In it, I outline several steps to sustain Europe’s recent increasing attention to Southeast Asia in the economic, security and cultural realms. While much ink has been spilled on America’s pivot to Asia, I continue to believe it is important to pay equal attention to the EU’s shift to the East as well.
Here is an excerpt:
During his visit to Singapore recently German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle made a convincing case for deeper European Union engagement in Asia and more specifically with ASEAN. Germany is hardly alone in recognising this. Indeed, 2012 seemed to be the year of Europe’s pivot to Asia. Leading officials attended key Asian summits, and the EU made advances in its relationship with ASEAN by suspending sanctions on Myanmar, acceding to the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and completing a successful ministerial meeting in April.
But while ASEAN-EU ties have certainly warmed recently due to Europe’s increasing interest in the region, “upgrading” the relationship between the world’s two major regional integration initiatives will require sustained and significant progress by both sides across several areas in the coming years…
You can read the full thing here.
I’ve stressed repeatedly that the Mekong River, one of the world’s greatest rivers which provides food, water and transportation for tens of millions of people in mainland Southeast Asia, is under grave threat from a string of hydropower projects as well as other potential development, demographic and climate-change related pressures.
A fierce debate occurred last month at the recent Mekong River Commission (MRC) meeting between Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand over Laos’ Xayaburi dam – a project Vientiane is choosing to move forward with despite the lack of regional consultation required. The project and the controversy surrounding it has important implications not just for the Mekong River, but sustainable development in the Southeast Asia more generally.
I’ve penned an op-ed published in a Malaysian newspaper setting out a series of steps for riparian nations to take. The recommendations cover not only Laos, but China, which has already built several dams upstream and is still not part of the MRC, Thailand which is going to get most of the electricity from the Xayaburi project, as well as other donor countries and institutions.
I won’t re-publish the whole article here, but I wanted to highlight one of the recommendations I made.
Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand should recognise that while they have a sovereign right to develop their economies, they must also ensure that dam projects are backed up by adequate input and research and adhere to obligations they have previously signed to.
For instance, Laos, a landlocked and poor country, may view hydropower as a gateway to development. But since Vientiane already agreed in December 2011 to postpone a decision on the Xayaburi pending further study, starting it now will violate that commitment as well as the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires regional consultation for development projects.
Even if countries decide to go ahead with dams, the process by which decisions are made and they are eventually built needs to be fair and inclusive. Proper research and analysis should be conducted and diverse interest groups must be adequately consulted. Equally important, government officials should have the adequate capacity to conduct these assessments and the necessary impartiality to resist being captured by powerful commercial interests.
Obviously, all this is not new and is easier said than done. But it is worth re-emphasizing what is at stake here and how countries can help overcome what might be a lingering crisis over the horizon. And that framing the issue in terms of the economy vs. the environment won’t help us get there.
You can read the full thing here.
Yesterday, The Financial Times’ blog on emerging markets reported that analysts seem increasingly confident that the country will continue posting strong growth in 2013 and into 2014 as well:
International lenders and investors expect the Philippines to sustain its growth momentum in the next few years on the back of a possible improvement in the country’s credit rating to investment grade later this year. The World Bank predicts the Philippine economy will expand by 6.2 per cent this year and 6.4 per cent next year.
If they are right, this would mark a significant departure from the Philippines’ past record of erratic growth. Just to give you an idea of how deeply entrenched this pattern has been over the past few decades:
…Only nine times since the 1960s has annual GDP growth clocked in at more than six per cent. Except in one instance, growth has always slumped in the year following such strong performance, with the rate of growth dropping an average of three percentage points, according to government data.
So there’s no doubt that the Philippines growth story – if it materializes as analysts are saying it will – is not only promising for the country’s future but also a welcome break from its past. What remains to be seen is whether those expectations will become a reality.
The stellar group of Asia hands at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has released an updated report articulating policy recommendations for the second Obama administration with respect to economic strategy in Asia.
The report covers several key countries including Japan, Korea, India, China and ASEAN. Some of the recommendations include supporting ASEAN ‘connectivity’ efforts and working towards a full US-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA), expanding cooperation with Japan and Korea in the G-20 and bringing them into the fold of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), establishing an ambitious 10-year “New Framework for U.S.-India Economic Cooperation”, and modifying the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China.
There is also a list of lessons learned recommended for policymakers drawing partly on an earlier report released on the subject for Obama’s first term, which deals with issues like negotiation, public relations and bureaucratic politics.
