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Don’t Forget…ASEAN-Japan Relations

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This is a big week for ASEAN-related summitry, and the headlines will usually center on things like territorial disputes in the South China Sea, progress on the ASEAN Economic Community and some developments on the haze issue.

But one area that has seen progress but gets little attention is ASEAN-Japan relations. I’ve already harped on how this is important and why we may see strengthened ties this year, which is the 40th anniversary of the official relationship here and here. But here have also been promising moves over the past week from both sides, with Japan easing some visa entry requirements for ASEAN travelers and both sides agreeing to discuss maritime security in their December summit.

Though these may seem like small steps, they are significant and worth keeping an eye on.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

June 30, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Thinking About Asia Economic Strategy for the Second Obama Administration

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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.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

January 28, 2013 at 10:58 pm

Celebrating 40 Years of ASEAN-Japan Relations in 2013

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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.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

January 24, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Words of Wisdom from Outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan

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The end of the new year is also the end of ASEAN’s Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s five year term in his position. In an article for The Diplomat, I took a look at the advice Surin has been offering Southeast Asia before leaving his post. 

At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.

One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.

But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.

The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”

On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.

But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”

Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.

Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.

As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.

This piece was originally published for The Diplomat. You can read it here.

After the EAS, How Can ASEAN Get Past the South China Sea?

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The 7th East Asia Summit (EAS) held last week was notable for a number of reasons, including the launching of a new regional free trade agreement and the introduction of several U.S. proposals on energy and maritime security. But the elephant in the room once again was the South China Sea (SCS) and disagreements among ASEAN countries stoked in part by China.

Just over four months ago, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement at its foreign minister’s meeting for the first time because host nation, Cambodia, insisted that language on the SCS should not even be mentioned. Many suspected that China had used its economic leverage on Cambodia to ensure ASEAN remained divided on the issue, and a few reports even suggested Cambodian officials had shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors.

Those who were perturbed by those developments are unlikely find any relief from developments of the past week. This time, at the ASEAN Summit, Cambodia tried to force through the idea that ASEAN leaders had come to a consensus “that they will not internationalize the South China Sea issue from now on”, in the words of Foreign Ministry official Kao Kim Hourn. The trouble is that the language, which was strikingly similar to Chinese mantras, did not reflect what was agreed upon. At least five ASEAN countries objected and Cambodia was eventually forced to remove the controversial language from the final declaration. The Philippines was particularly vexed, with President Benigno Aquino openly rebuking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario insisting that there was an attempt to translate statements “into a consensus without our consent”.

While Cambodia was attempting to dilute ASEAN’s consensus on the SCS, China was seeking to downplay the issue within the EAS’ multilateral setting. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the all-too-familiar Chinese assertion that territorial disputes should not be discussed at multilateral events but bilaterally between China and each of the ASEAN claimant states. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Chinese envoys also repeatedly attempted to sidestep the issue, saying that it should not be a “stumbling block” in ASEAN-China relations and that the main focus of the EAS should be greater economic cooperation amid the international financial crisis. ASEAN had in fact agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) on the SCS before the EAS had begun, according to outgoing ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, but Premier Wen played down the need for urgent action on the issue. “On the ASEAN side, we are ready, willing and very much committed, but it takes two to tango”, Pitsuwan said.

Given that tensions over the SCS have dominated two rounds of meetings this year, how can ASEAN ensure that this will not happen again next year? The Philippines, twice bitten and thrice shy, announced after the EAS that it will host a meeting in Manila on December 12 with fellow claimants Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The four countries should use this as an opportunity to coordinate strategies on how to best advance their claims to China in a more unified way. One way to do so would be to make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), followed by a process where stakeholders clarify convergences and divergences. Only by being clear about their own claims can ASEAN states prevent China from exploiting divisions and ambiguities that exist within the bloc in future summits or dealings. That will also help facilitate negotiations on the CoC between ASEAN states and China.

