Can Marcos Jr arrest the decline of the Filipino police?


Author: Kevin Nielsen M Agojo, CityU

During the regime of former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine National Police (PNP) played an instrumental role as ‘chief executioner’ in the war on drugs. By securitising the drug problem and elevating order over the rule of law, Duterte gave the PNP and vigilantes a carte blanche to kill suspected users and traders — exacerbating violence and injustice throughout the Philippines.

Philippine President Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr speaks during a change of command ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines, 8 August 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan).

Government data shows that a total of 239,218 anti-illegal drug operations were conducted during Duterte’s term in office, resulting in the confiscation of illicit drugs worth over US$1.6 billion. The government also reported a total of 6252 casualties, though the constitutionally independent Commission on Human Rights and International Criminal Court have both made higher estimates.

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr won the presidency in the 2022 election through a message of unity — with the help of authoritarian nostalgia, disinformation and weak electoral opposition. Marcos Jnr has made no explicit declarations on the war on drugs, but in May 2022 he disclosed that Duterte advised him to continue the drug war. The picture remains unclear after Swedish Ambassador to Manila, Annika Thunborg, welcomed the new president’s pledge to conduct the campaign within legal bounds and ‘with the focus on rehabilitation and socio-economic development’.

Should Marcos Jr honour this commitment, he must shift from a policy of securitised and punitive measures to community-based treatment and rehabilitation services for people affected by illicit drug use. He must also deal with the PNP’s culture of impunity — especially given the Philippine Department of Justice actually admitted in February 2021 to police culpability in drug war killings.

Beyond the anti-illegal drug campaign, Marcos Jr and the PNP must also address problematic red-tagging — the blacklisting of students, activists and journalists critical of the sitting government. Notable cases in 2022 include the PNP’s arrest of doctor and human rights advocate, Maria Natividad Castro, and the detention of 93 individuals — including agrarian reform beneficiaries — during a collective farming activity in Tarlac. The police claimed the peasants were part of an underground communist movement.

The designation of former PNP deputy director general Ricardo de Leon as Chief of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency does not bode well for social activism. De Leon claimed that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict — widely disparaged for its red-tagging spree — should be maintained for national security and development.

Reforming the PNP and its contentious practices is a tall order, especially for a commander-in-chief who comes with heavy baggage. Marcos Jr and his family are tainted by domestic atrocities and ill-gotten wealth. During his father’s dictatorship, the Philippine Constabulary Integrated National Police (the precursor to the PNP) earned notoriety for abuses of power. As chair of the board of Philippine Communications Satellite, Marcos Jr reportedly pocketed between US$9,700–97,000 in monthly salary despite having no duties. He also took nearly US$500,000 out of the office before fleeing with his family to Honolulu.

Marcos Jr also has a shaky human rights record. He was allegedly among the hawks in the 1986 ‘people power’ revolution who pushed for ‘aggressive measures against both military rebels and the citizenry’. They were willing to risk a bloodbath to defend their besieged loyalist forces. When he campaigned for the presidency, Marcos Jr remained unapologetic about the brutalities committed under martial law.

But his large electoral victory brings an opportunity for redemption. Marcos Jr is now in the best position to prove to the public that he is not a brute like his father. As the new commander-in-chief of the state security forces, Marcos Jr carries legitimate authority.

He is tasked with improving the country’s human rights situation amid concerns brought to light by the Commission on Human Rights, the US House of Representatives and the International Criminal Court. Yet during his first State of the Nation Address, Marcos Jr failed to discuss his specific policy agenda for human rights. This omission, while disappointing, was expected given the overwhelming evidence for the abuse of political authority by the Marcos family.

Hailing the police as ‘vanguards of peace’, Marcos instructed that the use of force in operations ‘must be reasonable, justifiable and carried out only when necessary’. His appointment of Lieutenant General Rodolfo Azurin Jr, who boasts extensive experience in field and administrative work, as PNP Chief should help him rectify the institutional ills that plague the organisation. While Azurin Jr seeks to continue the drug war, he vowed to shore up appropriate rehabilitation programs and shift the focus to supply factors. He claims this will ensure that the entry of illegal drugs ‘will be reduced, if not cut completely’.

Policing is a thankless job. As ‘street-level bureaucrats’ who interact with people and hold substantial discretion in carrying out their duties, it is essential that the police serve the public’s interests at all times. The dynamic between the president and the police was distorted under the Duterte regime, with the PNP serving as ‘the police, prosecutor, judge and executioner’. Only time will tell if Marcos Jr can rebuild the PNP into a truly professional institution.

Kevin Nielsen M Agojo is a PhD student in the Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong.

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Health cooperation is just what the doctor ordered


Author: Eduardo Pedrosa, PECC

Before COVID-19 struck, there were warnings that the world was underprepared for a global pandemic. Since then, numerous reports have noted what needs to be done to avoid the tremendous cost to lives and livelihoods that the world has gone through. The common message is that being prepared is the most timely and cost-effective way to handle global health risks.

US Secretary of State Blinken watches as Gabrielle Cubacub, 15, gets a COVID-19 vaccination at a clinic at the Manila Zoo in Manila, Philippines, 6 August 2022 (PHOTO: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters Connect)

The Report by the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response points out that the global health system is fragmented. It notes the major initiatives undertaken by the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in fighting the pandemic — a regional capacity that the Asia Pacific lacks. Looking beyond COVID-19, an Asia Centre for Disease Control would complement the global system.

