It’s time for my annual list of 10 trends to watch in Southeast Asia during the new calendar year, something I have previously done for The Diplomat in 2013 and 2014. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. What’s next for regional integration? As I’ve argued before, 2015 will be a key year for regional integration. The end of 2015 is the deadline for the formation of an ASEAN Community, though, as I’ve stressed, the conversation has already shifted to framing the “post-2015 agenda” for community-building. 2015 will also be a crucial year for economic integration, with the expected conclusion two free trade agreements – the mammoth Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and (potentially) the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership which involves four ASEAN states – along with the development of economic initiatives like the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The year will thus be a pivotal one for the future of regional integration and the role of both Washington and Beijing.
2. How will Malaysia fare in the ASEAN and UN spotlight? Malaysia will be in the spotlight in 2015 as both the chair of ASEAN as well as a holder of a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. While this will give the country an opportunity to further its role as an original founding member of ASEAN and an influential middle power on the world stage, it will also be subjected to added scrutiny about its own domestic politics, including its human rights record. How it balances the challenges and opportunities of these two prestigious roles will be interesting to watch.
3. What will elections in Myanmar bring? Myanmar’s general election in late 2015 – its first since a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 following half a century of military rule – will be a key litmus test of reforms which held initial promise but have since arguably lost steam. It could also see the National League for Democracy opposition party triumph over the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and play a leading role in governing the country for the first time after being disenfranchised after its 1990 election victory. While that is no guarantee, it would be a significant development if it occurs, even if democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi does not end up assuming the presidency as some might prefer.
4. Another turbulent year in the South China Sea? Given what has happened over the past few years, it would be foolish to leave out the South China Sea on a list like this, even though it is hard to predict exactly how things will pan out. The key question will be if and how ASEAN states – both claimants and non-claimants – adjust their responses to account for China’s apparent strategy of incrementally changing the facts on the water while simultaneously binding itself closer economically to Southeast Asia. A decision by the arbitral tribunal at The Hague on the Philippines’ case against China could also influence events, with broader implications for the use of legal instruments by claimants to seek clarity on ongoing disputes.
5. Can Jokowi deliver on his bold reforms? After his election victory in 2014, observers will be looking to see if Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo can deliver on some of his bold reforms in 2015. Domestically, his planned initiatives in priority areas including healthcare, education and infrastructure – though much-needed – could face several formidable obstacles including parliamentary opposition, financial constraints, and implementation hurdles. With respect to foreign policy, the subtle shift his administration has made to a more bilateral, domestic-focused foreign policy, which I have previously written about, could also encounter challenges at home and abroad.
6. Will Thailand inch towards an eventual return to democracy? This will be an important year for Thailand as the ruling military junta proceeds along a path it claims will eventually restore democracy in the country following a military coup in May. As I wrote last week, a senior government official has already said that elections will be delayed until at least February 2016, with 2015 seeing the drafting of a new constitution and a potential referendum. But as Joshua Kurlantzick points out, some expect this timeline to be pushed back even further due to several factors including potential opposition and uncertainty over an impending royal succession. If it is, the International Crisis Group warned in a December report that Thailand could eventually see a recurrence of deadly confrontations between troops and protesters.
7. How will Southeast Asia respond to the threat from the Islamic State? Absent a sea change in developments on the ground, experts expect the Islamic State will likely continue to pose a threat to Southeast Asian states well into 2015. Indonesia and Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s two Muslim-majority states, along with other ASEAN countries and international partners, will need to be vigilant in countering this threat, which officials have said is only rising and becoming more entrenched. Given previous foiled attempts, an attack on a Southeast Asian country in 2015 is something that cannot be discounted.
8. Will Singapore call snap polls? Many expect snap polls to be called in Singapore sometime in 2015, including the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, which will launch its election campaign in January. With a “watershed” election in 2011 seeing landmark opposition gains against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed for more than four decades, fresh polls will indicate whether the PAP’s legitimacy will continue to erode or whether it will recover. Even if elections are not held, 2015 is itself a significant year for Singapore as it is the 50th anniversary of its founding.
9. Can the Philippines sustain peace with rebel groups? The coming year is shaping up to be critical for peace efforts between the Philippines and rebel groups in the country. The Philippine legislature needs to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the product of an agreement negotiated between the government and the Muslim rebels in the south – in order to ensure that subsequent progress can be achieved in time for the creation of a new autonomous government there in 2016 which will help sustain peace. Meanwhile, as I noted last week, the government could also restart formal negotiations with communist rebels early next year to end one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies. Both projects are not without their challenges, but they are crucial to the country’s – and some would argue ASEAN’s – future.
10. How will oil prices affect Southeast Asian economies? If oil prices stay low in 2015 as some expect or fall even further, this could have repercussions for some major Southeast Asian states. Of particular note is Malaysia, an oil producer which has already seen a severe economic impact, which experts expect to continue to a certain extent into 2015. As I have written previously, the impact will likely be more mixed for Vietnam, which is both producer and consumer, though officials have already warned that the impact on the country’s public finances deserves attention. Of course, as Joshua Kurlantzick has argued in his list of predictions, lower oil prices can also benefit countries, particularly consuming ASEAN states but also producers as well in some cases. This mixed picture arguably makes oil prices even more critical to watch into 2015.
What would you have chosen as your top 10 trends? Feel free to comment below.