Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy


August 30, 2018

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy

by Chan Kunthiny
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Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Architect of Cambodia’s Win-Win Policy at Home and Abroad. This Policy has brought Peace, Stability and Prosperity since it was initiated in 1998

 

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states, writes Chan Kunthiny.

Explaining Cambodia’s foreign policy through the prism of either “Sinicization” or “anti-Americanism” does not reflect the dynamics and complexity of Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy. These two conceptual approaches ignore the underlying dynamics of Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

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The Trump Administration has yet to learn the Lessons of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Read King Norodom Sihanouk: My War with the CIA and William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

 

To analyse any country’s foreign policy, one has to at least understand what constitutes the national interests of that country. As a small state, Cambodia defines its national interests based on the following four factors.

First, protecting territorial integrity. No foreign pundits have ever looked at Cambodia’s foreign policy behavior from this aspect. Cambodian people have a strong “victim mentality”— owing to the long history of foreign invasion and occupation following the fall of the Khmer Empire. The latest border skirmishes and tensions between Cambodia and its neighbors occurred in 2011 (with Thailand), 2015 (with Vietnam), and 2017 (with Laos).

Cambodia had exercised its utmost restraint and exerted diplomatic means to resolve the border tensions and disputes. This needs to be recognised.

Second, maintaining sovereignty and independence. For any small states, practicing the Westphalian system in reality is probably similar to Martin Luther King’s fight for the rights of black people despite the constitutional equality of all citizens. Small states face huge challenges in maintaining their sovereignty and independence as they are subject to coercion or invasion by more powerful nations.

From an outside-in perspective, small states tend to be willing to cede their sovereignty and independence in exchange for security protection or economic benefits. And from the inside-out perspective, there is a generalisation that superpowers are all the same in the way that they exert their power without respecting the interest of their weaker states.

Third, preserving peace and stability. This has been taken for granted by both outsiders and some insiders. The sad truth is that peace and stability that Cambodians have been enjoying since it gained total peace in 1998 is, in fact, the longest peace in Cambodian history after the collapse of the Khmer empire in 15th century.

As a post-conflict country, Cambodia remains vulnerable to political instability if strong leadership and institutions are not in place. Cambodia needs to keep nurturing the culture of peace, social harmony, and political dialogues.

Fourth, sustaining economic development. Cambodia has been quite successful in eradicating poverty – from absolute poverty in 1979, to a more than 50 percent poverty rate in the 1990s, and now to almost below 10 percent. This is a remarkable journey of development and nation building. It needs to be noted that after gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia had only one high school and the post-colonial Cambodia did not have a proper state apparatus to provide sufficient public services. Moreover, peace did not last long enough to allow state institutions to get reformed and strengthened.

The above four factors are all critical and intertwined. For example, even if internal peace and stability is so dearly important for Cambodia, it can never rule out the possibility of war if foreign powers interfere and violate Cambodian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Since the early 1980s, the Cambodian government has been domestically and internationally accused of being a “Vietnamese puppet” that allegedly ceded territory to its so-called master. However, the fact is even after nearly 40 years of border negotiation, both sides have not completed border demarcation. If Cambodia were a colony of Vietnam, the border demarcation would be completed in Vietnam’s favor, just like when the French colonial master decided everything on behalf of Cambodia.

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Constructive Engagement with China based on mutual respect and common interest

Another lingering perception is that Cambodia is willing to lose its sovereignty and independence just for the sake of material incentives provided by China. This is the theory of “Sinicization” of Cambodia. In its publication on July 19, the Nikkei Asian Review featured Cambodia in the front page with the title “Cambodia’s Chinafication”. In contrast, its latest article on August 24 entitled “Thailand rolls out red carpet for 500 Chinese companies” provided a softer tone of discrimination. It should be noted that despite Cambodia’s seemingly good relations with China, Cambodia has never had the opportunity to receive 500 Chinese companies in one single delegation.

Another important fact is that so far there is no case of any purchase of Cambodia’s public property and infrastructure by Chinese entities. It should be noted that all the deals are leasing contracts or BOTs (Build-Operate-Transfer). Moreover, in terms of risk of indebtedness, Cambodia is seen as being constantly aware and wary of the trend when it declined a loan offer from the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank in May 2017.

Concerning the relationship between “sovereignty and independence” and “economic development”, the futility of threat of sanctions and aid cut by some major powers to pressure a sovereign state to reverse its judicial verdicts is truly a type of neocolonialism that Cambodia has consistently rejected.

All the above four factors should be the analytical lens when one seeks to understand Cambodia’s foreign policy behaviours. The four factors are the barometers of Cambodia’s foreign policy towards other countries.

