Southeast Asia in 2024: What to Watch in Geopolitics and Geoeconomics
Five critical items to watch for rest of the year - with geopolitical datapoints, geoeconomic trendlines and much, much more.
Dear Readers - happy new year! The next BulletBrief will be out as usual later this week. Today, we at ASEAN Wonk are pleased to launch our latest product called “FuturePoints,” which will include an annual assessment of the top five geopolitical and geoeconomic datapoints and trendlines to watch impacting Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region. The first iteration looks at the top five developments for 2024. If you have not already, do consider subscribing below to receive full posts and support our work! And if you have already done so, do consider forwarding this to others who may be interested. Thank you for your support!
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1. SHIFTING NON-US-CHINA GEOPOLITICAL CHESSBOARD
Line of Sight
2024 will see the intensification of major power “pivots” towards Southeast Asia. For all the focus on U.S.-China competition, the clearest trend in the past decade is that nearly every notable major power is intensifying its engagement in Southeast Asia in recognition of the region’s growing clout. The trend is significant in that it diversifies the region’s power mix and widens space for forward-leaning Southeast Asian states to practice multiengagement — a more active process beyond avoiding binary choices between Washington and Beijing1. This trend continued in 2023, with examples including Japan’s elevation of ties with ASEAN and France’s increasing defense cooperation with the Philippines.
Over the Horizon
Looking ahead, attempted inroads by key powers through the rest of the year will be a theme to watch. One high-profile example on the ASEAN calendar, with the grouping chaired this year by Laos, will be Australia’s special summit with ASEAN set for March in Melbourne. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently reiterated in a key address that boosting ties with the region is a top policy priority, citing a newly unveiled economic strategy out to 2040 last September as a generational upgrade2. Another case in point is South Korea’s efforts to elevate ties with ASEAN to the highest tier of a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), building on its Indo-Pacific Strategy and Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative3. ASEAN would then have CSPs with over half of its dialogue partners just three years after the first round of upgrades were issued4.
Select Major Developments Involving ASEAN Dialogue Partners in 2023
Under the Radar
Game-changing individual initiatives are also critical to monitor, even if they may not be tied to high-profile engagements or upgrades. One example on the trade front is the Canada-ASEAN free trade agreement, which both sides have publicly said they aim to conclude by 20255. In addition to strengthening ties between Southeast Asian states and a major North American market, it exposes lags across the border in U.S. trade policy, where Washington has struggled to gain ground on initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and remains out of pacts like RCEP and CPTPP. The implications stretch out to U.S. companies as well in terms of how they assess relative advantages and supply chain shifts.
2. SUCCESSION CENTRAL
Line of Sight
Succession politics will continue to loom over the region in 2024, with implications for foreign and security policy. The past three years have seen changes in the majority of Southeast Asia’s leaders6. These shifts are notable given the personalistic nature of politics in parts of the region and the reality that ASEAN remains a leader-led organization despite continued people-centered aspirations. Leadership also matters as these figures are presiding over a challenging period where they have to both chart the course for post-pandemic growth and manage a more challenging external environment with overlapping crises. 2023 saw a continuation of this, with new leaders in Thailand and Cambodia as well as the return of Xanana Gusmao as premier in East Timor.
Select Key Recent Political Transitions in Southeast Asia
Over the Horizon
Much of the focus will be on two consequential countries: Indonesia’s presidential elections and Singapore’s leadership handover. In Indonesia, a popular, term-limited Jokowi is pushing for continuity, calling on his successor to stick with key policies with his son on the leading ticket with Prabowo Subianto. But Jokowi’s domestic-focused, economic-centric foreign policy vision has had its limits in a more geopolitically contested world. The key question is where we may see change under a new president, even if it is on individual issues like Chinese investment and boundary policing rather than bigger shifts to values-based or nativist foreign policy visions7. The expected leadership handover of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to his deputy Lawrence Wong may not draw as many eyeballs. But the succession and subsequent polls will spotlight the country’s more contested politics as it moves further away from the Lee family, with implications in areas such as its social compact and ties with major powers.
Under the Radar
Other ongoing transition storylines bear watching too, even if they are occurring more gradually or behind the scenes. This includes Srettha Thavisin’s leadership in Thailand amid evolving dynamics within the Pheu Thai party and monarchy after the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as Cambodia’s governance under Prime Minister Hun Manet with the transition to a post-Hun Sen Cambodia still an ongoing one. Beyond prime ministers, transitions within and across other institutions matter too. A case in point is the ascension of Malaysia’s powerful king Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar from the southern state of Johor. This is already generating questions about what it means for Anwar’s tenure and for foreign relations with countries like Singapore.
3. SECTORAL POWER PLAYS
Line of Sight
2024 will be a key year in the evolution of intra-ASEAN sectoral power plays (see chart below). As much as Southeast Asian states confront common challenges, they also compete vigorously geopolitically and geoeconomically. This competition intensified even more in 2023, particularly as countries set out new sectoral strategies to strengthen their position in the race for post-pandemic growth and take advantage of shifting geoeconomic realities.