ASEAN is one possible host for such an institution. But ASEAN members do not belong to the same World Health Organization office — some fall under Southeast Asia and others the Western Pacific — a peculiarity that might inhibit easy coordination.

On the other hand, ASEAN’s network of regional dialogue partners means that its coverage would not necessarily be limited to Southeast Asia, allowing a broader health network to emerge over time. ASEAN is an official observer of APEC, so an ASEAN health group could work in full partnership with the broader Asia Pacific region should the need arise.

The G20 High Level Independent Panel emphasised the need to shorten the response time to a pandemic and deliver equitable and global access to medical equipment. This is an important issue for the Asia Pacific region as APEC accounted for 41 per cent of global imports of medical goods and 29 per cent of global exports.

Regional institutions have been particularly active on the issue — see for example the 2019 Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease and APEC’s Statement on COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chains in 2021. The APEC statement was significant in agreeing to a specific list of products as well as a review mechanism to track the progress of the initiative. The commitments to keep markets open and refrain from imposing trade barriers on vaccine inputs are critical to keeping global vaccine production and trade stable.

To scale up the production of countermeasures, countries must share information on regional manufacturing capacity and availability. The need for greater supply-chain visibility was especially evident in the early stages of the pandemic given the surge in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other health necessities. While manufacturers were able to respond, governments rarely had information on the prevailing market conditions and supply-chain chokepoints.

Beyond identifying supply-chain chokepoints, additional information is required to match vaccine developers with manufacturing facilities. Some of these relationships exist already — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds the production of the AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines by the Serum Institute of India. But the ability to scale up and coordinate production at the plant, company and global level still does not exist.

Policymakers could take inspiration from the Agricultural Market Information System, established by G20 governments after the 2008–2011 food price crisis, to improve transparency and coordinate policy in the event of sudden scarcity.

The Agricultural Market Information System consists of the Global Food Market Information Group, which provides market information on a number of staple crops, and the Rapid Response Forum to discuss abnormal market conditions. This type of system would provide greater market information for PPE and help to meet the High-Level Panel’s target of a 100-day goal to develop, produce and deploy effective countermeasures against another pandemic.

But vaccines and medical products are more complex than agricultural products. The World Trade Organization estimates that a typical vaccine requires 9000 different materials sourced from 300 different suppliers across 30 different countries. The COVAX Manufacturing Task Force has a short-term objective of creating a public–private partnership to enhance the visibility of input supplies and, over the medium term, create an overview of global manufacturing capacity.

More work is needed on measures such as personal protective equipment. This is an area where institutions in the Asia Pacific can assist global efforts. APEC leaders have committed to ‘strongly support equitable access to safe, effective, quality-assured and affordable COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and other related essential medical products’.

They also have a tradition of working hand-in-hand with the business community, which is critical to the success of such an effort. While the Asia Pacific initially fared well with COVID-19, it was criticised for the relatively slow deployment of vaccines. While the early problems to do with vaccine supply and deployment seem to have been resolved, longer-term issues of pandemic preparedness still need to be addressed.

What is especially problematic for developing Asia is the relative cost of further fiscal expenditure to fund pandemic preparedness when government budgets are already stretched. While health and pandemic preparedness should be seen as core expenditure, finance ministries may not see it this way. Multilateral processes are needed to help governments make those arguments.

Eduardo Pedrosa is Secretary General of the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council in Singapore.

A version of this article was first published here on Global Asia.

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Jakarta gets ‘grey-zoned’ by Beijing


Author: Evan A Laksmana, NUS

China is subjecting Indonesia to maritime grey zone tactics — competitive acts between states short of all-out warfare — in the North Natuna Sea. China pursues these objectives in the knowledge that Indonesia will fail to properly respond.

Indonesian Naval cadets monitors the signal from the KRI Diponegoro-365 during a joint exercise on guarding Indonesia's borders, North Natuna sea, Riau islands, Indonesia, 1 October 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto)

The latest North Natuna Sea crisis between December 2019 and January 2020 saw the incursion of Chinese fishing vessels, backed by coastguard and maritime militia, into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Indonesian maritime law enforcement officials claim these incursions have not stopped since then — they have simply become less publicised. China upped the ante in August 2021 after a Chinese survey vessel spent seven weeks conducting seabed mapping inside Indonesia’s EEZ.

Jakarta has been relatively silent on the matter despite up to nine Indonesian navy and coastguard patrol craft observing the encroachment under apparent orders not to intervene. A December 2021 Reuters report suggests that China has effectively crossed Indonesia’s ‘red line’ by demanding that Indonesia stop drilling in the area.

China believes that it has ‘overlapping maritime rights’ with Indonesia, according to its interpretation of an ‘informal understanding’ reached with Jakarta about maritime territory in the 1990s. But Beijing’s behaviour is less about waging a legal dispute than it is a gradual strategic push to get Jakarta to inadvertently or implicitly acknowledge China’s maritime rights. Now that China controls key strategic areas in the South China Sea, it feels more confident in pushing the envelope.

Hegemonic powers are expected to expand until they cannot take any further territory or face sufficient resistance — but Indonesia has failed to push back. Its diplomatic response to the incident was tepid, even if officials insist that they have conveyed their discontent privately. Its security response was also haphazard, inconsistent and largely symbolic. There is certainly no strong economic or political pushback from Jakarta.

Indonesian policymakers are unclear about the goal of pushing back against China. Some believe that getting China to renounce its ‘nine-dash line’ claims to the South China Sea is simply unattainable. Others like Indonesian President Joko Widodo prefer crisis resolution over prevention to avoid strategic noise crowding out his domestic agenda. Many believe that China’s behaviour is merely a law enforcement issue, not a strategic problem.

