Mme Sophie Boisseau du Rocher
Doctor of Political Science

South-East Asia, an endangered world

 

Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is a doctor of political science, a scholar linked to the GRIP (Group for research and information on peace and security, whose seat is in Brussels, https://www.grip.org) and associated with Central Asia of the IFRI (Institut Francais de Relations Internationales, https://www.ifri.org). She is a specialist in South-East Asia and the author of ‘l’Asie du Sud-Est Prise au piege’ (2009). We present here a slightly abbreviated version of her article (http://nations-emergentes.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/asean-geopolitique.pdf).

 

South-East Asia holds a particular and privileged place in the world, duly valued by the people of the world. It has long been particularly close to the United States, to Japan and to the European Union, but for the last fifteen years has been attracted to the destructive influence of China. How far can this closeness go without endangering the stability of the region and western interests? Tension and uncertainty are today the most appropriate terms to define the politics of South-East Asia. While ASEAN[1] firms up its community project for the end of 2015 (a shared economy, a shared socio-cultural community, a community for politics and security) it is legitimate to question its internal stability in the bosom of South-East Asia, a region long weakened by deep dissensions.

South-East Asia holds a special place in the world. It is a crossroads, a transitional space, a corridor of traffic, a theatre of intervention, a vital maritime angle which joins the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Bringing together eleven states, from the Indonesian giant to the tiny Singapore and the infant Timor, it constitutes an ensemble placed east of India and south of China, inspired by two major influences, today inspired by an economic dynamism and an appetite for a worldwide strategy.

Is South-East Asia on the point of becoming a vital factor in the confrontation between China and America? Anyone who has followed the lively exchanges of the Shangri-La Dialogue[2] (held at Singapore 30th May/1st June 2014) understands the interest of this question and its multiple consequences for the way the region will develop. For the first time in history the Dialogue has raised tough, one might say muscular, debates between the participants, notably China, United States and Japan. As during the cold war South-East Asia, the vital link in world equilibrium, is becoming a theatre of special competition. Of course China and the United States are the principal movers in this dynamic, but the other Asiatic countries do not neglect this region, though Europe trails behind.

 

China / United States / South-East Asia: a daring bet?

South-East Asia was one of the most virulent theatres of the cold war because the competition between the two world-systems doubled a rivalry between communist powers. As a show-case of liberal development the founding countries of ASEAN linked their growth to a dependency on western powers, who opened their markets and invested massively. At the beginning of the 1990s it was from South-East Asia that the initiatives which today characterise the region came.

The crisis of 1997 profoundly modified this situation. The western powers kept their distance and China became a principal financial agent. At present it is aiming to become the principal financier of South-East Asia, for the reality cannot be avoided, ‘China is our neighbour, while the United States have to cross an ocean’. Strong by this economic proximity, China, which continues to modernise its armed forces, presents itself as a political ally: the ‘power-shift’ cannot be missed. But although the countries of South-East Asia accept in principle its status as regional leader, this does not remove all liberty of action.

On the occasion of the sixteenth meeting of China and ASEAN at Brunei in 2013 Prime Minister Li put forward a series of proposals to deepen the links of friendly co-operation between China and ASEAN. Beijing established a ‘strategic global partnership’ with Indonesia and Malaysia (to which Thailand was also a member) for defence. In this partnership there was little place for the United States, though President Obama declared that ‘the engagement of the United States in Asia is critical for the United States’, although the American withdrawal from South West Asia was completed. Links with Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were strengthened. New partnerships were sought for Vietnam, namely Myanmar. The United States aimed to remain a central actor in the security structure of the region. Just as in the 1970s, the countries of South East Asia wanted to keep their options open and maintain a dialogue with all their partners. All well and good, but China could show itself a less flexible partner and interpret security links with the United States as threats to its own security.

Nor could Japan remain indifferent, and began knocking at the door of ASEAN and underlining its central position in the architecture of security. Similarly, India’s ‘Look East’ policy kept it an active partner in eastern Asia. It had no intention of allowing South-East Asia to become a trampoline for China to threaten its interests. In this volatile partnership Europe seemed to trail behind. It could play its part in fields where European expertise was recognised (anti-piracy co-operation, protection of nuclear sites, etc), but in the present state of its evolution it could not play on the same level as China and America.

 

And internal security?

The issues of international security in South East Asia are so dominant that it is easy to forget that they are not the only factors in the security of the region, and it is not possible to estimate the global threat without integrating into it the intra-regional dimension. South-East Asia has long been a theatre of conflict between the states which make it up, for example the tensions generated by the formation of Malaysia in the 1960, which provoked a war with Indonesia and serious tension with the Philippines. Shots were exchanged in 2012 on the frontier between Cambodia and Thailand.

Apart from frontier-questions, other sources of instability threaten peace in the region: radical Islam constitutes one of these, especially in the archipelagos of Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia. Remember the terrible, bloody assassinations of Bali in 2002. The violence of particular groups (Jemmah Islaya, Abu Sayyat) is made all the more effective by their alliance, which makes the anti-terrorist struggle all the more difficult. It is the same with piracy which, even though it does not make the headlines, continues to rage in the waters of South-East Asia. There was a recrudescence of attacks in 2013. In the first three months of 2014 there were 23 attacks in the waters of the region, mostly in Indonesia.

Another source of instability is displacement of populations. In this field also the consequent problems of security are too often forgotten. In Thailand alone live almost three million Burmans, and 400,000 Cambodian labourers, as well as those from Laos and Vietnam. Such displacements are caused by ethnic, religious and political or simply economic factors. In Singapore there are often clashes between clandestine Indonesians and Philippinos.

Finally environmental questions constitute a new source of threat. The great natural dangers (tsunamis and earthquakes) are aggravated by the conditions which produce them, namely the context of an uncontrolled urbanisation. Deforestation and urban pollution pose a whole series of questions which cannot be ignored: the forest-fires of Indonesia continue to disturb the daily life of millions of people in Singapore, Malaysia and Borneo.

The whole question at present is to know whether the Political Community of Security for ASEAN will succeed in curbing these disquieting threats to the international situation. The means employed to control them provide little reassurance. Even if exterior pressure does not intensify the international interest, none of the states of the region, even the rich island of Singapore, will be able to resist this exterior pressure. With the multiplication of incidents in the China Sea, South-East Asia is becoming aware that it is entering an era of instability. The risks of tensions and of degenerating into crisis are real, not only between the states of ASEAN but also with their exterior partners. The region may serve as a theatre of a change of relationship between China and America: its importance is obvious from the high stakes involved.

 

[1] ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.

[2] Initiated in 2002, this Dialogue is a forum of high-level debate on questions of security in eastern Asia.

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