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Southeast Asia

How the Vietnamese History Constrains its Policy Choices Today



Recently, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Center released its annual State of Southeast Asia Report that, among other things, found Vietnamese distrust of China remains very high. Given Chinese actions in the South China Sea and the long history between the two countries, why the negative view of China is so prevalent is well understood. What is less understood is how the intersection of Chinese action and Vietnamese history and nationalism constrain Vietnamese foreign policy choices today regarding China.

Following its conquest of Saigon after the Vietnamese and American war in 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) took over control of the entire Vietnamese country for the first time. As the party began rebuilding its nation, it also needed to develop ruling legitimacy. An element of the legitimacy of the CPV has always been it as defenders of Vietnamese independence. A sturdy defense against the French, Americans, and the Chinese cemented the CPV’s defender status. As Martin Grobheim argues, “Since the [CPV] embarked on its reform policy (đổi mới) in 1986, the party and its ‘memory machine’ have continued to disseminate an orthodox master narrative that presents the VCP as the inheritor of Vietnam’s tradition of resistance against foreign invaders.” Along with performance-based legitimacy that is supported by continued economic growth, this perception is at the core of its legitimacy, and reinforced by the “dissemination of an orthodox master narrative.”

The CPV’s embracing of the mantle of defenders of Vietnamese independence from foreign incursions is important because this narrative holds special relevance in Vietnamese history. Since BC 111, Vietnam has dealt with constant attacks by foreign invaders. In BC 111, China’s first domination of Vietnam began when the Han dynasty marched south and conquered the country. Besides moments where Vietnam briefly regained independence (40 AD- 43 AD and 544 AD- 602 AD), China would rule Vietnam for over a thousand years. It wasn’t until 939 AD when Ngo Quyen defeated the Chinese force and regained Vietnamese independence. This independence would last until 1400 AD when the Chinese re-established control of the country for only twenty-seven years. Following this brief period, Vietnam would again experience freedom until the French came in 1845. In the next 140 years, France and Japan would each control it for a period while it fought off foreign incursions from the French, Japanese, Americans, and Chinese. National identity—and nationalism—forged by the defense of its independence and especially against China has driven its history.

With this history of struggle against Chinese imperialism, when the Chinese invasion of 200,000 troops killed between 20,000 and 50,000 Vietnamese, China was the nation that modern-day Vietnamese nationalism defined itself in opposition. This is clear in its modern-day culture. For example, as Bill Hayton discusses in his book Vietnam: Rising Dragon, a children’s folk song used in the 1970s to promote harmony between Vietnamese and Chinese, was changed in the late 1980s from focusing on affinities with its northern neighbor to China’s imperialist nature towards Vietnam. The CPV has further embedded this view of China in the cultural ethos by focusing the national history curriculum on Vietnamese figures who resisted Chinese invasions. Similarly, streets and buildings have been named after them, like the Trung Sisters, who repelled a Chinese invasion in 40AD, or Ly Thuong Kiet, who fought the Sung Empire in 1076. A anti-Chinese sentiment is now palpable across Vietnamese culture.

Chinese actions have only solidified this nationalist view of them as an imperial power ambitious for Vietnamese territory since 1979. China’s dubious claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, the islands, and the resources within—including the Paracel and Spratly islands which China and Vietnam both claim —plays an essential role in reinforcing this perception of China. Chinese actions in the South China Sea have included an array of threatening tactics such as island building, maritime patrols in other countries’ exclusive economic zones while harassing foreign fishermen, and building military installations equipped with missile systems and other equipment.

China has not been shy in enforcing its territorial claims with Vietnam. For example, in 1988, Chinese vessels rammed three Vietnamese ships, sinking them and killing seventy-four Vietnamese soldiers. Since then, China has maintained its assertive tactics in the South China Sea, notably, Vietnamese-specific incidents including a 2014 oil rig collision near the Paracel Islands and a six-month standoff between Vietnam, China, and Malaysia in 2020.

With this historical backdrop as context, the modern-day distrust of China is as high as it is with the Vietnamese is better understood. The previously mentioned ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Center annual State of Southeast Asia Report illustrates this reality. The survey found that an overwhelming 73 percent of Vietnamese would align with the United States over China if forced to choose. Similarly, it found that 80 percent of Vietnamese are worried about China’s growing influence in the region.

