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Southeast Asia

How Biden Should Embrace Indonesia



Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Such a huge challenge must be faced by Washington, Beijing has succeeded in becoming a major player in the Southeast Asian region through economic cooperation. From a report submitted by the Atlantic Council in 2021, in the 1980s Southeast Asia was Washington’s territory, however, in 2021 things turned around, Beijing succeeded in taking over Washington’s influence as in Indonesia.

It should be noted that the relationship between Indonesia and the United States has been established since 1949 through the recognition of Indonesia’s independence. However, relations between the two countries experienced ups and downs, during the Cold War Indonesia was one of the pawns important for the US to prevent the influence of communism in Southeast Asia, until the tension caused by President Soeharto’s policy in East Timor which caused an arms embargo for Indonesia for 10 years. During the Trump administration, relations between the two countries were strained again, Trump had never visited Indonesia during his 4 years of administration, and during the pandemic the assistance provided by America was very limited. Therefore, this role was taken over by China.

Proximity to China

The Indonesian government has a very close relationship with China. In 2020 China will become Indonesia’s main trading partner with a total of 72.8 billion dollars. In fact, this figure is far beyond the US which is only able to contribute 27 billion dollars. China managed to become the second largest investor in Indonesia after Singapore, this investment was carried out in 2,130 projects with a total of 4.8 billion dollars. Indonesia was part of the BRI (Belt And Road Initiative) project in 2013 and the AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) in 2014.

The closeness between Indonesia and China was accompanied by various problems. According to a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020, Indonesia’s democracy is at its lowest position in 14 years, with only getting a score of 6.3 and located in the flawed democracy category. One of the factors that makes Indonesia’s democracy index low is the government’s policy which is quite repressive towards Islamic groups.

The Jokowi administration itself is quite harsh on several Islamic groups that are not in line with it. From an article published by the East Asia Forum, it is stated that people and groups who tend to support values ​​such as the caliphate will be classified as radical groups. And those involved will get punishment in the form of dismissal from work to being thrown into prison. It was proven by the revocation of the operating license of the HTI organization (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia) and the arrest of Eggi Sudjana who was one of the initiators of the 212 action. This fear stems from protests against hate speech committed by the former governor of Jakarta in 2016.

Islamic groups such as the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) ) firmly criticized Jokowi and China’s policies. On March 6, 2020 in front of the ChinaEmbassy in Jakarta, the FPI mass held a demonstration by saying that “Brothers and sisters, try to imagine when China was ravaged by Corona, he (Jokowi) telephoned the China president (saying) we would help. Uighurs are slaughtered in silence, when Indian Muslims are slaughtered in silence, when Rohingya Muslims are slaughtered in silence, it is China’s turn to be attacked by corona, we are ready to help, that’s the president, gentlemen.”

President Jokowi’s closeness to China has made Indonesia very careful about issues involving China. Jokowi, who tends to hold back when Muslims in Uighurs are being tortured by the China government. Even though the majority of Indonesian people are adherents of the Islamic religion, Jokowi’s actions should be in line with the aspirations of the people.

China is increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea.

The close relationship in the economic sector is not followed by the defense sector. Since 2014, China has massively and systematically built a military base containing buildings, missile systems, and seven airfields in the South China Sea. China argues that the South China Sea is China’s sovereign territory, this is based on historical claims in the 15th century when the China navy sailed the area and this area had been abandoned by Japan after the second world war. The South China Sea is a very important region, 30% of world trade passes through this region, there are 10% of the world’s fish reserves, 11 billion barrels of oil, 109 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Indonesia does not have sovereignty in the South China Sea. However, Indonesia has sovereign rights in the form of an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in the waters of North Natuna. China openly claims this area as part of its own, therefore since 2016 the China government has provided protection for fishing vessels entering the North Natuna area, as well as conducting patrols using Coast Guard vessels. This caused tensions for both countries, in the first conducted with the Malaysian Prime Minister in February 2021 Jokowi stated “I emphasize that stability will be created including in the South China Sea if all countries respect international law, especially UNCLOS (UN Conference on the Law of the Sea) 1982.” As well as a firm stance by making diplomatic calls and lobbying with the US carried out by Defense Minister Prabowo at the end of 2020.

Steps Biden Must Take

There is still a chance for Washington to be able to reverse the situation, from a survey conducted by ISEAS, in 2021 people in ASEAN prefers Washington over Beijing as its main partner country with a percentage of 60.5%. And 76.3% feel that Beijing is a real threat to the Southeast Asia region. In Indonesia, the sentiment towards China in the Jokowi government is getting bigger, the narrative used by the opposition is that the Jokowi government is too submissive to China. And the bad sentiment that grew in Indonesian society as a result of the rebellion carried out by the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) in 1965 is still holding strong.

The decline in Indonesia’s democracy index could be an opportunity for Biden to strengthen the narrative that democracy is currently facing a real threat from authoritarianism. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the current administration seeks to strengthen America at home and abroad. So in order to achieve this goal the government tries to re-promote democracy, however, the methods used will not be the same as in the past which focused on overthrowing authoritarian regimes or the use of military intervention which was very expensive. This will be manifested in the form of democratic behavior through reforms, the cancellation of bad laws and eradicating corruption. Even though it must be realized that the democratic narrative is only used if it is in the interests of America.

In the book Trump vs China by Newt Gingrich, Grinch argues that the world should be aware that all investments made by China companies come from the approval of the China Communist Party (CCP). Therefore it can be interpreted that all investments made by China companies are in accordance with the objectives of the China Communist Party. Biden must be aware that if China’s investment in Indonesia gets bigger it will be followed by the influence of the China Communist Party, increasing economic cooperation is a realistic choice and must be accompanied by a strong commitment.

And finally, Biden must convince Indonesia that the US will become a strong ally in the South China Sea. Increasing the purchase of weapons is an obligation, regular military training must be increased so that there is a sense of security. America and its allies began to move massively in the South China Sea through cooperation between the US, UK and Australia which manifested in the form of AUKUS (cooperation to purchase nuclear submarines). Although on the one hand this is a threat to Indonesia.

Southeast Asia

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



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



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



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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