5th Katipunan Conference highlights emerging strategic trends amidst a global pandemic

(Writeup by Maria Nikka Garriga, Junior Research Analyst, UP CIDS Strategic Studies Program)

The Strategic Studies Program (SSP) of the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS) and the Konrad-Adenauaer Stiftung (KAS), in partnership with the UP Diliman
Department of Political Science, recently concluded a four-part webinar series for the 5th
Katipunan Conference with the theme “COVID-19 and the Strategic Environment: Change and
Continuity.”

Emerging Trends in the Regional Environment

In his opening remarks, Dr. Stefan Jost, Country Director of KAS Philippines, brought attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated political and strategic competition in the region, resulting in debates on economic decoupling and the partial restructuring of globalization that will continue for decades. He emphasized Southeast Asia as the region where decisive developments in the strategic environment will influence shifts in the international balance of power, and that the Philippines is too important to be able to disengage from these developments.

Dr. Andrew Yeo, a Professor in the Department of Politics of the Catholic University of America, discussed the growing strategic competition between the United States (US) and China, both of whom have framed the pandemic for individual gain by rallying their respective allies to contain the other’s influence and leadership aspirations. While the pandemic hasn’t changed the nature of the broader competition between the two, it accelerated the pace of their rivalry and made the potential strategic and economic fallout more acute for regional actors. In the past, the complex interdependence between the US and Chinese economies has mitigated their strategic
competition. Yeo raised the possibility of coming up with diplomatic ways of moving forward with both US and China.

Dr. Abdul Abiad, Director for Macroeconomic Research Division of the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department of the Asian Development Bank, focused on the economic outlook in light of the pandemic. Due to a reduction in mobility and domestic economic activity resulting from measures to contain the virus, growth of gross domestic product (GDP) in developing Asia is expected to contract by 0.7 percent in 2020—the first economic contraction in six decades. This downturn is broad-based, as three-fourths of the region’s economies are expected to experience negative growth. A few exceptions like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, are noted as its governments have managed to contain outbreaks early and normalize economic activity. Various Asian governments have stepped in with wide-ranging responses (e.g., support to income and revenue, transfers to households), but one of the most significant risks is the possibility of a prolonged pandemic derailing recovery. Abiad underscored that policies need to protect both lives and livelihood, focus on the most vulnerable, poor households, and small and medium enterprises.

Dr. Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University, presented important points to ponder upon: (1) the role of the US; economic progress and stability; (2) China’s increasing assertiveness; (3) and ASEAN centrality in Asia’s multilateral landscape. She raised the question of whether the region could continue to look at the US as a provider of Asian security with China’s display of military and material power. In addition, the possibility of a prolonged economic crisis could affect the stability in the region and exacerbate existing internal conflicts in ASEAN member states. COVID-19 has increased the pressure on ASEAN and ASEAN-led regional institutions, which have been important pillars of stability and prosperity despite limitations. Caballero-Anthony concluded that these developments are important considerations in thinking of ways to move forward.

Regional Norms and International Law in ASEAN

The second session of the Conference opened with an introduction from UP CIDS Executive Director Dr. Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem about the UP CIDS, which aims to contribute to national development and knowledge creation through policy-oriented research and related activities.

This was followed by a presentation by Dr. Jay Batongbacal, Professor in the UP College of Law and Director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, focused norm-building and international law-making in the ASEAN. Historically, especially in its early stages, ASEAN mostly operated on the basis of ad hoc understandings and informal procedures. ASEAN agreements have also asymmetrically developed with a strong focus on economic connectivity. Encumbered by a lack of development in community building on political and cultural issues, Batongbacal explained that ASEAN faces inherent challenges in responding to geopolitical dilemmas. This is exacerbated by a strong adherence to the principle of non-interference among member-states. He added that it is currently struggling to address the issues related to the heightened competition between US and China, and the latter’s claims to the region’s territorial waters. In his conclusion, Batongbacal noted that ASEAN is still in the process of creating records of practice necessary for norm-building and international law-making in the political sphere. He encouraged everyone to be understanding of the organization’s limitations, as it is the only venue where smaller member-states can stand on equal terms with great powers.

