Najib abandons the US for China–What is the Deal?

November 7, 2016

BEIJING — Malaysia’s Prime Minister, miffed by a Justice Department investigation into his nation’s sovereign wealth fund, arrived in Beijing on Monday ready to buy Chinese military hardware, a deal that will rattle his relationship with the United States.

The presence of a Malaysian leader here would normally not get much attention. But China is seizing on another chance to best Washington in the Southeast Asian battleground after a successful visit by the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, who excoriated the United States during his visit here two weeks ago.

As the Obama administration is winding down, the Chinese leadership is taking advantage of the moment by trying to chip away at the president’s signature policy of the pivot to Asia, offering attractive military and economic deals to America’s friends in Southeast Asia, particularly to those countries that border the contested South China Sea.

Even visits by relatively minor figures, like Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army in Myanmar, are being given upbeat coverage in the Chinese state-run news media. President Obama has taken pride in drawing Myanmar closer to Washington.

Malaysia’s Premier, Najib Razak, is expected to buy a fleet of Chinese fast patrol boats that can carry missiles, a deal that will further strengthen Malaysia’s fledgling military relationship with China.

The Chinese and Malaysian militaries began conducting joint exercises last year. Until now, the Malaysian forces have been heavily equipped by the United States, particularly the air force, and the United States and Malaysia have enjoyed close defense and security cooperation.

Mr. Najib, the leader of a majority Muslim country, has leaned toward the United States in his subtle balancing act between Washington and Beijing. He pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to get approval in Malaysia. As the United States increased its activities in the contested areas of the South China Sea, he has quietly allowed United States Navy P-8 aircraft to make surveillance flights from Malaysian territory.

In 2014, after Mr. Obama made the first visit to Malaysia by a sitting American president in nearly half a century, Mr. Najib was the President’s guest on a golf course in Hawaii.

Those warm feelings soured in July when a unit of the Justice Department known as the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative announced it was investigating what happened to $1 billion from the nation’s sovereign wealth fund — called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

A complaint by the department said people close to the prime minister transferred more than $1 billion of embezzled funds into the United States to buy real estate and other assets. Mr. Najib has been described as particularly bitter about the publicity around the investigation, which his aides point out is a civil matter, not a criminal one.

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“Najib is said by his aides to be angry and to feel humiliated by the Justice Department’s investigation of him under U.S. kleptocracy laws,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is prompting him to tilt toward China in order to burnish his image, restore his international standing and provide aid and credits ahead of upcoming elections expected next year.”

Even before the Justice Department complaint, China had helped Mr. Najib with the problems in the scandal-ridden sovereign wealth fund. Last December, China’s General Nuclear Power Corporation bought 1MDB’s power assets, a move that helped shore up the fund and substantially reduce its debts.

In a reflection of Beijing’s attitude, a Chinese analyst, Zhang Baohui of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said countries in Southeast Asia want good relations with China.

“It is wishful thinking on the part of Washington that these countries will equate their own national interests with that of the United States and will therefore pursue hard balancing against China,” Mr. Zhang said. “The reality is these countries do understand that maintaining good relations with China enhances their overall national interests.”

Like the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia has differences with China over contested islets and reefs in the South China Sea, but unlike those nations it has generally played down those disputes.

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“Since the U.S. began pushing the South China Sea issue, Malaysian officials have been very careful to avoid being seen as allying with Washington,” said Michael Auslin, an expert on Asia at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Before leaving for his seven-day trip to China, his third since becoming prime minister in 2009, Mr. Najib told the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, that relations between the two countries had reached a “special phase,” and that military ties were at a “new height.”

The Chinese news media reported that Mr. Najib would sign deals for completion of a high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, and Singapore, and several port projects. China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner.

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In some ways, Mr. Najib’s warming relations with Beijing should be a leitmotif for Washington, said Ernest Z. Bower, President of the Bower Group Asia, a Washington-based business advisory outfit that operates in the Southeast Asia.

