Southeast Asia is a pivotal sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. Spanning 1,700,000 square miles, its total population is 676 million – around 8.5% of the world’s population – and has a collective GDP of US$3.67 trillion (as of 2022). Over the years, it has been associated with both economic dynamism and significant security challenges. As authors in this volume note, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, disagreements over water rights in the Mekong Delta, and the current conflict in Myanmar highlight fault lines not only between Southeast Asian states themselves, but also between great powers such as China and the United States. There are many more – the EU, India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea – that pay close attention to developments in the sub-region. Maintaining peace and stability in a region that plays host to one-third of global sea-borne trade, hosts major undersea internet cables, and is a major thoroughfare for energy supplies from the Middle East to the advanced manufacturing hubs in China, Japan, and South Korea is both challenging and complicated.
The primary mechanism for engagement with the individual countries in Southeast Asia has been through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its attendant bodies, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM). Meanwhile, ASEAN member states have promoted the principle of “ASEAN centrality” as a means to prevent major power interference in the sub-region and to retain influence over security cooperation within Southeast Asia and beyond. As a result, the acknowledgement of ASEAN centrality has become a “boilerplate” for strategy and policy documents related to regional security. One example of this is the inclusion of the principle in the 2021 U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the increasingly pressing nature of challenges confronting the broader region, their speed and intensity, are beginning to outpace the evolution of institutions and processes associated with ASEAN.
The ASEAN Way – an emphasis on informal consultation, non-interference, and consensus as the basis of major decisions – has been integral to creating internal cohesion and harmony within ASEAN decision-making and is an enabler of socio-political integration. On the other hand, it has also stymied efforts to develop effective collective responses to conflicts and has made ASEAN hostage to great powers able to use their influence over members to break consensus. While defenders of ASEAN point to its successes and remain confident that it will adapt to regional issues over time, others are increasingly skeptical that ASEAN can retain its status as the gatekeeper of regional security agenda.
It is in this context that Pacific Forum carried out this extended study with support from the Luce Foundation to investigate Southeast Asian perspectives on the “biggest threats or most pressing security issues, now and in the foreseeable future.” We asked a group of our Southeast Asian cohort of Young Leaders (ages 21 to 35), what problems were most pressing to them, and asked them how they thought their countries should address these issues, noting which third-parties would be most important for them to leverage in doing so. We believe this publication, which cuts across a broad range of security issues, is a fair representation of the eclecticism and diversity that characterize the region itself and hope that our readers will find them as useful as we have here at Pacific Forum.
The collection starts with traditional security issues and then moves to more non-traditional security issues, though this does not reflect any internal emphasis or prioritization on the part of the editors. The first essay, by Siu Tzyy Wei, is entitled “Caught in the Middle: The Measured Voice of Brunei’s Foreign Policy Amidst the South China Sea Dispute.” Beginning with the South China Sea is appropriate for any collective study on the region, but Brunei’s position as a “silent claimant” presents a perspective not often heard. The author’s assertion that it is China and external powers – AUKUS and the Quad are mentioned – that are adding pressure to the South China Sea and adding a dangerous complexity, compelling Brunei’s “neutrality,” a striking claim given the threat to Bruneian sovereignty. The second essay moves to another flashpoint, the political crisis in Myanmar; a national issue that has reverberated around ASEAN as well as further abroad in Washington and Brussels. Appropriately titled “The Coming of the Raging Fire: The Revolution in Myanmar,” Thiha Wint Aung analyzes the lead-up to the political crisis and concludes by calling for the international community to explicitly support the people’s “armed resistance” against the military. The third essay presents a bold national case for a region-wide issue: dealing with rising Chinese influence. In “Malaysia’s China Policy Amid China’s Growing Security Concerns,” Fikry A. Rahman argues that Malaysian policy elites will have to prioritize strategic concerns over economic ties vis-a-vis China if it is to adequately defend Malaysian sovereignty.
The next group of essays focuses on non-traditional security issues, beginning with climate change, one of the most pressing global issues. Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as noted in the fourth essay, “When it Rains, it Pours: Disaster Displacement and the Future of Human Security in the Philippines Amid Changing Climate.” Katrina Guanio calls for policymakers to be aware of gradual or even sudden human migrations due to inclement weather, such as typhoons, and the impact these have on national health, economic, and security dynamics. Taking an unusual and unique perspective, the fifth essay, “Climate Maladaptation: Migration, Food Insecurity, and the Politics of Climate Change in Timor-Leste” by Ariel Mota Alves, makes the provocative argument that international organizations can sometimes promote detrimental Western development narratives that undermine local solutions to local climate change effects. The sixth essay, “Human Trafficking in Vietnam: A Top-Tier Non-Traditional Security Threat in the 21st Century” by Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh, measures the impact of the scourge of human trafficking in Vietnam and offers practical policy solutions to mitigating its impact on victims. Finally, the seventh essay, by Attawat Assavanadda, looks at “Thailand’s Brain Drain Challenge: Trends and Implications,” noting the push-pull drivers of the phenomenon and its impact on Thailand’s overall development.
