The Uncertainty of Multipolarity

January 26, 2018

The Uncertainty of Multipolarity

by Bunn

ONE phrase captures the complex and often baffling world of international relations today: a shift towards multipolarity.

Image result for Donald Trump


This growing reality is experienced more than it is understood or even commonly perceived. The familiar notion of much in global geopolitics revolving around the US as major pole has stuck.

This is partly because old habits die hard. People everywhere have grown accustomed to the US as leading superpower, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as sole superpower.

Image result for America is still the indispensible global power

The US global position remains unassailable: despite the hype, China is not yet able to compete for the global superpower stakes and is not doing so. A rising China is now focused only on regional big power status.

A real sense of competition may take hold if the US perceives China as a clear rival and acts accordingly. This would force a largely reactive China to define its own geopolitical space and thus be seen as defending or competing for it.

While much in the US or Western narrative still relates to fundamental changes in today’s world, too much is attributed to it. Many changes now lie outside its scope or tend to move away from it that in itself being a sign of growing multipolarity.

Related image

A sign and a result of China’s rise is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Factors that prompted the AIIB included China’s marginalisation by major Western-led financial institutions the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, despite China’s growing economic strength.

An obvious funding project for the AIIB is China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although Beijing played down the connection initially. The bipartisan response from a Washington that saw China as a competitor was to snub or spurn them, even quietly pressing allies to do likewise.

However, before many countries could decide on their own response, closest US ally Britain announced its support for both. That triggered more Western countries to do the same.

Britain’s move is not surprising in historical context, despite the question marks it placed on the US-UK special relationship. For centuries Britain regarded itself as first among equals in the West, if not better, in forging profitable global relationships.

Image result for us uk special relationship
Image result for us uk special relationship

The British Empire had bested all other European equivalents, holding sway long before any unique relationship with the Americans. But while London’s relationship with Asia then was one between colonial master and subordinate, today it is between partners.

Such adjustments can be tricky or elusive. For decades Australia, as another US ally, struggled and still struggles, with geopolitical changes that shift its centre of gravity from the West towards Asia.

Granted much of this shift is only economic, but economics defines much in the modern world. Since geography still matters, being located nearer to Asia than Europe or North America now limits Australia’s options.

To be at the “arse-end of the world”, as two of its Prime Ministers have put it, means Australia all the more needs to reconcile with its regional realities. But while its 2003 Foreign Affairs White Paper acknowledged China’s rise and the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century embraced these trends, last November’s update longed for an Australia more closely tied to the West.

Other regions such as North-East Asia have been more realistic and forward-looking. Events there have also testified to change in the direction of multipolarity.

The Obama years had alienated both China and Russia, making them natural allies over a range of issues. This coincided with the re-emergence of both countries that are also among the five supposedly promising economies of BRICS, together with Brazil, India and South Africa.

The West’s snub of Russia leaned in favour of China and Russia’s subordination to Beijing, given China’s larger economy and vast schemes like BRI. Soon China’s prospect was seen to overshadow Russia’s role in Central Asia and Eurasia such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Meanwhile frosty Japan-Russia ties were a given, particularly with Japan’s status as a US ally and its dispute with Russia over the South Kurile Islands (Northern Territories). But Tokyo and Moscow are set for a change.

Among the prizes at stake are Russia’s oil and gas deposits in its Far East region sought by both Japan and China. This competition works in favour of Russia as energy supplier.

Image result for Xi and Putin

With close China-Russia ties resulting unwittingly from US policies, Moscow now needed to reboot its relations with Tokyo. As projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline have shown, even costs are secondary to geopolitics as a consideration.

To Japan, it could only gain if Russia became a partner or if Russia-China ties loosened, preferably both. Japan is particularly spooked by a sense of growing military cooperation between China and Russia, and their common interests in North Korea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia twice in 2016 to discuss energy and technology with President Vladimir Putin, who returned a visit in December. For years now Abe is seen to be the weaker of the two, so he hedged his bets by acknowledging the prospect of more cooperation with China.

Nonetheless Japan has the technology Russia seeks, and Russia has energy supplies Japan wants. Russia is also courting Japanese investment for its underdeveloped Far East.

Abe gave his Trade Ministry the added responsibility of developing economic ties with Russia, challenging Western-led sanctions against Moscow. For Japan the stakes would seem to be higher.

Visits and meetings between Japanese and Russian leaders continued throughout last year, with Japan as virtual supplicant. Russia did not budge in giving in to Japanese hopes of retrieving four disputed Kurile islands.

Instead, Russia proposed constructing a bridge between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, both as a symbol of peace and as practical infrastructure between both countries. Without the kind of progress in relations Japan has been yearning for, Abe plans to visit Russia twice this year and to invite Putin to Japan next year.

The two leaders will also meet on the sidelines of other summits elsewhere during this time, regardless of their bilateral limitations. Thus the much-presumed pact between Russia and China is not set in stone.

Neither is any prospect of a substantive Russia-Japan partnership. If indeed Russia is wary of a rising China, it is also wary of Japan’s firm alliance with the US.

