Playing to The Parochial and Sentimental Malay Gallery: The Israeli visit


February 20, 2018

Playing to The Parochial and Sentimental Malay Gallery: The Israeli visit

by Dato’ Dennis Ignatius

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Why not use of our soft power to improve our relations with Israel and help the Palestinians in the process? One way to promote better understanding is to allow Malaysians to visit Israel where they will learn about technology and innovation. The Jewish state will not disappear from the face of the Earth. Din Merican

…the world is changing and changing rapidly and no more so than in the Middle East. We must find new ways to accomplish long-held objectives. Rigid positions and knee-jerk reactions might make for good domestic politics but they do little to advance our interests or help the Palestinian people. Instead of making a big issue about their presence here, we should have seized the opportunity to informally engage the Israelis about Palestine.–Ambassador Dennis Ignatius

COMMENT | Israel’s recent participation in the World Urban Forum (WUF) in Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February has predictably aroused controversy.

Given our myopic views and anti-Semitism, anything Israeli or Jewish always makes for great political drama and is quickly exploited by political parties to score cheap points and burnish their Islamic credentials.

Playing to the gallery

Pro-government groups routinely accuse the DAP, for example, of collaborating with the Jewish state as when they infamously accused the DAP of secretly plotting to set up an Israeli military base in Malaysia.

And who can forget how skilfully the government manipulated and exploited Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with mammoth rallies and stirring speeches about their commitment to Palestine?

Playing to the gallery, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak (photo) pompously declared: “We will not budge in our defence for the plight of the Palestinians… even if it means cutting me up into pieces, leaving behind only one piece of ‘meat’, we will not budge.”

The trouble with this approach is that it encourages others to play the same game as Amanah and PKR are now doing.

When news broke that Israeli officials participated in the WUF, one Harapan MP demanded to know whether Malaysia was softening its stance on Israel by allowing the aforementioned Israeli officials to enter the country.

Saying that the “move had caused shock and sadness among many Muslims in the country,” he asked whether the government had “pawned the pride of Muslims in matters concerning Israel just for the sake of money and trade?”

Even, PAS, notwithstanding its own ongoing scheming and connivance with UMNO, couldn’t resist taking a dig at the government by suggesting that the decision to admit Israeli diplomats proved that UMNO was “untrustworthy”.

And, of course, there is no shortage of Muslim NGOs ready to be outraged at the drop of a hat. “The decision by the Malaysian government to issue visas to senior-level [Israeli] delegates to enter [Malaysia] is shocking and most regretful,” a coalition of NGOs griped

Just another UN meeting

In reality, it’s all much ado about nothing.The simple fact, as Foreign Minister Anifah Aman (photo) rightly clarified, is that the Israelis were here to attend a UN conference, nothing more.

As a UN member and host, Malaysia has certain obligations including allowing all UN members to attend. It is for the same reason that the US permits North Korea and Iran, both of which it cannot abide and does not have diplomatic relations with, to travel to New York to attend UN meetings.

Israel’s attendance at the WUF does not, therefore, imply recognition or a change in policy. There is nothing sinister about it and those who have chosen to make an issue of it are doing so for purely political reasons.

Keeping Israel out

Of course, there are those who will argue that under such circumstances it is better not to host international conferences, but that is both irrational and illogical and does not serve our interests.

Why should we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world just to keep Israel out?

Those who demand that trade relations between Malaysia and Israel be banned are also ignorant about how interconnected the world economy has become.

Goods, services, technology and investments cross borders in many different ways irrespective of whether or not there are direct linkages. Waze, the popular app used by millions of Malaysians to navigate our increasingly complicated highways, for example, is an Israeli invention. It hasn’t stopped us from using it no matter what our views about Israel are.

Engaging Israel

The fact is, the world is changing and changing rapidly and no more so than in the Middle East. We must find new ways to accomplish long-held objectives. Rigid positions and knee-jerk reactions might make for good domestic politics but they do little to advance our interests or help the Palestinian people.

