Current Developments

Security Commentaries #008

Japanese Prime Minister to visit White House as early as April in first official trip abroad. 

Amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, Biden seeks to reaffirm US-Japan relations with the invitation of Prime Minister Suga to the White House. 


- Jaime Ocon, Taiwan Center for Security Studies 

 

 

Indeed as President Obama did so in 2009, inviting then Prime Minister Taro Aso to the White House, the United States is once again demonstrating to the international community its deep-rooted relationship with Japan. In an era marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing tensions with China in both the South and East China Seas, unilateralism can no longer suffice as an approach to global cooperation. The announcement of Prime Minister Suga and President Biden’s meeting comes at a time where both leaders could meet again in the first QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) meeting later today. And if that wasn't enough, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also plan to make trips to Tokyo and Seoul, respectively.  

 

Not only are these meetings a confirmation of the US’ commitment to strengthening ties in the Indo-Pacific,  but also a revitalization of multilateralism which was kept dormant under former president Donald Trump. Members of QUAD are set to hold a joint summit discussing issues relating to COVID-19 vaccine distribution , climate change, and other security challenges that face the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. This organization of global powers is nothing new, but the timing of such a large scale event is something that other states like China and Russia look at with suspicion. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quick to criticize the idea of “group politics” in a statement given on Sunday. “Multilateralism with one’s own interests taking precedence is still unilateral thinking , and “selective multilateralism” is not the right choice”. (Xinhua). Earlier last month , foreign representatives from the members of QUAD organized an online meeting which concluded in a commitment that all states will strive towards ensuring a “free and open Indo-Pacific. There has also been some push for a QUAD+, for the organization to include other US partners in the region (such as South Korea, New Zealand, etc.). However, to achieve practical and meaningful results in any sphere, the organization must first find its footing in a common vision.

 

Japan and the United States both see the QUAD as a means to deter Chinese encroachments in the East and South China sea, otherwise changing the status quo by way of coercion. Geopolitically speaking, Japan faces the greatest immediate challenge due to its close proximity towards China and their shared history of past conflicts. Starting February, a change to China’s coast guard laws will allow it to use weapons against any foreign ships that it deems are “trespassing”. A move that no doubt raises the chances of escalation , especially maritime disputes in an area surrounded by countries with ample military capabilities. Secretary Blinken in his first major policy speech made it abundantly clear that “dealing with China will be the biggest geopolitical test”, as the Biden administration will have to focus on rekindling alliances around the world. QUAD will thus play an insurmountable role in both the US attempts to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and will serve as a platform for cooperation with other states to promote security and stability in the region. 

 

 

Constructive Engagements, the ASEAN Dilemma, and Democratic Backsliding within the Region

ASEAN needs a strong leader to intervene in Myanmar’s political crisis. Indonesia has shown its prowess through shuttle diplomacy. Nevertheless, it is nonsense to speak-up about democracy while mostly internal ASEAN demonstrate a setback.

- Elpeni Fitrah, Taiwan Center for Security Studies
 

The international community is clearly unsatisfied with ASEAN's approach to solving problems in Myanmar. They demand that ASEAN collectively should be more proactive in resolving the crisis, rather than just calling for Myanmar to pursue reconciliation. The Myanmar military coup is clear evidence that Myanmar's military actions violated the ASEAN Charter's principles regarding constitutional governance enforcement. Besides that, the military apparatus' repressive measures against the demonstrators that left dozens of deaths and injuries are a severe problem that not only undermines democracy but is also a violation of humanity. Therefore, ASEAN supposed to use its powers through the ASEAN intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to do more investigations as well as loopholes for humanitarian intervention. Unfortunately, this bloc frequently finds difficulties in responding to human rights issues in the region due to its principle of non-interference in member states' internal affairs.

In mediating the crisis, Indonesia proactively confirmed its role as a leader in ASEAN in spearheading the bloc's diplomacy on Myanmar. Many observers have praised Indonesia's proactive steps as "doing the right thing." Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, "Indonesia has chosen not to remain silent. Doing nothing is not an option." Within ASEAN, the virtual informal meeting of foreign ministers a week ago was the culmination of Indonesia's active diplomacy struggle after previously undertaking shuttle diplomacy with Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Thailand, and even Myanmar's foreign minister appointed by the military. Indonesia has for weeks leading up to the ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting, been engaged with multilateral talks, meeting with Brunei on February 17th to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. 

 

“Expressing concern is one thing, but the question is what can Indonesia and ASEAN do to help Myanmar get out of the delicate situation?”

  • Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi 

 

Apart from the ASEAN framework, Indonesia has also established communication with China, Australia, India, Japan, Britain, and the UN Secretary-General's special envoy. Malaysia and Singapore also expressed severe concerns about the current crisis.