Although President Donald Trump is supposed to be Russia-friendly, he is under continuing pressure from the same US Establishment keen on preserving the alliance with Japan and wary of both China and Russia.

Meanwhile Britain continues to build a cosy relationship with China unfazed, as Finance Minister Philip Hammond talked up mutual relations in Beijing last month.

Post-Brexit, successive Conservative and Labour governments are consistent in looking East despite the reservations of pundits at home.

And just in case China may seem to have things too easy, even its prized BRI project has already encountered problems with none other than staunch ally Pakistan.

Work on the Diamer-Bhasha hydroelectric dam is suspended over sovereignty issues while talks on railway and airport projects have stalled. Bumps in the road and knots in the belt have also surfaced in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand.

All told, the other thing about multipolarity is its uncertainty.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Letter from The Editor, New

December 24, 2017

Letter from The Editor, New

Image result for New

The Editor of New Mandala is James Giggacher. James holds qualifications in journalism and international relations from the University of Technology — Sydney and the Australian National University, and has worked across print, radio and television, including stints with national broadcasters the ABC and SBS.

He has also been published across a range of Australian and international media inlcuding The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC’s The Drum, SBS News, Business Spectator, CNN, Rappler and The Establishment Post. He’s also contributed to specialist academic websites like Policy Forum, the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s Asian Currents and, of course, New Mandala.

From The Editor

It’s the time of the year when New Mandala joins the rest of Australia to disappear for the Christmas and New Year holiday. We’ll be taking a break from publishing from today, and will be back online in early January.

Who’s going to miss 2017? Certainly, nobody who cares about human rights, ethnic and religious tolerance, or democratic institutions, given what a horror show this year has been for all of those things throughout the region.

New Mandala’s top posts of 2017

Revisit our 20 most-read posts published throughout the year. 21 December, 2017

But bad years for Southeast Asia have a grim tendency to be good ones for this blog. Notwithstanding the subject matter that authors have had to address, the quality of the contributions we’ve hosted this year has been outstanding. (See our list of 2017’s most popular posts at the left, and a few of my personal favourites—yes, I have immodestly included one co-authored by myself and a colleague—at the bottom of this post.)

I’d like to extend my thanks to all of the contributors who volunteered their time to write something up for New Mandala, especially from the time-scarce academics and students among you. Your contributions have been a testament to the benefits of scholars weighing in on debates about political and social developments as they happen, in a format accessible to broad, non-academic audiences.

I should note that New Mandala has been in good company here: the University of Melbourne’s Indonesia at Melbourne and Oxford University’s Myanmar-focused Tea Circle blogs have also done good work throughout the year in bringing important scholarly perspectives on Southeast Asian topics to the table. Let’s hope that what all these platforms are part of is a comeback of the blogging medium, in the face of some stiff competition in recent years from the Twitter thread and Facebook status.

A big thanks, of course, is also due to our readers, and your engagement with the content of New Mandala posts on social media and elsewhere. You might think some takes were brilliant, some were rubbish, but if you happened to be introduced you to a new topic you didn’t know much about beforehand, or were made to see a well-known topic from a new perspective, then this blog has done its job.

Looking forward to 2018

We’re heading into a big year for Southeast Asian elections. Before long Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will pull the trigger on a general election, and New Mandala will once again be a platform for must-read analysis of Malaysian politics, from the fine grained to the big picture.

Our old friend Thailand may well see an election of some description in 2018, if the latest pronouncements from Government House are to be believed. Indonesia will also hold a wave of major regional polls that will set the scene for 2019’s national legislative and presidential elections. Indeed, the presidential election campaign begins, for all intents and purposes, in late 2018 with the registration for candidate deadlines set for October. In Cambodia, July’s general election might be the final nail in the coffin for the pretence of democracy maintained by Hun Sen over the past two decades. In all of these elections, New Mandala will be there for critical, up-to-the minute commentary and analysis.

From next year we’ll also be making a few changes to our modus operandi on Twitter. We’ll be rebooting the @IndoNewMandala account, which you can follow for news and updates on new Indonesia posts, as well as news updates and recommended reads. You can keep up on the latest from Malaysia’s election campaign through out dedicated GE14 stream at @GE14NewMandala. Our Associate Editor Mish Khan will be tweeting from Yangon at @MMatNewMandala, our new dedicated Myanmar feed.

Lastly, I’d just like to say that I’m always keen to hear more from readers about how we can make this site as useful a resource as it can be both for readers and contributors alike. Send me an email any time at to share your thoughts.

To everybody celebrating Christmas: Merry Christmas. And to all, a happy new year and best wishes for 2018.

Editor’s favourites of 2017

Holy places and unholy politics

Ahok’s support of an Islamic pilgrimage site amid Jakarta’s container port illustrates the intricacies and paradoxes of Indonesia’s politics of religion.

A better political economy of the Rohingya crisis

Crude speculation about ‘land grabs’ obscures the complex historical roots of today’s Rohingya persecution.

Class dismissed? Economic fairness and identity politics in Indonesia

Exit polls from the Jakarta election are a good starting point for thinking about the nexus between identity politics and inequality in Indonesia.


Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper

December 4, 2017

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

Image result for Australia-China Ties

The Australian government has published a new Foreign Policy White Paper. It is 14 years since the Howard government launched its own Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper in 2003, although the Gillard government produced the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2013. Much has changed in Australia’s international environment since either of those papers were released.


Indeed, much has changed since the initiation of the current White Paper process some 15 months ago. Few would have predicted the election of Donald Trump, the extent of protectionist sentiment in North America and Europe or the acceleration of the North Korean nuclear crisis. In this new and more complex international economic and strategic environment, the Australian government has produced a foreign policy blueprint that is refreshingly frank in its depiction of the challenges its policymakers now face.

In this week’s lead essay Peter Drysdale describes the White Paper as ‘a masterly articulation of the fluidity and uncertainties in Australia’s diplomatic circumstance today’.

The White Paper makes clear that the most significant of these challenges stems from the two major powers in our region — the United States and China — and the relationship between them. Few will be surprised by Australia’s view that it faces a more contested and uncertain international environment as a result of the changing balance of power between the United States and China and its concerns about how China may use its political, military and economic weight in the future.

What will surprise observers is the White Paper’s unequivocal statement of the threat to international order emanating from the United States. Those threats include deep-seated protectionist and anti-globalist sentiment, a lack of support for key global and regional institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and debate about the country’s willingness to pay the costs of ongoing global leadership. The White Paper states time and again that the United States will remain Australia’s most important international partner and ally. But in betraying such a note of alarm about US retreat it is apparent — as one observer has argued — that the Australian government ‘doesn’t believe its own public rhetoric about the United States as some sort of security guarantor’. Drysdale explains that ‘for the first time here there is clear official acceptance, and disclosure to the public, of the diplomatic problems that Australia and its partners now confront’.

So the Australian government is shifting its diplomatic attention to the region — in particular to what it calls the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. It has adopted the Indo-Pacific label because it sees India as a future economic power and, more importantly, as a hedge against China. In the face of an uncertain US ally and a more assertive China, the Australian government sees partnerships with major Indo-Pacific democracies — India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea — as the best means of shaping the future regional order.

Australia’s decision to commit greater diplomatic attention (and presumably resources) to these regional neighbours is a welcome and much-needed change. But its focus on the democratic character of the countries with which it is choosing to partner is problematic. Such a strategy will likely inhibit Australia’s ability to deepen its engagement with governments of a range of different political stripes across Southeast Asia — a region that is critically important to Australia’s economic interests and which the White Paper defines as sitting at ‘the nexus of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific’.

The reframing of the region to downplay continental Asia — a region that is responsible for the largest part of global economic weight and dynamism — and emphasise the Indo-Pacific — a primarily maritime security construct — brings some risk for Australia. As Drysdale explains, the Indo-Pacific nostrum is not a diplomatic concept anywhere tested in the White Paper, ‘except through its footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe’.

More importantly, the White Paper proposes no clear framework for how to deal with China: the major power in the region. Instead, it is a relationship that the White Paper seems to suggest will proceed largely ‘business as usual’. This is a missed opportunity. Drysdale notes that President Xi’s ’19th Party Congress commitment to the multilateral system and a shared community of interests’ is the obvious agenda on which to engage China and put real meat on the bones of an upgraded Australian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China (which the White Paper recommends).

The paper acknowledges the importance of the China relationship for Australia both in terms of China’s economic weight and in terms of the challenges posed by China’s rise. Those challenges are seen as China’s potential use of coercive power, anxieties about its influence on Australia’s domestic institutions and society, frictions stemming from differences in the two countries’ interests, values, and political and legal systems as well as questions about China’s record on international rules and norms.

On the latter point, the White Paper clearly views China’s behaviour towards smaller countries in the South China Sea and its apparent challenge to freedom of navigation as litmus tests for how Beijing will operate in other international settings, although it fails to acknowledge that while China may be challenging freedom of (US) military navigation in the South China Sea, freedom for commercial shipping remains unimpeded.

Given the scale of these political and security challenges, the importance of China to Australia’s economic future and the fact that China will influence every regional and global issue on which Australia has an interest, it is disappointing that the White Paper does not propose specific measures for how to elevate the Australia–China relationship in ways that will allow the two countries to manage this critically important relationship and the difficulties that will inevitably ensue.

The White Paper succeeds in spelling out Australia’s foreign policy challenges and, as Drysdale advises, ‘should not be relegated to the dustbin’ by any future government. Some of the gaps in the strategy to achieve the White Paper’s aims are filled by existing, carefully considered public studies that engaged the public in their making. The previous government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has a clear strategy for engaging the Asian economy and developing the diplomatic, business and community assets to do so. The Australia–China Joint Economic Report defines clear ways to elevate the bilateral relationship, to work at furthering shared interests and to make the management of the complex relationship much easier. Some of the central ideas in these complementary studies are reflected lightly in the Foreign Policy White Paper, but taken together these strategic documents offer practical guidance for Australia to navigate and shape its region in the coming years.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised  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 in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Dr. Peter Drysdale on Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper

Hard work, getting Australia’s foreign policy right

by Peter Drysdale, ANU

Getting foreign policy right at this point in world diplomatic history has never been more difficult.

