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Southeast Asia

Are There Any Consequences to China’s Growing Unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

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As China grows, so too does its ambition to regain its historical status as the hegemon of Asia. It employs economic coercion, territorial expansion, and rhetorical devices to enforce its will and deference from lesser powers in the region. Naturally, China’s bellicosity has made it unpopular within domestic populations across the region, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Across Southeast Asia, the negative view of China increases in scope and intensity year after year in most countries. Despite this trend, many Southeast Asian countries publicly still employ deference to Beijing. This then begs the question: Are there any consequences to China’s growing unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

Like many countries across the world, those that make up Southeast Asia have seen an increase in its population’s negative perception of China. The ISEAS 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey Report is illuminating in this regard. Researchers found that when they asked if their respective countries are forced to align themselves with one of the two major powers- China and the US- who should they choose, a majority picked the US (61%). Importantly, those that would choose China shrunk from 46.4% in 2020 to 38.5%, despite a year of its “mask diplomacy.” When asked whether they welcome or are worried about China’s growing influence in their respective country, all were overwhelmingly worried. All but Singapore, Laos, and Malaysia (although only slightly) have grown more worried in the last year. We have seen increases in the usual suspects, Vietnam and the Philippines, yet, China’s image has become progressively hostile in some countries that it shares its closest bond with—such as Cambodia.

When reviewing Chinese behavior in the last two years, it is not difficult to understand why its perception is growingly negative. Dating far back but intensifying under President Xi Xinping, China has increasingly used its growing power to bully other states into a series of deferential relationships. Nowhere is this more true than in the South China Sea, where China has utilized a Grey Zone Strategy that increased its strategic position and control of the area incrementally without escalating the disagreement into a conflict. For example, in March of this year, China sent 220 fishing vessels to the Philippine claimed Whitsun reef, daring the Philippines to force it out, normalizing its presence there in the process. China has utilized its air force for similar purposes, including in June 2021 when China sent sixteen PLAAF aircraft to Malaysian claimed territory off its coast (Luconia and James Shoals) without communication.

China’s aggressive rhetoric by its diplomats—known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”—has also contributed to its growingly negative image. Peter Martin, author of the book: China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, describes it as a “strident and assertive —exhibiting behavior that ranges from storming out of an international meeting to shouting at foreign counterparts and even insulting foreign leaders.” For instance, in the 2021 US-China high-level talks in Alaska, the Chinese diplomats extolled the US for its alleged human right and claimed it was in no position to point out China’s abuses. Yet most examples occur on more casual platforms like Twitter, where Chinese officials hit back directly at criticism of the CCP. The most egregious example came when a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chao Lijian, accused the US of being the origin of the coronavirus, subsequently spreading it to Wuhan. This new brand of Chinese diplomacy positions itself in stark contrast to the “peaceful rise” rhetoric China pushed for years.

Normally, the justification for dealing with China’s belligerence is the benefit of an unaffected trade and investment relationship. China’s massive economy and initiatives to invest its excess in developing economies in Southeast Asia is alluring, to be sure. Yet, China conducts trade and investment in such a way that it hurts many in the domestic population. Take Laos, for example, where China is its largest investor, pouring $2 billion into over twenty-one projects in 2020 alone. Nevertheless, Chinese companies bring in a majority of the workers from China and pay the Laotians lucky enough to find work a lower salary. Even Laotians who are not involved in the projects deal with displacement and environmental degradation. Worse still, Laos is dealing with massive debt from these projects, with experts estimating its obligation to be $13.3 billion and almost three-quarters of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Yet, Southeast Asia countries are often silent to China’s benefit or publicly side with them on more significant security issues. Consider the recently signed Australian-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) nuclear submarine deal. Although it was a deal meant to balance Chinese military influence in the region, Southeast Asia’s response was either muted or outright discouraging. In total, the Philippines was the only Southeast Asia country to come out in strong support of the deal and welcomed its balancing effect on China. Malaysia and Indonesia publicly stated their worries about its consequences on great power competition and the nuclear arms race in the region. Meanwhile, Thailand remained silent, and Vietnam and Singapore were explicitly neutral while probably implicitly supporting it. A similar reaction occurred when the Quad jump-started its alliance.