Dr. Charmaine Willoughby, an Associate Professor from the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, discussed how COVID-19 has exposed flaws in the current global system, emphasizing that this is the kind of crisis that could make or break international orders. She listed three possible scenarios in creating a post-coronavirus world: (1) structure-centric, where the international system stays the same but with a change in key players; (2) agent-centric, where transitions are ushered in by specific actors, and where there is larger space for a plurality of actors interacting in a multiplicity of platforms; and, (3) process-centric, where securitizing non-traditional issues like the pandemic could put in place mechanisms that normalize the currently heightened tensions and emergency measures. Old orders do not just disappear as changes to new orders will be gradual. Willoughby expounded that in the immediate post-coronavirus world, Southeast Asia could expect intertwined threads of structure, agent, and process-driven beginnings of an emerging order. Human security issues will again be highlighted. What remains to be seen, she said, is the norms that will fuel the kind of order that will eventually predominate.

Regional Conflict and Security

These observations were echoed in the discussion for the third session on regional conflict and security. The first speaker, Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret.), is a Professor of Praxis at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government. His presentation centered on how COVID-19 and regional security environment are mutually exclusive circumstances, and that there are existing regional security issues that were exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic. This had a negative impact in the Asia Pacific as countries in the region were forced to isolate and, thus, became more vulnerable and inward-looking. However, Ong said that the most likely affected nation is China, having lost credibility and international standing the lack of transparency and responsibility in reporting and addressing the virus. Yet, China remains more assertive regarding issues concerning the East China Sea and South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border, and its trade war with the US. Besides dealing with the rivalry between the US and China, another challenge that Southeast Asia as a region is facing is the impact of Chinese influence on domestic politics and national security.

For his part, Assistant Professor, Jaime Naval, of the UP Department of Political Science discussed how the global strategic environment has been evolving over time and how the developments in the region are expected outcomes of a pattern of behavior. While the US was a major superpower for a long time after the Cold War, China has since developed economic clout and has also advanced socially and politically. However, Naval noted that despite China’s display of assertive behavior in various areas (e.g., conflicts over the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea, rivalry with the US), it is still avoiding violent confrontations and wants to keep relations on level footing, especially with the Quad powers of India, Australia, Japan, and the US ready to counter its actions. Naval concluded that power arrangements among countries are fluid and encouraged everyone to be watchful of developments.

Reading the Tea Leaves: Future Developments in the Region

For its final installment, this webinar explored the prospects for relations among major blocks and the regional security architecture in a post COVID-19 scenario. Speaking about the direction for ASEAN-Germany and European Union relations, Her Excellency, Anke Reiffenstuel of the German Embassy in Manila described how the pandemic further expanded bilateral conversations on areas of cooperation especially with Germany’s recent adoption of policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. Germany is committed to strengthening and broadening partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific. This covers various areas such as adapting to climate change, promoting peace and security, promoting human rights and the rule of law, strengthening international free trade, connectivity and digitalization, and enhancing cultural relations and exchange.

In terms of ASEAN’s response to COVID-19, Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum West of the Department of Foreign Affairs highlighted the new initiatives that were added to its existing priorities. These include the creation of the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies; the establishment of a COVID-19 response fund and corresponding mechanisms for its transfer; setting up of a regional reserve of medical supplies for public health emergencies; and putting in place standard operating procedures for public health emergencies, among others. Recovery of the region, however, requires for ASEAN member states to strengthen its coordination mechanism as it remains a significant forum for collective action and for engaging external partners to drive recovery and stability in the region.

Dr. Brendan Taylor from Strategic and Defense Studies Centre of Australian National University, explained the possible implication of COVID-19 on three pre-existing strategic trends in the region: the waning ability of the US to secure order and stability, especially with the emergence of new power centers such as China and India; the acceleration of deterioration of US and China relations and calls for a Sino-American decoupling; and Asian multilateralism being further tested by the crisis. A post-COVID-19 world may see a higher risk of major conflict due to inadvertent escalation—with Asia becoming more contested and the region’s militaries operating in increasingly close proximity (e.g., in the Taiwan Strait and Sino-Indian border). Taylor concluded that these circumstances call to reinvigorate and reimagine the region’s crisis management and avoidance mechanisms, and to pursue these with urgency to reduce the risk of greater crises.