Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

March 7, 2018

 Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

The article below below should be read in conjunction with:



Image result for cambodia kingdom of wonderOne of Cambodia’s star golf courses is Angkor Golf Resort. Here, its the heritage and unique traditions that make is stand out from the crowd …


Cambodia  is allergic to foreign interference in its internal affairs. The leadership opts for Stability and Development First.  20 years of Peace, Stability and Development bear testimony to the success  of Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy.  It should not be forgotten that Cambodia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty was violated with impunity during the period of the Cold War.

“The 1970 coup was the genesis of the worst suffering of the Cambodian People” Cambodia has, therefore, learned many lessons from its recent past and will resist any attempt by self-righteous power to impose their values on its people.”

The document from The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Affairs  states:

“The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which was blamed for the failure to bring (total) peace in Cambodia due to the imposition of the (genocidal) Pol Pot regime in the equation,sought to transplant in one swoop a perfect model liberal democracy in a country that never knew this kind. Their Western authors uncompromisingly disregarded the aftermath effect (s) of a lost generation almost entirely deprived of a huge majority of its qualified human resources…They snubbed out the consequences of 12 years of economic and political  embargo and worse they inflicted mercilessly sanctions on the  survivors (the genocide), hindering them  from rebuilding their devastated country. It was up against all these odds that the Cambodian government did their utmost to rebuild the people, and introduced the fundamentals of a liberal democracy system…

“History has proved  that foreign-imposed agenda has never been favorable to Cambodia and on the contrary, it has led to bloodshed and senseless destruction.That cruel reality notwithstanding, some those countries are bent on repeating their past mistakes as they push to provoke regime change albiet in more sophisticated and covert forms.”


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Richard Nixon and Kissinger violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia by massively bombing  the countryside. CIA orchestrated a coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Read My War with The CIA by Norodom Sihanouk.

The article by Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji (below) is but one of many designed to paint a negative image of Cambodia and its people. Over the last two decades, Cambodia has made considerable socio-economic strides in an environment of peace and stability. That is Fact, not Fiction. And the outlook in the years ahead is good.–Din Merican

Cambodia Crackdown Casts a Shadow on ASEAN

By   Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji

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In what has become a conventional trait among ruling parties in nascent democracies, the Cambodian government dissolved the country’s main opposition party on November 16, 2017, for “plotting a coup.” This was the nadir of a systematically coordinated state-sponsored crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hen Sen has also orchestrated the closure of independent media outlets and restricted NGO activities, moves analysts have described as attempts to consolidate power in the wake of national elections billed for July 2018. To recall, the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested for treason in a midnight raid in September 2017, and many of the party’s leadership have since fled into exile.

Expectedly, the dissolution was ordered by the Supreme Court of Cambodia in order to lend some tone of legal validity to the sham process. For someone who has been accused of repression, corruption and political violence in his three-decade rule, Hun’s actions come as no surprise.

Needless to say that Dith Munty, the Supreme Court’s President, is one of Hun’s long-term political allies and occupies a seat on the CPP’s highest decision-making body. “It makes a mockery of fair justice to have someone in a leadership position within one political party sit in judgment on the conduct of that party’s main opposition. … There can be no starker example of an inherent conflict of interest,” says Kingsley Abbot, senior international legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists, a rights group.

To many, this comes as no surprise. The Cambodian government has a notorious history of rights abuses and stifling press freedom. In 2015, it took extensive negotiations by unions and pressure from buyers such as H&M to increase the minimum wage of workers in the garment sector to a paltry $140/month (now set to increase to $170 in 2018), despite the sector being the country’s key export earner; most workers hardly earn decent remuneration for their work. Likewise, 2017 saw a consistent crackdown on the media, the culmination of which 19 radio stations were knocked off-air for “violating contracts” they had with the government. By September, Radio Free Asia had to discontinue its operations in Cambodia when the atmosphere became unbearable.