As one can see from this summary, the range of topics chosen by our talented Young Leader cohort from Southeast Asia is as diverse, inspiring, and multidimensional as the region itself. Ranging from security issues that are well covered by regional and international media to those that take an eclectic look at local variations of international issues, we are pleased to showcase these essays. As ever, the mission of Pacific Forum only begins with the creation of such young leader cohorts, and empowering them to present their analyses and recommendations should only be a prelude to robust regional conversations and discussions. We have been since our creation – a forum for those discussions – and hope that our readers will take that engaging approach to these essays and their authors.
Dr. John Hemmings
Senior Director, Pacific Forum
Click here to download the full report.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Caught in the Middle: The Measured Voice of Brunei’s Foreign Policy Amidst the South China Sea Disputes | Siu Tzyy Wei
Chapter 2: The Coming of the Raging Fire: The Revolution in Myanmar | Thiha Wint Aung
Chapter 3: Malaysia’s China Policy Amid China’s Growing Security Concerns | Fikry A. Rahman
Chapter 4: When it Rains, it Pours: Disaster Displacement and the Future of Human Security in the Philippines Amid Changing Climate | Katrina Guanio
Chapter 5: Climate Maladaptation: Migration, Food Insecurity, and the Politics of Climate Change in Timor-Leste | Ariel Mota Alves
Chapter 6: Human Trafficking in Vietnam: A Top-Tier Non-traditional Security Threat in the 21st century | Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh
Chapter 7: Thailand’s Brain Drain Challenge: Trends and Implications | Attawat Joseph Ma Assavanadda
About the Authors
Ariel Mota Alves is a Timorese student currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science with a Graduate Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His research focuses on the environmental changes in Southeast Asia and Timor-Leste. Ariel is a research intern and student affiliate at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Attawat Joseph Ma Assavanadda is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. His research interests are International Relations and Security in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on China-Southeast Asia relations. He obtained his MA in International Relations (International Security Specialization) from Waseda University where he was awarded the Japanese Government “MEXT” Scholarship. He previously worked as a political analyst at Government House of Thailand and a research assistant (master’s level) at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG).
Fikry A. Rahman is the Head of Foreign Affairs at Bait Al Amanah, a political and development research institute based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research interests include Southeast Asian regionalism, smaller states’ strategies, the politics and geopolitics of digital connectivity cooperation, maritime security, and Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. He was also part of Princeton University’s research project on the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia, and was thoroughly involved with Malaysian universities on the BRI research projects. His insights have been featured in The Diplomat, Nikkei Asia, New Straits Times, and BenarNews.
Katrina R. Guanio is a Senior Project Officer at UP – Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders or the International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders (UP-CIFAL Philippines). She works on research studies and projects on migration, gender equality, and sustainable development. Previously, she worked with the Economist Intelligence Unit for the local migration governance indicators of the International Organization for Migration. She is completing her Master’s in Population Studies at the University of the Philippines Population Institute.
Siu Tzyy Wei is a Research Associate at the Global Awareness and Impact Alliance (GAIA). With an aim to develop a deeper understanding of how national factors can evolve and threaten the international system and vice versa, Wei’s research interests lie mainly in the politics and maritime security issues of Southeast Asia. Currently holding a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Sociology and Anthropology from Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Wei’s work has been featured in Fair Observer and CSIS Indonesia.
Thiha Wint Aung is an independent political analyst from Myanmar. He received Master of Arts in Political Science from Central European University (CEU) in 2022 and Master of Public Policy from National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in 2020. He formerly worked as Senior Program Manager in Forum of Federations, an INGO providing technical support on federalism and decentralization to various stakeholders in Myanmar. His interests are in social movements, social networks, digital humanities, and Southeast Asia politics.
Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh is a graduate student at European University Institute majoring in Transnational Governance. Previously, she was an intern at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). She was also a senior research fellow and head of the Southeast Asia Research Group at the Vanguard Think Tank. Her research interests include Vietnamese politics, Asian security, and public policy.