Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: ASEAN Learning to Navigate a New Age in Great Power Politics

Volum VII l Issue 13

ASEAN Learning to Navigate a New Age in Great Power Politics

By Phuong Nguyen (@PNguyen_DC), Associate Fellow, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

At the end of a recent ASEAN-China summit in Kunming, China, on June 13, Beijing pressured several ASEAN members close to it to withdraw their support for an ASEAN joint press statement expressing “serious concerns” about recent developments in the South China Sea. These events raised fundamental questions about the ability of the grouping to pull together amid challenges posed by the region’s new strategic realities.

What happened in Kunming was not the first time ASEAN unity was put to the test—and broke down—in recent years over the South China Sea dispute. Leaving the contentious nature of the issue aside, there has been a growing leadership void within the grouping for some time.

Larger-than-life political figures such as the late Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad shepherded the grouping in its formative years. Today there are no “towering leadership voices”—to quote former Thai foreign minister and former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan—within ASEAN. The original ASEAN members—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—once acted as the engine pulling newer and lesser-developed members along. But this line has become increasingly blurred, as each country in this fluid region struggles with balancing between its internal challenges and an ever-enlarging range of issues that deserve ASEAN’s attention and focus.

What Beijing found most disconcerting about the ASEAN joint press statement was its stronger-than-usual language: “We cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” This suggested ASEAN had unanimously come to see an open, peaceful, and stable South China Sea as being in its collective interest.

History shows that when ASEAN has agreed on its collective interest, the grouping can be a formidable force to reckon with. This is why Beijing felt compelled to resort to the heavy-handed tactics it did to stir up divisiveness among ASEAN members.

Some have asked what this all means for ASEAN’s role in the future, as tensions in the South China Sea show no signs of abating. At the core is the existential question on what types of relationships ASEAN as a geopolitical entity wants or should have with China, the world’s rising power, and the United States, its preeminent power, in coming decades.

Most countries in Southeast Asia know, by instinct, that they should not choose one side over the other. But as an organization seeking to give its members a voice in an international arena made up of larger powers, ASEAN does not have the answer to that question. More to the point, it is difficult—if not near impossible—for ASEAN to determine that on its own. It is instead the state of U.S.-China relations, and how each power conducts itself in the region, that will determine how much strategic room ASEAN has to operate.

As long as the strategic rivalry between the United States and China remains a defining feature of the twenty-first-century Asia Pacific, ASEAN will likely continue to struggle with this question. As Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakhrisnan noted recently during his visit to Washington, there is no historical precedent in which the world’s rising and dominant powers are so interconnected, creating ever more ambiguity for others in terms of how to navigate.

In the midst of this fluid regional environment, even governments in ASEAN that currently possess more bandwidth and focus to deal with pressing strategic issues facing the grouping prefer to play a role behind the scenes, however effective that may be. At the Kunming meeting, for example, some of the countries most concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea were just as nervous as Beijing’s closer allies that China might view their stance as inimical to its security interests—instead of being a matter of principle—or closer to the U.S. position.

While there is little ASEAN can do to change its external environment, it can and should find ways to get its house in order to the extent possible, starting with addressing its current leadership vacuum. Indonesia, long the pack’s spiritual leader, has seemingly turned more inward while also seeking to widen its international profile beyond ASEAN. Thailand, once a deft interlocutor and convener on difficult issues, has been consumed by its domestic political situation, with no clear end in sight. Malaysia, another longtime ASEAN heavyweight, is also distracted by a financial scandal related to a state investment fund.

Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s proposal to Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi when he visited Myanmar earlier this month that she take on the role as ASEAN’s chair in meetings with external partners shows that Singapore understands the real-life challenges that result from the existing leadership void. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves as Myanmar’s de facto head of government and foreign minister, will fill this role could turn out to be a consequential factor for ASEAN in the near term.

The decades during which an eager ASEAN tried to socialize then newly rising China to its norms, in hopes that the latter would turn out a benign power, are officially over. Beijing’s “charm offensive” these days, as some ASEAN countries have learned, comes packaged with both carrots and sticks. Meanwhile, the honeymoon period with Washington, which followed the U.S. focus on Southeast Asia under the rebalance policy, likely can last only so long. As some in the region ponder long-term U.S. resolve and commitment to Southeast Asia, others are increasingly careful about not getting caught between the two powers.