Instead of making a big issue about their presence here, we should have seized the opportunity to informally engage the Israelis about Palestine.

It would have certainly done more to help the Palestinians than the noisy demonstrations and empty rhetoric that have become a substitute for meaningful policy these days. But, of course, that requires courage and real leadership.

DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former Malaysian Ambassador.

Read more at https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/412580#alhtcqtJjUoOHVMd.99

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


January 6, 2018

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

by Philip Bowring@www.asiasentinel,com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whither ASEAN in the Trump Era?

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

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

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

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

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

Cambodia: Democracy Update


December 9, 2017

Cambodia: Democracy Update

by Sorpong Peou

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

In recent months, the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken stronger steps to guarantee a win in the national election scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen’s objective is simple — to prevent his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from losing power by whatever means necessary.

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Prime Minister HE Samdech Techo Hun Sen– sustaining economic economic growth and maintaining national security. World Bank October 2017 Update is positive

Hun Sen has relied on a combination of three tactics — coercion, co-option and control — to maintain his domination over Cambodia’s politics in the name of protecting national security. Those who cannot be co-opted into the CPP’s sphere through material rewards can be coerced into submission, and those who do submit are still kept under tight control.

The CPP is also resource-rich, well equipped with coercive means and in control of state institutions, especially the armed forces and the judiciary. Those who have refused to defect to the CPP or who resist it face acts of intimidation and threats of punishment.

Disarming the CPP’s political opposition involves taking pre-emptive action to make it difficult for opposition leaders to mobilise effective political support far ahead of the 2018 election. Hun Sen has been successful in suppressing the political opposition and shutting out any help offered to his opponents. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been the primary target. The recent jailing of its president, Kem Sokha, is a good example of Hun Sen’s tactics. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ensures the CPP will not face any credible challenges in 2018.

Any organisations, domestic or foreign, perceived as politically supportive of or sympathetic to opposition parties are also viewed as potential targets by the CPP. Media outlets have come under pressure, especially those that broadcast news produced by foreign media agencies such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government recently shut down The Cambodia Daily, a major English language newspaper in the country, and sent its owner a bill of several million dollars for its failure to pay taxes. In August 2017, the government closed the US-funded National Democratic Institute and expelled its staff from Cambodia.

Hun Sen claims these ‘legal’ actions against the CPP’s political opponents and its critics are about protecting national security. Is this true?

The answer is no. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia has not encountered any serious external threat. In fact, the country has been blessed with goodwill from countries around the world. Cambodia did the right thing when it joined ASEAN in 1999. In spite of some unresolved territorial disputes and minor border clashes between Cambodia and two of its fellow ASEAN members, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian relations with its neighbours have been relatively peaceful. Western democracies may want to see regime change, but evidently have not done anything credible to undermine the CPP.

The unarmed opposition to the CPP does not pose any threat to Cambodian national security either, but it has threatened to undermine the ruling party’s political dominance. Although the CPP won in the 2013 national election, it lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the opposition more leverage over the ruling elite. In spite of good economic growth, ratings of Hun Sen’s performance among urban populations remain low. If elections were free and fair, the CPP would end up losing.

While they have done a lot of good for the country, including taking part in the war against the murderous Pol Pot regime and helping many Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of economic growth, the CPP elite have reason to worry about their political future.

Hun Sen and other top CPP leaders have been accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption and thus can never be sure of what might happen to them if they were to lose power. Hun Sen has already been threatened with legal action — another reason why the CPP has tightened control over the security forces and the judicial system, using the courts to prosecute any serious opponents threatening its survival.

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Cambodia remains an attractive tourist destination

Cambodia’s politics of survival is likely to continue unless or until members of the CPP elite and those in the opposition see their common problem: the inherent weakness of Cambodia’s state institutions, which perpetuates the toxic dynamics of threat and counter-threat. Both sides tend to demonise each other. They keep engaging in the nasty politics of character assassination, killing any possibility of advancing a common interest or any hopes for solidifying the culture of dialogue.

