Leveraging Asian Architecture + Philippines Votes, Thai Reconciliation? & Other News
May 11, 2010
I spent two days last week with some of the best brains in the business talking about Asian regionalism and its impact on climate change and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief this week in Singapore. The group earnestly debated what role regional organizations can and should play in these vital areas. It was clear from the discussion that domestic politics and change remain paramount in Asia, while regional organizations have to provide immediate returns to be relevant.
Regional organizations are important, but they don’t play the same role in Asia as they do in Europe and the United States. Effective multilateral organizations in Asia must add immediate value in resolving a problem or focus on information-sharing, best practices, and capacity building. Groupings that do not meet these simple, practical criteria are not relevant. Forcing large numbers of countries into common binding positions is a formula for failure in Asia – at least in the near- to mid-term.
This is true because Asia is still in the midst of nation building and regional dynamics are in massive flux. Policymakers and politicians see little value in codifying current practice into long-term commitments because they assume that conditions will change significantly even in the short to medium term. This is true at both the domestic and regional level.
Domestically, Southeast Asian countries are in the process of redefining themselves. The transition from regimes dominated by the paternalistic leaders who carved modern states out of post-colonial regimes after World War II into countries with more democratic and pluralistic models is well under way.
In Thailand, that process is sadly bloody and messy, as post–Cold War institutions struggle to cope with demands for broader participation in governance and with the more cynical pursuits of various players seeking to preserve or seize power and wealth. Tomorrow, voters in the Philippines will go to the polls to elect their 15th president and vice president, half the Senate, the entire lower house, and 17,000 other officers around the country. In Malaysia, the 11th by-election since the March 2008 national elections will take place in Sibu. Indonesia is reeling over the loss of one of its top technocrats, former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who left her post after sustaining months of scathing and cynical pressure from opposition politicians. Vietnam is quietly preparing for two vital meetings of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in September and December that will select the country’s next set of leaders – men and women the Party believes will take the right steps to allow it to survive and thrive by delivering value and prosperity to Vietnam’s citizens. These choices will be revealed during the 11th Party Congress held early next year. Burmese generals are trading uniforms for suits in hopes of extending their iron grip on control through farcical elections planned for the fall. Even in Singapore, a reading of the tea leaves suggests preparation for an election is near at hand.
As expected, in most cases, domestic politics remain the top priority for ASEAN’s politicians. Linking the value that regional organizations can deliver in terms of security and economic well-being remains relatively underdeveloped. That may change in the mid-term, but it is not the case today.
Regionally, power dynamics are truly in play in Asia. China is clearly asserting itself through diplomacy and real economic and military power. As one analyst suggested, the key domestic tension in China is between younger leaders who want to assert what China “can do” and more experienced leaders who want to make policy based on what China “should do.” This is important in a country that is in the process of trying to articulate its new national security and defense policies.
The fact that China’s role is clearly changing injects urgency into Southeast Asia’s questions about what role the United States and India can and should play. It is in this most practical sense – looking at money, jobs, and security – that the region prioritizes regional architecture. For instance, questions about the future of what Vietnam calls the East Sea and the Chinese call the South China Sea are high-priority in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in China. Regional trade agreements focus voters’ minds in Singapore where trade accounts for more than three times the gross domestic product. The prism changes for each country depending on its unique set of priorities.
For these reasons, effective regional organizations in Asia will need to be practical, transactional, and flexible. For U.S. policymakers, recognizing these conditions may recommend an approach to future trade and security agreements. Further thinking is needed about how to connect effective Asian regionalism with more institutionally based global organizations. That bridge is vital for two reasons:
- First, Asia constitutes a majority of the world’s population and dominates growth. Its dynamism will inject needed energy into global pacts, as was demonstrated by APEC leaders providing impetus for WTO talks.
- Next, to harvest the benefits of its practical approach, Asia will eventually need to codify advances into global norms to take full advantage of good ideas and best practices, access world markets, and play a responsible leadership role.
CSIS will soon be releasing insightful studies on Asian Regionalism that takes into account these complex dynamics. The studies, funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, ask and answer the right questions about the effectiveness and relevance of regional organizations, especially through the prism of how they can help deliver public goods in the areas of climate change and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
- Today Philippine voters went to the polls to elect a new president, vice president, half the senate (12 of 24), a new House of Representatives, and more than 17,000 local officials around the country. The election is the first automated election in Southeast Asia. At the time of this update, voting had been extended for one hour amid reports of some malfunctioning of the new voting machines, long lines, and election-related violence (unfortunately a common characteristic of Philippine elections). CSIS will be reporting on the election results as they come in this week.
- The Road to reconciliation in Thailand remains elusive. On May 6, PM Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would dissolve the parliament in September and hold elections on November 14. His plan included a call for respect for the monarchy, reforms to address social inequality, establishing a body to ensure an impartial media, an inquiry into the recent political violence, and a debate on the need for constitutional reform. His proposals were opposed by the Yellow Shirts and more conservative elements of Thai society. The Red Shirts were considering the plan but expressed concern that Abhisit did not have the support of his own government to follow through on the plans. At the time of this update, it is reported that the Red Shirts have accepted the reconciliation plan and are prepared to end their demonstrations.
- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Thailand over the weekend and met with leaders on both sides. The Thai Foreign Ministry took exception to his meeting with Red Shirt leaders and reportedly summoned U.S. Ambassador Eric John to formally object to “perceived intervention in Thai politics.”
- Assistant Secretary Campbell traveled to Burma on Monday and will meet with the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. Reports indicate that the United States is extremely disappointed with the election rules promulgated by the junta, and it is expected that the United States may use provisions of the Lantos legislation to expand sanctions against junta leaders and their families while remaining engaged in dialogue.
- Six new political parties and one existing political party filed registration papers to participate in the upcoming elections in Burma. To date, a total of 33 parties – 28 new and 5 existing parties – have filed registration applications. The SPDC Election Commission granted tentative approval to nine new political parties to contest the upcoming elections and also approved the registration of three existing political parties. Burma’s main opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD), was officially dissolved at midnight last Thursday as it failed to register for polls. It was reported that four members of the now-disbanded NLD will form a new party and register for upcoming elections. In addition, critics said that the formation of a new political party by Prime Minister Thein Sein violates Burma’s own domestic laws, as the junta's own Political Party Registration Law’s chapter 4 (D) and chapter 7 (D) bar government officials from forming political parties and using government property. During a press briefing on May 4, State Department spokesman Phil Crowley said, “Let me make a broader statement, not just on Burma, that to the extent that figures want to take off their uniform and pursue politics and government as civilians, that can be a constructive step, particularly in a society that has been ruled by a military junta.” He stressed that Burma needs to open up genuine political space, not just for ex-generals but also for all people who want to participate constructively in Burmese society.
- The leader of Malaysia’s political opposition party and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim lost his last bid to have a sodomy charge dropped as the highest court rejected his final appeal on May 4. The trial will resume this week.
- ASEAN Economic Minister's Roadshow hosted by U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), US-ASEAN Business Counci,l and the National Bureau for Asian Research visited Seattle and Washington, DC May 2 – May 6. The delegation included Dr. Mari E. Pangestu, Minister of Trade of Indonesia; Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed, Minister of International Trade and Industry of Malaysia; Pehin Dato Seri Setia Lim Jock Seng, Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Brunei Darussalam; Pan Sorasak, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Commerce of Cambodia; Dr. Nam Viyaketh, Minister of Industry and Commerce of Laos;. Porntiva Nakasai, Minister of Commerce of Thailand, Dr. Thomas G. Aquino, Senior Undersecretary of the Department of Trade and Industry of the Philippines; Nguyen Cam Tu, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry of Vietnam; and Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN . USTR Ambassador Ron Kirk said the U.S. is actively supporting ASEAN's goal of economic integration. He also underscored the vast economic potential of the region.
- During the road show, Malaysian Minister of Trade and Industry Dato’ Mustapa disclosed that Malaysia is interested to join Transpacific Partnership (TPP). Ambassador Kirk reciprocated that interest.
- Finance ministers from ASEAN + 3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea) formally presented plans for a US$700 million bond fund during the Asian Development Bank annual meeting last week in Tashkent. The bond fund aims to support development of local-currency bond markets in Asia. In addition, an ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) will be set up in Singapore to provide monitoring and analysis of regional economies to the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM).
- On May 6, Indonesia's Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati abruptly announced her decision to leave Jakarta and join the World Bank as the managing director. The decision sent shockwaves through the international community. Indonesia’s market reacted negatively at the news. Indonesia’s Jakarta Composite index declined sharply and dropped 95.58 points, or 3.2 percent, to 2,863.44 last week. Sri Mulyani’s departure raised Indonesia’s risk profile, according to the financial community. Some analysts fear her departure could be a major blow to a crackdown on graft and tax evasion in Indonesia. Speculations on her replacement include Gita Wirjawan, chairman of BKPM, Anggito Abimanyu, the Finance Ministry’s head of fiscal policy, and acting Bank Indonesia Governor Darmin Nasution.
- The 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) began on May 3 at UN Headquarters in New York. Philippine Ambassador to the UN Libran Cabactulan is chairing the conference. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto G. Romulo addressed the opening session, reiterating Manila's call for “a world free from nuclear weapons” and calling for timelines and clearly defined benchmarks for making nuclear disarmament a. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa announced that Indonesia was "initiating the process of ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)" in view of recent positive developments with respect to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation issues. President Barack Obama thanked Indonesia for "responsible leadership." Singapore applauded Indonesia's decision to initiate the process of CTBT ratification. In his statement, Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vanu Gopala Menon encouraged a more robust global export control regime to guard against the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and weapons. He stressed that regional arrangements can play a useful role in supporting and supplementing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that ASEAN has started a conversation on a regional nuclear safety regime.
- Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations are embracing nuclear energy. The Malaysian government announced on May 4 that it has approved in principle the setting up of a nuclear power plantthat would start operating by 2021. In Vietnam, a State Steering Committee for the Ninh Thuan nuclear power plant project has been set up with Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai as its head; the plant is expected to be operational in 2020. Last month, Thailand reaffirmed plans to build two nuclear plants as part of its electricity development plan up to 2030. Indonesia has allocated US$8 billion to build four plants.
