamese prime minister is primarily seen from the point of view of projecting the need for ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’ and developing close cooperation between Vietnam and Japan. During the visit of Japanese defence minister to Vietnam last year several agreements have been signed between the two sides which included transfer of technology and defence trade between the two sides. Vietnam is facing a few challenges related to trade and investment, growing cases of Covid 19 pandemic, need for modernisation of its armed forces and realising the potential of the regional organisations such as ASEAN .In terms of developing necessary technical acumen for renewable energy sources and facilitating foreign direct investment from Japan were the major agendas for the visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister. 

The Vietnamese Prime Minister visit was his first official visit to Japan. Vietnam is increasingly seen as a middle power which requires support and cooperation from Japanese in areas such as waste management, infrastructure development, developing technology parks, export processing zones and vocational training skills to emerge as one of the engines of economic growth in Southeast Asia. In fact, Japan was the only few countries in Asia with which Vietnam has developed air bubble agreement during COVID-19 to facilitate travel of passengers and businesspeople from the two countries. Given the fact that Vietnam is slowly opening its trade and investment and tourism sector it would be looking for countries in Europe and in Asia to spur development in the country. Japanese tourists are important incoming visitors for Vietnam because of their spending and booking high end resorts and hotels.  

Following the COP- 26 meeting which was held in London there have been huge expectations from the Asian countries to reduce their carbon footprints and look for other viable sources of energy. The visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister explored diverse issues related to politics, security, cultural interactions and development of human resources in Vietnam. The two defence ministers also signed aagreements related to transfer of technology and exports of Japanese defence equipment and weapons to Vietnam. Japan has already embarked on a policy to support littoral countries of South China Sea through patrol boats and fast attack crafts. 

One of the critical areas that Vietnam is looking for is the development of technology and scientific rigour within the country. In this context collaboration with Japanese scientific institutions and academic community would help Vietnam to develop skills and human resources to cater to the industrial revolution 4.0. Also, Vietnam is looking for developing expertise in areas such as machine learning, big data mining, artificial intelligence, underwater systems, developing sustainable development and energy resources in those South China Sea islands so that the soldiers can become self-sufficient in energy and clean water resources. Japan has been looking for alternate sources of investment and developing infrastructure in countries such as Vietnam Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam itself is emerging as a viable alternative to China in the wake of recurring cases of COVID-19 pandemic in China. Japanese investors and entrepreneurs are looking for relocating their businesses and investments. 

There is no denying of the fact that developments in South China Sea are of critical importance both for Vietnam and Japan, and it is expected that the two leaders discussed these issues in detail. The Chinese assertive activities in South China Sea have been deplored by Japan and other allied partners in the past. Vietnam is looking for cooperation with Japan in terms of submarine hunting capabilities and developing acumen for better management of human resources in defence sector. In terms of military cooperation between the two sides there is a lot of potential in terms of maritime surveillance aircraft, fast attack crafts, and coastal radar systems. Also, sonar systems and developing helicopter mounted surveillance systems would and has Vietnamese defence and surveillance capabilities. The two countries signed an agreement on space defence and cyber security. 

One of the important critical areas that the two countries discussed was related to the implementation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and promoting intra regional trade so that better complementarities could be developed between the two sides. Another important forum where Japan and Vietnam are members is CPTPP and there is speculation that President Joe Biden might be interested in re-joining the grouping. Taiwan and China have expressed interest in joining it, but Japan is in favour of only Taiwan.  In such a context when the two countries are at the crossroads of economic integration and regional economic groupings, it is expected that the two leaders discussed necessary checks and balances so the trade interests of the two countries can be protected while enhancing the integration at the regional level. 

Vietnam is also seen as a probable candidate for the Quad Plus initiative and Japan has been very insistent on engaging the country in a more proactive way. India, Vietnam and Japan could be one trilateral which will bring in a large market, Strong technology fundamentals, unique cultural identities and common strategic concerns acts as glue between the three countries. The development of Vietnam and Japan ties would reconfigure Asian identity and future.      

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Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s prospects in 2022 under Cambodian Chairmanship

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Exactly a decade later Cambodia faces the big question that whether the memory of the past can be erased, given the fact that during the last ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in 2012 the ASEAN communiqué was not released because of strong differences on the issue of South China Sea among various ASEAN claimant states. In the year 2021 after the ASEAN chairmanship of Brunei, Cambodia assumed the charge as the chairman of ASEAN for next year and there are expectations among the ASEAN member countries regarding the future course of action of the organization as such. During the 2021 ASEAN summit there were number of issues which were raised pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, return of democracy in Myanmar, participation of dialogue partners in reviving trade and investment in the region, and realizing the blueprint for ASEAN communities.

During the year 2021 the ASEAN meeting’s theme was “we care, we prepared, we prosper”, and the stress was on regaining the ASEAN community and working on harmonious region with more focus on people. The meeting reflected the desire of the people for maintaining the regional organization’s momentum within the ASEAN and beyond. During this year’s meetings (38th and 39th) the stress was on economic recovery and addressing the aftereffects of COVID-19 pandemic. There was much stress regarding the regional organization’s resilience, peace, security, and social progress. In fact, most of the member countries tried to work on strengthening the ASEAN’s capacities and working on solutions in the wake of economic slowdown because of the pandemic.


Under the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 the stress was on realizing the targets which are been set in the past and this year took note of the achievements in the last decade. The stress was on implementing the provisions of the ASEAN charter and improve the efficiency of the regional organization. Time and again it has been stated that ASEAN centrality is critical for peace and security in the region and therefore dialogue partners should make extra effort to recognize provisions of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in the current context. The cohesiveness of the organization which was stimulated under the Vietnam chairmanship in 2020 gained support and it is expected that Vietnam whatever was required to support the agenda for future.

