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A snapshot of Southeast Asia in 2013



This year promises to be another big year in Southeast Asia, that part of Australia’s region where our economic and security interests are most actively engaged.

Both Malaysia and Cambodia will conduct national elections in 2013. In the case of Malaysia, where the election must be called by April, the upcoming poll has been characterised as the most competitive in the country’s history. This is despite ongoing concerns on the part of opposition parties and democracy activists about possible vote-rigging by the country’s governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional. Cambodia’s elections, scheduled for July, take place against the backdrop of rapid economic development, continued pursuit of closer economic and political relations with China and renewed allegations of human rights abuses by Hun Sen’s government.

In Indonesia, a series of local polls, involving millions of voters across the country, will be conducted in 2013 in the lead-up to the national elections scheduled for 2014. In the Philippines, the political year has commenced with the signing of a new ‘anti-corruption pact’ between media organisations and political parties and will include mid-term legislative elections in May. Vietnam is grappling with internal scandals within its ruling communist party, as well as a slowing economy, while the politics of reconciliation within Thailand remain finely balanced.

Political and economic reforms in Myanmar will continue to be closely watched by the international community as Western nations deepen their engagement. Constitutional issues, particularly the future role of the military and Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s eligibility to run for the Presidency, the ongoing instability in Kachin and Rakhine states, and how best to improve economic opportunities for the country’s poor will remain key areas of focus in the lead-up to national elections, due in 2015.

Brunei will chair the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings in 2013. ASEAN faces the challenging task of making headway on contentious issues like the South China Sea disputes (see below), progressing its ambitious goal of achieving an Economic Community by the end of 2015, and implementing its new (and, some argue, seriously flawed) Human Rights Declaration. Le Luong Minh, a former Deputy Foreign Minister from Vietnam, has been appointed as the new Secretary-General of ASEAN and his inaugural address can be found here.

The South China Sea remains one of the region’s most intractable disputes and a potential source of destabilising conflict. Last year was a bad year in the South China Sea and some analysts have argued that 2013 will likely be worse. One reason is that, if estimates of the area’s resource potential are correct, expanding exploration activity by individual claimants is likely to confirm more deposits of oil and gas. Brunei’s Foreign Ministry and Secretary-General Minh have both stated that one of the main priorities for ASEAN in 2013 should be to advance negotiations on the long-waited ‘code of conduct’ for managing the disputes. Meanwhile, the Philippines has sought international arbitration from a UN tribunal on its disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Economic growth forecasts for the region remain largely optimistic despite regional tensions and the challenges facing the global economy. Most ASEAN states are expected to continue to benefit from the growth of China and expanding intra-regional trade and investment networks, with the smaller economies of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar forecast to be among the fastest growing.

Table: 2013 growth forecasts, ASEAN economies
Brunei Darussalam
1.539
Cambodia
6.675
Indonesia
6.339
Lao P.D.R.
8.050
Malaysia
4.700
Myanmar
6.300
Philippines
4.782
Singapore
2.902
Thailand
5.986
Vietnam
5.877
 
 













Indonesia will chair this year’s meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping, with a focus on the theme of ‘resilient growth’. Negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, which includes Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam and the US, are scheduled to be concluded by October 2013, although issues like copyright, government procurement and dispute settlement are reportedly still proving difficult to resolve.
 
The role of external powers will also continue to be closely watched. For the United States, implementation of the Obama administration’s strategy of ‘rebalancing’ will remain a focus, as will the evolution of the US-ASEAN ‘strategic partnership’ and Washington’s policies toward the South China Sea disputes.
 
The latter issue will continue to complicate China’s relationship with the region at the same time as it is attempting to cultivate stronger ties with ASEAN through closer trade, investment and infrastructure connectivity.
 
In the wake of the Australian Government’s 2012 ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ White Paper, a recent policy paper published by Asialink has called on the Government to develop a specific ‘ASEAN strategy’ as a means of ‘leveraging and deepening our relations with the region of Asia with which we are most familiar’ and helping Australia influence ‘the vital United States-China dynamic’. Others have suggested that we need to be better prepared for a region that could be much less benign than that portrayed in the White Paper.
 
With both major parties keen to display their credentials on engagement with Asia, it will be interesting to see the extent to which these issues feature in foreign policy debates in the lead-up to September’s federal election.
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