“The U.S. must recognize that no Southeast Asia country can envision a stable and secure Asia without China being actively engaged and participating fully in economic integration, security cooperation and people-to-people ties,” Mr. Bower said.

“What scares the hell out of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, is that the Chinese might try to use their size and perceived U.S. unwillingness to remain engaged through thick and thin to force smaller neighbors into sovereign concessions and Sinocentric institutions.”

What can we in Asia expect from a Hillary Clinton Presidency?–A Point of View

November 7, 2016

What can we in Asia expect from a Hillary Clinton Presidency?–A Point of View

by T J Pempel, University of California, Berkeley

By mid-afternoon on Wednesday 9 November 2016, Asians will be temporarily unified by their collective sigh of relief. Early US election results will be announcing their reprieve from four years of torment under a Trump presidency. With less than two weeks until election day, the United States’ six major polling models range in their predictions of the likelihood of a Clinton presidency between 85 and 97 per cent. FBI Director James Comey’s 28 October precedent-breaking announcement that new emails had been discovered rewrote the scripts of both campaigns but subsequent polls suggested that few presidential votes would shift as a result. Short of a zombie invasion or some equivalent deus ex machina, Hillary’s presidency is all but guaranteed.

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 The Most Likely Outc0me on November 8, 2016

Her victory will provide two valuable reassurances. First, continuity is likely. As Secretary of State, Clinton was a major contributor to Obama’s Asia policy, including the ‘rebalance’ to Asia. Second, her current Asia policy team is stacked with a deep bench of individuals sharing extensive experience and familiarity with all aspects of East Asia.

This will not be an administration that is fomenting trade or currency wars, reducing alliances to their economic transaction costs or encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop autonomous nuclear programs — as promised by Trump. Obama’s Asia policies have their critics, and expertise by no means guarantees compatibility. But ‘slow and steady’ policies under adult supervision will be far more regionally welcome than the alternative.

Clinton more hawkish than Barack Obama

Though a Clinton presidency will mean continuity, her past suggests that she is also more prone than Obama to employ military force. As one interviewer observed, she prefers the ‘nail eating, swamp-crawling’ military officers to diplomats wearing uniforms.

This is likely to generate more robust challenges by the United States towards North Korea and a greater willingness to employ the Seventh Fleet as a check on maritime assertiveness. It may also make Clinton reluctant to change plans for the highly controversial Marine Corps base repositioning within Okinawa, despite massive Okinawan opposition to the relocation. And it may influence her handling of complex alliance relations like those with Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or the generals running Thailand.

Equally significant, however, Clinton devours her briefing books and is adept at combining tactical manoeuvring with attention to her long-term agenda. She will be willing to exchange tit-for-tat on specific provocations while bolstering existing alliances and building on tentative cooperation with China in areas such as climate change, piracy and the Iran nuclear deal.

But any abstract commitment by the Clinton administration to prioritise Asia will confront at least three huge hurdles.

TPPA ?–Go or No Go–Tussle with Congress

First, instability and warfare in the Middle East will continue to devour disproportionate amounts of policy making bandwidth. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran, not to mention Israeli–Palestinian relations, will remain gargantuan Middle Eastern sand dunes that impede the footsteps and obscure the vision of any moves toward Asia.Image result for TPPA

Second, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), key to Obama’s efforts to engage and structure Asia-Pacific trade and investment, is dead for the foreseeable future. Mitch McConnell, Republican Majority Leader of the US Senate, has declared that the Senate will not consider the TPP during the November–January ‘lame duck’ session, continuing his adamant obstruction of every Obama initiative. His refusal also closes an otherwise convenient back door by which Hillary could have benefited from the TPP’s ratification without reversing her campaign trail promises.

Those promises plus the looming political exigencies of the 2018 Congressional elections work against her bringing the TPP forward in her first two years, regardless of the pleadings of the other eleven signatories or the TPP’s potential benefit to United States’ economic engagement with Asia.