The opposition leader, Kem Sokha, is still in prison and has faced series of interrogations, despite the fact that he has recently refused to respond to questions, citing the illegality of his detention.

Consequently, the crackdown on the opposition has had a ripple effect both regionally and internationally. The US, which Sen has accused of working with the CNRP to coordinate the alleged coup, has promised “concrete steps” against Cambodia. The EU has also said that “the European Union’s development cooperation and trade preferences are reliant on [Cambodia’s] respect for fundamental human rights and democratic principles,” in a statement by its foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

The Chinese, on the other hand, appear to be backing the Cambodian authorities, with China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, stating that his government supports Cambodia’s efforts to “protect political stability.” However, nothing appears to be forthcoming from Cambodia’s immediate regional body, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

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ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization of 10 Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia. Some may argue that ASEAN, a regional bloc with a mandate to promote economic, political, security, military, educational and socio-cultural integration among its members, should not interfere in the crisis. However, a union with a charter built upon principles such as “upholding international law with respect to human rights, social justice and multilateral trade” and “development of friendly external relations and a position with the UN” cannot ignore gross human rights abuses and political repression in its own backyard.

Article 9 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and article 10 that “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Not only has the Cambodian government trampled upon these tenets, but almost the entire declaration is being violated, including the right of citizens to elect their leaders. The moral ground upon which ASEAN stands to claim that it upholds human rights, therefore, comes into question.

Worthy of note is the fact that in November 2012, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was unanimously adopted by all members at a meeting in Phnom Penh. The declaration is supposed to assert ASEAN nations’ commitment to human rights protection. Though widely criticized, it was a positive development, but ASEAN must show further commitment.

First, the ASEAN declaration should be revised to reflect a full commitment to protecting human rights. Fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of association and the right to be free from enforced disappearance should be included. Also, ambiguous clauses that could be used to undermine human rights, such as “The realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context” (Article 7) and that human rights might be limited to preserve national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, etc., (Article 8) should be removed. This can be made an incontestable condition for continuous membership of ASEAN by member nations.

While some may suggest that the poor living standards and economy in some ASEAN countries should be given top priority, this will simply amount to misconstruing human processes. Guaranteeing the fundamental human rights of citizens is the very basis of economic prosperity. Therefore, the decision not to prioritize human rights protection will not only keep millions of people under repression but also exacerbate these economic problems.

If there is any good time for ASEAN to take constructive steps in the full protection of human rights and democracy, the recent Cambodian crackdown provides a good platform.

*[Updated: January 22, 2018.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

February 8, 2018

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forumwww.eastasiaforum.org 

In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.

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Phnom Penh City

When Cambodians went to the polls to elect municipal councils in July, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) saw a substantial boost in its support, particularly in the rural areas long considered a stronghold of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The local results were seen to put the CNRP in a competitive position in the national election scheduled for July 2018.


Rather than prompting the government to become more responsive to the concerns of disaffected voters, the 2017 polls became the trigger for a brazen crackdown on the opposition, the press and civil society. The CNRP has been dissolved in a controversial court ruling, and its leader Kem Sokha has been jailed on trumped-up charges of treason. Media outlets such as the respected Cambodia Daily newspaper and independent radio stations have been shut down. The government is intimidating the largest and most vocal NGOs.

As Astrid Norén-Nilsson writes in this week’s lead article (which is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead), the ongoing crackdown marks no less than ‘the endpoint of Cambodia’s era of electoral democracy — an era in which the opposition may have faced uphill struggles but was nonetheless dependably allowed to contest elections’.

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Certainly, Hun Sen’s Cambodia was no poster child for democracy and good governance before 2017. As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser has argued, after Hun Sen’s rise to power in the 1993 election overseen by the United Nations, the country became a textbook case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This is a system in which parties and civil society are allowed enough freedom to maintain the appearance of competitive politics, but where political institutions are so rigged that the opposition has no real path to power. In this view, the mistake of the CNRP was to get too popular, to the extent that a national election victory seemed a possibility — a scenario that Hun Sen could not countenance.

