Chong Ja Ian calls attention to the need for new ASEAN leaders to adapt to a changing global order.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
Several ASEAN member states are or will be undergoing leadership transitions in the coming years. The Philippines already has a new presidential administration. General elections are due in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand between 2023 and 2024. Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party is set to have a new leader who will serve as only its fourth Prime Minister in almost six decades. Several ASEAN states have experienced peaceful transfer of political power, which bodes well for domestic stability.
Unlike past points of leadership change, these political handovers come at a particularly challenging moment for both ASEAN and its members. These new leaders inherit positions where they must navigate intensifying major power competition, an ASEAN under stress, and must do so with populations and state bureaucracies used to the more benign, cooperative, and liberalised world of the 1990s and earlier 2000s. Decisions taken or avoided by ASEAN members now may create path dependencies that may have disproportionate influence in shaping the future of ASEAN and the degree these states can shape regional dynamics.
Washington and Beijing — the two major powers most economically and politically active in Southeast Asia in the past several decades — view each other with growing suspicion and are pricklier about developing relative disadvantages, real and perceived. After all, people and states tend to be more sensitive to losses rather than gains. Friction between China and India also run high following a deadly border standoff in 2021. Russia’s war of aggression towards Ukraine raised not only political tensions across Europe but exacerbated the already serious post-COVID inflation by disrupting global food and energy supplies. ASEAN’s inability to take concrete actions following Myanmar’s 2021 coup has fully exposed the grouping’s limitations in coordination and cooperation — on top of differences in managing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At no other period has ASEAN had to deal with so much uncertainty on multiple fronts, not even during the period of its founding during the Cold War.
A Competitive Era
Much of the professional experience for Southeast Asian political leaders now coming to office and over the next two or three years was gained against a backdrop of a world where major powers were fundamentally interested in inclusive approaches toward globalisation and integration. Led by the United States and supported by key actors such as China, Europe, and even Japan, the world focused on improving trade liberalisation, market access, investment, and technological transfers. Major power rivalries, while extant, largely took place in the background. The main challenges were disruptions brought about by non-state violence, often but not exclusively, informed by religious interpretations and ideology as well as the perennial threat of climate change brought about by unconstraint economic developments. Southeast Asian states and societies generally benefitted from economic liberalisation in immediate material terms, as economies expanded and personal incomes grew.
Political leaders across Southeast Asia can no longer expect the world going forward to look like the one they are leaving behind. Divergences between the United States and China are coming to the fore over everything ranging from global rules and standards, intellectual property rights, trade, and investments to information security, access to the East and South China Seas, and the status of Taiwan. These developments directly affect Southeast Asian states, not least because their prosperity rests on being key nodes in global production and supply networks undergirded by US-backed global rules. Notwithstanding the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States is by far the largest investor in the region according to ASEAN Statistics. Whether countries know it or not, US supports the production of Southeast Asian exports to China as well as imports from China to the rest of Southeast Asia.
The intensification of US-China rivalry creates stress on Southeast Asian states. Disruption to trade and investment, caused by differing technical and environmental standards, US protectionism, China’s inward circulation, or contestations over air and sea access, negatively affect Southeast Asian economies. Pressure on Southeast Asian states and ASEAN fosters stasis as various regional capitals worry about the repercussions that may result from offending any major power. Until recently, Southeast Asian governments and ASEAN tried to avoid such situations by claiming that they “do not wish to choose sides.” This may be an increasingly difficult stance to hold as major powers begin to view non-choice as problematic and use economic enticements, side payments, aid, influence campaigns, and disinformation to win and influence politicians and segments of the public. Such policies cause societal fissures in a highly pluralistic Southeast Asia, exacerbating internal cleavages within ASEAN as highlighted by responses to various crises, including the coup in Myanmar.
Charting a Course
New political leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore will find themselves in circumstances where they need to secure domestic approval while navigating external challenges — apart from the sensitivities of managing diverse societies across ethnic, religious and linguistic lines. They also face differing domestic political aspirations that bear some association with age and disparities in wealth, partly resulting from globalisation. Handling such centripetal forces requires the search for and expansion of common ground for cooperation with other ASEAN members and other partners. Excessive coercion, commonly applied in the past, may further drive division that can find expression in confrontation and paralysis unhelpful for meeting the complexity of a more contested world. Individual state choices may well set the tone for the degree to which major power competition buffets both domestic and regional politics.
Discovering and developing some new shared sense of purpose among Southeast Asian states may facilitate efforts to chart foreign policy decisions that collectively shape the future of the region. Even if the new leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore insist on taking a stance of “not choosing sides,” they must develop options that will enable their countries to “not choose sides.” Considerations may involve strengthening ASEAN to better address various internal and external pressures, developing alternative arrangements with neighbors and extra-regional partners, or some mixture of the above. Incoming leaders ideally should provide their countries with some coherent combination of alternatives choices. New governments can, of course, choose to forego some degree of autonomy for some major power promise of stability and prosperity in the anticipation that such guarantees are sustainable. That means to say, voluntarily and publicly eschewing behavior and policies a major power dislikes in return for benefits or security guarantees, akin to Finland’s position relative to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
So far, competing political parties in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have yet to demonstrate significant creativity in addressing the growing challenges in the domestic and external political environments. Perhaps they need more time to appropriately weigh developing dynamics against the array of concerns they encounter, especially as they explore different paths that would deviate from the familiar and comfortable. Possibilities include everything from a reform in ASEAN to seeking multilateral, minilateral, or bilateral arrangements that substitute or even supplant ASEAN in providing greater political and economic security, as well as environmental interests.
Indeed, the new generation of Southeast Asian leaders could surprise the world as earlier leaders did with the formation and adaptation of ASEAN to meet the needs of Southeast Asia during the Cold War and early post-Cold War periods. As major power rivalries expand and deepen alongside regional upheavals and changes, politicians now taking the lead may find themselves increasingly pressed for time while constraints grow. Policies that are put in place now or in the future are likely to set the tone for Southeast Asian politics going forward. How they rise to this challenge may well determine the nature of regional politics for at least a generation and may even prove salient in how major power relations play out.
Chong Ja Ian is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore. The views expressed are the author’s own.