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. At the same time, in the past few years, many South East Asian states have been subjected to power transitions that have remodeled the political architecture of the region as a whole. South East Asia thus is at the verge of a new momentum that witnesses radical changes in the region’s internal power relations and external balance of power. In addition, South East Asian states are diplomatically entwined within the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization that is not dispensed from the reform wave that currently invests the region.
South East Asia includes eleven states, all of which are members of ASEAN but East Timor. Amongst its ranks, the region counts four monarchies (Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand) and seven republics (East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam). Data released by Freedom House paint a deteriorating picture of the state of democracy in the region. Indeed, according to the 2019 report, only East Timor is a country that enjoys full political and civil liberties. Amongst the others, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are listed as partly free states, while Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam enjoy the lowest levels of political and civil freedoms at the regional level. Democracy in South East Asia has constantly been in a precarious state and the electoral turnouts of the past few years have aggravated the situation. In 2019 alone, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia hosted general elections that have caused controversies about their fairness and validity. While in the Philippines doubts were raised with regards to the malfunctioning of vote-counting machines, Thailand’s elections were characterized by political repression and media censorship, according to Human Rights Watch. Lastly, the results of Indonesia’s general elections caused a three-day protest in Jakarta on the basis that the elections had been rigged. Yet, the protests had been inspired by the allegations raised by Prabowo Subianto, losing leader of the opposition, and no evidence was found that supported his claims. Eventually, it was Subianto himself who shut down the protests.
Although democracy (or more likely the erosion of it) remains a key issue for South East Asia, the area also finds itself in the middle of an ‘arm wrestling’ between foreign powers in the pursue of regional influence. While the US and China have long competed over the region, Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy (FOIP) signals a more assertive role for Tokyo that does not exempt South East Asia from its plans. It does not help, of course, that Japan has found the complicity of the US, India and Australia (a partner that is still evaluating whether its identity lies with Western or Asian states) and that this powerful coalition is currently playing zero-sum games with China over the region. Beijing is evermore present in South East Asia thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the projects of which also exploited the connections with the great number of Chinese migrants that moved to the region at the time of the Chinese diaspora. Although some criticalities have emerged with regards to the BRI (especially in Malaysia), since 2013 investments in South East Asia under the banner of the project have amounted at 156.76 billion US dollars, thus making South East Asia the region that mostly benefited from BRI investments.
In addition to political transitions and power competition in the area, South East Asia has also been challenged by systemic issues that call for a coordinated effort between regional members. First, radicalization has been putting under strain the governments of those nations that host a majority of Muslims among their populations. In particular, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have been stricken by a resurgence of extremism and violent attacks. Indeed, Islam is the main religion professed in all these three countries and counts 87.2 percent of the population in Indonesia, 61.3 percent in Malaysia and 78.8 percent in Brunei. The Philippines have also been afflicted by long-lasting instabilities that had been inspired by religious claims. On 29 March 2019, president Rodrigo Duterte managed to put an end to a fifty-years-old conflict in the Southern Philippines by establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and thus finding a compromise with the insurgents, the aim of whom was to establish an Islamic state in the Philippines. Second, climate change is a concrete threat to the region, given that South East Asia is composed of peninsular and insular states. The 2019 Global Climate Risk Index compiled by Germanwatch, indeed, identified four South East Asian states amongst the countries that were more afflicted globally by climate change. Yet, the region has managed to achieve little results, as environmental policies have only been implemented in certain countries, while others still lag behind.
Although South East Asia has managed to carve out a wider niche as an internationally relevant area of the world, the region is still hit by a number of challenges that can only be addressed by a collective effort from its member states. Yet, the increasing erosion of democracy in most South East Asian states and the heightened competition of foreign powers to achieve supremacy over the region hinders the ability of South East Asia to implement common responses to address its most pressing challenges. While ASEAN remains a useful framework for regional powers to converse, its main weakness is turning into a full-blown threat as what the region now urgently needs is not to exchange views but to enact a swift and effective policy implementation that will ensure its stability and security in the long run.