Whether ASEAN can collectively adapt its geopolitical identity to this backdrop will be one of the most important tests facing its members. But trying to do so without leadership and a clear vision will be even more strenuous.

Biweekly Update

Navy fires at foreign fishing boats off Natuna Islands. An Indonesian navy vessel on June 17 fired warning shots at 12 foreign fishing trawlers that were spotted in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, resulting in the seizing of a Chinese ship and arrest of its crew. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on June 19 said one Chinese fisherman was injured as a result and that Beijing has lodged a protest with Indonesia over the incident. China also said in a statement that the waters around the Natuna Islands are traditional Chinese fishing grounds, and that the incident took place where China and Indonesia have “overlapping maritime rights and interests.”

Navy conducts 12-day drill off Natuna Islands. The Indonesian navy on June 9 deployed five surface combatants, a support vessel, and a maritime patrol aircraft to the Natuna Islands for naval exercises that lasted until June 20. According to a representative of the Indonesian navy’s Western Fleet, the deployment was one of the navy’s largest-ever dispatch of military assets to the Natuna Islands. The exercises included surface warfare drills, escort movements, and search and rescue operations.

Jokowi wants united government position on South China Sea. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on June 14 summoned Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan to discuss the need for a united government position on South China Sea issues. According to Luhut, Jokowi wants his ministers to formulate a common stance and avoid giving divergent responses on matters related to the South China Sea dispute. While Indonesia is not a claimant, China’s proclaimed nine-dash line overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the resource-rich Natuna Islands.

Central bank announces fourth rate cut in 2016. The central bank on June 16 announced it will cut the benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to 6.5 percent in an effort to support economic growth. The announcement marks the fourth time the central bank has cut rates this year. The bank also eased a number of lending requirements in an effort to boost property purchases.

Authorities arrest hundreds of Papuans ahead of ministerial visit to West Papua. Authorities on June 15 briefly detained more than 1,000 pro-independence demonstrators in the eastern province of West Papua ahead of a visit by Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan. Protesters took to the streets outside the provincial capital, Jayapura City, to demand that an independent body, instead of the Indonesian government, conduct investigations into human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian police and military against pro-independence forces. West Papua has been gripped with a long-running separatist conflict since it was incorporated as part of Indonesia after a United Nations-backed referendum in 1963.

OPIC launches operations in Myanmar with $250 million loan to telecoms company. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government development financing agency, on June 15 announced its first investment in Myanmar. OPIC will lend telecommunications company Apollo Towers $250 million to help it expand its mobile network coverage in rural areas of Myanmar. Apollo has put up approximately 1,800 telecoms towers across Myanmar since 2014 and is looking to build an additional 2,000.

Non-cease-fire armed groups notionally agree to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The United Nationalities Federal Council’s Delegation for Political Negotiation, a group of armed ethnic groups that took part in the negotiations of but did not sign a cease-fire agreement with the previous government, on June 13 said it will meet State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi earlier asked all non-cease-fire armed groups to join her proposed 21st-Century Panglong Conference, planned for late July, to discuss next steps in the peace process. Dr. Tin Myo Win, the lead government negotiator, will hold additional talks with the group in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in the coming days.

Military-run conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings to sell shares publicly. The military-run conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (MEHL) is preparing to sell shares publicly after having transitioned from a state-owned enterprise to a private company earlier this year, according to a June 10 announcement by Aung Naing Oo, director general of the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. MEHL, which has businesses ranging from gems to transportation, plans to list some of its shares on Yangon’s new stock exchange.

Trading post on Myanmar-Thailand border closed over border dispute. Minister of Commerce Than Myint on June 9 told the Lower House of Parliament that the long-suspended trading post at Three Pagodas Pass on the Myanmar-Thailand border will remain closed until a dispute over border demarcation between the two countries is resolved. Than Myint said allowing the trading post to reopen would amount to ceding territory to Thailand. Non-state armed groups previously controlled the area, which is now overseen by the Myanmar government.

Imagery confirms military uses drones for combat operations in northern Myanmar. Earlier reports on drone deployment by the military for combat operations in northern Myanmar were confirmed by a photograph likely taken by a serviceman and later disseminated online, according to a June 7 IHS Jane’s report. The image shows a group of military personnel standing around a Chinese-made unmanned combat aerial vehicle parked on a paved runway. The drones in question can be used both for intelligence gathering in remote terrain and for surgical strike missions.

