The long and winding road to media freedom

September 29, 2018

The long and winding road to media freedom


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by Dean Johns

COMMENT | There’s a political storm raging right now in Australia about suspected government-instigated interference in the independence of one of this nation’s most cherished institutions, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

This comes at a time when levels of public trust in politicians, political parties and corporate pressure-groups and media power-brokers are at all-time lows.

Even the major banks and other financial organisations, whose very existence depends on trust, have been exposed by a royal commission into their activities that Australia’s ruling coalition for years fiercely denied the need for, as systematically dishonest to the point of criminality in many of their dealings with customers.

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And far too many of Australia’s commercial news media are controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s (photo) News Corp, often more accurately referred to as News Corpse.

 This is an organisation that so confuses media freedom with media feraldom as to have disgraced itself several years ago in the UK phone-hacking scandal that led to its closure of its dreadful News Of the World, but not, unfortunately, its equally sordid Sun – or, if you prefer, the Shun – and continues to disgrace itself today with its Fox News in the US.

In Australia, it peddles such right-wing-partisan apologies for “newspapers” as The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, all of which pander to their proprietor’s personal, commercial and political interests by shamelessly slanting their news to fit his views.

And into this very bad bargain, the Murdoch media in the UK constantly campaign against publicly-owned media like the BBC in the UK and the ABC in Australia on the dubious, self-interested grounds of “unfair competition” for print readers, air-media viewers and internet “eyeballs”.

Australia’s government has been responding to this campaign by slashing the ABC’s budget whenever possible, and constantly making complaints about what they choose to perceive as its left-wing bias.

As a result, the ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie was recently fired by the corporation’s board of directors for reasons that the chairman of the board Justin Milne refused to publicly disclose.

And now the chairman himself has been asked by the rest of his board to resign following claims that he had bowed to pressure from Australia’s recently-replaced prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (photo) to propose the sacking of two senior ABC journalists that Turnbull “hated”.

Or at least that’s the plot so far in outline, and anybody interested in exploring it in more detail or following it further would be well advised to do so here.

Meanwhile, this sordid affair should serve as a salutary reminder to citizens of Australia and many other countries never to take their relatively free news media for granted.

And as a timely reminder to Malaysians that the media freedom that most, if not all, of them have dreamed of for so long will not be won quickly or easily.

Lapdogs, not watchdogs

As the much-admired elder statesman Lim Kit Siang said last week in his speech to a large audience assembled by the Sydney branch of Global Bersih, Malaysia now has the chance to transform itself from a kleptocratic black hole to a beacon of enlightenment, probity and progress, but this achievement may take years if not decades.

And I would add that it will never happen without genuinely free, independent and unbiased news media to serve as the people’s watchdogs over whatever government is in power, and also over every other aspect of the nation’s economic, civic and social activities.

The first steps in this direction have already been taken, of course, by Malaysiakini, Sarawak Report and several other pioneering portals dedicated to the dissemination of respectable, responsible and above all, independent news and opinion.

But for 20 years now, they’ve been the tiny exception to the rule imposed on the majority of Malaysia’s so-called “mainstream” media which have served not as watchdogs for the people but as lapdogs for the repressive, corrupt and otherwise criminal and now mercifully defunct UMNO-BN regime.

This is largely due to such unconstitutional laws as the Printing, Presses and Publications Act, the far-too-widely-applied Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Act.

So firstly, if Lim Kit Siang’s version of what I presume to be Pakatan Harapan’s vision for Malaysia is to be eventually realised, all of UMNO-BN’s anti-press freedom laws must be repealed.

Next, or even simultaneously, legislation has to be enacted forbidding political parties or their backers from ownership of news media, and requiring political parties’ shares in existing ones to be immediately surrendered or sold.

But changing truth- and independence-repressive media laws might be one thing, and changing media culture quite another, given that the managers, editors and so-called “journalists” of the mainstream media have been so long and apparently so happily serving as pet propagandists for filthy rich politicians and their cronies.

Anybody who imagines that many or even the majority of these panderers will change their spots beyond switching their craven allegiances to those they see as the new or latest people in power must be dreaming.

