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ASEAN’S summit August 2022 – the beginning of a more cohesive organization?

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The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in a summit held in Cambodia from 3rd-5th August 2022. Cambodia is the chair of ASEAN for 2022, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This summit, officially called the 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN, was the first in-person meeting of the ASEAN since the start of the pandemic. This summit, marked by the tensions between China-US and the crisis in Myanmar, had three main takeaways.

First of all, ASEAN’s members during this summit were in a difficult situation due to the increase of tensions in the region. This summit coincided with the controversial visit to Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives. This was an especially prickly topic for this summit, since tensions with China are a matter of difficult consensus among the ten nations that make up ASEAN, with countries very close to Beijing, such as Cambodia and Laos, and others that maintain a more distant relationship despite strong economic ties (Indonesia, the Philippines). On top of that, during this summit top diplomats of both China and the US were invited (China’s Wang Yi and USA’s Antony Blinken), causing an increase in tension inside the summit. Surprisingly, at the end of the summit ASEAN members agreed on a statement that pointed out the possibility that these “recent events in an area close to the region could destabilize it and eventually lead to a miscalculation, a serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences.” This joint statement is surprising because then years ago, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, the country was more reluctant to interfere in China’s domestic and regional moves. Apart from the issue of the Taiwan crisis, country members used this summit as an opportunity to assert their claims once again on the South China Sea. “Fed-up” maritime ASEAN states like Indonesia and the Philippines asserted their own maritime claims using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a framework. To crown it all, at the end of this summit the final communique included these claims, arguing that these maritime disputes in the South China Sea have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace.” These statements thus prove that ASEAN leaders -regardless of their individual relations with China- have been able to reach a consensus on how to approach -or slightly confront- China, the most powerful country in Asia.

Secondly, this summit of ASEAN was interesting to follow due to the elephant in the room: Myanmar. The situation could be summarized with the words of Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign minister and host of this year’s summit, when he said that “not even Superman can solve Myanmar’s problems”. The country has been excluded from ASEAN summits in the last months, and the relations between Myanmar and the rest of the ASEAN members have been harmed by Myanmar’s lack of effort to enforce the Five Point Consensus plan (agreed in April 2021). Moreover, Hun Sen acknowledged during the opening of the summit that the situation in Myanmar has worsened as a result of the execution of four activists opposed to the military junta that had “disappointed and disturbed” the ASEAN member countries. Likewise, these executions have been seen as an offense to the efforts of the 2022 ASEAN Chair (Cambodia) and the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar. These four executions -the first since 1976 in the country- have set a precedent in the junta’s rule and have triggered a more united response from ASEAN. Inside ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei pressed for harder measures against the military junta of Myanmar, which could potentially include the freezing all relations with the junta, the recognition of the National Unity Government, (formed by supporters of the ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi), and sanctions. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, commented that ASEAN will be forced to reconsider the Five Point Consensus peace agreement if Myanmar’s current leaders continue their executions of prisoners. Myanmar is on notice while ASEAN considers its next move. Human Rights groups have asked ASEAN to rethink its approach and demand specific actions and timeframes to end violence in the country as soon as possible. Despite these criticisms, it could be said that ASEAN has shown an unprecedented unity and decision in the approach towards one of its member states.

Finally, ASEAN’s summit in Cambodia was especially relevant due to the presence of international diplomats like China’s Wang Yi; Russia’s Sergey Lavrov; USA’s Antony Blinken and the high representative of the Foreign Policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell. It could be said that this ASEAN summit was used by non-ASEAN leaders for two aims. The first one was that each non-ASEAN actor (China, Russia, Japan, US, EU or India) used this ASEAN summit to try promoting investment and development plans with ASEAN countries. Both China and the US promised ASEAN countries attractive partnerships and investment for development projects. Apart from this, these international actors used their time at the ASEAN summit for bilateral meetings. For example, Blinken (US) and Borrell (EU) held a bilateral meeting, where they discussed the importance of free and open maritime supply routes and supply chains in the region of South-East Asia, amongst other topics. Besides, the planned meeting between the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Yoshimasa Hayashi, was suspended due to comments made by the G7 ministers on the situation in Taiwan, who expressed their concern about what they consider “threatening words” from China. Finally, East Timor, which has enjoyed observer status in ASEAN since 2002, has expressed its willingness to join as a full member of the organization in 2023, when Indonesia will take over the presidency of ASEAN. This international presence and the possibility that ASEAN will include a new member means that the organization is in good health, and that ASEAN members are considered influential actors to take into account in the international area.

