IPCS Forecast: Southeast Asia in 2015

19 Jan, 2015    ·   4810

Shankari Sundararaman identifies key trends - regional and country-wise - that Southeast Asia is likely to witness in 2015

This edition of the IPCS Column, 'Indo-Pacific', is the precis of a larger document titled 'Southeast Asia in 2015', published under the IPCS Forecast 2015 series.
Click here to read the full report .

One of the most challenging exercises for observers who follow regional developments is to come out with trends analysis. It is particularly tricky in regions that show great diversity in terms of political dynamics, economic disparities and where regional cohesion needs to be consolidated to address the effects of major power politics. The emerging challenges for Southeast Asia this year can be categorised into two distinct sections – first, issues that affect the developments of individual states and second, those problems that have a bearing on the region as a whole.

Myanmar’s Democratic Challenge
The challenge of expanding democratic shifts in the region will be critical in the coming year. 2015 will be particularly crucial for Myanmar and Thailand. Myanmar will face its first democratic elections since the 2010 elections and the reform process of 2011. As part of the run-up to the elections, the current government under President Thein Sein will have to work towards a more concerted ceasefire and dialogue with the ethnic groups within the country. This will be the first step towards a more inclusive political participation. Among others, an issue that plagues the space of minorities are laws related to curbs on interfaith marriage – that is one of the latest attempts to isolate the Muslim community.  

Second, the government needs to identify some important constitutional changes related to Article 59(f) that currently disallows Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from holding the highest office in the country, as President. The clause debars anyone who is related to a person of foreign citizenship from holding the office of President. This is a constitutional provision that is currently being challenged in Myanmar but it appears that the provision may not be scrapped before the elections at the end of 2015.  A recent report in The Sydney Morning Herald indicated that Suu Kyi would be unable to contest for the post of President because of this clause in the 2008 Constitution. It is more likely that she will end up taking the Chair in the Parliament that will be a critical role as this will bring in her leadership across party lines – that will also be crucial for achieving national reconciliation.

A more significant amendment to the Constitution is the move to change article 436. This mandates that for any constitutional amendment to be passed, it needs over 75 per cent of the votes in parliament. This is near impossible to achieve given that the military enjoys a 25 percent veto privilege which divides the parliament vertically. The basic tenets of the democratic set up require a clear change in this provision that needs to be addressed. The run-up to the 2015 elections will be a period that will challenge the transition process within Myanmar.

Thailand’s Democratic Deficit
Since May 2014, Thailand has been under martial rule as a result of the renewed stand-off between the red shirts and the yellow shirts. The little advantage gained by the country during the 2011 elections that ushered Yingluck Shinawatra in, was forced to a halt after anti-government protesters held Bangkok hostage for nearly seven months. Now nearly eight months after the coup d’état that dethroned the Yingluck Shinawatra government, the military, which initially stated that elections would be held in 2015 has altered its view and is now hinting that elections may not take place till 2016. The current Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has been focused on more whimsical agendas of bringing “happiness to the people.” This focus on emotional appeal and sentiment is a far-off call from moving forward on resolving rigid intransigence between the two opposing political factions that have split the country.

Added to this there have been serious intrigues at the Royal Palace. The Monarchy that is considered sacred in the Thai context is witnessing one of its most difficult phases in Thai history. The revered and respected monarch the 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is no longer able to handle the pressures of his responsibility. The heir to the throne is Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who recently divorced his wife Princess Srirasmi after accusing her family members of conspiracies against the throne and on charges of corruption. His colourful life and irresponsible behavior has made him unpopular among the Thais. Politically he is also known to be close to Thaksin Shinawatra, which will impact the political fortunes of the former prime minister. The military’s move to delay elections will have a serious impact on how the political scenario in Thailand evolves.  

Indonesia’s Democratic Surplus
On the positive side of the democratic shift is Indonesia, which marked its fourth democratic elections in 2014. The victory of President Joko Widodo sets Indonesia firmly on the track for further democratic consolidation. As 2014 ended, Indonesia’s Papua province witnessed violence as five youth under the age of 18 were killed by the military. President Jokowi’s resolve to address the Papuan problem will remain critical in the year ahead. As Indonesia’s democratic consolidation progresses, the question of the military’s accountability in violence will loom large in the case of West Papua.

