Is MUDA a new hope for Malaysian politics?


Author: Piya Raj Sukhani, NTU

Malaysia’s new youth-led political party the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) is the most recent addition to a trend that sees millennial-inspired political movements emerging in Southeast Asia. These include the Indonesian Solidarity Party and the banned Future Forward Party in Thailand.


Malaysian politician Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman speaks during an interview with Reuters in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 3 September 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng).


Malaysia’s political landscape has been dominated by the same personalities for decades. MUDA, which means ‘young’ in Malay, fashions itself as ‘a disruptor of the status quo’. Its emergence represents a critique of existing political parties — their culture of clientelism and political elitism and their role in Malaysia’s current sustained political stalemate.

While MUDA may not be a formidable player in the next general election, it could gain traction as a movement that galvanises the Malaysian youth into a potent political force.

Youths are under-represented in Malaysian politics. The median age in Malaysia is 30 and over 60 per cent of the population is under 40. Yet around 70 per cent of Malaysian lawmakers are over the age of 50.

Certain parties in the opposition like People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) indeed have a larger pool of popular young politicians compared to parties in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) ruling coalition. Nonetheless, almost all the leading figures in Malaysian politics are veterans.

MUDA promises that the voices of its young members will not be pigeonholed as they are in traditional political parties, where youth wings are subordinate to existing power structures. Owing to deeply-rooted hierarchies in those established parties, decision-making remains the privilege of older party ‘warlords’. Younger members are frequently hampered from rising through the ranks.

By eschewing gate-keeping practices, MUDA aims to ensure that Malaysian youth voices are duly represented — especially if such voices exist outside political dynasties.

MUDA’s strength lies in cyberspace. The founder of the party, former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq, is a social media star. Within a month of applying for official registration, MUDA received over 30,000 member applications through its robust engagement with social media users.

As minister, Saddiq spearheaded efforts to secure bipartisan support for the landmark ‘UNDI18’ constitutional amendment that was passed last year. This amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and instituted automatic voter registration. As a result, 7.8 million new voters will be added to the electoral rolls in 2021. Almost half of them will be 18 to 21 years old. MUDA intends to cultivate this young demographic as its support base.

The party is also targeting a significant share of the unregistered electorate. Roughly 3.8 million Malaysians were eligible to vote in the 2018 general election but had not registered. More than two-thirds of them were in their 20s.

While Saddiq’s virtual popularity, a promising base and media attention are beneficial for MUDA, they are insufficient to ensure electoral success. MUDA still lacks the financial resources and a strong grassroots presence to support its candidates against incumbents from well-established parties like the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) or the resource-rich United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

The significance of majoritarianism in Malay Muslim-majority Malaysia cannot be over-emphasised. Since MUDA is branding itself as a multi-racial party, it will have to deal with immense pressure from right-wing groups that advocate Malay-Muslim supremacy.

Saddiq has reiterated that his party is set on appealing to ‘middle Malaysia’ with its promise of meritocratic, racially inclusive and policy-driven governance. But this ‘middle’ ground is only populated by a small fraction of the electorate because the Malaysian political firmament is highly polarised. If MUDA chooses to be untethered to both sides, it will need to de-construct and re-construct loyalties, which will be an arduous task in a short period of time.

The criticism received by MUDA’s recent #PauseMalaysia campaign was a reflection of this problem. The campaign called for a political ceasefire and opposed a snap election while Malaysia wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the campaign was announced soon after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed that he had the requisite numbers to form a new government, several people perceived MUDA as reinforcing existing power structures and implicitly supporting the current PN administration.

While #PauseMalaysia may have been a case of poor messaging by a politically inexperienced MUDA, overall the party has captured the sentiment of fatigue and cynicism among voters. But it has failed to provide a clear articulation of how the political deadlock ought to be resolved. MUDA is also yet to provide clarity on its policies, or its stand on contentious issues such as Malay dominance and vernacular education.

In the last three Malaysian general elections, the youth voter turnout has been relatively high, standing at 80 per cent during the 2018 general election (GE14). The opposition secured 80 per cent of the youth vote in the GE14.

But the Malaysian youth voter bloc is not monolithic. Courting the entirety of the youth demographic will be challenging for MUDA as the party is inadvertently projecting itself as urban-centric. MUDA may indeed resonate with young progressive urbanites who were initially invigorated by Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) reform agenda when it was in opposition but became disenchanted by PH’s infighting once it took office. MUDA’s strategy to reach out beyond an urban supporter base currently remains unclear.

The timing of a snap election and the areas MUDA will contest will affect its electability. MUDA will eventually have to partner with a coalition to survive. It is likely that they have not announced their affiliations yet due to the current instability within both the government and the opposition.

Given MUDA’s political agenda, the party seems to be logically placed in the opposition column. But if MUDA opts to not align with them and sides with the government or other ‘third force’ parties instead, it could end up cannibalising the opposition’s voter base.