For that reason the Foreign Policy White Paper launched by Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo in Canberra last week is a welcome beginning to an important public debate.

Image result for julie bishop, Michael Turnbull, Steve Ciobo


Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (center) with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and her Cabinet colleagues

It is a masterly exposition of the fluidity and uncertainties in Australia’s diplomatic circumstance today. For the first time, there is clear official acceptance and disclosure to the public of the diplomatic problems that we confront as regional tensions rise. The White Paper explains in detail, reassuring as its tone may be, that Australia is caught between an unpredictable and perhaps unreliable US ally and an unpredictable and possibly unreliable Chinese partner. It offers few solutions but the franker admission of what the situation looks like is a big step forward.

The economic growth that’s come with globalisation has quickly changed the international balance of power. The United States, which has been the dominant power in the Asia Pacific region since World War II is now challenged by the rise of China. The world is more interconnected than at any other time before. New technologies as well as the transmission of the know-how and scientific knowledge lifts opportunities and prosperity at the same time as it spawns political alienation and the reach of non-state actors who would do us harm. Risks to the global commons demand collective action. These are the big challenges that Australia and its partners now confront.

What’s new is the intensification of the tensions around this change and its corrosion of the pillars on which Australia’s foreign policy is based. If the White Paper had been written when it was initiated well over a year ago, before the election of President Trump, the escalation of the Korean crisis and Brexit’s blow to Europe, it would have had an unquestionably less urgent and less ambiguous tone.

In the White Paper there is no budging on rock-solid faith in the US alliance relationship as the bastion of global rules and its importance to Australia’s navigating new uncertainty. Equally there’s unequivocal statement of the importance of Australia’s partnership with China and acceptance of legitimacy of China’s sharing responsibility and power as well as the reality that (like all great powers) China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests.

What the White Paper makes clear is that the Australian government and bureaucracy, which have been so closely entwined with the United States in the past, are alarmed by the decline of US military power and influence and Trump’s discarding the conventions of the international economic order. He has abandoned the rules-based system — commitment to abiding by the WTO, the TPP, NAFTA, the Paris Accord and probably its KORUS agreement with South Korea — on which the world has depended to bring order to the global system.

In China’s militarising of the South China Sea and heavy breathing in disputes over territorial issues as well as increasing internal repression and the cult of personality surrounding President Xi, the White Paper sees dangers from the international use of coercive power.

The White Paper’s refreshing frankness is nonetheless folded in a conceptual frame that accentuates the negative response. The paper adopts the Indo-Pacific idea but neither tests nor defines it — except through its footnote definition as a geographic area that touches every continent bar Europe. We know it is a maritime security construct that’s been part of military dialogue for some time. That is one element in responding to the complex problems we now all face — but only one. It is an element that vastly underestimates the complex economic and political interdependence with mainland Asia that Mr Trump in Washington, Mr Xi in Beijing and everybody else in the region has to deal with day by day.

There are other strategies and actions which Australia can take: asserting constructive influence with like-minded countries to persuade both China and the United States that their current courses court danger more than opportunity.

The day that the White Paper was launched, the Wall Street Journal reported escalation of the Trump administration’s plans for trade war. Unchecked, these moves will wreak havoc on the global trade regime — a regime that more than any other rules-based system is the foundation of Australia’s and Asia’s economic prosperity and political stability.

There needs to be an immediate and vigorous response from Asia through conclusion of the ASEAN+6’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its calibration as part of an over-arching strategy on global trade to check Trump’s recklessness.

China will not be turned towards reducing security concerns without up-close engagement. The White Paper identifies one important priority: to upgrade Australia’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China. But on how and to what purpose, the White Paper is silent. There’s chance to work with China on Xi’s 19th Party Congress commitment to the multilateral system and a shared community of interests. That is an investment worth the risk.

Yelping from the sidelines is no effective strategy. Delivering regional security and prosperity requires resourcing and developing diplomatic strategies in concert with Asian partners, including China, as the White Paper urges. Strategies that engage China will alleviate concern in Beijing by those who read the White Paper as an attempt to contain it.

The temptation of some subsequent government will be to tear this document up, like the current government discarded the Asian Century White Paper, expunging Asia from its diplomatic lexicon and short-changing Australians.

That would not be wise.

Both the robust narrative and the more fragile conceptions of how to deliver Australia’s prosperity and security in the White Paper invite serious debate. It would be unfortunate if partisan disputes (not least between the more unthinking supporters of the United States and China) resulted in the paper’s being sidelined or ignored in future policymaking.

Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor, Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Editor-in-Chief of East Asia Forum at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

Why South Korea eyes ASEAN

June 9, 2017

Speaking Of Asia

Why South Korea eyes ASEAN


Having vaulted itself in quick time into the ranks of advanced nations, South Korea is undeniably something of a modern miracle. Its success in riding on East Asia’s growth, combined with massive investments in education and innovation, has led to raised living standards and longevity, as well as given it a leading edge in a variety of fields from steel to consumer electronics and shipbuilding. A firm defence yoke to the United States lent it strategic cover as it focused its energies on growth.