Cambodian leaders have a big choice to make. Either they continue along this current trend with no end in sight, or they band together to build the country’s democratic state institutions for the benefit of their own nation. Working together is certainly the only way out and the best option, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of survival politics in Cambodia — a real threat to democracy and its national security.

Sorpong Peou is President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, and Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.

ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism


December 6, 2017

ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism

by Richard Javad Heydarian*

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RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical and contemporary issues. The authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print  with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email your feedback to Mr Yang Razali Kassim, Editor RSIS Commentary at RSIS Publications@ntu.edu.sg.

Synopsis

To save the principle of ASEAN centrality, the regional body should transcend its consensus-based decision-making and embrace minilateral arrangements on divisive issues.

For four decades, ASEAN commendably established the foundations of a nascent security community in Southeast Asia, where the threat of war among neighbouring states has teetered on the verge of impossibility. In the past two decades, the regional body has tirelessly sought to create a broadly peaceful, rules-based and inclusive regional security architecture.

The regional body is increasingly suffering from a ‘middle institutional trap’. The type of decision-making arrangements that enabled it to reach its current stage of institutional maturity are insufficient to meet its newer challenges. In particular, the rise of China and its growing assertiveness are not only disturbing the regional security architecture but also undermining ASEAN’s internal cohesion and its quest for centrality in East Asian affairs.

Limitations of ASEAN Way

The ‘ASEAN way’, where consensus and consultation undergird decision-making regimes, is no longer up to the task. The regional body’s unanimity-based decision-making mechanism has unwittingly handed a de facto veto power to weaker links that are under the influence of external powers.

Moving forward, the body has two choices. It can modify its institutional configuration by adopting an ‘ASEAN–X’ or ‘qualified majority’ voting modality on politico-security affairs, or it can fall into irrelevance.

This is poignantly evidenced by the South China Sea disputes. After it failed to embrace wholesale institutional innovation, the only way forward is a constructive form of ‘ASEAN minilateralism’, where like-minded and influential countries in the region coordinate their diplomatic and strategic calculations vis-a-vis South China Sea disputes.

End of ASEAN Centrality?

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In 2016, the leaders of ASEAN displayed encouraging unity — or at least a semblance of it — during the Sunnylands Summit with former US President Barack Obama. At the end of the meeting, the two sides released a joint statement that called for shared ‘commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea’.

So both sides agreed that not only should the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) be a basis for resolution of disputes, but also mentioned ‘legal processes’, which could be interpreted as an implicit statement of support for the Philippines’ decision to resort to compulsory arbitration against China in accordance with Article 287, Annex VII of UNCLOS.

Both sides also emphasised the necessity of ‘non-militarisation and self-restraint’. This was particularly salient given China’s worrying deployment of surface-to-air missile systems, high-frequency radars and fighter jets to contested land features in the Paracel Islands as well as newly built facilities across artificial islands in the Spratlys.

But as the Philippines’ arbitration case reached its final stages, ASEAN suddenly began to lose steam. Things came to a head during the special foreign ministers meeting between ASEAN and China in Kunming when the Southeast Asian countries failed to release a joint statement, which forced frustrated officials in the Malaysian Foreign Minister’s Office (which initiated the high-level meeting) to release a draft joint statement.

A Minilateralist Solution

It did not take long for some ASEAN countries to shut down any hope of ASEAN centrality on the South China Sea disputes. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen openly criticised the Philippines’ compulsory arbitration against China, dismissing it as a provocative act that is ‘not about laws’ and instead a ‘political conspiracy between some countries and the court’.

More disappointing, when it became clear that the Philippines scored a clean sweep victory against China (with the court nullifying China’s historic rights doctrine and much of its nine-dashed line) most ASEAN countries immediately called for patience and calm rather than compliance by claimant states to a binding decision.

 

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In a strange twist of events, the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte has soft-pedalled on the issue, refusing to raise it in multilateral fora. During its 2017 chairmanship of ASEAN, the Philippines oversaw a joint statement that was ironically even less critical of China than in previous years.

