08.11.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Certain Events on the Eve of the ASEAN Forums

The period immediately preceding a series of current events held on the basis of the ASEAN (including the jubilee forum dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association) was marked by some facts and occurrences that generally fit into the trends that have developed in recent years and concern the ASEAN member states, as well as individual leading world powers (USA, China, Japan).

The increase in the strategic importance of the South-East Asia region as a whole and, in particular, control over trade routes passing through the South China Sea, predetermines the decisive influence of the main players in the global game on the situation in the aforementioned region.

Therefore, there are practically no traces left today from the ambitious plans of the second half of the last decade to transform the ASEAN (the Association which unites 10 countries of the region) into one of the most significant actor in the world game. Each of the members of the Association (and the organization as a whole) is mainly engaged in maneuvering on the field of forces crafted by the principal players.

An exemplary illustration of this is the policy of the last couple of years, which is being conducted by, among other, the Philippines and Myanmar. Earlier we noted that Rodrigo R. Duterte, who gained fame in the summer-fall of 2016 (that is, in the first months after assuming the post of President of the Philippines) with a series of loud anti-American statements, behaves in quite a civil way today, without evident preference for any of the major world powers (either in public rhetoric or in his ongoing policy).

Gradual immersion into the real political processes taking place in Southeast Asia, apparently, contributed to the relative pacification of the Philippine waters, which were sharply tipped towards the People’s Republic of China. Continuing the policy of building positive relations with China, R. Duterte gradually restores relations with his main geopolitical opponent, the United States.

Declaring his preference for a bilateral method of settling territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, he does not renounce the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration last year, which recognized as illegal the historical argument for the possession of 80-90% of the water area of the South China Sea by the PRC.

In April, Mr. Duterte said that he had complains only about the previous US administration, and that he plans to build ‘the most beautiful’ relations with President Trump. The symbol of their full reconciliation is the visit of the American President to the Philippines during his Asian tour.

Earlier, reports emerged on the ‘technical assistance’ provided by the United States to the Philippines armed forces, which were stuck in a five-month struggle with Islamist groups which seized the provincial center of Maravi on the island of Mindanao back in May. During the struggle, the city and its surroundings were ruined and 300 000 inhabitants were forced to seek refuge in other settlements of the country. The restoration of Maravi is becoming one of the most serious and urgent problems, which Japan (another geopolitical opponent of the PRC) is ready to help the Philippines with. This assistance will be implemented as part of Japan’s overall lending to the Philippines economy in the next five years, estimated to be about $10 billion. A corresponding agreement was reached during the October meeting during R. Duterte’s visit to Tokyo and his talks with Japanese Prime Minister S. Abe.

Japanese experts commented on this agreement, stating that R. Duterte successfully uses the escalating competition between China and Japan to exude influence on the ASEAN member states. It is also noted that earlier, Beijing had already pledged to invest $24 billion into the Philippines economy.

But, perhaps, the most vivid example of the struggle between the world’s leading players for influence in the region is Myanmar. Amazing metamorphoses in this struggle were already evident at its fledgling period after the coming to power of the recent (several years old) ‘icon’ of the world ‘human rights’ movement Aung San Suu Kyi.

However, they became especially noticeable in connection with the recent exacerbation of the situation around the nationality of the Rohingya, a religious and ethnic minority living in the northwest of the country bearing the same name. It is to be noted that this is far from the only conflict in a highly heterogeneous country concerning social, ethnic and religious aspects.

The pluralism and diversity of the nature of the conflicts tearing Myanmar apart determined the duration of the military, which tried to preserve the unity of the country by their own “simple” methods, staying in power. Since the beginning of the 1990s, these “methods” have been the subject of criticism by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest by the authorities.

However, after she actually headed the country’s leadership in early 2016, she quickly became aware of the fundamental difference in the rhetoric and actions of the world’s popular opposition leader and the country’s incumbent leader. Therefore, practically nothing has changed in Myanmar’s domestic or foreign policy.

And so, in response to the attack on the border post carried out on August 25 by the armed group of the separatist political movement of Rohingya (apparently from the territory of Bangladesh), the current leadership of Myanmar reacted in the “traditional” way. The result of this, according to a special commission overseen by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was the devastation of hundreds of Rohingya villages and almost half a million of their inhabitants fleeing abroad (mostly to Bangladesh).

Two sessions of the UN Security Council have already dwelt on the situation around the situation in Rohingya. Unanimously adopted resolutions on this are of a very vague nature, which does not oblige the leadership of Myanmar to anything. This can be explained by the fundamental differences in the Chinese stance on the issue and that of the leading Western countries.

China is quite satisfied that there were no negative changes in its relations with Myanmar (which were established in previous decades and are extremely profitable for the former) after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power. The fact is that the neighboring country is currently headed by a politician who has been used by the geopolitical opponents of Beijing for decades as a ram against the regime friendly to China. Apparently, this does not represent even historical interest to the Chinese leadership.

Therefore, the current government of Myanmar (among other things, concerning the issues of the Rohingya) has the full support of Beijing.

At the same time, US policy toward this country seems to be returning to the status quo. In October 2016, the previous US administration lifted the economic sanctions on Myanmar, introduced many years ago in response to ‘human rights violations’ by the country’s military leadership.

Their removal was a sign of approval by the world’s leading player that the aforementioned ‘icon’ of the world “human rights movement” came to power in the country. But, as it turned out, the hopes were futile in relation to both the domestic and mainly the external aspects of Myanmar’s policy. Therefore, in late October, information appeared about the return of the sanctions method to American policy regarding Myanmar. The possibility of applying the so-called Magnitsky law to a number of high-ranking officials in the country, attributing a universal characteristic to it.

Finally, the situation surrounding the Rohingya became another cause of ‘discord and uncertainty’ within the ASEAN, which was manifested in the form of a verbal argument at the last UN General Assembly session between the Foreign Ministers of the Philippines and Malaysia.

In other words, at the upcoming ASEAN-based forums, everything will be just like in the past, that is the oscillation of both individual members and the Association as a whole in a field of forces created by the policies of the world’s leading players. They, in turn, are in complicated relations with each other themselves.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.