Southeast Asia in 2020: Issues to Watch, Part 1

In this two-part series, Dr. Amy Searight, senior adviser and director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, previews five key issues to watch in Southeast Asia in 2020. This installment addresses U.S.-ASEAN relations, climate change and the imperiled Mekong, and domestic politics. The next installment will cover economic trends and developments in the digital space.
Can Trump Reset U.S.-ASEAN Relations?
Disappointingly, 2019 was a pretty bad year for U.S.-ASEAN relations. Trump had a promising start in his first year in office, hosting four Southeast Asian leaders in the White House, traveling to Vietnam and the Philippines to unveil his “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, and holding a U.S.-ASEAN summit. But Trump’s interest in Southeast Asia has since appeared to wane considerably. Although Trump traveled to Vietnam in February for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he later called Vietnam the “single worst abuser” in trade relations with the United States. In November, President Trump skipped the East Asian Summit (EAS) for the third straight year, sending National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien instead. Trump’s absence in Bangkok and the historically low level of diplomatic representation at the summit ruffled a lot of feathers within ASEAN and led most of the Southeast Asian leaders to snub the U.S.-ASEAN summit held on the sidelines of the EAS (only Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos attended at the leader level). ASEAN’s disenchantment with the level of U.S. engagement came just as China was gaining new traction in the region, with a revamped Belt and Road Initiative that appeared to address regional concerns and progress toward launching the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade agreement between ASEAN, China, and four other regional trade partners.   
To help make up for his no-show, President Trump sent a letter for O’Brien to share at the U.S.-ASEAN meeting with a surprise invitation to come to the United States for a U.S.-ASEAN summit. Despite an initial lukewarm reaction by key ASEAN countries, the summit now appears to be on track, with a proposed mid-March date. ASEAN leaders meeting in Nha Trang, Vietnam later this week are expected to issue a formal decision on participation, and about 7 to 8 ASEAN leaders have already quietly indicated their willingness to participate. Meanwhile one—President Duterte of the Philippines—has preemptively declared that he will never travel to the United States after Congress enacted travel sanctions on top Philippine officials for the “wrongful” ongoing detention of Senator de Lima, a top critic of Duterte’s human rights abuses. Aside from Duterte, the main question mark on participation is Malaysian prime minister Dr. Mahathir, who is clearly no fan of President Trump, but who may abide by an ASEAN consensus if his fellow Southeast Asian leaders decide to participate. 
If Trump pulls off a well-attended summit with ASEAN leaders in March, he will have an opportunity through his personal engagement and focused attention on key issues to reset relations with ASEAN. But the substance of the meeting will matter as well. With only a few weeks to prepare for the summit, the Trump administration will be hard-pressed to deliver tangible outcomes. The “Blue Dot Network” announced at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum on the sidelines of the EAS last November remains rather vague but holds potential to spur private-sector funding for infrastructure projects that meet “global trust standards.” The United States is working with Japan, Australia, and other countries to flesh out what this will mean in practice, but with the goal of launching a broadly multilateral initiative, it is unlikely that concrete announcements will be ready by March. The new supersized U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which finally launched last month, has been conducting outreach with Jakarta and Hanoi but has yet to announce any projects that will be financed with its $60 billion budget. Another potential area of focus is the Mekong region, which has seen growing environmental impacts from a series of dams built by China and others along the Mekong River. With Beijing planning to host the leaders of Mekong countries for a summit under its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism just a few weeks after the proposed U.S.-ASEAN summit, the summit would offer a prime opportunity for President Trump to meet with the leaders of the Mekong countries and highlight U.S. support through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and other efforts to address the transnational challenges of the region.   
And finally, and perhaps the most welcome gesture of all, President Trump could convey to the Southeast Asian leaders his intention to attend the EAS this year, which host country Vietnam has already scheduled for late November, well after the U.S. presidential elections.  
All Eyes on the Mekong: The Perils of Climate Change and a Dammed River
The new year was ushered in by record-breaking rainfall in Jakarta on New Year’s Day, resulting in intense flooding that killed dozens, displacing nearly 400,000 residents, and abruptly ending the political honeymoon of Jakarta’s governor Anies Baswedan. It was a stark reminder that Jakarta is one of the most rapidly sinking coastal cities in the world, which is why President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made the monumental project of relocating the capital city to East Kalimantan a major focus of his second term.
