Global Lens

How the ASEAN summit went

The 43rd summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took place in Jakarta, Indonesia. Several agreements were signed inside and outside the group

Editorial by Lorenzo Lamperti

Still united despite differences. Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia and host of the 43rd ASEAN summit, called the bloc of Southeast Asian countries this. A bloc not in the geopolitical sense of the term, since ASEAN more than any other promotes a third way made up of not competition but, if anything, cooperation. Inside and outside the Association, as shown by the results achieved during the summit held in recent days in Jakarta. At least 93 projects, with a total value of $38.2 billion, were identified at the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum, a platform for the bloc's members to mobilize public and private financing and promote deeper economic cooperation. They included industrial, infrastructure and energy transition plans. Another 73 potential opportunities worth $17.8 billion were also discussed. Adopted statements on gender equality, sustainability, agricultural cooperation, food security and climate change. In addition, during the ASEAN +3 meeting, which in addition to the Southeastern countries also includes China, Japan, and South Korea, it was agreed to work together to develop an electric vehicle ecosystem. A crucial issue for economic and technological development in the near future, with an eye on sustainability. And, above all, an area in which Southeast Asia looks set to play a leading role. That's not all. With Beijing, in the presence of Premier Li Qiang, a joint ASEAN-China statement on mutually beneficial cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was issued. With Beijing, the renewal of the free trade agreement by 2024 and major new investments on the strategic microchip sector are also discussed. Interesting results on the bilateral level as well. The Philippines signed a free trade agreement with South Korea, while Indonesia asked the United States to start talks on a trade agreement on mineral resources. On the diplomatic front, Australia has announced that it will host ASEAN leaders in Melbourne next March for a special summit to mark 50 years of relations. In the background, but not overly so, the Myanmar crisis remains unresolved, on which the 2021 5-point consensus review has been prepared. Tensions over the South China Sea also remain, partly because of the competition between China and the United States. Competition in which, as Widodo reiterated in his closing remarks, ASEAN plays a role as a "theater of peace and inclusion."

Italy and Vietnam increasingly strategic partners

Vietnamese president's visit to Rome further strengthened relations between the two countries. Also closed an agreement between Hanoi and the Holy See

Editorial by Lorenzo Lamperti

The 50th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between Italy and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam experienced one of its most notable moments between July 26 and 27, when Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong paid an official visit to Rome at the invitation of Italian President Sergio Mattarella. The meeting was the first official event between the heads of state of the two countries in seven years. But it was also an opportunity to celebrate another anniversary, the 10th, of the strategic partnership established in 2013. During the visit, the two sides discussed and strengthened the ties of political trust and strategic cooperation between Vietnam and Italy. The two countries are now important mutual partners in various fields, including economy, defense and security, education and training, science and technology, culture, tourism and more. Regarding political, diplomatic, defense and security cooperation, the two sides agreed to strengthen cooperation between their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs and to maintain political consultations at the ministerial level between the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs. They also stressed the importance of defense and security cooperation and agreed on the possibility of visits by the Italian Navy to Vietnam. In terms of economic, trade and investment cooperation, both sides pledged to fully and effectively implement the Vietnam-EU Free Trade Agreement and improve mutual market access by removing unnecessary and unjustified trade barriers. Vietnam welcomed the Italian Parliament's ratification of the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement, which will create favorable conditions for investors on both sides. Opportunities for cooperation in various areas such as infrastructure development, digital economy, advanced technologies, renewable energy, creative industries and smart agriculture were also discussed. Italy and Vietnam also aim to expand cooperation in science and technology, education and training, and encouraged cultural and artistic exchanges. The Vietnamese president's trip also produced an important announcement with the Holy See, with whom a historic agreement was reached to send a Vatican representative to Hanoi. Vietnam is getting closer and closer.

