Economic growth in Southeast Asia slowed down in 2011 after the sharp recovery in 2010 from the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-9. A cooling down was particularly evident in the second half of the year. There was considerable uncertainty about how the European crisis would unfold, the prospects of a U.S. recovery, how much China would decelerate, and the future of oil prices.
In the political arena, the changes in Myanmar were the most striking. Reforms enacted during the elected government's first year in office under the new constitution exceeded the expectations of most observers. Less media grabbing, but still important, was the Singapore general election in May. It signified a more open and competitive political environment and more vigorous debate of government policies. There was little change in the political openness (or lack of it) in other countries in the region. The general election in Thailand made no difference to the continuing political polarization in the country. Indonesia was generally stable and attracted more attention as an investment destination. However, good growth rates masked continuing economic weaknesses and failure to protect religious minorities was also a troubling blemish. Democracy is not yet entrenched in strong institutions.
In Southeast Asia's interstate relations, the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia stood out, demonstrating the role of narrow nationalism over wider ASEAN interests. Elsewhere interstate relations were generally amicable, though often not problem free. There are still many unresolved boundary disputes and border problems — both land and maritime — between Southeast Asian countries. Though mostly quiet for the moment, there is the risk of flare-ups if they are politicized within countries as happened in the case of the Thai-Cambodia border conflict.
The year also saw the United States announcing a shift of strategic focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or more precisely to the "Indo-Pacific" region, which includes both the Asia Pacific and India/Indian Ocean. This reflected the shift in global economic power towards Asia where America would want continued commercial access to sustain its own growth. Also during the year, which was the sixtieth anniversary of the San Francisco Treaty that saw the establishment of [End Page ix] the first U.S. bilateral alliances with countries of the Western Pacific, American leaders gave assurances that the projected cuts in the U.S. defence budget would not reduce U.S. military deployments in the Asia-Pacific. The growing significance, both strategic and economic, of the Indo-Pacific region to U.S. interests suggests an enhanced strategic value of Southeast Asia which is viewed as a hinge between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean because of the vital sea lanes that pass through it. Together with Russia, the United States participated for the first time in the East Asian Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Expanded U.S. engagement with the region, including involvement in the security dynamics of the South China Sea, is taking place at a time of China's rapid military modernization and its seemingly unchanging posture in the South China Sea. Sino-U.S. competition in the region could intensify though broader shared interests of the two countries could help in moderating it. In the South China Sea itself, tensions subsided in the second half of 2011, but it was not clear whether this was just a temporary phenomenon. The basic positions of the parties did not change, though the ASEAN claimants were trying to bring their claims in line with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the regional section of this volume the first two chapters provide the political and economic overview of Southeast Asia. The other three deal respectively with boundary disputes/border issues, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, and the future of Southeast Asia in the coming age of scarcities.
In the opening chapter, Donald Weatherbee observes that as Chair of ASEAN, Indonesia was able to keep the vision of an ASEAN Community intact, but could achieve little that was substantial, given the realities of ASEAN's workings. Whether it was the Thai-Cambodian border conflict, the sharpening great power competition in the...