The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 16, 2023

February is proving a busy month for Southeast Asian leaders, who have undertaken a flurry of bilateral visits to reaffirm close ties with their neighbors.

From February 9 to 10, Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim made an official visit to Thailand, where he met with counterpart Prayuth Chan-ocha. It was Anwar’s fourth official trip abroad since assuming office in November, following travel to neighbors Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. The visit was focused on forging closer economic ties and exploring new collaboration to stimulate post-pandemic economic recovery. The two leaders signed four agreements to promote cooperation on electricity, circular energy, the digital economy, and the creative economy.

On the foreign policy front, Anwar promised to “do whatever is required and necessary” to facilitate the peace process in Thailand’s southern provinces, where a separatist movement seeking independence for the predominantly ethnic Malay and Muslim south has been ongoing since 2004. Peace talks between the Thai government and separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional are expected to take place in Kuala Lumpur this month. Anwar also urged Thailand to play a larger role in resolving the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, as Thailand has been criticized for continuing to engage with Myanmar’s military junta. In December, Bangkok hosted the junta-appointed foreign minister at informal talks, which were boycotted by Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.

On February 3, two days after the two-year anniversary of Myanmar’s military coup, ASEAN foreign ministers met in Jakarta for the first time this year. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, representing ASEAN chair Indonesia, promised not to be “held hostage” by the issue and to push for dialogue between all stakeholders in Myanmar.

Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh made his first official visit to Singapore from February 9 to 10, where he signed a Green-Digital Economic Partnership with counterpart Lee Hsien Loong. Under the agreement, the two countries will collaborate on energy connectivity and infrastructure as they advance their clean energy transition. Both Singapore and Vietnam have announced plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but the Vietnamese government is behind schedule in finalizing its eighth Power Development Plan, which will decide the country’s energy policy through 2030. Recent upheavals in the Vietnamese Communist Party have raised concerns among foreign investors that the plan could be further delayed. Prime Minister Lee expressed Singapore’s interest in collaborating with Vietnam on renewable energy and carbon credits to strengthen energy security in the region.

Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. made an official visit to Tokyo from February 8 to 12. It was his ninth trip abroad in almost as many months in office. He signed seven bilateral agreements with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida on infrastructure development, agriculture, disaster relief, defense, and information and communication technology. Japan is the Philippines’ second-largest trading partner, receiving $8.9 billion worth of Philippine exports in 2021. Marcos and Kishida also agreed to strengthen bilateral defense ties and explore a possible visiting forces agreement following the latest expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that gave the United States access to additional military bases in the Philippines.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 

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Karen Lee

Karen Lee

Former Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program