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The rise of Southeast Asia and the challenges ahead

By Hoo Tiang Boon | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2015-11-24 08:29

First, it is a myth that the ASEAN Community’s birth means that Southeast Asia is now a regional society. Forming the ASEAN Community does not mean that the destination has been reached. It should be more accurately seen as the beginning of a more intimate process of greater regional integration.

As such, ASEAN’s traditionally strong adherence to the principles of non-interference and sovereignty, as well as gaps in national and regional interests and in national and regional capacities, will continue to pose challenges to this integration process. Domestic resistance may also develop to put pressure on governments, especially if the benefits of integration are not perceived to trickle down to the masses.

Second, terrorism, whether religious and/or politically-motivated, continues to be a major concern for ASEAN governments. The recent Paris attack is a vivid reminder of the persistent threat and global reach of terror groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS). Attacks launched by IS franchises could conceivably happen in Southeast Asia.

How this threat evolves is a serious matter because in a region that is home to significant Muslim populations, terrorism sparked by violent Jihadi extremism not only threatens the domestic security of several Southeast Asian states, it is also potentially damaging to their social fabric.

Third, because ASEAN’s economy is closely linked to the Chinese economy, any major slowdown of the Chinese economy will have inevitable repercussions for ASEAN countries. To a considerable extent, Southeast Asia’s continued progress depends on the trajectory of China’s growth.

Finally, at the broader strategic level, the evolving US-China dynamic is watched with close interest in ASEAN. Recently, the US has made a number of provocative moves, including launching the so-called “Freedom of Navigation” operations in the South China Sea. These operations have undermined regional stability even as China has responded with great restraint.

A US-China conflict will have adverse consequences for Southeast Asia. If Southeast Asia is turned into a proxy battleground between these two powers, ASEAN will bear the most collateral damage. A conflicting situation could also destabilize the wider regional and global environment, leading to conditions that will not be conducive for ASEAN’s economic development. How the US-China relationship evolves is therefore crucial for Southeast Asia.

ASEAN has done well thus far to navigate US-China competition in Southeast Asia. However, important challenges remain. That is why it is so important for the region to maintain and sustain the principles of ASEAN centrality and neutrality. A neutral ASEAN that assumes a leading role in Asian affairs and evenly balances China and the US is the best way to ensure continued peace in Southeast Asia, and to ensure ASEAN’s continuing relevance to the major powers.

Hoo Tiang Boon, a coordinator, MSc. (Asian Studies) programme and Assistant Professor with S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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