This lack of clarity is the first sign of strategic failure. Rather than pursuing a limited and achievable goal of stopping China’s illegal incursions into the North Natuna Sea, Indonesian policymakers settle for a diluted response. These hollow acts, such as holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship, can be sold domestically as ‘strongly asserting’ Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Such muddled thinking is partly due to Indonesian policymakers’ insistence that the country does not stake a claim in South China Sea disputes. Indonesia has a strong bilateral relationship with China and its position in the South China sea is legally recognised under international law. This means Indonesian policymakers are prone to viewing grey zone incursions as short-term maritime law enforcement problems, rather than a wider strategic gambit by China.

The lack of clarity leads to a lack of strategic coherence needed to integrate a wider range of diplomatic, military and economic instruments into an all-out pushback against Chinese encroachment. Instead, Indonesia compartmentalises the problem by separating its bilateral ties with China from the North Natuna Sea issue, the South China Sea dispute and great power politics. This approach is ostensibly reasonable given the complexity of those issues and the fact that China is the most domestically polarising foreign policy issue of today.

The Indonesian elite are also increasingly dependent on the private benefits and public goods China provides, especially those extended during the pandemic. But as they worry more about public scrutiny over dealings with China, Indonesian strategic policy becomes less transparent. China’s grey zone strategy succeeds when there is a lack of transparency in Indonesia. Policymakers seem unable to conceive of the range of options between surrendering quietly or going to war over fisheries.

These flaws explain Jakarta’s failure to launch a meaningful response to Beijing’s grey zone tactics. Indonesian policymakers have yet to seriously contemplate the various options available, such as establishing minilateral maritime alliances or reviewing Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects. But if Widodo is not interested in directing a strategic response, each stakeholder — from the navy and coastguard to the foreign ministry — will develop its own disparate plan of action.

An ideal response would involve Indonesian policymakers articulating a limited and attainable goal of pushing back against China in the North Natuna Sea. With measurable goals, Indonesia could better specify the appropriate tools to achieve them. But more importantly, Indonesia needs to integrate — not just coordinate — these tools of statecraft to properly respond.

None of these outcomes are likely to occur soon. Maritime ‘encounters’ and ‘crises’ between Indonesia and China will recur every now and then. China’s gradual inroads will continue even if Indonesia claims rhetorical victory in each instance. The underrated success of grey zone tactics lies in the strategic delusion that Indonesia is holding on to.

Evan A Laksmana is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He presented a version of this paper as part of a workshop on Grey Zone Operations in the South China Sea, organised by the China Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, RSIS.

A version of this article was first published here in an Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies Paper.

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Albanese Government styles a new foreign policy direction


Author: Melissa Conley Tyler, AP4D

In his analysis of the early days of the Albanese Government, Allan Gyngell noted significant change in the Australian government’s approach to foreign policy. This might surprise those who watched an election campaign in which the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was at pains to show no difference in its substantive positions on national security and international relations to the Liberal–National coalition. Looking at the new government’s foreign policy, do we see changes of style or of substance?

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addresses members of the media during a joint news conference hosted with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, following their annual Leaders’ Meeting, at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney, Australia, 8 July 2022 (Photo: REUTERS/Loren Elliott).

One of the wilder claims made during the election campaign was that a vote for the ALP would be a vote for China. Perhaps conscious of the dangers of such claims, the Albanese government has said over and over again that there is no change of substance in its policy on China. It explicitly states that the only changes will be in tone and that it will continue to stand up for Australia’s national interests. But according to Defence Minister Richard Marles, the ‘change of tone matters’.

The diplomatic freeze between Australia and China ended in June 2022 with the defence ministers of both countries meeting in Singapore and the ministers for foreign affairs meeting soon after in Indonesia. These meetings were presented as ‘stabilising the relationship’ and ‘being professional and understanding the power of diplomacy’.

The new government appears to be treating the China relationship carefully and cautiously. The change has been of style, but it is one that has reopened channels of communication. By contrast, the change in climate policy has been one of substance.

The new government’s election commitments included an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, investment in solar banks and community batteries, rewiring of the energy grid and the promotion of clean energy exports and electric vehicles. Less than a month after the election, Australia notified the United Nations of its revised emissions reduction goal.

The change in climate policy has transformed Australia’s relations with Pacific Island countries. One clear difference is between the last in-person Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit in 2019 and the one held in 2022. In 2019, Australia was heavily criticised by Pacific leaders for watering down the language in the final communique. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’ initiative would ‘not mean anything … unless we deal with the issue of climate change’.

At the 2022 summit, Australia embraced stronger language on ‘the current climate emergency’ and backed Vanuatu’s bid to seek a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice on damage caused by climate change. Pacific leaders welcomed Australia’s new emissions reduction targets and supported Australia’s proposal to co-host a future UN Conference of the Parties. Commentators noted that the new Prime Minister ‘brought a refreshing change in Australia’s tone and attitude to the forum’ and a palpable sense of greater alignment.

While Australia’s new stance has created a desired reset in relations, Australia should expect continuing pressure to increase its green ambitions — especially on the speed of its transition away from fossil fuels. The Albanese government will have to live up to the ‘Pacific family’ rhetoric inherited from the previous government and pursue Pacific diplomacy based on mutuality and respect.

In Southeast Asia — another key region for Australia — the changes have been more in tone than substance. Time will tell what effect the change in messaging will have.