EU and Philippines towards free trade

Important visit to Manila by European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen. Moving toward a free trade agreement

Article by Tommaso Magrini

An important visit to the Philippines by Ursula Von der Leyen took place in recent days. She met with President Ferdinand Marcos Junior at the presidential palace in Malacañang. Here Von der Leyen expressed her intention to give "a new impetus to bilateral relations between the European Union and the Philippines." At the top of the agenda: trade, ecological transition, digital innovation and security. On the first item, the two leaders announced their intention to pursue the relaunch of negotiations for an "ambitious, modern and balanced free trade agreement focused on sustainability." An ambitious plan, which follows the free trade agreements concluded by the European Union with Singapore and Vietnam in past years. A testament to the fact that Brussels has its sights set on Southeast Asia, a high-growth area that also allows for a diversification of trade and diplomatic relations in the Asian region from China. "The Philippines is a key partner for us in the Indo-Pacific region, and with the launch of this assessment process we are paving the way to take our partnership to the next level," von der Leyen said. "Together, we will realize the full potential of our relationship, creating new opportunities for our businesses and consumers, while also supporting the green transition and promoting a just economy." For her, the future free trade agreement will include ambitious commitments on market access, fast and effective sanitary and phytosanitary procedures, and the protection of intellectual property rights, including geographical indications." Also at the center, however, is the issue of sustainability, a dossier on which an announcement has already come during the visit. Indeed, Von der Leyen and Marcos launched the Team Europe initiative on the green economy, which includes an EU contribution of 466 million euros for "green" waste management. All under the Global Gateway program launched by the European Commission. Also planned is the transfer of skills, training and technology aimed at building an alternative plastic waste management model. "The Philippines and the EU are kindred partners because of our shared values of democracy, sustainable and inclusive prosperity, rule of law, peace and stability, and human rights," Marcos said instead. "The ongoing exchanges between President von der Leyen and myself, which began in Brussels last year, testify to our common desire to take our bilateral relations to higher levels," he added.

Ambassador Mario Vattani bids farewell to Singapore

The diplomat is leaving the city-state. We publish here an excerpt of his farewell to the Italian community, made in a video on YouTube 

As I prepare to leave this office, I would like to say goodbye to the members of our Italian community in Singapore. Your support and presence have been essential in developing this dynamic partnership with Singapore. I believe that we have indeed succeeded in making the opportunities offered by Singapore better known in Italy, and the proof of this are the many agreements signed, the many visits by senior officials we have welcomed, from those responsible for foreign affairs and transport to those for infrastructure, as well as the missions of our Ministry of the Interior, the Bank of Italy and many academics. With this government, Italy is increasingly looking to South-East Asia as a region of great growth for our companies, and the commitment will increase in Singapore given its geopolitical and economic centrality. You will recall that right here, on 1 May, the very first phase of the Indo-Pacific campaign of our most modern navy ship, the Francesco Morosini, began. For us Singapore is an important showcase, a country able to anticipate trends that will be followed by the rest of a region with 600 million inhabitants, and for this reason since I arrived I have tried in every way to increase our visibility with popular events such as the Italian Festival, which totalled something like 300,000 visitors this year. We have also increased our presence from a structural point of view. Since September last year, we have been able to move the Embassy to a new prestigious and central location that also houses a showroom for our companies. We know that one characteristic of Singapore is the high concentration of capital, which is why we launched the Global Sorta last year, successfully bringing our start-ups here. It is no coincidence that our Minister of Foreign Affairs President Antonio Tajani chose Singapore along with San Francisco and Tel Aviv to create an Italian Innovation Hub. Singapore has ambitious plans for the future and we can work together to realise them. Now my appointment as Commissioner General for Italy at Expo Osaka 2025 is a new challenge and I am sure that we will be able to create an exceptional showcase in Osaka for companies, creating new challenges for the future.

The EU's peculiar approach on Cambodia

Under the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential regime, the EU resets its tariffs to zero for developing countries that engage in the promotion of human and political rights. But Brussels has often pragmatically overstepped, even with Myanmar. Cambodia, which is preparing for elections on July 23, is an exception

On Feb. 12, 2020, the European Commission partially suspended the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade regime granted to Cambodia because of civil and political rights violations by the country led by Hun Sen. Brussels' decision is virtually unprecedented, and, to date, Cambodia is the only country in the world affected by such a measure. Even post-Golpe Myanmar still enjoys EBA, despite many observers and NGOs calling on the Commission to take similar action against the Tatmadaw regime. The revocation of EBA is still in effect, and the European choice reveals that relations, political and commercial, between the bloc and the Asian country are not in good health. But, in the complex Southeast Asian chessboard, Brussels and Phnom Penh must watch the moves of other players and maintain a pragmatic approach if they do not want to end up in a corner.