As must anyone who fancies that a great many of these ‘presstitutes’ will in future refuse to take bribes for suppressing or playing up stories, depending on who’s the highest bidder for their services.

But this poses the question of how to quickly replace these people, or re-educate enough of them in everything from the ABC to the XYZ of basic news reporting, let alone such advanced versions of the profession as investigative journalism.

DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practices as a writing therapist. Published compilations of his Malaysiakini columns include “Mad about Malaysia”, “Even Madder about Malaysia”, “Missing Malaysia”, “1Malaysia.con” and “Malaysia Mania”.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burden: The Plight of The Rohingyas

September 18, 2018

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burden: The Plight of The Rohingyas                           

by Bunn Nagara

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The problem with tracing the origins of Myanmar’s current massacres of its Rohingya people is that the starting point goes back many years.

Myanmar’s campaign of genocide has been consistent albeit punctuated by peaks and troughs, with violent discrimination against Muslim Burmese people in Arakan (later renamed Rakhine) state dating to at least 1930. It is easy to forget that until 1982 Rohingyas were still accorded Burmese citizenship, but their treatment by the military government and the general public soon deteriorated sharply. For many observers, the “current round” of mass killings and rapes of Rohingya villagers with looting and burning of their homes began in August last year. There have been many horrendous rounds, with each merging into the next.

More limited and stilted have been international campaigns against Myanmar’s government for allowing, aiding, abetting and participating in the crimes. Even so, the current international campaign reaches back to at least December 2016 when fourteen Nobel laureates including 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, with other public figures, urged the UN Security Council to halt the humanitarian crisis confronting the Rohingyas.

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International opinion has grown steadily against Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, a once-respected leader in her people’s struggle for democracy. In the 2015 election campaign she boasted that she would be “more powerful than the President,” even though the army-friendly Constitution barred her from running for the presidency. She won the election but has since been less powerful than a presidential poodle. Worse, she has served to deny all the atrocities committed by state forces and reported by credible international monitors, instead condemning Myanmar’s accusers for spreading false news.

Questions about possibly recalling her Nobel Peace Prize arose, then faded away. If the Nobel Committee knew as much about her in 1991 when they presented it as they do now, she might never have received it.

Other awards she received as figurehead of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy have been withdrawn. Oxford University and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have revoked the prestigious honours they had bestowed on her earlier.

In 2015 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a fact-finding team to Myanmar to observe conditions of the Rohingya community on the ground. They came away horrified that the conditions for genocide were already in place.

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More critical voices from concerned distinguished persons were heard from around the world. The Dalai Lama reproached Myanmar’s mostly “Buddhist” mass murderers, saying that Buddha himself would have helped the Rohingyas.

The spotlight remained on Suu Kyi as the country’s (nominal) leader. Last year Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, called on Suu Kyi to issue a statement but she remained silent.

Increasingly, Suu Kyi’s stubbornness has made her criticise the critics of Myanmar’s genocide while denying any crimes had taken place. This month, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Suu Kyi should have resigned if she could do or say nothing against the military’s crimes against humanity.

The UN Security Council visited Myanmar in March, with plans for a fact-finding mission to investigate the situation. Myanmar banned the mission, which then had to interview hundreds of Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The report of the mission names six senior military officers who should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court. It also blames Suu Kyi for doing nothing to stop the mass atrocities.

In turning things around by inverting the truth, Myanmar’s government rejected the report outright. Instead it blames those responsible for producing what amounted to a pack of lies.

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Myanmar officials should know about telling lies. The army’s public relations unit called True News produced a book with photos allegedly showing Rohingyas attacking other locals. Reuters examined the photos and found that they came from somewhere else – Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, when Pakistani troops attacked Bangladeshis.

Government and military spokesmen could not be reached for comment. An Information Ministry official declined comment by saying that he had not seen the book, which is on sale publicly.

After the international community had pressured Myanmar to take back the hundreds of thousands of refugees it had expelled, it announced the return of a family of five Rohingyas from Bangladesh in April.

Bangladesh immediately denied that had happened. An independent refugee expert agreed with Bangladesh, saying that Myanmar’s claim of repatriation was yet another publicity stunt.

