US President Biden’s key policy adviser for the Indo Pacific on the National Security Council has told an Asia Pacific summit organised by a Washington DC-based think tank that the US administration is still actively seeking an ASEAN summit in Washington where the leaders of the 10 member ASEAN bloc can meet the US president. He said it was something Washington wanted to see happen in the next month or so. It comes amid deepening divisions between the United States and China over the latter’s tacit support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and a determination by the United States to build a new and more secure foundation for security, economic and political development in Southeast Asia. It comes as a document obtained by the Associated Press (AP) shows that Russia planned to regard countries such as Thailand which abstained in last week’s highly embarrassing UN vote that saw it removed from the UN Human Rights Council as ‘unfriendly nations’.

Thailand’s abstention on the vote to censure Russia and remove it from the UN Human Rights Council last week saw it again adopting a neutral stance on the Russian Ukraine War. However, the kingdom, like other ASEAN nations, will increasingly find this position under scrutiny as tension mounts between the United States and China with a key architect of policy within the Biden administration, Dr Kurt Cambell, saying last week that the forceful US strategy toward Russia although ‘perhaps unspoken’ was designed to be a ‘cautionary tale’ for China which has increasingly threatened Taiwan in the last year. Mr Campbell was speaking at the Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) Asia Pacific summit which heard that body’s President, John H Hamre, tell those attending the event that the ‘profound use of economic sanctions’ by the US represents a deep geopolitical shift in its policy. He also said that 45% of US firms in China that he had spoken to were actively relocating out of China with 25% further making plans to do so. He pointed out that this should be an opportunity for ASEAN countries.

Dr Kurt Campbell (centre) told an Asia Pacific summit this week that the fierce US sanctions on Russia ‘although unspoken’ was meant as a ‘cautionary tale’ for those who breach international law in a comment that was taken as being directed at China over its increasingly threatening posture towards Taiwan and within the South China Sea. He was speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) summit organised by the Washington DC based think tank which heard the President of the organisation, John J Hamre, suggest that a large number of US firms are making plans to exit China. It came as, this week, Thailand through its permanent representative and ambassador at the United Nations, Dr Suriya Chindawongse (inset top left), abstained in a historic vote of the General Assembly which saw Russia removed from the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is only the second time this has happened and the first time it involved a permanent member of the National Security Council. The vote highlighted a divided Asean, pulled between support for western values and those within China’s orbit in Southeast Asia which is increasingly the focus of the United States and western allies.

On Thursday, Thailand abstained on a motion put before a reconvened General Assembly of the United Nations in New York which successfully removed Russia as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and strongly censured the country for its activities in Ukraine including the most heinous human rights abuses.

Harrowing media bulletins, last week, featured the savagery in Bucha and emerging reports of widespread executions and rape by Russian troops on the ground in the invaded country.

This has sparked unprecedented outrage in western countries and especially in the United States where Democratic Party Senate Majority leader, Chuck Schumer, accused Russia of being engaged in genocide while US President Joe Biden has variously described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal and ‘butcher’ in emotional public addresses in both the United States and Europe.  

Russian, Ukrainian and US diplomats traded barbs at an acrimonious General Assembly meeting where Russia was censured for its actions in Ukraine

Indeed, amid highly charged diplomatic exchanges between battling Russian diplomats last week in an effort to whip up support for Moscow, the Russian ambassador to Geneva, Gennady Gatilov, memorably accused the United States of purveying ‘unfounded and purely emotional bravado that looks good on camera – just how the US likes it.’

His colleague, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Gennady Kuzmin, accused the United States of using the international forum to target Russia and decried the veracity of the Ukrainian claims regarding the atrocity in the town of Bucha.

‘What we’re seeing today is an attempt by the United States to maintain its dominant position and total control,’ he said. ‘We reject the untruthful allegations against us, based on staged events and widely circulated fakes.’

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield welcomed the vote to remove Russia from the council as historic

The woman who is believed to have initiated the motion and a surprisingly aggressive posture within the United Nations towards Russia in the aftermath of its February 24th invasion of Ukraine, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the move was a response from a world in recoil and aghast at the sight of graves and corpses seen on the streets of Bucha when Russian forces retreated from the area over a week before.