To understand the scope of the Commission's measure, one must first know the characteristics of this trade policy instrument. EBA is one of the three Generalised Scheme of Preference (GSP) schemes and the most beneficial. The other two are the "simple" GSP and the GSP+. GSP schemes grant developing countries greater access to the EU market by substantially reducing duties on goods exported to the EU. EBA allows its beneficiaries to export almost any product, "except arms," to the EU without quotas and duties. The System has two objectives: first, to stimulate the economic development of partners; second, to promote respect for rights in these countries. Rights in a broad sense: human, political, labor and even environmental. This second purpose is achieved through a "conditionality" mechanism: a state can accede to GSP+ or EBA if it commits to ratifying and concretely implementing a number of international conventions; for example, those of the UN on human rights and the environment, or those of the International Labor Organization (ILO/ILO) on working conditions and trade union freedom. If the partner does not commit to this, or even moves in the opposite direction, the EU can suspend the preference regime, leading to an immediate increase in tariffs on goods coming from that country.

Before Cambodia, the EU had revoked the GSP and GSP+ regime a couple of times between 1997 and 2010, but never the EBA. Brussels' choice came in response to the Hun Sen regime's extremely harsh crackdown on the opposition, which has been particularly intense since 2017. After the judicial dissolution of the main opposition party, the National Salvation Party of Cambodia, in 2017, all its members were first expelled from every level of Cambodian institutions and then arrested, forced into exile, and in some cases even murdered under unclear circumstances. Before taking such a drastic decision, Brussels had indicated to Phnom Penh some urgent measures to be implemented to protect the opposition, receiving a flat refusal from the Cambodian government. Hun Sen had responded mockingly to Brussels, downplaying the importance of European support and confusing himself with the entire country: "Don't try to scare me. Don't threaten me. Don't threaten Cambodia by cutting development aid."

Indeed, EU-Cambodia trade relations, while good, are of relative importance to both sides. China (23.4 percent of trade), the U.S. (15.5 percent), Japan and the rest of ASEAN are closer partners than Phnom Penh, with the EU overall ranking fifth (9 percent). Nonetheless, Hun Sen's dismissive tone and affected confidence jar with the importance of the EU to the country's development and the actual concern of the Cambodian apparatus over the revocation of the EBA. In the months leading up to the decision, both Cambodian representatives and the lobbies of the country's most prominent industry groups (in particular, sportswear and bicycle companies) had gone out of their way to try to dissuade the Commission. And even among the European apparatus there were different perspectives on the line to take. Indeed, on the trade side, the EBA liberalizes international trade "one way," that is, it favors exports from Cambodia to the EU, but not vice versa. Some European companies benefit, however. Establishing production in Cambodia led to double savings: cheap labor and no duties. The suspension of the EBA therefore prompts such companies to invest elsewhere. Not so much out of dissent from Hun Sen's policies but, more prosaically, to keep "global supply chains efficient."

On a more purely political level, the situation becomes even more complicated. Brussels must hold together two opposing demands. On the one hand, to maintain the credibility of the GSP and, more generally, its sustainable development-oriented trade policy. Ignoring the alarming developments in Cambodia and continuing business as usual might seem hypocritical--though perhaps the EU should take similar steps toward other countries to remain consistent. Limited to the GSP, there are many cases of human rights violations, but all "controversial" countries have benefited from some flexibility on the European side. All except Cambodia. On the other hand, cutting trade ties and making harsh political condemnation explicit may not have the desired effect of promoting democratic values in the country but, on the contrary, may push it toward other "less demanding" partners that provide aid without conditionality. On this, too, Hun Sen was quite direct: "China has never given me any concerns and has never threatened or ordered Cambodia to do anything. Other partners should also not threaten Cambodia."

Even these words hide the real concerns of the Cambodian leadership. For Phnom Penh, depending too much on its unwieldy neighbor could become a problem, so it is better to follow a kind of "two-oven policy": taking advantage of China's (for now) unconditional aid, but also cooperating with the United States and its allies, so as to "diversify" sources of economic support and political legitimacy. In this sense, it is interesting to observe the Cambodian posture regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is distinctly pro-Kyiv. This rapprochement with Washington could push liberal-democratic countries to turn a blind eye to human and political rights violations in the name of realpolitik. Pragmatism could also help restart a dialogue between the EU and Cambodia. For the time being, Brussels is holding the hard line, but it may reconcile with the Asian country in the future. Perhaps not in the name of rights, but pragmatism.

