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Southeast Asia

Asian Multilateralism: A Test of Strength



In 2022, three ASEAN nations assumed the chairmanship of significant regional and global dialogue structures. For the first time in the history, G20 was chaired by Indonesia, while the APEC chairmanship was taken on by Thailand, and ASEAN’s chairmanship went to Cambodia. The year 2022 was expected to pass under the sign of the ASEAN leadership, with paths to an effective post-COVID recovery identified, especially since the positive economic dynamics of Southeast Asian nations provided grounds for cautious optimism.

These considerations guided Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia in setting their chairmanship agendas. As G20’s high-on-the-agenda items, Indonesia suggested discussing global health architecture as well as ways to ensure sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. Thailand urged APEC participants to focus on post-industrial recovery in the Asia-Pacific, while Cambodia articulated a fine slogan for uniting the region’s countries to tackle new challenges: ASEAN A.C.T. (Addressing Challenges Together).

However, the expected trajectories of the three presidencies were disrupted by two synchronously escalated conflicts, which Southeast Asia was until then perceiving more of background issues for the region’s institutions. The February 2022 transition of the Ukrainian conflict into a hot phase led to an almost complete—political as much as economic—disengagement of Russia from the U.S. and the EU, as well as Japan, partly South Korea and Singapore, who decided to join the sanctions pressure. With the general psychological perception of the conflict as geographically distant from Southeast Asia, its impact on the daily economic life of the region’s nations have manifested themselves in the form of rising inflation and fears about food and energy security. Moreover, they have become a determining factor in the activities of the chairing countries in organizing the institutional work of the G20, APEC and ASEAN-centric mechanisms.

The second challenge was a sharp escalation of U.S.-China tensions, exacerbated by the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 2-3, 2022 as well as by the trip of U.S. Congressmen that followed two weeks later. The previous visit of such a high-level American politician was a quarter of a century ago, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich made such a trip. Earlier on, contradictions between Washington and Beijing brought an unpleasant, though time-limited and relatively manageable, discord to the activities of regional institutions—today, their impact on the above-mentioned structures and on the G20 risks for the first time reaching a qualitatively new level.

The stability of the regional situation is also undermined by an “internal challenge”, namely the continuing political tension in Myanmar, where a military coup took place in February 2021. Beside the intra-regional dimension, the situation has a global aspect to it, since ASEAN’s most important dialogue partners (aka G20 participants)—the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India, the EU, and the United Kingdom—have taken diametrically opposed positions with regard to the new government in Myanmar.

Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of ASEAN’s institutional balancing—now a hallmark of the association bringing together small and medium states that seek to interact on a par with much larger international actors—has been somewhat compromised. In the coming months before the fall round of the G20, APEC and ASEAN summits, the chairing countries will apparently have to seriously rethink the forms and methods of this balancing act.

Obviously, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia would like to maintain the inclusiveness of these institutions, since it is this inclusiveness that distinguishes them from the many multilateral mechanisms established by Western countries. In the 1990s and 2000s, an inclusive approach helped ASEAN nations to form a network of regional institutions anchored in the Association, thereby significantly increasing its international prestige and facilitating a favorable economic environment for development of the member states.

The May 2022 statement of the three chairing countries that they do not want to turn multilateral structures into an arena of international disputes and that they are open to working with all partners was in that spirit of inclusiveness. Seriously pressured by the U.S. and the EU, they all refused to exclude Russia from the G20, APEC, and ASEAN-centric formats. As a result, despite persistent calls from Western countries not to invite Russian representatives, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov took part in the July 2022 G20 ministerial meeting in Bali, which ended without a final communiqué, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended a meeting with his counterparts from the G20 countries, also held in Bali in July, as well as the August meeting of foreign ministers of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on the margins of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit.

It is therefore becoming increasingly urgent for the chairing states to work in a new, much more conflict environment than before, which makes it virtually impossible to reach consensus on the issues at hand. However, the G20, the ASEAN-centric institutions, and APEC make consensus-based decisions. Previously, there only were a few precedents when ASEAN and APEC were temporarily paralyzed by the influence of the U.S.-China tensions, with consensus lacking on the final communiqués of the summits. For example, Cambodia’s previous ASEAN chairmanship in 2012 and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea in 2018.

