The Challenges of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is quickly emerging as the Asian epicenter of the United States-China great power competition. At the same time, several other outside players are also competing there, including Japan, India and Europe. All of these players’ approaches to the region will determine its geostrategic disposition and thereby the future of the broader Indo-Pacific order. The area also finds itself in the middle of an ‘arm wrestling’ between foreign powers in the pursue of regional influence. While the US and China have long competed over the region, Japan’s FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific) strategy signals a more assertive role for Tokyo.

Moreover, Japan has found the complicity of the US and India and that this powerful coalition is currently playing zero-sum games with China over the region. Beijing is evermore present in South East Asia thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the projects of which also exploited the connections with the great number of Chinese migrants that moved to the region. Although some criticalities have emerged with regards to the BRI (especially in Malaysia), since 2013 investments in South East Asia under the banner of the project have amounted at 156.76 billion US dollars, thus making South East Asia the region that mostly benefited from BRI investments.

The arm wrestling between foreign powers in the pursue of regional influence is not the only problem of South East Asia. In fact, on of the most important problems in the region is the lack of democracy. South East Asia includes eleven states, all of which are members of ASEAN but East Timor.

Amongst its ranks, the region counts four monarchies (Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand) and seven republics (East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam). Data released by Freedom House paint a deteriorating picture of the state of democracy in the region. Indeed, according to the 2019 report, only East Timor is a country that enjoys full political and civil liberties. Amongst the others, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore are listed as partly free states, while, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam enjoy the lowest levels of political and civil freedoms at the regional level.

The radicalization has been putting under strain the governments of those nations that host a majority of Muslims among their populations. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have been stricken by a resurgence of extremism and violent attacks. Indeed, Islam is the main religion professed in all these three countries.

Another important problem of the region is the climate change. In South East Asia the climate change is a concrete threat because the region is composed of peninsular and insular states. The 2019 Global Climate Risk Index compiled by Germanwatch, indeed, identified four South East Asian states amongst the countries that were more afflicted globally by climate change. Yet, the region has managed to achieve little results, as environmental policies have only been implemented in certain countries, while others still lag behind.

Although South East Asia has managed to carve out a wider niche as an internationally relevant area of the world, the region is still hit by a number of challenges that can only be addressed by a collective effort from its member states.

By Domenico Greco

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