As Singapore gears up for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2018, the wider international community watches with immense interest to see what this spells for one of the fastest growing, yet increasingly turbulent regions. It is perhaps useful to consider the set of trends and issues that the region has been grappling with, in its bid to enhance regional integration and deepen its relations with external partners.
Insurgency, extremism and terrorism continue to characterise the regional security landscape. This is evinced by the recent spate of attacks and schemes, some of which have been forestalled by regional authorities. In Indonesia, a double suicide bombing in a bus terminal in Jakarta in June 2017 has been confirmed by the Indonesian police to be linked to ISIS. Singapore, as visible as its counter-terrorist efforts have been, is not insulated from such threats. In 2016, two ISIS-linked plots were foiled, one of which was the attempt to target the Marina Bay Sands by Batam-based militants.
Terror groups like ISIS seem to have moved past the initial phase of making inroads into the region, to the next project of further entrenching their presence. The flow of ISIS fighters back to the region, the increasing prevalence of conservative Islam and the weak counter-terrorist laws are issues that need to be tackled on all fronts. Though defence cooperation has been stepped up, this rising security threat still casts a grim outlook for the region.
On a lighter note, China when engaging with the region, has not solely done so in the capacity of a claimant of the hotly disputed South China Sea. Be it as a by-product of its chequebook diplomacy or a part of its ambitious project to expand its influence globally, China has sought to engage many Southeast Asian countries in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its shift away from aggressive overtures pertaining to the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, is perhaps a signal of more collaborative efforts between China and ASEAN.
Also read ‘Uncharted Waters: South China Sea’
Nevertheless, analysts have expressed concern that the Four-Point Consensus between China, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei regarding the South China Sea issue could draw a divide with other more vocal claimants in ASEAN like Philippines and Indonesia. There is thus a worry that this could threaten the cohesiveness of the bloc. The willingness of countries like Brunei to play an active role in strengthening ASEAN-China relations is therefore a comforting signal that constructive dialogue is perhaps in the near horizon.
Besides the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was viewed as a potential challenge to establishing common ground for all ASEAN Member States. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is a core pillar of the ASEAN Community, which seeks to achieve closer economic integration in Southeast Asia. It envisions Southeast Asia as a highly competitive market, where there are less barriers to trade and freer flow of capital and investments. On one hand, the TPP promised vast economic benefits by connecting key markets in Asia-Pacific. Yet, it also posed potential disruptive effects on ASEAN economic integration by including only four ASEAN members – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
With the collapse of the TPP, apart from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to fill the void, Singapore recently unveiled plans to use e-commerce to digitally integrate the Southeast Asian economies into a single borderless network. Reminiscent of Singapore’s ‘Smart Nation’ move, it rides on the trends of a digital economy to streamline trade flows and lower operating barriers to entry. As with all regional integration projects, the challenge is to ensure inclusive growth. The varying starting points in development, differing receptiveness to new disruptive technologies and potentially conflicting economic interests remain key issues that shape the region’s economic integration strategy.
All eyes are on the upcoming change in leadership and slate of new initiatives bringing potential for a market hungry for growth. Nevertheless, several issues remain at the top of the agenda – terrorism, the South China Sea dispute and economic integration. These issues need to be confronted amid the geopolitical instability in Northeast Asia, the uncertainty of the United States’ role in the region and the shifting sands in ASEAN’s relationship with China. There is indeed much anticipation and much to be done.
Grace is currently pursuing Philosophy and Economics at the London School of Economics. Armed with a keen interest in sustainable development, she was a United Nations volunteer with the Asian Development Bank and was involved in wastewater projects in Indonesia and Vietnam. As a passionate advocate for female empowerment, an initiative close to her heart is a project aimed at improving access to education for adolescent girls in Uganda. Her research interests include the growth of the Chinese market and geopolitical developments in East Asia. She can be contacted at G.J.Sum@lse.ac.uk.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.