Analysing Developments and Trends in Southeast Asia 2023
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

As the world closed in 2023 and entered 2024, there are several indicators based on the past events that the Southeast Asian region is likely to witness many tumultuous developments. Around the world, Southeast Asia included, a host of elections shall be seen – presidential elections in Taiwan (already held where DPP has won), Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the US, general elections in Bangladesh (where Sheikh Hasina has won), India, Pakistan and the Solomon Islands. Legislative polls also can take place in Japan, South Korea and Singapore if decisions are taken to have snap elections. The outcomes of these elections shall have huge impact on the strategic outlook of these respective countries based on the priorities the elected leaders would choose to pursue.

The strategic outlook of the nations in Southeast Asia shall be underpinned by worrying economic issues, as their dependence on Chinese economy shall be another determining factor in influencing policy judgement. The level of economic interdependence that China has developed in its relations with the nations in Southeast Asia shall remain as the influencer in the strategic choices of these nations in the region where adjustment, compromise, accommodation and recalibration shall be factors in making judgement.

The region has a number of festering conflicts. The prominent of such issues are Myanmar where the military junta had seized power in Feb 2021 and a coordinated resistance offensive took shape in the latter part of 2023, the South China Sea where the Philippines is facing off against China and tensions nearby in the Taiwan Strait. The cumulative impact of these festering issues combined with events elsewhere such as in the Middle East and Europe shall shape the strategic outlook of the nations in Southeast Asia. In view of these wider geopolitical trends, if 2023 was a rollercoaster, 2024 would be no different.

Though issues are many that could influence in shaping the strategic trends in the coming months of 2024, some major ones are identified for analysis in this article.

Tensions in South China Sea

After reports emerged that the South China Sea contains huge amounts of resources, many countries in the region started claiming ownership to that part of the sea that fell within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). On the other hand, China started claiming this part of the water body almost in its entirety. Soon China issued military threats to assert its claim, stoking tensions as the small nations with claim to parts of the sea had no means to defend their sovereign rights. Thus China’s assertiveness in regional issues triggered a veritable arms race as nations started strengthening their own defence capabilities and deepening defence ties with friendly nations.

Among the countries in Southeast Asia having claims to parts falling within their EEZ, only Vietnam and the Philippines decided to stand up to the Chinese challenge. First it was Vietnam that was engaged in a spat with Beijing, starting with water cannon firing on each others’ vessels. But in 2023, Vietnam’s stance changed and started making peace with China with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi and Vietnam’s PM to Beijing. This being so, Vietnam is unlikely to be too cosy with China if the latter ever was to cross the red line. Here, ideological compatibility has no place when it comes to strategic considerations.

But Philippines decided to take up its case before the international arbitral tribunal, where it won the case in July 2016. The tribunal dismissed China’s claims as invalid and without any basis. Beijing rejected the verdict and continued to assert its sovereignty claims more aggressively. China has been harassing Philippines resupply missions for more than a decade and has been steadily increasing the intensity of their coercive tactics for at least the last five years.

In the second half of 2023, collisions between Chinese and Philippines vessels in the South China Sea began piling up at an alarming rate. Like with the Vietnamese vessels earlier, Chinese vessels used water cannons and collided with Philippine ships seeking to resupply an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by China. Manila reported “swarming” of other disputed reefs by Chinese fishing vessels and maritime militia. There are possibilities that such clashes shall continue and even escalate in 2024.

Tensions had been simmering for over a decade. In the meantime, Philippines-US alliance has been strengthened with greater US presence in the Philippines waters. This deepening of alliance between the US and the Philippines is a symptom of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, not its cause.

In the closing three months of 2023, there were a spate of reported run-ins between Chinese and Philippines vessels near disputed maritime features in the South China Sea, including several collisions. The frequency of such encounters could be caucus belli for a potential larger conflagration if diplomacy fails. The frequency and intensity of these run-ins that began from spring 2022 started increasing. China has maintained a daily coast guard patrol around Second Thomas Shoal – the site of these incidents – since late 2013 and has regularly deployed maritime militia boats around it since at least 2018. China has also blocked or harassed Philippine resupply missions to the troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal on many occasions under both the previous Aquino and Duterte administrations. Having decided to be cosy with China, Duterte underplayed such incidents. Marcos Jr is of different metal.