Meanwhile Myanmar’s verification process for Rohingya returnees remains obstructive. Among the requirements is that the Rohingyas must renounce their claim to ever being a citizen of Myanmar, placing them officially as illegal migrants liable for deportation. Rohingyas want to return home to rebuild, so long as they can enjoy basic human rights and freedom from persecution. Myanmar only has to agree to this.

It is difficult to see how Myanmar can agree to anything decent given all that has happened and continues to happen. Rohingya men, women and children have been slaughtered or otherwise terrorised and their homes razed in driving them from their land.

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There may be valuable minerals in the ground in Rakhine state, and politicians, business people and the military may exploit them better if the population was cleared or reduced. Hence, “ethnic cleansing.”

The Myanmar military or Tatmadaw has fought internal wars with dozens of ethnic minority groups, some of which have become defunct or which have been engaged in talks with the government.

At least nine militant ethnic groups remain. Yet the Rohingyas are not among them, since they are not even recognised as an ethnic minority. Rohingyas are the most persecuted of all the minority communities also because they have fought back the least. The Tatmadaw’s bullying style is to target the weakest the most.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) has conducted some sporadic operations against the army, but nothing like the other ethnic minority armies. The Tatmadaw then exploits Arsa’s resistance efforts as a pretext to persecute Rohingyas further.

Even as Suu Kyi joins her generals as international pariahs, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull feted her in Sydney in March. Within 23 weeks Turnbull was removed as Prime Minister, and in another week he had left Parliament altogether. Would Suu Kyi go down a similar road?

It is no longer a secret that the real power in Myanmar still lies with the military. Suu Kyi may be afraid that if she did anything decent about the Rohingyas she may be out of a job.

She is known to have said: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it”. Has she been corrupted by power? She may say no, if only because she never had it. Then she should have no fear of losing what she never had.

She has also said: “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” The Myanmar military has allowed her outside her house for some time now. But will she allow herself to enjoy real freedom?

She may have no power over the Tatmadaw, but she has power over her own actions. Rohingyas hope their leader will let them enjoy freedom too.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at ISIS Malaysia.

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018

August 30, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 438

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018

by Dr. David Scott

Dr. David Scott explains that “The Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017.”

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defence Marise Payne on July 23-24 for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. Holding the meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the U.S. Pacific coast and near the birthplace of the ANZUS Treaty

The AUSMIN meeting held last month brought together the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defense Marise Payne. Its Indo-Pacific focus was unmistakable. Whereas the 2017 AUSMIN Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” but once and for the first time at AUSMIN, the 2018 Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” 11 times; with the “Asia-Pacific,” the previously dominant term of strategic reference, unmentioned.

Certainly other issues were noted in the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration; including Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, ensuring ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq, and continuing anti-Taliban support of Afghanistan. However, the main focus of the Joint Declaration was the Indo-Pacific where it “emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and “the significance of the Indo-Pacific to our shared future.” As such, the Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017. The Joint Declaration stressed a broad convergence, “our shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, which has diplomatic, security, and economic dimensions.”

Some uncontroversial socio-economic objectives were highlighted in the Joint Declaration for application in the Indo-Pacific: “the United States and Australia decided to collaborate to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases in the Indo-Pacific region,” and to “reinforce objectives of Australia’s Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific.”

Alongside such uncontroversial social initiatives were expressions of economic cooperation. With regard to the Pacific basin, the Joint Declaration highlighted that they “support closer cooperation to promote the security, stability, resilience, and development of Pacific Island countries”; and “highlighted the importance of strengthening regional information sharing, maritime security, and domain awareness.” This was a tacit response to China’s greater prominence in the Southern Pacific. Further economic cooperation was pinpointed:

“The Secretaries and Ministers committed to increased bilateral and multilateral cooperation on economic development in the Indo-Pacific, recognizing that security and prosperity are mutually reinforcing. Our two governments will work together, and with partners, to support principles-based and sustainable infrastructure development in the region, which will promote growth and stability.”

Though un-stated, this represented a response to China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative. Such responses had also been the focus of the “Trilateral Infrastructure Working Group” which brought together Japanese, Indian, and US officials in February 2018 to foster “increased connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.”

