Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay


July 17, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay

by Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho / Khmer Times.com.kh

Navy personnel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12. Reuters

 

The recent 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Singapore saw progress on the South China Sea issue. This demonstrates the importance of ASEAN as a regional anchor and the viability of ASEAN centrality in the midst of geopolitical change, in spite of the regional grouping’s obvious weaknesses and limitations, write Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho.

The 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings in Singapore from July 30 to August 4 was generally hailed as a success. Most notably there were no reported delays in the issuance of its joint communique this time round.

This was unlike in previous instances when the joint communique was delayed as a result of seemingly intractable issues, especially the South China Sea disputes. At the ASEAN-China Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), progress was also made with regard to the South China Sea issue – ASEAN and China agreed on a single draft text to negotiate the Code of Conduct (COC). This text will form the basis for future COC negotiations.

Admittedly, such seemingly positive developments do not mean that most obstacles facing ASEAN have been cleared. There remain big questions about the role of ASEAN in the regional architecture and whether ASEAN can continue to play a central role in this regard.

In the midst of the tumultuous geopolitical changes taking place all around the world, ASEAN continues to be the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative Asean and to improve its relations with external partners.

Image result for Cambodia's Foreign Minister in Singapore

HE Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

The South China Sea disputes remain the litmus test of ASEAN’s centrality and unity, given the potential for the disputes to divide the group. While ASEAN is by no means perfect, a Southeast Asia without ASEAN would likely be in worse shape.

At the start of the annual ASEAN-China PMC, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan announced that the foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries and China have agreed to a draft document that will form the foundation of negotiations for a South China Sea COC. He described it as “yet another milestone in the COC process”.

Even so, Mr Balakrishnan sought to manage expectations by cautioning that negotiations are far from over, and that the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have not been resolved as the COC “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”. It should be noted that Singapore had been the country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations for the past three years, during which Mr Balakrishnan had worked tirelessly with his Chinese counterpart to enhance Asean-China relations, notwithstanding Singapore-China relations going through rough patches in those years.

One of the largest concerns observers have raised is the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape, as a result of major power politics. US-China trade frictions continue to spiral, with no end in sight.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been giving assurances of US interest in the region, such as the $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives for Asia announced before his visit to Southeast Asia, as well as his announcement in Singapore on the US plan to provide $300 million in funding “to reinforce security cooperation throughout the entire (Indo-Pacific) region”.

This notwithstanding, US commitment to upholding the current regional order remains in doubt, especially given President Donald Trump’s protectionist streak and tendency to question the utility of US alliances.

ASEAN has had its share of troubles. Several have questioned the viability of the group’s prized centrality. The South China Sea disputes and the issue of the Rakhine state in Myanmar, with ASEAN’s apparent lack of unity in the former and reported inability to address the latter, have raised doubts about ASEAN’s capabilities to address tough issues.

This has given rise to questions about its centrality. However, that is not to say that all is lost. As the AMM has demonstrated, ASEAN is still well in the game, even if obstacles remain.

Image result for AMM Meeting in July,2018 in Singapore

ASEAN is the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative ASEAN and to improve its relations with external partners. So being united in common purpose, having an acute sense of  destiny  and  being strong in resolve to preserve regional peace and prosperity, that is the foundation of ASEAN centrality as its move forward into the next 50 years beyond.

In the future, ASEAN’s role as the anchor of the region will become even more important. Despite the greater possibility of US retrenchment from the region, as well as China’s continued growing influence, ASEAN will need to ensure it is steadfast in ensuring its centrality in the region.

The South China Sea will continue to assume significance in ASEAN, given its potential to divide the group. In spite of some claims that ASEAN has a very limited role in the South China Sea disputes, given the fact that only four of its members are actual claimants, ASEAN will need to step up to the plate to ensure its collective interests are respected when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, and to ensure that these do not escalate into full-blown conflict.

In this regard, the AMM has always been addressing this problem, though it is not without its hiccups particularly in 2012 when no joint communique was issued due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Notably, however, the following year saw the joint communique issued with a reference to the South China Sea. Since then, the disputes have been a feature once again in the AMM joint communiques, with the latest one highlighting the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text.

