Southeast Asia by 2030

By Gavin Greenwood 6 January 2013

Global trends over the next two decades are likely to be defined by risk rather than reward, according to Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, the US National Intelligence Council’s stab at futurology which was released in early December.

The Council sees the global economic system recovering and growing patchily, at different rates and likely only in regional pockets. However, the study considers that much of the world’s population has little to contemplate other than little to no advancement or actual decline over this admittedly artificial timeline.

Southeast Asia was almost wholly absent from the comprehensive but largely and unsurprisingly US-centric analysis. This is a curious omission given that much of the Obama administration’s ‘Asian pivot’ strategy rolled out in late 2011-early 2012 revolves around expanding the US military bootprint across much of the region.

So, in order to help fill in the blanks here are some thoughts on how trends and issues in Southeast Asia may evolve – or regress – over the coming 17 or so years covered in the NIC report.

Just as any assessment of conflict invariably reflects previous wars, so any attempt at divination begins from the current base. Some of the predictions below are obvious, reflecting the often glacial pace of change in the political and social structures of many Southeast Asian countries.

Most reflect looming problems rather than the fruits of progress, a view based on the premise that the rapid and ‘easy’ economic expansion of the past few decades has ended and global as well as parochial trends now point towards domestic priorities and consolidation.

This venture into crystal ball gazing is divided into two parts, generic and specific, with the former looking at what the NIC likes to call ‘megatrends’ while the latter considers the main trends and issues set to affect individual countries.

Evolution – there is likely to be little structural movement to the colonial-era political legacy that continues to define governance across the region. Political structures either nurtured by the departing foreign powers or that emerged in opposition to them are set to remain largely intact.

Transition – tensions and conflict have typified efforts to transform the region’s various centralist, ethnic or semi-feudal based governing systems and structures. This has not removed the powerful pressures, mainly from below or from within sections of the marginalized elite class, from emerging and deepening. However, it has increased the risk and raised the price of serious internal divisions resulting from any challenge to the status quo.

Resilience – managing or controlling transitional pressures will define the period to 2030 in many Southeast Asian countries. This process will be made more complex as economic relevance and the benefits and costs of waning or waxing resources impose new pressures to adapt to, increase or reject social equity.

Patronage – the region’s growing role as an arena of major power competition will strain domestic intercommunal ties and force decisions on how to balance the interest of foreign patrons with internal agenda and priorities. In the broadest terms, this may be characterised as steering between China’s paternalism tinged with menaces vs US parochialism backed by militarism.

Environment – the degradation of natural resources is a universal threat, if a greater immediate challenge to some countries than others. Counter-measures are likely to remain specific, with small and wealthy regional countries able to offset local threats through investment in defensive or sustainable structures and systems, while the elites in larger and poorer nations may opt to exploit available resources for as long as they retain the ability to do so.

Burma – the key issues are to reconcile the interest of the deeply embedded military establishment with greater economic opportunity and political representation for the majority. The country will also struggle to retain a position on the margins of China’s and India’s orbits without being drawn in closer to the center of either neighboring great power. A key threat is that internal divisions could prove too hard to resolve through democratic or peaceful means, leading to a return to authoritarian rule and de facto isolation.

Thailand – the key issue that will define the country’s stability over the medium-term, at least, is the monarchical transition and its aftermath. Failure to reconcile the now entrenched divisions among the majority of Thais can only increase the risk of future military intervention, with the added threat that factionalism within the army may result in a direct intra-military confrontation. The country also faces major environment challenges, notably around Bangkok, that require massive investment and organizational abilities to resolve. Territorial and trans-border issues will continue to test relations with neighbours, though the likelihood of any sustained conflict during the period is small.

Laos – the abiding and permanent issue for the landlocked country is maintaining a balance among its larger neighbors – Thailand, China and Vietnam – in order that none feel threatened by the influence of the others. This will become a far more complex position as work on a trans-Laos railway built to serve China’s interests gets underway during 2013. Opposition to the project may also lead to a resumption of the low-level insurgency by Hmong minorities, perhaps discreetly supported by a Vietnam uneasy over China’s increased strategic presence on its western flank. A quiet struggle for influence by the neighboring powers within the country’s ruling party and powerful military may also lead to destabilizing internal divisions and a deepening of already resurgent authoritarianism.

Cambodia – stability largely rests on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s longevity and his control over the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the de facto successor to the past communist regime. Inter elite factionalism will increase and become more threatening if significant offshore oil and gas reserves are found and trigger a scramble for assets, as will the potential for territorial disputes with neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.

Vietnam – the principal task facing the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam is reconciling its own priorities and privileges with the aspirations of the majority of the population. There is also a risk that a north-south divide may become more pronounced, leading in effect to re-emergence of two Vietnams – essentially Annam and Cochin – based on economic performance and access to resources. Looming over such domestic issues remains China’s apparent determination to ensure its neighbours, and many of their assets, remain within its political and economic sphere.

Malaysia – Intercommunal and intra-Malay issues and tensions will continue to drive politics and the economy over the period, and almost certainly beyond. The dominant United Malays National Organisation has always linked social and inter ethnic stability with an electoral acceptance that only its brand of leadership can maintain racial harmony. Any further erosion of this ‘mandate’ by opposition may be expected to produce a response from Malay nationalists that could have a rapid and profound impact on the communal relations and the economy, while also drawing in other global and regional powers if rhetoric is transformed into action against the ethnic Chinese minority.

Brunei – The main risk to the sultanate stems from declining oil and gas revenues and the ruling family’s ability to see that it has sufficient revenue to ensure domestic political torpor. While depletion of existing oil and gas reserves is inevitable, its full impact will be beyond the period under review.

Singapore – The country’s wealth and demographics are its principal challenges. Economic success has made Singapore an attractive oasis within a complex region, while the now irreversible decline in the national birth rate has made the country increasingly dependent on imported labor and skills. Space constraints and policies directed towards emphasizing long-term personal financial security have made many Singaporeans hypersensitive to their declining status within the country and the rising influence of new arrivals and migrants. This has been manifested in a growth in xenophobic sentiment, reflected through the 2011 election results that saw past deference to the ruling People’s Action Party fade to the point of near contempt. The period up to 2030 will be dominated by efforts of the PAP to maintain its authority and relevance against an opposition supported by a highly educated and politically literate electorate. A return to an emphasis on authoritarian control would almost certainly fail to end demands for greater liberalism, and could instead undermine Singapore’s international economic position.

Indonesia – Efforts to match the country’s economic potential with the narrow interests of an entrenched elite, popular aspirations for greater access to existing wealth, regionalism and efforts by the center to reclaim lost authority are set to drive Indonesia over the period. The most pressing domestic issue will be to what extent popular and specific responses to the elites’ unwillingness to share wealth and influence remain a political issue and where it may diverge into more dangerous and destabilizing action. Two strands are already clearly evident: the deepening of political Islam and the growth of secular class-based organisations largely centered on the labor movement and non-government organizations. The position of the military will remain crucial to the outcome of any confrontation between these powerful forces.

Philippines – Efforts to meet the demands of a rapidly growing urban population and a rural sector barely raised beyond centuries-old feudal relationships have produced some positive results, but the process will have to rapidly accelerate in order to meet local aspirations. The country’s economy is uniquely cushioned by the efforts of overseas workers, whose remittances have become a crucial source of national income. Any sustained loss of this income stream would have an immediate impact on state and personal finances, making the Philippine economy highly sensitive to, for example, events in the Middle East. The Muslim separatist and communist insurgencies will remain a costly distraction but pose no direct threat to the state.

Gavin Greenwood is senior analyst with the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates political and security risk management consultancy.