- Secretary of Justice Alberto Agra overturned his previous verdict on the Maguindanao massacre (also known as the Ampatuan massacre) in light of new evidence. Charges against two regional leaders – Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and his brother-in-law Mamasapano Mayor Akmad Ampatuan – have been reinstated. Demands for Agra to resign had been escalating since his earlier decision to exonerate the two accused leaders because of allegedly insufficient evidence.
- A presidential official in the Philippines denied earlier reports that the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) expected to reach an interim peace agreement this month. He said an agreement is “still some distance away." On May 6, the Philippines government signed two more agreements with the MILF. The agreements -- Terms of Reference of the Civilian Protection Component (CPC) of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Implementing Guidelines on the Clearing of Land Mines and Unexploded Ordnance in Conflict-affected Areas in Mindanao -- were sealed by representatives of both parties in Malaysia in front of Malaysian Third Party Facilitator Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak.
- Economists predicted that the Philippines will post a record budget deficit in 2010. Government officials noted that the record budgetary shortfall in the first quarter was largely due to the frontloading of government spending, mainly on infrastructure projects, ahead of a ban on new state contracts before the May 10 presidential elections. The ban will be lifted when the election period ends on June 9. While officials from the Budget Department insisted that the country would not exceed its 2010 budget deficit target, international credit rating firms are urging the Philippines government to focus on fiscal consolidation and trimming debt.
- The exchange of letters between Malaysia and Brunei on March 16, 2009, has resolved the outstanding bilateral issues between the two countries through amicable settlement. This exchange had been low on the political radar until recently when Murphy Oil announced that its production-sharing contracts with national oil company Petronas covering blocks L and M had been terminated because they were no longer Malaysian territory. Brunei has sovereignty over the two oil-rich petroleum blocks. The agreement ends 20 years of tough negotiations between the two countries, as the letters also established the final delimitation of territorial sea, continental shelf, and exclusive economic zones of both states. Following the breakthrough, Brunei invited Petronas to jointly develop the two blocks.
- China signed an agreement last week with Laos to cooperate on developing a railway for the landlocked nation to turn itself into a regional transport hub. Initial estimations put construction costs at just above $4 billion. In Cambodia, China recently pledged to provide military aid, including more than 250 trucks and 50,000 uniforms, exceeding an aid package scrapped by the United States earlier this year after Cambodia expelled a group of Muslim Uighur asylum seekers. The $14 million aid package was announced by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong upon his return from the Shanghai World Expo. Separately, Cambodia’s National Assembly approved a convention on May 7 to establish at least six consular offices across China.
- The 16th annual bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series between the Royal Brunei Navy (RBN) and United States Navy was recently launched from Muara Port in Brunei on May 3. Nearly 1,600 U.S. personnel are taking part in the bilateral exercise. CARAT is an annual exercise consisting of a series of bilateral training maneuvers involving the United States and several Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia.
THE WEEK AHEAD
- The fourth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM-4) titled “Strengthening ASEAN Defense Cooperation for a Region of Stability and Development” will take place in Hà Nội May 10–13. The ADMM will discuss the key regional security architecture known as ADMM + X.
- CSIS will host a Global Security Forum on May 13 at CSIS. The program is open to the public and will survey a range of major security issues confronting the United States. By bringing together senior decisionmakers, opinion leaders, and perspectives from the private sector, the Forum fosters open conversation and brings forth the best solutions to the biggest security challenges of the day. CSIS Southeast Asia Director Ernie Bower and CSIS Japan Chair Mike Green will participate in a panel with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on how to address Perceptions of Waning U.S. Power in Asia. Interested parties can attend or view the conference live via webcast. Contact SoutheastAsiaProgram@csis.org.
- Malaysia’s Sibu by-election will be held on May 16. The by-election is seen to be critical and setting the tone and momentum leading to the Sarawak State Election, which will be held between June and September this year.
- Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s first official visit to Cambodia will take place from Sunday, May 9, to Tuesday, May 11. The visit will focus on engaging in dialog with Cambodia’s political and business leaders to broaden and deepen the Malaysia-Cambodia relationship.
- Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak during his visit to Malaysia on May 18.
- U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will lead clean energy business development missions to China and Indonesia May 15 – May 25. The missions will promote exports of leading U.S. technologies related to clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric energy storage, transmission, and distribution. The missions will make stops in Hong Kong; Shanghai and Beijing, China; and Jakarta, Indonesia.
CSIS’s Southeast Asia program will be hosting an event entitled “The State Peace and Development Council: Abuses and Impunity in Eastern Burma” with Ms. Zoya Phan on May 12 at 1:00 p.m. Ms. Phan is an International Coordinator at Burma Campaign UK in London, England. Originally from Burma, her father was head of the Karen National Union. Ms. Phan fled Burma as a teenager and has since been working for human rights, democracy, and development in Burma. In March of 2010, she published Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma, a memoir detailing her life and struggles in Burma and as a Burmese refugee. Interested parties can register at SoutheastAsiaProgram@csis.org.
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