Police to mount crackdown on drugs and other crimes in Yangon. More than a dozen National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers on June 14 called for an immediate crackdown on drugs and other crimes in Yangon. Colonel Tin Aung Tun, who is security and border affairs minister for the Yangon Region, subsequently announced plans for so-called “vice squads” to patrol Hlaing Tharyar, South Dagon, Kamaryut, and Thanlyin townships and to arrest those found to be involved in illegal activities. Targets include drug trafficking, gambling, and unlicensed massage parlors.


U.S. deploys more aircraft, personnel to Philippines to help train for routine sea patrols. Four U.S. Navy E/A-18G Growler aircraft and 120 personnel on June 15 arrived at Clark Air Base to help train Philippine military pilots for routine sea patrols. The first U.S. air contingent at Clark Air Base, which includes four A-10C Thunderbolt and two HH-60G Pave Hawks aircraft, began conducting flight missions in April through international airspace near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Duterte meets U.S., UK ambassadors in Davao City. U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg and his UK counterpart, Asif Ahmad, on June 13 paid separate courtesy calls to president-elect Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City. Details of both closed-door meetings were not disclosed, but Ahmad shared photos of his gift exchange with Duterte on Twitter. Goldberg angered Duterte during the election campaign for criticizing the then-presidential hopeful’s joke about the rape of an Australian missionary. Duterte in return dared the U.S. government to cut ties with the Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf executes second Canadian hostage. The Philippine government on June 14 confirmed the execution of Canadian national Robert Hall by the militant group Abu Sayyaf, after the expiration of an extended ransom payment deadline. This follows the killing of his compatriot, John Ridsdel, on April 25. President Benigno Aquino on June 15 said he had considered declaring martial law in Sulu in the southern Philippines to pursue Abu Sayyaf militants and rescue the remaining hostages, but ultimately decided against it due to fears that a failed campaign would increase sympathy for the terrorists.
Preliminary talks begin between incoming government and communists. Representatives from the incoming administration of president-elect Rodrigo Duterte and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) on June 14 began preliminary talks in Oslo, Norway. The NDFP represents the Philippine Communist Party and its armed wing in negotiations with the government. Negotiations between the two sides stalled in 2013. The Duterte administration plans to resume the talks next month shortly after the new president takes office.
MILF says it is committed to peace process, wants implementation of BBL. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the government of President Benigno Aquino in 2014, on June 12 reiterated its commitment to the peace process in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said the group wants to see the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)—whose objective is to implement the peace accord—be enacted by the Philippine Congress prior to any discussions on federalism, as suggested by president-elect Rodrigo Duterte. Congress postponed deliberations on the BBL on several occasions, despite it being a priority for Aquino.  
Coast Guard to receive first multirole response vessel from Japan. Japan Maritime United Corporation (JMUC) on June 9 told IHS Jane’s that it was on track to deliver to the Philippine Coast Guard its first multirole response vessel in August. The vessel is part of the Philippine government’s order of 10 such platforms from JMUC in 2015 for $191 million. It will be used for search-and-rescue operations, marine pollution control, maritime patrols, and improving fisheries protection. 

Prime minister sets goals for domestic business reforms, establishes new advisory council. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on June 19 pledged adherence to Resolution 35, a document promulgated by the new Vietnamese government that outlines plans to promote and reform domestic enterprises. The initiative aims to provide support for competitive Vietnamese firms and help create one million business ventures by 2020. It also proposes administrative and regulatory reforms that would bolster the private sector to account for 49 percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product. Separately, Phuc also formed a 39-member body, the National Financial and Monetary Policy Consultation Council, to advise on major financial and monetary questions.

U.S. assistant secretary Kaidanow visits Vietnam to boost defense cooperation. U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs Tina Kaidanow on June 7 announced U.S. plans to strengthen defense cooperation with Vietnam during a meeting with Vietnamese deputy defense minister Nguyen Chi Vinh in Hanoi. Kaidanow said the cooperation will especially center on addressing war consequences and peacekeeping operations. Specifics include Agent Orange residual cleanup, unexploded ordnance removal in central Vietnam, and the search for U.S. soldiers’ remains. Vinh praised President Barack Obama’s full removal of the U.S. arms ban on Vietnam in late May.

