Southeast Asia

A protester sticks posters outside the Chinese embassy following reports that China has encroached on Indonesia’s maritime area in the South China Sea, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 December 2021. (Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters)

South China Sea dispute: Why can't Southeast Asian countries stand united against China's claims?

Amid the spectre of China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Indonesia plans to convene a meeting with some of its ASEAN colleagues — including the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore. If the meeting happens, Beijing may not dial down its activities in the disputed areas, but the point would have been made that Indonesia is prepared to take the lead in galvanising ASEAN on South China Sea matters. The idea of a meeting is not new, but this time it might just work.
A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military display in the South China Sea, 12 April 2018. (Stringer/File Photo/Reuters)

China’s ‘hegemony with Chinese characteristics’ in the South China Sea

Though in word it professes to never seek hegemony or bully smaller countries, in deed, China behaves unilaterally and flexes its economic and political muscles for dominance in the South China Sea, says Indian academic Amrita Jash.
This photo taken on 4 December 2021 shows the China-Laos Railway international freight train departing from Chongqing International Logistics Hub Park. (CNS)

The China-Laos railway: How Laos can make the most of its hefty investment

The China-Laos railway linking China’s Yunnan province to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was officially opened in December 2021. This mega project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expected to improve connectivity and stimulate the economy but Laos has incurred hefty external debt to achieve this, says EAI academic Yu Hong. The railway alone is also just the hardware; the Laotians will have to do more to make the best of its investment.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) and Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (right) shake hands after a bilateral meeting at Camp Aguinaldo military camp in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 30 July 2021. (Rolex Dela Pena/Pool via Reuters)

Mind the gaps, fill the needs: A strategic outlook for the Philippine-US alliance

The Philippines begrudgingly notes the disparity of treatment across US alliances in Asia, as well as Washington’s shift to enhancing engagements with non-treaty partners, such as visits by top US leaders to Singapore, Hanoi, Seoul, and Tokyo, while leaving out Manila. Washington has also shifted to enhancing engagements with alliances such as AUKUS, even as Philippines-US cooperation seems to be deficient in several areas and in security, greatly focused on counter-terrorism operations in Mindanao. Academic Julio S. Amador III says the Philippines must step up to play its part and articulate its key interests better.
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell unveiling the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, September 2021. (Facebook/European Union in Australia)

The EU in the Indo-Pacific: A new strategy with implications for ASEAN

The European Council reached an agreement on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in April 2021, and in September, it presented a joint communication in which ASEAN was mentioned 31 times, paving the way for the EU to join the other longstanding advocates of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Given the similarities in ASEAN's Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy, ASEAN can play a role in the EU's hopes to shape a rules-based international order and offer a rules-based alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre right) speaks with Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brunei (centre) in Liverpool, northwest England on 12 December 2021, at the ASEAN-G7 Foreign Ministers' Meeting. (Olivier Douliery/AFP)

ASEAN and the G7: Same bed, different dreams

ISEAS researcher Joanne Lin notes that the G7 is courting ASEAN in a bid to increase its profile in the Indo-Pacific. And while both groups share some common ground on issues such as the South China Sea and supply chains, they also diverge in significant ways on other issues such as supporting values of democracy and human rights, which stems as much from differences within ASEAN as the fact that expressing such views draws the ire of China.
An Indonesian Naval cadets uses binoculars as he monitors the signal from the KRI Diponegoro-365 during a joint excercise on guarding Indonesia's borders, in the North Natuna sea, Riau islands, Indonesia, 1 October 2021. (Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/via Reuters)

Indonesia's response to China’s incursions in North Natuna Sea unsatisfactory: Indonesian academic

Indonesian academic Evan A. Laksmana notes that China has subjected Indonesia to maritime grey zone tactics in the South China Sea, attempting to change the strategic equation at sea and beyond without provoking a direct conflict. While Chinese incursions into the North Natuna Sea in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have increased, Indonesia has kept mum and appears unprepared to counter these actions. Laksmana examines the reasons behind Indonesian policymakers' reserved response.
This photo on 26 November 2021 shows journalists gathered at a train station in Kunming to join a preview ride on the China-Laos railway, which is set to start operating in early December 2021. (CNS)

Laos hopes for economic boost with the opening of Laos-China railway

ISEAS academic Nick Freeman says that Laos’ first major railway, inaugurated on 3 December 2021, will create a new link with the Chinese market and has the potential to be a game changer for the Lao economy. This comes at a good time, as Laos seeks post-pandemic recovery in 2022. But the opening of the railway alone does not guarantee such a prospect. While the railway might boost industries such as tourism and exports, leading to a shift away from traditional sectors such as power generation and mineral mining, Laos needs to develop economic "muscle tissue" to ensure that the potential of the railway is translated into tangible results through investing in both hard and soft infrastructure.
This file photo taken on 29 March 2014 shows a Philippine Navy vessel that has been grounded since 1999 to assert the nation's sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea reef also claimed by China. (Jay Directo/AFP)

Second Thomas ShoaI: Is China bullying its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea?

ISEAS academic Ian Storey thinks that despite what China has said about wanting to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea, in mid November, China Coast Guard vessels prevented two Philippine Navy ships from delivering supplies to a group of Marines on Second Thomas Shoal. This can be seen as another of China's attempts to assert its claims in the South China Sea, which an arbitral tribunal ruled in 2016 were incompatible with UNCLOS for which China is a signatory. Is China not abiding by its promise?