“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.
6. How will Brunei perform in the hot seat? Turning to specific countries, all eyes will be on Brunei in 2013 as it takes over the ASEAN chairmanship. 2012 was a troubling year for the ASEAN chair Cambodia as it presided over (and some say was responsible for) the organization’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communique amid allegations that China was using its influence on Phnom Penh to split ASEAN. Some fear that a string of smaller or less developed ASEAN countries chairing the organization – Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014, Laos in 2016 – is a cause for concern. Though Brunei has traditionally preferred maintaining a low profile, being a South China Sea claimant (unlike Cambodia), it may yet prove a capable leader and take a stronger line against Beijing.
7. Change or continuity in Malaysia? Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has to dissolve parliament and call for a general election before April 28, 2013, where his Barisan Nasional (BN) party will seek to recover from the unprecedented 2008 loss of its prized two-thirds majority. Despite presiding over a good economic year in 2012, a string of corruption scandals and growing dissatisfaction among Indian and Chinese voters as well as the youth could cause problems for Najib’s party at the polls in 2013. While few expect the world’s longest serving elected political coalition to lose, many expect it to be a closer fight than Najib would like with potential advances by the opposition led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
8. Will the Myanmar spring endure? While many continue to marvel at the ongoing reform process in Myanmar, some caution that the progress is still reversible. Several twists and turns along the road could derail or delay change. These include resistance from laggards, cronies, and the still powerful military, protests leading to massive crackdowns, raging insurgencies in ethnic minority areas spiraling out of control, and a deterioration in the health of the aging President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who are both vital to reform efforts. Will the Myanmar spring endure through 2013?
9. Is the Philippine diamond forever? 2012 was an especially good year for the Philippines. Economically, with the country recently registering the highest growth in Asia after China and its stock market repeatedly breaking records, some analysts call it “the diamond of the region”. Other achievements outside the realm of economics have been notable as well, including the inking of a landmark peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the passage of historic legislation on tax reform, reproductive health and enforced disappearances. President Benigno Aquino III enjoys high popularity ratings and has said 2013 will be an even better year. But 2012 will be tough to beat, and major challenges remain, ranging from the unemployment rate and corruption at home to territorial disputes with China abroad.
10. What will elections in Cambodia bring? As early as mid-2012, some were already declaring that the overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in June commune elections meant that it would win a landslide victory in general elections in July 2013. Odds are that Hun Sen will preserve his place in the club of the world’s top ten longest serving political leaders through elections that are far from free or fair. Even so, factors such as the merger of Cambodia’s two leading opposition parties and discontent over issues like land reform nonetheless present potential, albeit narrow openings for limited contestation and perhaps more opposition seats.
Of course, this list is far from comprehensive. It leaves out other issues and several countries that could steal the show in 2013 as well as potential black swans that are hard to predict. Nonetheless, the ten items presented above illustrate that the year of the snake will hardly be a dull one for Southeast Asia and those who watch the region closely.