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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

The impact of AUKUS against China and Russia on the security of Asia and the world

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The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia revealed the details of a joint plan aimed at establishing a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, in order to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, within the framework of the (Aukus) agreement of a defensive nuclear nature between the United States of America, Britain and Australia, which  It was announced in December 2021.  Here the question remains, about: Does the Aukus agreement qualify the world for a nuclear war between China, America and the countries allied with them? Whereas, under this agreement known as the “Aukus” agreement, Australia will receive the first nuclear-powered submarines, among at least three by the United States of America.  The allies will also work to form a new fleet that will use the latest advanced technologies, including British-made Rolls-Royce reactors.

 For its part, the United States of America strengthened its alliance with NATO countries in Europe, Japan and South Korea.  In the Asia-Pacific region, or the Indo-Pacific in the American sense, Washington strengthened the Quadruple Security Dialogue Alliance, which also includes Australia, India and Japan, and then the Aukus Nuclear Alliance with the participation of Australia and the United Kingdom.  These two steps are uncomfortable for Beijing and Moscow, which warn that such moves threaten to ignite a new cold war between all parties.  This is what was stated in the report of the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, quoting one of the speeches of Chinese President “Xi Jinping”, assuring that:

  “China and Russia need to take more joint measures to protect our security and interests more effectively, and that there is no formal alliance between the two countries.”  However, Chinese President “Xi Jinping” confirmed to his Russian counterpart, Putin, that “this relationship goes beyond even the alliance between the two parties”. Accordingly, the Chinese and Russian presidents began to form an “independent financial infrastructure”, to reduce their heavy dependence on Western banks and their exposure to punitive measures from the West. Through their proposal to hold a possible tripartite summit with India, it began with the visit of Russian President “Putin” to the capital, New Delhi, and his meeting with Indian Prime Minister “Narendra Modi”, and then the two parties’ agreement for India to obtain the S-500 missile system. All of these Russian and Chinese moves are to obstruct US influence in response to its existing alliances against them.   

 Here, China denounced the massive cooperation program, warning that the (Aukus nuclear defense agreement) between Washington, Australia and Britain represented “a wrong path and a threat to regional and international security.  China’s mission to the United Nations also accused the western allies, led by the United States, of obstructing efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Certainly, building a number of security and defense blocs of a nuclear nature, such as the Okus agreement to develop NATO’s infrastructure in the Asian region, will inevitably lead to a confrontation that will last for many years.  This was stated in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s warning of the dangers of nuclear proliferation with the nuclear propulsion submarine program launched by the United States, Australia and Britain.

 The danger of the Aukus nuclear agreement for China comes that it will be the first time ever around the world, in which three fleets sail together and in full coordination, namely the American, British and Australian fleets, across the Atlantic and Indian oceans in the Indo-Pacific region in the American concept or Asia Pacific in the Chinese concept under the slogan of preserving freedom of navigation.  It certainly raises China’s anger and fears and threatens regional security in areas of direct influence of China.  The biggest Chinese fear comes from the Okus defense nuclear agreement between the United States, Australia and Britain, given that, starting in 2027, the United States and the United Kingdom will establish a base that includes a small number of nuclear submarines in the Perth region of Western Australia, before the Australian capital, Canberra, buys three American Virginia-class submarines, with other options offered to Australia by Washington to buy two more submarines.  This threatens long and continuous confrontations between China and the signatories to the Aukus nuclear agreement, due to its impact on the safety and security of China and its immediate regional surroundings.

  Therefore, the Chinese warning came that the “Aukus Agreement” may lead to igniting an arms race in the region, with the three countries being accused of causing a setback in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. China looks with resentment, especially at the rapprochement that began in the past years in the Indo-Pacific region between the authorities of Taiwan and the United States of America, because of its decades-old military support for the island in the face of Beijing.  Chinese President “Xi Jinping” accused the United States of leading Western efforts towards “containing, encircling, and completely suppressing China”. Here came the American response to China, with reference to Beijing’s raising the concerns of several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, through its threats to invade Taiwan, which enjoys democratic rule, according to Washington, in addition to the American emphasis on the need to protect the region surrounding China, given the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea in the face of  its Japanese and South Korean neighbors and the security of the region.

 The Aukus defense nuclear agreement represents a major leap for Australia, as this step for Australia, an ally of the United States, is a major development of its military capabilities.  It became the second country after the United Kingdom to acquire Washington’s nuclear technology. The submarines are characterized by their ability to operate more and faster compared to the current fleet of diesel-powered submarines, and Australia will be able, for the first time, to launch long-range strikes against its enemies, according to the Australian perception. The Aukus agreement includes sending a group of Australian Navy personnel, starting from the current year 2023, to the American and British submarine bases for training on how to use the new nuclear submarines.  This is a major step within the “Aukus” tripartite partnership agreement signed by the three countries, “USA, Britain and Australia” in 2021.