MUDA may be disadvantaged in winning seats under Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system. But its entrance into the political fray will likely compel traditional parties to improve youth representation beyond tokenism and better their responses to youth concerns like unemployment, low wages, education and the rising cost of living.

Piya Raj Sukhani is a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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How China’s ‘technological independence’ strategy will transform its economy


Author: Jianmin Jin, Fujitsu

An important concern for the international community in the post-COVID-19 era is the direction of US–China relations and the sustainability of China’s economic development.

People take photos of a Baidu Robot, nicknamed 'Xiao Du' at the 2020 World Internet Conference and the Light of the Internet Expo in Wuzhen town, Jiaxing city, east China's Zhejiang province, 22 November, 2020 (Photo: Reuters).

China’s political leadership recently released two development proposals — China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 — that clarify the policy orientation and intentions of Beijing.

The proposals mark the end of the export-led economic strategy that has driven development for 40 years and a shift towards a ‘dual-circulation’ growth pattern driven by domestic demand supplemented by external demand.

This new strategy places innovation at its core and it positions technological independence as a strategic pillar of national development.

‘Indigenous innovation’ (zizhu chuangxin) has been a strategic emphasis for decades in China. Led by the state-owned sector, China’s indigenous innovation policy has achieved some success, including technologies development in high-speed rail, ultra-high voltage transmission and military applications. The policy has also led to a large number of scientific papers and patents that serve as intermediate outputs for research and development.

In a globalised environment, China’s innovation had once largely leaned towards applied development. The country earned the moniker ‘world factory’ for importing materials, key parts and manufacturing equipment to then assemble for export. Forced to meet the fast-changing demands of the international consumer market, China adopted an ‘import, localise, absorb’ approach to technology, given a vacuum of indigenous technology at home.

Such a technological development pattern put China in a low value-adding position and technological regulations of the more advanced countries made it difficult for China to introduce higher technology. The launch of ‘Made in China 2025’ was a response from policymakers and industry to this perceived internal crisis.

In the digital era, the United States has been promoting the ‘Advanced Manufacturing Partnership’, ‘Industrial Internet’ and the strategic project ‘Industry 4.0’ aiming to advance the manufacturing industry. These movements gave stimulus to China, sensing crisis. Gaps exist in its technological capabilities and competitiveness — and without intervention these gaps are likely to widen.

At the same time, the recent successes of organic technological innovation in China and Beijing’s ability to rein in COVID-19 have expanded confidence in Chinese digital development.

While China’s indigenous innovation policy was at first a catch-up strategy, the ‘technology independence’ approach could be measured as an intention to overtake those advanced countries that currently dominate global technology.

China had launched a national policy of ‘self-renewal’, a systematic version of indigenous innovation, in 2006. Having joined the WTO, the constant push of globalisation forced China to pursue efficiency mainly based on comparative advantage. As a result, China relies heavily on global supply chains.

China’s semiconductor chips, for example, rely mainly on imports from overseas vendors. According to a survey by US industry groups, the Chinese share of global semiconductor demand is around 35 per cent, while the Chinese share of the world’s integrated device manufacturers — companies capable of designing, manufacturing and selling integrated circuit products — is less than 1 per cent.

The technology and export control measures taken by the United States in the name of national security have caused serious financial difficulties for Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei. Such regulatory measures also apply to hundreds of blacklisted Chinese tech start-ups. China has become more vulnerable to its own industrial supply chain and has been forced to strengthen it through technological independence measures that aim to protect national security and the economy. In other words, fear of US–China technology decoupling is an external factor accelerating China’s strategy for technology independence.

The issue of trade restrictions should have been resolved by negotiations through an international or bilateral dispute resolution mechanism. Unfortunately, these dispute resolution mechanisms are dysfunctional. Whether or not China’s chosen approach succeeds domestically, it is likely to amplify US–China technology decoupling.

Focusing on its abundance of human resources, data assets and application scenes in science and technology, China is trying to realise technology independence by 2035. But in the digital age where economic and social complexity is increasing and innovation efficiency and speed are required, China must co-create with members of the global innovation ecosystem. Just as China’s government-led indigenous innovation policy was criticised overseas, the global innovation ecosystem requires rule-making and dispute resolution mechanisms.

It will be important for the new Biden administration to recognise the need to recover and strengthen global cooperation in technology.

Dr Jianmin Jin is Chief Digital Economist at the Global Strategy Planning Division, Fujitsu Ltd., Tokyo.

All views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of any organisation or institution.

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What Biden means for Taiwan


Author: Gerrit van der Wees, George Mason University and George Washington University

The victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the US presidential elections will mean a sea change for US relationships with the world, and for the world’s perception of the United States. But for Taiwan, it is expected to bring continuity.

A man holds flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during an stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, United States, 14 January 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam).

Biden has a long history of support for Taiwan. He was already a member of the US Senate in 1979 when the Taiwan Relations Act was approved. When he became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, his first overseas visit was to Taiwan. And in January 2020, then-candidate Biden congratulated Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election, stating ‘You are stronger because of your free and open society. The United States should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies’.

