Since its creation, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has contributed to ensuring peace and prosperity in a region that had witnessed many harrowing events during the XX century. As ASEAN has played in South East Asia a role similar to the one played by the European Union in our continent, Western commentators tend to analyze the first using categories applied when commenting on the second. However, this approach should be avoided, as it is misleading and does not allow for understanding the goals and peculiarities of the ASEAN.
In 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s “National League for Democracy” (NLD) achieved a landslide victory in Myanmar’s general elections with the slogan “Time for Change”, many believed that such an historic milestone could finally set the “pariah state” of South-East Asian politics on the right path towards full democratization, after more than fifty years of military rule.
The Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), an ethnic Malay party, was defeated in Malaysia’s fourteenth general election on May 8th 2018 against all expectations. It held power for six decades since independence in 1957. Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition won, and installed Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister for a second time.
After two generations successively and successfully fought against French and American forces, Vietnam formally became a unified country in mid-1976 under the rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The next decade saw the communist party-state running a Soviet-style command economy and a police-controlled society. By the mid-1980s, the country fell into a virtually “comprehensive socio-economic crisis” with the inflation rate standing at nearly 700%. Peasant protests took place across the nation, and public trust in the regime was eroded.
In 2019 democracy continues to elude Thailand. The country’s 2014 putsch overthrew an even more democratic system which, among other things permitted a half-elected Senate and elections at the local level. The coup produced five years of authoritarian military control.
No individual has benefited more from Indonesia’s democratisation than Joko Widodo, who was re-elected as president in April with an increased majority. He capitalised on Indonesia’s free and fair elections to rise from small-time provincial businessman to the presidency in 2014 via the mayoralty of his hometown, Solo, and the governorship of Jakarta.
South East Asia is an area of utmost importance for Japan’s economic, political and security interests, amounting to “a core strategic interest” for Tokyo.
Since 1949, the celebrated Australia’s prime minister Sir Robert Gordon Menzies had paid growing attention to South East Asia, the ‘Near North.’ Then, concerns over the spread of Communist influence in the region and the value of Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore as forward bases – both placed in the centre of two dynamic regions, the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions – convinced Canberra that Australia’s historical isolation from the East had to be ended.
South East Asia is set to be a key driver of global economic growth in the coming decades, with Indonesia alone projected to be the world’s fourth biggest economy by 2050. Vietnam and the Philippines, each with approximately 100 million people and fast-growing economies, will likely emerge as middle powers themselves. While Thailand and Malaysia have begun to age and are battling to avoid middle-income traps, they are already large, globalized economies.
Despite being frequently overlooked crushed as it is in the midst of great Asian powers, South East Asia recently found a new space in the international system. And this space already attracted the attention of the old and the new great powers that orbit around the region. Other than Asian powers like China and Japan, the United States are currently joined by Australia in an attempt to find a role in the promising markets of South East Asia. Competition for supremacy in the area is in fact paralleled to a quest for the control of the maritime routes that cross the region.