The AUSMIN meeting in July 2018 set out broad Indo-Pacific values. This echoed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept and strategy unveiled by Shinzo Abe in 2016 and adopted by Donald Trump at the APEC summit in November 2017, which has become the mantra in US strategic formulations. Hence the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration that:

“They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based […] The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”

This was an implicit critique of China, with AUSMIN mention of other “allies and partners” pointing to strategic geometry and potential constraint of China.

In the Joint Declaration, the “open” refers to concerns of a closed Maritime Silk Road push by China, and to the (SCS) being closed down by China achieving its “U-shaped line” claim and thereby making it a Chinese Lake. The focus on “free/democracy” refers to China’s non-democratic authoritarianism. The “rules-based order” refers to China’s rejection of the SCS rulings made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. The SCS was prominent elsewhere in the Joint Declaration; which stressed Australia-US concerns over Chinese “militarization of disputed features” and reiterated the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight.” This point raised the question of joint freedom of navigation operations there by the two allies – to consolidate established US unilateral naval deployments, and Australian unilateral aerial deployments. Given that bilateral Australian-UK freedom of navigation operations in the SCS are being mooted for 2019, this would be an obvious development in US-Australian defense cooperation.

The Joint Declaration “highlighted the importance of US-Australia defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” with the strategic value of the US Marine Rotational Force at Darwin and enhanced air cooperation both restressed and enhanced; together with further naval cooperation where “the principals also decided to integrate US force elements into Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.” Darwin’s importance continues to grow as a convenient jump point for deployment and operation further westwards to the Indian Ocean, further northwards to the SCS and further eastwards to the Pacific Ocean.

Wider defense cooperation was pinpointed in the Joint Declaration; “strengthening bilateral security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific nations through joint training and exercise opportunities.” As to who these like-minded Indo-Pacific nations were, “they welcomed the recent US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific in Singapore and reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen trilateral dialogue with Japan.”

The “trilateral dialogue with Japan” refers to the Australia-Japan-US (AJUS) strategic dialogue mechanism in operation since 2002; which has moved to increasingly significant air force and naval cooperation in the West Pacific and SCS, to China’s unease. The eighth AJUS ministerial meeting, due later in 2018, is expected to mark a formal shift to “Indo-Pacific” terms of reference, echoing the “Indo-Pacific” anchoring already seen in the fourth Australia-India-Japan (AIJ) trilateral, held on 21 July 2018.

The “US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific” refers to the Quad mechanism revived in November 2017. The Quad meeting in June 2018 stressed their common push “for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where all countries respect sovereignty, international law, including with respect to freedom of navigation and overflight;” based on “a common commitment, founded on shared democratic values and principles, to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” and to strengthen “maritime cooperation.”

The explicit message of the AUSMIN meeting was a strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. The implicit message of much of the Joint Declaration was that, despite their stated hopes that “both nations continue to place a high priority on constructive and beneficial engagement with China,” in reality tacit counter-measures were on show.

Anwar faces difficulties in power

May 16, 2018

Like Suu Kyi, Anwar faces difficulties in power

by Ross Tapsell and Kean Wong

Malaysia has been stable, predictable, even boring, for Australians looking at its Southeast Asian neighbourhood, which has experienced great upheaval in the decades since the Vietnam War and the Asian Financial Crisis of the 1990s. Malaysia’s ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional was in power for more than 60 years, rigging the elections system enough to allow them to maintain its rule. Now, in a surprising turn of events, that system has failed them. And no one is really sure what comes next.

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Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysia has now entered uncharted waters, matching the uncertainty of the South China Sea that divides the peninsula from East Malaysia’s states of Sabah and Sarawak. First, prime minister Najib Razak was implicated in one of the world’s largest corruption scandals, with millions of dollars found in his personal bank account in what the US Department of Justice declared was the biggest kleptocracy case it has ever investigated. But Najib’s government was routed at last week’s polls. Winning in its place is a coalition called Pakatan Harapan (or “hope”), five parties with a broad array of agendas and visions for Malaysia.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was last week sworn in again, this time as the 7th Prime Minister, in a deal he took to voters where he would seek to release jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim via a royal pardon from the King, stepping aside after an expected two years to enable Anwar to take over. Anwar is expected to be released this week, as early as today.