For all the fears that disputes between major powers would cripple multilateral institutions, the three chairing countries still seem to have shown their own ambitions to contribute to at least a limited pacification of conflict situations in Russia-West, China-U.S. relations. In particular, this is evidenced by the diplomatic efforts of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who visited both Ukraine and the Russian Federation in June 2022. Indonesia has so far been consistent in its decision not to join sanctions against Russia, rejecting the idea of establishing threshold prices for Russian oil, which was actively promoted by the United States, because the country does not believe that this could contribute to a tangible reduction in international tensions and ensuring energy security. A cautious approach to the issue of sanctions is taken by Thailand, which celebrates the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Russia in 2022, as well as by Cambodia. At the Davos World Economic Forum in May 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the lifting of all sanctions against Russia, as their effect rebound hit the countries that imposed them and, most importantly, developing states that had nothing to do with the conflict and had barely begun to recover from the pandemic.

In a broader context, this year essentially puts Asian multilateralism to test. In the new international circumstances, the inevitable question becomes whether Asian countries can assert their right to manage regional and, in part, global processes—in deed rather than in word. This takes on a special sound in the context of the discussion unfolding in the Western scientific and expert community about the role of multilateral institutions in ‘‘integrating’’ such ‘‘deviant’’ countries as Russia and China (the list goes on) into the ‘‘rule-based world order.’’ Noteworthy in this discussion is the division of multilateral institutions into those that operate within this ‘‘order’’ and those outside it. [1] The multi-stakeholder formats created by Russia and China (for example, the SCO) are primarily seen as the latter, but other non-Western organizations may soon find themselves among this group as well.

The fact that the U.S. views Asian, primarily ASEAN-centric, institutions as structures of limited functionality became evident with the beginning of the establishment of Quad-like multilateral groups such as Quad+ and AUKUS. This perception stemmed from the fact that ASEAN, which was seen by Western countries throughout the 1990s and 2000s as the organization that was supposed to ensure the regional socialization of China, failed to complete this task. Accordingly, from the U.S. perspective, the activities of ASEAN-centric institutions had to be supplemented by more ‘‘effective’’ formats. This is the point of the numerous assurances by U.S. foreign and defense officials that the minilateral formats complement the ASEAN-centric formats and enhance regional security, rather than are at odds with their activities.

The year 2022 also saw the first attempts to torpedo ASEAN-centric institutions from within. In July 2022, citing the Ukrainian conflict and the situation in Myanmar as a pretext, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand boycotted a meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers and Dialogue Partners Meeting (ADMM-Plus) working group on counterterrorism chaired by Myanmar and Russia. So far, there have been no cases of a full-scale boycott of G20, APEC and broader ASEAN events involving Russia, but a few precedents that have already occurred have apparently been aimed at questioning Moscow’s ability to make meaningful contributions to ASEAN-centric institutions and the Association’s ability to adequately respond to new challenges.

At the same time, Russia has a direct interest in making sure that Asian multilateralism will still withstand the test of strength. First, in the face of significant obstacles to working with many multilateral structures, including those within the UN, the Asian platforms are becoming the main multilateral formats for its diplomatic activities, in addition to the SCO and BRICS. Second, despite the bulkiness and sometimes clumsiness of Asian multi-stakeholder institutions, they are an example of real accommodation of the national interests of states with a wide variety of political and economic structures. Western nations have yet to gain this valuable experience.

[1] Goddard S. The Outsiders: How the International System Can Still Check China and Russia // Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2022, Vol. 101, Issue 1. Pp. 28–39.

From our partner RIAC

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Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s Role in Bangladesh-Myanmar Border Tension

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Myanmar’s border forces near the Bangladesh border in northern Rakhine State. / photo: The Irrawaddy

For the past few days, Myanmar is continuously violating Bangladesh’s air space and territorial sovereignty. It has now done so at least five times. Apart from violating border laws, Myanmar is also responsible for firing mortar shells that killed two people. Moreover, the landmines at the border also injured one. It is worth mentioning that the use of landmines in the border region during peacetime is a clear violation of international law.

