Likelihood of Inter-State War in Southeast Asia

Critically assess the likelihood of inter-state war in Southeast Asia in the 21st Century.

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South East Asia – a region consisting of 11 countries scattered around the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean and carries great diversity in cultures, languages and religions with Islam being the dominant one in the region). With around 620 million habitants, it is also considered one of the most populated regions in the world. With very rich heritage, it also has its fair share of conflicts from the old days to current and thru the years, every nation are trying to rebuild despite some countries with political instability, and strengthen its own economy in order not to be left behind in the competitive world. The forming of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is in a way aims to accelerate the economic growth, social progress, socio-cultural evolution among its members, protection of regional peace and stability, and opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully[1] .

This essay will attempt to discuss the likelihood of inter-state war in the region in the 21st century with consideration of impact due to global trends, the effect of economic interpendence and terrorism in the region which may pose a bigger threat to national security.


The countries, being in a strategy location and access to plentiful of natural resources together with their diversity and increasing integration, are a magnet for not only China but also for Europe and US to invest in. Politically, the region provides stability in a part of the world that is rapidly reshaping the global balance of power. As a result, its continued development—which depends on investments in infrastructure and education, as well as improvements in business climate—is important for the rest of the world. The ten countries have a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion and an average per-capital income close to that of China. Being a consistent good performer, they would have been a ninth largest economy if they are a country[2]. Thanks to the loosening of control by the military junta n 2011, Myanmar has also gradually opened up their market for foreign investment in the past two years. And being an emerging economy with great potential, it cannot be neglected. The developing economies in Vietnam and Cambodia have also performed economically well since they open up its market few years back.


ASEAN, who has played a pivotal stabilizing role in both the region and the world, has also aim to create an economic community which is a single market for goods, services, investments, and skilled labor by 2015. With its determination and shows of economies usefulness, it has also drawn in partnership with various countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India in introducing various initiatives in boosting the economies in the region. United States commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will also determine the economy of the next century for S.E.A.

Amidst its developing economic potential, the political arena among the S.E.A. countries poses another challenge which may jeopardizes the progress and worse, may derail and setback the efforts put in thus far. The political turmoil in Thailand – it’s all too familiar partisan politics has been playing out in the street wanting to unseat Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the controversial and now exiled ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Only consolation is the military has yet to stage the 82nd coup thus far. The country has been without a proper government since December 13 and the election last done in February was considered void due to the protest causing some areas not able to conduct a proper election. The Thai economy was also badly hit and will deteriorating further if the turmoil continues with no end in sight. And as recent, the opposition has planned to boycott the July election yet again and called for Yingluck to resign. Myanmar also faces daunting challenges in its path to reform. The military junta’s refusal to remove clause 59(f) from the constitution, which bars from the presidency anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens. This effectively bars Miss Suu Kyi from standing for president. While Mr Thein Sein may be supportive of removing the clause, the internal resistance from the military junta has thus far been effective in blocking it. In the words of Mr Thein Sein “if the political demands made by the public are larger than the current political system can accommodate, we can all end up in political deadlock….we could lose all the political freedom we have achieved so far. I would therefore like to urge all of you to handle such a situation with care and wisdom.”[4] This deadlock in political reform, a largely inscrutable bureaucracy, will definitely slow down the progress of development in the country. Cambodia, under the rule of authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen, has also seen tens of thousands of protestors going on the street recently to protest against flaw in election system which led to the win by Hun Sen’s party. With the instability in the political situation in the country, it is difficult to attract investment in the country. The situation is further stressed by the lack of skilled workers in the country. Indonesian will be having its presidential election this year and will decide the next President to lead this economy into the next century. Being the largest economy in S.E.A and world’s 3rd largest democracy, it will set the path and determine the progress in S.E.A. economy.

With the colourful economic and political situations in the S.E.A, it is unimaginable to think that each and every country in this region would want to risk being in the last of the league in the developing economy. While ASEAN may have a known policy of not interfering in internal politics of member states, they have in the past shown to be able to come to some agreement amicably to settle their inter-state disputes as in the case of Thailand-Cambodia territory disputes which was the worse since the forming of ASEAN in 1967. It would also be disastrous if any country, having dealt with their internal politic turmoil, would want to get into another inter-states conflict instead of banding together to move together boost the region’s economy.


Economic interdependence between inter-states has been known to prevent any conflicts or escalation in any conflicts. It is not restricted to just South East Asia countries. I am a believer in such advocacy. Evident over current quarrels between China and Japan over the islands – barren rocks known in China as the Diaoyu islands and in Japanese as the Senkaku islands, the conflict will not escalate mainly due to the continual reliance on the each economy. China is in need of Japanese products like machinery for its production and Japan in need of raw products from China likewise. Even in the tense atmosphere in July 2012, Japanese companies are still doing business in China e.g. a city in Chongqing hiring the Mitsui Group to develop an industrial park aimed at attracting foreign investment[5]. The leaders in both countries know very well how a deteriorating economy will damage its standing in the world. Both leaders also has a heavy responsibility to revive their economies and having been relying on each other’s economy for decades, re-strategizing and reduce or cut off reliance on each other is not an option.