It is highly unlikely that ASEAN will ever find a consensus or adopt a robust statement on South China Sea disputes. The much-vaunted code of conduct (COC) framework looks like a repackaged Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, since dispute settlement mechanisms or any reference to relevant UNCLOS provisions (and Philippine arbitration) are excluded.

COC: New Hope or Mirage?

Looking at the outline of the COC framework, the ‘objectives’ of the document are ‘to establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea’. The operative term is ‘norms’, which denotes the absence of a legally binding nature. In the section on ‘principles’, this is quite clear: the document states that the final COC will not be ‘an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues’.

Key ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can bilaterally and individually release statements that communicate their disappointment with China’s activities in the area and relay their willingness to step up their ‘minilateral’ cooperation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN claimant states can also negotiate a parallel legally binding COC grounded in international law that can then serve as a framework for maritime delimitation. It can be more substantive and maximalist. It should call for an immediate freeze on reclamation activities, construction of military facilities, deployment of military assets and expansive illegal fishing in the area.

If ASEAN cannot embrace this minilateral approach, it runs the risk of complete irrelevance in shaping and managing potentially the most combustible conflict in the 21st century.

*Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author who contributed this to RSIS Commentary. The article is partly based on a conference organised by Stratbase-ADR Institute (July 2016), and a joint workshop of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological  University, Australian National University, and Stanford University at the Asia-Pacific Centre For Security Studies (APCSS) in October 2017.

 

https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CO17210.pdf

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/12/05/asean-needs-to-move-to-minilateralism/

Duterte as ASEAN Chair in 2017


November 20, 2017

Duterte as ASEAN Chair in 2017

by  Purple Romero

https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/rodrigo-duterte-as-asean-leader/

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President Rodrigo Duterte, who took over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a year ago, is responsible for a decision to mute controversy over ownership of the South China Sea that has drastically changed ASEAN’s role in the resolution of the longstanding territorial dispute between its claimant-states and China.

Duterte’s year-long leadership of the 10-member pact was hardly a watershed. Overall, the Philippines did put ASEAN towards a more productive path on some points by steering clear of the more contentious issues of addressing human rights issues or giving claimant states much-needed regional support in their territorial conflict with China.

“Given ASEAN’s constraints and limitations, its modus operandi and increasing workload of consultations and discussions, it is difficult to see what else it [the Philippines] could have done within the one-year chairmanship that could make ASEAN more progressive and more productive,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

 “It was enough for [the Philippines] to have been able to competently chair and host the meetings without potential serious controversies (particularly regarding the South China Sea and the Rohingya) paralyzing its processes.”

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On the issue of the South China Sea and China’s claim to virtually all of it via its so-called Nine-Dash Line, the events of the last year draw a clear contrast to previous actions. Two decades ago, the Philippines had to ask for the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over China’s reported military installations in Mischief reef, an atoll claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

ASEAN came to the rescue with a joint communique calling for a code of conduct in 1996, designed to set restrictions on the construction of buildings and military activity in the sea, which was being claimed by ASEAN members Malaysia and Brunei. Vietnam, another claimant, joined ASEAN later.

Fast forward to 2017. ASEAN, under Duterte’s chairmanship, and China has endorsed a framework for the code of conduct. It was Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi – and not ASEAN – which announced the adoption of the framework at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August.

Wang said both parties would discuss “the principles, and plan for the next stage of consultation of the COC” and build a “consensus.”

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ASEAN and China now have announced their commitment to negotiate, saying it “is important that we cooperate to maintain peace.” After 21 years since ASEAN first raised the need for a code of conduct, the negotiations will start next year.

It won’t ultimately show ASEAN’s unity. Ironically, even as it signals an important milestone in the history of resolving the maritime rows between China and clamant-states, it also cements the return to settling the territorial discord over South China Sea through bilateral talks – just the way China wants it.

