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The Region

Great power rivalry has returned to Southeast Asia over the past few years after a hiatus of over two decades — and, with it, traditional security as another salient concern. The Asia-Pacific region, of which Southeast Asia is part, is now marked by tensions involving a nuclear-armed North Korea, near-confrontations between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and incidents between some Southeast Asian states and China in the South China Sea which have also produced strains in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The year 2012 featured considerable media and elite attention to the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia, which had been announced in part to alleviate the anxieties of allies and friends about an overbearing China. It thus had the support, public or tacit, of most Southeast Asian states as a hedge or balance against China. Beijing tended to portray the U.S. rebalance as a stepped-up effort to contain China. Beijing seemed determined to demonstrate that it would not be unnerved — indeed its posture in the South China Sea and the East China Sea remained uncompromising. It was over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea that major power tensions appeared to reach dangerous levels after the purchase in September 2012 of three of the islands by the Japanese government from private owners, to which China reacted strongly. Incidents that occurred included the scrambling of Japanese fighter bombers in response to the flight of Chinese maritime patrol aircraft near the islands and the alleged locking by a Chinese naval ship of its fire control radar on a Japanese warship. In the absence of channels for crisis communication and management between the two militaries and strong nationalistic fervour in both countries, the danger of an outbreak of conflict in which the United States could also be drawn in was real.

While the East China Sea disputes were separate from those in the South China Sea between China and four Southeast Asian countries, they were by no means unconnected. Big power tensions in one part of East Asia are bound to have spillover effects to other parts where the same big powers have important [End Page xi] interests. The maritime space off the East Asian littoral through which vital trade routes of Japan, China, and South Korea pass is a continuum from Northeast Asia, through Southeast Asian waters and into the Indian Ocean. Japan certainly takes this view and sees the troubles in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea coming from a single source, that is China’s assertiveness. It has made known that peace and stability in these waters is a national interest of Japan and has sought to increase security links with and assistance in capacity building to Southeast Asian countries, including the donation of ten new patrol boats to the Philippines Coast Guard.

In the South China Sea itself, China was not alone in its intransigence. However, given the fact that China is a big power amidst much smaller and weaker countries, its actions, unsurprisingly, drew much more attention and scrutiny. With its geographical proximity to Southeast Asia, its rising economic and military power, its assertiveness, and its willingness to use economic weapons against countries perceived to be not respecting its interests, China increasingly loomed large in the foreign policy calculations of Southeast Asian states.

Intra-state politics and security in Southeast Asia saw no major surprises in 2012. Governments continued to wrestle with the familiar challenges of governance, development, regime legitimacy, or rebellious/restive minorities, often differentiated from the majority by ethnicity or religion. A bright light of the year was the framework agreement reached between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end the MILF insurgency, even if there were some uncertainties about its implementation. Islamic extremism and terrorism remained a threat in a number of countries, especially Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia, a self-proclaimed tolerant and “moderate” Muslim country, continued to see harassment of and violence against religious minorities that were condoned by the authorities. Myanmar remained saddled with the same problems which it has faced for some years: ethnic minorities, violence between Rohingyas and...

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