Furthermore, ASEAN countries should continue to engage with next year’s ASEAN chair (and SCS claimant) Brunei on how it plans on handling the SCS issue in multilateral forums as appropriate. Brunei has traditionally preferred a low-key approach in dealing with contentious issues like the SCS, exemplified during ASEAN deliberations in July this year when its delegation simply said it would be “guided by” the decision of the ASEAN chair, as opposed to other claimants who insisted on a reference to the dispute in the joint communique. In 2013, the government in Bandar Seri Begawan will no longer have the luxury of simply deferring to other countries or remaining neutral as ASEAN chair. If Brunei needs any advice or guidance on tackling divisive issues, the organization’s more experienced members should be prepared to provide it.

Lastly, ASEAN states should not give in to intimidation by China on the SCS. Beijing has used such tactics in the past with claimant states, with its China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) calling for foreign oil and gas companies to explore nine blocks in disputed waters in violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and its quarantine of imported tropical fruit from the Philippines after saber-rattling in the Scarborough Shoal. A new wave of intimidation appears to be taking shape just a few days after China downplayed territorial disputes at the EAS, with Beijing releasing fresh passports containing a map of China which includes parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others as well as disputed territory on the Indian border. Asian countries have rightly expressed outrage at the move and have responded by refusing to stamp them or drawing up their own maps. It is important that these countries continue to register their official protests in this manner in case Beijing tries to assert later on that stamping the passports could be regarded as effectively endorsing its claims.

Cambodia’s chairmanship this year has shown ASEAN that it is only as strong as its weakest link. In order to prevent outside actors from exploiting divisions within the bloc, ASEAN states must redouble their efforts at unifying their positions where they should and taking a clear stand where they must. Only then can the bloc continue to effectively occupy the driver’s seat in pushing for greater regional integration in the Asia-Pacific.

This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat. You can read that version here.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

November 27, 2012 at 12:24 am

Innocence of Muslims: Beyond Islam and the West

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Earlier today, I participated in a conversation for one of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC’s) radio programs on the reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film in the Muslim world and what that said about Islam, ‘the West’, and issues of freedom of speech more generally. They had seen my previous writings (see here and here) on the subject and wanted me to discuss my views. Clips of the film, which portray the revered Prophet Muhammad in disrespectful ways, have triggered violent anti-American protests in over 20 countries and have led to at least 28 deaths.

What I said generally was this: this is basically a debate about the need to balance freedom of speech and the freedom to react. Some may think they are absolutely right in arguing that the film, despite being quite amateurish, insulting to Islam as a religion and the cause of dozens of deaths and protests, is nonetheless protected as free speech under the 1st amendment. (In fact, this is not so straightforward, as others who argue free speech can be limited if it has the intent and likelihood of inciting imminent violence or law-breaking, and that this film meets that standard).

But the more fundamental point is that if one insists that freedom of speech should be protected, one should also accept the corresponding right of individuals who are offended to react to the film and express their views. Outrage and condemnation should be reserved only for violent protests that involve attacks on individuals or institutions, as distinguished from the many instances of peaceful protests that do not make headlines. As I told the program, we hear about violence in Pakistan that left 15 dead, but not a crowd in Malaysia who peacefully handed a memorandum over to the U.S. embassy last week in protest of the film and decried the Americans killed in the Middle East in relation to the film.

As for the countless people (including those mentioned on air during the BBC program) who insist that they have the right to make their hatred of the film public and to demand that authorities take action against the perpetrators, one caveat is in order. They must realize that there are limits to how governments and other actors can be receptive to their displeasure. “Innocence of Muslims” was made by an individual, not the United States, and the videos circulating around the world were via YouTube and owner Google, not the State Department or U.S. President Barack Obama. In fact, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed their displeasure with the film, publicly made this clear, and did try to get Google to block access, but ultimately there are limits to how much the U.S. government can infringe on individual rights and affect business behavior.

Too often incidents like the “Innocence of Muslims” protests (or similar past sagas like the Danish cartoons of 2005) are cast in terms of either one side’s right to say something or the other’s right to react to it, without appreciating both the potential and real limits on these freedoms and expressing empathy for the other side. One can appreciate another’s view without agreeing with it.

Some also succumb to the dangerous temptation to simplify. People have cast the debate in terms of ‘Islam vs. the West’, when most reasonable observers understand that these monoliths do not exist and there is in fact a debate within these entities about issues such as the balance of freedom and security and how to deal with a globalized world in which actors from different cultures interact faster and more frequently. Others tend to focus on the reaction to the film itself, without realizing that this is merely one outlet by which emotive outbursts are expressed, and that these outbursts have their source in other structural and contextual factors such as colonialism, socioeconomic discontent, demographic and political changes (to name just a few).

