The situation in South East Asia these last two weeks has been relatively calm, but things are most certainly simmering away beneath the surface. This SITREP focuses on Vietnam’s “tightrope” diplomacy between the US and China, the situation in Myanmar as the country approaches elections, the ever-present danger of US provocations in the South China Sea, and finally, Russia’s developing relationship with ASEAN.
Vietnam is changing… and so is the balance of power in Asia, 2 October 2015
Ahead of visits by both President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to Hanoi in November, the development of relations between Vietnam and the two countries is something to watch over the next few months. All indications are that there is an internal party struggle over the question, particularly as the country approaches the date set for its 12th Party Congress in January 2016, at which a new party Secretary General will be elected. [source]
Vietnam between China and the US: The next balancing test beckons, 16 October 2015
Furthermore, while Vietnam’s increasingly close ties with Washington are cause for concern – especially with Hanoi’s signing of the TPP as well as its stance on the South China Sea situation – it’s possible, as Ngo Di Lan writes, that “in the short term, Xi’s trip could still repair China-Vietnam ties to some extent and perhaps divert Vietnamese attention away from the current territorial dispute to focus on opportunities for cooperation between the two countries”. [source]
Vietnam accuses China of sinking fishing boat, 15 October 2015
The need for stability on this question is all the more apparent as incidents like this turn the heat up ever so slightly. [source]
China defence minister seeks peace, stability in Southeast Asia, 16 October 2015
With this in mind, at the first-ever informal meeting of ASEAN defence ministers in Beijing, China proposed joint drills in the South China Sea with ASEAN beginning next year. At the meeting, China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan took the opportunity to state that “Forces from outside the region are using the Internet, social media and other means to carry out incitements against countries in this region, threatening social stability”. [source]
China reveals new proposal to boost defence ties with ASEAN, 17 October 2015
How this informal grouping develops going forward, particularly in the context of the South China Sea tensions as well as Russia’s burgeoning relationship with ASEAN (see article below) deserves careful attention.
Myanmar President signs ‘nationwide ceasefire’ with ethnic rebel groups, 15 October 2015
The other significant development in South East Asia these past two weeks was the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord between Myanmar’s government and various rebel factions. Significantly, however “Seven armed ethnic groups, including the largest, were missing”. [source]
Myanmar: Drawn out peace or battle lines drawn? 23 October 2015
For a detailed analysis of the repercussions of the ceasefire accord, as well as the context and potential outcomes for Myanmar, I highly recommend reading Andrew Korybko’s two-part analysis on Oriental Review. Ultimately, the immense potential for destabilization in the country, and the possible scenario in which India and China enter on opposite sides of renewed conflict in what would essentially become a proxy war between the two countries, “could be perhaps the greatest blow that multipolarity suffers this century”.
I: Myanmar: Drawn-Out Peace Or Battle Lines Drawn? (I)
II: Myanmar: Drawn-Out Peace Or Battle Lines Drawn? (II)
The looming military showdown in the South China Sea, 19 October 2015
As expected, the US continues to make its preparations to send one of its naval vessels through China’s disputed 12-mile territorial limit in the South China Sea. However, the main cause for concern is not the sail through itself, but rather what the US decides to do when it gets there. If the US decides to stay within the 12-mile limit (which it doesn’t recognise) then it’s likely that the PLA Navy will be sent to expel them. [source]
South China Sea face off: Anxious hours in Pivotland, 22 October 2015
On the sail through, Peter Lee writes that the significance of Obama’s action is somewhat limited outside of theatrical/propaganda considerations, unless the intention is to further militarise the region by “provid[ing] the PRC with a further pretext for overtly and irrevocably militarising the islands”. [source]
ASEAN’s SEZs can help actualise Russia’s Asian sea arc, 24 October 2015
Finally, here’s Andrew Korybko once again on the importance of Russia’s “Pivot to ASEAN”, both politically, economically, and strategically. [source]
– Vietnam’s complex relationships with the US and China will be tested by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping’s visits in November. How these shifting relationships influence ASEAN and the South China Sea situation need to be tracked closely.
– Myanmar stands on a knife edge ahead of elections set for the 8th of November. How the country develops following elections, particularly if a resumption of civil war occurs, has potentially grave consequences for the future of the region, and multipolarity as a whole.
– Militarisation of the SCS continues apace, encouraged by Washington’s planned naval sail through in the near future.
– The positive progression of Russia’s relationship with the ASEAN states has the potential to deepen the strategic partnership between China and Russia, while helping to develop the region.