Nevertheless, China faces notable consequences for its behavior across a spectrum of issue areas. With trade and investment, In 2018, newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahatir suspended all Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects after China featured prominently as the boogeyman in the 2018 election. Corruption directly connected China and the BRI projects to the maligned former Prime Minister Najib after reporters discovered that Najib accepted these projects at an inflated price in exchange for the Chinese paying off the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)- Malaysia’s state fund that was run dry due to corruption. Although subsequent Prime Ministers reinstated some of the projects, they reinstated them at a reduced price.

China has also pushed countries closer to the United States, even if it isn’t overt. Vietnam, for example, has exponentially increased its relationship with the United States since President Obama’s 2015 trip as a way to hedge against China. Following Obama’s opening up to the country, America has lifted its arms embargo, anchored multiple aircraft carriers at Vietnamese ports, had multiple high-level visits, increased its trade from $451 million in 1994 to $90 billion in 2020, and inched the bilateral relationship towards a strategic partnership. 

In the security realm we saw the Philippines abandon its China bandwagon after just four years. After Filipino President Benigno Aquino III enhanced the historically deep Philippine-American security relationship, the 2016 elected President Rodrigo Duterte quickly reversed this trend and pivoted to China. In his first official visit as President to Beijing, Duterte declared a “separation” from the United States that was “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.” Fast forward four years later when Duterte gave a speech in which he scathed China and its actions in the South China Sea. A more telling example came in February of 2021 on tour at the American Clark Air Base in Manila when Duterte admitted that the “exigency of the moment requires [the U.S.] presence” there. This endorsement of the Visiting Forces Agreement—an agreement that allowed America to station troops on Filipino territory—was a significant reversal of his previous policy to suspend the deal. Now, the Philippines’ security is as linked to the United States as it was before Duterte, while it also severely discredited the idea of band-wagoning with China. This is summed up well by the provocative title from Rand corporation’s Derek Grossman’s article, “China Has Lost the Philippines Despite Duterte’s Best Efforts.”

Aside from the Philippines, these shifts have been subtle and orchestrated so as not to draw the ire of China. Although this can be incredibly frustrating for Washington policymakers, China’s economic threat for indiscretion is a reality for Southeast Asia. Australia served as the prime example of this punitive strategy when it faced extreme Chinese tariffs after it called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Due to this reality, the United States can and should do more to assist the region economically to give Southeast Asian nations alternatives and cover from Chinese retaliation. It can also prove that it takes the region seriously on its own terms, with its own issues—not just when it conveniently fits into its competition with China. Finally, it needs to prove it is there to stay and won’t disengage after the next election, leaving it vulnerable to Chinese reprisal. Until then, the United States can expect a toned-down Southeast Asian response. Nevertheless, as China continues to overplay its hand, Southeast Asia will, albeit quietly, push back.

Vincenzo Caporale has a BA from UC Berkeley in Comparative Politics and a M.Phil from the University of Cambridge in International Relations. He is currently a feature writer at the Borgen Magazine and an editorial intern at the national interest. His work focuses on development and geopolitics in Southeast Asia. You can reach Vincenzo or follow his work on Twitter @VincenzoCIV

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Southeast Asia

Reclaiming our future

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The Asia-Pacific region is at a crossroads today – to further breakdown or breakthrough to a greener, better, safer future.

Since the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) was established in 1947, the region has made extraordinary progress, emerging as a pacesetter of global economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty.

Yet, as ESCAP celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, we find ourselves facing our biggest shared test on the back of cascading and overlapping impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging conflicts and the climate crisis.  

Few have escaped the effects of the pandemic, with 85 million people pushed back into extreme poverty, millions more losing their jobs or livelihoods, and a generation of children and young people missing precious time for education and training.

As the pandemic surges and ebbs across countries, the world continues to face the grim implications of failing to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C – and of continuing to degrade the natural environment. Throughout 2021 and 2022, countries across Asia and the Pacific were again battered by a relentless sequence of natural disasters, with climate change increasing their frequency and intensity.

More recently, the rapidly evolving crisis in Ukraine will have wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts, with higher prices for fuel and food increasing food insecurity and hunger across the region.

Rapid economic growth in Asia and the Pacific has come at a heavy price, and the convergence of these three crises have exposed the fault lines in a very short time. Unfortunately, those hardest hit are those with the fewest resources to endure the hardship. This disproportionate pressure on the poor and most vulnerable is deepening and widening inequalities in both income and opportunities.

