Thinking 35 years ahead, Southeast Asia could see two scenarios: one where it has continued to depend on extra-regional powers but China has demonstrated greater staying power; and the other where the region takes greater responsibility for its own security.
Time flies, they say, and it is certainly hard to believe that 35 years have passed since I took up a two-year post as a Fellow at ISEAS. Southeast Asia today is in many ways a changed region from the one that I came to in 1985. Since then it has become hugely more prosperous as well as populous: despite the regional financial crisis of the late 1990s and more recent global shocks, its economies are more broadly-based and resilient. Overall, while important inequalities persist, Southeast Asians are now better-off, live longer, are better-educated, and have much wider opportunities open to them. A significantly higher proportion are urban-dwellers, and until the Covid-19 crisis struck in early 2020 were increasingly travelling outside their own countries for work and leisure. There have also been important political developments, with significant moves towards greater democracy in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.
The regional political context has changed immensely. When I arrived at ISEAS, Southeast Asia was a battleground in the final stages of a global confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In retrospect, it is remarkable that China was aligned with the West in this struggle, cooperating with the US to undermine Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, which Moscow supported. Some non-communist Southeast Asian states were aligned with Washington and Beijing in this effort, but others sympathised with Vietnam. Southeast Asian governments only barely managed to maintain the unity of ASEAN. Within five years, though, the unexpected end to what we now call the Cold War opened the way for the regional grouping to expand to include all then-existing Southeast Asian countries.
One thing that has remained constant is that, in 2020 as in 1985, regional developments are severely challenging not just the security of ASEAN’s member states but also its unity. While China’s growing economic power continues to promise great benefits for Southeast Asia, its strategic behaviour – particularly in the South China Sea, but also more broadly across Asia – is increasingly impinging on the national interests of regional states. It is also threatening the cohesion of ASEAN, with some member-states to a greater or lesser degree unwilling to antagonise Beijing by supporting regional efforts to challenge its efforts to control the South China Sea. In response to Beijing’s strategic extroversion, the United States and other interested powers are stepping up their efforts to balance not only China’s growing assertiveness in Southeast Asian waters but also the capacity it is exercising through the Belt-and-Road Initiative to meet regional states’ infrastructural needs.
Thinking back 35 years has provoked me also to consider the challenges that Southeast Asia will face over the next three and a half decades. For many Southeast Asian governments, escaping the “middle-income trap” will be a major preoccupation. Consolidating national unity and ending internal conflicts will be another. Coping with the impact of climate change will consume huge amounts of attention and resources across the region. But Southeast Asian governments will also increasingly face crucial foreign policy challenges. These will not in reality involve the oft-cited but actually mythical choice of “siding with China or siding with the US”. Southeast Asian governments need not take active measures to ensure gradually increasing Chinese influence. Barring an almost inconceivable implosion of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, Beijing’s regional role will grow willy-nilly, and in the process narrow Southeast Asian states’ foreign policy options and, ultimately, undermine their national sovereignty and capacity for self-determination.
Depending on external powers to maintain a favourable regional balance makes sense in the absence of alternatives, but as a permanent strategy could make Southeast Asia unduly dependent for its security on decisions made in distant capitals.
In the increasingly important context of growing Chinese power and assertiveness, most Southeast Asian states have already shown clearly that they want to maintain multi-directional foreign policies, and remain open to strengthening economic, political and security relations with the US and its “like-minded” allies and partners (notably Australia, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, and European states) as well as with China. They evidently want to avoid their foreign policies becoming increasingly unipolar, and have already chosen to remain open to stronger relations with all-comers where there can be mutual benefit.
However, on its own this will probably be insufficient to ensure a future where Southeast Asian countries can maintain their security and autonomy. Depending on external powers to maintain a favourable regional balance makes sense in the absence of alternatives, but as a permanent strategy could make Southeast Asia unduly dependent for its security on decisions made in distant capitals. And it would be naive to assume that the enthusiasm witnessed in the US, its allies and partners for playing more active security roles in the “Indo-Pacific” over the last several years will necessarily persist into the long-term despite inevitable changes of government in these countries and the near-certain eruption of other foreign and domestic challenges that will distract those powers. This region has seen a succession of extra-regional powers wax and wane over the last 500 years, and major changes in their roles within living memory.
For these reasons, determined efforts to strengthen ASEAN’s own politico-security role are also necessary if Southeast Asian states ultimately wish to deal with external security challenges from a position of strength. This would mean not only much closer foreign policy coordination, but in the long-term also greater efforts to develop a synergetic ASEAN-wide approach to defence policy. There will be many obstacles to this. ASEAN’s slow progress in strengthening its political cohesion since the 1990s has shown the difficulty of community-building in the absence of a strongly-held common perception of external threat. Many will argue that ASEAN was never intended to have a major security role. Others will point to the diversity of Southeast Asian states’ cultures, political systems and levels of development – and to continuing bilateral disputes among them. Some naysayers will highlight the European Union’s current multi-dimensional distress as evidence of regional groupings’ limitations.
These are all fair points and it may indeed prove too difficult for ASEAN – even well into its sixth decade of existence – to develop into a geopolitical bloc that could provide more effectively for its member states’ security against external challenges. But a choice not to do so will have consequences for how Southeast Asia will look in another 35 years’ time – a reasonable period of time to look ahead. There is, of course, an infinite array of possibilities for the state of the region in 2055. But most will perhaps be variants of two scenarios. In the first scenario, Southeast Asian states will have relied on a balance between external powers to guarantee their region’s security, but may have found that their powerful immediate neighbour, China, ultimately had greater staying power than other powers for such a role – with serious implications for Southeast Asia. In the second, while remaining open to partnerships with extra-regional players, they will have collectively taken significantly greater responsibility for their own region’s security, providing considerable long-term stability and a degree of insulation from major power rivalry.
(Eds: Tim Huxley worked at ISEAS between 1985 and 1987, as a Fellow researching Southeast Asian security and as co-editor of ‘Contemporary Southeast Asia’.)