Ambassador Alessandro bids farewell to Vietnam

The Italian diplomat prepares to leave Hanoi. His farewell meetings as told by Vietnamese media

In Vietnam since November 2018, Italian Ambassador Antonio Alessandro paid two important farewell visits last week. Specifically to the Chairman of the Hanoi People's Committee, Tran Sy Thanh, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bui Thanh Son. "Over the years, people-to-people exchanges have fostered mutual trust and understanding between Vietnam and Italy in general, and between Hanoi and Rome in particular, paving the way for extensive cooperation in the economic, trade and investment fields," said Tran Sy Thanh. As told by the Hanoi Times, he then expressed gratitude to the ambassador for his valuable insights and acknowledged his contribution to the overall development of bilateral relations between the two nations. With a commitment to promoting cooperation, Tran Sy Thanh assured that the local government will continue to facilitate the activities of the Italian Embassy in Hanoi by creating favorable conditions. The Vietnamese media reports that "during the meeting, Ambassador Antonio Alessandro expressed his deep gratitude and sense of belonging after serving in Vietnam for more than four years, saying he feels like a citizen of Hanoi." Alessandro went on to say that the Italian Embassy has received excellent support and cooperation from the Hanoi People's Committee, which has led to remarkable achievements in the various fields of cooperation between Vietnam and Italy, ranging from culture and society to economy, trade and tourism. Bilateral trade between Vietnam and Italy has seen positive growth, with Italian companies participating more and more actively in the Southeast Asian country's market. The Ambassador then anticipated new progress in relations between Vietnam, Hanoi and several Italian localities. Initiatives such as the Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation between Rome and Hanoi and Rome's bid to host EXPO 2030 offer promising prospects for greater cooperation. All this while just this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic relations. Concluding his speech, the Hanoi Times reports, "Alexander said that although his term is now over, his affection and bond with Hanoi and Vietnam will last indefinitely." 

The water problem

The effects of rising temperatures on the Himalayas in a new report: the continent's main water supply risks running dry in 2100. With consequences for an area where the Yangtze and Yellow River, Indus, Ganges and Mekong are born

Asia will lose its main water reserve by 2100. This is the alarm raised by researchers at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, who in their latest report predict a reduction in the Himalayan glaciers up to 80% of the current volume. The estimate is based on forecasts of a 4C rise in global temperatures, well beyond the limits promised by the Paris climate accord but close to actual projections unless significant action is taken.

The Hindu Kush area, object of the research, hosts what is today the largest ice reserve in the world after the two Poles. Here there are 15 thousand glaciers for a total of 100 thousand square kilometers of surface, from where the Yangtze and the Yellow River begin their journey, as well as the Indus, the Ganges and the Mekong. An area so vast as to directly affect the 240 million people who live on the plateau and another 1.65 billion along the river basins. 

According to ICIMOD forecasts, the melting of the glaciers will cause a peak in the water supply to the valley by the middle of the century, and then slowly begin to decline. From that moment on, the availability of water will begin to decrease and there will no longer be sufficient reserves upstream for the maintenance of local ecosystems.

From the dependence of energy systems on hydroelectricity to the instability of water resources for agriculture, the melting of glaciers will have and already has an epochal impact on the continent. This is in a region where 80% of rainfall is concentrated in the four months of the monsoon season, today increasingly intense, short and hot. In 2021, the president of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Mami Mizutori called drought "the next pandemic". Too bad, he added, that there is no vaccine for drought. 

Water scarcity comes into play in an area where investment in hydroelectricity has exploded over the past two decades. One hundred dams are now operational in the sixteen countries reached by the waters coming from the plateau, while another 650 dams are expected to be built in the next few years. Enthusiasm for the opportunities stemming from this seemingly sustainable source was soon dampened by record heat waves year after year. A prolonged peak in temperatures which, as has been happening in Vietnam for over five weeks, has led to the gradual closure of some of the country's main hydroelectric plants.

But the attractiveness of water resources to support the rampant energy demand of new industrial centers has generated very different narratives in the community of international investors. From the Irrawaddy for Myanmar to the Mekong for Laos, there are many companies and institutions that would like to take the opportunity to transform these countries into the "batteries of Asia". The water potential of Asia's major rivers is often referred to as a "missed opportunity" or "largely underexploited".

A gradual conversion of global supply chains in South Asia and Southeast Asia is contributing to this due to rising Chinese labor costs and international tensions. No less important are the tax breaks adopted by governments to attract foreign investors, as well as the numerous trade agreements. All measures that are expanding access to Asian markets and, by facilitating regional exchanges, make it possible to relocate an entire production chain on the basis of the fiscal or economic benefits of the various countries.

The contraction of the polar ice cap is to energy exploration in the northern seas what the melting of glaciers is to Beijing's infrastructure and mining ambitions. In fact, it is the People's Republic, in particular, that is betting on the growing accessibility of the Himalayan plateau. Recently some researchers have identified a vein of rare earths that could extend for a thousand kilometers along the southern border of Tibet, a factor that could both strengthen China's dominant position on one of the most strategic markets of our time, as well as re-emerge tensions with neighboring India.

In fact, a greater presence of human activities on the Himalayan plateau is already bringing to light the territorial claims of the various governments of the region. This is the case of the Tibetan county of Lhunze, one of the largest rare earth basins located in an area still contested by India and where infrastructure investments more than doubled between 2016 and 2019. The escalation of a conflict linked both to new mineral resources may soon be just the preview of a more bitter battle for water resources. Barring the Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan, there is no regional mechanism dedicated to the redistribution and rights to use the waters of rivers flowing through multiple Asian states. 

The massive presence of Chinese dams upstream of the Mekong is just one example of how marginal the water emergency is still considered which, sooner or later, will no longer be just a problem for a few farmers. Its marginality, the report concludes, is also due to the lack of knowledge on ecosystems beyond data: the human dimension, underlines the document, is essential for understanding what consequences and what solutions are being put in place. Local populations are adapting, but they are doing so through autonomous and small-scale forms of support and redefinition. But the climate crisis is transboundary, and its effects on the already complex relationships between the actors of the region are - still - to be seen.

No to protectionism and arrogance

We publish here an excerpt from the speech at Chatham House of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister of Singapore

The United States and China should abandon the “hubris” of claiming superiority of their respective political systems and instead should focus on collaborating to advance their self-interests. There are no saints in the relationship between the superpowers. Both of them need to make adjustments. Both of them need to avoid a sense of hubris with regard to the superiority of their own systems. And both of them need to recognise that there’s actually a great deal in common in the way they go about trying to improve lives and grow incomes.Those are huge grounds for seeing eye to eye and developing rules to make sure that trade is fair, investment is fair and intellectual property is protected. These are rules that can be developed. The absence of a strategy of interdependence would not necessarily mean that China gradually withers away. It eventually rises anyway but when it finally gets there it will know who made it extremely difficult for it to get there. That makes for a dangerous world. There was a “step change” in the threat perception about China in the US in 2016. I don’t think that step change in the curve was occasioned by any new strategy on the part of China or any new development in China’s market share or China’s actions in any regard. It was domestic politics. Politics matters, and I think we are trundling down a road where we are in the politics of pessimism and grievance and it has to be redressed. China doesn’t yet feel it is ready to be an equal with the US at the centre stage but wanted to play a more major role in rule setting in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, in trade and other areas, On Taiwan, no serious observer, including those who are very close observers and who are engaged in this believes that China wants war with Taiwan. Neither does the US. And it’s extremely important to preserve prior understandings on Taiwan, and preserve the constructive ambiguity on Taiwan that has lasted for decades on the part of both the US and China. About global trade, if we go for a system that is protectionist, that imposes restrictions and where your actions domestically have negative spillovers on the rest of the world, you might be able to preserve relative superiority, at least for some period of time. But it is almost certainly at a cost of absolute performance everywhere.