She applauded the vote and removal of Russia from the council, a highly significant and symbolic step, the first time in UN history that a UN security council permanent member has been removed from a position like this and only the second time that a member of the Human Rights Council was removed following the vote to suspend Libya after atrocities emerged in the civil war to overthrow long term dictator Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield said on social media: ‘An important and historic day. Countries from around the globe have voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. We have collectively sent a clear message that Russia will be held accountable.’

‘War criminals have no place in UN bodies’ – Ukrainian Foreign Minister said on social media

The Ukrainian foreign minister was even more emphatic: ‘War criminals have no place in UN bodies aimed at protecting human rights,’ he said on Twitter in response to the US envoy. ‘Grateful to all member states which chose the right side of history.’

The motion put before the body representing all the world’s states, came after the massacre was unearthed in Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv after Russia’s recent withdrawal and shift of activity to the east of Ukraine.

It is reported by Ukrainian authorities, western media and independent investigative bodies sent to gather evidence, that they found hundreds of civilians bound and murdered by Russian forces during their occupation of the area and immediately before their departure as they were driven out by resurgent Ukrainian military forces.

Outrage over the systematic massacre of civilians in Bucha which has been linked by Western intelligence services to a Russian officer in charge of forces stationed in the area, overflowed when video footage first emerged on western television screens last week and came a week after reports first surfaced of systematic murder, theft and rape by the Russian military throughout the occupied areas of Ukraine.

Motion carried by over a two-thirds majority

The motion, last Thursday, censured Russia for its actions as well as removing it from the human rights council of the world body by a two-thirds majority.

It specifically said the UN General Assembly expresses ‘grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly at the reports of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation, including gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights’.

The vote saw 93 countries support the US-led resolution with only 24 countries voting in opposition including China and other states worldwide strongly aligned with Russia including communist Cuba, Syria, Mali, Algeria, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.

Significant blow to Russia diplomatically, 2 ASEAN countries, Laos and Vietnam voted with it, 2 ASEAN countries also voted for the resolution to ditch Russia

The vote was a significant blow to Russian diplomatic efforts which included a strong lobbying campaign focused on all member countries across the globe including Thailand.

Thailand’s fellow ASEAN members Vietnam and Laos, now heavily indebted and influenced by China, also rejected the motion and voted with Russia, the only ASEAN members to do so. 

Two ASEAN members, however, still voted in support of the motion. 

One was Myanmar whose rogue UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, loyal to the National Unity Government (NUG) representing the other side of a civil war there that is being underreported, took the opportunity to condemn Russia’s military aggression against civilians.

Warfare in Myanmar not seen since World War Two

The other ASEAN country and a key competitor for Thailand concerning inward investment, the Philippines, voted in favour of the motion despite the policy of President Rodrigo Duterte to shift from his country’s long-standing US alliance more towards cooperation with China since coming to power in 2016.

The country faces a presidential election in May this year with Mr Duterte stepping down from office.

China warned the Philippines before the vote to avoid ‘disturbances’ over the South China Sea dispute

In the days running up to the vote, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on a tour of Southeast Asia, warned the Philippines to avoid ‘disturbances’ with China, linked to heightened tensions over the South China Sea, which could damage relations between the two countries.

Plot that may have originated in Thailand to assassinate renegade Myanmar UN ambassador

Thailand voted to abstain in the vote and was joined, notably, by Singapore which has been quite outspoken in its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th and has even imposed stringent sanctions against Moscow.

Singapore’s decisive stance on the war has integrity

As well as Singapore, those who joined Thailand on the sidelines in the vote included Malaysia, Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Thailand voted to abstain in the vote while calling for an independent investigation into abuse claims

The Thai response after the vote was more subdued. 

Dr Suriya Chindawongse, the Thai ambassador to the United Nations and permanent representative, underlined that the move to remove Russia was one of a very serious nature. 

The comment was similar to a statement from Chinese UN ambassador Zhang Jun who warned that the motion was deepening divisions and promoting the war.

‘Such a hasty move at the General Assembly, which forces countries to choose sides, will aggravate the division among member states, intensify the confrontation between the parties concerned, it is like adding fuel to the fire,’ Beijing’s top diplomat said.

Dr Suruaya said that Thailand would be joining in calls for an independent, neutral and thorough investigation into what is transpiring in Ukraine.

‘Thailand is deeply sorry about the loss of life and is gravely concerned about the escalating conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and believes urgent actions are needed to address the allegations about human rights violations,’ he said.