Mending Party and cultural divisions in the US

This feeds into the third impediment. Even with a big Electoral College win, Clinton will enjoy no honeymoon. Party and cultural divisions in the United States have taken on tribal exclusivity. Clinton is not likely to see more than a one to three seat Democratic majority in the Senate at most, while to capture a House majority, Democrats must gain 30 seats from at most 35 vulnerable Republican-held seats, an always tough task made harder by the Comey announcement which has remobilised dispirited Republicans now anxious to ensure a Congressional check on a Clinton presidency.

Clinton’s skills in negotiating across the partisan aisle are justifiably touted as superior to Obama’s, and Asia policies are not inherently partisan triggers. But incentives still remain high for Republicans to sustain a united wall of opposition. Senate elections in 2018 are likely to return a Republican majority while in the House, a fractious Republican caucus and House Speaker Paul Ryan whose long run presidential ambitions will circumscribe any incentive he might have to ‘sell out’ by cooperating with Clinton.

House Republicans are already promising that if they retain even the slimmest majority they will begin an endless cycle of well-publicised investigations of Clinton and even potential impeachment hearings before she unpacks in the White House. And public scepticism about a Clinton victory remains high among Republican voters. An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll released on 20 October found that a full 45 per cent of Republicans definitely wouldn’t or are unlikely to accept the results of the election if their candidate lost.

A Meaningless Asia Policy without Economic and Financial Engagement

Any collective post-election relief Asians might feel is likely to be short-lived in the face of the prioritisation of non-Asian issues on the US agenda, an Asia policy devoid of economic and financial engagement and the clown show that passes for the US Congress. But relief may be in sight; candidates are already gearing up for the 2020 presidential elections.

T J Pempel is Jack M Forcey Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.

What can Asia expect under Hillary’s presidency?


Malaysian Parliament–Sack Pedukang Amin Tak Mulia

November 4, 2016

Malaysian Parliament: Sack Pedukang Amin Tak Mula

by V Anbalagan

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Former Attorney-General Abu Talib Othman may have opened a can of worms when he questioned how the Dewan Rakyat Speaker knew that three former ministers had revealed government secrets when they raised the 1MDB issue during debate time last week.

Abu Talib wondered how Pandikar Amin Mulia, as head of the legislature, knew that the Cabinet had discussed the 1MDB issue. Also, how did he know what was discussed was classified information.

“Did somebody tell him about it? If that is the case, the Dewan Rakyat Speaker should have lodged a police report against that very person who told him,” Abu Talib told FMT.

He said this after the Police began investigations against former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, ex-finance minister Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah and former rural and regional development minister Shafie Apdal for allegedly divulging national secrets.

“I am going by the logic of the Speaker. How does he know what was spoken by the three was discussed in the Cabinet and that it was classified information?”

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Pandikar held a press conference on October 27 where he said the three ministers may have broken their oath of secrecy when they brought up the 1MDB issue while debating Budget 2017 in the Dewan Rakyat.

Several laws such as the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act, could be used against such MPs, he had said.

This resulted in Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM) and Sahabat N87 Federal Territory lodging police reports against the three former ministers for allegedly revealing government secrets.

 Abu Talib, who retired in 1993, said it was quite unusual for Pandikar to come out publicly over the matter because a Speaker conducted proceedings in the House in compliance with rules of procedures.

Former Court of Appeal judge Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof also felt Pandikar should not be giving his view on the law outside the Dewan Rakyat as he could have raised the matter by referring it through the Standing Orders.

“He could have raised it when the matter was being discussed with reference to the Standing Orders so that those affected could justify their action. To comment on it later is prejudicial to those affected, and uncalled for,” he told Malaysiakini.

In a separate report, Malaysiakini said Haniff Khatri, a lawyer to former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had accused Pandikar of inciting police reports against the former ministers.

Haniff had said that as Pandikar had made his statement outside Parliament, he did not enjoy parliamentary protection.He also alleged that Pandikar’s statement of inciting police reports against the MPs was “an act detrimental to parliamentary democracy”.

“This is because he tried to prevent MPs from carrying out their duties in debating and discussing relevant issues in Parliament, in accordance with the Federal Constitution,” Haniff told Malaysiakini.