Southeast Asian leaders have not responded well to past efforts to paint binary choices — such as being for or against an ‘arc of autocracy’ — at times chiding Australia for its lack of nuance. Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong de-emphasised the idea of Southeast Asia as a ‘theatre of great power competition’ in her recent visits and committed to respond to Southeast Asia’s priorities.

Wong spoke of a strategic equilibrium in which ‘countries are not forced to choose but can make their own sovereign choices, including about their alignments and partnerships’. She also painted Australia and Southeast Asia as partners in building a shared future. It remains to be seen whether this change in tone will increase Australia’s attractiveness to the region, or whether changes in substance will be needed.

When it comes to trade, some degree of continuity would be expected with Minister of Trade and Tourism Don Farrell new to the portfolio. Early media releases stress perennial aims like achieving ‘outcomes that advance Australia’s national interests, bolster the rules-based multilateral trading system and deliver business opportunities’.

The Minister showed continuity at the WTO Ministerial Conference by chairing the Cairns Group meeting, a group of free-trading agricultural exporters formed in 1986. There have been bilateral meetings with India and the European Union to progress free trade negotiations and with the United States around the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Canberra also worked with Pacific partners, especially Fiji, to secure a new global fisheries subsidies agreement to help curb overfishing.

These actions show that the new government — with its clear focus on Australia’s immediate region — is also alive to the wider global context and using multilateral forums to progress its agenda.

With the exception of climate policy, the new Albanese government has exhibited more of a change in tone than in substance. But as Gyngell points out, tone matters in diplomacy, and can deliver changes in substance over time. Although the Albanese Government is only 100 days into its term, it is showing a commitment to diplomacy that suggests this will be much more central to the new government’s agenda.

Melissa Conley Tyler is Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D).

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Indonesia needs to find international strength on the home front


Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Just as all national politics is local, all international politics is domestic. The intrusion of the domestic onto the international stage gets a bad rap — from Trump to Brexit to the Taiwan Strait. But individual countries’ activism in pursuit of domestic political and economic interests can be good for the international system.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks at the racing flag as he opens the parade of MotoGP racers outside the Merdeka Presidential Palace, ahead of the Indonesian Grand Prix on Lombok island, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 16 March 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

A keen eye for where national economic self-interest lies has been at the heart of the process of international economic integration and the institutions designed to further it throughout the Asia Pacific over the decades. The Australian governments that liberalised the Australian economy from the beginning of the 1980s saw domestic microeconomic reform, negotiating multilateral trade liberalisation in the GATT Uruguay Round and helping build a new multilateral architecture to liberalise trade and investment across the Asia Pacific as inseparable elements in a process of ‘making the world safe’ for a newly competitive post-industrial Australian economy. They had the benefit of being able to build upon Japan’s liberalisation and opening up — deeply linked to post-war leaders’ concern with securing both Japan’s access to raw materials and prosperous markets for its exports of consumer and capital goods — and, for a short sweet-time, a US political leadership that saw free trade as a boon to its powerful knowledge economy.

Fast forward to the present day: if there’s to be pushback against pervasive economic isolationism and new energy to the process of integration and cooperation, it will be found in new coalitions of developing countries who seek to mould it to suit their domestic growth and economic security needs.

No country has more potential in this regard than Indonesia — but there are still doubts about whether the nexus between Indonesia’s domestic politics and global activism is as productive as it could be, writes Shafiah Muhibat in this week’s feature article.

Indonesia’s hosting of the G20 in 2022 ‘exposes Indonesia’s global leadership aspirations to a new level of international scrutiny’. The administration of President Joko Widodo has invested a good deal of political credibility in the successful holding of the summit, and ‘a “successful” G20 summit is essential to save Indonesia significant national embarrassment’.

This is especially true on the home front for Widodo who, facing the end of his term in 2024, has put his domestic political muscle behind Indonesia’s three key G20 agendas: ‘global health architecture, the digital transformation of the global economy and energy transition’. Indeed, ‘explaining how the G20 presidency will benefit the country has been a main part of the government’s effort to ensure domestic support for all the efforts.’ But ‘while the Widodo administration still needs to please its domestic audience, it now confronts a severe test of its capacities to deliver global outcomes in a complicated geopolitical and crisis-plagued world’.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t just exacerbated the global economic tumult that the G20 was designed to prevent and address — it threatens to make the group itself politically untenable. Were the G20 chairmanship in the hands of a G7 state, or one of the developing members with close ties to Moscow, there’s every chance that there would be no G20 this year. That the group isn’t dead in the water is down to Indonesia’s unique leadership position within the developing world as a bridge between these two broad factions within the G20, and some deft diplomacy by its president and officials.

But there’s a risk that relief at just the successful securing of the G20’s meeting schedule gives rise to complacent expectations about what those meetings might achieve. Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa was surely alluding to this when he observed that ‘there is a very important distinction between chairmanship and leadership’.

Indonesia can and should press against the odds for agreement at the G20 not only on its signature issues but also on issues of WTO reform, building on the welcome momentum out of the MC12 meeting. Ambitions should likewise be kept high for Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2023, which offers an opportunity to bed down the institutions and process of RCEP so its potential as an instrument of regional economic integration can be achieved.

Granted, these issues don’t automatically capture the public’s imagination in any country — certainly not in Indonesia, where voters have more tangible things — like the price of cooking oil — to worry about. But as Natalegawa says, ‘policymakers must have the courage to inform the wider public on how things actually are externally, rather than simply be dictated by what they think the public wants to hear and expect from them’.