In Australia, two former Prime Ministers reflect the ambivalence and sometimes confused views many share about a “predictable” Malaysia. As Tony Abbott tweeted last week: “PM Najib Razak was a good friend of Australia and a voice of decency and common sense at international gatherings. On the big questions he got much right and his time in government saw strong and effective cooperation between our countries.” Kevin Rudd avoided mentioning Najib, but shared Abbott’s view that this “new” Malaysia has far-reaching consequences for Australia and the region. “This is a stunning development with profound implications for Malaysia, South East Asia and China,” he tweeted. Malaysia is a key partner for Australia in responding to a rising China.

But what will this new Malaysia look like? For this unfinished nation’s burgeoning civil society, the “reformasi” (or Malaysian reformation) movement that was sparked off by Anwar’s sacking and jailing by Mahathir 20 years ago still drives the democratisation hopes represented by Anwar.

For many urban Malaysians, over 70 per cent of the country, Anwar personalises the non-racialised political and economic reforms they yearn for, with many assaulted and jailed over the past decades by BN governments led by Mahathir and Najib. Anwar’s coalition politics contrasted its inclusive nature against the “Malay supremacy” policies that were a feature of BN’s rule.

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Opposition party supporters cheer and wave their party flags on election night.

But, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Anwar faces difficulties. Mahathir’s new party ran on a policy to maintain these Malay-first policies, and is buffeted by a still hardy Islamist PAS party as well. This new government would not have won without Mahathir’s leadership and this promise. The opposition coalition was able to placate and win over millions of semi-rural and rural Malay voters previously beyond Anwar’s reach, partly because Mahathir represents Malaysia – and ethnic Malay leadership – at its peak in the 1990s, when Malaysia hosted the world’s tallest buildings and the stock market was the biggest (briefly) in Asia. Mahathir also played off his elder statesman role in the campaign by cutting through to rural voters with simple attacks against Najib, shredding him with accusations of “thief!”. The enmity was starkly and deliberately drawn, and it worked.

Understanding and engaging with this new, possibly fractured Malaysia will be essential to the region’s security, economy, and political developments. This new Malaysia is a win for democracy – and a big win for Australia’s own values. But this will require Australia and its democratic neighbours to invest in this win like never before.

Ross Tapsell is Director of the ANU’s Malaysia Institute. Kean Wong is the Malaysia Editor of the ANU’s Southeast Asia website, New Mandala.

Smart Asia Pacific pivots beyond a Trump-led America

April 20, 2018

Smart Asia Pacific pivots beyond a Trump-led America

Pradumna B Rana and Xianbai Ji, RSIS
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The United States President Donald Trump thinks it is easy to win trade wars. It takes a genius like him to figure it out. No one in the United States dares to challenge his doctrine


US President Donald Trump has taken a radically protectionist approach to trade. Trump has launched a series of unilateral moves including increasing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on national security grounds and announcing plans to impose tariffs on US$60 billion of Chinese imports.

Uncertainties regarding continued access to the US market have forced Asia Pacific countries, for whom trade is an economic lifeline, to pivot beyond Trump-led America by adopting a three-pronged policy response: the acceleration of mega free trade agreements (FTAs), the enhancement of regional connectivity and the deepening of inter regional economic cooperation.

Japan and Australia have taken the lead in pushing through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11) without the United States. This agreement was signed on  March 8, 2018 and is expected to come into effect in early 2019, once it is ratified by at least six of the 11 members.

Although the CPTPP suspends or amends 22 US-supported provisions from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP is still a gold standard agreement. It eliminates tariffs on 95 per cent of merchandise trade between the agreement’s parties while containing many ground-breaking rules relevant to 21st century trade. The CPTPP offers large economic benefits even without US participation.

Several other countries may also join the CPTPP. South Korea says it is assessing the CPTPP’s effect before making a decision. Indonesia, Thailand and even the United Kingdom have expressed interest in joining the accord. Trump has said that he is open to re-joining the trade agreement but only if it involves a ‘better deal for the United States’. This may not happen any time soon.

