New Defense Upgrade for France-Philippines Relations Takes Shape
Plus COP28 and Southeast Asia; ASEAN and US-China rivalry; coming TikTok ban decision; looking ahead to 2024 financial risks and much more.
Greetings to new readers and welcome all to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the significance of recent defense upgrade talk between the Philippines and France and impacts on the wider Indo-Pacific region;
Mapping of regional developments including Southeast Asia at COP28, China-Vietnam high-level talks; Indonesia’s defense budget and more;
Charting evolving trends such as on ASEAN’s agency in U.S.-China rivalry; resistance inroads in Myanmar’s civil war and related issues;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments including a coming TikTok ban decision; foreign SEZ law concerns; new 5G network buzz and more;
And much more! ICMYI, check out our take on assessing the new Japan-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership and what might lie ahead for upgraded ties.
WonkCount: 1,536 words (~7 minutes reading time)
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China-Vietnam High-Level Talks; Southeast Asia at COP28; Indonesia’s Defense Boost & More
New Defense Upgrade for France-Philippines Relations Takes Shape
What’s Behind It
France and the Philippines agreed to ramp up bilateral defense cooperation. Their two defense leaders signed a letter of intent during the visit of French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu to the Philippines1.
The inroads come as the Philippines has reasserted its position as a node for regional security cooperation and as France has looked to engage more with Manila in the defense realm and in the Indo-Pacific more generally. As noted previously on ASEAN Wonk, since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office last year, we have seen a quick series of security boosts by the Philippines with allies and partners. France has been among these partners, with both countries looking to build on the momentum from a series of engagements held last year when they marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. French President Emmanuel Macron and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr had agreed to boost their strategic partnership when they met in person on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Bangkok last November2. France has also expressed support for the Philippines amid China’s South China Sea assertiveness and noted an interest in playing a greater role in meeting Philippine defense needs including a submarine capability3.
Select Recent Indo-Pacific Security Developments between the Philippines and Key Partners
Why It Matters
The letter of intent holds promise for intensifying defense ties. The two sides have understandably not publicly disclosed what exactly the future will hold on this front. But a publicized joint statement did note that the commitment to deepen bilateral defense relations extended to strengthening the legal framework of ties by “initiating discussions on defense agreements” including consideration of a status of visiting forces agreement as well as enhancing military activities covering areas such as capability development and joint defense industry cooperation4. Though some of these have been spotlighted before, the idea of a VFA-like pact — something Manila only has with Washington and Canberra to date — received the most focus as it would open the door to greater collaboration and reduce limits on aspects of security ties.
The development adds momentum to the bilateral relationship more generally. Both sides have tried to prioritize boosting high-level interactions dating back to the last few months of 2022. But this also has not been without its share of challenges, including a key joint committee meeting bumped from late last year to the middle of this year and a previously discussed but yet-to-be-realized potential state visit involving the two leaders5. The two leaders had discussed focusing on ministerial level engagement to advance cooperation during their conversation in September, amid a hectic travel schedule and foreign policy agenda for Marcos6.
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, the focus will shift to next steps in defense cooperation and the opportunities and challenges therein. Apart from a VFA which has gained the most media attention, both sides have also signaled other planned inroads. To take just one publicized example, France has said it will open a full defense mission in Manila which will help boost operational connectivity and increase the number of naval and aerial interactions7. That said, both countries will also be boosting collaboration in recognition of their own limitations and the sustainability challenge that applies to other newer Indo-Pacific defense upgrades. The Philippines still urgently needs more sustained investments in its military capabilities, and resourcing is among the constraints for France in realizing more ambitious aspects of its Indo-Pacific Strategy last updated in 20228. Manila also have other internal and external preoccupations in what is set to be a challenging Southeast Asia security context into 2024 and a busy year for ASEAN as well.
Progress in defense-adjacent fields and with like-minded partners will also be consequential. On the former, this is in line with the repeated interest on both sides for looking at defense comprehensively, a point reiterated by Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro as both sides held their defense talks9. One notable instance is in the domain of economic security, which Manila has prioritized. Both sides have explored more initiatives in fields like shipbuilding and critical minerals10. On the latter, functional areas as well as spaces such as the South China Sea are likely to continue to act as a potential catalyst for greater Indo-Pacific security networking involving other partners like the United States. This will in turn provide France with avenues to dock on to wider cooperation in addition to bilateral activities.
ASEAN and US-China Rivalry; Myanmar’s Civil War Dynamics & East Timor’s Future Prospects
“ASEAN has crucial agency in this regard,” on the management of U.S.-China rivalry, notes the introduction to the latest iteration of the CSCAP regional security outlook. The publication also includes pieces on key ASEAN countries and select Indo-Pacific powers (link).
“[T]he offensive we are seeing is the beginning of a coordinated strategy developed over the past year among key resistance groups with the aim of engaging the military…on all fronts,” notes the first of a two-part series on the dynamics of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war amid resistance inroads in Operation 1027 published in The Irrawaddy (link).
Map of Conflict Intensity in Myanmar
“Timor-Leste has accomplished a great deal over the past two decades but faces headwinds that, if left unaddressed, could undo much of what it has achieved,” warns a new report published by the Lowy Institute on East Timor’s uncertain future (link).