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Assessing Southeast Asia in the 2010s: 5 Big Strategic Trends and How They May Shape the 2020s

A look at five major developments that shaped the subregion in the decade.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Assessing Southeast Asia in the 2010s: 5 Big Strategic Trends and How They May Shape the 2020s
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While there was no shortage of significant developments in Southeast Asia over the past decade, there was also a shorter list of major trends that ran throughout the decade. Below is a list of five big trends that shaped the subregion in the 2010s and will continue to be important to watch into the 2020s as well, in no particular order.

1) Rising External Power Penetration: Southeast Asia has long attracted interest from major powers for various reasons. The subregion’s economic, diplomatic, and political significance in its own right has been increasingly recognized in the 2000s as well following a stumble during the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s. But the 2010s saw a significant increase in external power interest in the region by any definition. While much of the focus has been on China and the United States on the security side, other powers, including Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and key European countries, began to pay much greater attention to Southeast Asia as part of their overall foreign policies, including through the articulation of specific strategies. More recently, toward the end of the decade, we have also seen growing concern about U.S.-China rivalry and Southeast Asia’s place within an era of major power competition, which we will likely continue to hear about into 2020 and beyond.

2) Growing Scrutiny on ASEAN Centrality: ASEAN has had its fair share of doubters since its creation in 1967, and the organization has been through challenges in previous periods too, including its expansion in the 1990s and the drafting of its charter and managing the entry of major powers into the East Asia Summit in the 2000s onwards. But the 2010s saw a heightened degree of uncertainty about the organization, including from its leading advocates such as former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, due to a confluence of trends and developments, from a perceived lack of leadership from influential countries like Indonesia to the challenge of managing major power rivalry in order to preserve ASEAN’s much-prized central role in the region. And while ASEAN continues to try to adapt to these new realities and meet at times unrealistic expectations given its limitations, this scrutiny will likely endure into 2020 and beyond in the wake of developments such as subregional minilateral initiatives and conceptions such as the Indo-Pacific, begging the question that former and late ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan had raised about whether ASEAN is truly living up to the more meaningful aspiration of a “centrality of substance.”

3) The Increasing Importance of Mainland Southeast Asia: While the divide between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia remains artificial to some extent, the 2010s nonetheless saw an increasing importance of mainland Southeast Asia as a subregion in its own right. Changes with respect to individual mainland Southeast Asian countries – including Vietnam’s rising role as a regional player, Myanmar’s opening and its subsequent implications, and Cambodia’s increasing alignment toward China – married with subregional trends such as the rising stresses on the Mekong River and growing U.S.-China rivalry – all led to an increased focus on the region relative to the 1990s when these countries were still developing and newcomers into ASEAN. We are likely to see manifestations of this continue into the 2020s as well, and some of them will be visible next year, whether it be Myanmar’s 2020 elections or Vietnam’s simultaneous holding of the ASEAN chairmanship and a UN Security Council nonpermanent seat.

4) Pressures on Traditional Sources of Political Authority: Despite the tendency for headlines to focus on conventional litmus tests such as elections, the evolution of Southeast Asian politics has long rested more broadly on the contestation between traditional and modern sources of political authority. In that respect, while the 2010s saw a mixed bag in terms of developments – with instances of movement toward democracy and contestation with Myanmar’s opening and Malaysia’s 2018 shock election alongside the cementing of authoritarianism in Cambodia and the continuing of a military-backed government in Thailand – what has been clear is the continued stresses on traditional sources of political authority. Developments such as the passing of the Thai king, the rising clout of Cambodia’s political opposition before its suppression by the ruling Hun Sen government, the unprecedented ouster of the Barisan Nasional government in Malaysia, and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar – all pointed to this, even though the direction of change was far from the linear, teleological one that the most ardent democracy advocates might hope for.

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5) The Rise of the South China Sea as a Major Flashpoint: The South China Sea as a flashpoint has been through previous waves of tensions as well dating back to the 1970s. But the 2010s saw it concretize into a major regional flashpoint with international scrutiny due to a series of developments, including China’s growing assertiveness, the difficulty of less capable claimant states to respond in kind, and the rising involvement of actors such as the United States to shape the options available for regional states in spite of the challenges in doing so. 2019 has offered little consolation that we will see the ebbing of the South China Sea as a major flashpoint anytime soon. Indeed, as my colleague Ankit Panda and I discussed in a recent podcast, 2020 may in fact see heightened tensions, with China continuing to get into run ins with Southeast Asian claimants, hopes for a meaningful ASEAN-China code of conduct dimming, the South China Sea continuing to be one of a series of pressure points in U.S.-China competition, and Vietnam – the most active and capable South China Sea claimant – holding the ASEAN chairmanship.

To be sure, this list of five trends is far from exhaustive. Cases can be made for the inclusion of other trends as well in a longer list, be it the return of another wave of terrorism in recent years (following the last wave we saw in the 2000s after the 9/11 attacks) on the security side or the focus on migration challenges, most visibly but not exclusively manifested by the Rohingya crisis and refugees, which The Diplomat devoted a separate mini-series to. It should also be noted that the focus on trends rather than developments also means that country-specific developments of consequence, such as Myanmar’s opening or Malaysia’s historic election in 2018, don’t get the individual spotlight that they would get in a list of important events. Nonetheless, this list will hopefully help provide a sense of how to think about what the 2010s have meant for Southeast Asia and what might lie ahead for the subregion in the 2020s.