Current Developments

Security Commentaries #013

After the ASEAN Emergency Summit on the Myanmar Crisis: The Positives and the Challenges

The ASEAN consensus in meddling in the Myanmar crisis actually deserves appreciation, even boldly breaking through its conservative norms. The ultimate outcome of the agreement will largely determine ASEAN's credibility, the commitment of the military junta, and one can hope, the return of Myanmar to a democratic government.

Elpeni Fitrah, Taiwan Center for Security Studies


The ASEAN special high-level summit addressing the ongoing crisis in post-coup Myanmar on April 24th, was held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. To much surprise, the member states produced a spontaneous “progressive” resolution seeking to end the turmoil. However, the agreement is considered far from perfect and still provokes dissatisfaction from some parties.

On the positive side, this bloc should be appreciated for its ability to convince Myanmar's junta Leader, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to attend the negotiating table in person and make this his first foreign trip since the Feb. 1st coup. It could be understandable that Myanmar's pro-democracy and some international human rights activists are unsatisfied with this particular inclusion. For them, the new State Administrative Councils (SAC) set up by the junta is illegitimate and illegal. However, some experts presume that the rational way to restore the situation is opening communication with the military regimes.

Secondly, the initial doubts and skeptical views toward this meeting turned out to be not entirely valid. The way this regional group handles the round-up seems more interventionist and has broken through conservative principles of this organization which is characterized by consensus and non-interference or broadly known as the "ASEAN Way." It can be seen from how the ASEAN's leader frankly conveyed their concerns to the coup leader during the dialogue process, as Indonesian President Joko Widodo said, "The situation in Myanmar is unacceptable and should not continue. Violence must be stopped, democracy, stability, and peace in Myanmar must be returned immediately,” He went on to say that the interests of the Myanmar people must always be the priority.

From the meeting, five key points agreed by Southeast Asian leaders and Myanmar’s junta chief after the emergency summit. It can be simplified as, 1) end the violence immediately, 2) conducting constructive dialogue as a source of a peaceful solution, 3) ASEAN will send a special envoy to mediate the Myanmar crisis, 4) ASEAN will provide humanitarian aid, and 5) a special delegation of ASEAN must be allowed to enter Myanmar and meet the conflictual parties.

When the junta leader was approving ASEAN's proposal to end its brutal repressiveness immediately, he sought to portray that the Tatmadaw is not anti-dialogue and welcomes external intervention—as long as it comes from a “trusted” partner, or if its position is secure. Nevertheless, Myanmar-watchers would still be suspicious that a lenient gesture could have been a mere ornament on the lips, aimed at assuaging the international public's anger. One thing for sure, the regional organization’s approach based on dialogue, consultations, and consensus still seems more promising and constructive in solving problems than coercive or frontal measures.

Myanmar's pro-democracy activists see a glimmer of hope behind ASEAN’s call for an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar by saying this as "encouraging news." “We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and to restore our democracy and freedom,” said Dr. Sasa, the international co-operation minister of the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s shadow government formed by ousted lawmakers and some ethnic groups opposed to the junta. Nevertheless, several disappointments have also surfaced.

Firstly, ASEAN's consensus failed to include a clause that obliges the aggressor to release all political prisoners into the agreed document. The phrase was known to be deleted before the statement was formalized. This part is actually very essential to be a precursor for steps toward resolution of the crisis. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thailand-based rights group, reported that as of Tuesday (27/4), 755 people had been killed throughout the coup, while 4,496 people had been arrested. In addition, the political crisis also leads the country to the brink of an economic downturn.

Secondly, the consensus doesn't formulate a timeline as a clear plan to ensure that this talk will immediately turn into action. This negligence is considered fatal because it gives more time for the crisis in Myanmar to continue on and lends room for the military junta to become more repressive. As a result, a day after the summit, the anti-coup protest still resonates, and the Junta regimes couldn't refrain from attacking and arresting civilians.

Finally, the Myanmar public is now wondering, after ASEAN special summit on the Myanmar crisis, what's next? It's not just about ASEAN's commitment to safeguarding the implementation of its consensus but also about how it would wisely place itself in the middle of the two contested political powers in Myanmar, the Junta and NUG, which mutually strive for international recognition.

Furthermore, even though still challenging, this regional leader's convention should be treated as a valuable momentum to create a humanitarian pause and provide an opportunity for international volunteers to start humanitarian work in Myanmar, such as Covid-19 assistance, food aid, and health assistance for victims of violence. This possibly the best way to end the possibility of civil war and a prolonged escalating conflict in Myanmar, as well as preventing wider regional conflicts.

