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Political Earthquake in ASEAN: Exploring Each Member’s Standing

October 3rd 2016

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a cosmopolitan group drawing from diverse ethnic, historical, and political backgrounds. If there is one thing that unites all ten states, it is that change is occurring at a lightning-fast pace. From Yangon in the west to Manila in the East, globalization and rising living standards are among the key factors in changing the way local constituencies see themselves, their region, and the world. Moreover, considering that five states share territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea while others are courting Beijing for investment projects, the community is being pulled in dramatically different directions. Because of the mounting attention toward Southeast Asia and the rapidly changing political climate, there is prudence in briefly examining changes in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Brunei is one of the smallest states in the world yet perhaps one of the most interesting given its geographic location and ruling monarchy. Despite its small size, its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is high (~29,000 USD in 2015) due to its control of oil reserves. Run by its monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, in 2014 Brunei became the first East Asian state to adopt Sharia law, a move which has been met with considerable domestic and foreign criticism. Located on the island of Borneo, it claims an Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea. Although it generally enjoys a positive relationship with Beijing, their territorial dispute has helped to unify Brunei with its neighbors.

Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia for the last 31 years, rules his state with a domineering hand. His regular use of cronyism to buy support and intimidation to beat back his opposition, currently the Cambodia National Rescue Party, have been hallmarks of his tenure in office. Although installed by Vietnam in the decade after Hanoi overthrew Pol Pot, Hun Sen has shifted his patronage network toward Beijing. His reliance on China was most apparent during the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum. At those meetings, the Cambodia Foreign Minister was conferring with and seeking advice from Chinese officials on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. After appearing to be in Beijing’s pocket, Phnom Penh’s role in the region has been marginalized ever since.

Much like President Obama’s election victory in 2008, Joko Widodo’s victory in Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election was monumental. It symbolized a break with military involvement in political affairs. Since his election, Jokowi, as he is commonly referred to, has taken a stronger stance on China and attempted to elevate Indonesia’s regional influence. In June, the president held a cabinet meeting aboard a navy warship in disputed waters near the Natuna Islands, thereby sending a strong message to China. Economically, the administration has worked to unencumber trade and investment policy, a process which is beginning to bear fruit. Although much work lays ahead for Indonesia to realize its potential, Jokowi has started the process.

Since the end of the wars in Southeast Asia in the mid-twentieth century, few outsiders have spent a moment’s thought on Laos. During the week of September 5th President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country. For the small, land-locked state, hydroelectricity and coal mining are a focus as Vientiane seeks to become “the battery of Southeast Asia.” Unfortunately, under the communist regime, politically-motivated land grabbing for energy production, logging, and other property development efforts has become a problem. Together with its repression of dissent and free media, the government’s corruption has further weakened Laos’ future prospects. Despite Vientiane’s status as the ASEAN chair in 2016, there is little hope for change.

Malaysia, a country with a valuable geographic location, has been beset by political scandals in recent years. The current prime minister, Najib Razak, has been accused of using a state investment fund, 1MDB, to line the pockets of those close to him. So frustrated by what it deemed a lack of cooperation from Malaysian officials, in March Switzerland’s attorney general stated 4 billion USD was unaccounted for in the fund. The US Justice Department recently filed suit alleging 3.5 billion USD was misappropriated. Perhaps most troubling is a Malaysian National Security Council act, effective on August 1st in advance of likely 1MDB-related protests, that give police power to conduct searches without a warrant. These are troubling times for Malaysia.

Myanmar’s election on November 8th, 2015, marked the first free national vote in decades. The National League for Democracy (NLD) defeated the former military junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party. Although the face of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, was legally prevented from the presidency, her confidant, U Htin Kyaw, won the position on March 15th. Prior to losing power, the military mandated that 25% of legislative seats be reserved for their selections: With 75% needed for constitutional reform, the military retained influence. Moving forward, the government will have to address needed economic reform, endemic corruption, and ethnic strife. However, Myanmar’s geographic position makes it a highly sought after partner for China, India, and the US.

On May 9th, 2016, the mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, became the next president of the Philippines. In a sweeping victory, he won a campaign focused on beating back corruption, income inequality, and poor infrastructure. His first test came after Manila’s July 12th victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Throughout the case against Beijing over their South China Sea territorial dispute, Mr. Duterte has attempted to take a conciliatory tone – not what might have been expected considering his bombastic campaign rhetoric. With a victory, the Philippines now must consider what to do next. Fortunately for the government, with one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, Manila is not what it once was – giving it a greater chance to stand up to China.

When Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, died in March 2015, it symbolized a changing of the guard. In August 2015, his son and Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, led the family’s party, the People’s Action Party, to a landslide victory. Bouncing back from a poor election result in 2011, the party focused on elderly welfare, housing aid, and immigration restrictions. The one consideration that seems to have been forgotten is the positive relationship Singapore has forged with Washington. By 2018, four US littoral combat ships will be located in Singapore. Largely driven by freedom of navigation concerns, Singapore has been keen to court US assistance. Their burgeoning partnership represents a new dynamic in regional affairs.

Although many regional states appear to be moving toward democratic principles, Thailand looks to be backsliding. Over the last decade, four democratically elected prime ministers have been removed. The turmoil largely stems from demographic and economic divides between northern Thailand, more pro-China and with a larger voting base, and southern Thailand, more anti-China but with bureaucratic and military influence. On August 7th the military-led government won a constitutional referendum that will create a pro-military commission to oversee the executive branch and permit the military to appoint the entire upper house of the legislature. Although the former prime ministers were generally receptive to Chinese overtures, albeit balanced with the US, the junta’s relationship with Washington has been strained over its suppression of civil liberties, thereby creating an opportunity for Beijing. As a result, while the military and its supporters have historically favored the US, the current predicament suggests a shift toward China is possible.

Perhaps the most intriguing state in Southeast Asia is Vietnam. No sooner had its civil war ended in 1975 than Hanoi was immersed in tension with a former ally, Beijing. Forty years later, gripped by maritime territorial disputes with China, Vietnam has actively pursued engagement opportunities with the US. From joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership to allowing US port calls at Cam Ranh Bay, Hanoi has demonstrated that it has options in the region. However, despite its efforts to alter Southeast Asia’s alignment, Vietnam continues to cooperate with China on economic issues. Its reliance on Beijing firms to provide manufacturing jobs complicates the relationship for Hanoi. While Vietnam has adopted a demonstrable strategy intended to curtail China’s territorial objectives, it has been forced to balance this with economic necessities.

Southeast Asia has undergone a significant period of transformation in recent years. More importantly, this era of change does not seem to be ending any time soon. Issues such as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and efforts to attain democratic freedoms appear to be gripping much of the region. As states such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam work to realize the great potential they all carry, the political dynamics among the ASEAN states are sure to adapt. Moreover, states across the region, including those endowed with natural resources and those without such benefits, are challenged to meet the demands of their citizens. A half decade ago a similar movement swept across the Middle East; now it appears Southeast Asia is undergoing its own transformative moment. Time will tell what outcomes may emerge, but ASEAN will certainly be challenged to adjust accordingly.


About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the HSC Security and Defence division, a Special Assistant to the United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and a James A. Kelly non-resident fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has completed his Executive MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, holds a master’s in East-West Studies at Creighton University, and will be starting his PhD in International Relations at George Mason University in Fall, 2018. His foreign relations areas of concentration include East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Davis has been published in International Affairs Forum, the World Business Institute, and the International Affairs Review, the Diplomat and RealClearDefense. He was also a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.