That model has run its course in more ways than one. China is steadily lengthening its supply chain, buying less from its southern neighbour. Its strategic space has been crimped too by an assertive Beijing, despite a series of overtures to China from Seoul.

And the future is uncertain. There is no saying where US foreign and military policy might go. Economic growth has more than halved from the 1965-2005 period, requiring the manufacturing- and export- dependent nation to grow more of its domestic and services economy. As demographics go, at their current rates of reproduction, some fear that the South Korean, as a subspecies, may be significantly extinct by 2070. On top of it all, a generation of spoilt young Koreans has emerged, with outsize expectations for themselves but little of the work ethic of their forebears. Youth unemployment is rising, partly because the educated young are too picky to go where the jobs are. There are only so many prestigious openings at the headquarters of the giant chaebols, where they think they deserve to be. It is not unknown for a mother to call up managers to question why they gave her 23-year-old a bad time in the office, or factory.

In other words, Seoul is in a bit of a cabbage pickle.It’s time for creative thinking and fortunately for the nation of 51 million, there are some active minds at work. One train of thought that has been gaining momentum is a foreign and economic policy that eschews its reflexive North-east Asian orientation and looks southward towards the 10 nations of ASEAN, especially as they edge towards building an economic community that accounts for a market of more than 600 million people and an economy of US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion).

Last week, the South Korean scholar Shin Yoon Hwan of Sogang University, who is President of the Korean Association of South-east Asian Studies, even suggested at the annual Jeju Forum that ASEAN ought to widen its membership to include South Korea. After all, he argued, at its birth the grouping had offered Sri Lanka, a South Asian nation, a chair at the high table.

As Professor Shin sees it, the benefits of closer integration with ASEAN are mutual. For instance, the Japan-ASEAN technology gap may be too wide but the Korea-ASEAN gap is just enough for both to enjoy complementarity for their goods in world markets. The region is also now the top destination for South Korean tourists and ranks fifth in the South Korean foreign direct investment list. Besides, there is a shared colonial heritage from the days of the Japanese Occupation.

Undoubtedly, there is merit in some of what he says. At a time when globalisation and open markets are under deep scrutiny, any joint effort to lift the game is welcome. Two-way trade between South Korea and ASEAN has been stagnating, and there simply is no chance of attaining the US$200 billion targeted by 2020.

And South Koreans do seem comfortable in ASEAN; one in nine travels to an ASEAN country every year, chiefly to Thailand and the Philippines. About 330,000 people from ASEAN states live and work in South Korea. And exclusionist and isocultural as they tend to be, a small but growing number of Koreans are marrying people from the region. South-east Asia is also in the thrall of hallyu, or Korean Wave, thanks to the popularity of its songs, drama and cuisine.


Still, good intentions aside, the question is how to get results. Hallyu’s soft power can prove fleeting if tastes change, as they are known to. For a more lasting glue, Seoul will need to work harder.

Time to open up

Eight years ago, President Lee Myung Bak announced his New Asia Initiative, which sought to widen his country’s focus from North-east Asia. It was a theme he reiterated at the following year’s Shangri La Dialogue. Seoul did appoint its first ambassador to ASEAN in 2012 but, beyond that, movement has been fitful, especially on security cooperation. South Korea did join ReCAAP, the Singapore-based body that fights piracy and armed robbery on the high seas, but has seemed hesitant about doing more. Certainly, compared with China and Japan, which actively woo the region with aid and defence equipment, its profile does not show up quite enough.

Granted this is not entirely its fault; every time Seoul looks to widen its aperture, its North Korean sibling has pulled its focus back into the neighbourhood either by an act of aggression, such as the sinking of a navy ship, or by conducting ballistic missile or nuclear weapon tests.

But those irritants will not go away. What then should South Korea do to maintain and build momentum?

First, it can contribute to globalisation by keeping its markets open and contributing to wider market opening. South Korea is a part of the RCEP process, the ASEAN-led initiative for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between ASEAN and the six states ( Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand) with which it has free trade agreements. But it could go further perhaps by dropping its wariness of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, especially as the 11 parties to that arrangement desperately try to salvage the accord despite America’s withdrawal from it.

South Korean participation would be a boost for TPP in more ways than one, including widening its strategic options. Likewise, an early conclusion of an Open Skies Agreement with ASEAN would benefit its own tourism sector. Amazingly, there are virtually no direct flights linking ASEAN capitals to Jeju, South Korea’s beautiful resort island.

Image result for 4th industrial revolution icon


South Korea also must seek to fully partner with ASEAN as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers momentum. The country has led the Bloomberg Innovation Index in recent years and has much to offer the region as it copes with change. The new landscape of automation and additive manufacturing offers Korean companies opportunities to look beyond traditional investment destinations based on market size and wage-competitiveness to a new climate where efficient logistics and expertise in high-tech manufacturing will be key.

