PHNOM PENH – Perhaps trying to pick up the pieces after President Donald Trump skipped an October 31-November 4 series of summit meetings organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional organisation, the United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the last week exchanging bromides and handshakes in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. The trip’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] theater is DOD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”
PHNOM PENH — Visiting Dili in late August to mark the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s blood-soaked vote for independence from Indonesia, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the opening of a “new chapter” in bilateral relations. “In a region where some boundary disputes remain unresolved,” Morrison said, in a seeming reference to the disputed South China Sea farther north, “Australia and Timor-Leste have set an example by sitting down, as neighbours, partners, and friends, to finalise a new maritime boundary.” Though Morrison followed up by announcing plans to help upgrade East Timor’s internet connectivity and its navy, his Timorese counterpart Taur Matan Ruak was less gushing. “Today will mark a new beginning, a new phase for both countries,” he said. The implication, of course, was that the previous two decades of the relationship had been less than amicable. While Australia stood by the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who defiantly voted for independence in the face of scorched-earth Indonesian-backed intimidation, sending 5,000 soldiers to the country shortly after the vote, it later stood accused of strong-arming its tiny and impoverished neighbour out of billions of dollars of vital oil and gas revenues – in part by refusing to delineate a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea until 2018.
SINGAPORE — With the US and China squaring up over trade, getting the 16-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by the end of the year seems increasingly important for the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That urgency has been sharpened by US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now an 11-country deal rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after being signed in Chile in March. Singapore’s prime minister clearly wanted to get a message across when hosting the ASEAN summit at the weekend. “The fact is that we do not have a TPP,” Lee Hsien Loong told journalists after the meeting. “We have a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has made it more urgent that we proceed with this [RCEP].”
JAKARTA — While there is no clear threat from the U.S. to loosen its long-standing ties with Australia, some observers say the country may one day face a choice between its main security ally and its biggest trade partner. Graham Allison, author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, said that China’s rise is forcing Asian countries with close ties to the U.S. to reconsider. “Largesse, economic imperialism — call it what you will: The fact is that China’s economic network is spreading across the globe, altering the international balance of power in a way that causes even longtime U.S. allies in Asia to tilt from the U.S. toward China,” Allison said.
JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks. As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia. Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.
SINGAPORE — After a saga lasting nearly two decades, Australia will on March 6 sign a boundary treaty with East Timor that will allow the Southeast Asian country to earn much-needed revenue from gas fields under the Timor Sea. “The Parties have reached agreement on a treaty which delimits the maritime boundary between them in the Timor Sea,” read an announcement made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on February 25 after negotiations in Kuala Lumpur. “This marks a new chapter in our relationship with Timor-Leste, bringing us together as neighbours sharing a boundary, and as partners and friend,” said Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop in a March 4 press statement. Australia’s decision should strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries as it finds itself torn between the interests of the U.S. and China. “Undoubtedly it will help in that way,” said John Blaxland, director of the Southeast Asia Institute at The Australian National University. Australia’s previous reluctance to establish a maritime boundary with the East Timorese prompted criticism from Dili and from campaign groups in Australia. “This treaty will hopefully go someway to restoring its reputation which definitely took a hit due to its bullying of East Timor” said Tom Clarke, spokesman for the Timor Sea Justice Campaign.
MANILA — A deal aimed at protecting Southeast Asia’s estimated 7 million migrant workers is flawed, as countries can opt out of key provisions, according to a group of parliamentarians from across the region. Teddy Baguilat, a Philippine lawmaker and member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said Friday that the agreement affords “wide latitude to states to limit protections in accordance with domestic laws and policies.” The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was meant as the pinnacle of the Philippines 2017 chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which culminated in a lavish signing ceremony on Nov. 14. President Rodrigo Duterte took plaudits for the deal before handing over leadership of ASEAN to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “I would like to thank the Philippines for its chairmanship achievements,” Lee said, prompting wild cheers from an audience that included the Philippine cabinet and prominent lawmakers such as Senator Manny Pacquaio, the iconic multiple world boxing champion.
JAKARTA — Marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Nations, or ASEAN for short, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a gathering of Jakarta-based diplomats that “together with Indonesia, ASEAN is strong.” There is no doubt the region is on the up economically. The ten ASEAN member countries have a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion, bigger than any European country bar Germany, and if growth rates hold up, ASEAN as a whole will be behind only the European Union, China and the United States by 2030. ASEAN countries have committed to increased economic integration, and like the EU, to which ASEAN is often compared, the group has forged free trade agreements — with neighbours such as Australia, China and India. But did the Indonesian president really mean what he said about “strong,” beyond the reference to his own country, which with a population of 260 million is by far the biggest in ASEAN and has an economy more than twice the size of Thailand’s, the second biggest in the region?
JAKARTA — Official crackdowns on emigrants in Malaysia and Thailand have cast further doubt on over prospects that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can finalize a long discussed deal on migrant workers’ rights. In June and July around 100,000 mostly Myanmar migrant workers fled Thailand after the military government in Bangkok announced hefty new fines for undocumented workers and their employers. Then, starting July 1, Malaysia made a series of arrests of alleged undocumented migrant workers, affecting more than 3,000 workers and around 60 employers accused of giving work to illegals. These tough actions — though a reprise of previous years’ crackdowns — come as the region’s governments mull proposed enhancements to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed in Cebu in the central Philippines during one of Manila’s past tenures as the group’s chair. Two years after the Cebu declaration, ASEAN countries started moves toward a set of region-wide legal norms, but progress has been slow. With Manila again chairing ASEAN this year, there has been a renewed push to address migrant rights — an important social and political issue in the Philippines.
YANGON — A Feb. 3 report by the U.N. Human Rights Council featured harrowing accounts by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh of army abuses in northern Rakhine, including the gang rape of women and murder of children. In response to the report, Myanmar’s government, which is led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, initially softened its prior outright denials of military abuse and promised to investigate the allegations. But on Feb. 7, it said it needed more information from the U.N. Naypyitaw’s earlier denials had prompted criticism from around the world. On Jan. 20, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar, said: “For the government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the government appears less and less credible.”