The Widodo administration has worked hard to justify its investment of time, resources and political capital in the G20 this year on the grounds that it addresses voters’ short-term concerns with food and energy costs, and vindicates a general sense of Indonesia’s growing importance in world affairs. But this is a somewhat limited domestic political basis for Indonesia’s activism on the world stage. An ongoing agenda for reformers and internationalists will be to not only emphasise how engagement with multilateral institutions addresses the problems the voters think they have, but to highlight the problems and opportunities the voters don’t recognise affect them, and how Indonesia’s agency is critical in realising those opportunities.

To be sure, that is the work of years and decades, not the months that remain until crunch time at November’s G20 leaders’ summit. A more acute domestic understanding of Indonesia’s global interests — among voters, the media, and politicos — will be a critical ingredient to Indonesia’s maximising its potential as a champion of developing-economy interests in global and regional cooperation.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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Indonesia steps innocently onto the international stage


Author: Shafiah F Muhibat, CSIS Indonesia

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Ukraine and Russia in June 2022, he made international headlines. Some applauded him as the first Asian leader to make the trip to both Russia and Ukraine after their war. Others wondered about Indonesia’s ability to have any impact on the conflict. Indonesia’s de facto leadership in Southeast Asia and of ASEAN is widely acknowledged, but what about its influence in the rest of the world?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo attends a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, 30 June 2022 (Photo: Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Kremlin via Reuters).

Indonesia has been the driving force behind political and security community building in Southeast Asia, strengthening bilateral partnerships with major powers. It also rallied ASEAN and East Asian support for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Indonesia’s global profile is rising. Yet, critics note that the current administration is focused heavily on domestic issues, even as Indonesia aspires to be a global player.

Indonesia’s national limitations are clear – fragile institutions, high levels of economic inequality and uneven democratic and economic progress – and these development challenges are a shaky foundation on which international ambitions rest.

In Indonesian politics, the domestic audience and interests still trump the global audience and global common interests. This is not unusual, and it’s reasonable, considering that foreign policy involves actions and activities by governments that aim to defend and promote national interests. But Indonesia is quickly discovering that marrying its international roles, responsibilities and expectations that go with them to national interests that please domestic audiences is not altogether easy.

Widodo’s visits to Ukraine and Russia are a case in point. Indonesia might ideally take a major peace-making role and contribute to global interest in creating peace in Ukraine. The objectives of his visit in fact lie closer to home. In a press statement before he departed, Widodo explained that finding a solution to the global food and energy crises was his main priority alongside calling for a start of dialogue among the conflicting parties.

A domestic imperative now, however, the success of Indonesia’s G20 presidency. There is no chance that the November G20 Summit can be a business-as-usual economic summit. In early 2022, Western leaders threatened to boycott the summit if Russian President Vladimir Putin attended. In response Widodo invited both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to attend, as he sought to accommodate the concerns of the West and persuade Western leaders to join, while maintaining relations and communication with Russia. A ‘successful’ G20 summit is essential to save Indonesia significant national embarrassment. A side benefit for Indonesia is that it could be a significant step towards global cooperation.

Indonesia’s 2022 G20 presidency is focused on three main issues: global health architecture, the digital transformation of the global economy and energy transition. These priorities make up the flagship agenda of the sherpa track working groups and engagement groups.

Indonesia has been lauded as representing the voices of developing nations and emerging economies outside of the G20, but its presidency faces major challenges — mainly because of the geopolitical implications from the Russia–Ukraine war. While the G20 has performed important functions for member states and the world at large, it struggles with balancing the pursuit of its members’ national interests with a genuine commitment to the global common good. As the world grapples with economic and health recovery from COVID-19 and the impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on food and energy supplies, the global common good and how to achieve it is the vital interest.

Approaching the G20 presidency, the Indonesian government initiated many activities to promote its role domestically. This included raising awareness of the G20’s ‘benefits’, such as the direct economic benefits of hosting the summit. In a November 2021 speech, Widodo pressed the country to make the most of its strategic position in the G20 presidency and ‘prioritise national interests’. Explaining how the G20 presidency will benefit the country has been a main part of the government’s effort to ensure domestic support for all the efforts.

Indonesia is not a major global economic player, although the impact of the world on its economic fortunes is crucial. Indonesia’s business climate is unconducive to foreign investment – it has substandard infrastructure; a complex regulatory environment; and corruption still plagues its bureaucracy and legal system. These limitations at home have a pivotal bearing on aspirations to lead global initiatives and the gap between alignment of domestic policies and global aspirations sometimes appears all too clear.

Hosting the November G20 Leaders’ Summit and all the meetings that lead up to it expose Indonesia’s global leadership aspirations to a new level of international scrutiny. While the Widodo administration still needs to please its domestic audience, it now confronts a severe test of its capacities to deliver global outcomes in a complicated geopolitical and crisis-plagued world.

Shafiah F Muhibat is the Deputy Executive Director for Research at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

This is a shortened version of an article that will appear in the latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3, Japan’s strategic choices.

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Russia’s new arm’s distance from Asia


Authors: Richard A Bitzinger, RSIS and Kenneth Boutin, Canberra

Russia’s importance as an arms supplier to Asian states is likely to decline in the short term due to export constraints resulting from the Russia–Ukraine conflict. Russia’s need to use more of its own armaments in the Russia–Ukraine conflict, the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, and the perceived poor performance of Russian arms in the conflict itself may provide an opening for exports from competing arms suppliers including the United States and China.