The degeneration of a pretend democracy into outright autocracy also marks the failure of decades of investment in Cambodian democracy and good governance by Western governments and international organisations. It is perhaps a small sense of responsibility for the current predicament that gives urgency to questions about what the world can or should do in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown. At present, targeted sanctions seem ‘the only realistic possibility of a somewhat modified course of government action, though [they are] a highly uncertain one’, writes Norén-Nilsson.


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A peaceful and attractive county side in a rapidly developing and stable economy

The note of caution she sounds is appropriate. Cambodia is no economic pariah; rather, millions of Cambodians are beneficiaries of trade with the West. As Heidi Dahles highlights in her review of the Cambodian economy, trade unions representing garment workers have spoken out against Western economic sanctions. Western governments should take such warnings seriously. Any program of sanctions that harms Cambodian export industries would only play into the hands of Hun Sen and his narrative that the West is out to undermine Cambodia. Heavy-handed sanctions not only fail to guarantee changes in the behaviour of the target regime, but can lead to isolation and economic hardship that serves nobody’s interests (the experience of Myanmar under the old military junta is a cautionary tale).

However Western governments respond, there are ultimately larger forces at work aiding the entrenchment of authoritarianism both in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Hun Sen’s crackdown takes place in a world where authoritarian leaders are less dependent on the West for their aid and investment needs — and thus have fewer incentives to cultivate support among Western politicians by promising reforms and democracy. As Norén-Nilsson writes, ‘China’s full political and economic support enables Cambodia’s shift to autocracy, which occurs in the context of President Trump’s voluntary handing over of American regional and global leadership to China’.

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Hun Sen and his CPP can expect to win the July 2018 election decisively in a contest compromised by the effective exclusion of the largest opposition party. By closing off avenues for peaceful opposition, Hun Sen has thrown up hazards for Cambodia’s future. As we have learned from the fall of autocrats from Indonesia to Egypt in recent decades, when struck by crises dictatorships can prove surprisingly brittle — and efforts to unseat them typically lead to large-scale violence.

The West will make noises about the illegitimacy of the Prime Minister’s victory, and will likely continue to apply and even extend sanctions. But Hun Sen is here to stay, and the dictates of realpolitik mean that the Western powers will soon revert to pragmatic cooperation with Hun Sen’s regime when necessary.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Also read: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/05/cambodian-democracy-on-the-ropes/



Vietnam’s Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP

January 21, 2018

Vietnam’s Open Trade Policy Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP

by Thomas Jandl, TJMR Asia Consulting


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After the 2016 election, hope remained in Hanoi that President Trump, once in office, would turn from firebrand protectionist campaigner into a leader who accepted the value of open trade — a cause in which the Vietnamese government had invested so much in preparation for Vietnam’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These hopes have given way to a hangover.

By now it is clear that Trump will govern as he campaigned: without long-term strategy and with little interest in any assessment of consequences. Not surprisingly, some 60 per cent of top US diplomats have resigned and key foreign policy positions remain unfilled. Clearly, Washington is in no position to chart a clear course for the United States’ key relationships around the world.

Vietnam’s carefully crafted policy of non-alignment — by which Hanoi has skilfully exploited big-power rivalries to balance economic and political interests — now requires a major update. During the APEC summit in Da Nang, Trump stood in front of the leaders of the foremost multilateral institution in the region and waxed about a free and open Indo-Pacific, at the same time heaping criticism on multilateralism. Trump offered bilateral deals to any takers but with the caveat that he wanted to see the United States ‘win’ what he considers a zero-sum game. That kind of deal is not likely to find many takers.