There are ample reasons for a Biden administration to continue the broad support for Taiwan that was built up in the latter half of the Trump administration. Biden’s cabinet appointments will also be critical. Michele Flournoy, who is mentioned often as a potential defence secretary, has written extensively about the US role in counteracting threats facing Taiwan from China. Other recurring names include former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell, and members of the Biden–Harris team such as Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security and Julie Smith of the German Marshall Fund, who have all written and spoken extensively on how to enhance US relations with Taiwan.

There is no doubt that President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy — and his withdrawal from international agreements and fora such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization — put him at odds with US friends and allies and undermined US leadership.

Trump’s adversarial and transactional relationship with many of Europe’s leaders, and his demands that Japan and South Korea pay fivefold for basing agreements further estranged the United States from its traditional allies. This weakened the US position in the increasingly tense strategic competition with China.

This doesn’t mean that other countries are not concerned about China’s behaviour. China’s predatory trade practices, ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, unsubtle influence operations, repression of Uyghurs, imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong and increasingly shrill military threats against Taiwan concern other nations. But the isolationist, uncoordinated approach of Trump was not effective, the efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to draw in other countries notwithstanding.

Despite this turmoil, Taiwan’s position and US Taiwan policy escaped relatively unscathed. Under the guidance of National Security Advisor John Bolton, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver, Assistant Secretary David Stilwell and Secretary Pompeo, there was a comprehensive effort to support Taiwan which made great headway within a relatively short time.

A major driver of these efforts was the US Congress which, with bipartisan support, passed several key pieces of legislation, such as the Taiwan Travel Act (February 2018), the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (December 2018) and the TAIPEI Act (March 2020), all aimed at enhancing US–Taiwan relations.

The transition to the Biden administration is taking place against a background of sharp differences between the old and new US administrations on how to conduct foreign policy. But ironically, the respective visions on Taiwan are similar. This is due to several fundamental changes in the perception of Taiwan among the foreign policy community in Washington.

First, democratic values are increasingly the guiding principle in US relations with Taiwan. When the United States and other Western nations switched recognised away from the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1970s, it was a repressive authoritarian dictatorship claiming to be government of all of China. For too long the policies of the United States and other Western nations towards Taiwan remained a subset of relations with China. Today, Taiwan needs to be seen in its own light and its own right, as a beacon for democracy in Asia.

Second, the global perception of China has changed dramatically in recent years. The basic approach towards China used to be one of ‘engagement’, in the hope that China would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’. But since President Xi Jinping came to power, it has become increasingly clear that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become more repressive domestically, and more aggressive internationally, leading most Western nations to refer to it as a ‘strategic competitor’.

Third, since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in January 2016, the PRC government has launched increasingly shrill threats and intimidation campaigns against Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has sent fighter aircraft across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, PLA Navy ships circumnavigate the island, and the PLA held military exercises on the Chinese coast north and south of Taiwan. The PRC has also conducted an unrelenting disinformation and cyber warfare campaign against the young democracy.

These three developments are ample reason for a Biden administration to continue the broad support for Taiwan that was built up in the latter half of the Trump administration. In order to achieve its foreign policy goals in a more balanced and coordinated way, the Biden administration is likely to deploy an array of measures, ranging from diplomatic pressure on China, enhancing economic ties with Taiwan and continuing to strengthen Taiwan’s defence capabilities.

We can expect the Biden administration to work more closely with traditional friends and allies to convince Beijing that it needs to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbour. It is essential that allies in Europe, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand jump on the bandwagon. Time is of the essence.

Gerrit van der Wees is a lecturer at George Mason University and George Washington University.

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Pakistan’s ‘three evils’, CPEC and good governance


Author: Shyam Tekwani, APCSS

Setbacks to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) continue to mount, having spluttered along since its announcement as a showpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in April 2015. CPEC may be further impeded by the recent alliance between Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups against Chinese interests, escalating security threats from the so-called ‘three evils’ in Pakistan — terrorism, religious extremism, and ethnic separatism. Pakistan must rein in the ‘three evils’ through good governance if CPEC is to ever take hold.

A supporter of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, chants slogans with others during an anti-government protest rally in Peshawar, Pakistan 22 November, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Aziz).

Pakistan has long struggled as a perpetrator and victim of the first evil, terrorism. Last month’s decision by the United Nations Financial Action Task Force to retain Pakistan on the grey list for failing to dismantle terrorist financial infrastructure, despite repeated warnings, is indicative of Islamabad’s inconsistent approach to countering terrorism.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law remains a key challenge to securing religious freedom for the country’s religious minorities, and in combatting the second evil, extremism. These laws have been used to persecute and unfairly target minority faiths. A decision to introduce major reforms in the curriculum of over 30,000 madrassas as part of a strategy to dismantle extremist networks has lacked unwavering determination.