Indonesia is hardly alone in facing the growing challenges of rising seas and intensifying weather patterns brought on by climate change. A bombshell New York Times article last October reported new research that showed that several other major population centers in Southeast Asia would be underwater at high tide by 2050, including a swath of Thailand that includes Bangkok and the entire southern half of Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Philippines is facing typhoons of greater intensity, including a devastating storm that hit the central Philippines over the Christmas holiday, while Vietnam faced record-smashing hot temperatures last year. 
However, the “perfect storm” for calamitous environmental impacts is currently brewing in the Mekong region, where the effects of climate change on traditional weather patterns are combining with the growing ecological impact on water flow of upstream dams in the Mekong River. China’s 11 dams along the upper portions of the Mekong River have affected water levels over the past decade and raised concerns among riparian states about their vulnerability to China’s unilateral water management decisions. Two new hydropower dams in Laos came online last year, including the massive Xayaburi Dam, the first dam on the main stretch of the Lower Mekong River. The river has subsequently seen water levels fall to historically low levels, due in part to the severe droughts underway in the region, but the dams’ effect on the flow of nutrient-rich sediment has also been strikingly visible. Scientists worry that these dams imperil the incredibly rich but fragile ecosystem of the Mekong River, which forms the world’s largest inland fishery and feeds tens of millions of people in the Mekong countries in Southeast Asia. Thailand and other countries in the region are bracing for serious water shortages over the next several months, while Vietnam faces the greatest threat in the coming years as lower water levels and sediment flow in the Mekong combine with rising sea levels and salination that will devastate its vast, agriculturally rich Mekong River delta. With the stakes climbing sharply higher, the politics of transnational water management are likely to intensify.
Elections and Political Contestation in Southeast Asia
Democracy was a decidedly mixed picture in Southeast Asia in 2019. Critical elections in Indonesia and Thailand returned incumbents to office but with decidedly different democratic implications. Voters in Indonesia reelected President Jokowi for a second term through the world’s largest-ever elections, a logistical victory for democracy in Indonesia. However, Jokowi’s populist and reformist credentials had been tarnished by his willingness to make politically expedient compromises with Islamist political players, and the election made clear that identity-based politics is here to stay in Indonesia. Thailand finally held an election after five years of military rule following the 2014 coup, although the election was deeply flawed and the system sufficiently rigged to ensure that the military would retain control over the new civilian government. The surprisingly strong showing of the youth-oriented Future Forward Party reflected the hope of many Thai voters to move past the decades-long political deadlock between the populist Thaksin-backed parties and the royalist-military coalition. But Future Forward’s leader, Thanathorn, was ousted from his seat, and the entire party is now under threat of being dissolved though dubious legal means. In the Philippines, the populist and very popular President Rodrigo Duterte strengthened his grip on power in midterm elections that saw his allies gain 8 of the 12 seats up for election in the senate while shutting out the opposition.
In 2020, the two key elections to watch will be held in Singapore and Myanmar. Singaporeans expect to head to the polls sometime in 2020 for the 13th election in their history, with the spotlight on the Fourth Generation (4G) leadership of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has made clear that this election will be his last, which means that the focus will be on Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the 4G leader who has emerged as next-in-line for PAP leadership. The PAP has ruled Singapore continuously since it became an independent country in 1965, and elections are administered in a way that gives substantial home-field advantage to the party, making it unlikely that it will be dislodged from power. Still, all eyes will be focused on how well DPM Heng and the other 4G leaders connect with voters and whether they deliver the comfortable vote margins that PAP leaders have long relied on to maintain their legitimacy and steady grip on power.  
The elections in Myanmar in November 2020 are somewhat more difficult to predict. Five years after Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in an election widely seen as a referendum on decades-long military rule, the political landscape has grown more complicated and competitive. Popular support for the NLD in ethnic areas has dropped, as seen in the local and national by-elections in 2018, and ethnic parties have been merging. Although Suu Kyi and the NLD remain highly popular in the Burman rural heartland, they are coming under increasing criticism in urban areas for the lack of progress in economic and political reforms, and the rise of new parties gives more options to disaffected voters seeking an alternative to the NLD. While the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is unlikely to attract a large number of new voters, the election could result in a larger number of smaller parties in parliament. Given the design of Myanmar’s presidential election system and the role that parliament plays in nominating and voting for presidential candidates, this still makes Aung Sung Suu Kyi the odds-on favorite to lead the government after the election. Moreover, the election will mark another milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This commentary is the first installment of a two-part series on key issues to watch in Southeast Asia in 2020. The next installment will cover economic trends and developments in the digital space.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Amy Searight