The situation is critical. Many communities are close to tipping points beyond which it will be impossible to recover. But it is not too late.

The region is dynamic and adaptable.

In this richer yet riskier world, we need more crisis-prepared policies to protect our most vulnerable populations and shift the Asia-Pacific region back on course to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as the target year of 2030 comes closer — our analysis shows that we are already 35 years behind and will only attain the Goals in 2065.

To do so, we must protect people and the planet, exploit digital opportunities, trade and invest together, raise financial resources and manage our debt.

The first task for governments must be to defend the most vulnerable groups – by strengthening health and universal social protection systems. At the same time, governments, civil society and the private sector should be acting to conserve our precious planet and mitigate and adapt to climate change while defending people from the devastation of natural disasters.

For many measures, governments can exploit technological innovations. Human activities are steadily becoming “digital by default.” To turn the digital divide into a digital dividend, governments should encourage more robust and extensive digital infrastructure and improve access along with the necessary education and training to enhance knowledge-intensive internet use.

Much of the investment for services will rely on sustainable economic growth, fueled by equitable international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). The region is now the largest source and recipient of global FDI flows, which is especially important in a pandemic recovery environment of fiscal tightness.

While trade links have evolved into a complex noodle bowl of bilateral and regional agreements, there is ample scope to further lower trade and investment transaction costs through simplified procedures, digitalization and climate-smart strategies. Such changes are proving to be profitable business strategies. For example, full digital facilitation could cut average trade costs by more than 13 per cent.

Governments can create sufficient fiscal space to allow for greater investment in sustainable development. Additional financial resources can be raised through progressive tax reforms, innovative financing instruments and more effective debt management. Instruments such as green bonds or sustainability bonds, and arranging debt swaps for development, could have the highest impacts on inclusivity and sustainability.

Significant efforts need to be made to anticipate what lies ahead. In everything we do, we must listen to and work with both young and old, fostering intergenerational solidarity. And women must be at the centre of crisis-prepared policy action.

This week the Commission is expected to agree on a common agenda for sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific, pinning the aspirations of the region on moving forward together by learning from and working with each other.

In the past seven-and-a-half decades, ESCAP has been a vital source of know-how and support for the governments and peoples of Asia and the Pacific. We remain ready to serve in the implementation of this common agenda.

To quote United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “the choices we make, or fail to make today, will shape our future. We will not have this chance again.”

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Southeast Asia

Return of the Marcos and Great-Power Competition

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PNA photo by Joey O. Razon

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., more commonly known as “Bongbong,” won an outright majority in the recent presidential election in the Philippines. Son and name-bearer of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos paved the way for the country’s most notorious political dynasty’s shocking return to power. In the words of Filipino columnist Benjamin Pimentel, “It’s as if Kylo Ren emerged and the Empire is back in power.”

In announcing his desire to work for all people, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the world should judge him based on his presidency, not his family’s past.

“To those who voted for Bongbong, and those who did not, it is his promise to be a president for all Filipinos. To seek common ground across political divides, and to work together to unite the nation.” saidVictor Rodriguez, spokesperson for Marcos, in a statement.

However, the pragmatic words seem to have failed to sway the opposition as he faces countless accusations of election irregularities. Their opponents are horrified by Marcos’ brazen attempt to reinvent historical narratives from his family’s era in power. A protest against Marcos was staged by approximately 400 people outside the election commission on 10th May, primarily by students.

Human rights group Karapatan urged Filipinos to reject Marcos’ new presidency, which it sees as a product of lies and disinformation designed “to deodorise the Marcoses’ detestable image”.

HISTORY OF MARCOS: People Power” Uprising

Ferdinand Marcos Jr is not a new name in the Philippines’ political scenario. The “bloodless revolution” of 1986 in the Philippines that ousted the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was none other than Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s father.

The world leaders at the time praised the mass demonstration after hundreds of thousands marched along EDSA streets to protest a fraudulent election. Through the People Power” Uprising, Filipinos proved that a peaceful uprising can challenge a ruthless dictatorship and overthrow military rule.