Unlike Trump, Xi Jinping has a plan to make China great again. Speaking at APEC after Trump, China’s President offered a vision of the shared benefits of a free-trading region. Vietnamese officials were smitten with Xi’s willingness to dispense with protocol during the APEC forum. In his speeches, with a wink at the United States, Xi offered a mutually beneficial deal in which trade and investment are not zero-sum games, and he assumed the leadership mantle on economic openness in Asia. While Trump adopts China’s earlier, failed approach of ramming bilateral trade deals down smaller countries’ throats one by one, Xi is on a charm offensive with a multilateralist agenda.

While China is clearly emerging as the leader of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, Vietnam may be a bright spot for Trump. Vietnamese diplomats hurry to say that Hanoi will pursue a bilateral deal with Washington, less for its economic gains than for its symbolic value. Vietnam’s US$32 billion trade surplus with the United States makes it vulnerable to a bad deal in Trump’s trade war. Yet Hanoi hopes to be able to appeal to Trump’s self-regard: if Vietnam is among the very few takers of Trump’s offer, then it may be rewarded simply for showing up and giving Trump something to gloat about. And then there is the symbolism of cooperating with Washington at the same time as Beijing aims for regional leadership.

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But this strategy is fraught with risk. Any deal with Trump is bound to be fickle. If the Republican Party is trounced at the mid-term elections in November 2018, congressional leaders and the Trump administration could set out on very different courses. Moreover, with no long-term strategy, any shift in domestic mood — or in his personal mood — may turn Trump against Vietnam in no time.

Traditionally, Vietnam prefers multilateral venues where no one party calls the shots. That is why any bilateral talks with Washington must be seen as bargaining chips for RCEP and TPP-11, to which Vietnam remains strongly committed. Having as many friends as possible is an important bargaining chip for a country like Vietnam, that traditionally punches above its weight, especially with respect to its big northern neighbour whose hegemonic impulses and significant claims on Vietnamese waters are cause for concern.

TPP would have made it easier for Vietnam to escape China’s orbit. That ship has sailed, at least for now. In the meantime, Vietnam is trying to improve its bargaining power for a position within that China orbit. Whether any deal with Trump is useful — or credible — is the risky bet Hanoi is now forced to make.

Thomas Jandl is a founding partner of TJMR Asia Consulting and a non-resident scholar at the Social Sciences and Humanities Department, Vietnam National University (VNU).

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Asia: After a Goldilocks Year, 2018 Could Be Time for the Bears

January 6, 2018

Asia: After a Goldilocks Year, 2018 Could Be Time for the Bears

by Philip Bowring@www.asiasentinel,com

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If 2017 was a year in which the global economy and its stock markets performed much better than expected in the face numerous threatening political issues, could 2018 be the opposite? For sure there is a Goldilocks feeling at present, in Asia as elsewhere.

For all his sound and fury Donald Trump has yet to do anything that would cause immediate and serious alarm in the outside world – yet.  Despite taking the US out of the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, he hasn’t yet acted on the North American Free Trade Act, and may not, being under intense pressure from US manufacturers to maintain at least the framework. Asian exporters that act through NAFTA are holding their breath.

The Chinese economy has weathered more fears of the impact of accumulated domestic debt. Xi Jinping has been anointed emperor but now looks more focused on delivering a domestic agenda than in further aggravating relations with China’s neighbors.

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Cambodia–China’s Strategic Partner–President Xi Jinping with Prime Minister Samech Hun Sen

Thanks to Trump’s disinterest in the US’s allies in east Asia, contempt for trade deals and climate change, China can sit back and see its prestige and influence increase without needing to push too hard. A new, more dovish president in South Korea has also helped. In Southeast Asia, politics in Thailand and Malaysia remained largely frozen, with thoroughly reprehensible leaders in both, and with both unlikely to be replaced.

