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Southeast Asia

Beyond China Containment: On the US’s Recommitment to ASEAN



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The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin became the first high-ranking official to visit Southeast Asia during Biden’s presidency. His last month’s visit to Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines sent a message that the US is willing to renew its ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states. The visit that followed by the US attendance in ASEAN Regional Forum seems to allay the long-held suspicion over the US’s commitment to the region. When President Biden took the office, among the most pertinent question from ASEAN leaders was whether the United States will reengage the region, given lack of trust caused by the previous administration.

A Renewed the US-ASEAN Relations?

ASEAN’s apprehension is understandable; during four years of Trump administration, the US was virtually absent in the region. Its approach to ASEAN was characterized by lack of engagement and tough anti-China rhetoric that put ASEAN into a quagmire. One of the most jarring snubs was during the 35th ASEAN Summit in 2019, when the US only sent low-level delegations in the event that was attended by head of state from ASEAN dialogue partners, including Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Indian PM Narendra Modi, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The summit ultimately casted doubt over reliability of the US from its partners in Southeast Asia; the question that lingers for many observers, at least until recently.

Austin’s three-nation tour was preceded by another dialogue from the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when he attended the Special ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on July 14th. Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of Center for Strategic and International Studies observed that this move constitutes an effort to “let the region know that the US still sees it as very important.” This action is welcomed by many ASEAN leaders. During the meetings, both Austin and Blinken voiced concern over China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and COVID-19 pandemic mitigation in the region. At a glance, their visits show the continuity of China containment policy from the previous administration. However, major differences are worth noting.

Same Goal, Different Approach

While there’s a continuity in though China policy, Biden’s administration took a more constructive approach by going beyond a mere containment. The current strategy fills the gaps that were left by Trump policy: partners and multilateralism. During the previous administration, the US policy was strongly navigated by anti-China rhetoric that forced ASEAN countries to choose between siding with the US or China. Moreover, the US limited engagement was also driven only by the focus to counter China, while sidelining other constructive dialogues. Such an approach is self-defeating in the end, for ASEAN countries has long been steadfast to not getting mired into great power competition in the region. The more the US incites its great powers politics, the less ASEAN appeals to it.

The new administration seemingly, and finally, realizes that siding with the US or China is never an option for ASEAN.  Under Biden, the US acknowledges the indispensability of ASEAN in regional affairs, including the Indo-Pacific that gained prominence under Trump’s policy. In many official speeches, the US now supports the notion of “ASEAN centrality,” alluding to the indispensability of Southeast Asian countries. As such, the US’s China policy is now focused on building strong relationship with ASEAN countries, rather than viewing it merely as a “pawn” on geopolitical chessboard to defeat China. The US needs to “quickly and clearly abandon Manichean language of ‘us-versus-them’ and instead engage Southeast Asia on its own term,” wrote Sebastian Strangio in The Diplomat, reflecting the same concern since Trump’s administration.

This renewed approach seemingly gained favorable outcomes. During Austin’s visit to Manila in July 30th, the US was able to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (FMA) that allows the mobilization of the US forces in and out of the Philippines. China’s incursion at Whitsun Reef, the Philippines’ maritime territory on South China Sea, may push the country to such take move, after President Duterte previously threatened to terminate the agreement. However, Biden’s approach also merits the praise. The new administration also expected to garner positive image after other visits by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand earlier in May.

Biden administration also took similar approach in multilateral fora. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), for instance, the security cooperation between the US, Japan, India, and Australia. The Quad was initially viewed as the US’s “anti-China coalition” and will replace the prominence of ASEAN in the region. The Quad during Biden now took a more constructive approach; not only by focusing on more pressing issues such as vaccine distribution and alternative source for supply chains, but also reiterating support for ASEAN in many of its official statement.

Even the Quad Summit in March, which previously predicted to be the culmination of the US’s China containment, was unexpectedly ended up with a rather cooperative tone: the China name is not mentioned and the grouping also reiterated their support for the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP), Southeast Asian own conception of Indo-Pacific that put ASEAN at the center. The US’s acknowledgement gives a message that it will recommit itself in the region. In short, the objective to offset China’s influence remains a bipartisan issue among the US policy makers. However, the new administration is able to undertake a more constructive approach to attain the objective.

Lots of Work to be done

With the Vice President Kamala Harris scheduled to visit Vietnam and Singapore next month, the US’s recommitment is seemingly forthcoming for ASEAN. However, several criticism arises, directed against Biden’s rather belated action. Quoting The Diplomat columnist Derek Grossman from Twitter, he said that it took Biden “nearly six months to do anything substantive.” Moreover, Biden until now has not yet called any leader from Southeast Asia after a half year of his presidency. One editorial from Jakarta Post also voiced Biden’s snub, arguing that the new administration only focused on countries that can join its “anti-China coalition,” after Indonesia was singled out from Austin’s visit. If dissuading ASEAN from China is concerned, the US’s diplomatic moves still fall short compared to that of China.

Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi has visited nine of ten ASEAN countries since October last year, whereas it took six months after Biden took office to only visit three. On another comparison, China also directly hosted the Special China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chonqing last June, while the US “only ” attended the meeting virtually. Irrespective of the COVID-19 pandemic, this juxtaposition clearly shows the US’s commitment is still far-fetched compared to that of China, if the competition between two countries is the sole concern.

Despite the late administration’s faulty strategy, and belated fixing by its successor, ASEAN countries still reserve a remarkable degree of trust to the US.  The 2021 survey by Singapore-based think-tank ISEAS Yushof-Ishak Institute revealed that 64.5% respondents of ASEAN countries’ elites still prefer the US as their partner, compared to 38.5% that opted for China, given a binary option between two countries. This means that the declining trust towards the US is not irreversible. There are lots of avenue where the US can amend for ASEAN and simultaneously offset China’s influence on the processes, such as vaccine distribution, high-quality investment, and at minimum, more engagement in ASEAN fora.

The most of Biden’s recommitment is anticipated in the upcoming ASEAN Summit, the event that Trump had skipped for three consecutive years during his administration. As Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator, said, “For an effective Asia strategy, for an effective Indo-Pacific approach, you must do more in Southeast Asia.” The US still have lots of work to achieve its best strategy in Southeast Asia and, no less important, to achieve regional order that also anchors ASEAN.

Assistant Lecturer at Dept. of International Relations, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. His study focuses on regional security and China-Southeast Asia relations.

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys



Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Southeast Asia

Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma



With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific



In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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