Against this continuous foul play by Myanmar, Bangladesh is dealing with the situation patiently and carefully considering the sensitivity of the border area. Many are seeing Myanmar’s mischievous activities as a provocation, Bangladesh hardly wants any clash in its borderlands as it may have a wide range of adverse impacts upon it such as unstable borderland, new tensions bordering districts, a new refugee crisis from Rakhine, and hindering its peaceful development.

So, the country is resorting to diplomatic options and regional and international pressure on Myanmar. The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh has already called the Myanmar Ambassador fourth time since August and briefed the ASEAN ambassadors about the situation. Dhaka is likely to raise the issue in the upcoming United Nations Assembly also.

In return, Myanmar Foreign Ministry also called Bangladesh’s Ambassador on 20th September and blamed Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) blamed for the attacks. The ministry also claimed previously that there are AA and ARSA terrorists inside Bangladesh. But it seems Myanmar’s claim is unbelievable and it is a part of its ‘blame game’. Prominent Journalist Subir Bhoumik analyzed that claim that neither AA nor ARSA is known for using heavy artillery and do not have air support, it was the military helicopter that violated Bangladesh’s airspace.

Moreover, the claim of AA and ARSA’s presence inside Bangladesh is also problematic. Bangladesh’s counter-insurgency measure and counter-terrorism measure is well-known in the region. And there is hardly any official claim that foreign rebels are operating from inside Bangladesh. Surely, it’s a tactics of Myanmar to create confusion about the tension and play a blame game.

However, Dhaka’s briefing the ASEAN ambassadors and seeking ASEAN’s role in mitigating the issue is a quite fair one considering ASEAN’s structure and ambition.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN in short is a union between 10 Southeast Asian nations. The members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The areas of cooperation include political, economic, security, military, and socio-cultural with a desire for integration. Since the early 2000s, ASEAN also followed a community approach and established several communities among it. So, ASEAN is following the supra-national model of the European Union (EU). As a result, in any matter regarding its member-state, it has a stake in it.

ASEAN also has a deep engagement in the situation in Myanmar. Since the February coup in 2021, ASEAN is playing an important role. ASEAN has also banned the Junta Chiefs from the association until a peace process follows. It is pressurizing the Junta to end the turmoil. However, many ASEAN state is already engaging with the Shadow government, National Unity Government (NUG). For instance, the Malaysian Foreign Minister met with NUG leaders and since then gradually NUG is emerging as an important stakeholder in Myanmar for ASEAN.

ASEAN can also play an important role in mitigating Myanmar’s foul play at the border. Bangladesh is not the only sufferer. Thailand- an ASEAN member also suffers greatly from Myanmar’s disrespect for borders. Quite often, Myanmar violates the Thai border; it is also a source of refugees and illicit trades such as arms and drugs.

Bangladesh also suffers from similar issues. Myanmar border is the largest source of drugs and refugees for the country. As a war-like situation is already going on in Rakhine between the Tatmadaw and the Junta, it is also a worry for Bangladesh. The conflict has already displaced many ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya. About 589 Rakhine has already sought refuge in India’s Mizoram. Bangladesh also has a fear that the conflict may trigger a new wave of Rohingya refugees, which is the last thing the country wants.

As ASEAN is a successful regional organization among Myanmar and its Southeast Asian Neighbors, it can play an important role in pressurizing Myanmar to stop its foul-play to ensure stability on the ASEAN border. Moreover, Bangladesh also has a close relationship with ASEAN as it could become an observer. Bangladesh Police has already got observer status in ASEANPOL this year. Even, the conflict zone- Rakhine, and its habitants are also part of the ASEAN community. Therefore, ASEAN should take the matter seriously and engage in one of the ‘ASEAN borders’.