A Korea technological university in an ASEAN country, backed by its engineering companies, that draws students from ASEAN as well as Korea would not only boost technical skills in the region but also build a slate of engineers familiar with Korean technology who would carry this knowledge and goodwill into their occupations. This will eventually help boost Korean companies’ chances of winning business in the region.

On the strategic side of the equation, Seoul has to show more than a transactional interest in defence arrangements with ASEAN. It should signal clearly that it, as much as any other nation, places value in keeping the sealanes of communication open, and will act to do so. One lesson it could draw from ASEAN is on how this region seeks to balance all major powers, and particularly how it deals with Japan.

South-east Asians, who have endured much pain at the hands of the Japanese in an earlier era, have learnt to forgive and move on, even as they will never forget Japanese excesses. South Korea, on this score, far too often shows up as a boat that, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, beats back against the current, ceaselessly borne into the past.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2017, with the headline ‘Why South Korea eyes ASEAN’. Print Edition | Subscribe


Soothing East Asia’s Nerves–Mike Pence in Asia

April 21, 2017

Soothing East Asia’s Nerves


  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s 10-day tour of East Asia will focus primarily on easing uncertainty among U.S. allies about the administration’s policies in the region.
  • U.S. moves to contain North Korea and compel China toward cooperation will dominate discussions in Seoul and Tokyo, though tension over the Trump administration’s trade policies will loom large in both visits.
  • Indonesia and Australia will remain wary of joining U.S. initiatives that risk provoking China but also receptive to U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for more robust defense cooperation.


Image result for VP Mike Pence to visit Australia

Nearly 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, uncertainty over the direction of U.S. policy and its behavior in the Asia-Pacific continues to pervade the region, including among many of Washington’s most important allies. In particular, between Trump’s early calls for strategic partners such Japan and South Korea to cover more of the costs of supporting U.S. troops on their shores, his decision to withdraw the United States from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his administration’s recent statements and actions in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Trump has helped put the typically slow-moving and carefully managed geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific in flux.

In doing so, his administration has arguably opened avenues for progress on issues of longstanding concern to Washington, especially U.S.-China trade relations and North Korean nuclearization. At the same time, the White House’s actions have left countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — traditional linchpins of U.S. strategy in the region — looking for greater stability and predictability from Washington.

Image result for VP Mike Pence at the DMZ

US Vice President Mike Pence at The DMZ , South Korea

During his ongoing tour of the region, which started April 15 and will end April 25, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is seeking to project precisely that: a more stable, predictable and reliable United States. In meetings with heads of state and key lawmakers in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia, the Vice President will reaffirm Washington’s commitment to stability in the region and the defense of allies and partners against a range of threats, including North Korea, Chinese maritime expansion and terrorism. Likewise, in scheduled “listening sessions” with business leaders from each country — and, in particular, by formally opening the U.S.-Japanese economic dialogue with Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso — Pence will seek to address regional concerns over Washington’s trade, investment and currency policies and foreground its continued commitment to regional free trade, albeit through avenues other than multilateral pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Notably, on April 18, Pence announced that Washington plans to review and reform the 2007 U.S.-South Korean trade pact.)

To the extent that Pence’s visit is aimed at shoring up Washington’s regional alliances and partnerships, the four stops of his tour share at least one common theme: the goal of countering China’s expanding security footprint in the South and East China seas and, more broadly, to constrain Beijing’s long-term strategy of replacing the United States as the dominant power in East Asia. But each leg of his tour will address a different aspect of this underlying imperative. Like his visit to South Korea on April 16-17, Pence’s subsequent meetings in Tokyo likely will center on managing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and, in Japan’s case, checking Chinese maritime activities in the East China Sea. His meetings in Indonesia and Australia from April 20-23, by contrast, will focus on clarifying Washington’s positions on regional trade and South China Sea security, while smoothing over earlier bumps in relations (in Australia’s case) and offering increased defense support both for maritime and counter-terrorism activities (in Indonesia’s case).

Pence’s Seoul Visit and the North Korean Nuclear Quagmire

Given the visibility and significance of mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is no surprise that South Korea was the first stop on Pence’s tour. His visit, which comes just ahead of the expected arrival in Northeast Asian waters of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group and, more significantly, the North’s ballistic missile test on April 15 — the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung — sought to reaffirm U.S. defense support for South Korea and signal Washington’s willingness to take unilateral military action against the North if diplomacy fails. Such moves are aimed as much at compelling China to step up its own efforts to coerce North Korea as at deterring Pyongyang itself from conducting further nuclear or missile tests. Last week, the semiofficial Chinese news outlet Global Times said China would cut off oil supplies to the North (one of Beijing’s most effective tools of leverage over the Kim government) if Pyongyang conducted additional nuclear tests.

But while China’s tacit announcement, followed with a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, signal burgeoning cooperation, however limited, between Washington and Beijing on North Korea, the situation on the peninsula is highly fraught and fluid. In particular, it remains to be seen whether the United States can compel China to throw its full diplomatic weight behind the effort to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It is also unclear whether China possesses sufficient leverage to compel the North to meaningfully change its behavior.