‘Thailand urges all parties concerned to abide by international human rights laws and provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict, while we will continue providing aid to those affected by the conflict.’ 

UN resolution already established a commission of enquiry into breaches of international law in Ukraine in a motion sponsored by Singapore on March 4th

On March 4th, the United Nations in another resolution, passed by the Human Rights Council 49/1, also opposed by Russia and Eritrea, voted to establish a commission of enquiry into human rights abuses and other breaches of international law caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This was referred to, on Friday, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore when it explained its rationale for abstaining in last week’s vote. It pointed out that it co-sponsored the resolution to set up the commission of enquiry.

‘Singapore abstained from the vote as we await the findings of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry investigating alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine,’ the foreign ministry of the thriving city-state announced.

Russia may still regard Thailand as an ‘unfriendly nation’ according to an internal briefing document seen by the Associated Press (AP) news agency

Despite Thailand’s abstention last week which is consistent with the kingdom’s ‘neutral’ stance which has been emphasised by officials in Bangkok in the aftermath of Thailand’s vote against Russia on Wednesday, March 2nd, there may still be negative consequences.

A memorandum or internal briefing document obtained by the AP News service from within the Russian administration shows that a concerted campaign was launched by Russia and its allies to secure more No votes to avoid the loss and embarrassment caused by being removed from the UN Human Rights Council which is a calamity for Moscow’s diplomatic reputation.

It viewed that UN resolution as a ‘political act’ being pursued by the United States.

The document, now denied as authentic by the Kremlin, made it clear that countries who abstained or failed to vote No would be regarded as ‘unfriendly’ nations going forward.

Moscow closed down 15 NGOs including Amnesty International after last week’s vote for ‘violations’

The diplomatic defeat for Russia was followed by Moscow announcing that it was shutting the offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the country, both of which have been there for 30 and 29 years respectively.

The reason given was ‘violations of the current legislation of the Russian Federation’ and follows a long-standing campaign by the regime of President Vladimir Putin against NGOs or non-government organisations.

A total of 15 organisations with foreign links were shuttered.

The move drew a defiant response from the bodies concerned with the Secretary-general of Amnesty International vowing: ‘We will redouble our efforts to expose Russia’s egregious human rights violations both at home and abroad. In a country where scores of activists and dissidents have been imprisoned, killed or exiled, where independent media has been smeared, blocked or forced to self-censor, and where civil society organisations have been outlawed or liquidated, you must be doing something right if the Kremlin tries to shut you up.’

This campaign, ongoing for nearly a decade, has seen such bodies referred to as ‘foreign agents or ‘foreign operatives’ by the increasingly restrictive Russian regime.

Chinese censors support Moscow’s disinformation campaign behind the Great Firewall where anti-American sentiment reigns with no talk of invasion

Russia has also seen its independent media shuttered due to the country’s propaganda campaign which is being amplified by Chinese media behind the great firewall in a far sharper tone than that used in Chinese diplomatic messages and statements.

Similar trend seen in Thailand as foreign NGOs in the kingdom are facing stricter scrutiny and oversight

A similar trend has been seen in Thailand specifically concerning Amnesty International whose activities were placed under investigation last year by the Royal Thai Police.

This followed a representation to the Prime Minister’s Office by conservative and royalist supporters who complained that the NGO’s activities were contrary to Thai law and the NGO’s alleged support of street protesters in 2021 and 2022 following a landmark constitutional court judgment.

Court ruling could lead to further polarisation in Thai politics and is bad news for Pheu Thai Party
Royal Thai Police announced that they are investigating Amnesty International last week after royalist protests in Bangkok and a letter to the PM

The petitioners met with Mr Seksakol Atthawong, a Vice Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office on November 25th 2021 when he promised them that he would follow up on the letter vigorously and promised to resign if he failed to do so.  

Mr Seksakol also claims to have 1.2 million signatures calling for a ban on Amnesty International in Thailand, a Thai branch of the global NGO which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and which was established in the kingdom in 1993. 

Amnesty International in Thailand protests new law

Amnesty International along with other non-governmental organisations are also protesting about a new law governing such organisations in Thailand which updates previous legislation and demands stronger transparency, reporting and financial accountability for such groups.

This was the subject of a protest by NGOs to the Social Development and Human Security Ministry as recently as March 24th demanding that the draft legislation on the matter, the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations, be withdrawn.