Needless to say, extremism and rigidity do little to help in situations like these where balance and moderation are required rather than self-fulfilling prophecies of civilizational clashes.

How Has Southeast Asia Reacted to the “Innocence of Muslims” Film?

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Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in “The Diplomat” and can be read here.

Over the last few days, the world has witnessed uproar in more than 20 countries over video clips from “Innocence of Muslims”, a U.S.-made anti-Muslim film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, including assaults on several U.S. embassies which have left a top American diplomat dead. While the outrage over the film has not thus far been as fierce in Southeast Asia as it has been in the Middle East, the governments in the two large Muslim-majority countries – Malaysia and Indonesia – have nonetheless moved swiftly to try to contain any potential violence.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the reaction to the clip was critical but not radical. On September 13, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesman for international affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said Yudhoyono denounced the movie for “the element of blasphemy” but also because it had resulted in the loss of lives which he truly regretted. Indonesia’s National Ulema Council (MUI) also explicitly asked all Indonesians to show restraint and not overreact to the film through violent protests. Hundreds of members of the Indonesian Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) did stage a protest in front of the U.S. embassy on Friday, but it was largely peaceful. The embassy compound was also heavily guarded by around 400 Indonesian policemen, including dozens in riot gear.

Even though the reaction was mostly non-violent, the government nevertheless demanded as early as September 13 that YouTube block access to the film. Communications and Information Ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto said the “offensive” film had clearly upset Indonesian Muslims and the government did not want “violence to break out here.” Google emailed the government that evening to announce that it had blocked Indonesian access to 16-related URLs on their site, according to an article in The Australian. Film extracts were still available on YouTube on Sunday, but Broto said “a special effort” was being made to restrict access. Jakarta has also written separately to Blackberry maker Research in Motion (RIM) to filter the videos on smartphones, and has found it to be “very cooperative.” Indonesia is RIM’s biggest market outside North America, which gives the company strong incentive to oblige Jakarta’s request.

In neighboring Malaysia, reactions have been similarly muted relative to the Middle East, and leaders have also focused on criticizing the film’s narrative while discouraging overreaction. Prime Minister Najib Razak refuted the movie’s narrative that “all Muslims are extremists”, while Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the producers should rectify the situation for the sake of peace. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also cautioned Malaysians to “be rational but firm and not over emotional to the point national security is threatened.” Other political parties have also chimed in, with all actors fixed on upcoming general elections which must be held before April next year. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, urged the U.S. to “hold to account” the individuals responsible, but also unequivocally condemned “the senseless killing” that had taken place. The spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) Nik Aziz Nik Mat meanwhile labeled the film producers crazy and urged the authorities to take firm action. While some of these statements have been critical, there has been little sign yet of any visceral one-upmanship among parties in a bid to score political points on the issue which could radicalize the reaction further.

In terms of protests, Agence France-Presse reported several in different parts of the country on Friday, ranging from the northern city of Ipoh to Batu Caves, a popular tourist location outside the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur. However, no violence was reported. A group of around 30 people from Islamic organizations did march to the U.S. embassy to hand-deliver a request for the U.S. to take the clip off YouTube, but the demonstration was peaceful and the protesters clarified that they condemned the violence in the Middle East that had led to the death of several Americans.

Nonetheless, the government appears to be taking no chances and has wasted no time in following suit in clamping down. On Saturday, Malaysia’s Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim revealed he had instructed the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to “ban the access of the movie trailer via YouTube and other channels,” and that the ban should serve “as a warning” to local and foreign parties that the government will not tolerate “negative elements touching upon racial and religious sensitivities.” And on Sunday, the Associated Press quoted Rais as saying that Kuala Lumpur had officially asked Google to block access to the video clip, citing “explosive commotions and repercussions at hand.” While such radical reactions have been mostly absent so far in both Malaysia and Indonesia, the governments in both countries seem determined to act preemptively to ensure the violence in the Middle East does not spread to Southeast Asia.


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