Washington’s ability to nudge Beijing toward action depends on a number of factors — in particular, what measures the White House has asked the Chinese to take toward Pyongyang and the extent to which Beijing, given its own geopolitical constraints and often countervailing interests, can or is willing to intervene. The Trump administration’s threats to use military force against Pyongyang and its expected positioning of the carrier strike group near the peninsula are likely intended to undercut China’s capacity to parlay its leverage on North Korea into concessions from Washington on other issues. The U.S. moves also raise the direct costs for China of continued intransigence on negotiations with Pyongyang. The prospect of an even greater U.S. defense footprint in South Korea and Japan is deeply worrisome for Beijing, independent of what happens to North Korea. China’s recent statements suggest that Washington’s actions have had some effect. Even so, it is questionable whether any action China takes against North Korea, short of completely cutting off the latter’s economic lifelines, will deter Pyongyang from pursuing a functional nuclear deterrent. In fact, punitive actions by Beijing and increased saber rattling by the United States may only accelerate the North’s nuclear weapons development efforts.

Against this backdrop, Pence’s visit to Seoul served primarily as an opportunity to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the South’s security and, to that end, to shore up political support within South Korea for rapid deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in the face of Chinese economic retaliation. The emphasis on the reliability of U.S. support will carry over into Pence’s visit to Japan from April 18-21. But unlike in South Korea, where Washington must carefully weigh its options against the risks and costs of retaliation by China or further provocations by North Korea, the United States faces fewer such constraints in Japan.

Reflecting the approach of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis during his February visit to Tokyo, Pence will use his time in Japan to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance as foundational to regional stability. In addition, he may urge Tokyo to take on a more prominent and proactive role in maintaining security in the East and South China seas and discuss avenues for future U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation.

Looking South: Indonesia and Australia

Image result for VP Mike Pence at a Mosque in Indonesia

US Vice President Mike Pence and his family were taken on a tour of Istiqlal, Indonesia’s biggest mosque, in Jakarta © POOL/AFP / Adek BERRY–Indonesia is a truly moderate Islamic country.

Pence’s discussions on Japan’s expanding diplomatic and security roles in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea will pave the way for the second half of his trip.

Conspicuously, Pence is not visiting Thailand or the Philippines, the United States’ two treaty allies in Southeast Asia, but which have both been tilting slightly toward China. Nor is Pence visiting Vietnam or Malaysia, two parties to the dispute with China over the South China Sea with which the Barack Obama administration was keen to enhance defense ties. What the decision to steer clear of the front lines of the South China Sea dispute signals, if anything, is difficult to say, though the Trump administration appears to be relying increasingly on Japan’s growing influence in these countries to further U.S. regional goals.

Image result for VP Mike Pence not visiting Malaysia

Vice President  Mike Pence seen with Indonesia’s President Jokowi Widodo gives Malaysia a pass?

But Indonesia and Australia are increasingly pivotal players in the Western Pacific in their own right. In Jakarta, Pence will urge an inward-focused government to embrace the country’s potential role as a regional counterweight to China, a unifying voice within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and a robust check on sources of maritime insecurity. And in Australia, a steadfast treaty ally of the United States, Pence will focus on smoothing over lingering uncertainties about the Trump administration’s commitment to maintaining the U.S.-led economic and security architecture in the Western Pacific — doubts magnified by the famously rocky start to Trump’s relationship with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In particular, Pence will seek to build on the momentum of his lengthy, reportedly fruitful talks with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during her trip to Washington in February.

Image result for VP Mike Pence with Julie Bishop in Washington DC

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop meets with US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington. Picture: Yuri Gripas

One important difference between Japan on one hand, and Indonesia and Australia on the other, is that where Tokyo possesses the requisite economic, diplomatic and military power to chart a strategic course openly at odds with Chinese interests, Jakarta and Canberra depend heavily on China for investment and as a market for their raw materials and finished goods. Indonesia and Australia’s interests in maintaining stable, close ties with Beijing will limit their ability and desire to throw their full weight behind U.S.-led efforts to check Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

In fact, though the United States and Indonesia have ample room for cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism, Jakarta remains exceedingly reluctant to entangle itself in regional disputes, and bilateral defense ties are relatively underdeveloped because of past U.S. sanctions over the military’s human rights abuses. (Jakarta’s deep suspicions about Canberra’s strategic intentions have also hindered development of Australian-Indonesian defense cooperation, despite a recent warming of ties.) Meanwhile, entrenched protectionist forces at home limit Indonesia’s ability to diversify its trade relationships and expand its economic influence in Southeast Asia. Australia, for its part, has a geopolitical imperative to ally itself with the world’s foremost naval power, but it, too, remains wary of provoking China, for example by joining U.S. “freedom of navigation operations” aimed at discrediting Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Even so, both countries have powerful incentives to keep the United States close. Though not directly involved in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Australia relies on global sea lines of communication — and the freedom of navigation through them afforded by U.S. protection — as the bedrock of its export-intensive economy. Indonesia, for its part, has stepped up efforts in recent years to defend its territorial claims in areas such as the Natuna Islands against China, as well as Malaysia and Vietnam. For Jakarta, substantially stronger defense ties with the one country capable of enforcing rules and checking Chinese expansionism in the region would be critical in a crisis.