In South East Asia, the forming of ASEAN serves to ensure peace in the region by promoting trading in the regions as one of its aim. Along the way, member states have also came out with initiatives in propelling the economy in the region – in 1992, the integrating of its member economies by the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and later in 2003, the members further committed to forming an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a single production base and market, by 2020. Seeing the significant and importance of the AEC, the member states agreed to advance the formation to 2015 in 2007, though the progress is slow down due to political situation in some member countries. All these initiatives require the co-operation of the member states, every one of them, in order to form a strong magnet to attract investment to the region. Thus far, with its strategic location, abundant natural resources, quality human resources and growing economies, ASEAN has engaged economically, by way of trade and investments, with all the large economies of the world. Even with the region facing the Asian financial crisis which dented ASEAN’s economic credibility and standing, they were able to quickly recover from this crisis and individually, most of the ASEAN countries are now enjoying positive growth rates of 4%-7%. It has shown the robustness of the economy despite the fall. This economic standing, with its political and strategic weight, has encouraged the ASEAN to explore an enhanced geo-political role for itself in the Asia Pacific and the global community[6].

With this standing and development, no one state would want to be left behind and not play its role in pursuing and getting the fruits of the ever revolving flourishing economy. Even East Timor, the only nation in the region yet to join ASEAN, has officially applied to be a member of the association in 4 March 2011, hoping to reap the fruit and to take advantage of the opportunity. But as ASEAN members believe the group should focus on helping poorer nations which are already members of Asean – like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos – to prepare for the opening of the group’s free trade zone in 2015 and that East Timor unable to meet some of the joining criteria, the approval has been put on hold. As can see, the economic interdependence among the nations is so strong and required that any inter-state conflicts is a near impossible, even in the next century. It has been decades and proven that the region has always been a very strong trading zone due to its vast natural resources. It is undeniable. There may be occasions where conflicts happen but those were resolved amicably thought some disputes like the Spratly islands is still on the card involving Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnams with China and Taiwan. Through the years, the association, with its founding aim to promote peace and stability, has also developed key mechanisms for dispute settlement e.g the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the 1996 Protocolon Dispute Settlement Mechanismand subsequentlythe2004 Protocol for Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism (EDSM) for disputes relating to ASEAN economic agreements, and the provisions of the 2007ASEAN Charter that serve as an overarching framework for dispute settlement in ASEAN etc. All these and other agreement are meant to provide a channel for the members in settling disputes. As such, the likelihood of inter-state war in South East Asia is near impossible.


Terrorism poses a serious and real threat to the world and it knows no border, nationality and religion. It was probably taken for granted till the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of United States in 11 September 2001. I was stationed in Peace Prairie Detachment in Dallas, Texas and received a call from a colleague that morning. He mentioned:”Switch on the TV. Two airplanes hit the tower!” I remember telling him to not joke as I was dead tired after having returned early in the morning from work. But after switching on the TV and seeing what happened, I then realised the ideology is a clear danger. That day changes the world. Everyone is fighting against terrorism till today; sometime I feel it has become an excuse for some countries to eradicate opposing factors in the country. In South East Asia, the terrorist attack on Bali on 12 October, 2002 was a wakeup call for Southeast Asian governments. It demonstrated the severity of terrorism. The horrified act was done by a terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) whose cell in Indonesia has been blooming with sufficient support from Al Qaeda to infringe further damage in the later years. Though Indonesia has done very well in its fight against the terror cells situated in its territory, especially its counter terrorism tactical force, Detachment 88 who has killed and captured nearly 800 Indonesian terrorists and extremists, JI itself has transformed into an ideological organization and several new splinter groups emerged. They include a dozen operational groups of Al Qaeda in Indonesia such as Lashkar Hisbah, Tawhid Wal Jihad and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)[7]. All these development have been a worrying trends and the need for all S.E.A. countries to work together to fight or guard against them cannot be over-emphasized. Fortunately, these threats have not caused any conflicts among the countries in the region and have been quite successfully been contained in respective country. The arrest of 11 terrorists, whom are suspected of having links to terrorists in other countries, in Malaysia lately does show the needs for every country in the region to not let their guard down. The co-operation of the states also resulted in the arrest of a number of terrorist figures, quashing more terrorist cells. All these co-operation further enhanced the cohesiveness of the countries in the region and more openness and solidarity, it does help in the lessening the possibility of conflict among states in the region.


Amidst the peace and stability in the region, Singapore continues to play its responsible and neutral role in fostering good relationship with the neighbouring countries and that, we have been doing an excellent job – playing a good brother’s keeper. Occasionally, we may have some little argument with the neighbouring states but with good foreign and open relation, we were able to overcome amicably. The need to continue to maintain a strong defence to deter potential aggression must be a continual emphasis not only for its peace and stability but also to continue to attract investment to the country to maintain a robust economy and indirectly, contribute the region’s development. I am confident to say that possibility of inter-state war in the next century is highly unlikely.


“Aseanweb – Asean Motto”. Retrieved 8 August 2011.

Vikram Nehru 7 July 2011 Southeast Asia: Crouching Tiger or Hidden Dragon? Available:

Politics in Myanmar, Not so fast (2014) The Economist [Online]

Available: (8th Feb 2014)

ERIA Policy Brief, No. 2012-01, January 2012

Rohan Gunaratna, After Bali: Southeast Asia Under Threat, 2012. Available : (10 October 2012)