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Thailand is mostly still mourning the late king and Malaysia’s fractured opposition continues to fail to capitalize on the evidence of massive plunder by Prime Minister Najib Razak and UMNO at large. In Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi has proved a figurehead as the military pursued ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas without hindrance, and ASEAN again proved incapable of influencing members in the direction of religious and racial tolerance.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was bruised but unbowed by the victory of Islamists in the Jakarta guberenatorial election and in India Prime Minister Modi was bruised by elections in his home state of Gujarat but appears to have considerable staying power. So too may Rodrigo Duterte in spite or because of continued extrajudicial killings, now aimed at Communists as well as drug dealers. On the brighter side, the economy continued to grow steadily and significant, if still inadequate, tax reform was enacted.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe strengthened his position via elections but conservatives lost badly in South Korea after the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye with liberal Moon Jae-in winning easily with 41 percent of the vote against two candidates.

Globally commodity prices, including oil, have moved up enough to ease concerns of most producing countries yet not enough, it seems, to generate inflation scares. Likewise gradual interest rate rises, actual or promised, have been absorbed. In Asia growth has been steady if unspectacular,m and globally problem countries Brazil and Turkey have bounced back. Europe has so far mostly rejected populism and the euro is again a favored currency. Britain’s Brexit is suicidal but in slow motion and largely irrelevant outside the eurozone.

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Without being unduly pessimistic, it seems that 2018 has the potential for upsetting this relatively benign outlook for Asia. First is the question whether Trump will actually wage an economic war against China. Alleged failure of Beijing to bring North Korea to heel will always be the excuse, irrelevant though it should be to trade issues. It may be Trump’s only alternative as even he realizes that there is no way of ending Pyongyang’s nuclear capability short of a potentially nuclear war which even his most gung-ho generals do not relish.

Any serious measures against Chinese exports to the United States would result in retaliation against the US, put downward pressure on world trade, which has been growing at a healthy 4 percent, and possibly induce copycat moves by other countries.

Any such economic conflict would damage all of east Asia, even assuming – which is a big if – that the US makes it clear that it will not take similar measures against the many other Asian countries which enjoys large trade surpluses with the US. Even if this does not transpire, stock markets in the region may already be quite fully valued after rises of 15-30 percent in the past year.

Also on the economic front, the notion that the world can have years of almost zero interest rates and huge credit expansion without a payback time could well be tested in 2018. The reality of promised interest rates rises and ending of bond purchases by central banks has yet to hit, and no harder than in the US, where last week it was reported that a stunning 35 percent of Americans have been reported to debt collection agencies trying to collect an average of US$5,200 per person. If interest rates were to rise, consumer debt could mean disaster.

Sinisterly, the yield curve has started to reverse, a chillingly reliable harbinger of recession. However, interest rates may be brought forward by the Fed if cracks appear in the assumption that inflation is dead and buried. Take China, whose role in global trade is readily transmitted to the world. Its official consumer price index is still rising at just under 2 percent. But the GDP deflator, which measures much more, is now more than twice that. Producer price inflation is over 5 percent and even if some of this reflects short term movements, it can’t be long before there is a reflection in consumer prices, even if delayed by price controls in an energy market due to be deregulated.

Chinese export margins may be squeezed but with the yuan strong against the US dollar, moving from 6.90 to 6.50 over the past 12 months, Chinese price pressure will be transmitted elsewhere.

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Whither ASEAN in the Trump Era?

Trump’s neglect of Asian issues apart from North Korea and China trade will continue to undermine the US position in the region, and may get worse if Secretary of State Tillerson is replaced by someone who reflects Trump’s unsettling proclivity at unorthodoxy. However, the notion of Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept may continue to find quiet support now that Japan, India and Australia have become informally committed to it. Other countries in the region may see the merits in arrangements which at least in part compensate for the decline of US influence and interest.

Xi Jinping will probably be mainly concerned with domestic issues – further shoring up the power of the Communist Party and focusing on financial stability, income distribution problems and the environment. Indeed, it will be a test of the Xi’s concepts and of the role of the party, if it can produce the results which could be used to justify the more oppressive nature of the system he has imposed.