The mid-term review of the ASEAN community blueprints, and ASEAN agenda would progress further during Summit in Cambodia in 2022. However, the ASEAN’s Cambodian Summit would be seen with apprehension given the fact that Hun Sen has stated that he would go that extra distance so that the ASEAN summit meetings are held peacefully and there are no domestic protests during that time against ruling party. This year’s ASEAN meeting already took note of the developments in Myanmar and raised apprehensions about the human right violations in the country and the atrocities which have been committed against the pro-democracy protesters.The dialogue partners have also raised concerns regarding developments in Myanmar. In such a context it would be interesting to note how Cambodia manages the domestic upheavals as well as demands from China which in the past has dictated terms to Cambodia on various issues which concern China. One issue which ASEAN is facing is the increasing Chinese assertion in the contested waters of South China Sea. As it has seen in the past the criticism of China was not accepted by the Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen and therefore the issue of politics and security would shadow ASEAN unity and centrality.


One of the important things which have been achieved by Cambodia in the past was the adoption of the Declaration of Code of Conduct of Parties (DOC) in South China Sea in the year 2002. It would be two decades when the negotiations related to South China Sea have taken place and there is no sign of adoption of Code of Conduct in the contested waters. More importantly, the global community will be looking at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh because it will facilitate better trade and investment opportunities for the three countries namely Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. This region is also seen as a potent competitor against China for shifting of select production and manufacturing facilities to this region. However, Cambodia is seen as increasingly getting into China’s strategic orbit because of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the development of the Ream naval base by the Chinese PLA. Even US investment in Cambodia is suffering because of increased influence of China in Cambodia ‘s political apparatus.


Cambodia ASEAN Summit 2022 is expected to be in person summit and there is attendance likely to be of all the other member states and the dialogue partners as well. The 2022 ASEAN summit meeting would be seen as a precursor to other developments in the  region, particularly in the context of managing pandemics, promoting inter-ASEAN trade and investment, encouraging people to people connectivity, and also undertaking efforts to build digital and financial infrastructure in the region. The region itself is facing various challenges, particularly in the context of adopting measures required for realization of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers among the signatory countries. Therefore, in the year 2022, the summit at Phnom Penh might see the utility of new alliances such as AUKUS and how Cambodia responses to the request of United Kingdom to be the dialogue partner of the organization.

Also, as it has been seen in the year 2016 Cambodia hindered any reference to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) judgment in favour of Philippines while entertaining Chinese request in this regard. The critical security challenges that the organization faces would again get reflected during the Cambodian Summit and it would be interesting to note whether Cambodia will come out of Chinese shadow and release the joint statement which was missing during the last Cambodia Summit. Invariably, it would also pave the way for ASEAN to emerge as a formidable organization or  be relegated just as a ‘talk shop’. 

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Southeast Asia

Green Volunteering ASEAN: Our common future

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Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action.  These actions shape and mold the present into a future of which we can all be proud.“ — Helen Dyer

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘volunteerism’ as an act in which a person voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service. People who volunteer in non-profit organizations, for example, are willing to offer their personal services, oftentimes expecting nothing in return. Taking it a step further, what is ‘green volunteering’?

Green volunteering refers to a range of activities which include environmental monitoring, ecological restoration, and educating others about the natural environment. It can come in three forms: practical, fundraising, and administrative.

Practical green volunteering involves environmental volunteers who are involved in habitat management, for example, such as vegetation cutting or removal of invasive species. Fundraising green volunteering involves organizations that raise funds for a particular environmental cause. Finally, administrative green volunteering refers to volunteers who offer their skills and expertise in terms of legal support and public relations, to name a few. In other words, there are many types of green volunteering initiatives that you can take on today.

In the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), which consists of 10 member states, there are plenty of green volunteering initiatives that one can participate in. For instance, in Bali, Indonesia you can become a reef conservation supporter wherein you will work with other volunteers and local communities to restore and protect Bali’s coral reef ecosystems. Meanwhile, in Thailand, you can volunteer in an Elephant Sanctuary and help provide refuge to domesticated elephants that have been rescued from a life of working in zoos or other establishments. Finally, you can also do conservation work in the island of Palawan in the Philippines, wherein you will assist in the restoration of a mangrove swamp.

As reports have shown, several countries in the ASEAN will be among the most to be most significantly impacted by the climate crisis. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, and declining biodiversity are just a few environmental issues that ASEAN countries are facing. On a bright side, we are also seeing many opportunities when it comes to a sustainable energy transition and sustainable finance, to name a few. It is, indeed, a big set of challenges and opportunities we are facing, which is why we need different people and organizations to work together. Green volunteering in the ASEAN is one great way to contribute towards the sustainability agenda.

Clearly, there are many opportunities to choose from in green volunteering in the ASEAN. As Helen Dyer highlighted, volunteerism is the voice of people put into action. As the climate crisis intensifies across the world, we need to translate our voices into action. One way to do this is by participating in green volunteering work.

International Volunteering Day 2021

The International Volunteering Day (IVD) 2021 is coming this December 5, and what better way to celebrate it by highlighting the initiatives taking place across the globe during the pandemic. In 2020, the United Nations (UN) reported that it had 9,459 volunteers hosted by various UN entities. These partners come from 100 different professions, 158 countries of assignment, and served with 60 UN partners worldwide. The UN also received a total of 68,173 online volunteer applications. Despite the impact of the pandemic, this did not stop the volunteers from offering their services.

The theme of IVD 2021 is “Volunteer now for our common future,” which aims to inspire people, whether they are decision makers or citizens, to take action for people and the planet. As IVD 2021 draws near, the ASEAN youth and young professionals are called on to take action and participate in green volunteering across the region.

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