“Southeast Asia After the Cold War: A Contemporary History” by Ang Cheng Guan

se-asia

British writer EH Carr in his classic text on international relations, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919 to 1939, argues that ideas of peace and cooperation between nations cannot stand up to the realities of international instability and competition. In Carr’s time the League of Nations was ineffectual in preventing a return to war in Europe. In Southeast Asia After the Cold War, Ang Cheng Guan using Carr as inspiration looks at ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), an intergovernmental organization caught between China and the old, creaking superpower, the USA. Can ASEAN with the help of diplomacy and trade deals strike a balance between the two powers in the region or is military action inevitable?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a unipolar world emerged with the United States as the only superpower. This state of affairs did not last long because of the rise of China. As a result, disputes between ASEAN nations and China over sovereignty in the South China Sea take up a good portion of Southeast Asia After the Cold War, which analyses the big issues the members of ASEAN have faced since 1990. While he does not have space here to go into the recent history of individual Southeast Asian nations in any depth, the overwhelming feeling is that ASEAN can’t achieve what it wants to given its huge differences in culture, forms of government and geography.

The narrative begins with the 1990s. Despite Western pressure to keep the country isolated, Myanmar joined in 1997; letting them in caused ASEAN some inconvenience with Western powers critical of the country’s human rights’ record.

 

Myanmar remained both an embarrassment and an obstacle, but the reality was that ASEAN had little leverage over Myanmar. As ASEAN Secretary-General Ong explained, ASEAN’s trade ties with Myanmar were “insignificant”.

 

That same year, the Asian Financial Crisis caused further havoc for ASEAN, throwing the organization’s largest member, Indonesia, into political turmoil and ultimately causing the downfall of President Suharto.

 

Southeast Asia After the Cold War: A Contemporary History, Ang Cheng Guan (NUS Press, September 2019)
Southeast Asia After the Cold War: A Contemporary History, Ang Cheng Guan (NUS Press, September 2019)

After 9/11, the War on Terror brought troubles especially for Indonesia and Malaysia, but in the 21st century the main focus of ASEAN has been the South China Sea dispute. Ang Cheng Guan’s narrative takes us through the various flashpoints, for example the appropriately named Mischief Reef where China has been reclaiming land and building a military base.

ASEAN has failed to pin China down to a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea. China prefers to deal with countries bilaterally, whereas a multinational approach would allow Southeast Asia to stand up to the superpower. ASEAN members, however, find it hard to agree with each other, because, for example, Cambodia and Laos are more dependent on China than others.

Yet even had the group been able to get China to sign a binding code it’s doubtful it would have made a difference, given that China rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision which ruled in the Philippines’ favor in 2016. This decision rejected China’s “nine-dash line” which has them owning the main archipelagos in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.

 

For the geopolitical future of ASEAN, the author turns to Singaporean statesman Lee Kwan Yew to sum things up.

 

In his appraisal of the strategic problems that confronted the post-Cold War world, Lee viewed the 1990s in context of a new geopolitical configuration that would pose new challenges for Asian countries. He foresaw the shift in global balance to Asia-Pacific with the inevitable rise of China economically (followed by that of India). Thus, it was not necessary for the United States to maintain a presence in the region as a countervailing force.

 

However, in contrast to Lee’s statement, the United States does not yet seem superfluous. But it is far from clear that the United States has the willpower and resources to exert its power effectively in maritime Southeast Asia. The author argues that the United States realized the importance of Asia-Pacific almost too late. Under the Obama administration it attempted to re-engage in the region; one of the tools that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pushed was the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), a deal that candidate Clinton soured on and President Trump later canceled. Another problem is that the USA will often not work with non-democratic governments and this pushes countries in China’s direction. Thailand took a turn towards China in its foreign policy after its military coup of 2014, and Myanmar has long been under China’s wing.

Elsewhere, ASEAN has also tried to work with India and Japan as counterweights, whether this will help remains to be seen. The book is full of the resulting acronyms for various multinational initiatives, EASI (East Asia Strategy Initiative) and APT (ASEAN Plus Three) but to name a few; luckily there is a glossary.

 

Are we at the crossroads of history as the title of the final chapter of this book, that deals with 2016 and 2017, suggests? Ang Cheng Guan wisely does not speculate too much. The message of this history of Southeast Asian international relations since the 1990s is that multinational alliances like ASEAN or the EU will never be a match for true superpowers.


Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.