Less secure is Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is no longer shielded by the mourning period and is due to deliver some elections, however distorted by the new constitution. He has also been prone to gaffes. The political situation looks to become more fluid, meanwhile the king remains largely hidden from public view, often in his German redoubt, but will continue to create waves of his own. Najib on the other hand look likely to survive Malaysia’s elections thanks to opposition weakness, despite Mahathir’s attempts to galvanize Malays, and a system massively weighted towards conservative rural constituencies.

Indonesia has till April 2019 to wait for its presidential election but the campaign will begin in earnest in October 2018 with Widodo hoping that the current pickup in the economy, unspectacular though it is, will have enough momentum to keep him ahead.

Hong Kong will continue to find that its new chief executive Carrie Lam is even more determined than her predecessors to do what she is told by Beijing. But pro-democracy groups will face tests of their popularity in by-elections to replace legislators elected in 2016 but disbarred during 2017.

The ‘United States Factor’ in Southeast Asia: The Philippine and Singaporean (Re)assesments

December 31, 2017

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Number 408 | December 27, 2017


The ‘United States Factor’ in Southeast Asia: The Philippine and Singaporean (Re)assesments

By Ithrana Lawrence

Despite reports on the unpredictability of Washington’s Asia policy, the Trump Administration, through telephone diplomacy, high-level bilateral visits, attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asian Summit (EAS) and bilateral meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, has displayed a “post-pivot” US commitment to the region and its multilateral initiatives. This aside, its engagement framed by collective action on North Korea, and a lack of specific concrete regional cooperatives, plays into Southeast Asia’s long-term anxiety.

This anxiety is addressed by Southeast Asian  leaders recalibrating their external engagements, including relations with the United States, in their strategic pursuit of policy maneuverability, autonomy, and prosperity. The cases of the Philippines and Singapore highlight how regional countries are coping with “The United States Factor”.

The Philippines’ Realignment under President Rodrigo Duterte

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Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ perception of the US role in the region has changed. Although recognized as a major non-NATO US ally since 2003, the Philippines increasingly views China as an important and economically attractive source of support, and Manila has shown an increasing willingness to accommodate Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS). Despite a 66 year-old alliance, the Philippines is diverging from the United States on issues of security and governance.

Duterte’s announced “separation” from the United States and refusal to visit Washington despite Trump’s invitation are efforts to chart an independent foreign policy. Distance from the U.S. is a price President Duterte seems eager to pay. Although the Obama-Aquino administrations’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowing US military forces and weapons to be stationed in the Philippines was ruled constitutional and has not been abrogated, Manila is wary of implementation. For example, the Philippine Defense Secretary remarked it was “unlikely” that the United States would be allowed to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) from the Philippines “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions” as the “US can fly over there coming from other bases.” Similarly, Duterte downplayed US assistance in Marawi despite the US Embassy in Manila reporting a donation of planes, weapons, technical assistance, and humanitarian aid worth $56 million in 2017 – recognizing instead the contributions of China and Russia on the same day Secretary of Defense Mattis arrived in Manila.

Doubts about US commitment of the United States to defend the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea have driven President Duterte to chart an engagement strategy avoiding over-reliance on Washington. China’s symbolic $14.4 million arms package was delivered as the US Congress disapproved a sale of assault rifles for the Philippine National Police (PNP) due to concerns of state sanctioned human rights violations in the ‘war on drugs’. The Philippines has leveraged competition in the region, securing Beijing’s pledge of $24 billion in infrastructure (including free infrastructure) projects in Davao and Manila, and $22.7 million in Marawi; alongside Tokyo’s $8.8 billion “maximum support” to rebuild Marawi.