History may not play a determinate role, but it certainly amplifies the reactions to Chinese action—particularly when it threatens Vietnamese territory or autonomy. Consider the May 2014 incident in which China stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese claimed territory in the South China Sea, igniting a severe reaction within the Vietnamese populous. Shortly after China’s bold move and a couple of escalatory actions by both sides, rioters began targeting foreign factories and foreign workers. Specifically, they targeted ethnically Chinese workers and factories. For example, a 1,000 person mob overran a Taiwanese steel plant attacking Chinese workers and setting the place ablaze. Violent groups burned down fifteen foreign national factories, and mobs attacked hundreds more in southern Vietnam. Signs carried by protestors were full of references to China and the South China Sea disputes (or the East China Sea as Vietnam refers to it), while some protested directly in front of the Chinese embassy. Reportedly, over 600 Chinese nationals fled the country.

As the Guardian reported, these groups were not just directing protests at China but the CPV for not doing enough to safeguard Vietnamese territory. The CPV is aware that China and independence animate Vietnamese nationalism and are conscious to ensure that its ire isn’t directed at them.

As a result, the distinct form of nationalism that is hyper-sensitive to maintaining territorial security and strategic autonomy has had a constraining effect on Vietnam’s policy choices—particularly with Chinese investment. For example, in 2018, the Vietnamese government considered a policy that would grant foreign investors a ninety-nine-year lease in three economic zones to incentivize investment. Again, this fear sparked widespread fears of losing autonomy to a more extensive Chinese influence and presence in Vietnam. After pressure from massive and passionate protests across the country, the National Assembly shelved the bill indefinitely.

Similarly, the North-South Expressway project is a key infrastructure initiative that seeks to connect the whole of Vietnam in a radically new way. Starting in 2005, the government developed a plan to build 5,870 km of expressway by 2020, but the government had only developed 1,163 km by then. As Doan Loan explains, “Explaining the slow progress, the ministry has cited the country’s limited financial resources, saying the state budget can only meet investment for renovating and upgrading the national highway system.”

This inability to fund the project became problematic as the government opened bids for the eastern portion of the expressway in 2019. Given Vietnam’s inability to fund the projects themselves, outside investors would invest in eight of the eleven sub-projects. During the bidding process, China was the primary bidder. Of the sixty bids that came in, thirty were from Chinese companies—an unpalatable proposition given the length of these projects and heavy Chinese presence that would result from granting them the bids. As a result, citizens voiced a palatable opposition online, and shortly after, the government rejected all foreign proposals in a move that experts argue was a direct response to China’s bids. Since then, the government has failed to find domestic companies prepared for the undertaking and changed the remaining eight projects (while adding a sub-project) into publicly funded ventures.

As Leon Trotsky is assumed to have once opined, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Tolstoy explained to the reader that war is a force too powerful for one person to ignore. This same phenomenon applies to history, which plays a determinate role in our lives, countries, and cultures. At times, as in the case of Vietnam, it can play a critical role in a state’s foreign policy. Its defense against foreign invaders and its history of struggle against China characterize its nationalism, which Chinese actions and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea activate. Through the influence of this nationalism, the history between these two nations plays a significant role in constraining Vietnamese engagement with China.

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

Will Indonesia Repeat the History of Population Mobility in Borneo?



Borneo is now in the spotlight due to the Indonesian government’s impending massive migration. Since the Indonesian government announced capital relocation plans in 2019, many people have been concerned about their mobility in Borneo. Thousands of civil servants and their families will be relocated to East Kalimantan in the first phase of this massive mobility. This mobility necessitates significant resources, both financial and in-depth consideration because people’s mobility is never an easy problem.

Population mobility in Indonesia is not a new phenomenon, according to historical sequences. Patterns and causes such as poverty, inequality, the role of government, the importance of relationships, and gender disparities all have an impact on this activity. The manifestation of success mobility in society is related to how this aspect is manifested. Furthermore, most people associate mobility with inequality. Individuals and communities are forced to relocate from their homes to places where they can find work or where they are ‘pushed’ to work as a result of inequality. As a result, most population mobility occurs voluntarily in search of a better life. However, in the context of capital relocation, the situation is quite different. People are heavily influenced by the context and location of the receiving area, particularly its political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects, as well as its historical context when they mobilize.