Meanwhile, Abu Talib said the police would have to complete their investigation on the matter since reports have been lodged.

“They are duty bound to investigate if an alleged crime has been committed. It is up to the public prosecutor to decide whether to frame charges based on credible evidence to be placed before the court,” he said.

Police have postponed recording Husni’s statement to next week while Muhyiddin has been summoned to be questioned also sometime next week.


Malaysia’s Foreign Policy: Romance with China ala Duterte

November 3, 2016

Malaysia’s Foreign Policy: Romance with China ala Rody Duterte


Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak and China's Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, November 1, 2016. — Reuters pic

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and China’s Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China, November 1, 2016. — Reuters pic

Malaysia will embrace governments which respect the sovereignty of other states as the era of foreign intervention is over, Dato’ Seri Najib Razak said today as he looks to strengthen ties with China.

In an editorial in a Chinese state-run paper, China Daily the Prime Minister sought to explain his administration’s move to increase trade and cooperation with China, pointing out the both countries have had a long history of cooperation dating back to the Malacca Sultanate.

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“More generally, we believe it is incumbent upon larger countries to treat smaller ones fairly. And this includes former colonial powers. It is not for them to lecture countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today.

“Malaysia and China are united in agreeing on the need to defend the sovereignty of the nation state and in the belief that the individual histories, values and governance systems of different countries must be respected,” Najib wrote.

The PM stressed that it is important for “global institutions” to reflect the views of countries which were given no say in the” legal and security infrastructure” that was set up by the victors of the Second World War.

“This is why we welcome China’s initiative in creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We need new institutions for a new era: of peaceful dialogue, not foreign intervention in sovereign states, and of ‘win-win’ cooperation that benefits all, not just the few,” Najib added.

Calling it the “Asian Century”, Najib said that China and Malaysia must continue working on the partnership forged by his father, the late Tun Abdul Razak in 1974, as well as the ties originally established by the early Ming Dynasty when the first Chinese trade envoys arrived in Melaka centuries ago.

Najib added that relations between China and Malaysia is one based on mutual trust and respect, although there are issues where the two may not agree with.

“When it comes to the South China Sea, we firmly believe that overlapping territorial and maritime disputes should be managed calmly and rationally through dialogue, in accordance with the rule of law and peaceful negotiations,” he said.

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Najib is currently on a six-day official visit to China.Malaysian and Chinese companies made history with the signing of 14 agreements worth RM144 billion.

PM Najib had said the amount was the biggest ever recorded in conjunction with his official visit overseas, and it was a historic achievement.

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

October 20,2016

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

by Tess Bacala

As the international backlash continues over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the lack of due process and the consequent deaths of “suspects” in his campaign, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), along with its individual member states, has been characteristically silent.

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For instance, ASEAN’s leaders and ministers met at their summit in the Lao capital Vientiane last September and discussed a range of issues in the region and beyond. But neither the organization nor its members raised a whimper about rights concerns on the extrajudicial killings of supposed drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed office on June 30.  News reports put the figure of alleged users and pushers killed at more than 3,000 since Duterte took over.

ASEAN’s silence on this issue was not particularly a surprise, but it was the latest example of how it is not the organization’s habit to tell off a member state about its domestic issues.

More typically, it was an outside state like the United States, though not a disinterested country, that brought up the issue of human rights at the September 6-8 summit, where Duterte made his debut on the regional stage.

To human rights advocates across the region, the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, held back to back this year, should have been an apt occasion to discuss a subject that is otherwise anathema to the Southeast Asian organization, especially given its theme, ’ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’, which defines the vision of the ASEAN Community for the next decade.

At the ASEAN-US summit in Vientiane, President Barack Obama called to mind a “common vision” for the region — “(a)n open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.”

But this is far from how the situation is from the view of the sectors that have been at the receiving end of certain governments’ systemic suppression of dissent at home. This also comes at a time when the ASEAN Community has been formed with its three pillars — political security, socio-cultural, and economic – and where its peoples can enjoy “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN continues to steer clear of human rights issues in line with the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. But as ASEAN turns 50 next year, critics say this adherence to non-intervention should not be absolute, especially now that economic integration is going full throttle after the launch of the ASEAN Community’s in December 2015.