Myanmar’s Union is failing miserably at the hand of the Junta regime. The Armed conflicts in almost all states and the resistance of the People’s Democratic Force (PDF) against the Junta are bringing further turmoil to the country where ASEAN is seeking a peace process. The ongoing conflict in Rakhine between the Junta and Arakan Army is a part of this turmoil also. Moreover, the Rakhine state is a very sensitive region as it is the home of the Rohingya. A new wave of refugees and violations of human rights can bring further instability to the region. The tension on Bangladesh- Myanmar border is a symptom of it. So, ASEAN should be more active in ending the conflict in Rakhine and it should pressurize Myanmar to end its provocative actions on Bangladesh border for greater regional stability. After all, this is what the regional organizations are made for!

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Southeast Asia

Myanmar spiralling ‘from bad to worse, to horrific’

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Since the Myanmar military launched its “disastrous” coup last year, UN-appointed independent human rights expert Tom Andrews said on Wednesday that conditions have worsened, “by any measure”.

“With each report I have warned that unless UN Member States change course in the way they collectively respond to this crisis, the people of Myanmar will suffer even further,” he told the Human Rights Council in Geneva, saying that conditions have “gone from bad to worse, to horrific for untold numbers of innocent people in Myanmar”. 

‘Stakes could not be higher’

Mr. Andrews presented a grim assessment of 1.3 million displaced people; 28,000 destroyed homes; villages burned to the ground; more than 13,000 children killed as the death toll for innocent people rises significantly; a looming food crisis; and 130,000 Rohingya in de facto internment camps while others suffer deprivation and discrimination rooted in their lack of citizenship.

“Let me be frank: the people of Myanmar are deeply disappointed by the response of the international community to this crisis. They are frustrated and angered by Member States that are working to prop up this illegal and brutal military junta with funding, trade, weapons, and a veneer of legitimacy,” he spelled out.

“But they are also disappointed by those nations that voice support for them, but then fail to back up their words with action. The stakes could not be higher”.

War crimes

The Myanmar military is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity daily, including murder, sexual violence, torture, and the targeting of civilians, Mr. Andrews continued.

And conflict is spreading throughout the country as increasingly more civilians take up arms against the junta.

Moreover, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding because military leaders are obstructing aid deliveries to displaced populations and communities they perceive to be aligned with pro-democracy forces.

“Untold numbers of innocent people have been left without access to food, medicine, and the means to survive,” he said.

Failed response

Observing that the international response has failed, the UN expert said that “first and foremost,” Member States must more forcefully deprive the junta of revenue, weapons, and the legitimacy it needs to attack the Burmese and suppress their democratic aspirations.

“Many in Myanmar have come to the conclusion that the world has forgotten them, or simply doesn’t care. They ask me why Member States refuse to take measures that are both possible and practical, measures that could save untold numbers of lives,” he said.

“Frankly, I do not have an answer”.

Reminding that the Human Rights Council is referred to as the UN’s conscience, he appealed to its members to “re-think status quo policies” that aren’t working and set a new course of action for UN Member States to stand with and for those are “fighting for their lives, their children, their future”.

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s G 20 chairmanship: Balancing on a diplomatic tightrope

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Indonesia’s geopolitical plate is piling up as the archipelago state prepares to host the Group of 20 (G20) summit and associated gatherings in November, including the Religion 20 (R20), a high-level meeting of religious leaders, the first under the G20’s auspices.

The challenges and opportunities for Indonesia are multiple and often unique.

In June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo persuaded the leaders of the Group of 7, which brings together Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, to join the summit in Bali of the G20, made up of the world’s largest economies, even if it is attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The G7 leaders had threatened to boycott the summit if Mr. Putin were invited in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even so, much can derail Mr. Widodo’s achievement in the months leading up to the summit, although he has, for now, prevented a fracturing of the G 20 even before the leaders convene.

Pulling the G20 back from what could have constituted a devastating fiasco is just one of the pitfalls, Indonesia has been seeking to maneuver. With two months to go until the Bali summit and a world mired in conflict, bifurcation, and economic crisis, Indonesia’s G-20 presidency is hardly out of the woods.

Insisting that Mr. Putin should attend the summit helps Mr. Widodo maneuver Indonesia through the minefields of a world increasingly polarized by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in civilizational rather than national terms, and the power struggle to shape the world order in the 21st century.

