Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Southeast Asia Plans for Its Own Future after Shangri-La
June 16, 2017
Southeast Asia Plans for Its Own Future after Shangri-LaBy Shannon Hayden, Associate Director (@ShannonKHayden), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS
Members of the Asia-Pacific security community, and particularly those from Southeast Asia, wanted to be reassured by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s remarks at the June 2-3 annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but odds are they were not and should not have been. While Mattis hit the expected notes on regional security and the role of institutions and did his part in meeting with all 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers and 35 young Southeast Asian leaders, his words were not uttered in a vacuum.
The secretary’s remarks should be seen as an interlude overshadowed by high-profile evidence of the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to an “America First” perspective, including a rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the Paris climate accord and a prolonged refusal by the president to acknowledge the U.S. commitment to NATO’s collective defense. Mattis’s grim aside at Shangri-La that “once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing” provides little comfort for many in Southeast Asia.
Regional leaders will take much more from U.S. actions than from Mattis’s words and are considering what it means for the United States to, put kindly, diminish its focus on the Asia-Pacific region at the same time China has set forth an ambitious vision for an interconnected Eurasia through its Belt and Road Initiative. Many critiques of China’s new initiatives, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, have been tactical, missing the broader point that of the two dominant powers in Asia, it is China that is offering a way forward and a plan for the future. The United States, meanwhile, repeatedly signals from the highest level its rejection of a range of shared commitments and the idea of a global community.
This tension is acutely felt among Southeast Asian nations, who for years have asked that they not be forced to choose between the United States, a primary security partner for many, and China, increasingly the leading economic partner throughout the region. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis faced questions about whether the United States might reconsider its TPP decision in the wake of China’s May launch of its Belt and Road Initiative. The question, from Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, reveals the region’s (and Singapore’s in particular) anxiety about shifting power dynamics in the Asia Pacific.
On display as well was the absence of realism regarding the South China Sea. Mattis, echoing keynote remarks from Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, stated that “we oppose countries’ militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.” But as more and more security analysts are openly saying, China has succeeded with its land reclamation efforts, is now militarizing, and has faced no real opposition—those unacceptable changes to the status quo are already here.
Lt. Gen. Parmendra Kumar Singh (retired), director of the United Service Institution of India, asked at Shangri-La at what point action will take the place of talking points if it is thought that China will not stop its efforts in the South China Sea? Or, more importantly, when do the talking points change to reflect what has happened? The purest distillation of the situation facing the United States in the region comes from Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, who wrote at the start of Shangri-La: "The reality is that America will not find an effective response to China’s push to replace it as the leading power in Asia unless and until it recognizes that this will entail very large costs and risks, and decides to accept them. And that will only happen if and when Americans decide that remaining the primary power in Asia over the next few decades really matters to them. And it is far from clear that they will decide that."
The Trump administration has lagged in staffing its State and Defense departments to such a degree that “it remains to be seen what the policy will be” has become the de facto policy for the region. This is unfair to allies and partners, whose confidence in their American security partner provides maneuverability that, absent that confidence, is impossible.
Piqued by Singapore’s continuous efforts to balance its relations with both the United States and China, China has twice messaged the smaller country that its independent stance has been noted—by way of intercepted armored personnel carriers and a non-invitation to Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to the May Belt and Road Initiative launch. In an interview during the Shangri-La Dialogue, Lee reiterated Singapore’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. One wonders how Singapore might recalibrate if it believes its primary security partner’s commitments cannot be trusted.
In the medium term, Southeast Asian officials are moving on and undoubtedly thinking along the same lines as leaders in Germany and Canada, with their recent statements on needing to consider security concerns and the potential unreliability of long-standing partners. Some Southeast Asian leaders, too, are contemplating new regional dynamics and wondering if American absence means new ways to cooperate with each other.
Anecdotally, there is also some relief among Southeast Asian nations that under the Trump administration’s approach they will no longer feel lectured to about human rights issues, as they had been under the Obama administration on the drug war in the Philippines and the military coup in Thailand. There is plenty to debate about who might move into a gap left by the United States and human rights concerns, but these are serious points of view in the region and the United States should be aware of how its behavior since January has sent signals to nations worldwide.
Shannon Hayden is associate director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
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The Philippine military continues to fight ISIS-linked militants in Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao. The military claims the ongoing battle started on May 23 when government troops conducted a raid in pursuit of Isnilon Hapilon, the declared emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. The siege has so far killed 58 members of the Philippine security forces and 26 civilians, with the death toll for militant fighters believed to be over 200. Philippine marines discovered $1.6 million in cash and checks in a former militant stronghold on June 6. The military failed to meet a June 12 target date to take back control of the city.
Resorts World Manila fire kills 37, officials say not a terrorist attack
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Myanmar military plane carrying 122 passengers crashes
A Myanmar military transport aircraft crashed into the Andaman Sea on June 7 with 122 passengers—soldiers, family members, and crew—onboard. Search and rescue teams continue to recover bodies, but recovery efforts have been slowed by monsoon storms. While no official explanation for the crash has been provided, Myanmar’s army chief suggested that weather was the likely cause. The Myanmar government has rejected offers of assistance from neighboring countries, including China.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party wins commune election with 51 percent of popular vote
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Thai man jailed for 35 years for insulting the royal family on Facebook
A Thai military court on June 9 sentenced a man to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts that allegedly insulted the royal family, a violation of Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws. The man was arrested in Chiang Mai Province in December 2015 and had his initial sentence of 70 years cut in half because he confessed to all charges. His penalty is the longest sentence relating to defaming the royal family on record—surpassing the previous record of 30 years—according to iLaw, an advocacy group monitoring human rights cases in Thailand.
Singapore and China to cooperate on Belt and Road Initiative, marking an uptick in relations
Singapore foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 12 announced his country’s support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in a joint press briefing with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, who welcomed Singapore’s participation. The move appeared to mark an uptick in ties after China responded to Singapore’s support for an international tribunal ruling last July on the South China Sea by intercepting some Singaporean military personnel carriers en route from Taiwan to Singapore. China also did not invite Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to the recent Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing. The two countries have agreed to cooperate on various issues related to the Belt and Road Initiative, including trade linkages, financial cooperation, and training and technology transfer.
Malaysia sentences nine Filipinos to death for 2013 invasion of Sabah
The Malaysian Court of Appeal on June 8 sentenced nine Philippine militants to death for their role in an invasion of Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah in 2013. In a unanimous decision, the court overturned a previous court’s life sentence for the militants, following an appeal by prosecutors for a harsher sentence. A six-week standoff in 2013 between the Malaysian armed forces and around 200 fighters from the Philippines claiming to represent the Sultanate of Sulu—which has historical claims to Sabah—left more than 70 people, mostly militants, dead. The Philippine government plans to ask Malaysia to reconsider the death sentence.
Six Indonesian militants sentenced for harboring Uighur militants
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The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission on June 6 arrested six top officials—including the chairman, secretary, and treasurer—of a Telekom Malaysia cooperative for alleged graft and abuse of power. The alleged scheme involved bulk goods purchases from a complicit supply company at inflated prices, which were then sold back to the supplier without any goods changing hands and with some of the profits going to the suspected officials. The Malaysian Cooperative Commission took over management of the cooperative following the discovery of $5.4 million in losses.
Jakarta prosecutors withdraw appeal of Ahok’s sentence
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By Keith Luse
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On June 8, Murray Hiebert, senior adviser and deputy director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on "China's Relations with Continental Southeast Asia"...Read Mr. Hiebert's testimony here and watch the hearing here>>>