 However, US President “Joe Biden” denied these Chinese and international accusations, stressing that the agreement aims to promote peace in the region from the American point of view, and that submarines will operate with nuclear energy and are not armed with nuclear weapons.  During his meeting with UK and Australian ministers, “Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese” in San Diego, California, he said the agreement would not jeopardize Australia’s commitment to being a nuclear-weapon-free country.

  The last analysis remains for analysts and foreign policy makers with regard to China and Russia after Washington concluded the Aukus nuclear defense agreement with Britain and Australia in the face of China and Russia mainly, that the United States of America, with its reckless behavior in the foreign arena, has brought the situation to the point that the world is about to enter into a global military and nuclear conflict between America itself on the one hand and China and Russia on the other hand through its alliances directed against them globally, such as the Aukus nuclear alliance with Britain and Australia and the Quadruple Alliance with Japan, South Korea, India and Australia.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship 2023 plays a pivotal roles on ASEAN Power Grid repercussions



Authors: I Dewa Made Raditya Margenta; Hidayatul Mustafidah Rohmawati*

Indonesia’s presidency at the next ASEAN Chairmanship may hold the key to unlocking the region’s most ambitious and promising energy project, the ASEAN Power Grid (APG) project.

This year, Indonesia will chair a multilateral meeting (again) called the 2023 ASEAN Chairmanship, with the theme of “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth.” This meeting will hone in on enhancing ASEAN’s institutional capacity and effectiveness to be a fast-growing, inclusive, and sustainable economic region. This chairmanship will also further strengthen Indonesia’s diplomatic influence following the success of the G20 Presidency in 2022.

In this year’s chairmanship, Indonesia raises three priority issues in the economic sector: recovery and rebuilding, digital economy, and sustainability. These priorities implementation is translated into 16 Priority Economic Deliverables for 2023. One of the priorities focuses on building sustainable energy security through interconnectivity and market obligation. Therefore, this is a gate opener for a more substantial commitment to the long-awaited ASEAN energy project, ASEAN Power Grid.

Quo Vadis of the ASEAN Power Grid.

The ASEAN Power Grid project is the flagship program mandated in 1997 by the ASEAN Heads of State/Governments under the ASEAN Vision 2020. The project intends to boost grid modernisation and resilience, promote clean and renewable energy integration, and increase regional multilateral electricity trading between ASEAN member states. It could also provide an electricity solution for remote or undeveloped areas inaccessible by national transmission lines.

The ASEAN Power Grid could also assist the ASEAN member states in shifting their fossil fuel dependency by optimising renewable energy sources. ASEAN is projected to need an additional 479 GW of electricity by 2040 to fuel its economy. However, all ASEAN member states have a firm reliance on fossil fuels. Currently, fossil energy is still the primary electricity source in ASEAN, around 75% of the electricity production mix.

At the same time, the electricity generated from renewable energy sources also grows annually. Besides, ASEAN has abundant renewable energy potential; 8,119GW Gross Capacity of solar and 342GW of wind. Optimising renewable energy in the project could contribute up to 112,267 million tons of CO2e and 64 thousand tons of N2O of emission reduction by 2040. It could also significantly reduce the dependence on fossil fuels around 259 million tons of coal, 11.2 million tons of oil and 77 million m3 of natural gas. The ASEAN Power Grid project, therefore, could heavily rely on renewable energy and, ultimately, intertwine the economic development and climate mitigation in the ASEAN region.

Economically, the ASEAN Power Grid can reduce the annual operational costs of the ASEAN power sector by USD 1 billion. It corresponds to a supply cost reduction of around USD 1 per MWh. Increasing the cross-border interconnection infrastructure in ASEAN has further economic advantages and can support higher percentages of renewable energy use. The annual operations costs can be cut by 4-5 billion USD.

Other benefits also include potential green jobs. It is estimated that 100,000 – 200,000 green jobs could be created in 2040 and grow up to 700,000 in a more ambitious scenario.

(De)bottleneck the problem through multilateral cooperation

However, realising the ASEAN Power Grid has to deal with numerous challenges, primarily political mistrust towards the project. Some ASEAN members highly value the ideas of nationalism and sovereignty. Besides, the concept of self-sufficiency also becomes the bottleneck of cross-border electricity trade. For instance, exporting renewable energy is prohibited in Malaysia and Indonesia. Consequently, only half of the key cross-border ASEAN Power Grid interconnections were in operation from the first announcement.