Economic but not political openness

The organization has shown much more openness – and willingness to let go of sovereignty concerns – in the areas of economics and business rather than in political areas such as human rights.

“ASEAN has promoted a harmful contradiction. Member states have abandoned ASEAN principles of ‘non-interference’ and ‘state sovereignty’ in relation to capital and economic policy but doggedly retained them in relation to human rights,” says the alternative document titled ‘Vision 2025: ASEAN Women’s Blueprints for Alternative Regionalism’.

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Ryerson University (Canada)’s Dr. Sorpong Peou

Over recent decades, Southeast Asia has experienced three ‘miracles’: economic growth, the disappearance of mass atrocities, and efforts to promote regional peace and community building,” said Dr. Sorpong Peou, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Canada. “Large-scale killings or genocide such as those in Indonesia (1965–66), Cambodia (1975–1978 under the Khmer Rouge), and East Timor (1975–1999 under the Indonesian occupation) “have all disappeared from contemporary Southeast Asia.”

“But authoritarianism keeps threatening to return,” wrote the Cambodian-born scholar in a commentary published by the East Asia Forum in March. “Below the surface of official declarations lies an acceptance among most ASEAN leaders that democracy and human rights should not be pushed too fast and too far.”

Appreciation and interpretation of human rights are subject to national interest rather than international human rights standards,” said Jaymie Ann Reyes, program manager of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. The Working Group, a coalition of individuals and organizations that include civil society and academics, engages ASEAN on specific rights initiatives.

Rights? It depends

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Some human rights themes and focuses are more acceptable to ASEAN such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities,” Reyes added.

All 10 member states have ratified the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “But there are more ‘sensitive’ issues that are not discussed for fear of violating the principle of ‘non-interference,’” she said.

One of these is refugee protection. The majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

A wide range of other rights concerns continues to exist today across the region of 620 million people.

In Indonesia, the vigorous implementation of the death penalty, the enactment of more discriminatory laws against women, and violent attacks against religious minorities are bedeviling the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Neighboring Malaysia recently passed the National Security Council Act (NSCA), which empowers the government to declare martial law in areas where there are perceived security threats. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in Parliament just a month ahead of the Vientiane summit, is seen as yet another attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the city-state.

The decades-old Internal Security Act, which allows arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial, remains firmly in place in Singapore. (A similar law in Malaysia was abolished in 2012. Yet four years later, the NSCA came into force.)

Thailand’s new constitution — approved in a referendum on August 7 — is seen to reinforce the military’s two-year hold on power.

“For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 50 groups advocating for human rights in Indonesia.

The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), sees “a trend of shrinking civil society space” despite “ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centered and people-oriented community”.

In Cambodia, government critics have been jailed, and more oppressive laws passed. For instance, Kem Ley, leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10 this year.

Although Myanmar has ceased to be a pariah state, its democratic transition has been marked by concern over discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless in the mainly Buddhist country.

Punishment under Hudud

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Critics have also dubbed as medieval Brunei’s announcement in October 2013 to impose a tough shariah penal code system, after its chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.

Yet ASEAN prides itself on having an “overarching human rights institution” such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In fact, the ASEAN Chair’s statement in Vientiane commended the commission for “the progress of (its) work” and urged it to “promote the mainstreaming of human rights across all three pillars of the ASEAN Community”. But how such “progress” is measured and improves the rights landscape is not clear.

On the eve of the Vientiane summit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights appealed to ASEAN leaders “to press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.”

This referred to the unresolved disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone, missing since December 2012. The Lao government had earlier said the issue had no place at the ASEAN meetings.

Looking back, ASEAN’s road to setting up a human rights commission – whose limitations its own commissioners concede – has been far from smooth. The commission’s creation was already a feat by itself.

