Foreign Policy Blogs

SE Asia: 2009 Year In Review

Obama at APEC Summit/ France 24

Obama at APEC Summit/ France 24


The predominant trend in Southeast Asia this year has been one of increasing regional integration, but this has been tempered by historic issues of nationalism, which continue to challenge the region and serve as the largest obstacle for a more united ASEAN.  2009, was an excellent year for various free trade initiatives, between ASEAN member states, as well as, ASEAN and external actors.   It was also a year that saw an escalation in regional conflict, including internal conflicts between rebel groups and the national governments of Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines.   There were also border skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand, the naval mobilization of Malaysia and Indonesia against each other, and the long standing conflicts that China has had with various nations in the region over borders in the South China Sea and its activities on the Mekong River.  This year has also seen the resurgence of U.S. interest in the region, in an effort to moderate China’s rise and ensure U.S. security interests.

Person of the Year:

The person of the year is U.S. President Barak Obama.  He, more than anyone else, has done the most to shift the political equation in the region by re-engaging all nations, including regimes that have previously been black listed in Washington, such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.  The central reason for this rapprochement is to make up for the gains China made in Southeast Asia at the expense of a largely absent Bush Administration.

Most Unexpected Event:

The most unexpected event was America’s engagement with Myanmar, especially President Obama meeting with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein at the recent APEC Summit.  This about-face appears to be designed as a carrot and stick approach to potentially give the Myanmar junta an option to Chinese “vessel” status, while at the same time allowing America to gain some movement on the human rights front.  The last 20 years have shown quite clearly that sanctions have not changed the situation in Myanmar, if America does not play, it will not win with this regime, especially with China as an enthusiastic benefactor.

What to Watch in 2010:

China will not sit idly by and watch the U.S. marginalize its interest in Southeast Asia, neither will it openly confront America.   In the coming year,  China will likely formulate and implement an indirect response through increased diplomacy and trade, as well as shoring up relationship with nations of concern, such as Myanmar and Vietnam.  China wants to see its soft power and hard power grow in the region.  Much of this is to give China more control over shipping routes in the South China Sea, due to strategic security regions.  China must insure that it can maintain a steady supply of natural resources to fuel its economic growth, even in the case of conflict, such as with Taiwan.  Southeast Asia is also resource rich and ripe with investment oppronuties, which will enable China to expand its own economy.   Southeast Asia will be a central battleground in this proxy faus-cold war between Chinese and American interests in Asia.