Asian countries have also accelerated negotiations for the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If the CPTPP is successful, it should give a boost to RCEP negotiations. The negotiating parties are optimistic that RCEP can be concluded in 2018 under Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship. To fast-track RCEP, the idea of an ‘RCEP minus X’ formula is gaining traction.

Since RCEP is a mega FTA comprising mostly developing countries, it would not be as transformative as the CPTPP. But its conventional free trade agenda would still confer significant benefits. We estimate that in the medium term, RCEP would generate welfare gains of US$127 billion, compared to US$35 billion from the CPTPP. Cambodia and Thailand are likely to benefit the most from RCEP.

Asia Pacific countries have also stepped up efforts to enhance regional connectivity through infrastructure development, as a second prong to offset US trade protectionism. In 2016, ASEAN unveiled its Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. The plan envisions a ‘seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated ASEAN’ by 2025. It includes several major region-wide infrastructure projects such as the ASEAN Highway Network.

But the headline-grabbing infrastructure initiative in the region is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2013. The BRI aims to connect more than 70 countries across the Afro–Eurasian supercontinent via large-scale projects including railways, roads, bridges, ports and pipelines. Despite criticism of a lack of transparency and of China’s debt-trap diplomacy, many developing countries in need of investment finance see the BRI as an attractive proposition.

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Figure It out, Guys.

Two connectivity proposals can be viewed as alternatives to the BRI. India is collaborating with Japan under the Asia–Africa Growth Corridor proposal to develop maritime connectivity across Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Australia, India, Japan and the United States are involved in another grouping known as the Indo-Pacific Partnership. Both proposals remain at the consultation stage.

The third prong of the Asia Pacific response to rising US protectionism is the promotion of inter-regional economic cooperation.

On March 5, 2018, the Philippines ratified its FTA with the European Free Trade Association. Australia and New Zealand hope to start trade negotiations with the European Union this year, while ASEAN hopes to resume its stalled region-to-region FTA negotiations with the European Union in the next few months. South Korea signed FTAs in February 2018 with a number of Central American countries. Singapore is negotiating an FTA with the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru).

What shape could the evolving regional trade architecture take?  Countries would benefit from joining more than one mega FTA. For example, Vietnam’s real GDP would increase by 1.5 per cent from joining the CPTPP or 3.3 per cent from joining RCEP. If Vietnam joins both, its real GDP would increase by an estimated 4.2 per cent.

Once the CPTPP is ratified, countries party only to the CPTPP (Canada, Mexico, Peru and Chile) should seek RCEP membership. Similarly, the countries party only to RCEP (Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea and Thailand) should seek CPTPP membership. This would result in a bloc in the Asia Pacific of 20 countries with membership in both the CPTPP and RCEP.

The advantages of dual membership are access to Chinese and Indian markets through RCEP and valuable exposure to high-quality trade rules through the CPTPP. Countries would not have to choose sides between the Japan- and Australia-led CPTPP and the ASEAN-led RCEP.

Ironically, President Trump may have done more to promote regional and interregional cooperation in the Asia Pacific than the region would have achieved independently.

Pradumna B Rana is Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Xianbai Ji is a PhD candidate at RSIS holding the Nanyang President’s Graduate Scholarship.

Earlier versions of this article appeared here on RSIS and here on the Council on Foreign Relations website.


Deciphering Jokowi’s Javanese card in ASEAN-Australia relations

March 30, 2018

Deciphering Jokowi’s Javanese card in ASEAN-Australia relations

by Dedi Dinarto

Research Associate with the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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In an interview with Fairfax media in mid-March, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that “it is a good idea” for Australia to join the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) to increase political and economy stability in the region. This prompted speculation among political analysts. Some have interpreted Jokowi’s implied invitation to Australia as a “Javanese response” – giving an ambiguous answer to please others.

Mission impossible?

Observers argue there is little chance Australia will join ASEAN. This is due to various reasons, including their different defence policies.

Australia is tied to military-based defence pacts, including the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The aggressive nature of these pacts goes against ASEAN’s non-interference principle. ASEAN emphasises the absence of external military hostility as its core principle.

Another barrier possibly comes from other ASEAN member states. As ASEAN is run by consensus, all ten members must approve the proposal of having Australia as the bloc’s 11th member. So far, other members have not responded to Jokowi’s suggestion.