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ASEAN launched in Bangkok in 1967

The regional grouping laid down the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which stipulated the creation of a human rights body. AICHR was created in 2009. In a process criticized by civil society for falling short of international standards, ASEAN drafted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

From being taboo, human rights principles were slowly integrated into ASEAN documents, institutions, and language. ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language,” said Reyes of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

But the AICHR’s limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating rights complaints. “It is high time it (AICHR) evolved from promotion to the protection of human rights,” said a statement by the Thai Civil Society Network on ASEAN and AICHR.

Today, “all ASEAN human rights instruments recognise universal human rights standards with caveats: the principle of non-interference and due regard to the different culture, history, and socioeconomic condition in each ASEAN member state,” Ranyta Yusran, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, said at a legal conference in Beijing in May.

Wahyuningrum of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group said: “Human rights and democracy issues (in the region) are not going to simmer down. How is ASEAN going to keep up with these changes if it remains too bureaucratic and difficult to engage with?”

But she said there are encouraging signs. At a recent meeting she attended in Bangkok on legal aid and witness protection for victims of cross-border trafficking, participants acknowledged the political differences among the member states they were representing, but nevertheless focused on cooperation. The participants wanted to develop a cross-border witness protection standard operating procedure, which is a “good start,” she said.

Although AICHR has not adapted to “the changing context and structural challenges” of rights protection, Wahyuningrum credited it with initiating activities that have helped set “different platforms for subregional debate on human rights and clarified the ASEAN dimension on responses to human rights issues”.

For Reyes, there has also been “more robust engagement between and among non-governmental and civil society organizations,” though this faces challenges.

All eyes are now looking to 2017, when the Philippines takes its turn as ASEAN chair during the organization’s 50th year. The country has had a record of speaking up against rights abuses in ASEAN, but there are questions about how – and whether it can still do this credibly – given the furore over extrajudicial killings in the Duterte government’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Tess Bacala wrote this as a fellow of the Reporting ASEAN project of Inter-Pres Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (  This story was produced under the “Reporting Development in ASEAN” series of Inter-Press Service Asia-Pacific. 

ASEAN: Security remains a serious concern

October 16, 2016

by Bunn Nagara

ASEAN: Security remains a serious concern

Security in the region continues to be a serious concern for all, not least because of the antics of major powers beyond the control of ASEAN countries.

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THE “regional security architecture” of East Asia is often said to be in need of refurbishment.

The decades-long balance of forces deriving from the distinct national interests now being pursued by the major powers is thought to be out of kilter. At the very least, it is unlike what it had been in the postwar period since 1945. In recent years, the key factors contributing to this perceived strategic disequilibrium have been the rise of China, and US and other countries’ reactions to it.

The “Pax Americana” of regional order, peace and security imposed through US dominance is now more than 70 years old.It is an order that began when the US had both economic and military supremacy. Now that its economic prowess is being matched and possibly later overtaken by China, what next?

Thus, at an East Asian Institute workshop in Singapore last Friday to sketch some updates on these themes, more than a few views were aired and debated. And that was how it should be. Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung as sponsors invited international security specialists to discuss the issues as these continue to be played out in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.

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The standard narrative is heard often enough: China’s economic rise has been complemented by its enlarged strategic presence, further enhanced by the US military “pivot/rebalancing” of deploying more firepower to East Asia.

The worrisome tit-for-tat, back-and-forth of pouting and posturing between these giants, or “G2”, has been a main event for this region and will remain so for some time.

For many, the US and China seemed destined for a showdown of sorts. But such an alarming outcome is unlikely, given several realities.Unlike with the Soviet Union before, the US is not in bitter ideological contention with China today.

The US and Chinese economies are also deeply intertwined; damage to one also means damage to the other. Washington now also needs China’s help in playing vital strategic roles: fighting terrorism, and keeping North Korea contained.

For more than half a century, all countries including China had accepted a US-led position of military pre-eminence. All these countries including China may still feel the same.

Nonetheless, China’s rise has been so steep, so rapid and so relentless as to set off multiple reactions to it. How will South-East Asia in particular be impacted by it all?