The decades-long insurgency by ethnic Balochs for an independent Balochistan constitutes the third evil, separatism. With abysmal quality of life indicators, prolonged neglect, repression, and exploitation of its resources, Pakistan’s largest and most impoverished province holds the key to the success or failure of CPEC. Balochistan is home to the Gwadar seaport, a deep-water access point to the Arabian Sea that is crucial to China. Stability in the province remains elusive as the marginalised Balochs fear population displacement and environmental degradation as corollaries to CPEC.

Rising anger among local communities, who believe that CPEC’s economic benefits will flow solely to the state, lends sustenance to the Baloch insurgency. Cooperation between China and Pakistan against the ‘three evils’ has emboldened Pakistan to intensify its massive campaigns of harassment and enforced disappearances of dissenters. Islamabad’s hawkish view of rebels broadly converges with China’s concerns about the ‘three evil’ forces to quash ethnic-based struggles in the region.

Islamabad’s assurances of improving security in response to China’s concerns about the ‘three evils’ during the formal launch of CPEC in April 2015 saw Balochistan become the focus of Pakistan’s military-focused counter terrorism priority. Pakistan established a special security division comprising 15,000 paramilitary forces to protect the large numbers of Chinese engineers and workers engaged to work in the province.

Demonstrations since October 2020 by 11 opposition parties decrying Prime Minister Imran Khan’s military-backed government are gathering momentum. The protesters are targeting the all-powerful military and the CPEC Authority Chairman, a retired general. These attacks reflect a growing unease with the military’s influence on the elected government and will further harm CPEC’s progress.

Pakistan’s security outlook is the worst it has been in at least three decades. With the tools of China’s smart city technology at its disposal, the temptation for Pakistan to respond to the ‘three evils’ is to opt for a replication of the Xinjiang ‘security state’ in Balochistan. The use of artificial intelligence to profile minorities in China and the surveillance of minority Muslims in southern Thailand with Chinese technologies portend this future. Beijing’s new envoy to Pakistan — a political appointee groomed in trade and religious issues — further signals intent towards surveillance.

China’s dominance in the internal affairs of Pakistan continues to grow. Islamabad dismisses the greatest repression of Muslims in the 21st century as a ‘non-issue’. China’s crackdown on Uyghur women married to Pakistani men and the trafficking of over 600 Christian minors as brides to China have barely created a ripple in Pakistan’s politics. The abandonment of Pakistani students in Wuhan was greeted with silence.

But there remains some recognition in Pakistan about the perils of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, leaving Pakistan at a crossroads regarding its approach to the ‘three evils’ and appeasing China or challenging it with good governance.

Pakistan’s approach has been mainly military-focused and misses the enormous potential for good governance. Pakistan must consider how to include all of society. The recent grant of a stay by an international tribunal on a US$5.8 billion penalty imposed on Pakistan for denying a lease to an Australian company to access the Reko Diq mines in Balochistan provides Pakistan an opportunity to consider a good governance approach and to reach out to marginalised insurgents as a strategy for reducing the ‘three evils’.

It is imperative for Pakistan to be inclusive in its effort to resolve the Baloch conflict. The opportunity to address legitimate and genuine grievances through an inclusive and accommodative governance model is clearly at hand. The recent death of the powerful cleric Khadim Rizvi, who championed himself as the custodian of blasphemy laws, offers Islamabad an opportunity to take control over the narrative of blasphemy as a critical issue in its domestic politics.

As the international community grows wary of lending further support to Pakistan, CPEC appears to be the last of its opportunities to drive the country toward development and modernisation. Ridding itself of the ‘three evils’ through a good governance approach would be a good place to begin.

Shyam Tekwani is Professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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Rocky road ahead for Biden on US–China relations


Author: Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University

Despite US President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede, the 2020 US presidential election is over and former vice president Joe Biden has started the presidential transition formally. Many in Beijing, Washington and elsewhere hope the incoming Biden administration will bring US–China relations back from the cliff edge. But it may be wishful thinking that the new administration can easily buck the trend and reset the relationship.


Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 4 December 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang).


Biden, who is to be inaugurated on 20 January 2021, faces daunting domestic challenges, particularly an intractable COVID-19 pandemic and a faltering economy. He has invited scientists into his transition team to prepare for arduous work facing his administration. Cooperation with China may prove essential for his success in tackling the pandemic and US economic woes. As global COVID-19 cases continue to surge, it is crucial for the two governments to work together to end this global health crisis soon.

One election will not erase all the underlying US–China frictions. China’s rapid rise challenges US dominance on many fronts, from technology to global governance. From the US perspective, no matter who is in the White House, the United States needs to do everything possible to push back against China’s challenge to its power, prestige and liberal values.

US politicians of all stripes seem to agree on one thing: the United States must be tough on China. Many argue that attempts at engagement by previous US administrations have failed to transform China and that China now poses an enormous threat to US national interests.

The US–China relationship has been so severely impaired over the past few years that it is beyond easy repair. All the red buttons in the relationship are turned on, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, and from trade to high-tech.