Nonetheless, land reclamations and militarisation on features in disputed areas of the South China Sea continue, and ASEAN will need to address this issue sooner rather than later – possibly a tall order given the current geopolitics surrounding the disputes, particularly with the desire of most ASEAN claimant states to maintain good relations with China, the biggest claimant of all in terms of size, military prowess and economic clout.

Despite the issuance of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text, it remains unknown when the COC will materialise, especially with the mutually-agreed timeline on negotiations not made public. This is why ASEAN needs to continue to work assiduously to manage the South China Sea disputes and contain any rising tensions.

In light of the ongoing geopolitical flux in the region, ASEAN will increasingly be the anchor of the region’s architecture. The past week’s AMM and related meetings in Singapore have reflected this crucial role that ASEAN plays for the wider region, even beyond Southeast Asia.

Without ASEAN’s efforts, major powers would likely have a much easier time dividing the region over matters such as the South China Sea. Moving forward, ASEAN must continue to proactively work at ensuring its centrality, and to make sure that external countries see value in ASEAN taking the driver’s seat.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses and limitations of ASEAN, it is the onus of the ASEAN member states and community to continue to work closely to ensure that the region remains a core feature of the regional architecture.

Henrick Z. Tsjeng and Shawn Ho are Associate Research Fellows with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

ASEAN is Priority, says Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah


July 25, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is Priority, says Malaysia’s Foreign Minister  Saifuddin Abdullah

Image result for ASEAN Connectivity

by  Yiswaree Palansamy

https://www.malaymail.com/s/1655704/foreign-minister-asean-is-always-premium

Image result for Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, in Jakarta

“ASEAN is always premium. ASEAN member states really have to come together, be on the same page, not only with China, but any superpower.– Saifuddin

Malaysia’s foreign policy will continue to be focused on strengthening ties with its South-east Asian neighbours, Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said as China flexes its muscle over the resource-rich region.

But he added that the full extent of the country’s foreign policy will be spelt out by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, Straits Times reported today.

Image result for ASEAN

 “ASEAN is always premium. ASEAN member states really have to come together, be on the same page, not only with China, but any superpower,” Saifuddin told the Singapore daily in an interview yesterday.

The Malaysian Foreign Minister admitted that it will not be easy to manage ties with China, which is also Malaysia’s largest trade partner, noting that other ASEAN members too have significant trade and other bilateral interests with the Asian superpower.

“Security is another story altogether, and ASEAN centrality is missing. We can speak in one voice and negotiate and explain our position better. Hopefully, then China and others will appreciate our position and concerns,” he was quoted saying.

Image result for ASEAN Connectivity

While Malaysia still holds to the “fundamental principles of non-alignment, non-interference” and does not support violent actions by sovereign powers, Saifuddin expressed confidence that the business community in the 10-member ASEAN will look to Dr Mahathir to play a key role as he has done in the past to safeguard their economic interests.

“The grassroots, the small businessmen, the small-medium enterprises don’t really feel (ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) represents them. Social entrepreneurship is where you can strike a common denominator where people in all 10 member states can benefit.

“We need to bring them as government contractors, if you like, or as empowered non-state actors to play a more active role,” he told the Singapore paper.

Saifuddin also said he hopes to engage Singapore — one of the five founding members of ASEAN — on ways to bring other parties into discussions to enlarge the ASEAN Economic Community and to move away from the concept that the grouping is only for “big people and big companies”.

The Domestic Political Impact of Rapid Economic Change in the Indo-Pacific Region


July 25, 2018

The Domestic Political Impact of Rapid Economic Change in the Indo-Pacific Region

by Ellen Frost

Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 426

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: July 11, 2018
Publication Date: July 11, 2018
Binding: Electronic
Pages: 2
Free Download: PDF

 

Ellen L. Frost, Senior Advisor and Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, explains that “A key question is whether the strategies employed by current Indo-Pacific governments are working well enough to be both competitive in the new regional economic environment and responsive to legitimate grievances at home.”

 Structural changes in the external economic environment have a profound and complex impact on the distribution of power and wealth among and within national societies. They mobilize new actors, influence the content of domestic and foreign economic policies, and ultimately contribute to–or erode—the legitimacy of national governments.