Vietnam announces new slate of National Assembly lawmakers. Results of Vietnam’s May 22 National Assembly election were released on June 9, showing a 96 percent victory by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. Only 21 non-party members secured seats in the 500-seat chamber, and only 11 out of 162 people who initially nominated themselves were allowed to run for election. The new assembly will convene in July.

Indian defense minister visits Vietnam to boost defense industrial, military research cooperation. Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar on June 5 visited Hanoi to discuss several bilateral military initiatives with his Vietnamese counterpart, Ngo Xuan Lich, including a longstanding proposal to sell Vietnam the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Intelligence sharing, joint defense industrial research, and India’s assistance for Vietnam’s military modernization also topped the meeting agenda. India and Vietnam have been strengthening military ties in an attempt to counter China’s expanding maritime presence in Asia.

President visits Laos, Cambodia to boost ties. President Tran Dai Quang on June 12-15 paid a state visit to Laos, during which he pledged support for Laos’s chairmanship of ASEAN and called for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute. Quang reaffirmed Vietnam’s commitment to bilateral defense and security cooperation, and vowed to expand Vietnamese investment in Laos. Quang subsequently paid a two-day visit to Cambodia in an effort to strengthen bilateral trade and investment relations, especially in Cambodia’s agro-industry sector.

Body of downed fighter jet’s second pilot found. Fishermen participating in rescue operations on June 17 discovered the body of Senior Lieutenant Major Tran Quang Khai, a pilot on a Vietnamese Su-30 fighter jet that disappeared from radar during a training session on June 14. The jet’s other pilot, who managed to parachute from the plane before it crashed, was rescued by fishermen on June 15. More than 40 vessels of the Vietnamese Coast Guard and navy continue to search for the nine crew members aboard a CASA C-212 search-and-rescue plane that crashed on June 16 while searching for the downed fighter jet. China has also sent ships to assist in the search for the missing crew.

King receives treatment for “water on the brain.” Thailand’s Royal Household Bureau on June 19 said that King Bhumibol Adulyadej is showing signs of improvement after doctors drained a build-up of fluid from around his brain. He previously received treatment for his heart on June 7. Bhumibol is widely recognized as a popular and unifying figure in Thailand, and concerns over the 88-year-old king’s health and the succession have contributed to political uncertainty in recent years.

Thailand looks to develop nuclear power capability. Thailand has signed cooperation agreements with Russia’s state nuclear energy agency, according to a report in The Nation on June 13. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand disclosed that it has been working with China, Japan, and South Korea on nuclear power generation, sending 100 specialists to train on nuclear power plant projects as part of its goal to generate up to 5 percent of Thailand’s power through nuclear power by 2036.

Thailand ratifies Maritime Labor Convention. Thailand on June 7 ratified the International Labor Organization’s Maritime Labor Convention, to take effect in one year. The Maritime Labor Convention was created in 2006 to regulate seafarers’ work on ships, employment conditions, accommodations, and health and welfare protection, along with implementation requirements. The Thai fishing industry has come under sharp criticism in recent years for reported abuses, human trafficking, and poor labor conditions.

Prawit won’t allow Red Shirts to monitor upcoming referendum. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon on June 13 said that he will not allow the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a Red Shirt organization opposing the military government, to establish vote monitoring centers ahead of the August 7 referendum on the latest draft constitution. UDD chairman Jatuporn Prompan submitted a letter to Prawit claiming that the centers were intended to monitor irregularities, not cause national rifts. UDD representatives on June 20 met with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to lodge a complaint over the centers’ shutdown.

Military criticized over response to reporting on southern Thailand. International and domestic human rights organizations on June 13 called on the Royal Thai Army to drop charges against three human rights advocates. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Anchana Heemmina, and Somchai Homlao reported on the army’s abuse of detainees in southern Thailand during 2014-15, including 54 cases of what they described as inhumane treatment. The Thai government charged the activists with defamation under the Criminal Code and Computer Crimes Act. Military officials have dismissed the report.

Thailand and India sign cooperative agreements. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on June 17 met with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during his official visit to India from June 16 to 18. The two leaders issued a joint statement announcing increased maritime, cybersecurity, military, and intelligence cooperation. They also agreed to support the India-Myanmar-Thai highway project and boost bilateral cooperation in other areas. Thai deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak also met with Thai businessmen in India to discuss business potential and challenges in India.