One must also be prepared for what a reckless Trump administration may do in its final days to the already damaged relationship. During a radio interview on 12 November, the outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that ‘Taiwan has not been a part of China’, clearly crossing Beijing’s redline. The Trump administration may well ‘smash a pot to pieces just because it’s cracked’, leaving behind a mess for Biden to clean up.

The two countries continue to suffer from mutual distrust due to their different political systems. Some US officials and members of Congress now frequently use ‘the Chinese Communist Party’ (CCP) to refer to China. The US government has renewed its attacks on the CCP and its political ideology. Yet the Chinese leadership, based on its touted ‘four confidences’, has developed an inflated sense of confidence that the United States is declining and that China is moving to the centre of the global political stage.

The Biden administration will likely make human rights a key issue, given the current situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s inflexibility on what it considers sovereignty issues, such as Taiwan and Tibet, makes it difficult to compromise with the United States. While Biden may be less confrontational and will introduce a degree of stability in his China policy, it is premature to paint a rosy picture of the relationship for the next few years.

Many suggest that Biden may return to multilateralism and work with US allies and partners to address the China challenge. The recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — the world’s largest free trade pact that includes China and several US allies — suggests that such an approach may not work as countries move further away from the US economic orbit.

People-to-people exchanges form the bedrock of bilateral relations. Unfortunately, the Trump administration terminated the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China and placed restrictions on Chinese scholars and students doing scientific research in the United States. The two countries have also been engaged in a race to the bottom to expel journalists and limit the operations of each other’s media outlets.

US public opinion has turned against China, partly due to the pandemic in an election year and partly due to combative Chinese behaviour. According to an October Pew Research Center survey, US negative views of China jumped to 73 per cent. This is the highest unfavourable rating since former US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

The problems in the bilateral relationship are also caused by power restructuring in the international system. Given China’s economic size and its global investments, it is unrealistic to expect China to continue to keep a low profile in international affairs. The massive Belt and Road Initiative — China’s effort to promote international development while projecting itself as a responsible power — is viewed with suspicion and alarm by the United States. The United States worries about being replaced by China as the world’s pre-eminent power.

Rising US populism and growing Chinese assertiveness have become major forces pushing the two countries toward a collision course. Leadership change in Washington provides an opportunity for some soul searching about the plunging relationship, but the road ahead remains rocky.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania.

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Building resilient coastal communities in the Asia Pacific


Author: Edo Andriesse, SNU and Kristian Saguin, UP Diliman

The Asia Pacific has seen an impressive reduction in absolute poverty within the span of a few decades, but marginal groups in the region still remain vulnerable to the multi-scalar shocks of economic fluctuations, natural hazards and health crises. The small-scale fisheries sector, composed of fisherfolk and other households dependent on coastal resources, has historically experienced greater precarity due to socio-environmental pressures and political-economic marginalisation, which are now being further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fishermen sail past a group of cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay as its crew members undergo quarantine amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Manila, Philippines, 8 May 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

Faced with looming threats of stronger tropical cyclones, sea-level rise and potentially devastating tsunamis, fishing-based households are also forced to confront the livelihood challenges of overfishing and coastal environmental degradation. Fisherfolk occupy relatively marginal political and economic positions, even in archipelagic countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

They have been subject to various modes of displacement to make way for diverse coastal activities such as intensive aquaculture, tourism and urban development. Despite the production crises in marine fisheries and the pressures of coastal transformations, employment in the sector continues to increase, averaging a global total of 30 million in recent years.

Coastal communities in the Asia Pacific face multiple challenges: illegal fishing by large-scale commercial operations, limited access to fresh water, weather extremes, resource-use conflicts between various coastal activities and a lack of livelihood support. These have been partly addressed by national governments and non-governmental agencies through bottom-up and grassroots initiatives, such as establishing fisherfolk associations and strengthening local adaptive capacity.

It is hard to translate national planning into meaningful improvements on the ground. Achieving sustained success is difficult given the short-term nature of most interventions, with many sites reverting to square one at the end of a project cycle. The COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that progress can be undone rapidly, as the experiences of many coastal communities this year have shown.

Rather than fixed national planning, more flexibility in the design and application of development interventions is needed. In a world where shocks — commodity boom and busts, extreme weather events and pandemics — have profound impacts on marginalised sectors, it is necessary to plan for change through multiple alternatives and options.

Coastal communities have benefited from innovations in collective action arrangements such as organising shrimp farmers into clusters in Vietnam. These entail a higher commitment than informal associations without being as rigid as formal associations. New forms of local governance such as citizens assemblies are also promising.

Planning should be oriented toward the less visible, slow-onset effects of climate change that simmer in the background but occasionally erupt as dramatic crises, seen in examples such as the climate refugees in Bangladesh and sea-level rise in the Pacific Ocean.

Five key proposals would improve coastal resilience and sustainability in the region.

First, top-down national policies need to be aligned with bottom-up initiatives, enabling flexibility in the event of hazards and global economic shocks.