When the Sea Turns Gray: A Look at the Gray Zone Tactics in the South China Sea

Both global and regional stakeholders make their moves to gain and retain advantageous positions in the disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Angelo Brian T. Castro, Taiwan Center for Security Studies


The highly contested South China Sea has become a silent witness to a prolonged dispute among global and regional stakeholders. As the sea could provide enormous food and energy resources, the stakes are high for those who desire to extract these resources. China had become a significant claimant in the area when it justified its unprecedented movements through the nine-dash line narrative. The primary tool employed by countries such as China, Russia, and Iran in conflict areas where conventional war is not an option is called gray zone tactics. Most commonly, this can be in the form of information warfare, economic coercion, and ambiguous forces, to name a few. Since the mid-2000s, the Chinese government employed ambiguous forces as their main gray zone tactic. For China, gray zone tactics have allowed them to overwhelm their enemy without definitive consequences. Chinese gray zone tactics involve deploying the maritime militia of fishing vessels around a particular area; dredgers creating the foundation for the artificial island; construction equipment and personnel operations; and military patrols in the newly acquired and developed areas. Aside from these, China regularly intruded a country’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), like in Taiwan, to sustain the tension and normalize their subtle coercion among the international community.

Among the claimant nations with overlapping claims in the area, China and the Philippines have resounded in the media more than other claimants. As more Chinese fishing vessels intrude within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Philippines' Aquino administration submitted its case to Hague in 2014, requesting their ruling on the dispute. Two years later, the Philippines won the case against China but could not enforce the ruling due to a lack of capacity. The newly-elected Philippine president has espoused China-friendly policies and shelved the idea of enforcing the ruling from the Hague. The Chinese have slowly militarized one island after another by building radars, airstrips, and other facilities within the South China Sea. A Chinese fleet was regularly deployed to guard the islands and ensure the construction of facilities. There were plenty of other protests and incidents involving the Chinese incursion within the Philippine EEZ, but no effective response was devised.

It was also the same time when the United States under former Pres. Donald J. Trump turned inwards and paid less attention to America’s global role.  However, the Trump administration conducted the “Freedom of Navigation” operations in the South China Sea in 2020, and it was historically the most instances in the area. After Trump, Biden’s administration has retained these operations and even deployed the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the area since April 6, 2021. As around 220 Chinese fishing ships appeared and banded in the Whitsun reef (Niu-e Jiao) last March 2021, American and Philippine navy ships were deployed in the same area to disperse the Chinese fishing armada. The Chinese fishing vessels voluntarily left the area, and only less than ten remained. The US-Philippine fleet in Whitsun Reef included the USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Makin Island, US navy escort ships, and seven Philippine Navy ships. The Philippine navy’s newest acquisitions, BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna are also for deployment. 

The recent actions of the Philippines have surprised many as they avoided direct response for a long time. For almost a decade, China has built outposts on the twenty-seven significant islands in East and South China. So far, its outpost at the Mischief Reef is the nearest to the Philippines, coming in at 250 km or 130 nautical miles. The United States, together with its allies, became a more dynamic participant in performing its role as a global stakeholder in the contested sea. Meanwhile, China has utilized its military assets to overwhelm its neighboring countries within the bounds of gray zone tactics. Despite the diplomatic protests filed by other claimant countries, China has implemented plans to militarize the Spratlys islands. The Chinese government has achieved so much through this method without risking a conventional war with the other claimants or global stakeholders. It would prove a significant challenge to demilitarize the islands as the infrastructure has already been built. 


Leaders' Summit on Climate Change: The Return of America with an Ambitious Commitment 

How feasible and credible are Biden's climate change plans for the international agenda? Will the U.S. and China cooperate and what would this mean for the global coalition towards climate change?

Thuong Nguyen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies


Last week, the U.S.-led Leader’s Summit on Climate was a meeting of heads of states, including from the most prominent economies with the most greenhouse gas emissions, such as the U.S., China, India, Russia, Japan, and the countries with the most vital commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nations that are most vulnerable to climate change or play an important role in green economic development regions, together with the Secretary-General United Nations António Guterres and heads of many other regional and international organizations attended Biden's Climate Change Summit on April 22nd and 23rd.

The discussions at this event showed the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in this decade, helping vulnerable countries cope with the inevitable effects of gas, accessing economic opportunities and new jobs, and meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change before the deadline of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26).

"America is back."

The summit was an opportunity for the United States to re-join global efforts to tackle climate change. At the conference, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his ambitious target to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The target exceeds the cut of 26% to 28% that the Obama administration has pledged previously. Besides, the U.S. was also committed to participating in efforts to reduce emissions of the global shipping industry. By 2050, the goal is to achieve the neutralization of emissions in the sea freight transport sector.

Although Biden's 50% cut target still lags behind the U.K. and European Union's commitments - which have pledged to reduce emissions by 68% and 55% by 2030, respectively, these are the U.S. efforts to correct mistakes after the administration of President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and deregulated the environment.


The Biden administration inviting countries to this summit demonstrated an effort to reaffirm America's leading role in the fight against global climate change and its goal of prompting immediate action by countries.


Although under the opposing pressure of the GOP over Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill and concerns in terms of the rebound of emission as the economy recovers from the pandemic, Biden's target can be achieved through a combination of new regulations, economic incentives, and the rapid deployment of green technologies.