Ruling coalition retains seats in by-elections. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition retained its seats in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar—two constituencies in Selangor and Perak states, respectively—during a by-election held on June 18. The coalition beat the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in both races. Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose government has been plagued by the controversy surrounding state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, expressed gratitude to voters for “putting their faith in Barisan Nasional again.”

Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines agree to jointly patrol Sulu Sea. Foreign ministers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines on June 20 agreed during a trilateral meeting in Manila that the three countries will conduct joint maritime patrols in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas. They also discussed measures such as trilateral air patrols. The ministers, along with military chiefs from the three countries, met in Yogyakarta last month to discuss ways to address the recent spate of kidnappings of sailors by the Abu Sayyaf militant group in the waters between the Philippines and Indonesia and Malaysia.

UAE’s sovereign wealth fund seeks $6.5 billion in debt payment dispute with 1MDB. Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), and its subsidiary, Aabar Investments, on June 13 sought $6.5 billion in debt repayment in an international arbitration court in London against Malaysia’s state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). 1MDB in April defaulted on $1.75 billion worth of bonds that were partly guaranteed by IPIC, after missing a $50 million interest payment earlier.

Malaysia Finance Ministry takes over 1MDB stake in redevelopment. Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance on June 17 signed an agreement that will let it take over troubled state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd’s stake in a large real estate project in Kuala Lumpur. The ministry will hold a 40 percent stake in Bandar Malaysia, a planned project to develop a 484-acre site at an old air base in the city’s center into a commercial and residential hub.

Singapore to form anti-money laundering unit after shutting down local branch of Swiss bank. The Monetary Authority of Singapore on June 13 announced that it will create a dedicated anti-money laundering department, expected to begin operations on August 1. Singapore made the announcement after it withdrew merchant bank status from a local branch of a Swiss bank, BSI Bank Ltd., for money laundering violations. BSI is under investigation for suspected money laundering and bribery in connection with Malaysia’s 1Malaysia Development Bhd corruption scandal.

Singapore, Indonesia jostle over trans-boundary haze liability. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources on June 15 said the Singapore government’s decision to pursue Indonesian companies linked to haze-causing forest fires is a matter of international law, not sovereignty or national dignity. The ministry was responding to complaints from Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla and environmental minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar that Singapore does not have the authority to violate Indonesia’s sovereignty through legal actions against Indonesian companies. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry on June 16 said, however, that Indonesia is serious about tackling forest fires.

Singapore investigating planned attacks on LGBT event. Singapore police on June 14 said they are investigating threats against a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights rally in Singapore. Singaporean Bryan Lim on June 4 allegedly posted on Facebook that he wanted to “open fire” and “protect his nation” at the rally, Pink Dot 2016, and was reported to police by other Facebook users. The post followed an earlier statement by the Home Affairs Ministry, which said it would ensure foreign entities did not fund, support, or influence events at the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park.

Cambodian opposition activists face seven-year sentence for “insurrection.” The Phnom Penh municipal court on June 16 sentenced three members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to seven years in prison after finding them guilty of joining a 2014 post-election protest in Freedom Park against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Analysts say the sentencing of the trio—Yon Kimhour, Roen Chetra, and Yea Thong—is another sign of the troubled state of Cambodian politics, following charges against CNRP vice president Kem Sokha in a sex scandal and accusations that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s body guards brutally attacked lawmakers in October 2015.

Opposition files new petition to king amidst political turmoil. Members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on June 13 collected thumbprints nationwide for a second petition asking King Norodom Sihamoni for royal intervention to end their perceived oppression by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The Interior Ministry on June 20 alleged evidence of “irregularities” where thumbprints were duplicated in a CNRP petition delivered last month. Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened the CNRP with legal action and accused the opposition of contempt for the king.

Europe may cut aid to Cambodia over human rights violations. The European Union Parliament on June 9 passed a resolution threatening to withhold aid to Cambodia pending an improvement in human rights in the country. Among other demands, the resolution urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to drop all charges against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, currently in self-imposed exile, and to release five political activists jailed last month. A spokesman for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers dismissed the parliament’s statement as patronizing, while Hun Sen said Chinese investment would compensate for any drops in European aid.

