Next year, Asian nations must do much more to build trust

Imaginative thinking over competing claims in the South China Sea would bode well for the region as it enters 2024

Paper lanterns are released at an Asean-Japan meeting in Tokyo on December 17. For many countries in the region, the priorities in 2024 will be stability and continuity. Reuters
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In 2023 and going forward into 2024, East and South-East Asia appears to be divided largely between two groups of countries: the first placing the greatest emphasis on political stability and continuity, with some forging unlikely alliances at home to exclude more radical elements from government, and the second binding themselves closer to a US that, under its current administration, seems incapable by choice or temperament of not acting in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner towards China.

In the first group, Cambodia has thus far managed a smooth generational handover, since Hun Manet took over as prime minister in August from his father Hun Sen, who had held the office since 1985. Hun Manet’s military and university education in the US and UK may mislead some into believing that he is likely to be more liberal than his father. In fact, he will probably steer a very similar course – which has, in any case, generated impressive growth over the last quarter-century – but his years spent in the West may make him better placed to navigate relations with the EU and others critical of the country’s human rights record.

Singapore elected a new president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in September. As a former deputy prime minister in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government, he is perhaps the most qualified person to hold the mainly ceremonial position, while the finance minister, Lawrence Wong, prepares to take over as prime minister from Lee Hsien Loong possibly towards the end of next year. As always, the PAP has been handling these transitions ultra-carefully, under the belief that it only has to make one mistake for it to lose a general election for the first time, with the risk that a less financially responsible administration would undermine the foundations of the city-state they spent decades creating.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has maintained his unity government, which brought together ethnic Malay and Chinese parties who have spent the past 40 years as bitter enemies. If progress on his reform agenda has not been quite as swift as his supporters would have liked as a result, the government itself is an example of the country’s diversity and good intercommunal relations, while racial chauvinists have been kept out of power.

Thailand’s election led to the emergence of Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as prime minister in August – the first time the populist party, which is viewed as a vehicle for former leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, joined forces with the military-backed conservative parties to form a government. This was a significant compromise, as the military-royalist establishment has thwarted Mr Thaksin and his successors several times, via coups and legal cases, despite their regularly winning elections. This accommodation – which I urged in these pages in May – came at the cost of the unexpected winner of the parliamentary elections, the Move Forward party. But the latter is too progressive and reformist for the establishment to accept. While Pheu Thai supporters may be disappointed, the current administration came to power legitimately, and it will be a benefit if it breaks the cycle of coups that has troubled Thailand for too long.

East and South-East Asia may welcome input from outsiders, but in 2024 and beyond the region has no need of backseat drivers

Indonesia’s presidential election, to be held this coming February, also looks in part to be an exercise in continuity and stability. Prabowo Subianto, who has been defence minister under President Joko Widodo since 2019, is the current frontrunner – and has chosen the President’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice presidential running mate. Even Australia, which may not be in Asia but is in the Asia-Pacific, has prioritised stable relations with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s successful four-day “rapprochement” tour of China in November.

By contrast, the US and three of its treaty allies – South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, and a de facto ally, Taiwan – are part of an atmosphere of insecurity in the region. The trilateral summits between the US, South Korea and Japan, including at Camp David in August, may not officially be aimed at containing China, but they have a strong security component that belies any denials.

Japan’s premier is so unpopular that a headline in Asia Times this week read “How much longer can Kishida last?”, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol’s approval ratings fell as low as 27 per cent earlier this year, and US President Joe Biden’s have also been falling. Leaders whose longevity is in doubt do not contribute to calm in the region by appearing to prepare for a – totally unnecessary – war with China that senior American figures have been predicting could happen as early as 2025.

Taiwan’s presidential election in January could raise the stakes over the issue of the island’s independence, opposed by China, which views it as a renegade province, but which is an aspiration many US politicians have been encouraging – not least Mr Biden, who has ended the policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence if China attempted reunification by force. Not only has Mr Biden said they would, he also said last year that “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence”.

All the countries in the region need to do much more to build trust. The ongoing clashes between Chinese and Philippine vessels in a disputed area of the South China Sea is one reason why Beijing would earn plaudits if it pushed hard for the long-awaited Code of Conduct in the sea to be finalised, along with its partners in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). Equally, all the littoral states will have to recognise that they have competing claims that can only be resolved by imaginative compromise. Asean will also have to be ready to step in if the civil war in Myanmar ends in the collapse of the military junta.

The lesson from the first group of countries is that prioritising stability and continuity is key. The lesson for the second group of countries comes from the experience of Ukraine – that the US will say they’ll support you “as long as it takes”, but that may well turn into “as long as we can”. East and South-East Asia may welcome input from outsiders, but in 2024 and beyond the region has no need of backseat drivers. It must be allowed to decide its destinies itself.

Published: December 28, 2023, 5:29 AM
Updated: December 30, 2023, 5:43 PM