Duterte’s pivot: Good to a point

As the height of irony, the first sign of the thawing of Manila’s cold relations with Beijing started when the Philippines won its dispute against the latter when an international court in The Hague struck down China’s nine-dash claim in July 2016, scoring a significant win for the Philippines which, devoid of military might, had to cast its lot in the international court of arbitration.

It was a historic win in a David-vs-Goliath scenario. But Duterte was quick to change the tone of the triumph, calling “on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety” instead of celebrating the stunning rebuke to China.

There are two major explanations behind Duterte’s lackluster reaction. US President Barack Obama chastised the Philippine leader for alleged human rights violations allegedly committed under Duterte’s violent and murderous war on drugs, sparking a furious response from Duterte, who responds to criticism of his actions with hair-raising rhetoric.

But in addition, Duterte has always maintained that the Philippines is no match for the military and economic superpower China and that as an Asian neighbor it is in the Philippines’ interest to make its own pivot.

That is a mantra that defined the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship. And, while it marked a shocking turnaround for the Philippines – which used to be counted on as one of the most aggressive and vocal ASEAN-member states in its opposition to China’s expansionism in South China Sea – it did help keep China at the negotiating table until a framework on the COC was finalized.

“The Duterte administration’s ‘softly’ approach on its disputes with China in South China Sea permitted the framework agreement to be realized,” said Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Prior to Duterte’s reign, his predecessor Benigno Aquino III explored different ways to strengthen the position of the ASEAN claimant-states. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs proposed a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Cooperation in the South China Sea in 2011 to enclave the Spratly and Paracel islands and turn them into a Joint Cooperation Area.

The proposal, however, did not gain much support from other ASEAN members. The following year, China and the Philippines would engage in a standoff in the Scarborough Shoal, pushing the Philippines to consider taking the legal route – and eventually winning – against China.

ASEAN, however, was divided over the Philippines’ victory in 2016.  While Vietnam lauded it, Cambodia – which considers China a major economic ally – objected to it being referenced in the joint communique at the 2016 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, resulting in the first time the organization failed to agree on a joint communique.

When the Philippines chaired ASEAN in 2017, it adopted Cambodia’s stance, negating the mention of Manila’s momentous victory in any forum involving ASEAN and China. The Philippines took that a step further by opposing the inclusion of any objection to China’s alleged militarization and land reclamation in South China Sea in the joint communique in August.

In the ASEAN Regional Forum in August 2017, Philippine foreign affairs Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano admitted that the Philippines wanted references to land reclamation and militarization in South China Sea dropped in the joint communique, forcing Vietnam into a corner. “They’re not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again this year?” he said.

In the end though, consensus prevailed and the chairman had to give in. The Philippines withdrew its opposition and the joint communique contained language showing concerns over China’s reported militarization and land reclamation activities.

But up until the 31st ASEAN Summit in November, even as the Philippines was caught in another standoff –   albeit briefly – with China in Thitu (Pag-asa) island, the Philippines was still generally cordial in its approach.

The most that Duterte did is to bring up with China the concerns of ASEAN about freedom of navigation in the strategic trade route, which China said it wouldn’t impede.

 “The warmer ties between Philippines and China, combined with the chairmanship of the Philippines, were instrumental in drawing down the prominence of the (South China Sea) SCS disputes on the ASEAN agenda, from being a divisive issue in 2013 into a practically peripheral matter in 2017,” Jay Bongalo, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said.

“This will allow ASEAN to essentially remove the controversial aspects of the SCS issues from its agenda, move on from playing any really significant role in the resolution of the territorial and jurisdictional rows, and allow the ASEAN claimant countries to deal with their respective issues bilaterally with China.”

Even if the Philippines was able to get the negotiations on the COC going, ASEAN as whole and at its best, will now largely focus on crisis management or prevention. When it comes to resolving territorial tiff, each country will now be left on its own – a crucial victory for Beijing.

 ASEAN’s expected “lowest point:” human rights

In the 31st ASEAN Summit, allegations by a long list of human rights organizations over violations and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines were brought up by the US (though this was denied by the Philippines), Canada and New Zealand, countries that are external partners of ASEAN, but not by ASEAN members themselves.

