2019 Forecast: South, East, and Southeast Asia

The broad swath of space stretching from South, East, and Southeast Asia is fast becoming the center of geostrategic strategy in the world, and it’s here where much has already happened last year and where a lot more will probably occur in the next. From Trump’s summit with Kim to the fledgling rapprochement between China and India, 2018 set into motion some important trends that are likely to carry into the future and reshape this part of the Eastern Hemisphere and beyond.

Starting with East Asia, the Trump-Kim Summit was welcomed by the entire world but more tangible progress needs to be seen before declaring their reconciliation a success instead of the headline-grabbing stunt that it technically was. Nevertheless, the drawdown in tensions between the two positively contributed to the Chinese-Japanese rapprochement, which was also a reaction to Trump’s so-called “trade war”. These interconnected events resulted in 2018 ending much more differently than it began for East Asia in that the risk of war is now lower that it’s ever been for decades after the US signaled that it’s not interested in attacking North Korea so long as Pyongyang remains committed to Trump’s vague denuclearization plan.

In South Asia, China’s all-weather ally Pakistan elected popular cricketer and anti-corruption activist Imran Khan as its Prime Minister, after which he extended an olive branch to India that was regrettably whacked away by Prime Minister Modi. Interestingly, however, India and China moved past their 2017 dispute over Donglang/Doklam and unveiled the China-India-Plus-One format of trilateral cooperation in third-party states, opening up the possibility of converging their New Silk Road and Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) projects in countries such as Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the littoral states of East Africa. The progressive movement towards a “détente” of sorts between these two Asian Great Powers represents one of the most promising trends of the past year.

As for Southeast Asia, the so-called Quad has faltered and no longer seems capable of militarily “containing” China in the South China Sea, weakened as it was by Beijing’s breakthrough rapprochements with both Tokyo and New Delhi. The US will likely continue to provoke China in these waters, but the countries of the region don’t seem willing to get involved in behaving as America’s “cat’s paw”, especially not Vietnam which has noticeably improved its relations with China over the past few years following a naval standoff in 2014. Indonesia seems to be on board with China’s New Silk Road, as are the mainland states of the Greater Mekong Region, though all of them also have their own ties with India and Japan as well.

The overarching trend is that the actual and aspiring Great Powers of the region – with the exception of India and Pakistan – seem to have reached an understanding with one another to handle their disputes in a peaceful manner and avoid being used by the US to divide and rule this part of Asia. Seeing as how the two main transnational projects are China’s New Silk Road and the joint Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, it’s possible that they could either converge in smaller- to medium-sized states or enter into “friendly competition” with one another to the host country’s ultimate benefit, with the outcome depending on diplomacy between all parties and the leverage of the third-party state involved.

Overall, the prognosis for South, East, and Southeast Asia in 2019 is generally positive though there still remains the chance that some sub-regional conflicts could break out. Although the peace process in Myanmar is continuing apace, the world’s longest civil war could always re-erupt, and tensions between Nepal’s lowland Madhesi of the Terai and the indigenous highlanders could put serious pressure on the communist coalition government there. In addition, Bangladesh might become destabilized as the ruling party continues to centralize its power in controversial ways, though it might be able to “buy off” the citizens’ loyalty or at least passive approval so long as it can maintain rapid economic growth.

For as optimistic as this forecast may generally be, it can be offset by the sudden failure of China’s rapprochements with Japan and India which might occur if one of the two decides to more resolutely align with the US in its efforts to “contain” the People’s Republic. Other fault lines might emerge if the aforementioned smaller states – including Maldives and Sri Lanka but especially Bangladesh – become destabilized to such a degree that they reemerge as zones of heated competition between China and the Quad’s Indo-Japanese axis. Also, while Thailand’s planned election early next year will probably go off without a hitch, any unexpectedly negative developments there could possibly change the balance of power in the Greater Mekong Region with unexpected results.


By Andrew Korybko
Source: Oriental Review