Second, improving spatial planning will enable farmers, fishers and others who are resource-dependent to discuss their specific and shared challenges. Land-based issues such as land access, tenure, use/cover change and dispossession shape coastal communities as seriously as marine transformations. Water shortages, such as those on Pacific Islands, are recurring problems in coastal communities that have so far been underreported.

Third, the question of food security among fishing-based households needs both policy and research emphasis. The pandemic’s disruption of domestic and global value chains of fish, seafood and marine products significantly intensified hunger and livelihood loss among fishing communities, a process that will likely continue even after lockdowns have eased. This requires a long-term response that reforms the fundamental structure of the global agri-food system.

Fourth, more support is needed for emergent and expanding livelihood portfolios suited to the particularities and ecologies of coastal communities. The example of fisherfolk returning to seaweed farming in Bali with the shutting down of tourism shows the importance of diverse, sustainable livelihood options during periods of crisis.

Finally, resilience cannot be divorced from the broader political and economic conditions of coastal communities. Policies need to recognise and address the complex structural and cross-scalar drivers of coastal livelihood change.

Uncertainty about the future of coastal communities heightens precarity, particularly for a sector already facing high levels of poverty and marginally positioned in society. The pandemic has disrupted lives and threatened livelihoods but has also offered openings for introducing more adaptive and radical ways of reimagining resilience in the coastal Asia Pacific.

Edo Andriesse is Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences, Seoul National University.

Kristian Saguin is Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman.

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Vietnam’s cautious approach to international travel pays off


Author: Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen, ANU

In September, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh approved the reopening of some commercial international flight routes after being suspended since March. Selected routes to Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan were to be reopened from 15 September, and routes to Laos and Cambodia from 22 September.

People apply preventive measures during the first domestic flight, carried out by Vietnam Airlines to transport tourists stranded in the central city of Da Nang affected by COVID-19 at the Airport Noi Bai International in Hanoi, Vietnam on 12 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/VNA).

The selection was made based on both the importance of those countries to Vietnam as well as their control of the pandemic at home. At the time, all countries had successfully controlled COVID-19. Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan are leading sources of foreign direct investment, and important trading partners and markets for Vietnam’s labour exports. They as well as Laos and Cambodia also have a significant geopolitical bearing on Vietnam.

The excitement of both passengers and the airlines was short-lived however. All routes were suspended again after just two flights from Seoul by Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air on 25 and 30 September, respectively. The reason was a lack of consistency in quarantine standards — especially those applied to Vietnamese passengers. Japan and South Korea are now experiencing spikes in COVID-19 infections.

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) explained the specific obstacles that brought all flights to a halt again. There was a lack of guidelines by the Ministry of Finance on fees to be collected from check-in passengers. There were also no clear procedures for handing over, managing and supervising immigrants between city and provincial governments and line ministries, with confusion for parties such as enterprises, factories and hotels. Most importantly, there was a lack of guidelines by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on quarantine and testing procedures applied to passengers. And finally, city and provincial governments had not widely announced the list of quarantine hotels, room rates, and their capacity.

The MOT has proposed a solution to address this bottleneck. This requires specific actions and coordination of various competent ministries and agencies and has made substantial progress.

It appears that everything is now ready except for the guidelines from the MOH. A recently released draft of the guidelines classifies passengers into three groups. The first group is Vietnamese passengers and their foreign relatives. The second group is foreigners who are specialists, investors, managers, international students, skilled labour, other designated individuals, and their relatives. The third group is foreigners who come to Vietnam as diplomats or on business for fewer than 14 days.

The main difference in how these three groups will be treated is the quarantine duration they must undergo upon arrival. The first group is to be quarantined fully in centrally isolated areas for 14 days. They have to show evidence of payment made for testing and quarantine services before boarding to avoid the disputes that occurred after the first two flights in September.

The second group can be quarantined for fewer than 14 days in centrally isolated areas, but still have to be quarantined at home until day 14. Both groups should have negative results within 3–5 days before boarding, fill in an electronic health declaration 12 hours before boarding, and install the Vietnam Health Declaration and tracing apps.

Upon arrival, these two groups will be tested immediately for COVID-19 and then tested again on day 14 after arrival. They also have to continue to supervise their health situation, report it via apps, and restrict contact with other people until day 28. The third group does not have to stay in a centrally isolated base, but they have to be tested every three days during their stay.

The MOH says that the draft guidelines are in the consultation process before being issued. When the guidelines will be promulgated is still unknown. The Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam will allow carriers to resume their flights as soon as the guidelines are available.

The cautious approach by Vietnam to ‘travel bubbles’ is not an exception. The idea of creating a travel bubble — where two countries with good records of controlling COVID-19 allow people to travel freely without undergoing quarantine — has been well received. But little progress has been made globally. Even when Vietnam resumes commercial flights, it will not create travel bubbles and quarantine periods will not be waived or shortened.

Vietnam clearly wants to maintain its exemplary record of controlling the pandemic, which is critical for its economic recovery. Over the first nine months of 2020, Vietnam’s GDP grew by 2.12 per cent and it is expected to be 2–3 per cent for the entire year, making the country the only major ASEAN economy with positive economic growth in 2020.

