Turbulent Region:

Interregional for Strategic Analysis hosted a virtual panel discussion entitled "Mapping regional threats in Southeast Asia" by Dr. Rosalie Arcala Hall, Full Professor of Political Science at University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV), and President of the Philippine Political Science Association.

Declining American Presence

The panel discussion argued that the US presence is largely declining in Southeast Asia, citing several indicators as follows:

1- Declining military presence in the region: Washington has had no military presence in Southeast Asia after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shut down the US military bases in the country in 2020. US forces are present in Guam, Okinawa, and South Korea, which leaves the door open for Chinese military involvement in the region.

2- US marginalization of the region: Southeast Asia has become a marginal region for the US according to the its security policy for the Indo-Pacific region. The quadrilateral coalition between the US, Australia, Japan, and India against China is a major regional threat.

3- Mistrust of Washington’s commitments: Southeast Asian countries do not trust US defense commitments towards the region. Despite the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines, the latter does not expect American support against potential Chinese aggression.

Rising Chinese Power

The panel discussion highlighted increasing Chinese power in Southeast Asia despite the resistance of some countries in the region, as follows:

The panel discussion highlighted increasing Chinese power in Southeast Asia despite the resistance of some countries in the region, as follows:

1-Emergence of a China-centric regional order: The regional order in Southeast Asia is shifting from a US-centric order to a China-centric order as a result of China’s expansion in the region and amid a US drawdown economically and militarily from the center to the periphery.

2-Rising economic presence by Beijing: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established by China in 2014 with USD 50 billion in capital, have boosted Beijing’s economic presence and consolidated China’s position as a key player in the region.

3-The "South China Sea Arbitration": The Philippines was the region’s only country to challenge China’s dominance by filing a legal case against Beijing’s deployment in the South China Sea, which is known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea.

Growing Maritime Risks

The panel discussion warned against rising maritime risks in Southeast Asia, as follows:

The panel discussion warned against rising maritime risks in Southeast Asia, as follows:

1-Maritime demarcation disputes: The maritime demarcation disputes are one of the key regional security threats, especially in the South China Sea and islands located between countries. Some countries in the region, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, have settled their disputes after reaching an earlier maritime demarcation agreement.

2-Close linkage between piracy and terrorism: Terrorist groups in the Philippines and Indonesia undertake piracy operations to collect funds for their activities. These groups obstruct shipping in the territorial waters of Malaysia. They also carry out kidnappings in tourist resorts in Indonesia.

3-Regional cooperation against piracy: Countries of the region are coordinating their efforts to enhance their capabilities to monitor piracy and island security. They deploy surveillance points along the coasts as well as exchange intelligence information.

4-Beijing’s expansion of power in the South China Sea: China is adopting an expansionist strategy in the South China Sea through creating artificial islands and maritime bases. Beijing also deploys border guards, fishing boats and pseudo-military groups which aim to control the South China Sea as well as to prevent fishing boats belonging to the Philippines and Indonesia from accessing its exclusive economic zone.

5-Late realization of the importance of islands and coasts: Southeast Asian countries have not realized the importance of islands and coasts until recently, after China started its expansion endeavors and demarcated virtual borders for its areas of control. The delayed response from countries in the region is attributed to their preoccupation with countering internal threats such as terrorism.

6-The US role in enhancing the Philippines’ maritime capabilities: The US has played a role in enhancing the capabilities of the Philippines’ army in external maritime defense. This is through deploying coastal surveillance and early warning points, updating the maritime fleet, investing in maritime awareness, and training border guards to counter piracy and Chinese fishing boats. However, US support for the Philippine’s maritime capabilities is still not at the desired level.

Geographic Threats

The panel discussion noted that there are territorial and geographical threats facing Southeast Asia, as follows:

The panel discussion noted that there are territorial and geographical threats facing Southeast Asia, as follows:

1-Fragile legitimacy in the border regions: The Philippines suffers from weak centralization in border regions and remote islands which helps thugs, traffickers and terrorists expand their presence.

2-Spreading transnational unconventional threats: Countries of the region are facing unconventional transnational threats such as: depletion of fisheries; overfishing; environmental deterioration; and pollution and natural disasters, such as wildfires.

3-Border exposure among countries of the region: The borders of Southeast Asia are vulnerable to a great extent, which helps terrorists, smugglers, and pirates cross borders and hole up in areas remote from the center. This is reflected in the increasing risks of the Mindanao-Saba-Kalimantan triangle between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Increasing Terrorism Risk

The panel discussion addressed the increasing risk of terrorism in Southeast Asia using the Philippines as a case study, as follows:

1-Simultaneous attacks by three terrorist organizations in the Philippines: Three terrorist groups are obviously active in the Philippines including the "Abu Sayyaf Group," which pledges allegiance to the Islamic State (IS); Mauti, which is also part of the IS; and the "Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)," which includes "fighters" from Indonesia that train Filipinos on Improvised Explosive Devices (IED)s and suicide bombing attacks.

2-Terrorist capabilities to attract educated individuals: Recent surveys indicate that terrorist groups in Southeast Asia can attract educated individuals from the middle and upper class specialized in engineering, communications and Information Technology.

In conclusion, the participants said that Southeast Asian countries are facing several simultaneous threats locally and regionally, including the Sino-American tensions in the South China Sea and transnational threats, such as piracy and terrorism. The panel discussion also highlighted that Southeast Asian countries are increasingly attaching importance to unconventional security issues such as maritime security, and environmental security for coasts and wildfires.