The Philippines, which decried any criticism over the issue from other countries, was also silent on another human rights concern, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Rohingya ethnic group had to flee the Rakhine state in Myanmar due to cases of persecution and discrimination.

This was a curious reaction as Duterte appeared sympathetic to the state of refugees from the Middle East, even saying that they are welcome to the Philippines. In the case of the Rohingya however, the Philippines drew the line when it did not mention the “Rohingya” in its statement at the UN General Assembly in New York in September. This was challenged by Malaysia, which slammed the statement as a “misrepresentation of reality.””

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Malaysia has yet to find an ally from ASEAN. At the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting, Philippine Defense Sec. Delfina Lorenzana said that ASEAN agreed the Rohingya problem is an “internal matter” in Myanmar.

ASEAN’s hands-off attitude over the human rights problems in the Philippines and Myanmar were to be expected, however according to political analysts given the body’s principle of non-interference.

“ASEAN’s handling of the most prominent human rights issues such as the Rohingya crisis and the drug-related killings in the Philippines are definitely the lowest points in its performance,” Batongbacal said. “However, this is to be expected given ASEAN’s non-interference principle and reluctance to discuss human rights issues, as both directly involve the domestic policies of member-states.”

Malcolm agreed, saying ASEAN’s hands are further tied by its principle to act based on consensus. While saying that ASEAN’s response to the reported human rights violations in the Philippines and Myanmar were far from sufficient, one should not expect much from it.

“As ASEAN is an inter-governmental, consensus-based body, one should not expect much from ASEAN in relation to human rights abuses undertaken by member-states,” Malcolm said. “Quiet diplomacy and moral suasion is the best ASEAN will do in this front.”

There’s one bright spot, however when it comes to ASEAN’s action on rights – and that is the signing of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The agreement, which gives allows migrant workers to form unions apart from enjoying other rights, came 10 years after ASEAN member-states adopted the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in Cebu, Philippines.

United against extremism

ASEAN, while divided on a number of issues, was united when it comes to tackling terrorism, a problem faced by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Philippines in particular just ended a five-month siege in Marawi city, Mindanao which was caused by the ISIS-inspired Maute group.

ASEAN said it will take on additional preventive measures to stop the growth of terrorism in the region. These include education and enlisting the help of the women and youth sector to counter extremist leanings.

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When it comes to another threat to security, however – the nuclear ambition of North Korea – ASEAN, while one with the rest of the international community in condemning its launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles, did not go as far as asking its member-countries to cut ties with North Korea.

“Cambodia and Laos in particular have close relations with North Korea and this has not changed despite the focus on international pressure in North Korea,” Malcolm said.

In trademark ASEAN diplomacy, the regional bloc also kept its doors open to North Korea in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF has previously been touted by ASEAN as a venue for the six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan.

 Not paralyzed by controversy

Under the Philippine chairmanship, Malcom said ASEAN gained some headway when it comes to trade, signing the ASEAN-Hong Kong, China Free Trade Agreement (AHKFTA) and the ASEAN-Hong Kong Investment Agreement which could spur business opportunities in the region. The regional bloc has yet to gain significant progress though in the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Agreement, which aims to lower tariffs and strengthen regional economic integration and cooperation.

Batongbacal said that ASEAN also deserved some plus points for putting the spotlight on the role of micro, small and medium economic enterprises in economic growth.

Toward a People-Centered ASEAN Community


November 19, 2017

Toward a People-Centered ASEAN Community

by Moon Jae-in
http://www.project-syndicate.org

In the 50 years since the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, almost all of Asia has been utterly transformed. ASEAN’s contributions to harnessing and spreading economic dynamism have been essential to the region’s success.

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ASEAN TIES. South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at ASEAN-South Korea 2017 Summit in Manila recently.