Population Mobility in Indonesian History

The Indonesian government declares transmigration as one of the population distribution policy instruments. Transmigration is regarded as one of the instruments of government policy that can help promote public welfare. Transmigration is another kind of population integration required to support national development. History recounts that transmigration in Indonesia began with the Dutch occupation, specifically during the situation of Indonesian politics in 1905. The government’s worry prompted the start of transmigration in Indonesia. The Dutch colonials observed the island of Java’s high population density.

During the New Order era, Kalimantan was the site of a massive project known as “transmigration.” This project aimed to relocate people from overpopulated islands in order to balance demographic development. Java, Indonesia’s main island, was home to more than 70% of the country’s population. Over the course of two decades, 170 million people from Java, Madura, Lombok, and Bali were relocated. Transmigration has a long history; it began in 1950, replicating a Dutch colonial government program, and was later continued by the Indonesian government after 1945, the year of independence. Previously, transmigration served three purposes: (1) to relocate millions of people from the most densely populated islands such as Java, Bali, and Madura to less densely populated islands, (2) to alleviate poverty by providing land and employment opportunities for Indonesians, and (3) to find other resources in those less densely populated islands. However, this program appears to be a failure. The findings are also supported by the report from Forest Peoples Programme which stated that the transmigration process in the “outer islands,” particularly in Kalimantan, has triggered conflict between transmigrants and indigenous people. The native or indigenous people claimed that the national government provides them with limited access, in contrast to the transmigrants. On the other hand, indigenous people appear to have lacked the adequate infrastructure to support their lives (such as roads, health facilities, schools, etc). On the other hand, land ownership status became very important because indigenous people felt that their indigenous government did not give them their rights and land certificate despite having legal evidence of their land. More than 60% of Kalimantan’s rainforests have been cut down for the transmigration program, causing indigenous people to lose their homes and food sources. Without a doubt, the goal of transmigration threatens the lives of indigenous people. Transmigration enabled landless peasants and homeless people from urban Java to escape. However, by doing so, they destroyed the forest and contributed to environmental degradation in Kalimantan. It can be assumed that the transmigration program has so far failed to alleviate population pressure and poverty in Java. There is opposition to the transmigration program because indigenous people believe it violates their rights. According to the migrants, the transmigration program was only about political tools and power.    

The Foresight of Population and Labour Mobility in Borneo

Like the first population mobility in the 1905s, the Indonesian government’s plan to relocate the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan has many advantages and disadvantages today. Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and social scientists are all concerned about the massive plan to transform 200,000 hectares of forest into the country’s new administrative headquarters. This project adds to the existing mining, logging, and oil palm plantation concessions, all of which have had a significant impact on Borneo’s rainforests and forest-dependent communities.

The relocation of the capital could have serious social and economic ramifications for millions of people, particularly Jakarta workers. They don’t know what will happen to them in Kalimantan. Despite the fact that thousands of civil servants and their families will be relocated to East Kalimantan in the first phase of this massive mobility, productive industries that support workers’ lives, such as food and beverage, education, and health services, must not be overlooked in this action. Talking about productive industries entails discussing the labor that went into them. Once they have relocated to a new capital, they should be able to find work or start a new small business. The Indonesian government has not yet prepared for this. Baumann (2016) stated in her book “The Debate about the Consequences of Job Displacement” that workers who have recently relocated to another area (in this case, new capital) are more likely to lose their jobs simply because they have recently begun a new job. These new employment relationships are insecure because they are frequently mismatched and more likely to be terminated prematurely.

To summarize, population mobility is frequently used as a short-term coping strategy rather than an anticipatory adaptation strategy, especially for individuals or households lacking the economic and social capital to relocate. It may also make those moving to new capital more vulnerable. As a result of these factors, the government should devise creative solutions and adequate plans for the people, especially workers. To avoid repeating history and to create a vibrant place in new capital, the government should work with the private sector, civil society organizations, local communities, and academics to develop sustainable infrastructure and basic services, as well as social protection and income-generating opportunities. Finally, massive mobility in Borneo necessitated a more thorough understanding of the need for multi-sectoral and inclusive policies and measures that combined research, planning, design, and capacity building, with a particular emphasis on workers.

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Southeast Asia

Reclaiming our future



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



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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