Asean/SE Asia and the cycles of history

Asean/SE Asia and the cycles of history


US President Joe Biden, left, and leaders from Asean arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on May 12. For Asean to be able to thrive, the major powers have to be at relative peace. (Photo: AFP)
US President Joe Biden, left, and leaders from Asean arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on May 12. For Asean to be able to thrive, the major powers have to be at relative peace. (Photo: AFP)

The simmering geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine have turned the tide of history back to its historical norm. It is easy to see the global stage today as full of tension, confrontation, and conflict in a recurrent fashion. But it is worth recalling that merely 30 years ago, the world was in a different phase where a lasting peace seemed viable.

At that time, it looked like the cyclical nature of world history as alternating between war and peace could be put to an end with the right measure and mix of realisation and commitment on one hand and corresponding rules and institutions on the other. The "total war" started by Nazi Germany in Europe and Imperial Japan in Asia seemed to mark a turning point. The "European Project" was the principal by-product of integration and enmeshment that could ostensibly escape the recurrent waves of war and peace.

For seven decades from the end of the Second World War, the curve of history was being bent into a line, a linear trajectory from the cyclicality of the past. Europeans know all too well the heady and giddy years of European integration. By 1992, building on previous agreements dating to the 1950s, the Maastricht Treaty had come into place to cement Europe's way forward from the rubble of war and the collective vision of its early post-war leaders, such as Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Jean Monnet.

The resulting European Union's linear progression had a good run until the past decade or so, its momentum halted by "Brexit", namely the United Kingdom's withdrawal, and now Russian aggression against Ukraine, which many have called "Putin's war". This war may have revitalised and re-energised the EU's purpose, resolve and commitment to hang tight together, re-committed the UK to counter Russia on the continent via military assistance to Ukraine, rebooted the US's role in Europe, and thereby renewed the Atlantic Alliance. Yet it is inescapable that linearity is finished, as the cyclicality of history has reared its ugly head anew.

The end of linearity means we are back in a new round of confrontation and conflict, this time led by but not exclusively confined to the US-China geostrategic rivalry and competition. The US-China contest has too often been depicted in binary, either/or terms as if the choice and outcome move between 0 and 1. Such a binary view is useful up to a point. Beyond such point, it becomes misleading.

For example, the either/or between democratic America and autocratic China helps us to understand regime types in Southeast Asia and some parts of the developing world. The correlation between authoritarian regimes in developing countries being sympathetic and supportive of China is noticeable, whereas more democratic forms of government have found consonance in the US's emphasis on elections and democracy with attendant basic rights and freedoms.

This US-China dichotomy is particularly applicable in Southeast Asia. Cambodia and Laos are all-in on China, with Brunei, Myanmar and Thailand leaning in the same direction. The other side comprises more-or-less pro-democracy regimes in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, with autocratic Vietnam as the outlier for being critical of China on political-security matters but dependent on Beijing for trade, investment and overall economic partnership. In fact, as regional surveys have pointed out, the broader trend is that Southeast Asian states rely on China for growth and development and look to the US for counterbalance when it comes to regional security maintenance and the avoidance of Chinese hegemony.

Moreover, the US-China binary has limits because at any given time there are other major powers in the Southeast Asia mix. No country around here looks only to China or America without diplomatic regard and economic and strategic ties with Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, and the EU, particularly its substantial members such as France and Germany. Now the UK is charting its own path as a major player in the region. So the binary can be misleading because not all is about the US and China.

In addition, the US-China binary can be too static and unable to capture emerging dynamics and patterns. China, for instance, is facing difficulties overcoming Covid-19, with an economic slowdown and domestic pressure in view of 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping's unprecedented third term. Indeed, Post-Covid China is less dynamic than pre-Covid China. Not long ago, there was much talk and speculation about the "Asian Century", even a "Chinese Century" and "Pax Sinica" of China-centred global order. The spectre of China's centennial dominance somehow now rings faintly, much less convincing than before. The US is in no better shape, deeply polarised within and self-conflicted, with regular gun violence and domestic crises that distract from its superpower role abroad.

The upshot for Thailand's neighbourhood is that Asean will become more of a motley mainland-maritime region of divergent regime types, geographically divided by the South China Sea, and less of an effective organisation based on "Asean centrality". This neighbourhood as a regional organisation is a recent phenomenon. What we are seeing in Southeast Asia is also a return to its roots as a region. It does not mean Asean will perish. The grouping, now effectively down to nine members after Myanmar's coup in February 2021 and civil war since, will still hold meetings and try to convene major gatherings.

But the Asean narrative that underpinned the Asean charter has lost lustre. For Asean to thrive, the major powers around it have to orbit in rough balance and be at relative peace. When the major powers are in conflict, Asean gets picked apart and becomes more of a divided region.

For Thailand, navigating the rocky global horizon with looming headwinds is a familiar challenge. In a world of more self-help and less global cooperation and collective action, Thailand has a solid track record of nifty survival, especially if it can restore a domestic consensus on how the country should be governed and where it should position itself on the wider geostrategic canvas.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at the Faculty of Political Science and director of its Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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