For decades, South-East Asia has informally been taken to be synonymous with ASEAN. Pundits often still talk about South-East Asia as “the ASEAN region”.

ASEAN for many is so broad in scope and implications as to be somewhat imprecise. There are at least three other levels of ASEAN’s state of being.

From the Informal ASEAN regarded as another name for South-East Asia, there is the Intuitive ASEAN: the motif or Zeitgeist of time (now) and place (South-East Asia).

Another ASEAN is the Formal ASEAN: the active transnational agency that had given rise to its founding treaties and declarations, along with ASEAN Plus Three, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, besides regular defence ministers’ meetings, Bali Concord documents and others.

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The fourth ASEAN is the Bureaucratic ASEAN: comprising principles, processes and procedures, as well as values, norms and conventions.

Then there are the multiple points at which ASEAN engages with principal players in the region: the US, China, Japan, and increasingly also India and Russia. The EU would also want to relate more and better with ASEAN.

Like practically everything else, ASEAN evolves according to the circumstances of the time. And since ASEAN is amenable to change, it may be time to consider some timely changes.

The first follows from ASEAN’s nature of reaching out beyond its own region of South-East Asia. Thus the many multilateral extra-ASEAN institutions that ASEAN had initiated or are ASEAN-centred.

ASEAN can begin by doing more, and on a regular basis, most naturally with its formally designated Dialogue Partners. From there it can prepare to expand its engagements with other countries and regions.

ASEAN understood that rising global competitiveness meant that it could be decimated, so it decided to reach out beyond South-East Asia early. If ASEAN were to survive in an Asia-Pacific crowded with major powers it had to be consequential; the alternative would be to become inconsequential, fade and perish.

The second area of change involves a multilayered ASEAN Security Regime whose time has surely come. With Total or Comprehensive Security for the region as the goal, ASEAN can move for a regime spanning traditional and non-traditional threats.

The third area is a review of some established norms in the “ASEAN Way,” notably such principles as “non-intervention” and “consensus”.

There is nothing wrong with these universal and uncontroversial principles, which are practised elsewhere and which predate ASEAN. The problem lies only in ASEAN’s peculiar interpretation of them.

In ASEANspeak, non-intervention is stretched to cover refraining from even voicing any disapproval or criticism, in whatever form, of another country’s conduct or character, however deplorable.

So long as there is no malice shown or intended, and no attempt to humiliate or offend, there should be no taboo against passing honest and due judgment on an erring fellow ASEAN member. To ignore troubling faults is to be irresponsible.

But ASEAN’s standing “code” is to treat all commentary, however well-intentioned or diplomatic, as unpardonable sin. That is hardly the way forward in the 21st century.

This inventive, indiscriminate but ultimately self-defeating interpretation is a hindrance and an obstacle to greater candour. It further disables ASEAN countries’ natural communicability among themselves.

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It would help if ASEAN developed a clearer, more disciplined and more consistent application of these principles to render them more realistic. It would certainly help ASEAN and its own credibility. For example, when member nations agree to the text of a joint statement, the original statement should be released even if one or two countries retract their assent. Their late dissent should be recorded as a footnote in the statement, and not become a reason for blocking the statement.

Consensus is fine, but it has to be handled with care, maturity and intelligence to facilitate rather than to obstruct the order of business.

If a country or a minority of some countries succeed in holding up the release of a statement, their identities and their reasons for doing so should likewise be released in place of the statement. And if any member state were to commit a serious wrong, a simple majority of the remaining nine may decide if action is to be taken. A two-thirds majority of the nine may then decide on the type of penalty.

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Obama in Laos for ASEAN Summit

Any organisation, even ASEAN, is free to develop such codes or practices to improve its functions. To insist on not even considering any of these options regardless is regressive. More tough-minded actions in place of woolly fumbling are just as important as benchmarks to help ASEAN achieve Community status. But can ASEAN rise to the occasion?

The time of dithering, muddling through, hoping for the best and spinning for a favourable effect by “massaging” the news media must surely be over. But that assumes ASEAN is serious about real Community status, and not just talking about it.

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