Do political disagreements between the U.S. and Russia or the U.S. - China effect the summit's outcome?


Although the U.S. and China remain rivals on trade, human rights, intellectual property, and technology issues, China's move following the visit of the climate change special envoy of Joe Biden, Mr. John Kerry, showed that both have agreed to cooperate against climate change.

This is a rare arena where the two countries have the prospect of cooperation, but the competitive element is still unavoidable. Last year, China announced its commitment to achieving the highest emission reductions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Meanwhile, President Biden pledged the United States to achieve its zero-emission power sector target by 2035 and zero-emission economy by 2050. In a speech in Annapolis, Maryland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that "If we do not catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world's climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we will lose out on countless jobs for the American people."  

As such, the Biden administration will probably put more pressure on China and other major emitters to accelerate their climate-friendly energy transition in the run-up to the critical COP26 in November in Glasgow.


EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Toeing the Line or Calling Its Own Shots

As a major normative power in the world, despite arguably losing much of its legitimacy these past few years, the 27 European member states have once again come out with a framework that is principled, yet still raised eyebrows from adversaries and allies alike.

Richard Chen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies



This month, the European Council approved the conclusions of its EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The document lays out a blueprint for how the 27 member states moving forward approach their engagements with the Indo-Pacifc region. Fundamentally, the Council conclusions laid out the priorities the European Union seeks to achieve and push in the region.


Six main directions for the European Union member states to pursue includes: “(1) Working with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, (2) Supporting the international community’s global agenda, (3) Advancing our economic agenda and protecting our supply chain, (4) Playing our part in the field of security and defense, (5) Ensuring high quality connectivity, and (6) Advancing our collaboration in the field of research, innovation and digitalization.


Barring the question of feasibility and the practical limits of European influence abroad; structural power—beyond economics—tends to diminish as the geographic distance between countries increases. Particularly, when it comes to security and defense, despite France having key territorial interests and conducting naval drills in the region alongside the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and its involvement in IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association). Distance decay, therefore, is not just an economic or market phenomenon, rather a real world expression for how power and influence exerts itself abroad.


Germany and the Netherlands have also been, for a while, pushing the envelope for an inclusive and joint strategy/position towards the region. As can be seen from the Indo-Pacific strategies that these nations came out with respectively last year. The overlap in strengthening the EU’s role and profile in the region as well as the prevention of a “unipolar or bipolar regional order” in this part of the world.


Brussel’s break with Washington

Aiming to contribute to the “stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development of the [Indo-Pacific] region”, the EU aligns itself with to no surprise of anyone, with the long standing values of democracy and the rule of law. The “rules-based international order” that Washington and the West prescribes so strongly to, continues to be a foundation for EU foreign policy and strategy in the Indo-Pacific in the years to come.


What stood out rather, was on Page 7 where the strategy reiterates the European intention to further its economic and trade ties with Beijing. Despite the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment having been dragged out since 2013 when negotiations first began, the CAI is still explicitly mentioned in the strategy to be an objective for the European Union. Germany, with China as its largest trading partner—much as it is the case of other EU members—has been a staunch advocate for pushing the trade deal despite the growing rift between Washington and Beijing.


As mentioned previously, several major EU member states have already come out with strategies of their own with regards to the region. Where these, as well as the EU strategy differ from the approach across the pond, is the consistent mention and inclusion of China. Contrarily, Washington seems to be on a track of isolating and decoupling with the Chinese on all major fronts. As it stands, the occasional olive branch appears only in issues dealing with rogue states and climate change for the US and China.


Asiatic Geopolitics

The EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific highlights and recognizes the fact that “current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains…”. The undercurrents of this strenuous relationship between two dominant powers in the Indo-Pacific have prodded other countries in the region to pick sides. Emphasizing that the deterioration in recent developments, threaten EU strategic interests in the region the member states collectively seek to “engage with the ASEAN-led regional architecture”. 


As has been shown, the EU lacks the wherewithal to position itself into the great chess match that is unfolding in Asia in terms of hard power. Thus, relationships such as the recently christened EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership which was signed in December 2020, and the upcoming EU-India Summit next month will lay the groundwork for European action and interests in the region.


What’s Next?

The Council has since the release of the document, requested the European Commission and the High Representative (the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell) to prepare a concrete strategy for the EU by September. The September document will seek to clarify and define how Europe will approach the rising role of China in the years ahead. Whether to join its American partners in treating Beijing as an adversary, or a partner to be reckoned with, placing asterisks on every second move that China makes.


Would the EU’s repositioning in Asia work this time around? Well much of this lies in the increasing idea of “strategic autonomy”, or as it were, the notion of European sovereignty. In the past few years, Brussels has realized that domestic politics in a divided United States (yes, the oxymoron is clear here) eventually reverberates to foreign policy. Thus, having a forward position and active stakeholder perspective in Indo-Pacific affairs would be prudent for a European Union headed into this new decade.