Duterte’s Philippines has shown selective accommodation to China’s assertiveness as it recognizes the opportunities of engaging a rising China. Recent examples include the removal of a hut on a sandbar upon Beijing’s protest, not openly protesting territorial incursions, and allowing Chinese ships to survey within Philippine territory. That being said, the Philippines remains committed to its territorial sovereignty, with the Philippine Navy deployed to guard current claims.

The Trump administration’s generally absent rhetoric on human rights, and praise for the war on drugs has improved bilateral leadership camaraderie. All anti-US outbursts over the year aside, President Duterte’s ‘karaoke diplomacy’ at the ASEAN Summit gala dinner signals an affinity for the commander in chief of the United States.

Singapore’s Longstanding Alignment

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Despite China’s growing economic significance, political assertiveness, and security provocations in the SCS, Singapore’s alignment responses have been different than those of the Philippines. Singapore is partnering closer with Washington than with Beijing on most issues, and the United States is still viewed as an indispensable partner, significant to the development and security of the island state. While Singapore boasts a high degree of military technology, interoperability, and physical infrastructure to host the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s logistics command, its refusal to be recognized as a major non-NATO US ally reflects the island-state’s maintenance of a public non-aligned strategic engagement.

Although China is the island-state’s top trading partner, the United States remains its largest foreign investor with stock totaling $228 billion and an annual bilateral trade surplus. Singapore’s open support of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling and non-claimant concern over freedom of navigation in its regional waters faced high-cost pressure from Beijing: seizure of military equipment in Hong Kong en-route from exercises in Taiwan, cancellation of the 2016 high level Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) and apparent non-invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Although showing resolve to face China’s growing pressure, a subsequent delegation of high-level officials to Beijing followed by Prime Minister Lee’s own visit is symbolic of Beijing’s growing significance as a partner not to be openly defied. Singapore looks to harness China’s economic engagement with the region specifically as a global financial services hub for the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

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Singapore remains a strong advocate for US engagement in the region, with a pledge to facilitate initiatives for regional counter-terrorism efforts upon assuming ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018. Bilaterally, Prime Minister Lee’s pledge to extend to 2018 his country’s support for the anti-IS coalition in the Middle East (the only Asian country to contribute personnel) and deployment of helicopters to hurricane relief efforts in Texas are symbolic of Singapore’s activism and the leadership’s institutionalized affinity for the United States. The progressive deepening of defense cooperatives also witnessed the first bilateral naval exercise taking place off the coast of Guam, following the deployment of the Singapore Air Force (RSAF) there for joint training in April.

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The lack of transparency on Malaysia’s deals with China is worrying


The Philippine and Singaporean alignments demonstrate models that can be expanded to other Southeast Asian countries. There are signs countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are reassessing the traditional role of the United States and to a certain extent adjusting their external engagements as the systemic conditions that placed the United States as the key security protector, economic patron, and diplomatic partner at the end of the Cold War are changing. Future research on asymmetrical alignment under uncertainty should examine these states.

About the Author

Ithrana Lawrence, is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. She can be contacted at Ithrana.L@gmail.com

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact washington@eastwestcenter.org.

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Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia

December 14, 2017

Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia

by Dan Slater@www.eastasiaforum.org

Not since World War II has liberal democracy seemed so deeply endangered in so many places. If the flu of political and social illiberalism is circumnavigating the globe, Southeast Asia has precious little immunity with which to withstand it. This is a region where authoritarian regimes have always easily outnumbered democracies, and where liberalism and universalism have always struggled to gain traction.

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Since most of the region is enduringly authoritarian to begin with, Southeast Asia is and always has been well on its way to being a democratic abyss. It is useful to distinguish the cases of existing dominance that establish that dismal baseline from ‘the new dominos’, which find themselves either tumbling or looking increasingly wobbly.

None of the region’s long-dominant authoritarian regimes appear deeply endangered at the moment. Singapore’s People’s Action Party is riding high in the saddle after its electoral–authoritarian landslide in September 2017. In Malaysia, so long as the ruling Barisan Nasional party can compensate for its high-level corruption with high-level repression, it seems likely to get away with it.

