2017 Forecast: ASEAN



The US’ original plans for the Pivot to Asia have largely been reversed in favor of China, though Washington still has a few tricks up its sleeve through Hybrid War and the “Lead From Behind” stratagem in making up for its recent setbacks. 

The Pivot To Asia Reversal

Lost amidst the headline-grabbing news of the year over Syria, Brexit, and Trump, most international observers have failed to notice how the US’ Pivot to Asia has experienced a series of staggering reversals which play to the ultimate benefit of China. The most profound of these has undoubtedly been the election of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which the author forecast right before it happened. This firebrand politician is a fierce patriot of Philippine interests and completely understands how disadvantageous his country’s neo-colonial relationship with the US has been for Manila, which explains why he confidently began a series of steps designed to break this arrangement and free his country from Washington’s indirect rule. 

The regional geostrategic consequence of this has been that Duterte has put the South China Sea dispute aside and is focusing on pragmatic win-win cooperation with China in every single sphere, be it military, infrastructural investment, and even in a broader sense, the political one. As it relates to the US’ hegemonic intentions, the expansion of China’s New Silk Road/One Belt One Road network to the Philippines has dealt a massive blow to Washington’s unipolar vision, one which has been so profound and attractive to the region that Malaysia also recently decided to jump aboard too. As the final and most dramatic hit for Obama’s Asia-Pacific legacy, President-elect Trump declared that he will abandon his predecessor’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), thus enabling China to present its interconnected Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) projects as relevant alternatives in inclusively filling the institutional vacuum left by the demise of the US’ exclusionary scheme. 

Hybrid War Hijinks

Despite the US indisputably being on the strategic retreat in ASEAN as a result of the dual ‘defections’ of the Philippines and Malaysia from its envisioned regional order of the “China Containment Coalition” and the unexpected suicide of the TPP, Washington still has a few opportunities to reverse the dynamics and turn the tables against China. As always, these methods are underhanded and not something which the US would ever publicly own up to, no matter how proud its “deep state” (permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies) might be if they succeed. By and large, the US could realistically exacerbate three Hybrid War scenarios in the region:


The author wrote in summer 2015 about how the US might seek to engineer a “South Asian ‘Kosovo’” in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, swapping out the Albanians for the Muslim Bengalis and then copying and pasting this tried-and-tested tactic. The events of the past month give extra credence to that forecast, as it appears as though this Hybrid War vulnerability is once more being exploited by the US, per the destabilization template that the author set out in his book-length analysis about Myanmar for Oriental Review. The reason why the US might be interested in reigniting unrest among the “Rohingya” is because presumably pro-American Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of the country during its ongoing “democratization” phase, has been pragmatically engaging with China and even going as far as renewing discussion about the revival of a high-speed rail network through the country. If actualized in any shape or form, then this would represent a “second CPEC” in the sense that it would be China’s second infrastructural trade outlet to the Indian Ocean and a Myanmar Silk Road. The US understands the enormous strategic stakes that are at play and is thus taking preemptive asymmetrical moves to preclude this development, though it remains to be seen exactly how far it’s willing to go with this and whether or not it’ll try to undermine the country’s fledgling “federalization” process in resolving the world’s longest-running civil conflict. 


The next prospective Hybrid War battleground is Thailand, which is the epicenter of mainland ASEAN’s regional infrastructure connectivity projects. The author explained the most likely scenarios and reasons behind them in his Oriental Review country analysis on the Kingdom, but it essentially comes down to the pro-Chinese military junta having pivoted away from the US since coming to power in 2014, mostly to rebuff the US’ “Red Shirt” regime change “NGO” proxies controlled by the Thaksin clan. Thailand is so important in the ASEAN strategic calculus because it’s the intersection point for China’s ASEAN Silk Road, Japan’s East-West Railway, and India’s Trilateral Highway (which could eventually have a railroad running parallel to it). Exerting a strong degree of influence over Thailand is thus pivotal for the US to have indirect control over these routes, which in turn would prolong Washington’s regional dominance and “contain” China. It would also allow the US to more assuredly pressure its “Lead From Behind” Indian and Japanese allies. If worst came to worst, however, and the US “deep state” determined that Thailand was “irredeemable” as an American ally, then it might take the fateful step towards instigating a civil war there in spite of the collateral damage that this might entail to New Delhi and Tokyo’s regional projects. The diverse Kingdom has an array of regional, ethnic, and religious identities which could be exploited per various preconditioning and provocations to come to blows with one another, thus making this scenario frighteningly plausible if enough resources were devoted to executing it. 


The last Hybrid War scenario that the US could predictably craft in ASEAN is obviously in the Philippines. The specifics of which way this could go were expostulated on at length for Oriental Review and in a brief summary for The Duran, with the general idea being to use Daesh-affiliate Abu Sayyaf’s island strongholds in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao to foment a transnational crisis between Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. This disturbing scenario has a very real chance at panning out because of the existing terrorism that’s plagued the region and the irresistible temptation that the US has to destabilize Duterte’s government. As part of this plot, it’s also possible for the US to attempt to gather together a wide coalition of “NGOs” in opposing the President’s bloody War on Drugs on the grounds that it’s violating “human rights”, “democracy”, and resulting in an “unacceptable” amount of “civilian” killings. This latter angle of the prospective Hybrid War might not resonate too much in a country where the vast majority of the population stand behind their leader, but it could still be sufficient for attracting extra Mainstream Media attention as part of the wider campaign to “delegitimize” Duterte and prepare the global audience for accepting the emergence of “resistance” to his “regime”, which of course would manifest itself through Daesh disguising itself and its affiliate operatives as “moderate rebels”. 

“Lead From Behind”

The stunning reversals that the US has suffered to its Pivot to Asia policy can’t just be overturned solely through Hybrid War, as this method mostly only destroys the targeted country/region and doesn’t allow the US to exert “constructive” dominance. However, the US is strapped for resources – both physical and financial – in controlling each and every corner of the globe, hence why it’s recently taken to “outsourcing” its “leadership” agenda to regional allies who have a shared interest in accomplishing similar tasks, as was explained in the author’s January 2015 Sputnik analysis about “Lead From Behind: How Unipolarity Is Adapting To Multipolarity”. In this instance, Japan and India are the two most important and relevant out-of-regional players which have a deep desire to expand their influence into ASEAN, and the US is encouraging them to cultivate positive bilateral and multilateral full-spectrum partnerships (both on their own and in concert with one another) in order to complicate matters for China and complement the US’ own outreaches. 

At the end of the day, however, the US’ “Lead From Behind” stratagem in ASEAN is largely contingent on whether or not it can “recruit” Indonesia to its efforts and form a “China Containment Coalition” of exclusively Great Powers (the US, Japan, India, and Indonesia). The author also intricately explored the finer strategic dynamics relating to Indonesia in his Meaning of Multipolarity piece about the country and the concluding article about “Managing The ‘Contested’  Countries”, but to summarize, Indonesia is truly at a crossroads over its geostrategic allegiances, and for as much as it would like to pragmatically stay on the sidelines, it’s being forced against its will by the US’ bullying (which includes low-intensity Hybrid War threats) into taking sides. If Jakarta manages to resist the multipronged pressure against it and reassert its strategic independence, then it can prosper as the ultimate “non-aligned” (or “contested”, to use the parlance popularized in the aforementioned Meaning of Multipolarity series) state, though if it strays from its principles and tilts towards the US, then it would immeasurably strengthen the “China Containment Coalition” noose and intensify the New Cold War competition in ASEAN.