A Russian-made multiple rocket launcher known as the TOS-1A fires during training at a military camp in Baghdad, October 14, 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

Russia’s arms industry has long depended on exports to Asia. Moscow’s two biggest arms customers are India and China. More than 61 per cent of Russian arms sales between 2017 and 2021 went to Asia and Oceania. China has in recent years acquired turbofans from Russia for its indigenous fighter jets, while also buying S-400 air defence systems, helicopters and naval guns from Moscow.

While India has sought to diversify its arms procurement — partly informed by concerns about the quality of Russian arms imports — it remains a major customer for Russian arms. India has in recent years procured MiG-29 and Su-30 fighter aircraft, T-90 tanks, warships and anti-ship missile systems from Russia. Southeast Asia is another profitable market for Russian arms producers, with the export of the Su-27 and Su-30 fighter aircraft to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Moscow has also sold air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles and helicopters throughout the region.

The war in Ukraine has led to the significant loss of Russian arms — including combat aircraft, helicopters, air defence systems and tanks. Moscow will need to devote significant production capacity to replenish its arsenal, reducing its capacity to produce arms for export. The level of support Russia provides for arms exports while engaged in Ukraine will indicate how determined it is to export arms to the lucrative East Asian market.

Russia’s arms production dilemma is exacerbated by sanctions targeting its defence sector. Although the Russian defence industry is far more autarkic than its Western counterparts, Russian arms production draws on inputs, such as microelectronics and semiconductors, from offshore suppliers. Arms production capacity will be reduced if the sanctions imposed by key suppliers, such as the United States and Taiwan, affect the supply of critical inputs.

Russia’s arms export capacity will depend on the effectiveness of Western sanctions. Russia is less vulnerable to sanctions because of measures to replace foreign defence suppliers implemented in response to Western sanctions imposed following its seizure of Crimea in 2014. But Russia’s scope for countering sanctions will be limited by their breadth and the limited pool of alternative suppliers from which to acquire key inputs needed to sustain defence manufacturing.

Russia has reportedly sought the assistance of China and other states in busting the latest round of sanctions, but the US government has signalled its intention to impose secondary sanctions — penalties levied against third-party states that choose to trade with a sanctioned entity — on states that assist Russia in circumventing sanctions.

Russian arms exports will also be affected by three demand-side issues — international censure due to moral outrage over civilian deaths and destruction in Ukraine, the disappointing performance of Russian military equipment and restricted access to the international financial banking system.

Countries are likely to be wary of purchasing Russian arms given the international opprobrium that Moscow has earned in the Russia–Ukraine conflict. This will be reinforced by the increased likelihood of the United States enforcing the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — a US law that sanctions states that procure weapons or defence technology from Russia — in an effort to discourage states from purchasing Russian arms. Yet the US government exercises discretion in its application of CAATSA, so whether or not to Washington sanctions entities that do business with Russia is likely to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Russia’s lacklustre military performance in Ukraine will have an adverse reputational impact on Russian arms exports. The apparent failure of Russian arms to deliver military success is likely to discourage purchases by new and existing customers.

Sanctions will also impact the demand for Russian arms exports. Restricted access to the SWIFT international payments facility makes it more difficult to arrange payment for Russian arms. The need to resort to less efficient and more costly payment mechanisms, including the Chinese-led Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, will decrease the attractiveness of Russian arms.

Russia’s diminished arms export capacity is an opportunity for competing suppliers to supplant it as the arms supplier of choice to Asian states. Competitors, such as China and the United States, could exploit the vacuum created by Russia’s absence and the strong regional demand for combat aircraft could be met by European aerospace firms.

India is the most likely out of Russia’s existing customers to remain a reliable consumer of Russian arms. Moscow’s particular attributes as an arms supplier, including its complementarity to the United States and no strings attached approach to arms sales, mean it is likely to remain an important long term supplier of arms to Asian states.

That is good news for the Russian defence industry, because the loss of arms sales to Asia would deprive defence producers of funds that have helped compensate for the underfunding of defence R&D by the Russian government — a fact that predates the Russia–Ukraine conflict.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Kenneth Boutin is an independent researcher focussing on the political economy of security.

A version of this article was first published here by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.

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Thai property gains foreign popularity


Author: Prem Singh Gill, Thammasat University

Thailand has been a popular expatriate destination for investment and retirement for decades. But foreign land ownership has long been restricted. Foreigners can own no more than 49 per cent of any condominium development and are restricted from owning most freehold estates. Yet Thailand is keen to attract wealthy international investors — particularly those from China.

People walk past an under-construction site of a condominium in Bangkok, Thailand, 1 August 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha).

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha proposed a policy that would allow foreigners to own land for residential use on 15 July 2022. Thai officials claim this will boost the economy by luring wealthy foreigners to spend and invest in the country.

Investing 40 million baht in Thai property, securities or funds for a period of at least three years is now one of many preconditions for foreign nationals to own up to 1 rai (approximately 1,600 square metres) of land from September 2022. Still, there are other ways foreigners can acquire rights to land — including through the ownership of companies, long term leases and other investment schemes available in Special Economic Zones set up by the Thai government.

When deciding to invest in Thai property, most foreign investors invest through companies — allowing a Thai national to arbitrate the property through a business committee on their behalf. Foreign investors can also purchase property through a tax-free scheme set up by the ‘Board of Investment’ agency administered by the Thai government.

Thailand’s real estate market has recently been characterised by an oversupply of flats. There were over 90 thousand unsold units of condominiums in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) in Thailand as of 2020. By enabling foreign investment, the Thai government aims to provide liquidity to the real estate market by enabling a pool of wealthy investors to invest, boosting the Thai economy and increasing land tax revenue.