India’s Position

India has been consistent in its policy in defending global rules and pleaded for a rules-based order. As a responsible stakeholder, India is committed to support capacity building of friendly countries enabling those to defend their sovereignty. India has not only deepened defence ties with those nations but also supported their defence industry.

India entered into agreement with the Philippines for the sale of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana, in a notice of award on 31 December 2022 to BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd, detailed the Philippines’ acceptance of the deal for $374 million. This is India’s first sale of indigenously produced defence product. As per the deal, India will soon begin supplying Manila with three anti-ship coastal batteries of the 290-km range BrahMos missile under the $375 million contract inked in January 2023.

India took serious note when Philippines revealed in early December 2023 that more than 135 Chinese vessels were “swarming” a reef off its coast. It described the boats’ growing presence as “alarming” and “illegal”. The Chinese boats were “dispersed and scattered” within the boomerang-shaped Whitsum Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe Reef, around 320 km west of Palawan Island. In 2021, a similar incident involving more than 200 Chinese vessels at the reef sparked a diplomatic row.

When tensions between China and the Philippines increased with the former scaling up strong-arm tactics against its smaller neighbour in contravention of international norms, India dispatched its anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kadmatt on “a goodwill visit” to stress the robust bilateral relations between India and the Philippines as “fellow democracies” and to help maintain maritime order. India’s decision was to demonstrate that both India and the Philippines have shared interest in the peace and stability of the region and therefore its objective to support Philippines stemmed from its respects for the constitution of the seas. INS Kadmatt took part in a “maritime partnership exercise” with an offshore patrol vessel of the Philippine Navy, BRP Ramon, in the South China Sea, where China is locked in territorial disputes with its neighbours. With an eye firmly on China, India has been steadily expanding military ties with ASEAN countries in recent years.

As expected, Chinese military was irked by Indian Navy drill with Philippines. It was categorical in remarking that defence cooperation between different countries should not harm the interests of third countries and regional peace and stability. Philippines Navy has also plans to hold naval and air drills with France. This too would be objected by Beijing.

It thus transpires that China is getting restive about military cooperation between Philippines and other countries as its coast guard ships are involved in face-offs with Philippines Navy vessels to assert Beijing’s control over the parts of the disputed South China Sea. Now it is well known that China claims most of the South China Sea despite that the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have made counterclaims over the area.

The latest in the Chinese move is the appointment of a new Defence Minister with South China Sea background. After Li Shangfu, the former defence minister, disappeared from public view, President Xi Jinping changed the defence portfolio and brought in Dong Jun, the former naval chief, with a view to make China a dominant power. A crucial element of his job would be to engage with the US military to lower the risk of conflict over Taiwan and the South China Sea, two flashpoints to which Dong is no stranger.

Case of Myanmar

The second disturbing development that that kept he countries in Southeast Asia engaged and is likely to continue into 2024 is the slaughter of democracy in Myanmar by the military junta Min Aung Hlaing. Despite the repressive measures by the junta, resistance forces are not going to give up. Martial law has been imposed in 50 townships across the country. Efforts by the ASEAN bloc to persuade the junta to restore normalcy have not succeeded because of the unresponsive nature of the junta. The junta is not deterred by the spate of sanctions imposed by many countries. Myanmar was even not invited by Japan to the special Japan-ASEAN summit it hosted in Tokyo in December. The cumulative impact of the junta has adversely impacted on the ASEAN centrality.

Cambodia

For the first time in nearly four decades, Cambodia has a new prime minister when in August 2023, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s leader since late 1984, stepped aside to make way for his eldest son, Hun Manet. Manet’s accession to power heralded a new era for the country in terms of symbolic change at the top. Though Manet was expected to offer mostly continuity in change, he has been active in reaching out to Japan, possibly to change the perception that Cambodia was getting too cosy with China.

