US - Southeast Asia

Chronology from May 2020 to Aug 2020

: Commerce Department announces that it will add 24 Chinese companies to its sanctions list for implementing the Chinese government’s island-building activities in the South China Sea.

: Vietnam issues Decree No 99/2020/BD-CP, declaring illegal any unlicensed activity related to oil and gas exploration in Vietnamese territory. While the decree applies to both Vietnamese and foreign actors, it is more narrowly directed at China. The declaration comes on the heels of a second protest from Hanoi in two months against Chinese naval maneuvers in the Paracel Islands.

: State Department issues a statement marking the third anniversary of the Tatmadaw’s attack on a large group of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, noting that 860,000 Rohingya who fled remain in camps in Bangladesh. Since 2017, the US has provided $951 million in humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

: Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolith and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang host the 3rd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Meeting by video-conference. The five Lower Mekong countries and China discuss the 300 cooperative projects under the LMC; the establishment of a special fund; and Beijing’s concept of a new International Land-Sea Trade Corridor on the Mekong.

: 27th iteration of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises is held, with 10 of 25 invited nations participating. The Philippines and Singapore are the only Southeast Asian participants, which are at-sea-only because of the pandemic. The US Navy and partner nations wrap up RIMPAC 2020 with the sinking of a decommissioned amphibious cargo vessel.

: The European Union begins imposing customs duties on Cambodian exports to the EU over human rights concerns, hitting 20% of total Cambodian exports to the EU. The sanctions will particularly affect the garment sector, already weakened by the COVID pandemic.

: Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group enters the South China Sea to conduct maritime air defense operations.

: State Department releases a statement of concern after the conviction and sentencing of 8 members of the Hien Phap organization, a press freedom collective, in Vietnam, who were given more than 40 years in prison.

: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a series of telephone calls with Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea on the July 13 statement of US policy on maritime claims in the South China Sea. He talks with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh; speaks with Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin; and confers with Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia/Pacific Stillwell and Deputy Foreign Minister Thongphane Savanphet of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic co-chair the 33rd US-ASEAN Dialogue. Laos serves as current coordinator of ASEAN affairs with the US. The virtual dialogue focused on the need for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling. Stillwell affirmed US intentions to expand its partnerships on the Mekong.

: Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announces that President Duterte has barred the Philippines from participating in exercises in international waters in the South China Sea. The following day Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque clarifies that Duterte feared Philippine participation would contribute to tensions between China and the US, and that Manila maintains an independent foreign policy.

: Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun delivers remarks at a virtual celebration of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam, hosted by the Vietnam Embassy in Washington. He details the breadth of current relations, from joint efforts to address the continuing impact of Agent Orange to regular dialogues on human rights, to a trade relationship that has grown to $77 billion. Biegun also announces the completion of an agreement to place US Peace Corps Volunteers in Vietnam for the first time.

: Philippine President Duterte delivers his fifth State of the Union Address. He cautions against military clashes with China in the South China Sea, saying that “China has the arms, we do not,” and signals that Manila will rely upon “diplomatic endeavors” to defend its territorial rights.

: Stillwell participates in the 27th ASEAN Regional Forum Senior Officials Meeting, hosted virtually by Vietnam as the 2020 ASEAN Chair. Stillwell emphasizes Washington’s commitment to supporting ASEAN’s economic recovery, among other objectives.

: 19th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT)  event is conducted as a virtual maritime domain awareness symposium, with planning and logistical support from the Western Pacific/Task Force 73. It draws the largest-ever number of participants, including nine from Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam).

: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia/Pacific David Stillwell represents the US at the East Asia Summit Senior Officials Meeting, hosted by Hanoi via video-conference. He proposes that the EAS, scheduled to be held in November, discuss China’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong; the Rohingya crisis; and the need for North Korea to abide by UN Security Council resolutions.

: In commemoration of the 4th anniversary of its win in the 2016 arbitral tribunal regarding the South China Sea, Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin vows that Manila will “adhere without compromise” to the court victory and that the decision is “non-negotiable.” The same day, the US Embassy in Manila releases a detailed position paper by US Ambassador Sung Kim on the ecological and economic importance of the West Philippine Sea, emphasizing US support to the Philippine Coast Guard in protecting the Philippines’ EEZ.

: Economic team in the administration of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, including Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and Finance Minister Utaama Savanayana resign. It is viewed as a sign that Thailand, suffering the worst economic downturn in Southeast Asia as a result of COVID, is struggling to formulate a plan for economic recovery.

: Guided missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson conducts freedom of navigation operations in the waters off the Spratly Islands.

: US State Department issues a lengthy statement on the US position on maritime claims in the South China Sea, sharply calling out Beijing for “intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with ‘might makes right.’” The statement officially aligns the US position on maritime claims with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal decision under UNCLOS.

: Singapore holds 13th general elections, which are won by Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong to office and the People’s Action Party (which has held power continuously since 1959). The margin of victory and issues raised in the campaign spark questions about the ability of the PAP to maintain its political monopoly.

: US State Department issues a statement commending Indonesia for providing humanitarian assistance to 99 Rohingya refugees arriving in Aceh province. The statement also criticizes the Myanmar army for a recent offensive in Rathedaung Township in Rakhine State.

: Gen James McConville, chief of Staff of the US Army, visits Thailand to meeting with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Thai Army Chief Gen. Apart Kongsompong. McConville and his delegation become the first foreign officials to visit Thailand since the Thai government closed its borders because of COVID-19. McConville and Apart sign a Strategic Vision Statement, intended to aid the two allies in tailoring military-to-military cooperation in the face of COVID-19 and other challenges. The July statement builds on a broader Strategic Vision Statement signed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Prime Minister Prayuth Nov. 19, 2019.

: Hanoi sends a diplomatic note to Beijing protesting Chinese naval drills off the Paracel Islands, which China has held since 1974 but which Vietnam also claims. Vietnam claims that the exercises are a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty and that they complicate efforts of ASEAN and China to reach agreement on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Vietnam is quickly joined in the protest by the Philippines.

: ASEAN holds its 36th Annual Summit, chaired by Vietnam, via video-conference. Although the Summit focused primarily on responses to the COVID pandemic, the Chairman’s Statement diverged from those of recent years in its treatment of tensions in the South China Sea, with a more explicit reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the basis for dispute settlement.

: State Department issues a statement expressing concern over a trial court’s verdict against journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos in the Philippines. They were convicted in on June 15 of libeling a wealthy businessman by citing an intelligence report that linked him to drug smuggling and human trafficking.

: The 7th Airman-to-Airman Talks between Thailand and the US are held virtually, with the Pacific Air Force, the Royal Thai Air Force, and the Washington Air National Guard (the State partner to the Thai Air Force).

: The USS Theodore Roosevelt leaves Guam Naval Base and enters the Philippine Sea, on a scheduled deployment to the US 7th Fleet area of operations.

: Philippines advises the US that it has frozen the process to cancel the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement for a period of six months. Unless action is taken otherwise, the Philippines intends to abrogate the agreement at the end of the year.

: US littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords and Singaporean frigate RSS Steadfast conduct bilateral exercises on the South China Sea to enhance interoperability between the two navies. The events, which include a maneuvering exercise and large- and small-caliber gun firings, are conducted with social distancing measures.

: US Embassy in Bangkok hosts a video-conferenced unveiling of a report by Eyes of Earth, Inc., on the impact of changes on the Mekong River, supported by the Lower Mekong Initiative. With data from 1992 to 2019, the report looks at how upstream dams alter the natural flow of the river.

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