Governments often need to be made aware of the potential of regional electricity connectivity. This connectivity could close the gap between electricity supply and demand, potentially widening in the next two decades. Furthermore, the uneven distribution of natural resources endowments within regions also prohibits the accomplishment of self-sufficiency, and it needs multilateral collaboration to realise energy security.

Therefore, Indonesia’s presidency on ASEAN Chairmanship 2023 must be the perfect timing to strengthen the ASEAN’s political will on the ASEAN Power Grid. As the natural leader within ASEAN, Indonesia could optimise their influence to enhance the political trust between members. Indonesia may not want to lose the political momentum when the G20 presidency was successfully held amid unprecedented circumstances, such as the Russia-Ukraine war.

As the leader, Indonesia might encourage the development of a consistent yet adaptive intergovernmental collaboration framework in the energy sector. This commitment is crucial for risk sharing and providing a clear line in the planning and permitting. This commitment is also vital as a certainty for the multilateral or private financiers to support the project financing.

In light of the significance of the ASEAN Power Grid for the regional economy and efforts to mitigate climate risk, it will be interesting to examine Indonesia’s viewpoint and political decision in the 2023 ASEAN Chairmanship.

*Hidayatul Mustafidah Rohmawati is a research staff of Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center (PYC). She has research interest in biobased energy and green industry sectors. She completed her degree from Universitas Brawijaya, Indonesia.

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Southeast Asia

AUKUS and the U.S. Integrated Deterrence Approach

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville during a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/U.S. Navy/Flickr

The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Australia PM Anthony Albanese and American President Joe Biden met at San Diego Naval Centre on March 12, 2023 to further discuss the defence pact that involved nuclear submarine deal with Australia. The leaders announced after the talks that Australia will acquire conventionally armed, nuclear powered submarine.

AUKUS is a strategic agreement between the US, UK and Australia to deepen trilateral cooperation on defence and security capabilities announced on September 15, 2021. Initially this agreement aimed to build nuclear-powered submarines deliver to Australia, then extended to be part of the United States’ integrated deterrence approach, which seeks to deter potential adversaries through a combination of diplomatic, economic, and military tools. The integrated deterrence approach emphasizes the need for closer cooperation with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing military and economic influence. In this regard, the US is first time going to share its nuclear power technology with its ally Australia apart from UK.

Integrated Deterrence approach is adopted by the US in its National Defence Strategy released in October, 2022. Integrated deterrence seeks to integrate all tools of national power across domains, geography, and spectrum of conflict, while working with allies and partners. Moreover, the US National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy defined China as a long term threat to the US, while Russia as an immediate threat and Iran as an irritant. The US is going to integrate the capabilities of allies in countering the competitors that is going to be an actual asymmetric advantage for the US over its competitors.

The AUKUS partnership is designed to enhance the defense capabilities of Australia, particularly in the area of undersea warfare, with a key focus to deter China. By providing Australia with advanced nuclear-powered submarines, the partnership aims to increase Australia’s ability to deter potential adversaries in the region. The AUKUS partnership also involves sharing advanced military technology, including artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities, which will enhance the ability of the US and its partners to respond to emerging security threats in the region.

The announcement of the AUKUS partnership has drawn reactions from other countries, particularly China and France. China has criticized the partnership as a provocative move that will escalate tensions in the region, and called it “a blatant act of nuclear proliferation” that undermines regional peace and stability. While France has expressed disappointment and anger over Australia’s decision to cancel 66 billion dollar submarine contract with France in favor of the AUKUS partnership.

AUKUS deal also has implications for the Non-Nuclear Proliferation regime. One of the key principles of the NPT is that non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) agree not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. The transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia raises concerns about the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation, as the technology used in nuclear-powered submarines could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Some NPT states have expressed concern that the AUKUS deal could set a precedent for other countries to acquire nuclear-powered submarines or develop nuclear weapons outside of the NPT framework. Nuclear-powered submarines are different from nuclear-armed ones, but they are predicated on the military use of nuclear power. Such a move will bear serious negative implications for nuclear proliferation, damaging the NPT regime. It is so because Japan, South Korea, and other countries in the region can bid for nuclear-powered submarines. The AUKUS deal under the auspice of integrated deterrence is going to have negative consequences on Indian Ocean, it is going to not only militarized but nuclearized the Indian Ocean.

To counter the growing influence of China, India has deepen its defence cooperation with other countries in the region, such as Japan, Australia, and the US under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue which also serves integrated deterrence approach of the west. The AUKUS partnership could potentially have implications for India’s strategic interests in the region, particularly if it leads to increased tensions between the US and China. India may also be interested in acquiring advanced military technology such as nuclear powered submarine that could be made available as part of the partnership. It will initiate an arm race in South Asia endangering the already volatile strategic stability of the region.

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