Nowhere in the world are these impacts more visible and more dynamic than in the nations of the Indo-Pacific, many of which will hold elections within the next year. These challenges are not new, but they have intensified. Beginning in the 1980s, the revolution in communications technology and the advent of large-scale container shipping swept across East and Southeast Asia, connecting people and markets as never before. In the 1990s, burgeoning production networks linked the more competitive and investment-friendly developing economies—such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan—with world markets, leaving more closed economies such as Laos, Myanmar, and India lagging behind. Market-opening in China fueled spectacular rates of growth, lifted millions out of poverty, and enabled the country to become not only an assembly nexus and production hub but also an assertive regional power.

Regional economic integration has become a dominant feature of today’s Indo-Pacific. All governments are committed to promoting closer economic ties with each other, whether half-heartedly or not. Integration is inching along, gingerly encouraged by governments but driven more powerfully by pressure from the private sector and from ocean-facing local governments. Trade-liberalizing agreements, though imperfect and limited, are the new norm. Negotiations spearheaded by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have made some progress. Despite the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the U.S.-origin global recession of 2008-09, no government in the Indo-Pacific region has rejected the rules embodied in the World Trade Organization (WTO) or retreated from its slow and uneven march toward more open markets.

Indo-Pacific governments that signed on to the high-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement—Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand—remain committed  to improving the protection of intellectual property and tackling other behind-the-border measures that impede trade and investment, with or without the United States. Promoting the transition to a digital economy is likely to gain more prominence next year, when Thailand takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN. Meanwhile, negotiations on a less demanding, ASEAN-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes India as well as Australia, and New Zealand, continue to inch along.

Even India has embraced closer integration, as emphasized most recently by Prime Minister Modi at the June 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue. India’s economic reform is lagging, but its high growth rate, relatively low level of public debt, and youthful population have attracted an upsurge in foreign investment. The Modi government’s outward-looking strategic awakening is gradually improving relations with nations bordering the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean littoral, thus facilitating closer integration. But the combination of India’s federal system, local politics, corruption, and remnants of the “license raj” has thus far thwarted wide-ranging economic liberalization.

Domestic Aspects of Regional Integration

The upsurge in Indo-Pacific economic integration has spawned a rising middle class whose members have embraced the choices available in the regional (and global) marketplace. Urban dwellers in particular have become used to higher standards of living, more consumer choice, and a wide spectrum of social media. Thousands of Asians have found employment in foreign firms or joint ventures, while others have lost their jobs. What Karl Marx and others called the “comprador bourgeoisie”—local agents or managers working for foreign entities—has emerged as an educated political class with a major stake in regional integration.

Many provincial and urban authorities have developed close ties to their nearby counterparts across borders, particularly in mainland Southeast Asian countries bordering on or close to China (Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand). Small- and medium-size companies and local enterprises account for a growing share of China’s overseas investment. All of these groups have acquired a stronger political voice.

China    

Image result for china is a global power

Overshadowing all this activity is the sheer weight of China. China’s economic growth and central role in production networks have made it the number-one or number-two trading partner of virtually all countries in the East and Southeast Asia regions. Some smaller nations have found a niche in China-centered manufacturing networks, while others have boosted their sale of commodities and raw materials. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will spur badly needed development of Indo-Pacific infrastructure and connectivity. Local interest groups have sprung up accordingly. For all of these reasons, most Indo-Pacific governments feel compelled to maintain friendly relations with China.

Dependence on China comes at a price, however. Huge loans for infrastructure projects can feed large-scale corruption and saddle poorer countries with unsustainable debt. To enforce its geopolitical agenda, Beijing is increasingly resorting to coercive economic statecraft (“sharp power”), including surprise “inspections” and delayed approvals, selective boycotts, and limits on tourism. Chinese companies investing in Indo-Pacific countries typically import large groups of Chinese workers to perform jobs that might otherwise go to local laborers. The militarization of islands claimed or created in the South China Sea has gone unchecked, spurring criticism in rival claimants.