One of the key challenges that the study highlights for the future of Asia economic policy is the resource constraints in Washington:
For the United States to have an effective strategy in Asia, and to be taken seriously by partners there, it must have sufficient talent and resources for the job. At present, U.S. government personnel and funding devoted to Asia policy, especially in the economic arena, are insufficient to the size, challenges, and opportunities of the region. In particular, the State Department and other agencies traditionally focused on political and security issues need more senior officials versed in Asian economics.
You can read the full thing here.
2013 is the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations, so we can expect a flood of commentary to accompany the ceremony this year. I’ve written a blog piece for Foreign Policy looking at the recent flurry of visits by Japanese officials to Southeast Asian capitals over the past few weeks.
In it, I highlight some of the opportunities in ASEAN-Japan relations, which lie in various areas from economics to maritime security to people-to-people ties. But while there is plenty to celebrate, I also look at the challenges which tend to get less of an emphasis. Quoting from the article:
Yet Tokyo faces several challenges as it courts ASEAN. To some, Abe’s rhetoric on democracy and human rights rings hollow: he was silent on those issues in Vietnam despite a recent government crackdown there. And while Japan and Southeast Asian states both have territorial disputes with China, any sense that Tokyo is enlisting ASEAN in a broad effort to contain Beijing could produce a squabble between the organization’s hawks and doves.
Japan’s domestic priorities may also make advancing the relationship difficult. Japan’s seventh prime minister in just six years must secure his political legitimacy while reviving the country’s moribund economy. Over the next few months, his administration will likely be consumed by its main short-term goal of securing victory in this summer’s Upper House elections.
You can read the full thing here.
A couple of weeks ago, America’s top diplomat for East Asia Kurt Campbell said that the top 2013 question he gets about U.S. Asia policy is whether the so-called pivot or rebalance will sustain during President Barack Obama’s second term.
At least part of that anxiety lies in the belief that the United States could once again become embroiled in the Middle East, something that is very much on the minds of seasoned Asia hands like Mike Green over at CSIS.
Those already worried about this will find little relief hearing what Vali Nasr, formerly a professor at the Fletcher School and a noted Middle East expert, had to say in his opening remarks at a Foreign Correspondents Club lunch in Hong Kong last week.
Two years after the Arab Spring, Nasr said, any hope by Asianists that the Arab Spring would somehow lead the Middle East to come to grips with its own issues and free up Washington to then focus more of its attention to Asia is all but extinguished. The region today, Nasr said:
…Is becoming a source of growing headaches and an impetus for a pivot back to the Middle East by the United States. Going forward, at least in the next year or two, the Middle East will be far more important in the making of U.S. foreign policy and how it deploys its resources going forward than any strategic statement that the administration has made and is making.
That’s a pretty bold statement, but it doesn’t seem that farfetched if you look at the ground realities in the Middle East. In the next one to two years, Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, and escalating violence in Afghanistan as the U.S. departs all loom as potential tinderboxes.
And by the way, that doesn’t include anything proactive U.S. President Barack Obama might try to do in his second term in the region, like something on the Arab-Israeli conflict which some have urged him to. Or the other innumerable domestic policy priorities the administration will try to tick off within the first half of the second term before the president risks becoming a lame duck and losing political capital.
Are you worried yet?
Given that 2013 could be the year of reckoning on Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention the likely denouement for Syria, John Kerry will require real strategic discipline to keep a focus on Asia. The administration has also had some difficulty managing the inherent tension between engaging China and maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region. Allies such as Japan and the Philippines worry that in the second term the administration may tilt back towards an emphasis on reassuring, rather than dissuading, Beijing. That would be unfortunate, since lack of consistency on that front hurt the administration in the first term with both the allies and Beijing.
Engagement of ASEAN is a noted success for this administration, but the terrain could become tougher in the years ahead, given renewed ethnic conflict in Burma, leadership transitions in Indonesia, and domestic political problems in Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere. A strong U.S. Trade Representative empowered to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would certainly help the sustainability of the Pivot, particularly with ASEAN. Finally, all eyes will be on the defense budget. A carefully managed cut to defense spending that allows reprogramming for naval and air force capabilities in the Pacific is necessary. Sequestration that throws the defense establishment into chaos would damage the region’s image of American strategic competence.
I have highlighted similar concerns in several recent pieces, including here.