In the past, ASEAN leaders, including Indonesia, have resisted the idea. In 2002, the then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, rejected attempts by his Australian counterpart, John Howard, to build closer ties with ASEAN. The previous Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, also expressed reservations.

In 2017, former ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino rebuffed the idea of Australia being part of ASEAN. Australia was “not Southeast Asian”, he said.

Stereotyping Javanese residents

Jokowi’s presidency has reinforced an old pattern in Indonesian politics that the President should be of Javanese ethnicity.

Only one out of seven Indonesian Presidents was not Javanese. The Sulawesi-born B.J. Habibie received the presidential mandate after Suharto resigned following student protests in 1998. And even Habibie is half-Javanese.

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President B.J. Habibie

With the unwritten rule that the Indonesian president should be Javanese, political analysts have often connected Javanese culture with Indonesian leadership. In the case of Jokowi’s comment on ASEAN membership for Australia, analysts believe he was being polite by giving an ambivalent answer.

However, it is important to note that Javanese culture is not simply about being overly polite and giving safe answers.

The richness of Javanese culture comprises both belligerent and benevolent elements, such as ambition, influence, interests, power, harmony and thoughtfulness (ngugemi rasa) – the idea of being inoffensive and considerate to the feelings of others.

In the past, Indonesian leaders have expressed Javanese culture in various ways for diplomatic purposes.

Strenuous Sukarno

Sukarno, nurtured by Javanese traditions like the wayang stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, left his mark in history as a strong leader who fought colonialism and imperialism with assertive political tactics, bolstered with his unforgettable charisma.

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The Charismatic Orator President Sukarno seen with US President John F. Kennedy

Javanese believe that such a pattern of foreign policies carries a certain logic, which is depicted through the symbol mandala.

Indonesian historian and academic Soemarsaid Moertono defined mandala as a circle that symbolises the dynamics of influence, interests or ambitions and reflects the Javanese idea of pursuing world domination and universal peace under a sole supreme ruler.

During the 1960s, Sukarno demonstrated a belligerent worldview against Dutch colonialism over West Irian (now West Papua). He also confronted the formation of Malaysia in 1963, which he believed was the extension of British colonial rule in the region.

In this case, Sukarno’s leadership style was a confrontational expression of Javanese culture.

Suharto’s soft and hard approach

Suharto, in contrast, expressed a more benevolent notion of Javanese culture. A native of the Javanese heartland, Suharto avoided open disputes. He preferred solving disputes behind closed doors.

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President Suharto with Cambodia’s  Norodom Sihanouk

One of Suharto’s achievements was to push the “benevolent” Javanese notion of “achieving and maintaining harmony as one of the primary goals of social life” to become ASEAN’s fundamental principles, known as the “ASEAN Way”.

However, Suharto also exercised the belligerent notion of Javanese culture. His campaign against communism in Indonesia and the country’s invasion of Timor Leste (now East Timor) in 1975 are examples of this.

Jokowi’s leadership style

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President Jokowi embodies Javanese politeness and diplomatic courtesy

Jokowi’s statement on Australia joining ASEAN is therefore unsurprising. His statement is an expression of ngugemi rasa, or thoughtfulness.

However, rather than emphasising Jokowi’s Javanese politeness and diplomatic courtesy, the concept of ngugemi rasa might explain his intention not to offend Australia in order to maintain harmonious relationship with ASEAN’s largest southern neighbour.

Therefore, Jokowi’s statement should not be taken lightly. In fact, this is not the first time that Southeast Asian leaders have opined about granting membership to non-Southeast Asian countries.

In May 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pushed for the inclusion of Mongolia and Turkey in ASEAN, a move that dismissed the importance of geographical boundaries and shared historical experience.

Although Australia is not a member of ASEAN, their relationship is inseparable as they are interconnected in the economic and security realms. Jokowi’s statement can be understood as a compliment for Australian contributions to the region, instead of an explicit statement of support for Australian ASEAN membership.

It is important for Australia to understand the significant role of Javanese culture in Indonesia’s diplomacy. Taking for granted statements from Indonesia’s Javanese leaders may lead to misunderstandings and misinformed responses.