ASEAN’s position, despite the current situation of regional and international turmoil, has surprisingly remained intact. What is more, ASEAN has shown during this 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs a level of unity and decisiveness rarely seen before. The members of the group have shown unity in the face of adversity and have managed to work together and establish a common approach to challenges inside their organization (Myanmar) and outside (China). ASEAN will probably have to make difficult decisions in the following months, especially ahead of the next ASEAN meeting in November.

North Macedonia and Bulgaria’s European Dispute

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North Macedonia has been attempting to join the EU since 2004. Only in 2020 did North Macedonia’s government receive permission to enter into accession talks. However, these talks were made more complicated by a dispute between North Macedonia and their neighbour Bulgaria.

Bulgaria had been vetoing North Macedonia’s accession talks because of a feud about common cultural and language heritage. In 2020, Bulgaria offered a compromise and agreed to acknowledge Macedonian language and national identity if North Macedonia would recognise that both nations and languages have a common cultural heritage and historical roots. North Macedonia rejected this idea.

Although this may sound like a good deal, to many Macedonians, acknowledging a link between North Macedonia and Bulgaria has some threatening undertones. After World War II, Yugoslav Macedonia set about building a nation with its own identity. A way of doing this is by cutting ties with its neighbour who has a similar cultural identity and so the Cold War narrative laid out was to be anti-Bulgaria.

These narratives still surface today with the burning down of the Bulgarian cultural centre in Bitola that was named after Ivan Mihajlov, a very controversial figure because of his anti-communist ideas and his fight for Bulgarian nationalism. Many see him as a Nazi and a fascist sympathiser, hence his unpopularity in North Macedonia. Thus, he set about eliminating left-wing Macedonians and any enemy of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria condemned the burning of the cultural centre and added a new roadblock to talks between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called it a provocation and ‘part of a long-standing anti-Bulgarian campaign in North Macedonia.’ If North Macedonia was to join the EU, they would need Sofia on their side.

However, external factors meant that it was desirable for the Balkan nation to join the EU. The war in Ukraine put fear into the minds of the unattached Balkan countries who feared that, like Ukraine, not having a link with the EU would make them an easy target for Russian expansion.

It became important for the integrity of Europe to improve relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and finally, under President Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria and President Dimitar Kovečevski of North Macedonia these talks bore fruit. On 24 June 2022, under pressure from the EU, Bulgaria’s parliament approved lifting its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks.

In order that these accession talks go ahead, North Macedonia must agree, and put into constitution, that Bulgarians are ‘on equal footing with other peoples.’ They must also sign bilateral protocol and effectively implement a 2017 treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, ending hate speech against Bulgarians in North Macedonia.

Ultimately, it was in the best interest for the Western Balkans, to allow North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. For all involved it creates a security barrier against Russian incursions, it provides economic advantages and will allow these countries to prosper moving forward.

Colombia Elects its First Ever Leftist President

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On 19 June, Gustavo Petro was elected as the next president of Colombia, with 50.8% of the vote. His rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, gained 46.9%. A current senator and previous mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro was also a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.

Petro’s victory marks the first time the country has seen a leftist president. His vice president will be Francia Márquez, a prize-winning defender of human rights, marking the first time that a black woman will occupy the post. Colombians opting for leftist Petro over populist Hernandez is the latest continuation of a region-wide trend, as in the last couple of years multiple South American countries have selected left wing leadership. In 2021, Chilean presidential elections saw Gabriel Boric being voted in, and Pedro Castillo was elected president of Peru. Silvana Amaya, an analyst at Control Risks consultancy in Bogota, describes Petro’s victory as “historic,”, elaborating that “Colombia has traditionally voted very conservative. This marks a big change, a move to a very different economic model.”

