The Idea and Future of Southeast Asia

13 December 2017 | James Waugh, Managing Editor, LexisNexis Capital Monitor

The ASEAN ten are clearly adrift and the disparate states are unlikely to pull together short of a major crisis. Instead the region is struggling with multiple slow boiling crises from above and below. Geopolitical tensions caused by the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States are ushering in a period of deep uncertainty and hyper-competition not seen since the independence movements following the Second World War. The global decline in asymmetry between states and their own populations in security terms has also undermined a region which continues to struggle with internal governance. Both issues are likely to increase pressure on individual member states and undermine ASEAN as an organisation based on the rule of law.

The advent of the Trump administration has seen the United States suddenly start behaving like a normal great power again. The complicated Southeast Asian alliance system is still centred on the ability of the U.S. Navy to secure the trade routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans. However, any alliance system that makes a confrontation with China more likely is simply not worth the risk for the ASEAN states. In the past year, several member states have backed off on the relationship with the United States. A war with China would be the most destructive in the region’s history, even accounting for the Indochina Wars and the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Despite angst about the new U.S. administration, a final withdrawal of the West from mainland

Asia is creating something of an existential crisis for the ASEAN states. Southeast Asia as a concept and geopolitical coalition was largely invented in the West. The region was initially given geopolitical coherence by the dominance of British India to its east and the growing threat of the Japanese Empire to the north. As the Cold War commenced the United States grew increasingly interested in securing what became ASEAN. Funding for Southeast Asian scholarships, research grants and academic institutes produced the concept of an integrated region. Crucially, it exported this idea by way of Southeast Asian graduate students. Such students returned to their home countries with transnational and regional friendships cultivated as international students in North America.

Though relatively new, the idea of Southeast Asia is not without merit or political usefulness. Singapore, an ethnic Chinese enclave and Anglo-American in outlook, the city-state remains keen to be viewed by its vastly larger and poorer neighbours as an historic brother in a joint geopolitical contest with foreign invaders. Indonesia and Malaysia both needed a joint project to bury the hatchet after their post-independence conflicts. The Philippines preferred that its neighbours forget its status as a largely Catholic U.S. airbase.The states of French Indochina in turn needed an excuse to accept Western development aid after the series of wars that gripped Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from the 1940s to the mid-1970s.

In security terms, Thailand, the only state to successfully resist colonisation, wanted to be the centre of a powerful military bloc that could resist external encroachment. Myanmar was in need of an alliance given its enmity towards its most immediate neighbours Pakistan (before Bangladesh seceded), India and China. The presence of large South Asian populations, particularly Muslim groups like the Rohingya, remains sensitive for Myanmar. Indeed, all ten ASEAN states have substantial ethnoreligious minorities. Muslim states like Brunei and Indonesia fear their Chinese, and often Christian, minorities. The Buddhists and Christians generally fear their Muslim minorities, the Philippines conflict in Marawi being a key example.

The issue of radical or oppressed minority groups was formerly bound up with broader geopolitical concerns, usually
the idea that certain minorities might act as a fifth column or pressure groups for external powers. The decline in asymmetry between states and their populations now means small organised groups can access information and weaponry unavailable to most governments just a decade ago. The technological revolution allows non-state actors and even individuals to challenge state authority. A few families in the small provincial city of Marawi were able to evict the local authorities and then challenge the Philippines security forces. As new technologies like additive manufacturing and quantum computing advance, the war fighting and intelligence gathering abilities of small groups will be further enhanced.

The end of asymmetry is a controversial topic, and Southeast Asia is obviously nowhere near the full-scale breakdown in the state’s ability to enforce the rule of law. However, the state’s ability to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is under open threat. The artificial asymmetry between state and citizen is relatively new to global political history. Before the modern period small bands of men could challenge state authority. Put simply, the difference between a peasant with a sharpened farm tool and a Thai warrior with a spear was simply not that great. Whereas the difference between one modern Thai soldier with a machine gun and a thousand citizens with sharpened farm tools is vast.

In a world in which asymmetry is declining, Southeast Asian states can only maintain order by leveraging their greater organisational capacity to raise the costs of violence. The survival of democracy through such a period already appears unlikely. ASEAN, much like the more developed European Union, simply has not developed a democratic solution to the problems posed by its minorities. The world of teenage hackers and foreign fighters with access to high technology has now crashed headlong into the pre-modern ethnoreligious conflicts of Southeast Asia’s rural hinterland.

The geopolitical ramifications of the United States’ slow withdrawal and China’s inexorable rise has unleashed an arms race among the ASEAN states. The pressure of traditional ethnoreligious conflicts and the decline in asymmetry has inexorably pressured threatened states towards using their stockpiles against their own citizens. Unfortunately, ASEAN simply doesn’t have the economic and security resources of a NATO or European Union. Its leaders need to think creatively if they are to repurpose their institutions for a new and challenging century.

The Southeast Asian political order was powerfully shaped by the experience of the Second World War. Each country benefited from the idea of ASEAN in political and strategic terms. The region managed to rebuild following a series of Cold War conflicts and economic disruptions. However, the United States largely underwrote the reconstruction in security and economic terms. Though politically useful for an emerging postcolonial Southeast Asia, ASEAN now finds itself under the same strain as other transnational organisations. A powerful China is a much less appealing prospect than a distant Uncle Sam on the other side of the Pacific. Maintaining the rule of law at home and security aboard is already proving increasingly difficult for the region.

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