Not all ASEAN members had such strong words for Myanmar's military junta. Some members, such as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and initially even the Philippines reportedly shied away from condemning the coup, describing it as an internal matter and would not interfere with one’s internal affair. Moreover, those countries still face the real challenge in consolidating democracy and find their way through to a more democratic future. Criticizing too much toward the political crisis in Myanmar is tantamount to stabbing their own hearts. Thailand has recently been downgraded again from “partly free” to “not free” in the latest global rankings by Freedom House, a US-based democracy advocacy group. The report assigned Thailand a total score of 30 out of 100, down from 32 out of 100 in the previous survey covering 2019.  While in Cambodia, authoritarianism still prevailed even though the UN and many western donor agencies spent billions of dollars building liberal democracy in the country. In the Philippines, even though it is considered the oldest democracy in Southeast Asia, the current leader seems to expose many controversies that make some analysts questioning the quality of its public discourse while adding that political dynasties represent the biggest threat to Philippine democracy.

Even though whole ASEAN members are acknowledged to have democratic backsliding recently, including Indonesia and Malaysia, there should be one strong leader to find the best solution for the people of Myanmar as well as maintaining regional peace, security, and stability. Indonesia is the nation probably best positioned to do so. By placing itself as a friend, not as a party that wants to interfere and patronize, Indonesia can be said to be the only country that is openly welcomed to speak directly to the internal government of Myanmar. Two ultimate factors why Indonesia is called to be actively involved in resolving this crisis are its experience of political transition from military dictatorship to kind of liberal democracy since the Fall of President Soeharto in 1998 and also encouraged by its principles of "free and active" foreign policy. 

However, the helping hand from external parties will only be useful if all parties in Myanmar can reduce their sectoral egos and prioritize broader national interests. If this problem is not resolved immediately, it will worsen the situation socially, economically, and politically. Besides, this problem will also spill over to neighboring countries.

The outcome of last week’s ASEAN meeting was once more disenchanting for those condemning the coup. Any official mention of Myanmar only appeared in the statement eight paragraphs in. When it finally was mentioned, the document stressed “for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility”, calling on “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence”. Taking no meaningful steps in ending the crisis or mediating the situation.

ASEAN, in this regard, is risking its credibility. This is an important test to prove whether ASEAN is truly capable of being a focal point in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN will continue to be in the spotlight of the international community if it cannot make its member countries grow to be more mature in accepting every risk and consequence when they violate the commitments that have been agreed upon.
 

The Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance  

Before the Biden administration publishes its National Security Strategy later this year, the two-months old administration has already released an outline on how it plans to re-engage America with the world.
 

- Richard Chen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies
 


 

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued by the White House on March 3rd, provides a general blueprint on what the Biden administration’s national security priorities are. Despite having been largely vocal on their foreign policy ideologies and affinity towards US-led alliances since the beginning, this “interim” strategy gives new impetus to the directives and policies coming out of the Biden White House. 

For its allies and US-watchers in Asia, this document outlines the path forward for cooperation with the United States. The framework addresses key challenges such as new transnational threats around the world, the erosion of liberal democratic norms, and revolutionary advances in technology. Hopefully thus providing Marking the beginning of a return to some semblance of reassurance to Asian democracies in the region of the return of US-led multilateralism.

Within the 7,000 word document, the People’s Republic of China is once more outlined as the US’ main strategic competitor in the world today. The interim strategy reiterates that this administration will continue the previous administration’s pressure-campaign in countering China. Thus, despite the prominent rhetoric change from that of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy, Biden codifies in essence his vision on foreign policy and emphasis on diplomacy for the United States. Security cooperation is without a doubt still the single most important focus for the US abroad, and this document stressed the idea of working with allies above all else.

“Today, more than ever, America’s fate is inextricably linked to events beyond our shores...We will strengthen and stand behind our allies, work with like-minded partners, and pool our collective strength to advance shared interests and deter common threats.” (Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 2021)

Further, the document rightfully identifies the growing trends of “democracies under siege” globally. The notion of steering liberal democracies away from the precipice of populist and extremist ideologies that plague the world today, should be further fleshed out in the later bona fide National Security Strategy. Provided that is, if the US is truly to make any tangible progress in reeling from the past four years of shunning its global partners.

On the issue of Taiwan, this publication points once more to the continual support of Taiwan in the backdrop of great power competition between the US and China. Despite the island’s media and handful of high-level officials rejoicing and flouting this mention as a victory, make no mistake, the US’ stance on its strategic ambiguity has yet to have changed significantly. The “longstanding American commitments'' towards Taiwan, which was quoted from the page 21 in the guidance document, does not in any way shape or form infer a revelating change in the US’ official position on the status of Taiwan.

Perhaps a more strategic and prudent approach for Taipei, would be to view this document as a chance to revisit its own Indo-Pacific strategy. Clearly identifying and formulating a position for its own national interests would be vitally important for the days to come if Taiwan wishes to set its own agenda. Lest be drawn into a forever tug-of-war between two global superpowers.

Fundamentally, the messages that the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance sends to China-watchers and Beijing itself should not be prematurely overstated. The fait accompli of Trumpian foreign policy during the past four years would require far more than a timely interim document on national security. The document is a promising start for America to build back better, at home and abroad. The rest of Asia however, is still eyeing America’s commitments with an asterisk attached.