10 ASEAN Trends to Watch for in 2013
Image Credit: Wikicommons

10 ASEAN Trends to Watch for in 2013


“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” American baseball icon Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying. It is nonetheless interesting to ponder what major events to watch out for in Southeast Asia in 2013. Below is a list of ten things to keep an eye out for in the region in the new year.

1. How will ASEAN’s new chief fare? Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh took over as ASEAN Secretary-General on January 1, 2013. He will have big shoes to fill as his predecessor, Surin Pitsuwan, was a dynamic chief during his five-year term – and some argue its most effective one yet. If Surin’s task was to make ASEAN a household name, Minh’s task, as I’ve argued earlier, will be to preserve its centrality in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges. His extensive diplomatic experience will come in handy in achieving the main goals he has outlined, including progress on economic integration and negotiations on the South China Sea. It will also be interesting to see if Minh is able to make progress on some of the reforms Surin has been pushing, such as strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat.

2. New waves in the South China Sea? It’s a no brainer that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea would make this list. In 2012, it was the subject of tensions between China and the Philippines in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, fierce divisions within ASEAN, and Beijing-issued passports containing the so-called “nine-dashed line” in a bold attempt to gain recognition for its extensive claims from other states. What will we see in 2013? Will there be progress towards a binding code of conduct on the South China Sea, another wave of assertiveness by China followed by responses by other claimants, or some calm before the next storm?

3. Will the U.S. ‘rebalance’ sustain? The U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific has been met by a mix of content and skepticism by Southeast Asian states. The skepticism is rooted in the fact that the U.S.’ heightened presence in the region may not be sustainable because of domestic economic difficulties, divisive politics, distractions in other regions, and the exit of dynamic personalities such as Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell. U.S. officials insist that such concerns are overblown. Nonetheless, 2013 will be the year of judgment for how Southeast Asia features in the foreign policy of President Obama’s second term.

4. Can ASEAN unite? As I’ve pointed out before, outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has repeatedly stressed that the organization’s main challenge will be whether member states can move towards greater regional integration. Despite advances in 2012, setbacks have led ASEAN to delay launching the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by nearly a year to the end of 2015. More important than any deadline though is the extent to which Southeast Asian states can bridge their differences in 2013 in the interest of not only regional unity, but also broader Asian integration which has ASEAN in the driver’s seat. 

5. How “robust” will growth be? Some have been fairly bullish about economic growth in Southeast Asia in 2013. The OECD’s November forecast posited that growth will begin to return to a “robust” pre-crisis average of 5.5% which will be achieved by 2017. The group claims the region will be powered by domestic demand growth and private consumption and investment rather than exports, which will insulate it from slowing growth in India and China. Earlier this month, the Asian Development Bank revised its forecast for Southeast Asian growth from 5.2% to 5.3%. But the key will be the extent to which downside risks in 2013 – principally enduring problems in Europe and uncertainty in the United States – may dampen growth prospects in the region.

January 6, 2013 at 08:46

An interesting analysis.
Would be interested in learning more about how you view this issue of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and its increasingly imperialist nationalism.

ratana Cambodia
January 5, 2013 at 17:47

Asean has long way to go ahead. All nation states in ASEAN must have one voice in order to be united.

