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Volume II No.5


Published 18 March 2021

Hello Reader,

For a change of pace I thought I should begin this Brief with a bit of good news—which is so rare in these critical and uncertain times.

Once again, this is your Briefer, Jamil Maidan Flores, observing the World, Region and Nation from Jakarta and sharing with you, for all they are worth, my thoughts on the meaning of passing events.

So what’s the good news?

Well, you and I are now significantly farther away from the likelihood of being roasted in a nuclear war. If that’s not good news for you, then you have not given much thought to how bad it could get to suffer even just a pinch of radioactive fallout from an exchange of nuclear punches between two Major Powers—let’s say in the South China Sea?

I refer to the entry into force recently, on 22 January 2021 to be precise, of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Does that mean that nuclear weapons are now illegal? The short answer is: yes. The Treaty prohibits and deems illegal all activities related to nuclear armaments, including their development, testing, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, use and deployment.

Nukes Now Illegal? So What?

But there is a catch. The Treaty applies only to the 51 nations that have signed and ratified it.

So what is the celebration all about? If the five Major Powers that have sizable nuclear arsenals, and the nuclear newbies—India, Pakistan, North Korea, and maybe Israel—would have nothing to do with it, why bring out the champagne?

And if in ASEAN, which calls itself the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ), three countries (Indonesia, Brunei and Myanmar) have not ratified the Treaty. And worse, during the voting on the Treaty, one of them, Singapore, took a leaf from the book of the nuclear powers and abstained in the voting on the Treaty in the UN. Why are cigars being passed?

An event in Sydney, Australia, is held to mark the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). (Photo: Pressenza)

In fact, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a big deal, a landmark in the history of disarmament. Here are some strong arguments that I derived from reading peace educator Alyn Ware of New Zealand: In the first place it makes a strong statement to the nuclear-armed states that non-nuclear weapon states are tired of waiting for nuclear disarmament to move at all, and so they are taking matters into their hands. In the world of diplomacy, strong statements matter.

In the second place, by virtue of the Treaty, the states parties ban the production, deployment, testing, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons in their respective territories. This means, for example, that the Philippines cannot legally allow the US to deploy or even transport a nuclear weapon over Philippine territorial waters, since the Philippines is a state party to the Treaty. Nor can China send a nuclear-armed submarine to the territorial waters of Cambodia, another state party, in the Gulf of Thailand. That is a shot in the arm for disarmament.

And finally the Treaty prohibits states parties from helping or encouraging in any way anyone to engage in any activity connected with nuclear weapons. That means, among other things, that government-managed funds in states parties can no longer be tapped to help finance the manufacture of nuclear weapons by the military-industrial complex. Consider that a booster shot for disarmament.

Make no mistakes: the TPNW will not toll the death knell of nuclear weapons. But it could mark the beginning of the beginning of the end of the nuclear era. If only for that, you may open a small bottle of champagne. To read more of Alyn Ware’s thoughts on the Treaty, proceed here.

Now back to Crisisland.

Meanwhile in Myanmar

The number of protesters killed by the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) and the country’s police keeps growing. As I write the official count stands at 70 killed in four cities in that country. Myanmar is the new Killing Fields. It is far from falling into the depths that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reached when 1.5 million to two million Cambodians were cruelly exterminated from 1975 to 1979, but why wait for the number of the fallen to grow? Every death of a protester marching in the name of democracy is one too many, and is unacceptable. Myanmar, under whatever regime, like the rest of ASEAN, is duty-bound by the ASEAN Charter to respect and uphold civil and human rights.

ASEAN itself should now stop talking of its “Centrality.” That is a pretentious shibboleth. It should now focus on its credibility and integrity and the worth of its ASEAN Charter—especially in the context of the crisis in Myanmar. It should make use of every available diplomatic resource that it has, and work with the international community, to find a peaceful and democratic political solution to that crisis.

It’s a tall order—but this effort should lead to a situation where Myanmar is ruled not by unelected military officers but by their duly elected civilian leaders. That, however, should not be the end of it. It will take more than the simple restoration of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to its elected role as the majority party in parliament, and the reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto head of government. That would only be an important intermediate step.

Ethnic Entha people of Myanmar display placards to protest the military takeover. The protest occurred in Inle Lake, Taunggyi, Myanmar. (Photo: AP)

The ultimate goal should be—and could only be—a democratic system in which the rights, needs and aspirations of 135 ethnic minorities, each with a history of its own, each with its own culture and language, and each seeking some kind of autonomy. This is the reality in Myanmar that Dr. Rizal G. Buendia fully takes into account in his article for this issue of WRN. To read more of Dr. Buendia’s thoughts on Myanmar and the true nature of democracy, click here.

How ASEAN’s TAC Ticks

As to ASEAN itself, again, did you ever wonder whatever gave its diplomats the idea that it has “centrality” in relation to its dialogue partners? To be sure, there is nothing wrong with this idea, since it is perfectly natural for ASEAN to aspire to a central role in international affairs and in its relations with dialogue partners. And it’s perfectly all right for the word to be brought up during Senior Officials’ Meetings (SOMs). But to refer to it in public statements for all the world to hear—I think it is a little out of tune with Southeast Asian culture of modesty.

A meeting of the East Asia Summit (EAS): All non-ASEAN participants have acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)in Southeast Asia, as in the case of the other ASEAN-led forums. (Photo: ASEAN)

Having said that, I also believe that ASEAN has fully earned the trust and confidence of its international partners, and because of that it has been entrusted with the shaping and management of the agenda of ASEAN-led forums. In his article on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, Calvin Khoe avers that it is ASEAN’s proprietorship, adherence and espousal of the TAC that has swayed international partners to trust ASEAN to the hilt. To learn more of Calvin Khoe’s take on the TAC, go here.

Whoa, Whoa, Huawei!

While ASEAN has its claim to “centrality,” the world’s top two Major Powers, China and the US, are not to be outdone in the shibboleth department. Since time immemorial, China has been referring to itself as the “Middle Kingdom,” while since decades ago, we have been constantly sold a bill of goods called “American exceptionalism.”

Now these two Major Powers are engaged in a great Cold War. This is not your garden variety of Cold War. It has unique characteristics. For one thing China’s economy and its American counterpart are joined at the hips. In 2020, at the height of the trade war between the two, China remained the US largest goods trading partner. And their investment relations remained largely unaffected. So when these two come to blows, they look like Siamese twins fighting each other. So how does one deliver a punch to his Siamese twin brother? Very carefully, you can imagine. But we really don’t know, as there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington DC to be tough on China.

President Joko Widodo takes a close look at Huawei device during a visit the corporate titan’s premises in China. (Photo: Huawei)

An interesting aspect of this Cold War is the role that the Chinese information and communication technology (ICT) giant, Huawei, plays in it. In the heat of the trade war, the Trump administration banned Huawei from buying US-made chips, among other restrictions, for security reasons, having accused Huawei of engaging in espionage and other shenanigans. The Biden administration has not shown any inclination to lift the crackdown on Huawei.

Now Indonesia has tightly embraced Huawei ICT technology in spite of the US restrictions on the Chinese corporate giant. Muhammad Jasuma Fadholi has written an article discussing this delicate situation. To get the details of this quandary, proceed here.

That’s all for now, dear Reader.

In future issues of the WRN, we will do our best to keep you updated on events and developments taking place at the global level, in our region of Southeast Asia, and in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, take care and stay safe and healthy.


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