Yet, in a potential preview of the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out of a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali in July when Russia came under fire for its war in Ukraine.

The gathering ended without the traditional joint communique, chairperson’s statement and/or group photograph. It underscored the fact that Indonesia may have to walk a diplomatic tightrope to prevent the November summit from fracturing the G 20 beyond repair.

Mr. Lavrov’s walk-out underscored the risks stemming from the power struggle and the expansionist ambitions of civilizationalist leaders such as Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

They threaten to put a dent in Indonesia’s successful track record of being inspired by the principles of a 1955 conference in the Indonesian city of Bandung that gave birth to the non-aligned movement.

That has not stopped Indonesia from rejecting Chinese claims to territory in the South China Sea, refusing China’s offer to negotiate maritime boundaries, and at times conducting military exercises just beyond Chinese-claimed waters while maintaining substantial economic relations with the People’s Republic.

However, increasingly, Indonesia may find that non-alignment no longer is its best option, even if that would not necessarily mean that it would pick sides in the US-China divide.

What it does mean is that the G20 is the opportunity for Indonesia to showcase itself, on the back of its diplomatic acumen, as an attractive target for badly needed foreign investment and a regional power that has long flown under the radar.

To do so, Indonesia. one the world’s biggest coal exporters and carbon emitters, will have to clarify its stance on a host of issues, including climate change; perceived threats posed not only by China but also by Aukus, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that is allowing Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines; and the mushrooming food and energy crisis that raises the specter of a global recession.

One way, Indonesia hopes to make its mark is a summit of religious leaders that is scheduled to precede the meeting of heads of government and state. The religious summit is expected to refashion the G-20’s erstwhile Interfaith 20 track or IF20 as the Religion 20.

But even that is not without its pitfalls.

Organised by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the Islamic world’s foremost democracy, in cooperation with the Indonesian government, the R 20 constitutes at first glance a significant shift away from the approach of the IF 20.

In contrast to the IF 20 that was dominated by scholars and activists, the R 20 intends to bring together religious leaders to globally position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems. It is a call that resonates coming from the world’s most populous Muslim majority country and democracy.

Some 200 religious leaders and politicians, including Nahdlatul Ulama general chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, World Evangelical Alliance secretary general Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher and former US ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon are expected to attend the summit.

On the surface of it, the R 20 constitutes an opportunity to energize the world’s major faith groups to rally around shared civilizational values that would empower religion as a force for good that goes beyond lofty statements that are not worth more than the paper they are written on.

That is a tall order given the role that religious and identity groups play in perpetuating rather than resolving conflicts based on international law, justice, and equity.

Think of the Russian Orthodox church as a driver of extreme Russian nationalism and the definition of Russia as a civilizational rather than a national state, resulting in the invasion of Ukraine and the potential threat to other former Soviet republics.

Or the uncritical support by Christian and Jewish groups of Israeli policies that violate international law, deny Palestinian rights, and long-term put at risk Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state.

The R20’s organizers appear to have opted, at least for now, to co-organize the summit with the Muslim World League rather than representative non-Muslim faith groups less beholden to a government.

The League is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vehicle to garner religious soft power, help polish the kingdom’s tarnished image, and propagate a socially liberal but autocratic interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler.

An R20 press release quoted the League’s secretary general, Mohammed al-Issa, as saying that “working alongside Nahdlatul Ulama…will strengthen our mission. This partnership with Nahdlatul Ulama will serve as an excellent platform for dialogue that will amplify and extend the Muslim World League’s noble mission.”

Even so, the R 20 could undergird Mr. Widodo’s vision of applying the principles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the G 20.

Indonesian officials argue that the nature of ASEAN has allowed its ten members, despite their different political and economic systems, to prevent the once war-torn region from confronting another abyss and finding ways to peacefully manage or resolve disputes and tackle common problems.

Like with the religious summit, Indonesia faces a tall order in attempting to pull back from the brink a world consumed by the war in Ukraine as it seeks to maneuver the pitfalls of mounting tensions between the United States and China over issues like Taiwan that, like Eastern Europe, could spark a war with a global fallout.

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