ASEAN wants dialogue

We publish here an excerpt from a speech by Ng Eng Hen, Singapore's Minister of Defense, at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023

Rising military spending, shifting military and trade alliances, and de facto nativist economic policies are strong winds of change. How do we weather the storms to come? For Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, the US-China relationship is central to stability. That is the core, but the penumbra of relationships of other countries outside this core is also important for stability. No country, I think, wants war, but our working assumptions and scenarios must be that unplanned incidents can occur. Channels of communication, both formal and informal, must exist so that when these unplanned incidents occur, those channels can be used to deescalate and avoid conflict. Despite the Cold War, the strategic arms limitation and anti-ballistic missile treaties were signed between Brezhnev and Nixon in 1972. The salient point is that such channels of communications must be built over time. It will be too late to start or activate them only in moments of crisis. Seasoned diplomats compare unfavourably the lines of communication between the US and Soviet Union in the Cold War with what exists today between the US and China, now at its ebb. It is not our place and certainly not my intention to comment on the diplomatic efforts of other countries, but I state these observations on declining touch points between the American and Chinese military establishments knowing full well that Singapore and other ASEAN states are not disinterested bystanders. Both the US and China have said that they do not want ASEAN countries to take sides, but ASEAN member states, with a vivid recollection of great power rivalry in our past and the devastating consequences, are acutely concerned that worsening relationships between these two powers, US and China, will inevitably force difficult choices upon our individual states. For ASEAN, both through bilateral ties and individual member states, and collectively with the US and China through the ADMM-Plus, we have sought inclusivity and engagement as key platforms for pre-emption and confidence building. Within the ADMM framework, we continue to pursue multilateral exercises that involve all our eight-plus partners. These interactions strengthen practical cooperation like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to reduce the risk of accidents and miscalculations. At the heart of our engagements, as fully exemplified in the Shangri-La Dialogue, is the desire to seek peace even as we security chiefs strengthen our militaries to protect our individual nations. At times, the progress seems painfully slow, but we owe it to our citizens and the next generation to persist and forge breakthroughs.

Read the full speech here

Shangri-La Dialogue, ASEAN calls for peace

During the Asia-Pacific Security Summit in Singapore, the centrality of ASEAN, whose countries are calling for more dialogue at the international level, was reaffirmed

Editorial by Lorenzo Lamperti

"South-East Asia has paid more than others for the devastating consequences of the clash between great powers. We do not want this to happen again'. Ng Eng Hen, Singapore's Minister of Defence, made this clear in his speech during the last plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia-Pacific's top security summit held in the city-state from 2 to 4 June. Singapore and the ASEAN region in general once again confirmed itself as a crucial crossroads of global diplomacy. At a complicated time, to say the least, between the war in Ukraine and tensions between the US and China, the South-East is making its voice heard, asking world leaders for wisdom. "Military spending is also increasing exponentially in the Asia-Pacific," says the Singaporean minister. "It is not a source of instability per se, but in the absence of proper dialogue between the powers then it risks leading to a rearmament race that can destabilise the entire region." During the meetings, which were also attended by the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the Chinese Defence Minister, Li Shangfu, the 'centrality of ASEAN' and the goodness of the ASEAN way was mentioned several times. And all the representatives of the South-East Asian countries emphasised their willingness to maintain relations with both Washington and Beijing, promoting multilateralism based on trade and international rules. But also and above all on dialogue. "Both Austin and Li assured that the US and China are not asking ASEAN countries to choose sides, but we also hope that these two countries can talk to each other again," said Ng Eng Hen. "Both have been in the Asia-Pacific for a long time and both will not leave. We have to find or rediscover a way to ensure stability and security for the region'. The same concept was also expressed by the IISS, the international institute that has been organising the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore for the past 20 years, where the intelligence chiefs of several countries, including the United States and China, also met behind closed doors. Proof, once again, of how Singapore and the South-East provide an exceptional platform for confrontation. If the future of the world will be written (also or especially) in this region, perhaps it would be worth listening to it.

Prosperity and doubts: the two-faced relationship between China and the Southeast

Article by Vittoria Mazzieri

Regional investment targets, ideological allies, security partners, players in territorial claims: since the beginning of diplomatic relations, Southeast Asian countries have assumed changing and complex roles in Beijing's eyes. In terms of geographic proximity and economic cooperation, ASEAN occupies a priority role in Chinese foreign policy

Deng Xiaoping's 1979 trip to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore marks an important point in relations between Beijing and the countries of Southeast Asia. The "little helmsman" was amazed by the socioeconomic progress in an area he had mistakenly regarded as economically backward. As noted in an essay on the subject by Singapore's Nanyang Technological University professors Zhou Taomo and Hong Liu, what particularly struck Deng was the city-state south of Malaysia. In the aftermath of his meeting with then Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the People's Daily moves from describing Singapore as the "watchdog of American imperialists" to painting it as an "island of peace," a "garden city worth studying." Deng, on the other hand, receives yet another confirmation of the need to abandon the ideological lenses with which the Communist Party has hitherto interpreted relations with Southeast Asia.

Relations between the Asian giant and the city-state demonstrate the People's Republic's changing relations with the area traditionally known as Nanyang 南洋, "South Seas." In addition to the domestic political context, Beijing's relations with the region have been influenced by issues related to the identity of diasporic communities (in Singapore, 75 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese), territorial disputes, and various infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

The first years after the People's Republic's emergence are characterized by a moderate and flexible approach: Beijing advocates a "third way" that can offer an alternative to the two Cold War blocs even to countries ideologically unrelated to the Communist Party. The promulgation of the Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence in 1954 presents a new framework of international relations based on mutual respect for territorial integrity and the principle of non-interference, even for ideologically unrelated countries. The Sino-Indonesian Dual Nationality Treaty, signed the following year, ends the policy of granting nationality to all ethnic Chinese. China thus encourages overseas communities to adopt the nationality of the countries in which they live, thereby aiming to assuage the concerns of some Southeast Asian countries, fearful that communities of Chinese could be used by the Party to engage in subversive activities. 

Over the years ethnic Chinese minorities became the target of heavy-handed discriminatory policies: in 1959 Indonesian President Sukarno revoked the license to operate retail businesses from all "foreigners," mostly Chinese. As a result, in some places, the feeling of belonging to the motherland is strengthened. With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, groups of ethnic Chinese students began wearing Mao Zedong badges in schools in Rangoon, in present-day Myanmar. A wave of large-scale ethnic riots and a drastic deterioration in bilateral relations ensue.

Since the late 1960s, Chinese foreign policy in general has tended to radicalize, partly because of the economic recession following the disastrous Great Leap Forward. The establishment in 1967 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand from an anti-communist perspective, is perceived by Mao Zedong as a tool of imperialism. Ideologically neighboring countries are asked to recognize as the main targets of the revolution, in Premier Zhou Enlai's words, "imperialism, feudalism and comprador capitalism." An approach that would change dramatically in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. As explained in an article for ISPI by Ngeow Chow-Bing, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaya, in this scenario ASEAN assumes strategic importance for Beijing to contain the expansionist aims of the government in Hanoi (with which relations have deteriorated irretrievably) over Indochina and the entire region.

The record-breaking economic development affecting the People's Republic since the 1990s is a key element in the expansion of its soft power influence, as Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written. China's economic performance attracts the interest of developing countries and also has the effect of enhancing the reputation of Chinese communities living in the region.

It is during those years that what official Chinese rhetoric describes as the "golden decade" of relations with ASEAN (which as of today, in addition to the founding countries, also counts Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, East Timor, Laos, and Vietnam) begins. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Beijing made the symbolic decision not to devalue its currency, offering itself as a guarantor of stability. In the following years it initiated relevant multilateral agreements: the Chiang Mai Currency Exchange Initiative, the 2002 Free Trade Agreement, and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which stabilized territorial disputes, in the same year. 

But with Xi Jinping's rise to power, Chinese foreign policy acquired a more proactive and assertive profile. The deterioration of relations over the past decade, especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, is inextricably linked to territorial claims in the South China Sea area. Since the 1970s, disputes with Vietnam over the Spratly and Paracelsus Islands have turned into a regional, or even global, dispute. Of little or no use was the 2002 Code of Conduct, which while celebrated at the time as a means of ensuring a "peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea," did not include provisions on enforcement or dispute resolution mechanisms. 

Tensions, therefore, grew, even reaching Indonesia for the first time in 2016. In the same year, a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected Beijing's claims, represented by the so-called "nine-point line." Beijing did not accept the decision recognizing Manila's rights to exploit resources within the 200 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Rather, it accused Washington of pushing the Philippines to resort to the court to "sabotage relations between China and ASEAN countries."