As a popular tourism destination and part of China’s Eastern Economic Corridor, many investors from China have ploughed into Thai property — so much so that half of all foreign owned condominiums in Pattaya city, one of the country’s tourist destinations, are under Chinese proprietorship. While deep-pocketed Chinese homebuyers are seen as saviours of Thailand’s struggling real estate sector, some are disliked for spending their money lavishly and buying property through fake legal partnerships. Some foreign investors even register under a Thai limited company or use a particular leasing policy to engage in money laundering.

Selling land to foreign nationals and having them use the land for residential purposes may worsen land inequality in Thailand. The additional taxes levied to capture the rent from foreign homebuyers will prove another barrier to entry for locals who find themselves increasingly priced out of the housing market. Still, there should be no conflation of allowing foreign land ownership, the acquisition of a bundle of rights over land, with the ceding of Thai sovereignty.

The Phuea Thai Party (PTP), Thailand’s leading opposition party, opposes the scheme. Arguing that nearly 80 per cent of Thai people do not own any land, they claim that allowing foreign ownership will only benefit those who own the majority of land — the upper-middle class and elites. Indeed, the proposed policy is unpopular outside of the military, civil service and politicians — all of whom benefit from a scheme that would distribute the revenue from increased land tax to select groups.

The current leasing policy is criticised not just for allowing foreign land ownership, but for failing to improve the well-being of low-income families. The policy is attracting wealthy investors in the short term, but Thailand is yet to create a business environment in which investors feel it is worthwhile bringing new technology, know-how and employment to the country for long-term benefits.

The new proposed policy for foreign land ownership will have significant implications for land ownership inequality and the economy of Thailand. While Bangkok’s proposed bill intends on reinvigorating the economy, the government should instead look to improving the rule of law and its local business environment in order to achieve better economic and housing outcomes.

Prem Singh Gill is an Adjunct Lecturer at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Thammasat University, Thailand and a Senior Researcher at The University of Tokyo, Japan.

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Pouring cold water on Jokowi’s maritime ambitions


Authors: Demas Nauvarian and Putu Shangrina Pramudia, CSGS

On 26 July 2022, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. The meeting was a surprise given Beijing’s strict zero-COVID-19 policy. A main outcome was the renewal of the memorandum of understanding on cooperation between Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), a framework to to turn Indonesia into a global maritime hub, and China’s Maritime Silk Road under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand to pose for pictures during their meeting in Beijing, China, 26 July 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Laily Rachev/Indonesia's Presidential Palace).

The visit and agreement seem to demonstrate Jokowi’s commitment to his cooperative GMF vision. Said to be Indonesia’s maritime cooperation strategy, the GMF received support from India, Australia, Japan, the United States and China when presented at the East Asia Summit in November 2014. Others argued that the GMF was Indonesia’s ‘middle power strategy’ — to strengthen economic cooperation with China while keeping Washington engaged in Indo Pacific security — in response to great power rivalry.

The GMF is now nothing but a foreign policy myth. Many mark the start of Jokowi’s second term in 2019 as the GMF’s ‘official time of death’. Instead of re-emphasising the nation’s maritime identity and GMF vision during the 2019 presidential debate, Jokowi argued that Indonesia’s diplomatic power was based on its identity as the world’s largest Muslim country.

Indonesia’s foreign policy has no strategic doctrine. Under Jokowi, foreign policy has been pragmatic and focussed on tangible deliverables towards Indonesia’s economic growth.

The GMF was expected to operationalise Indonesia’s middlepowership. But it is little more than a geopolitical statement. Indonesian maritime researcher Evan Laksmana argues that the GMF was never a well-developed grand strategy. It is instead a bureaucratic institution that helps build internal infrastructure connectivity in Indonesia.

Indonesia continues to sideline maritime security, as is indicated by the domination of the land branch in Indonesia’s military leadership and its weak stance on transnational maritime issues such as illegal fishing. Before the 2014 presidential campaign, Jokowi had no interest in the maritime sector. The issue may have been cooked-up as an empty campaign promise by one of his advisors.

The GMF has failed to help Indonesia reach its full maritime potential. This is where China’s BRI comes in. When Jokowi realised that the GMF had encountered the same budgetary constraints as other infrastructure projects, he turned to the solution that has become the face of his foreign policy — economic diplomacy for investment.

The BRI provides an alternative source of funding for Indonesia’s infrastructure-building. It became a hassle-free scheme to facilitate Jokowi’s development ambitions. The BRI provided ‘like-for-like’ solutions to the problems encountered by the GMF.

But the document outlining the possible areas of cooperation between the BRI and GMF provided no practical mechanisms through which to achieve equal cooperation. Even China’s justification for BRI–GMF cooperation failed to spell out how Indonesia could contribute to the joint scheme.

There is a more fundamental incongruence that made the BRI and GMF unable to peacefully co-exist. Implementing the GMF would use up significant economic and political resources. By enforcing the GMF, Indonesia would claim not only its maritime rights, but it would also assume the responsibility of becoming a regional maritime power.

To stay true to its foreign policy adherence to the status quo, Indonesia will need to be stern about maritime rules and regulations. But enforcing the GMF would have meant increasing its unilateral contribution to regional security and ultimately having a face-off with China over disputed maritime territory. Jokowi’s government chose not to take on this burden.

