Can Southeast Asia Prevail in a New Age of Flux Amid "Destructive Spiral" Fears?
Plus China-US influence competition; Asia's mixed trade picture; the Myanmar military’s global financial access & more.
Welcome to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the implications of Southeast Asia’s navigation of a “destructive spiral” of major power competition in an age of flux, as mentioned by Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in a key regional conference speech.
Mapping of regional developments including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Southeast Asia and new Thailand-Cambodia military drills;
Charting evolving trends including on US-China influence competition in Southeast Asia and Asia’s mixed trade picture;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments related to China’s Belt and Road project delays in Southeast Asia, the state of the Myanmar military’s global financial access and more;
And much more!
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China’s Latest Southeast Asia Diplomatic Tour; US-Vietnam Partnership Upgrade Talk & More
Can Southeast Asia Prevail in a New Age of Flux Amid "Destructive Spiral" Fears?
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim set out a vision for Southeast Asia to confront the challenging context before it in a major foreign policy speech, with questions surrounding key regional flashpoints and Malaysia’s own global approach under his leadership.
What’s Behind It
Anwar delivered his first major prepared foreign policy speech since taking office last year in the the form of a keynote address at the Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR) in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week1. APR is one of the region’s key Track II conferences (the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is another), and it convened in-person for the first time since 2019.
Anwar’s remarks came amid continued scrutiny on the development of Malaysian foreign policy under his leadership. Malaysia has been consumed by domestic political shifts amid changes in its external environment in recent years, with Anwar being the country’s fourth prime minister in five years. Yet the country is still viewed as a key voice on issues affecting Southeast Asia as a region, be it heightened U.S.-China competition, Myanmar or the South China Sea. As noted previously on ASEAN Wonk, Anwar himself, who served in government in various positions including deputy prime minister before becoming the face of the opposition and then returning as prime minister, has also long been a globally-minded thinker and has extensive connections with leaders not just in Asia, but globally as well out to the Middle East, Europe and the United States2.
Why It Matters
The speech provided a window into the broader global and regional context within which Anwar is shaping Malaysia’s foreign policy (see table below). Though Anwar has been active in making diplomatic trips abroad in his first year in office, we have only gotten glimpses of this context through occasional speeches or remarks around certain issues or trends. In his speech, Anwar painted a broader picture of a grim and uncertain global outlook where “unfettered” major power rivalry was leading to “a dark, self-destructive action-reaction spiral,” producing exclusionary minilaterals, bifurcations in trade and technology and war in Europe. But he also said Southeast Asian states can navigate this uncertain “age of flux” by shaping a more “diverse” and “interconnected” world order through various steps, including reinforcing ASEAN mechanisms, engaging with other subregions in the South Pacific and Central Asia and leveraging ties with the United States and China to promote “a stronger rules-and-norms-based order.”
The vision Anwar sets out is a familiar one yet is not without its challenges. Anwar’s vision of shaping a more diverse but interconnected world order represents a good balance between national interests and regional and global responsibilities, and it is one heard from more globally-minded statesmen in Southeast Asia. Yet the challenge for leaders is whether they can bring along their own people at home and build coalitions with enough like-minded partners abroad, relative to other visions that are relatively more isolationist or populist in nature. Additionally, though Anwar rightly encourages Southeast Asian leaders to look further abroad in crafting their approaches, the reality is that Southeast Asia’s agency amid heightened major power competition is also partly contingent on getting its own region itself in order, with a long list of challenges from Myanmar to the South China Sea. Finally, addressing some of the decades-old issues Anwar mentioned, like integrating Global South voices in the international order, will require willing acquiescence from major powers, at times against narrow conceptions of their own self interest.
Select Identified Trends and Implications in Anwar’s 2023 APR Speech
Anwar’s speech also provided a sense of the select issues Malaysia is focusing on under his tenure. Most of the geopolitical issues contained few surprises, though his rather pointed remarks on Malaysia’s unwavering consistency in the face of “militarization” and “gray zone tactics” in the South China Sea or the danger of “dereliction of collective responsibility” in Myanmar reflect rising concerns on both fronts. ASEAN received quite a bit of emphasis, with Malaysia set to take up the annually-rotating chairmanship in 2025 in a pivotal year for the grouping as it charts out its post-2025 vision3. Anwar also linked global economic challenges like inflation and supply chain disruptions to his Madani Economy approach to restructure the economy and make it more competitive. This linkage is one that other officials, most notably Trade Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, have been noting, with the country being more aggressive in sending trade missions abroad, leveraging its competitive advantage in areas like semiconductors and getting more foreign companies to invest in the country4.
Select Issues and Suggested Approaches in Anwar’s 2023 APR Speech
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, the focus will be on how these foreign policy contours translate into more concrete outcomes, alongside developments such as Anwar’s foreign trips that involve major powers or unexpected crises. Anwar’s government has not dramatically changed course relative to previously issued documents since the shock election in 2018 brought the opposition to power for the first time in the country’s history, notably a defense white paper and two foreign policy frameworks5. Yet Anwar is still in his first year in office, and even subtle changes could begin becoming clearer and more formalized later this year and into 2024 alongside other signals such as resourcing and prioritization. This trend will likely persist out to key initiatives undertaken by Malaysia on its own or as part of other groupings like its 2025 ASEAN chairmanship.
How Anwar’s government makes connections between domestic and foreign policy, and the extent to which the population shares these views, will be critical to monitor in order to assess how the country’s external outlook evolves. Data unsurprisingly indicate that Malaysians remain overwhelmingly preoccupied with economic issues like inflation, and the government has been preoccupied over the past few months with the set of important state elections6. Yet it is also true that some of these domestic touchpoints like growth or corruption have foreign policy linkages, and, it is up to politicians and bureaucrats to make them so that national interests can be realized in the context of an interconnected world, rather than in isolation. Anwar has already signaled this in some of his public speeches, and in this one, he noted clearly that “Malaysia’s security lies in and with the region and not from the region.” Whether or not he can succeed with this more integrated vision at home and abroad remains to be seen.
US-China Influence Competition in Southeast Asia; Malaysian Voter Concerns Amid State Polls; The Indo-Pacific’s Mixed Trade Picture
“The available polling indicates that the United States enjoys more soft power and popularity than China across most of the region…[w]hether that is still true of most elites in Southeast Asia is unclear,” argues a new white paper by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that analyzes available country-level polling data on elite and public opinion in Southeast Asia with respect to both Washington and Beijing (link).
Snapshot of Aggregate Southeast Asia Public and Elite Opinion towards the United States and China
Amid Malaysia’s first set of six key state elections since Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim took power last year, inflation and cost of living overwhelmingly dominated issues of concern for voters, followed by others like economic growth and corruption, per new data released by Merdeka Center (link).
Top Issues of Voter Concern in State Election Survey
“Commercial trade in the APEC region recovered to $4.9 trillion in 2022, albeit lower than the projected value of $5.4 trillion in 2022 had there been no pandemic,” notes a new report released by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum monitoring pandemic recovery in this space. The report observes a mixed picture of increasing trade restrictions, even as trade values for services for Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Vietnam have already shown signs of recovery relative to pre-COVID-19 numbers. It also notes sectoral initiatives by countries to boost their economies, such as the efforts by Indonesia and Thailand to revamp their tourism strategies (link).