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states.

Cambodia will never kowtow to any major power. Cambodia has been and will be consistent in linking its foreign policy with peace, stability, territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and economic prosperity.

Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodia analyst based in Phnom Penh.

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism


April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

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Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.

 

 

 

 

 

While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities


April 6, 2018

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/mekong-river-fate-cambodia/

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Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Third Summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on April 5, 2018. Facebook

The Prime Ministers of the low-lying countries through which the Mekong River runs – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – have been meeting this week to attempt to reach agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the river’s huge basin, now and into the future, overshadowed by China, which clearly intends to exert greater influence over the river and its riparians, according to critics.

It is questionable whether any of the four, who began the meeting on April 4, demonstrate any real commitment to health of the river, which is vital to the wellbeing of 60 million people whose ancestors have for centuries relied on it for their livelihoods as well as for transport, water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation.

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Over the past two decades, most of the four countries’ leaders have instead demonstrated a willingness to build more dams on the river because population pressures and the burgeoning thirst for additional hydropower across Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that the character of the river, Southeast Asia’s largest, is under intense stress.

The main aim of this week’s meeting, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, is a discussion of the Mekong River Council Study, a massive 3,600-page attempt to assess the impacts of mainstream hydro projects begun in 2011. The analysis includes hydropower, irrigation, agriculture and land use, transportation, domestic and industrial water use, flood protection and includes climate change. It is described as an “an integrated, cross-sectoral, comprehensive and state-of-the-art study supporting sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.”

Unfortunately, the study findings conclude that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the lower mainstream of the river and the 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region.

 

“Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food,”according to International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif-based NGO dedicated to protection and preservation of the world’s rivers,  which has dealt exhaustively with the council study. “Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40 percent decrease in Mekong fisheries — a loss of about 1 million tonnes per year and a staggering 97 percent reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

Not only are fish populations expected to fall, the study suggests that there will be drastic changes in fish species with  migratory “white fish” species predicted to disappear entirely from Thailand and Laos and being pushed to the brink in Cambodia. Invasive species are expected to take their place, putting pressure on ecosystems.

To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments meeting at Siem Reap “must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study meaningfully inform decisions on future projects,” according to International Rivers.

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The 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Leaders Summit in Siem Reap hosted by Cambodia’s  Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Certainly, the stakes on the river have increased. The unsettling tendency of the Chinese government to throw its weight around in the lower Mekong basin as well as its frenetic dam-building in the upper reaches, in addition to development on the mainstream of the lower delta are of rising concern. Climate change is becoming an issue as is private funding, particularly by Thai interests, of dams in Laos.

“Beijing has continued to support those countries that are determined to develop dams on the river at any cost,” according to  Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Program for Future Directions International, an Australian research institute. “China provides funds, materials and labor for dam construction in Laos and Cambodia. While both countries see hydroelectric dams as an integral component of their economic development, Laos plans to graduate from least-developed country status mainly by exporting surplus hydroelectricity to its neighbours. China has been willing to help fund those ambitions, as it believes that it will help to further its interests across greater South-East Asia.”

One major issue is the so-called “run-of-river” concept, generally applied to hydropower projects that have only a small reservoir or no reservoir for storing water in contrast to mega-dams that store vast amounts of water and cost billions of dollars to build. The idea is to create sustainable hydro energy while minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment and nearby communities.

The “ROR” dams are theoretically able to harness the energy potential efficiently and without a major environmental impact. Without large reservoirs, they eliminate methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the decomposition of organic matter in conventional reservoirs.

Proponents argue that because proposed Mekong dams have limited storage capacity, the hydrological impacts will be minimal, as they allow a ‘natural’ flow of water through the dam, thus aiding the movement downstream of sediment and allowing for the migration of fish .

But, according to International Rivers, “focusing on the overall amount of water passing through a dam does not take into account impacts on flow patterns, including increased water levels during dry season and decreased levels during wet season. The ways in which dams alter seasonal flow patterns has severe adverse implications for downstream ecosystems and agricultural systems that are built around the seasonal flood pulse.”

ROR dams can have equally harmful impacts as conventional facilities, International Rivers says, “particularly on ecosystems and communities downstream. Some of these impacts are inherent; others depend on how a dam is operated. Unfortunately, the impacts of ROR dams tend to be overlooked and understudied, an oversight in part due to the assumption that ROR are less destructive than traditional dams.”

The NGO has published a fact sheet entitled ‘Swindling the Mekong: Run-of-River Hydro’ seeking to address what it calls some of the misconceptions that surround ROR dams, and examines specific case studies in the Mekong Basin.