Luis Eduardo Celis, of Colombian thinktank the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, lists a number of the issues that Petro will need to address including “agrarian reform, an economy at the service of the people, a more equitable taxation, to get out of hunger, out of poverty, to put an end to all that violence.” Petro himself advocates that he will listen to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

Petro is expected to take a new approach to historic domestic issues, such as Colombia’s problem with armed groups. Of particular importance will be managing the situation with former FARC dissidents and The ELN (National Liberation Army) – the two largest guerrilla groups in the country. Fighting between former FARC members and the ELN has caused significant numbers of civilian casualties over recent months. January saw 23 people killed in Arauca over one weekend. At least 66 people were killed in the region overall, and at least 1,200 people were displaced by the violence according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office. The resurgence of violence from the FARC is thought to be in large part due to current president Ivan Duque’s disregard for conditions of the 2016 peace agreement, where the FARC agreed to disarm in exchange for being permitted to re-integrate into society without retribution. Though Petro has not provided specific details of his planned security policy, it seems likely that it will differ from Duque’s approach and hopefully see more success. An early indicator of this is that the ELN have now expressed that they are open to dialogue with Petro.

Petro proposes some revolutionary reforms to Colombia’s economy, pledging to reduce Colombia’s dependence on raw materials extraction, particularly oil. If he executes his plan to ban new contracts for oil exploration, Colombia would become the world’s biggest crude exporter (in terms of crude oil’s share of the country’s total exports) to take this step. He says that he would honour existing exploration and production contracts, in order to eventually replace oil revenues gradually with revenue from other sectors such as agriculture, manufactured goods, tourism, and clean energy. It would be a considerable amount to make up via other means since The Colombian Association of Petroleum and Gas estimated in May that banning new oil contracts could cost the government around $4.5 billion in tax revenue by 2026.

On international matters, it is likely that Petro’s election will lead to a renewed relationship with neighbouring Venezuela. He has advocated for reneging Duque’s policy of isolation, and opening dialogue with Nicolas Maduro. This approach is unlikely to be well received by the U.S. and other countries who support the opposition government led by Juan Guaido.

Kosovo’s troubling Past helps Ukrainians for the Future

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Thirteen Ukrainians have taken a trip to Kosovo to train with experienced mine clearers. The intensive advanced four-week training course will allow them to return to Ukraine that is now littered with unexploded ordnances left behind by the Russian invaders.

The 13 people, a mix of civilian and military personnel, are being trained by Kosovo locals who have experience in clearing thousands of mines and cluster bombs left behind by Serb forces in the 1990s. This experience will be vitally important given the similar circumstances in which they will be working.

Russia has mined much of eastern Ukraine and as the frontlines ebb and flow it is essential that Ukraine doesn’t lose the limited supplies and personnel to mines or unexploded bombs.

Army and government officials say all areas retaken after Russian occupation will have been planted with mines with estimates that more than 300,000 sq km of territory will have to be cleared.

The task of training these Ukrainian deminers is the Mines Awareness Trust (MAT), a school that trains hundreds of people in the discipline. The school has trained and sent advisors to many war-affected areas such as Iraq, Mozambique and Libya.

Luckily for the trainers, the mines that the Russians are using are very similar to those used by forces in the former Yugoslavia allowing the trainers perfect base from which to teach.

Even as Russia takes territory it will be essential to have trained personnel who are able to make safe areas for returning Ukrainians, civilian and military. After wars end and bullets stop flying, the danger of unexploded ordnance and undiscovered mines can still kill and maim future generations.

In places like Cambodia and Vietnam there are still problems with innocent civilians suffering from the thousands of mines planted by US forces, Viet Cong forces and others in the wars through the mid-1900s.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive for forces to clear up the mines they have laid and so if Russia or Ukraine are forced out of the country, and people are able to return, there will still be thousands of unexploded ordnance that can cause major problems for the population.

Hopefully, the training will succeed in allowing these brave people to save as many lives as possible and help reduce the risk of mines to the civilian population.