What is becoming clear is that the US Biden administration is pursuing a policy on all fronts to promote a US vision of cooperation with countries in the Asia Pacific on human rights, security and economics in an effort to build a strong international order which, at this point, excludes Russia, China and its allies.

This, of course, has implications for Thailand which may no longer be able to be ignored in a more polarised world that is rapidly moving towards two separate camps with less room for neutrality and increasingly also, no room for compromise on human rights.

Vicious US sanctions on Russia open the door to a new, more polarised order also in the Asia Pacific, clearly aimed at China as a ‘cautionary’ tale

There are also growing indications that this conflict over Ukraine which has seen the United States and its allies stun the international community by its frankly vicious and unyielding nature towards Russia as an aggressor and malefactor when it comes to international law, has taken the world by surprise, particularly in Asia.

This week, Dr Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the National Security Council at the White House, formerly an assistant secretary of state under President Obama, suggested strongly that the forceful US policy seen on Ukraine was indeed aimed indirectly at China and its threatening posture in the region and particularly towards Taiwan.

He said it was ‘perhaps unspoken, but every country in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, wants to ensure that Ukraine is a cautionary tale, that no one contemplates again, or in another theatre, some sort of operation that would be so destabilising and so destructive.’

The top administration official was speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) US-Indo-Pacific Conference on Tuesday, April 5th.

Dr Campbell has previously also emphasised that the US does not wish to see a confrontation with China and that this is a key goal of its policy in the region.

White House emphasises the importance of a Washington summit between ASEAN leaders and US President Biden but it is proving elusive to set up

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) is an influential think tank in Washington DC that has been quite involved in analysing political and economic developments linked with the key international policy objective of the United States which is to pivot toward Asia not only involving strengthen military ties and security but also politically and economically looking to a more stable and prosperous long term future.

At the conference, he emphasised the determination of the White House to hold a summit with ASEAN leaders which would see them visit Washington for a meeting over the coming months.

Talking about the US, he said this new goal was the key reason for trying to stage such a summit which has in recent weeks proved somewhat elusive due to conflicting scheduling and calendar arrangements between the leadership of the 10 nation ASEAN community of which Thailand is a key member.

‘The President has indicated he very much wants to host the ASEAN leaders here in Washington in the spring,’ Dr Campbell explained. ‘Sometimes getting everyone’s calendar together can be challenging, but that is what we are determined to do.’

America wants a deeper alliance in the Asia Pacific based on political, economic development as well as a new security architecture with ASEAN nations

Part of America’s goal, an evolving situation driven initially by the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing western alliance in Asia and divisions over the Ukraine war, is to create a new relationship with ASEAN as a potential alternative to US investment in China which is being wound down.

The UN vote, this week, highlights divisions in ASEAN and also its non-aligned status.

Of course, the problem for the United States, also unspoken but one which is clearly seen, is the enhanced influence of China, economically, politically and militarily with many countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar coming increasingly within Beijing’s orbit. This is true to a lesser extent also for Thailand. 

The US goal was alluded to by the President of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) Mr John J Hamre when he addressed the conference this week.

Mr Hamre expressed his shock and surprise at the ‘profound use of economic sanctions’ by the United States since the current crisis erupted on February 24th 2022.

He said it indicated a ‘shift of the geopolitical landscape rather profoundly’.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CCIS) leader says US firms are actively moving out of China which should be an opportunity for ASEAN

Mr Hamre then explained that he had carried out a survey of key executives in large US corporations which were active in China over the last few weeks and that he was ‘surprised’ by what he discovered.

He subjected the business leaders to a poll with three answers concerning what all this meant for the relocation of supply chains and operations outside of China. 

One answer was for those who thought the situation can be dealt with and they would probably muddle through, the second was for firms that were planning to move elsewhere but were looking at regulatory hurdles at home and in western countries and the third was for firms who were actively already in the process of relocating.

Mr Hamre said 45% of firms were in the latter group while 25% were planning to move while only 27% saw themselves as remaining with their current operations in China. 

He observed that this was obviously a key opportunity for ASEAN.

During last week’s vote, it should also be noted that two of Asia’s largest economic powerhouses, Japan and the Republic of Korea or South Korea, supported the United States motion censuring Russia and ensuring its removal from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR).

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Further reading:

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