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Southeast Asia Needs to Stop Being a Frontline for Global Conflicts

By OOI KEE BENG, in The Compass, December 2020 #6, Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asia.

THE TWO-YEAR-OLD trade war between the United States and China is in many ways a proxy conflict, the real issues not merely being about trade conditions but more being about the global strategical and ideological issues that have emerged in the wake of China’s economic growth.

Temporary measures taken by companies to capitalise on, or to minimise the effects of the tariffs on their profit margins include strategic moves to third countries. Malaysia is a square on the board in this global game of chess, apparently more so for American players than for Chinese ones. For example, in the services sector alone, proposed US investment into Malaysia jumped to RM11.52bil in the first half of 2019 from just RM42.3mil during the same period the year before, while Chinese investments in Malaysia over the first nine months of 2019 were halved, compared to the same period the year before.

This huge movement of assets mirrors a deep reality in Southeast Asia as a whole. Ever since this strange region bounded by India, China, Australasia and the Pacific Ocean was drawn into world politics in the 16th century, it has been the venue for contestations among big powers in conflict at the global level. One could say that the region is unfortunate in that it often suffers accidental spillovers of such struggles; but in light of the region’s continual involvement in externally-defined conflicts, it may be more accurate to consider Southeast Asia to be a persistent front for modern global battles.

To the extent the latter statement is correct, then a broader acceptance by the region’s governments and peoples of that unhappy fact is necessary if the region is to act concertedly in managing the grim fate of being the arena for global conflicts.Luckily, the trade war has so far not led to systemic dissonance in the region, unlike earlier periods when this culturally diverse and archipelagic territory endured violence and coercion at the heavy hand of external powers continuing conflicts begun elsewhere


I suppose the conquest of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511 heralded with thunder and plunder the global age in the region. From that point on, the islands and coastlines in the Nusantara were for the taking by any able European seafaring nation disposed to do so.

The Dutch appeared at the end of the 16th Century, desperately seeking fortune-making spices from the so-called East Indies. Meanwhile, the Spanish had sailed into Manila Bay from across the Pacific.

The British managed to start a minor garrison in Bencoolen around the same time. It was only after gaining Penang in 1786, after defeating Napoleonic France in the Indian Ocean and back in Europe, and after settling Singapore in 1819, that they could secured the route to China to their liking. The French got back into the fray only in the latter half of the 19th century, after their Second Republic’s demise, with the occupation of Cambodia and then the rest of Indochina. They stretched their influence into northeastern and eastern Siam while the British stretched theirs over the rest of that kingdom.

In defeating the Spanish in 1898 over Cuba and in gaining possession of Spain’s Eastern Pacific colonies, the Americans decided evangelically to “bear the White Man’s burden”; and in taking over the Philippines, they evolved into a colonial power in their own right.


By the turn of the 20th century, therefore, the political map in Southeast Asia seemed clearly drawn. Global powers had cut up each their piece of the colonial cake, dismantling much of the socioeconomic and political bindings of the archipelago. One could soundly consider the period before the First World War as the first modern phase in the region. Some territorial stability then prevailed until the coming of the Japanese, who decided early on 8 December 1941 to invade the whole region in retaliation against a western embargo on oil transport to their home islands.

The Japanese Occupation constituted a new phase in global intrusion into Southeast Asia. Its end, resulting so suddenly from the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, saw the region move into an era of colonial dismantlement within the larger defining context of the Cold War.

New nations arose, most of them through armed struggle, cutting the region into pro-western and pro-communism camps. In 1967, the nations in the former showed gumption and imagination enough to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after the left-leaning Soekarno regime fell. It was only after the end of the Cold War in 1991 that a period of consolidation and mending of relations between the two camps could start.When the 21st Century began, ASEAN had ten members, all hopefully looking forward—not so much to a peaceful era of regional growth as to a time marked by greatly diminished interference from external powers.

This consolidation of an organisation representing the whole disparate region is an accomplishment seldom appreciated enough. But even as ASEAN tried to grow into the big boots so optimistically made for it, the emergence of a multipolar world with key poles to all sides returned Southeast Asia to being a contested region again. This time, it is the South China Sea—a mass of water bordered by at least six of ASEAN’s members, plus China—that has become the arena that big powers use to proxy their fears of each other.


Attempts in recent years at influencing proceedings in ASEAN summits by big powers, most notably China, have also become a great irritant for its member states. The region now figures centrally in strategical exercises formulated in the capitals of big powers—President Barack Obama wished to pivot to Southeast Asia and to create the now-defunct Trans Pacific Partnership, President Xi Jinping threw his Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on the table, and President Donald Trump in turn promoted the notion of an Indo-Pacific and in 2018 began a tit-for-tat trade war with Beijing.

As the Malays have always so wisely professed, “When elephants contest, deer are trampled”.

Given the present scenario of big power posturing, and given the history of Southeast Asia catching a cold whenever a big power sneezes in a faraway capital, Southeast Asian nations, through ASEAN, are now in a better position than ever to pull together in order to act as an elephant in their own right and not as terrified deer trying to avoid elephantine feet.

To manage that, they need to recognise—and to make their people recognise—the nature of the geopolitical conditions they live under, and in learning from the historical travails their forefathers suffered, trumpet forth a united voice and take charge of their own fate. The following decade is critical. ASEAN has to move beyond its foundational bindings. If it fails, the chance will probably not come again.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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