China’s maritime strategy has challenged the status quo of the international maritime order. Its ideal maritime vision is one of soft power competition in which the sea is a ‘free field’ of cooperation and competition — despite using grey-zone warfare in the South China Sea. China has utilised the BRI as a geoeconomic bargaining tool to create economic interdependency with countries in the region.

The BRI and Maritime Silk Road brought China economic benefits while Indonesia sheltered under multilateral fora, such as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, without crafting its own vision of regional maritime order.

When the Jokowi administration realised that, even as a maritime connectivity project, the GMF would require too much sacrifice, they turned to China’s BRI. The prospect of being a regional power was not enough for Jokowi to risk his political legitimacy on a confrontation with China or increasing military spending at the expense of development. But maritime connectivity infrastructure was important to the administration — so the GMF met its doom.

The GMF would have been a new milestone in Indonesia’s grand strategy. Revitalising its national identity and forming a geopolitical affiliation would have been historical. The BRI is ironically a product of China’s grandiose maritime transformation — a process similar to that which would have produced the GMF. China is now a regional maritime power with global ambitions.

There is one thing that China had while spearheading its maritime transformation that Indonesia lacked during the early stages of the GMF — political will. Political will is needed to overcome the bureaucracy, political contestation and budgetary problems that constrain Indonesian policymaking.

The upcoming 2024 election raises the question of whether any candidate has the political will to gamble their domestic political legitimacy on pursuing a clear foreign policy vision. The rise of a candidate with a comprehensive view of global politics, foreign policy expertise and idealism about Indonesia’s place in the world can make this a reality. Only then can a well-constructed grand strategy such as the GMF hope to thrive.

Demas Nauvarian is a research staff at the Center for Strategic and Global Studies, Airlangga University, Indonesia.

Putu Shangrina Pramudia is a research staff at the Center for Strategic and Global Studies, Airlangga University, Indonesia.

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Australia to play couples counsellor in US–China rivalry


Author: Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University

US–China competition is a defining challenge of the present. Much attention has focussed on the behaviour of these two great powers and their impact on global affairs. But as the US–China rivalry persists, an important question is what third parties can do — especially countries like Australia that have huge stakes in maintaining productive relations with both powers.

Australia's new Foreign Minister Penny Wong sits with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Akasaka Guest House in Minato Ward, Tokyo on 24 May 2022. (Photo: Reuters/ The Yomiuri Shimbun)


The challenges facing third parties and their policy options are understudied. These countries have their own interests and agency. Their decisions will not only affect themselves but may also shape the course and outcome of US–China competition. While the United States provides security protection to its allies, China is the largest trading partner of over 120 countries, including most US allies and partners. This tension between their political and economic interests will not change any time soon.

Instead of siding with either the United States or China in their great power competition, third parties can play a mediatory role. Singapore has repeatedly told the United States and China that it will not take sides and has encouraged the two powers to resolve their disputes peacefully. But can Australia, a respected middle power that has critical interests in maintaining strong relations with both Washington and Beijing, help ease tensions between the two nations?

Australia–China relations have started to improve since Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took office in May 2022. Defence and foreign ministers from Australia and China have met and the two governments may be ready to reset the currently tense relationship.

Australia can help bridge the gap between the United States and China. For example, Australia’s official reaction to both US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and China’s subsequent response was moderate and nuanced. Australia can counsel both Washington and Beijing to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In the South Pacific, Australia could urge the United States and China to focus on areas of common interest such as climate change, global health and nuclear non-proliferation, instead of pursuing zero-sum strategic competition.

The South Pacific has become the latest arena of great power contest. The United States and Australia are concerned by China’s growing influence in a region traditionally in their own sphere of influence. While this raises concerns, it is unsurprising that as Chinese power grows, it is expanding its trade and influence to different parts of the world.

Australia, the largest power in the region, needs to discover how it can help lower tensions and focus on eliminating present dangers. As delegates from several countries to the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue emphasised, the biggest national and regional security threat to the South Pacific is climate change.

Australia has made some independent and wise decisions before. Then opposition leader Gough Whitlam travelled to China in 1971, around the same time as former US national security advisor Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. Whitlam normalised relations with China in December 1972 shortly after taking office, six years ahead of the United States. In 2015, Australia, together with many other US allies, joined the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite opposition from the United States.

China already has a legitimate presence in the South Pacific and its influence will grow due to its expanding trade, investment, diasporic community and geostrategic interests. Pacific island nations generally welcome Chinese contributions to promoting regional development and combatting climate change, despite some security concerns.

Australia supports Pacific regionalism through the Pacific Islands Forum, the premier driver of regional decision making. Both China and the United States are dialogue partners of the Pacific Islands Forum. Instead of pushing back against Chinese influence, which may prove futile, Australia can play a leadership role in working with regional countries and external powers, including the United States and China, to promote regional development.

Australia could also help expand the new Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative to include more countries willing to contribute to regional development. This new partnership was initiated by Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States as a way to achieve more effective and efficient cooperation in support of the Pacific islands’ priorities — particularly climate change and regional development. China could be a valuable addition to this initiative.

Such approaches will not only substantively help South Pacific nations, but will also facilitate positive interactions between the United States and China, while further integrating China into the regional order to advance an inclusive international system. Such a beneficial outcome serves everyone’s interest and is worth Australia’s leadership efforts.

Yet while in theory Australia’s engagement policy has potential benefits in responding to China’s influence in the Pacific, there remains possible strong opposition from the United States and a domestic polity that insists Australia resist at all costs China’s influence in ‘our’ region.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University. He is also a Fulbright Scholar at Griffith University.

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