Southeast Asia is an increasingly important region, encompassing some of the most dynamic economies in the world and located at the crossroads between East and South Asia, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The 10 Southeast Asian countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—which serves as the convening power in the region—have emerged as the lynchpin of economic integration efforts in Asia, as well as the arena in which geopolitical rivalries between China, the United States, Japan, and India play out.
Effective engagement with Southeast Asia remains important for the advancement of U.S. economic and strategic interests, but cooperation with the region is becoming more complicated. The rejection of elites and the rise of populist governments in recent elections have led to increasingly insular and in some cases nondemocratic governance in Southeast Asia. The past two U.S. administrations have made real strides in strengthening ties with this vital region, and maintaining focus on Southeast Asia, despite growing difficulties, is key to broader U.S. strategy in Asia going forward.
Southeast Asia is being confronted by growing external challenges—the rise of China in particular—at the same time that the effectiveness of local governments is being weakened by the same antiestablishment trends that are fraying the post-Cold War order in many parts of the world. The populist uprising against elites is already well under way in Southeast Asia, which also has to contend with the security challenges posed by the rise of China to great power status and the spillover effects chaos in the Middle East is having on the broader Islamic world.
Populist and inward-looking leaders control the presidencies in both Indonesia and the Philippines after the unexpected rise of local mayors Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Rodrigo Duterte. Seemingly unassailable elite institutions like the ruling coalition in Malaysia are having to make unprecedented efforts to hold on to power. Meanwhile, Thailand is once again under military rule after toppling a second democratically elected government led by the populist Shinawatra family.
While local elites are busy fending off or succumbing to populist challenges to their rule, the rise of China is rapidly changing the strategic realities in the region. Southeast Asian countries want to continue to enjoy strategic autonomy while relying on China’s economic engine for growth, but growing Chinese ambitions are making that balance more difficult to maintain. China is steadily building the economic and military wherewithal to pose the first real challenge to U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific since the end of World War II. China under Xi Jinping has not been shy about throwing its growing weight around, particularly in the South China Sea, and is unlikely to become more accommodating as the regional balance of power shifts in its favor.
Meanwhile, the spread of Islamic extremism and threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia continues to be a major worry, exacerbated by the ongoing chaos in the Middle East. Propaganda from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups is spurring radicalization among local Muslim populations, and there is concern that fighters returning from the war in Syria will bring back skills that will boost the capability of Southeast Asia terrorist groups.
Due to several recent political transitions, governments in Southeast Asia are focused on domestic politics and narrow self-interest, making them less willing and able to work with other Southeast Asian states and outside partners to address the growing external challenges that are facing the region. The rise of populism in the region has led to a greater inward focus and prickly nationalism in Indonesia and the Philippines, and rising authoritarianism in Malaysia and Thailand.
Indonesia’s step back under Jokowi from its traditional leadership role in Southeast Asia has been particularly consequential and has left ASEAN without the guidance of Southeast Asia’s largest country at an inopportune time. At the same time, Washington’s fraying ties with its allies in Bangkok and Manila are undermining the U.S. security bulwark in Southeast Asia when it is in need of being bolstered, and emerging U.S. partners like Malaysia are too focused on domestic political scandals to help fill the gap.
China is exploiting the vacuum of leadership in the region to its own advantage, dividing ASEAN to prevent challenges to its expansive claims and military construction efforts in the South China Sea. China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea are steadily raising tensions with the United States, increasing the risks of a military confrontation that would force Southeast Asian states to choose sides between the competing powers.
While regional governments remain stalwart on countering terrorist threats, there has been a growing willingness to accommodate rising religious intolerance for political gain. This not only complicates deradicalization efforts by mainstreaming the views of extremist groups, but also negatively impacts social stability by politicizing race and religion.
Follow the link to read on about CSIS proposed guidelines for engaging Southeast Asia.