Challenges Facing Indo-Pacific Governments

“Governments that fail to reform the structure of their economies risk falling even further behind in the regional marketplace, but those who neglect their most vulnerable citizens may be voted out of office—or overthrown.” –Ellen Frost

A number of major threats to integration, growth, and political stability in the Indo-Pacific region are beyond national governments’ control. They include financial volatility, cyber crime, terrorist attacks, refugee flows, fluctuating commodity prices, rising sea levels, severe storms, and other natural disasters. Grievances and conspiracy theories proliferate via social media. Manufacturing breakthroughs such as 3-D printing may localize or otherwise shrink the regional supply chains in which many Asians have found a profitable niche. Growing income inequality is also a threat; when those left behind come from a neglected or persecuted ethnic or religious group, the result can be highly destabilizing.

The latest threat to Indo-Pacific prosperity—and indirectly to regional integration—is the outbreak of protectionism and populist nationalism in the United States. The Trump administration’s “America First” campaign may well divert investment away from the Indo-Pacific and into the United States. Indeed, that is an explicit U.S. policy goal. As regional integration stalls, domestic interest groups with a stake in the expanding regional economy and others with previously high expectations may turn against established governments.

Electoral Prospects: Finding a Balance

Image result for china and asean

Upcoming elections in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and India (including Indian states), scheduled for 2018 or 2019, will put the leaders of these countries to the test. Governments not facing challenges from the ballot box will feel pressure from their citizens as well. Some of the likely issues will be linked to or exacerbated by the evolving external economic environment, such as large-scale corruption in the infrastructure sector, widening income gaps, unwelcome Chinese activities, and worker layoffs in non-competitive sectors.

A key question is whether the strategies employed by existing Indo-Pacific governments are working well enough to be both competitive in the new regional economic environment and responsive to legitimate grievances at home. Governments that fail to reform the structure of their economies risk falling even further behind in the regional marketplace, but those who neglect their most vulnerable citizens may be voted out of office—or overthrown.

https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/the-domestic-political-impact-rapid-economic-change-in-the-indo-pacific-region

Foreign Affairs: Time for East Asia


July 9, 2018

Time for East Asia

By Bunn Nagara@www,thestar.com.my

READ : https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Future-of-Asia-2018/Mahathir-revives-Look-East-policy-to-join-ranks-of-economic-giants

AS an indication of how out of touch some international pundits of Asia are, they still call North-East Asia (China, Japan and Korea) “East Asia.”

East Asia as a region comprises the sub-regions of North-East Asia and South-East Asia, the latter being the countries of ASEAN and Timor-Leste.

Image result for East Asia Economic Caucus revived

The ASEAN region developed steadily with peace and prosperity as its watchwords. It became known as a region consistently posting some of the highest growth rates in the world.

Yet ASEAN and its member countries were severely constrained by a lack of economic weight and global reach.

ASEAN’s diplomatic clout is fine, but South-East Asia as a region falls short of economic heft in a rapidly globalising world. Nonetheless, the forces of globalisation themselves would take care of that with growing economic integration within East Asia.

North-East Asia included two of the world’s three largest economies, so as a region it had no problems of limited reach or heft. Despite global constraints, China on the whole continued to grow.

As the economies of North-East Asia and South-East Asia grew more integrated, growth in East Asia as a whole would soon reach an altogether different plane.

Studies generally find intra-regional trade surpassing foreign direct investment (FDI). A 2009 study found that tariff reductions as well as closer monetary cooperation among East Asian countries made sense.

A report by the Asian Development Bank Institute last year acknowledged the impressive growth of East Asia’s intra-regional trade ratio over the past 55 years.

It noted how trade had become “more functionally linked to international production networks and supply chains” as well as FDI in the region. This is indicative of East Asia’s deepening regionalisation. Typically, after Japan’s export of capital to South-East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, China took up the slack as Japan’s economy leveled off from the early 1990s.

In 1990, ISIS Malaysia and Prime Minister Tun (then Datuk Seri) Dr. Mahathir Mohamad worked on a proposal for an East Asia Economic Grouping (EAEG). It was time for East Asia to come into its own.

When Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Kuala Lumpur in December 1990, Dr Mahathir proposed the EAEG to him. Li Peng accepted and supported it.

The idea had not been discussed within ASEAN before. Indonesia, the biggest country and economy regarding itself the region’s “big brother,” felt miffed that it had not been consulted about the plan.

Singapore’s position, traditionally more aligned to a US that was not “included” in the East Asia proposal, was slightly more nuanced. Lee Kuan Yew, upon becoming Senior Minister just the month before – and on the cusp of the Cold War’s demise – still preferred an economic universe defined by the West.