Laos, China look to cooperate on culture initiatives. Lao and Chinese officials on June 18 met in Vientiane to discuss expanded cooperation on cultural activities. The Chinese delegation, which included arts and language experts from Guangxi Province, visited for three days in connection with an upcoming China-ASEAN Expo Tourism Exhibition slated for November. Both sides expressed interest in developing the national library and museum in Laos, as well as pursuing arts exchanges across the border.

South China Sea
ASEAN withdraws joint statement criticizing China after Beijing’s objections. The ASEAN Secretariat on June 14 reportedly ordered a joint statement by ASEAN foreign ministers, which expressed “serious concerns” over tensions in the South China Sea during an ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting in Kunming, China, to be taken down from a Malaysian government website. The document implicitly criticized China, whose militarization of features in the South China Sea has caused concern for several claimant states in ASEAN. Reports indicated that China allegedly pressured its allies within ASEAN, including Cambodia and Laos, to withdraw their support of the statement.

Chinese ambassador to Malaysia urges Philippines to adopt Malaysia’s “amicable approach.” China’s ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, on June 13 criticized the Philippines’ unilateral filing of its South China Sea arbitration case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration and urged Manila to emulate Malaysia’s “amicable ways” in settling maritime disputes. Huang said the Philippines should halt arbitral proceedings and revert to bilateral negotiations with China. The case, launched by Manila in 2013, seeks to invalidate China’s “nine-dash-line” claim, which encompasses nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea. Observers expect the tribunal to issue a ruling in the coming weeks.

Chinese reconnaissance vessel shadows U.S. aircraft carrier in South China Sea. A U.S. defense official on June 15 told reporters that Chinese surveillance vessels had been closely following the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis as it transited the South China Sea. Capt. Gregory C. Huffman said that “at least one” Chinese vessel had shadowed the carrier around the clock during the passage, maintaining a 10-mile distance. Beijing said that the vessel did not violate maritime laws. The carrier was en route to Exercise Malabar, an annual joint maritime exercise with India and Japan.

Trans-Pacific Partnership
Google to back Trans Pacific Partnership deal. Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president and general counsel, on June 10 said the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement can be a positive force to counter restrictive Internet regulations around the world. Walker also said Google supports the trade pact because it helps promote free flow of information and provides strong copyright protection.

Mekong River
Mekong River Commission says it has no authority to stop new projects. Delegates from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on June 13 said at the Green Mekong Forum in Bangkok that the organization does not have the authority to prevent new projects from going ahead, even if they might have trans-border consequences. The delegates reiterated that the MRC’s role is as a facilitator rather than a regulator. While MRC representatives can discuss projects, final decisions still lie with the governments of member states.

U.S. and Timor-Leste conduct joint military training. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps from June 7 to 9 conducted joint training with Timor-Leste’s civil and defense leaders. The U.S. Marines visited as part of Exercise Crocodilo 16 and conducted combat lifesaving courses and non-lethal weapons training to provide Timor-Leste defense forces with more flexibility in operations. The U.S. Navy on June 8 visited Timor-Leste as part of Pacific Partnership 2016 and conducted a variety of disaster relief and civil engineering engagements.

Timor-Leste government signs agreement for port construction with Bolloré Transport and Logistics. Bolloré Ports, a division of Bolloré Transport and Logistics, on June 3 was selected for Timor-Leste’s first public-private partnership to construct a 2,000-foot wharf with a 50-foot draft and five cranes. The program is valued at $490 million over a 30-year term. The port will provide 350 jobs and 500 jobs for construction and will be located in Tibar Bay outside of Dili.

Looking Ahead

Expanding the TPP? Prospects for South Korea, Taiwan, and ASEAN. The Wilson Center on June 29 will host a discussion featuring Dr. Pek Koon Heng-Blackburn from American University and Tami Overby, vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to discuss the prospects of South Korea, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian countries joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and how the TPP could influence the future of the region’s political and economic landscape. The event will take place from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Click here to RSVP.

Sixth Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference. The Southeast Asia Program at CSIS on July 12 will host the 6th Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference to examine both longstanding and emerging issues in the South China Sea. The conference will feature speakers from throughout the region, including those from claimant countries. Panelists will review recent developments, engage on legal and military issues, and discuss the wider geostrategic implications. Senator Dan Sullivan, member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, will deliver the keynote address. The event will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 1616 Rhode Island Ave, NW. Click here to RSVP.

Phuong Nguyen

Associate Fellow, Southeast Asia Program