It’s that time, and everyone is doing it, so I thought I should try my hand. Ten predictions for the teens, 2010-2020, in Southeast Asia. (I encourage colleagues to venture predictions for their areas of the world.)
1. China will replace the United States as the most important outside actor in Southeast Asia. It’s going to happen in other regions of the world, but this change will happen in Southeast Asia first – China’s backyard, and the place where many nations already are most comfortable with China as the key external power.
2. Japan is history. The biggest loser from China’s rise in Southeast Asia is Japan, not the United States. Despite its enormous commercial investments in Southeast Asia, Japan never reaped the political and diplomatic capital those investments could have provided. And it’s not going to happen now.
3. India’s government will not prove a serious challenge to China in Southeast Asia. India doesn’t “get” Southeast Asia – its low-key diplomatic style, the consensual management ethos, the slow-paced talk shop style of Asean meetings, the value of face time. India’s aid programs, infrastructure assistance, and soft power cultural programs also lag behind China’s. Though India may expand its military presence in Southeast Asia, it will never enjoy the kind of relationship it desires with Asean, and individual Asean members, until it better understands the Asean way of diplomacy.
4. Indian companies will make their move into Southeast Asia. Unlike their government, Indian companies do get it. Their dedication to corporate governance, effective management, and successful retail promotion – all of these advantages make them far more appealing as partners than Chinese companies. The Indian firms’ skill in English helps in places like Singapore and the Philippines, and the Indian diaspora, though not as wealthy as Chinese in Southeast Asia, certainly enjoys critical business connections. India’s increasingly open home market, too, will entice Southeast Asian companies.
5. The United States will play a weakening hand well in Southeast Asia. After a decade spent trying to convince countries in the region to pick sides, which no one in Southeast Asia wants to do, and of losing out to China as Beijing lapped the United States in trade and investment deals, Washington seems to be waking up. It’s investing again in face time and diplomacy in Southeast Asia. This decade, the United States can afford to be the Britain of the 2000s, at least in Southeast Asia – the United States can cede ground to China, which has proven a responsible actor in Southeast Asia, without worrying about significant threats to core US security interests.
6. Thailand will melt down. The shakiest political foundations in the region, a looming class war, a raging insurgency in the south, a looming monarchical transition – no wonder my Thai friends are petrified of the 2010s.
7. Oil won’t help anyone (except leaders). Does it ever? The tapping of offshore discoveries in Cambodian waters will only foster more graft in one of the most corrupt countries in the region. Oil wealth in East Timor, similarly, will not keep that country from disintegrating into a failed state.
8. Terrorism will vanish from Southeast Asia. Well, not exactly, but of any region of the world Southeast Asia has made the greatest strides in addressing the root causes of terror, including poverty, political and social alienation, and Islamic extremism. Expect that to continue – and, with Indonesia as an example, countries in the region will combat terror without resorting to indefinite detention of suspects.
9. Despite all the hype, and China’s rise, Chinese won’t replace English as the language of business, diplomacy, and culture.
10. In 2020, benighted Burma will still be ruled by a military regime – perhaps the last junta left in the world.