Commentators commonly fret that Hun Sen killed the last remnants of democracy in Cambodia when he shuttered the Cambodia Daily and moved to ban the country’s only major opposition party. But what is really transpiring is a transition from multiparty authoritarianism to single-party authoritarianism, since Cambodia has not met even minimal democratic standards for the past 25 years.

Speaking of single-party dictatorships, Vietnam’s leaders have recently stepped up repression of dissidents. But it is not as if the Vietnamese Communist Party ever brooked serious dissent in the first place.

Not coincidentally, in all four cases, old dominance is rooted in old authoritarian ruling parties. Dictatorships ruled by parties have long tended to be more stable than those in which the military plays the leading role. So it stands to reason that the greatest action in the region over the past decade has been in countries where the military either still is, or in the past was, a leading power in political life.

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A militarised past means a high potential for a dominoing present. Just as we can identify four clear cases of old dominance rooted in authoritarian ruling parties, four cases fit more readily in the ‘new domino’ category: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In each case, there is a long history of parties failing to decisively supersede the power of the military, which left their democracies with relatively little institutional strength.

Could Myanmar soon follow Thailand’s recent path back to unchallenged military rule? Could the Philippines descend from its fragile status as an illiberal democracy to an outright one-man autocracy? And does the shocking imprisonment of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese former governor on blasphemy charges portend the demise in Indonesia of the tolerant norms on which even a minimalist democracy depends?

There is a vital common theme. When procedural democracy arises in otherwise politically and socially illiberal and intolerant conditions, democracy’s own key features can easily undermine its own quality and even threaten its own survival.

Specifically, democratic procedures have a tendency to produce unbridled majoritarianism and unconstrained leadership unless there are powerful countervailing forces. In settings where liberal institutions and societal commitment to inclusive and cosmopolitan values are relatively weak, minorities exist at the mercy of domineering and abusive executives.

In Thailand, the rise of Thaksin Shinwatra did not lead to outright populist authoritarianism in part because the Thai military and monarchy saw fit to re-establish oligarchic authoritarianism. It is in the Philippines where a brazenly violent populist seems inclined to seize as many authoritarian-style powers as the system and public will allow. As abysmal as Rodrigo Duterte has been for human rights, his defenders quite plausibly support a highly popular president responding to actual social ills like the drug trade.

But democratisation does not deserve the brunt of the blame for an ongoing calamity like the forcible expulsion and state-sanctioned mass murder of the Rohingya. In Myanmar as in Indonesia, it is the ideological potency of ethnic and religious nationalism that explains why minorities get brutalised. Authoritarian legacies of militarisation in Myanmar and ethnic and ideological scapegoating in Indonesia best explain the severity of both countries’ nativist downturns.

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If one vivid lesson shines through the dim shadows of Southeast Asia’s democratic downslide, it is that democratisation and human rights are far from the same thing. Nationalists steeped in a lifetime of authoritarian state propaganda are analogously primed to see the world in terms of us (who belong) and them (who do not). Under such conditions, democratic rights may get extended — but no further than the ranks of the supposedly virtuous.

What all this suggests is that the global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education. Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation predict that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by ‘people power’.

This may still be largely true in Southeast Asia’s cases of old dominance, where dictatorship must somehow be dislodged before democracy can be defended. But in Southeast Asia’s new dominos, as in Western democracies where pluralism is under assault, a deeper educational imperative underlies the organisational challenge confronting us.

Remarkably, the world has reached a moment when its politics most urgently needs to be driven not by an exalted desire to maximise human freedom, but by the base need to minimise human cruelty. If educational institutions and mass media do not spread the message that even the lives of minorities and suspected criminals have value, who will?

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at New Mandala as part of a series on the challenges facing democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation, Indonesia.