July 03, 2012

Southeast Asia: Big Brother or Third Way?

03 Jul 2012

Following on from last week's focus on Northeast Asia, we now turn to an equally nationalistic and balance of power-oriented part of the Asia-Pacific region. Since the end of the Second World War, Southeast Asia's emergence onto the world stage has been punctuated by long periods of conflict and Cold War confrontation. Decolonization began almost immediately after the War, with Indonesia securing its independence only after it fought a bitter conflict with its former Dutch masters. By 1954 France was also fighting with Vietnamese rebels to safeguard its territorial interests in Indochina. Indeed, neither was the United Kingdom immune from decolonization. Burma, for example, declared its independence in 1948, the same year that the United Kingdom embarked on the Malayan Emergency to suppress Communist insurrection within the colony.

Many of the newly-independent Southeast Asian states initially chose to remain outside of the competing Cold War alliances. The Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, together with Indonesia's President Sukarno, was among the co-founders of the Non-Aligned Movement. Attempts at enhancing regional cooperation began in earnest in 1967 with the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Yet, as the Malayan Emergency demonstrates, Southeast Asia was by no means able to entirely escape the Cold War. Between 1955 and 1975, the United States battled Communist troops in Vietnam in a conflict that also spilled over into Laos and Cambodia. Moreover, the Cold War also provided opportunities for political leaders to seize power. In 1965, for example, General Suharto seized power in Indonesia and set about suppressing the Indonesian Communist Party.

But despite the region's checkered history, Southeast Asia has experienced periods of unprecedented economic growth and regional cooperation. Rapid industrialization and high growth rates throughout the 1950s and 1960s led to Singapore's membership of a group of regional emerging economies known as the 'Asian Tigers'. These Asia-Pacific states in turn provided the blueprint for similar models of economic development throughout Southeast Asia. By 1999, all but one Southeast Asian state (Timor-Leste) was a member of ASEAN, thereby making it an organization of contrasting political systems and stages of economic development. The end of the Cold War also prompted the main guarantor of regional security – the United States – to reduce its presence throughout Southeast Asia. In the case of the Philippines, this resulted in the closure of US facilities at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay.

However, Southeast Asia by no means provides a blueprint for regional stability. Thailand and the Philippines, for example, continue to battle ethnic and ideological unrest, whereas Myanmar still walks a fine line between democracy and military rule. National identity also underpins the claims made by several ASEAN states for a number of resource rich islands in the South China Sea. Indeed, competing territorial claims for the likes of the Paracel and Spratley Islands also demonstrate that Southeast Asia needs to take into account the geopolitical calculations of China. Not only does Beijing stake claims to these islands, China's increasing military prowess means that it now has the hardware to safeguard these claims by force.
More recently, the emergence of China as a frontline military and geopolitical power prompted the United States to reset its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. But does the United States' 'return' to Asia-Pacific mean that Southeast Asian states are now required to align their geopolitical and security interests to either Washington or Beijing? Or do regional organizations like ASEAN provide Southeast Asia with an opportunity to forge an alternative arrangement whereby strategic interests are balanced between both powers? Indeed, addressing such concerns is important as China also shares a rich history of diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia and is increasingly important to the region's economic development.

In order to address such questions, we begin this week with an overview of how Southeast Asian states are balancing their diplomatic and economic ties between China and the United States. We then consider whether regional organizations like ASEAN can develop and lead a 'third way' aimed at safeguarding the geopolitical and economic stability of Southeast Asia. On Wednesday we analyze one of the major complicating factors of regional integration and security – the disputed islands and maritime boundaries of the South China Sea.

We conclude our week with two case studies that highlight the challenges Southeast Asia faces in terms of developing effective regional alliances. On Thursday we outline how Thailand is balancing its relations with China and the United States against the backdrop of domestic political unease and ethnic conflict on its borders. We conclude with analysis of Sino-Vietnamese relations and how Hanoi increasingly overlooks ideological affinities and historical memory to balance its relations with the United States and China.

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