Revenue from international flights represents approximately 50 per cent of the total revenue received by Vietnamese carriers. But with COVID-19 under control, demand for domestic flights has surpassed the demand in 2019. With this record, the recovery of Vietnamese airlines’ domestic market is faster than ASEAN peers. It appears that Vietnam’s cautious approach is generating positive payoffs for its economy and airline industry.

Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen is a senior lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

The post Vietnam’s cautious approach to international travel pays off first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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Dianne Babski Appointed Associate Director for Library Operations, National Library of Medicine

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National Library of Medicine Director, Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, is pleased to announce the appointment of Dianne Babski as Associate Director for Library Operations at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), a position in the Senior Executive Service. This appointment became effective November 22, 2020. Ms. Babski has served as Acting Associate Director for Library Operations since March 1, 2020.

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A role for RCEP in Indonesia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery?


Author: Kyle Springer, UWA

The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement on 17 November demonstrates that protectionism is not universally on the rise in 2020. Bucking against the global tilt towards protectionism, the Indo-Pacific’s completion of RCEP is a significant development in the global trade system, encompassing 29 per cent of global GDP.

Trucks are parked at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, 6 May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

Indonesia — a country still walking the line between free trade and protectionism — is a key player in RCEP. Its participation is important for two reasons. First, it is a major step in Indonesia’s nascent trade diplomacy. Second, it will play a significant role in the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But Indonesia will need to back up its participation with continued infrastructure development and economic reform if it is to fully benefit from the gains of the agreement.

One of RCEP’s chief benefits will be its contribution to the regional integration of the Indo-Pacific. By creating a single set of trade rules and simplifying complex issues such as rules-of-origin, RCEP will unfetter the development of regional value chains. Under a regional certificate of origin regime, Indonesian goods will be able to move more smoothly across the 15-member bloc. Its investment provisions — including ‘negative list’ liberalisation by all members — will also make the Indo-Pacific more attractive for new value chain investments.

This change in the region’s trade patterns is important for Indonesia, as it has struggled to capture a significant share of production and investment moving out of China as a result of the US–China trade war.

But Indonesia will need to complement RCEP by continuing to address a host of connectivity issues. Indonesia’s non-tariff trade costs to China — its largest trading partner — are high compared to other peers such as Vietnam and Malaysia. This hints at high transport costs and impairments related to Indonesia’s billion-dollar infrastructure gap.

That gap is becoming harder to fill as the COVID-19 pandemic puts pressure on Indonesia’s economy and state budget. Indonesia will need to rely more on the resources of the infrastructure and connectivity initiatives that have been launched by governments in the Indo-Pacific region. These include China’s Belt and Road, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Participating in these also requires skilful diplomacy to manage the geopolitics involved.

Through its participation in RCEP, Indonesia sets itself up to draw more investment from the region. One of Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s signature initiatives is his efforts to attract foreign capital and improve Indonesia’s standing as an investment destination. But while Jokowi has succeeded in his outward-facing efforts, he has failed to articulate to the Indonesian people the benefits that come from foreign direct investment. Many officials remain committed to wrapping investment procedures in red tape and are adept at erecting barriers to trade.

Under RCEP’s investment chapter, Indonesia will adhere to most-favoured nation treatment and it is the first time Indonesia has negotiated investment provisions with the whole region. Indonesia opened up a handful of previously limited sectors under its trade agreement with Australia — known as IA-CEPA — which entered into force in July 2020. RCEP does not include an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

To receive enough investment in the wake of COVID-19, the Indonesian government must make progress in other policy areas beyond trade agreements — particularly on issues that investors see as immitigable risks. Reforming the bureaucracy would be a start including cutting red tape, reducing corruption and reforming the legal system.

Tackling these intractable issues will be challenging in the present political climate. Indonesia already experienced a popular backlash against the controversial and expansive jobs creation omnibus bill that the legislature passed in early October. The purported aim of the bill was to promote foreign investment by changing 76 existing laws spanning employment and labour laws, patent laws, land acquisition and taxation.

The bill does tackle long-standing investor complaints. For example, it eliminates Indonesia’s notorious negative investment list, which placed caps on or prohibited investment in hundreds of sectors. It now opens up all but six sectors to foreign investment, including sectors such as gambling and casinos. Sceptical investors will wait to see if subsequent regulations undo this progress.

The omnibus bill has also been criticised for what it has failed to address. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate the construction industry and the Indonesian government relies on SOEs to break ground on infrastructure projects. Yet despite their reputation for corruption and market-distorting advantages, they go untouched. RCEP does not contain a chapter addressing the role of SOEs in member countries as other trade agreements do. Levelling the playing field between private companies and SOEs is one key to attracting more private investment in Indonesia’s infrastructure.

RCEP promises to be a catalyst for post-pandemic economic recovery in the region. But in Indonesia’s case, it needs to be combined with economic reforms and the development of infrastructure that facilitates the movement of goods and services. This will allow Indonesia to maximise its benefits in a new era of Indo-Pacific free trade.

Kyle Springer is a Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia.

The post A role for RCEP in Indonesia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery? first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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What’s at stake in decoupling innovation?


Author: Andrew Kennedy, ANU

Some degree of ‘decoupling’ between the United States and China is already underway, but it remains unclear how far it will go and what it could mean for the world. Much of the analysis so far has focused on the potential decoupling of high-tech supply chains and product markets. Even so, decoupling could also curtail transnational connections between national innovation systems, reshaping how high-tech products and knowledge are created in the first place.

A worker inspects and arranges production for elevator signal system at a factory of Jiangsu WELM Technology Co., Ltd. in Hai'an city, east China's Jiangsu province, 24 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters).

Transnational innovation linkages have become increasingly important in recent decades.   Multinationals invest growing sums in global research and development (R&D) networks, scientists increasingly collaborate with colleagues overseas, and ‘brain circulation’ between countries has become entrenched. What would decoupling mean for these growing cross-border connections?

In some regards, China remains a small player in transnational innovation. Between 2000 and 2019, Chinese organisations participated in 12 per cent of all multinational R&D alliances, while US organisations participated in 62 per cent. Foreign firms have also limited their R&D activity in China due to concerns about intellectual property protection, cybersecurity policies, limited local talent and compliance with Chinese standards.

While Chinese firms’ investment in R&D abroad has increased in recent decades, much of this activity reflects the expansion of just one firm — technology giant Huawei. Chinese firms more generally remain marginal players in the innovation systems of OECD countries.

The United Kingdom is a striking example. A remarkable 53 per cent of all business R&D spending in the country came from foreign firms in 2018. Chinese firms accounted for just 2 per cent of this number. US firms accounted for 40 per cent, non-UK European firms made up 29 per cent, and Japanese firms contributed 7 per cent.

China has become a major player in other aspects of transnational innovation, however. China has clearly emerged as a key global partner in basic scientific research. China-based scientists contributed to 23 per cent of the more than 1.5 million scientific articles featuring authors from multiple countries between 2016 and 2019. They were second to only their counterparts in the United States, who contributed to 42 per cent.

China’s rise as a key partner in basic science reflects close collaboration with the United States in particular. China is now the leading source of co-authors for US-based scientists, eclipsing traditional partners like the United Kingdom and Germany. More than 12 per cent all of scientific articles published by US-based scientists from 2016 to 2019 featured a China-based co-author.  China-based scientists are also key collaborators for counterparts in Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

China also plays a critical role in cross-border flows of the ultimate ingredient in innovation: brainpower. The annual number of Chinese students going abroad jumped from 144,000 in 2007 to more than 700,000 in 2019. While many of these students return home after completing their studies, the circulation of Chinese brainpower has also enriched other countries. This is not only because Chinese students spend money in their host countries, but also because Chinese migrants enrich pools of human capital abroad.

In 2015–2016, there were 4.6 million migrants from China in OECD countries, 2 million of which had post-secondary educations — an increase of roughly 300,000 since 2010–2011. This growing pool of mobile human capital contains many of China’s most talented graduates, since China still struggles to bring back its best and brightest.

The United States has been the most obvious beneficiary of the circulation of Chinese brainpower. US universities attract more Chinese students than those of any other country in the world, and many of these students pursue graduate degrees in science and engineering (S&E). Students from China earned 32 per cent of all S&E doctorates awarded to foreign students in the United States between 2000 and 2017.

In addition, most of these new PhD graduates remain in the United States to work. Between 2011 and 2013, 11,000 Chinese students earned doctorates in S&E fields from US universities.  As of 2017, 83 per cent of them were still in the country.

The ability of the United States to attract Chinese brainpower is also clearly evident in emerging fields like artificial intelligence (AI). A recent study of top AI researchers trained in China found that three-quarters had moved overseas — and 85 per cent of those abroad were located in the United States.

Whether the United States can continue to compete so successfully for Chinese tech talent is unclear. The country has struggled to manage the coronavirus pandemic and unfriendly policies like the ‘China Initiative’ at the Department of Justice have spread unease among mainland-born Chinese scientists working in the United States.

In short, the stakes of reducing transnational innovation linkages with China are much higher in some regards than in others. China remains a relatively marginal player on the corporate side, whether one is concerned with R&D alliances, foreign R&D in China or Chinese R&D abroad.  Nonetheless, China is a key international partner in basic research and in cross-border flows of brainpower.

The benefits of these latter connections do not accrue to China alone. In fact, the United States may well have benefitted more from brain circulation than China has. Accordingly, while developed countries are quite right to take security concerns seriously, they risk shooting themselves in the foot if decoupling goes too far.

Andrew Kennedy is Associate Professor in Policy and Governance at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. He is author of The Conflicted Superpower: America’s Collaboration with China and India in Global Innovation (Columbia University Press, 2018).

The post What’s at stake in decoupling innovation? first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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