Marcos Jr and his family escaped to Hawaii following the rebellion and after his return to the Philippines in 1991, Marcos Jr served in congress and the senate. With his return to the Malacañang Palace in 2022, the world anxiously watches whether history will repeat itself or democracy will prevail as Marcos Jr. relentlessly defends his father’s legacy, refusing to apologise or acknowledge the atrocities, plunder, cronyism, and extravagant living, which resulted in billions of dollars of state wealth disappearing during the dictatorship.

MARCOS JR’S FOREIGN POLICY: Continuity or Change?

Considering his political alignment with Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing President, who has been exceedingly vocal about his anti-Washington, pro-China stance, it is no secret Marcos Jr. favours Beijing. According to Richard Heydarian, a South China Sea observer and professor of political science, “Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. is the only candidate who has signalled almost perfect continuity with the incumbent populist pro-China president in Malacañang.”

However, Marcos Jr seems to be a President that might play the game more strategically compared to his successor. Among Marcos’s many accolades for his father, one was maintaining a strong security alliance with Washington. Even though, he is politically aligned with Duterte who sought to pivot away from the United States and towards China, Marcos will seek a balancing act. Philippines under Marcos will continue engaging with China, in-line with Duterte’s Pro-China Policy but at the same time will engage, and even bolster a closer tie with the USA, to safeguard Philippines’ sovereignty amidst an aggressively rising China.

When asked if he would ask the American’s help in dealing with China, Marcos Jr said, “No. The problem is between China and us. If the Americans come in, it’s bound to fail because you are putting the two protagonists together.” This statement shows a sense of maturity and solid understanding of the ground realties of the region. Marcos Jr. seems to be the President that keeps his country’s national interest at the very core of all his decisions. He understands how easy it is for a small country to be stuck in the middle of a great-power competition, and that more often and not, it harms the small country’s interests. He envisions Manila as neither heavily dependent on Washington for its security needs nor become a pawn in China’s greater geopolitical ambitions. He wants to have an independent foreign policy, regardless of deepening U.S.-Chinese competition. One that predominantly benefits his country, Philippines.

In contrast to Duterte, Marcos Jr has a very warm and embracing approach towards the USA. Being treaty allies, Marcos Jr refers to their alliance as “a very important one.” He maintained that the alliance “has stood us in good stead for over a hundred years and that will never disappear from the Philippine psyche, the idea and the memory of what the United States did for us and fought with us in the last war.”

Marcos Jr seems to be a realist who understands that in International Politics, states must “engage whenever possible, and contain wherever necessary.” On asked about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, he argued that “Philippines will not cede any one square inch to any country, particularly China, but will continue to engage and work on our national interest.”

To summarise, Marcos will, in all probability, modify Duterte’s foreign policy in a way that maximizes the strategic benefits for the Philippines and avoids confrontation with the USA and China.

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Southeast Asia

President Ho Chi Minh’s reflections about international peace

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President Ho Chi Minh had a dissimilar way of approaching international peace, and he held a view that the way western nations look into revolution and resurgence, particularly in colonial era, was different from what the people aspired. He took note of developments in colonial societies particularly when Turkish women were protesting against the invasion of Western nations and imperialism, and referred to Indian women protests against British domination way back in 1912. In fact, writing way back in 1918, he stated that the defence of India act was the suppression of genuine domestic grievances because it provided the right to arrest and detain suspected Indians. He was always very supportive of the workers and peasants’ movement across the world.

While congratulating the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru on organising the Asian relations conference, he stated that China and India were the big brothers of Vietnam and the most ancient civilizations.  Writing way back in March 25th 1947, he opined that solidarity will make the three countries the mightiest defenders forwards peace and democracy. He argued that Vietnam was aspiring for unification and independence, and hoped that the Asian countries will come to their support. He stated that it is pertinent for the neighbours to have friendly relations, and alluding to the five principles (Panchsheela) of Nehru-Chau Enlai joint statement, he added that the five major principles which were enlisted in the joint statement between China and India, and Myanmar and China need to be replicated in the larger Asian context.

After the conclusion of the war with French in 1954, he clearly stated that the major challenges for Vietnam was proper implementation of the Geneva accords and sustaining the economy to upgrade the living standards of the people of Vietnam. Responding to a question asked by a journalist related to Geneva accords implementation in Vietnam, he stated that France being a major country and a colonial power, it is pertinent that the ceasefire agreement is implemented fully and this will ensure trust between the signatories. It is also important that scrupulousness in such kind of agreement so as to bring about peace and tranquillity.

