The year 2011 saw some of the biggest political developments in Southeast Asia in decades. Burma finally seemed poised for real change, while Thailand continued to move closer to the brink of self-immolation, as political in-fighting worsened. The United States, China, and ASEAN nations continued to raise the stakes in the South China Sea, to a point where, now, it seems unlikely anyone can back off their claims and truly sit down at the table to negotiate some kind of agreement. Singapore had its most competitive election in generations, while in Malaysia massive street protests clearly have rattled the government. Even smaller states faced political turmoil: Papua New Guinea went for weeks with two prime ministers and the potential for civil strife, before the situation was resolved.
What, then, should we expect for an encore? Here are several trends to watch:
- China will bring back the charm. Over the past two years, Beijing has cost itself much of the gains it made in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it appeared to be a good neighbor, trading partner, and investor. Through its belligerent approach to the South China Sea and, to some extent, the Mekong River, Beijing has scared many Southeast Asian nations enough that they have welcomed back a greater role for the United States in the region, even though their populations have not exactly become pro-American. Read more »