At the time this was the European community and the Uruguay Round as an outgrowth of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

It was still three years before the European Union (EU), and four years before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Generally the world was still beholden to Western economic paradigms and game plans. The EAEG was thus seen as the work of some upstart Asians, in turns brash and occasionally recalcitrant.

Most of the six ASEAN countries, like South Korea, accepted the EAEG even as they tried to learn more about it. But it was still at best tentative.

The EAEG’s critics, however, proved more vocal. US President G.H.W Bush and Secretary of State James Baker wanted to crash the regional party by becoming a member also, or else would see the idea crash.

The Uruguay Round was then seen to be quite rudderless, and APEC, itself formed just one year before, appeared fumbling in the doldrums.

The EAEG, misperceived as an “alternative”, would be thinking and acting outside the box. An energised Asia owing nothing to Western patronage was far too much for an Occidental-conceived world order to contemplate, much less accept.

Image result for East Asia Economic Caucus revived

Prime Minister Hun Sen and China’s President Xi Jinping

Malaysia tried to soothe anxieties about the EAEG by emphasising its soft regionalism. It was to be only “a loose, consultative” grouping and no more.

Why should a booming, rapidly integrating East Asia be deprived of a regional economic identity, when Europe and North America could develop their own?

Unfortunately the EAEG’s public relations campaign proved too little too late. The idea, albeit now conceived as an ASEAN project, lacked traction and ground to a halt.

Singapore saw its merits and tried a different tack. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong proposed an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) within APEC, allaying fears of an insecure US that this would remain within the ambit of a US-dominated APEC.

Several political speeches and conference papers later, the EAEC idea also failed to germinate. A Bill Clinton Presidency was lukewarm-to-cool to the idea, still without the encouragement Japan needed for a nod.

A flourishing East Asia would be left without a regional organisation of its own, again.

In 1997 the devastating Asian economic and financial crisis struck, hitting South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia particularly badly. If the EAEG had been in place by then, greater regional cooperation and coordination would have helped cushion the shocks.

Suddenly, South Korea took the initiative to push East Asia into forming a regional identity: ASEAN Plus Three (APT). This grouping would consist of the same EAEG countries.

Image result for Shinzo Abe and East Asia

Indo- Pacific Partnership –An Alternative to China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI)

Japan this time was more accommodating, and the APT was born.

For decades, “the West” led by the US was identified with open markets and free trade. But now a Trump Presidency deemed protectionist, even isolationist, is hauling up the drawbridge and raising the barricades with tariffs and other restrictive measures.

These are aimed at allies and rivals alike, whether in Europe or Asia. Equivalent countermeasures have been launched, and the trade-restraining spiral winds on.

China, by now identified globally as a champion of open markets and free trade, has called on Europe to form a common front. Strategic competitors are making for strange trade bedfellows and vice-versa.

Dr Mahathir was on his annual visit to Tokyo last month for the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia. He duly revisited the idea of an East Asian economic identity and community.

For emphasis, he added that he preferred this to a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership that the US has now rejected. How would an EAEG now play in today’s Japan and East Asia? More to the point, how would it play in Washington? The answer may still determine its prospects in Tokyo and East Asia as a whole.

It is possible that the US has become too tied to the idea of battling trade skirmishes, if not outright trade wars, with any presumed adversary to have time to frown on an EAEG.

Dr Mahathir has noted how this is the time for such a regional grouping, since we still need it and particularly when the US is helping to justify it. It is also conceivable that Japan today is more open to the EAEG, just like with the APT post-1997.

Image result for Trump's America First Doctrine
America First Fallacy– In fact it is US retreat from global engagement

 

The more the rhetoric of a US-China trade war rages, the more likely East Asia can finally develop a regional economic identity of its own.

Even a US-EU trade conflict will do. East Asia should not be too choosy about its benefactors.

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

Bunn Nagara

Aspiration: Singapore’s Approach to ASEAN


April 25, 2018

Aspiration: Singapore’s Approach to ASEAN

Ja Ian Chong, NUS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 50th Anniversary Lecture for the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies on 13 March 2018 was notable for its open acknowledgement of some of the difficulties facing ASEAN, which Singapore is chairing this year. Importantly, Lee recognised that ASEAN is, above all, a political grouping, and that some of its most pressing challenges are fundamentally political.