SEOUL – I am delighted that my first meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations comes at a historic moment: the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding. During those 50 years, not only my country, the Republic of Korea, but almost all of Asia has been utterly transformed. ASEAN’s role in harnessing and spreading economic dynamism has been essential to the region’s success.

For Korea, ASEAN has undoubtedly been a special and valued friend. Last year alone, some six million Koreans visited ASEAN member states, both as tourists and for business. Approximately 500,000 citizens of ASEAN member states now live and work in Korea, while roughly 300,000 Koreans live and work in ASEAN countries.

This is one example of why Korea’s ties with ASEAN are more than just intergovernmental relations. Our relationship is deepened in the most personal way possible, through the intertwining of so many individuals’ lives.

This fact should not surprise anyone. ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together, which was endorsed by ASEAN leaders at their 27th Summit in November 2015, states that the group strives to be a “people-centered, people-oriented community” that seeks to build a caring and sharing society which is inclusive and where the well-being, livelihood, and welfare of the people are enhanced.

“People first” has been my longstanding political philosophy as well, and it is a vision in line with the spirit of Korea’s “candlelight revolution” that lit and heated up the winter in Korea a year ago. Korea and ASEAN share a common philosophy that values people, and that shared outlook will set the path that Korea and ASEAN take together in the years and decades ahead.

Since 2010, Korea and ASEAN have made significant strides together as strategic partners. Korea-ASEAN cooperation so far, however, has remained focused mainly on government-led collaboration in political, security, and economic affairs. I intend to help advance Korea-ASEAN relations while placing a high priority on the “people” – both Koreans and the people of ASEAN. My vision is to create, in cooperation with ASEAN, a “peace-loving, people-centered community where all members are better off together.” This can be summed up in “three Ps”: People, Prosperity, and Peace.

To realize this vision, I will pursue “people-centered diplomacy.” So, from this point onward, cooperation between Korea and ASEAN will be developed in a way that respects public opinion among all of the peoples of our association, gains their support, and invites their hands-on participation.

To this end, and in commemoration of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, we have designated this year as “Korea-ASEAN Cultural Exchange Year,” and actively promoted various cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Last September, the ASEAN Culture House (ACH) opened in Korea’s southern port city of Busan. The ACH is the first of its kind to be opened in an ASEAN dialogue partner country, and it is expected to serve as a hub for cultural and people-to-people exchanges between Korea and ASEAN members. The Korean government will spare no effort to expand these exchanges, especially among the young people who will lead Korea-ASEAN relations in the future.

We should also work to build a community of peace where people are safe. In Asia, we all are facing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, as well as non-traditional security threats, including terrorism, violent extremism, and cyber-attacks on our businesses, our social and civic infrastructure, and our official institutions. The Korean government will strive to ensure that both Koreans and the people of ASEAN are able to lead happy and safe lives, which means cooperating with all ASEAN member states, at both the bilateral and multilateral level, to overcome the security challenges that we jointly face.

Finally, I will endeavor to promote greater mutual prosperity, which benefits citizens of both ASEAN and Korea. To ensure the sustainability of people-centered cooperation, all countries in the region must grow and develop together. Creating a structure for mutual prosperity requires lowering regional and transnational barriers to facilitate the flow of goods and promote people-to-people interactions. In short, ASEAN’s dynamism must now be tied to its inclusiveness.

That is why Korea will actively support the “Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025” and “Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan,” both of which call for enhancing the connectivity between ASEAN economies and citizens. We will also accelerate the pace of negotiations for the further liberalization of a Korea-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA), in order to pave the way for freer and more inclusive growth in the region.

Korea is now preparing for yet another “hot” winter: the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, to be held in February 2018. Our preparations are focused on ensuring that these Games deliver a message of reconciliation, peace, mutual understanding, and cooperation throughout the world.

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I happily invite you all to discover a peaceful and joyous winter in PyeongChang, and experience the dynamism sweeping through Korea and ASEAN. Don’t miss an opportunity to find out and enjoy what Korea and ASEAN share in common.

Moon Jae-in is President of the Republic of Korea.