Despite its maritime claims, China has never stopped courting countries in the region. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the historic agreement sealed in 2020 after eight years of negotiations and entered into force in January 2022, has served Beijing to consolidate economic cooperation in the area. But mutual trade relations cannot be explained without bringing up the Belt and Road Initiative, the ambitious new Silk Road launched in 2013 that counts Chinese investments worth about 85 billion a year. As early as the early 2000s, Southeast Asia emerged as an important regional target for Chinese foreign direct investment. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic crisis, ASEAN rose to the top spot among BRI investment destinations. 

The initiative has met with varying degrees of acceptance in countries in the region. Despite tensions over territorial disputes, many nations involved have continued to desire Chinese investment in infrastructure and manufacturing. Unlike its more welcoming neighbors, Hanoi has taken a cautious approach: the Vietnamese strategy seems to aim to avoid confrontation with China while averting the risk of economic dependence. To date, the only BRI project implemented in the country is the Cat Linh-Ha Dong tramway, which has attracted widespread criticism because of its high cost.

The derailment of a high-speed train of the ambitious Jakarta-Bandung rail project shows that safety risks can undermine the People's Republic's credibility. A recent report by Malaysian lending institution Maybank suggests that the post-pandemic recovery may be less strong than expected. Projects could suffer setbacks because of growing government distrust of, for example, social and environmental costs: in 2014, Chinese-owned bauxite mining operations in Vietnam's central highlands sparked widespread protests over environmental damage and noncompliance with local laws. For other countries that have been more actively engaged in the BRI, such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, fears about the "debt trap" periodically return from economists and observers. 

Overall, Southeast Asian countries remain essential to Beijing for numerous reasons. For example, as partners toward whom China can accelerate the spread of "soft" infrastructure such as health services and the digital economy. Or as useful players in subverting international balances and increasing the relevance of the Asia-Pacific. Against the backdrop of tensions with the United States, the People's Republic aims to present itself to ASEAN countries as a non-assertive actor, willing to pursue "mutual respect," "dialogue," and "win-win" synergies, as claimed last year at the launch of the Global Security Initiative (GSI). On the other hand, China's investments are shaping up as unmissable resources for developing countries in the region: the GSI's sister initiative, the Global Development Initiative (GDI), represents Beijing's willingness to name itself a central role in multilateral development promotion. ASEAN has become the largest regional group to benefit from it, nabbing 14 projects out of a total of 50 from the first batch of the GDI Project Pool.


South-East, a model for managing tensions

The region has rapid growth and expanding economy suggest that the region can become a model for managing competition between major powers

"South-East Asia is far from a monolith: its countries have different foreign policies and objectives, some of them at odds with each other. But the region's rapid growth and expanding economy suggest that its countries will become more powerful over time and, with them, probably more able to avoid external interference. South-East Asia may have been defined in the past by conflict between great powers, but today it may become a model for managing competition between great powers'. Thus judges an analysis by Huong Le Thu, published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. South-East Asia has worked hard to maintain and expand diplomatic and security stability. In addition to the ASEAN-led multilateral security architecture, the region has established many plurilateral and bilateral agreements with third states. These are ad hoc groups, such as the joint patrolling of the Mekong River by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. According to Foreign Affairs, as geopolitical tensions rise, the already large number of these partnerships is set to increase. These complex and often overlapping agreements are central to Southeast Asia's efforts to engage with all, but without making exclusive commitments to any. Southeast Asian states are also becoming more active in groups that include participants from outside their neighbourhood. Last year, for example, Cambodia hosted the high-profile East Asia Summit, Thailand held the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and Indonesia chaired the G20. Individually, Huong points out, some South East Asian governments have learnt that competition between the US and China has advantages. The clash between Beijing and Washington may scare politicians in the region, but it has led both governments to try to win the hearts and minds of non-aligned countries. This has helped South East Asian countries, home to young populations and cheap labour, reap all kinds of economic benefits. Vietnam, says Foreign Affairs, has benefited enormously from the US breakaway from China, as American companies have moved production to Vietnamese factories. Indonesia has also received an investment boost from US companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and Tesla. The region is also becoming increasingly critical for global supply chains. And it may point the way forward for continued prosperity.