This post is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.
2011 in Southeast Asia saw a number of micro-disputes that haven’t yet escalated into full-fledged conflict. Much of the current disagreement is based upon historical rivalries and domestic political insecurities, while weak governance in the region continues to be a source of worry.
Prior to the U.S.’s shift to re-align with the region a few weeks ago, most of the countries in dispute shared a healthy deference for China. While many Southeast Asian states have welcomed the U.S.’s bold return to the region, the propensity for an escalation of these conflicts is amplified. This is especially true as both China and the U.S. face possible leadership changes in 2012, along with East Asian leadership changes on the Korean peninsula. Leaders on both sides of the Pacific will talk tough with respect to foreign policy as a means of satisfying their constituencies and for that reason extra care needs to be taken to ensure tough talk remains just that, and doesn't escalate into something further.
Looking back on 2011's skirmishes, however, may provide a glimpse into the types of spats the region will continue to face:
1. Prey Veng, Cambodia
In April, Thai and Cambodian forces clashed over disputed border territories in Prey Veng Village, killing more than 14 people. At the heart of the conflict is the Prey Vihear temple, which was ruled by the International Court of Justice in 1962 as belonging to Cambodia, in spite of its straddling the border between the countries. The dispute faded with the resignation of then Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and tested the strength of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) capacity to act as a mediator with respect to the conflict.
2. Laos' Xayaburi Dam
While plans have been halted on the major Mekong River hydro-power project, the issue is not yet fully resolved. A team of Japanese experts will conduct an impact assessment to determine comprehensively what threat the project poses to aquatic species, as well as to irrigation practices in both Cambodia and Vietnam. The project would have brought the greatest energy benefits to Thailand, which would have consumed 95 percent of the dam’s electricity.
3. South China Sea
Regional governments continued to dish out tough rhetoric with respect to claims in the South China Sea, yet in official meetings discussions were more cordial. Such double-talk is likely to continue as governments recognize the significant energy reserves that lie beneath the disputed maritime region. U.S. re-engagement with the region is likely to further complicate the dispute, as the military threat posed by American naval vessels is far more significant than that of the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states with claims to those territorial waters.