One of the agendas unveiled by President Jokowi is the emerging importance of Indonesia as a maritime fulcrum in the context of the `poros maritim dunia’. For the first time since its independence, an Indonesian president is looking beyond the role of a terrestrial army that has always been favoured among the forces. For Indonesia, the past few months have been critical in terms of addressing issues related to illegal fishing in its territorial waters. The maritime axis also draws Indonesia out to find more investors who can build maritime infrastructure; and several reports point to its growing economic dependence on China for these. While its democratic consolidation occurs, there is a simultaneous drift to look beyond the ASEAN.  While this may help Indonesia achieve its own interests, it may weaken the strongest link within the ASEAN during a period of regional uncertainty.

ASEAN Community 2015
Even as Indonesia looks to move beyond the ASEAN in its foreign policy, the regional grouping is on the verge of moving towards an EU-like approach in its community building initiative. The move towards the building of the ASEAN community has been challenged by several issues including a watered-down version of the 2007 ASEAN Charter that has left several members of the grouping feeling restless with the pace of change and reform. Primarily among this group has been Indonesia, which has been unable to push its co-members in the group towards greater commitment on issues of democratisation and human rights. The ASEAN Community that seeks to integrate the region along political, economic and socio-cultural parameters has a lot to address over the course of 2015.

On the political front, the grouping is struggling to find a cohesive identity given the engagement of major powers in the region. Both the rise of China and the US re-balancing and pivot to Asia policy has been critical centrifugal forces in the region. The manner in which the Sino-US rivalry will take shape in 2015 will have a bearing on the ASEAN countries. In this context, territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and the expanding Chinese footprint will be crucial for the region. The significance of maritime issues and the need to move towards a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea will be critical challenges for the ASEAN in 2015. 

On the economic front, the forecast is still far from rosy. Even as the move to form the ASEAN Economic Community is closer to the vision, there still are challenges ahead. While the region made progress vis-à-vis reduction of tariffs, other protectionist measures such as non-tariff barriers have been placed. This has critically impacted the move towards greater intra-ASEAN trade that still needs to be addressed.  The ASEAN also has to find ways to move forward on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), negotiations for which are likely to be concluded by the end of 2015. Through this year, the focus has to be on the reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers as well as addressing the discrimination against services – the dilemmas holding back progress on the RCEP.

A Strategy for India
In November 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rechristened the `Look East Policy’ as the `Act East Policy’. If India is serious about moving forward on its ties with the ASEAN states, 2015 will be critical to formalize some of the initiatives that have been on paper but are yet to fructify. Under the India-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, one critical agenda for 2015 is the FTA in Services and Investments. This has to be ratified at the level of individual countries and India needs to move its efforts in this regard. As it stands currently, the FTA is to be operational from July 2015.  The question of building infrastructure linkages and connectivity will remain equally critical as, currently, these remain woefully inadequate. On the policy and reforms front, India has to show convincing effort and prove that `actions are louder than words’.

With regards to the overall security of the region and India’s role in this, some indicators are of concern. Growing Chinese economic presence in the region will have a bearing on the levels of strategic autonomy that the region can exercise. China’s expanding footprint in the Indian and Pacific Oceans – the Maritime Silk Route – is part of Beijing’s two-pronged strategy to address both economic gains and political leverage. India signed economic and defence agreements with Japan, the US and Australia during Modi’s visit to these countries, bringing it closer to the `arc of freedom’ democratic alliance that was envisioned by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. India also needs to act along with its Southeast Asian partners to move forward on areas of security and defence cooperation. There is some visible movement on the Defence Dialogue with Vietnam that concluded recently. This needs to be expanded to all the ASEAN members, both bilaterally and multilaterally. While the substance of integration with Southeast Asia remains primarily on economics, it is important to move into a more comprehensive political and security-level integration. While the naval component has actually been credible through joint-patrolling of the Malacca Straits, initiatives such as the Milan and IONS, and in terms of humanitarian and disaster relief, there is still scope for broadening this to more concrete levels of engagement.

India's Project Mausam has evolved with the view to reaching out and re-establishing the traditional relations and ties which India had with its neighbours in the Indian Ocean littoral, which in effect will seek to counterbalance the Chinese Maritime Silk Route.