Indonesia’s rise as an international power

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Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has received international attention after visiting Kiev and Moscow in late June. During his visit, Widodo offered himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine to reach a point of agreement between the parties regarding the war in Eastern Europe. On top of that, Widodo, who is the president of the next G20 summit, has decided to use his role as host this year of the G20, the group of industrial powers and emerging countries, to build bridges between Russia and Ukraine from the classic Indonesian “non-alignment”, a position without much support between European nations and the USA. These moves by Indonesia could be interpreted from a domestic and international point of view. Jokowi, who came to power in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019, has seen a decrease in his domestic approval ratings. This visit (to Ukraine and Russia), made in tandem with the G7 agenda, was seen as an opportunity to increase popular support in Indonesia. Internationally, this visit allowed him to improve his image with the United States and the West.” Regardless of the motives, the fact is that this trip by Widodo is just the last proof that Indonesia is rising both as a regional and international power.

Regionally, Indonesia is a key player in the Asia-Pacific area. With a population of more than 250 million, Indonesia is today the largest Islamic democracy in the world and the largest economy in Southeast Asia.

Its strategic relevance in energy and economic terms, combined with its demographic and geopolitical weight, has consolidated this country as one of the main Asian markets and tigers. This dominant position will moreover be consolidated in the next decades by the construction of a new capital (called Nusantara) in the island of Borneo, which will substitute Jakarta as the political centre of the country. An example that shows Indonesia’s importance regionally was the visit of Australian Prime Minister Albanese to the country. During that visit, Australia praised Indonesia’s active support for bilateral strategic and economic interests, including ‘green’ investment and trade.

With these regional ties, Widodo aims at attracting foreign investments and industries with a high technological load. Jokowi has maintained the priority of relaunching economic growth up to 7% of GDP with measures aimed at facilitating investment and entrepreneurship. Indonesia has experienced a significant economic expansion in recent years, with a notable flow of investment received and an outstanding dynamism of internal demand with a growing consumer class. The economic development of Indonesia has taken place in its most immediate environment, and that is why ASEAN has become the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy. In 2023 Indonesia will hold the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During Indonesia’s chairmanship of the organization, the country is expected to promote the ASEAN’s influence in the region vis-à-vis the traditional powers (China and the United States). The role of ASEAN has become a regular point of conversation between Jokowi and his interlocutors in the region, especially with Australia, India and Japan.

Internationally, Indonesia has for years been considered an emerging economy; a country that was “punching below its weight” in every sense. In 2022 however, Indonesia has proved its global influence in two ways: its role as president of the G20 (already explained), and the coal export ban. At the beginning of the year Indonesia was in the spotlight because of the coal ban that was imposed from 1st to 31st of January. Despite the ease of the ban on 15 January, Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia and the Philippines asked Jakarta to lift the export ban, which immediately caused a global spike in coal prices and left China, the world’s largest coal importer, temporarily reeling.

Since the war in Ukraine started in February, Indonesia’s abundance of natural resources (such as coal, iron, nickel and palm oil) has placed the country in a privileged position. The disruption of supply chains and the rising commodity prices contrast with Indonesia’s record-high exports, which have allowed the country to shore up its economic resilience. Apart from the record-high exports, Indonesia has enjoyed modest inflation and a strong currency (the rupiah), which could also help in the long run in Widodo’s ambitions to make Indonesia a rich nation by 2045. In order to consolidate this economic resilience, President Widodo has proposed a plan to promote industrial “downstreaming” – moving up the commodity processing chain to the country, rather than just exporting raw materials. With this move, which is being pursued through law, Widodo plans to diversify Indonesia’s exports and to further strengthen capital flows with foreign direct investment. Parallel to these economic developments, Indonesia’s international influence could increase if the country becomes a member of the BRICS group. This organization, composed by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, is looking for other major developing countries to join as full members.

Despite these optimist outlooks for Indonesia, the country’s influence in the region is still limited by a political, territorial, and ethnic-religious structure marked by profound divisions and nuances. Apart from that, Indonesia still must solve its massive infrastructure gap to guarantee the adequate connection between its 17,000 islands, especially in the underdeveloped (and secessionist) Papua province.

Indonesia’s rise has not been meteoric, but it has been steady and is likely to continue despite its internal challenges. The economic, demographic and predictably strategic importance of this sleeping power suggests that its role in the region and internationally will increase in the coming years.