Overall, Pence’s Asia tour is unlikely to bring major policy breakthroughs. Rather, the aim of his visits is to reaffirm the fundamental continuity of U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific and to communicate that while the ways in which Washington wields its power may be subject to modification under the Trump administration, that power and influence will not diminish.

Treat IA-CEPA with Caution, says CSIS Researcher

April 12, 2017

Treat IA-CEPA with Caution, says CSIS Researcher

by Rudy Intan

“…the statist–nationalist approach clearly indicates where Indonesia under Jokowi lies with respect to multilateral trade negotiations in the Asia Pacific. As the dust settles on the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan and Australia will be keen to ensure that RCEP includes higher commitments on things like services and investment. China on the other hand is keen to secure an early deal by the end of 2017 that primarily involves reducing tariffs. Jokowi’s approach suggests Jakarta will lean towards Beijing in the contest to shape a trade pact that will cover a third of the world economy and half its population.”–Rudy Intan


Despite the warmth between Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following their February 2017 meeting in Canberra, hopes that the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership (IA-CEPA) will achieve a high quality ‘21st century partnership’ should be treated with caution.

Image result for Jokowi-Turnbull

Jokowi-Turnbull –IA-CEPA

FTAs are generally evaluated differently by their respective countries. In the case of IA-CEPA, Indonesia maintains formidable barriers to sectors of Australian interest such as agriculture, mining and education. Matthew Busch highlights that announced deals to improve access for Australian sugar and cattle do not confront the daunting market access challenges in Indonesia.

The challenges of reaching a meaningful agreement have been well documented. Yet the Jokowi government’s approach to FTAs has so far avoided scrutiny. This is relevant not only for the IA-CEPA but also for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). International economic policy is driven by domestic economic policy concerns. Consequently, Jokowi’s approach to international economic policy is but an extension of his domestic one.

Eve Warburton provides the clearest articulation to date of Jokowi’s approach to economic policy, termed new developmentalism. It is a statist–nationalist mode of thinking focused on ‘infrastructure, deregulation, and de-bureaucratisation’. The approach is statist because it views state intervention as necessary to accelerate national development, with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) acting as growth locomotives. At the same time, it is nationalist because intervention aims to reduce reliance on foreign capital, build state strength, and safeguard sovereignty.

Clear examples of statist–nationalist policy include capital injections and the awarding of strategic projects to SOEs, as well as plans to establish large holding companies in key industries. Recent moves on beef import licenses and an export ban on unprocessed minerals are further illustrations. Other agendas such as anti-corruption and human rights take a back seat to safeguard the political equilibrium created by the administration to accelerate growth.

The statist–nationalist approach is oriented towards delivering short-term victories in the form of tangible economic outcomes. There is speculation that one of the reasons the Jakarta–Bandung high-speed rail project was awarded to Chinese developers over a Japanese company was the former’s promise to deliver results before the next election, with construction to finish in 2018 and the line operational in 2019.

By extending these priorities into international economy policy, how Jokowi views FTAs can be discerned. The overarching goals are growth and development, with an emphasis on export market access. Imports should be controlled since they are perceived as undermining local industry and productivity. Liberalisation is viewed as a last resort for attracting foreign direct investment and only allowed if not overtly disruptive, especially to political stability. Foreign policy and geopolitics will not factor much into FTA calculations.What do these priorities mean for Jakarta’s trade agreement prospects with Canberra and its participation in the region’s multilateral negotiations? First, IA-CEPA will likely fall short. It is unlikely that the agreement’s scope and commitments will be comprehensive enough. Australia’s interests in agricultural exports and mining investment will run against powerful and entrenched Indonesian interests, a clash where the latter will most likely carry the day.

This calculus could be different if Australia offers meaningful concessions, such as by opening up its labour market for Indonesian migrant workers. Yet even such enticement will not amount to much without significant skills and language training on Indonesia’s part. It is likely that notions of economic sovereignty and self-sufficiency will prevail, especially if powerful actors in the agriculture and mining industry are considered necessary allies to maintain the political equilibrium.

Image result for Jokowi-Turnbull


Second, the statist–nationalist approach clearly indicates where Indonesia under Jokowi lies with respect to multilateral trade negotiations in the Asia Pacific. As the dust settles on the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan and Australia will be keen to ensure that RCEP includes higher commitments on things like services and investment. China on the other hand is keen to secure an early deal by the end of 2017 that primarily involves reducing tariffs. Jokowi’s approach suggests Jakarta will lean towards Beijing in the contest to shape a trade pact that will cover a third of the world economy and half its population.

Without the lure of a large market that it currently does not have an FTA with — such as the US market which previously was offered by the TPP — Indonesia is in no rush to bind itself to a high-commitment agreement and will be wary of allowing RCEP to evolve into such. Prospects do not seem rosy for those hoping Indonesia will enact meaningful reforms initiated by an FTA, be it through IA-CEPA or RCEP. Grounding expectations for both is in order.

Rocky Intan is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta