Asian Affairs: May 1-14, 2023
Diplomatic developments - both positive and negative - dominated the first half of May, while Bangladesh and Myanmar were slammed by the deadliest storm to hit the Bay of Bengal since 2013.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s US Visit Highlights Evolving Alliance Amid Southeast Asia's Changing Landscape
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently completed a four-day visit to Washington, during which he met with President Joe Biden and other key officials. The trip emphasized the evolving relationship between the United States and the Philippines, a significant topic given the changing political and economic landscape in Southeast Asia.
The visit included discussions on enhancing bilateral trade and increasing US investment in the Philippines, a country that has trailed behind some of its regional neighbors in terms of infrastructure and attractiveness to businesses seeking alternatives to China. The central focus of the visit was the Filipino leader's commitment to strengthening ties with the United States. This commitment is demonstrated through joint military exercises and the permission granted to the Pentagon to expand its presence at four new sites in the Philippines. In any potential conflict over Taiwan, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, could play a critical role in supporting American forces.
The Philippines has long attempted to maintain a delicate balance between the United States and China, remaining strategically close to the former while becoming increasingly economically reliant on the latter. Despite the apparent enthusiasm in Washington for Marcos Jr.'s decision to more closely align with the United States, particularly the Department of Defense, this choice is rather unique. As the political pendulum in the region swings more toward China, Beijing is rapidly becoming the most influential state in Southeast Asia, thus making it difficult for other countries to follow Marcos Jr.'s example.
A recent report by the Lowy Institute revealed that only the Philippines and Singapore still view the United States as more influential in Southeast Asia than China, albeit by a relatively small margin. Comparatively, a study conducted four years prior showed the United States as more influential than China in a greater number of Southeast Asian countries. In all other states, even those with significant strategic disputes with China like Vietnam, China is now considered the most influential power in the region.
Factors contributing to China's growing influence include the United States' reduced focus on the region's trade integration and the Trump administration's partial disengagement from the region. Additionally, in an increasingly authoritarian region, the United States' emphasis on human rights and democracy has largely been disregarded. Meanwhile, China has actively participated in trade integration, provided aid and investment to numerous regional states, and emerged as an essential rescue lender during times of crisis.
Although some Southeast Asian states, such as Singapore and Vietnam, remain apprehensive about China's increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea and its actions around Taiwan, the region as a whole is tilting toward China. China's economic dominance is undeniable, with its trade relationship with the ten ASEAN member states amounting to around $1 trillion annually. Even staunch democrats like Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim are aggressively pursuing closer ties with China in exchange for greater investment and trade.
While the strengthening of defense ties and the establishment of new military facilities in the Philippines are notable outcomes of Marcos Jr.'s visit to the US, it is crucial to recognize that much of the rest of Southeast Asia is gradually turning away from the United States. The implications of Marcos Jr.'s visit to the US must be considered within the broader context of the shifting political and economic dynamics in the region.
Diplomatic Tensions Escalate as Canada and China Expel Diplomats
The relationship between Canada and China has taken a significant downturn as both nations recently expelled each other's diplomats. Canada declared Chinese diplomat Mr. Zhao Wei persona non grata, and in retaliation, China expelled Canadian diplomat Jennifer Lynn Lalonde. Both officials have been given five days to leave the respective countries, marking a significant deterioration in diplomatic ties between the two nations.
“I have been clear: we will not tolerate any form of foreign interference in our internal affairs. Diplomats in Canada have been warned that if they engage in this type of behaviour, they will be sent home.”
— Mélanie Joly, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly issued a statement denouncing foreign interference in internal affairs, making it clear that Canada would not tolerate such behavior from diplomats. This decision came after careful consideration of all factors at play, reflecting Canada's firm resolve to defend democracy as a top priority.
The expulsion of Zhao Wei occurred in response to allegations that China had targeted Canadian opposition lawmaker Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong. Chong, a vocal critic of China's treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority population, had accused the Chinese government of human rights abuses. In response to these allegations, Canada summoned China's ambassador last week, reiterating that interference in Canada's affairs would not be tolerated.
The expulsion of diplomats is the latest development in the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. This follows the 2018 arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada on US fraud charges, as well as the subsequent arrest of two Canadians in China on spying charges. While all three individuals were eventually freed in 2021, the events strained diplomatic ties, with critics accusing Beijing of using the Canadians as political bargaining chips.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that Canada will not be intimidated by China's tit-for-tat expulsion of Lalonde. Trudeau vowed to continue doing everything necessary to protect Canadians from foreign interference. Canada's recent actions follow a Canadian intelligence report accusing Zhao Wei of being involved in gathering information about opposition MP Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong to deter "anti-China positions."
The Canadian intelligence agency has been directed to report threats to MPs and their families immediately in response to these events. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement strongly condemning and firmly opposing Canada's actions. Last week, China accused Canada of "slander and defamation" over the claims that Beijing targeted Chong and his family.
Michael Chong, a Conservative MP, has criticized the governing Liberals for mishandling the matter and taking two years to make the decision to expel the Chinese diplomat. The allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics have become a growing challenge for the Trudeau government, which initiated an investigation earlier this year to identify and combat foreign interference in Canada's elections and democracy.
In addition to the expulsion of diplomats, Canada's parliament passed a motion in 2021 declaring China's treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region as genocide. As tensions between the two countries continue to escalate, it remains to be seen what economic or trade-related repercussions may follow from China, which has a history of using such measures to express displeasure with diplomatic partners.
China States Criteria for Cooperation, Investment in Taliban-led Afghanistan
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang attended the fifth China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in early May in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chaired the dialogue with Qin and Amir Khan Muttaqi, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, in attendance. On the agenda for the trilateral meeting were Afghanistan’s proposed participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and security concerns related to extremism shared by both Pakistan and China in relation to crisis-stricken Afghanistan.
In a country internationally isolated since the Taliban takeover in 2021, Afghanistan’s central bank has had little-to-no access to its assets held overseas for nearly two years; assets valued in the billions. Qin has been reported to have conveyed China’s willingness to welcome Afghanistan’s participation in Chinese overseas development projects - the People’s Republic has invested billions into Pakistan through several infrastructure projects under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan economic corridor.
To be sure, two specific groups have been noted as being of particular concern:
The three sides agreed to coordinate and cooperate on security, organized crimes, drug smuggling, etc. They stressed on the need of not allowing any individual, group or party, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), to use their territories to harm and threaten regional security and interests, or conduct terrorist actions and activities. All three sides underscored the need to refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, and to promote Afghan peace, stability and reconstruction.
-Wang Wenbin, Spokesperson - Ministry of Foreign Affairs
A joint statement of the three representatives present at the trilateral talk, shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, likewise called on those in the international community who have leveraged sanctions against the current Afghan government to “lift their unilateral sanctions against Afghanistan and return the assets overseas for the benefit of the Afghan people, and create opportunities for economic development and prosperity in Afghanistan.”
Though the stabilization of Afghanistan was high on the agenda for Qin, China continues to watch Pakistan in waiting as the political and economic situation in the country of more than 230 million has become extremely unstable in recent months. Beyond the controversial arrest of the country’s former-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, which led to widespread civil unrest, the country’s economic situation has turned abysmal. The Pakistani rupee has seen a value drop of 20% relative to the American dollar in 2023, while a $1.1 billion bailout package pledged by the International Monetary Fund has been stalled since November 2022, though its rollout appears to be inching toward fruition. China has already provided billions in aid to Pakistan, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have likewise pledged to provide financial assistance.
In April of 2023, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed the need for Afghan Interim Government - composed largely of Taliban members - to “protect the basic rights and interests of all Afghan people, including women, children and all ethnic groups, and continue working actively to meet Afghan people’s interests and the international community’s expectations” while also stressing the consistent stance that China will not interfere with any country’s internal affairs. Likewise, the document states that China “welcomes Afghanistan’s participation in Belt and Road cooperation and supports Afghanistan’s integration into regional economic cooperation and connectivity that will transform Afghanistan from a ‘land-locked country’ to a ‘land-linked country’.”
Wang Yi, Jake Sullivan Meet in Vienna
Senior diplomatic officials from China and the United States met in Vienna from May 10-11, establishing what the White House has called a “important strategic channel of communication.”
The key actors in the meeting were Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, and Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to American President Joe Biden. A readout released by the White House described the talks, which lasted a cumulative eight hours over the course of two days, as candid, substantive and constructive; little detail was disclosed as to the results of the talks. One senior administration official did, however, offer their insight in a call transcribed and shared by the White House:
This meeting comes as the United States and PRC has sought to increase high-level engagement in order to maintain channels of communication and (inaudible) manage competition. Both sides agreed to maintain this channel between Director Wang and the National Security Advisor.
The National Security Adviser underscored that the United States and the PRC are in competition but that the U.S. does not seek conflict or confrontation. He raised specific issues in the bilateral relationship. He also raised concerns about detained American citizens, underscoring that this is a personal priority of President Biden.
He indicated that the United States stands ready to work with the PRC on issues of transnational concerns, such as counternarcotics. The two sides also discussed local and regional security issues, such as U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific and other regions; the National Security Advisor’s recent robust engagement with U.S. allies and partners — by the United States that is. The two sides discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and cross-Strait issues among other topics.
As with other conversations between President Biden and President Xi, he raised concerns about PRC — potential PRC military assistance to Russia. On cross-Strait issues, the National Security Advisor reiterated that the U.S. remains committed to our One China policy guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, Three Communiqués, and Six Assurances.
He indicated that the U.S. opposes unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, does not support Taiwan independence, and expects cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.
-Senior Administration Official
Said official also addressed the prospect of a call between President Biden and Xi Jinping, noting that Wang and Sullivan did not go into the specifics of establishing a dialogue between the two leaders.
The official fielded multiple questions regarding the Chinese balloon that passed over the US in February, taking care to a void diving into the topic, but refraining from declaring the issue to be entirely over with. The question of Taiwan, which has been front-and-center in American politics for much of 2023 was treated similarly, with little detail offered except that the US remains committed to avoiding any unilateral change to the status quo surrounding Taiwan.
When asked by a member of the Associated Foreign Press about the meetings between Wang and Sullivan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin largely echoed the readout published by the White House, refusing to elaborate on the question of why the only published material from the talks were short readouts.
”The two sides held candid, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions on ways to remove obstacles in China-US relations and stabilize the relationship from deterioration,” Wang said. “Director Wang fully elaborated on China’s serious position on the Taiwan question. The two sides also exchanged views on the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, Ukraine and other international and regional issues of mutual interest. Both sides agreed to continue to make good use of this channel of strategic communication.”
Bangladesh, Myanmar Sustain Heavy Damage as Cyclone Mocha Makes Landfall
Cyclone Mocha, one of the most potent storms to strike the region in recent years, made landfall in Myanmar on May 14th, resulting in significant damage and claiming at least three lives. The cyclone hit Myanmar's Rakhine state near Sittwe township with wind speeds reaching 130 mph, ripping roofs off buildings and causing extensive flooding. Thousands of residents in Sittwe were evacuated, with more than 20,000 people seeking refuge in stronger structures such as monasteries and schools. Despite the preparation efforts, many shelters in Sittwe faced food shortages due to the unexpected influx of evacuees.
Cyclone Mocha was initially rated a Category 5 storm by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), making it one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean. However, several hours before landfall, factors such as cooler waters, land interaction, dry air, and higher wind shear caused Mocha to weaken considerably. The JTWC subsequently rated it a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, making Mocha still one of the strongest cyclones at landfall in the North Indian Ocean.
The cyclone's vast size meant that severe impacts were felt over an unusually large area, with approximately 1.8 million people in Myanmar exposed to winds in excess of hurricane force. Authorities warned of a peak storm surge of 3.0-3.5 meters (9.8-11.5 feet) for the Myanmar coast near Sittwe. Mocha made landfall midway between low and high tide, which likely reduced its inundation somewhat. In addition, the storm is expected to dump widespread rains of 8-16 inches over parts of Myanmar, with isolated areas receiving 16-24 inches, leading to catastrophic flooding, particularly in low-lying coastal areas.
One of the greatest concerns for a large loss of life were the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees housed in camps near Sittwe. These camps mostly lie at elevations below 2 meters and would have experienced a life-threatening storm surge. An ethnic militia controlling extensive areas of Rakhine reported significant damage to numerous buildings in Sittwe and Kyauktaw.
While Myanmar bore the brunt of the cyclone, Bangladesh was mostly unaffected. The storm veered east, primarily missing the country and avoiding significant damage. The Bangladesh coast experienced offshore winds below hurricane force and very little storm surge, sparing the highly populous refugee camps the worst of Mocha's impacts. Flooding from Mocha's heavy rains will still be a concern in Bangladesh, though, and substantial wind damage occurred for poorly-built structures.
Cyclone Mocha is Earth's fourth Category 5 storm of 2023, joining three Southern Hemisphere storms from earlier this year. This ties 2023 with 2003 and 2015 for the greatest number of Southern Hemisphere Category 5 cyclones in a calendar year.
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