This transpired when Manet had a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the Commemorative Summit for the 50th year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation and the First Asia Zero Emission Community summit hosted by Japan on 18 December in Tokyo. During the meeting, Japan pledged to provide $170 million in financial assistance to Cambodia to improve rural healthcare and various development projects. Manet pledged to consolidate his country’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Japan. Japan and Cambodia upgraded their bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2023, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. Several cooperation documents were also signed.

In February 2024, Japan will conduct the 6th invitation programme for young Cambodians involved in politics, from both the ruling and opposition parties. The two leaders agreed to cooperate in that area. It transpires therefore that Cambodia’s new leader has prioritised consolidating relations with important countries of the region without developing dependency ties with any.

Vietnam

Like Cambodia, Vietnam too has decided to fortify its security and trade relations with Japan. This seems to be because of China’s growing influence in the region. Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong visited Japan in December 2023, during which he and Kishida agreed to expand the security cooperation, work on defence equipment and technology transfers, and begin talking about a new Japanese aid programme for the militaries of like-minded developing nations in the area. The joint statement committed both sides to develop the relations into a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and that they would “further expand it to new fronts and new heights” their ongoing cooperation.

Japan has been rapidly developing closer ties with Vietnam, a key Southeast Asian nation that has important security and economic roles in the region faced with China’s rise and rivalry with the United States and other Western nations. It meant that that Japan now gained the status of Vietnam’s top-tier partners, along with the US, China and India. Kishida identified Vietnam as “a key partner in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Thuong reciprocated by observing that close cooperation between the two countries would contribute to the region’s peace and prosperity.

Thoung’s four-day visit was a rare state guest marking the two countries’ 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Imperial Palace for a meeting and lunch hosted by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. In addition, he gave a speech at the Lower House, the more powerful of Japan’s two parliamentary chambers, and visited a hydrogen energy facility in Fukuoka in southern Japan.

Three months ago, Vietnam hosted President Joe Biden’s with immense diplomatic dexterity and signed Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This was followed by a highly successful visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Vietnam. At the heart of their bilateral relations are contacts between the Communist Parties of the two countries who have not only sustained communications during difficult and tense moments, but also facilitate training of members between the two Parties.

While in Hanoi, Xi shared the Chinese vision of ‘shared future’ structured for a new global order. First propounded in 2013 by President Xi in his address at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the idea has been “steadily enriched”, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative. These have “borne fruits, bringing prosperity and stability to the world and creating substantive benefits for the people”.

As regards Vietnam’s relations with India, despite that the visits of political leaders from India to Vietnam were on track, there seemed to be something lacking in mutual understanding on certain hidden issues, which are not voiced by either side. Backed by civilizational links dating back to centuries and of mutual respect, the relationships between the two countries were elevated to comprehensive strategic partnership when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Vietnam in July-August 2016. There has been regular exchange of visits at various political levels. It is perceived in India that despite the congenial relationship between India and Vietnam and Vietnam’s bitter experience in relations with China over South China Sea, Vietnam is getting too cosy with China in recent times.

Despite India’s defence and external affairs ministers visiting Vietnam in December, there seems to be some hiccups which are not articulated by either side. This probably remains the reason why a visit by Vietnam’s Prime Minister to India has not materialised. It is hoped that the New Year shall reopen a new chapter in the bilateral ties.

Apparently, ASEAN nations have been rather lukewarm to India-led four path-breaking initiatives, namely the International Solar Alliance (ISA), Global Bio-Fuel Alliance (GBA), the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), and the creation of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), none of which are controversial but designed for the common good. The New Year shall offer an opportunity for the ASEAN nations to introspect and understand the merit of the four initiatives by making their own independent judgement and not getting influenced by any outside power having ulterior motives to frustrate the success of the initiatives so that its own agenda can be promoted.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/8/87/Flag_of_ASEAN.svg/1200px-Flag_of_ASEAN.svg.png

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