He had time and again alluded to the five Panchsheela principles whenever he was giving any interview to the journalists and scholars. He clearly stated that there is need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, refrain from violation of each other’s territorial borders, non-interference in internal affairs, equal treatment for mutual benefits and peaceful coexistence. He opined that taking inspiration from India-China agreement, Vietnam would be willing to implement a similar kind of five principles with other countries, primarily Cambodia and Laos. Related to the illegal occupation of Goa by Portugal, he criticized the illegal occupation of Goa by Portuguese and the support that the US has provided to Portugal for continuing illegal occupation.

He talked about solidarity among Asian and African people and stated that for peace to exist the Geneva agreement should be implemented in full. After the first Indochina war, he stated that it is important that the peace as per the provisions of Panchsheela should be implemented at all levels. He has always alluded to Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi while talking about peace, clearly demarcating the role of culture and religion in maintaining peace. He was clearly against western imperialism and occupation of territories by force by any major power. He was also very clear and in one of the letters written on the eve of an interview given to New Delhi people in India, he clearly specified that the situation of world development particularly after the independence of many developing countries was beneficial for the peace movement. He stated that more than 1200 million Asian African people were in the line of peaceful forces and these people were liberated including those in erstwhile Soviet Union and other socialist countries. He lauded the role played by Asian African countries in peace protection and always supported fight against colonialism and Asian people’s solidarity. He was completely against military race, prohibition against nuclear weapons and hydrogen bomb, dismissing aggressive military forces and demolishment of military bases in foreign countries.

His views with regard to arms reduction and working together to reduce the scourge of nuclear bomb were very specific. While responding to the welcome address during the banquet dinner hosted by president of India Rajendra Prasad in 1958, he stated that “the pugnacious forces has been conspiring to push the mankind to the destruction of war. They are ceaselessly fighting to keep and consoled at peace, India made a big contribution. Peaceful forces are more powerful able to prevent the war but the pugnacious forces do not give up their conspiracy to wage their war.” He was really appreciative of any of the peace initiatives undertaken by any country and he has repeatedly thanked international committee which was chaired by India for supervising and controlling Geneva accord implementation in Vietnam.

President Ho Chi Minh was appreciative of the fact that the essence of Buddhism and culture would strengthen the spirit of love towards the country, national solidarity, and bring about cultural essence which will bring closer the eastern and western cultures. He stated that in terms of Buddhism the core philosophy is peace and the construction of the country.

President Ho Chi Minh was specifically influenced by Buddhism and he had stated that the people should practice the life of holy learning and Buddhist simplicity. Even though president Ho Chi Minh did not write and reflected about Buddhism but his life and career were intertwined with the core philosophy of Buddhism. He was very much interested in implementing the idea of peaceful humanity under Buddhism and ushering in Buddhist consciousness in every society. Ho Chi Minh had an idea that the human affection would help in self-improving human ethics and closer bonding with a larger population. Ho Chi Minh’s ideology included mercy, non-egoism, altruism, self-improvement, exercise of moral ethics, and solidarity spirit among masses. The acknowledgement of Buddhism as the core fundamental of life was slowly acknowledged by the Vietnamese people too and as per Ho Chi Minh, he had acquired the Buddhist ideas from family, national tradition, and the Buddhist way for liberating the country.

Taken into cognizance President Ho Chi Minh objective of peace, he was very much concerned with regard to ethics, solidarity, guaranteeing supreme benefits of the nation, bestowing rights and benefits to the people and ingrained self-consciousness which would bring about sincere affectionate, straightforward introspection. This will help in self-criticizing and unifying characters for the larger benefit of the society. He stated that the national solidarity should be in Sync with the international solidarity. In this context it is important to reflect on the Russia Ukraine crisis and he has been very instrumental in referring to Mahatma Gandhi for his approach towards peace and self-suffering. However, Ho Chi Minh was very attached to this concept of abhorrence of repression of the people and was very critical of any kind of imperialism which would subdue people from realising their ambitions and goals. Ukraine crisis also shows a new kind of geopolitics which will define the world order but he was also critical of the fact that international solidarity should be progressive and aspire for a long-lasting peace.

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