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How much is religious soft power worth? Jokowi searches for answers in Abu Dhabi

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An Indonesian promise to work with the United Arab Emirates to promote ‘moderate’ Islam raises questions of what constitutes moderation and how it can best be achieved.

The pledge, made by Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a three-day visit to the UAE to solicit Emirati investment in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state, potentially puts on the spot a government coalition partner and the government’s foremost ally in projecting Indonesia as an icon of moderate Islam.

It also raises the question of whether Mr. Widodo will compromise Indonesia’s unique advantage in its rivalry with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran over who will define moderate Islam in the 21st century in exchange for funding and investment.

Indonesia and the UAE signed US$23 billion worth of agreements during a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to the Southeast Asian island state in 2019. The agreements included a $270-million liquefied petroleum gas project and a $3-billion long-term deal on naphtha supply.

More recently, the UAE said in March that it would invest US$10 billion in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund. Last month, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority said it would commit $400 million to GoTo Group, Indonesia’s biggest internet firm, in advance of its initial public offering.

Dubai’s port management and logistic giant DP World last week signed an agreement with the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) to explore investment in port infrastructure in Indonesia.

Mr. Jokowi hopes that Prince Mohammed’s agreement to chair a committee that will oversee the construction of a new Indonesian capital at an estimated cost of $34 billion will translate into Emirati co-funding,

The two countries have also explored closer defence cooperation with the exchange of defence attaches, discussion of potential cooperation on the manufacturing of drones, weapons, and munitions,  and collaboration in aerospace and cross-training in counterterrorism operations, and possible Indonesian support for Emirati  security engagement in Africa’s Sahel region.

“Our relationship with the UAE is not just like friends; we are like brothers,” Mr. Jokowi told the state-controlled Emirates News Agency. “I see that religious moderation and diversity in the UAE are widely respected. And that is the area of cooperation we would like to explore more because we both share the closeness in the vision and characters of moderate Islam that propagates tolerance.”

Mr. Jokowi’s eagerness to work with the UAE on religious issues raises questions about the relationship between Mr. Jokowi’s quest for religious soft power and his search for foreign investment.

Ameem Lutfi, a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, cautions that Gulf state investment involves “risks that…may be tied to political leverage.”

Mr. Lutfi notes that countries like the UAE seek to expand their influence in Muslim majority countries in Asia to bolster their bids for leadership of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, the UAE encounters one of its foremost, albeit understated, religious soft power rivals that has demonstrated its wherewithal in the absence of comparable financial muscle.

Mr. Jokowi’s visit came months after ground was broken in Solo in Central Java of a US$20 million replica of Abu Dhabi’s  Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the founder of the UAE. The project was unusual given that until now it was the Saudis who built grand mosques celebrating their rulers in world capitals such as Brussels and Islamabad.

Mr. Jokowi did not spell out what religious cooperation would entail but Indonesian news reports at the time of Prince Mohammed’s visit suggested it would involve sharing expertise in Quran memorization, translation and publication; promoting discussions among scholars, politicians and academics on ways to strengthen religious moderation and cooperating on the development of digital education programs for madrassas or religious seminaries.

Mr. Jokowi’s eagerness to cooperate with the UAE on religious issues is remarkable given that his government has effectively outsourced Indonesia’s religious soft power efforts to Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement. It takes on added significance with this year’s Indonesian chairmanship of the G-20 that groups the world’s foremost economies. The G-20 includes an inter-faith tack.

Nahdlatul Ulama is represented in Mr. Jokowi’s government by its political party, National Awakening Party (PKB). In addition, Mr. Jokowi’s vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, and religious affairs minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, are prominent Nahdlatul Ulama figures. Recent appointments of Indonesian ambassadors in key world capitals have included several people associated with the movement.

In what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to shape the faith between Middle Eastern and Asian states, Nahdlatul Ulama emphasises notions of religious moderation that contrast starkly with those for which the UAE has earned credit. Nahdlatul Ulama advocates a multi-religious and pluralistic democracy, a full and unconditional embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reform of Islamic jurisprudence.

For its part, the UAE has indeed liberalized social mores including non-marital cohabitation, alcohol consumption and religious tolerance but rejects democracy as a form of governance and recognizes only parts of the universal human rights declaration. Instead, the UAE propagates an interpretation of the faith that demands absolute obedience to the ruler.

Moreover, the country’s constitution recognizes Islam as the religion of the state and Sharia as a major legal inspiration. At the same time, the UAE, unlike Nahdlatul Ulama, has steered clear of seeking to anchor its reforms in religious law and jurisprudence.

Mr. Jokowi’s straddling of his relationships with Nahdlatul Ulama and the UAE when it comes to religion and religious soft power may be complicated by criticism of Mr. Jokowi’s adherence to democratic principles.

“The president’s assaults on democracy are manifold,” thundered The Economist. It pointed to steps to suppress dissident voices, including assertion of the power to disband civil-society organisations on national-security grounds, the levelling of criminal charges against online critics, and the blocking of websites. The magazine further charged that Mr. Jokowi “surrounded himself with generals and relies ever more on the armed forces to help execute domestic policy, such as in increasing rice production.”

Alexander R. Arifianto, an Indonesia scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, sounded a similar note saying that Nahdlatul Ulama’s alignment with Mr. Jokowi had left it “vulnerable to criticisms for aligning itself with a government that is increasingly dismantling Indonesia’s democratic political institutions.”

Given the group’s public commitment to freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and pluralism, Mr. Arifianto argued that Nahdlatul Ulama “should…reflect on steps to uphold its commitment to these moderate Islamic and democratic values, regardless of whether its policy preferences align with those of Indonesia’s current ruling regime.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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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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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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