Both internal and external political forces are buffeting ASEAN members. On the one hand there is the growing influence of different major powers in Southeast Asia such as China and India and their diverse domestic influences in various ASEAN member states. On the other there is the still important but uncertain role of the United States in Asia.

 

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and Donald Trump

 

Such developments call into question ASEAN’s continued relevance and unity. Unfortunately, Lee offered little in the way of concrete responses to the changing circumstances he sketched out, whether for ASEAN or for Singapore.

An important area of tension that Lee pointed out is ASEAN’s longstanding focus on consensus. Lee sees this ‘laborious’ process of finding ‘common ground’ as fundamental to enabling the group’s diverse members to move forward together on issues like trade liberalisation, economic integration and the management of territorial disputes (for instance in the South China Sea).

But recent initiatives by China and India to gain influence in Southeast Asia, alongside radical departures from past precedent in US approaches to foreign policy, are pulling ASEAN members in disparate directions. Responses to these cross-cutting dynamics — often guided by domestic considerations — make intra-ASEAN consensus much more difficult to attain. Projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the United States’ ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific‘ idea may move ASEAN members in different directions well before any consensus can emerge.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and ASEAN

A related concern is the competition for influence from alternative regional arrangements and external powers — a process Lee described as ‘Darwinian’. Even if not explicitly stated, this word choice implies that Lee may be conceding that ASEAN risks extinction if it cannot adapt to the changing circumstances. For the ASEAN project to persist, Lee said, ASEAN members ‘must come together to maintain relevance and cohesion’.

Yet, given that ASEAN’s ability to sustain cohesion is undergoing unprecedented internal and external pressure, the organisation faces a real risk of marginalisation, maybe even irrelevance. Major powers active in the region are beginning to offer alternative institutional arrangements that may ultimately prove more attractive to some of the group’s members.

While the frank assessment of ASEAN’s current difficulties is welcome, Lee provided few clear, practical responses to these issues. The few goals Lee laid out are largely aspirational. He called on ASEAN governments to look beyond immediate domestic considerations, trust in past experiences of cooperation and commit jointly to the ASEAN project.

Within these parameters, Singapore — as current ASEAN chair — will seek to move member states to strengthen existing frameworks for political, economic and socio-cultural cooperation with a focus on resilience and innovation. This includes advancing existing economic proposals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the ASEAN–EU Comprehensive Transport Agreement. Even then, progress on these issues will be trying, owing to a ‘growing mood of nationalism and protectionism’ that is on the ascent in many countries.

Lee called on ASEAN governments to make bold decisions based on enlightened, long-term considerations to improve livelihoods. Noble as such goals may be, one wonders what such considerations mean in terms of concrete policies. After all, it is unlikely that any government will admit to making policies based on timidity, benightedness and short-term conveniences that are detrimental to livelihoods.

Image result for RCEP

There is also the matter of how the Lee administration aims to get other ASEAN governments and partners on board with its vision before a new Singaporean leadership takes over, possibly by 2022. This in turn raises the more pedestrian but perennial issue of improving long-term intra-ASEAN coordination across issue domains given member states’ preferences for an institutionally weak secretariat and secretary-general. Adequately addressing these institutional factors may well be crucial in moving Lee’s hopes for ASEAN closer to reality.

Lee reiterated that ASEAN is of critical importance to Singapore and its future. This suggests that Lee views the global political trends he discussed as having a direct effect on Singapore, its interests and external outlook.

But it is on Singapore’s relationship to the region and how Singapore’s foreign policy fits within this context that Lee is vaguest. He echoed Singapore’s former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee in calling for a ‘delicacy of perceptions’, where academia and business weigh in on critical issues of the day to help inform the decisions of professional bureaucrats and political appointees. But Lee left how this ‘delicacy of perceptions’ should play out or what kinds of policy directions Singapore should follow unexplored.

While Prime Minister Lee presented a refreshingly honest outlook on ASEAN’s uncertain future, he did not offer much more than an uncertain policy approach to match.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.

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/

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

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.

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

 

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.

Image result for Mekong River Meeting in Siem Reap

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.