A fortnightly snapshot of what’s making headlines in South East Asia.
Indonesia and Japan to strengthen security ties
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga travelled and met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo earlier this week near the capital Jakarta. PM Suga is the first foreign leader to visit Indonesia since the COVID-19 pandemic—Indonesia has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia.
Observers note that a key priority of the trip was to cement ASEAN’s support for Japan’s Indo-Pacific vision, which Suga stated was closely aligned with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific—a product that Indonesia was a key driver of.
Indonesia and Japan agreed to expedite discussions on the export of Japanese defence gear and technology to Indonesia, and signalled a commitment to convene 2+2 talks in the future. Seeking out stronger ties can be understood within the context of intensifying confrontation between Washington and Beijing—but perhaps more so for Tokyo than Jakarta.
News also broke this week that earlier in the year Indonesia rejected a proposal by the US to allow its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel on Indonesian territory. A decision that many are suggesting is evidence of Indonesia not wanting to take sides in US-China confrontation. Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo was in the US (15-19 October) for talks with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper—where China was most certainly a topic on the agenda.
Japan is set to provide a USD470 million loan to aid Indonesia’s COVID-19 response. Both countries also agreed to resume mutual business travel in the near future to help their COVID-hit economies.
Vietnam and Japan confirm defence deal
Prior to visiting Indonesia, PM Suga was in Vietnam meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc securing an in principle agreement to allow Japan to export defence equipment and technology to Vietnam.
The defence deal will be significant because to date Japanese security assistance has only been to civilian agencies, like the Vietnamese coastguard, not the military. Japan only recently completed its first-ever foreign military sale of defence equipment and that was to the Philippines (a South China Sea claimant) in late-August.
In a joint media appearance, PM Phuc stated that the two leaders also agreed on the importance of maintaining peace, security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and the peaceful settlement of disputes.
Devastating floods a double disaster for Mekong region
Consecutive tropical storms and torrential rain (on top of seasonal rains) are causing extreme flooding and landslides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—affecting more than 5 million people. A reported 132 people have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of homes are submerged.
The floods present a double disaster for the region that is still hurting from COVID-19. With roads and critical infrastructure cut-off people are relying on emergency relief. An incoming weather system later this week is expected to worsen conditions. Communities are on standby for the Mekong River water levels to rise even further in the coming days.
Thai authorities censor protests
With protests calling for the Prime Minister to resign showing no signs of stopping across Thailand, authorities are moving to censor news coverage and attempting to block a popular messaging app used by protestors. A Thai-network connected to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was also ordered to close over its coverage of the protests.
Despite the government banning political gatherings of more than 5 people and the arrest of the movement’s most high-profile leaders, crowds continue to swell in Bangkok demanding the PM’s ousting and reforms to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s monarchy.
Dr Lucy West is a Senior Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.