david teng
January 5, 2013 at 01:08

A fair and accurate list highlights expected in 2013 but current variables and convening factors are pointing out to a potential gamechanger that will be a mother of all trends: South China Sea pulls ASEAN together and resets Chinese regional deplomacy:
.  Top of the pyramid: New ASEAN chief Vietnamese Le Luong Minh will be certainly more assertive than his Thai predessesor Surin Pitsuwan in coordinating the South China Sea issues and the COC dialogue, since Vietnam is the most at risk of all claimants and a targeted Chinese hostilities. The incoming chair Brunei will also perceive more pressure from the failed Cambodian chairmanship, a directly affected claimant in the dispute and the uncertainty of forthcoming transitioned chairmanships to Myanmar ( 2014 ), Laos ( 2016 ). Brunei already announced South China Sea  and COC as its top agenda for this year and hinted at " consultation with all regional and international powers ". A clear and confident departure from last year's chair. This dynamic synergy will generate an attentive focus and vocal leadership to keep ASEAN heat on China throughout 2013.
2. Middle of the pyramid: the encouraged Philippines knows that its vocal challenge to China is working and its economy is improving enough to remain at the center of the debate. Most dominant and ambitious Indonesia was diplomatically slighted by Cambodian/China alliance last year, but still gained enough political capital to exert more preventive measurements against another break-down. Malaysian government will kill 2 birds with 1 stone when it takes a stronger opposition to Chinese expansionism in South China Sea and sends a clear domestic warning to the loyalty divided Chinese Malaysians. These 3 original founders/claimants ( part of Indonesia's EEZ is inside the Chinese 9 dash map ) will play off the lead from Brunei and Vietnam to strive for a more dettached ASEAN from Chinese dependence.
3. Bottom of pyramid: The only non-colonized country/co-founder of ASEAN Thailand prides itself as neutrality internationalist master but, historical facts often point out Thailand often just simply waited out any dispute to side with clear winner. Thailand may drag its feet as the current ASEAN coordinator with China and  will enjoy the position of last founder to oppose Chinese overreach in South China Sea. Myanmar will stay under the cover of Thailand to gradually loosen up its Chinese dependency until finally join up with Thailand for the hesitant loyalty revesal. Myanmar will push the change-up before 2014 when it would be pressured from China as the ASEAN chair. Keenly aware of the historic failure of recent chairmanship and the heat it brought to Cambodia, Hun Sen will wait until his premiership is secured for few more years and slowly redirect away from China still drawing Chinese aids along the way. Laos has been under intense Chinese pressure while watching its 2 nearest neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam pulling 2 different directions with mixed results. Laos will support any reasonable disposition of South China Sea matter before 2016.
. Regional alliance is forming: The newly eclected PM of Japan, Shinzo Abe recycled his 5 years old belief that Japan/China relation will not improve unless and until a vastly improved militarized Japan can closely align with US interest in Asia, strategically coordinates with Australia, India, Russia, the Philippines and Vietnam for a peace, security and prosperity circle. Australia already had a head start with US marines on land and redirected economic tie from China to India. Both India and Russia have recently upgraded strategic treaties and signed long-term oil/gas joint-ventures with Vietnam despite vocal Chinese protests. While Russia has become the main naval and air suppliers, India has trained Vietnamese submarine sailers for the past 5 years and making more port calls to Vietnam than any other navies.
. US Pivot to Asia: After some tentative steps last year, the US are now logistically transitioned into a gradual but full engagement mode with extra accesses in the Australia, Japan and the Philippines. More may be possible with Indonesia and Vietnam. President Omaba's reelection for 2nd term ensures irreversible outcome of this rebalance, emphasised by his historic visit to Myanmar en route to Thailand and Cambodia. With Iraq behind and Afganistan scheduled to be over by 2014, the US is meeting its time table of 60% boots on the ground and 60% vessels count in Asia in a matter of 2 years. This critical mass is a serious trump card that would allow various Asian countries to consolidate into a more offensive gesturing against further Chinese aggression and South China Sea is definitely the most ligical flashpoint. Due to its deterioted economic activities and other domestic priorities, the sustainability of US presence in Asia is calibrated to address freedom of global economic growth and ease of navigation while encouraging regionally based conflicts resolution.
. China's overplay its hand: The South China Sea illustrates both Chinese capabilities to be strategically patient and tactically premature. After decades of well hidden ambition which included only armed attacks and possessions of Paracel and some Spratly islands in the 1970's and 1980's,  China did not react in any noticeable way when its 9 dash map strongly rejected by all neighbors. In fact, it did not attempt to offer any more scientific locators and/or sovereignty request explanation until its fluries of recent activities. These activities not only implied desire for total ownership of South China Sea but also repeated disregards for signed agreements ( COC, UNCLOS and regional treaties ). Chinese willingness to militarize its occupied islands, harassing neighbor's fishing and oil exploration activities, engaging physical infringement of others EEZ previleges, passing Chinese laws aiming at exclusive control of international navigation, elevating civil administrative systems and constructing permanent offensive bases… has broken regional stability and caused record military spendings throughout ASEAN. This relentless Chinese aggression has its consequences… China has become more isolated than ever before and actually started to pull non-Chinese claimants together. Global communities took a closer look and initiated assistances to small nations. After over-playing its hand for 2 years and facing growing resistance at all levels, China is scaling back its Hainan passed regulations of imposing Chinese control to all vessels to only 12 miles of Hainan coastline. That's a temporary and forced reversal after authorizing Hainan province to legally responsible for all lands and water within the 9 dash Chinese jurisdiction. There is a lesson for ASEAN here: united, forceful and vocal reactions to Chinese illegal acts work even if only temporarily. The next Chinese move will be to target and apply its Hainan passed laws only to Filippino and Vietnamese ships, hoping to avoid regional and global uproars… ASEAN will need to immediately intervene or target will expand to include Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. There's a lot at stake here if Chinese behavior can not be modified to meet international acceptance. Perhaps, Mr. Shinzo Abe has it right all along: bully China can be a useful member of global community when its aggressive actions are met by equally strong circle of willing nations. Let's give China 1 more shot to make it right.     

January 4, 2013 at 14:00

The sooner ASEAN unites into the asean economic community in 2015, the sooner they can merge with China, Korea and Japan into the East Asian community.
I support Asean.
"Towards an Integrated East Asia Community"


EU in the west, Eurasian Union in the centre, East Asian Community in the east. And the SCO will bind the entire eurasian continent together. That is the grand strategic plan.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief