Previously, Southeast Asia was an unstable region. Interstate tensions were prevalent in the region, as the new states were able to pursue policies free from the manipulation of their colonial masters, leading to certain clashes among states. However, there were different factors for these clashes. Causes of interstate tension can be categorized into four broad sources: Historical animosities, Territorial disputes, Racial and religious divisions and Ideological differences. We shall seek to analyze how such sources contribute to interstate tensions - is it a sole factor, a combination or due to an overwhelming factor?
Emotional baggage from pre-colonial past, colonial rule and even post-independence period shapes the contemporary period, defining how states look at each other. This leads to suspicions and distrust among states, creating tensions.
States can either reinforce or redefine their borders. By redefining their borders, they are challenging the artificial borders drawn by the colonial powers, thus challenging the sovereignty of other states. When they reinforce borders, they prevent groups within the state which wish to separate. Losing territory is a sign of weakness, and as land holds resources, it brings wealth and hence increases the viability of the state. This increases the incentive of the state to pursue conflict with other states.
Government policies which are deemed threatening to another country’s racial policies inevitably leads to tensions among the two countries, because the viability of states may decrease, leading to their loss of legitimacy. Pan-nationalism also affects the security of another country, hence leading to tensions.
In the pursuit of conflicting visions or because of clashing leadership styles, tensions may be created as states fear for their security due to opposing forces which may influence them.
The independent Southeast Asian states were characterized by differences in politics, economies and culture. Thus it was unsurprising that their foreign policies were also different, since foreign policies had their roots in domestic politics. When the conduct of politics in a country toward certain goals contradicted another state’s manner, political differences inevitably resulted, leading to interstate tensions as states felt threatened by others’ policies. Different compositions of religions in states resulted in different approaches to the management of religions. As a result, tensions arose because states’ legitimacy was threatened by these opposing approaches. Political differences and religious divisions could act as root causes, or either could be secondary to another (act as trigger factor), or not contribute to tensions at all.
Political differences among states contributed more than religious divisions to tensions because of their conflicting visions for the region. Political differences acted as root causes for tensions due to clashing visions of states. However, religious divisions could be insignificant or absent from conflict. Sukarno’s Guided Democracy values conflicted with the formation of Malaysia in 1963, which he saw as a neocolonialist plot which allowed the British to remain in Southeast Asia and continue with their colonialism. Furthermore, Sukarno had a personal ambition to create a powerful Indonesia in regional politics. His Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was an attempt to assert Indonesia’s standing in the region and world, but it was counted by Malaysia’s proposals for regional cooperation under the Southeast Asia Friendship and Economic Treaty (SEAFET) in 1959 and the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) in 1961. The competing visions for the region led to Indonesia unleashing Konfrontasi (Confrontation) on Malaysia, leading to interstate tensions. Religious divisions clearly did not contribute to tensions, because both states are predominantly Islamic and religious issues did not come into play at all.
Religious divisions, however, could contribute to tensions more than political differences too. They acted as root causes of conflicts due to clashing managements in religious divisions within the country. Political differences only acted as trigger factors. When government policies of one state regarding ethnicity or religion threatened the interests of another, tensions ultimately resulted. Singapore’s small Muslim minority and large Chinese majority resulted in a non-communal approach to politics by the ruling People Action’s Party (PAP); on the other hand, Malaysia’s large Muslim majority believed it should maintain hegemony while other minorities cooperated with them. The conflicting approach to religious divisions led to Malaysia’s accusations of Singapore in mistreating its Muslim minority. These accusations were manifested in electoral politics, where Singapore’s championing of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ threatened to upset the dominance of the Muslim majority in Malaysia. Religious issues were politicized in the Singapore 1963 elections, where the United National Malay Organization (UNMO) challenged PAP, and then in the federal elections of 1965, where the PAP challenged UNMO. This resulted in bitter race riots, leading to Separation of both countries and lingering suspicions in their bilateral relations for decades. This resulted in bitter race riots, leading to Separation of both countries and lingering suspicions in their bilateral relations for decades. Thus religious divisions played a key role in contributing to tensions and political differences acted as trigger factors. It is also possible that neither political differences nor religious divisions led to tensions among Southeast Asian countries. In some cases, both factors were absent in the outbreak of tensions. Using Singapore-Malaysia as an example again, one of their tensions is the territorial dispute over Pedra Branca. It is a purely territorial dispute over the vagueness of treaties signed by the British and Dutch colonial rulers, thus elements of political differences and religious divisions are largely absent.
In conclusion, the sources of tensions in Southeast Asia are difficult to pin down to any exact factor and must be qualified against other factors for a fair analysis and comparison.
Traditional disputes are due to historical animosities in the pre-colonial or colonial past. As a result, the emotional baggage from historical animosities are passed on to the post-independence period, shaping the perspective which states look at each other, most of time with either fear or suspicions. This ultimately led to interstate tensions in Southeast Asia. Traditional disputes can be ranked according to root, immediate, short-term and long-term causes in contributing to interstate tensions. At the same time, contemporary tensions are not due to traditional disputes.
Traditional disputes contributed to interstate tensions by aggravating existing tensions. Mutual suspicions were caused by emotional baggage from historical animosities. In Southeast Asia, Thailand and Myanmar were traditional rivals. Centuries of education and decades of media portrayal aggravated existing tensions between the two countries over border conflicts. The Thai media saw independent Myanmar as expansionist, due to past memories of wars and invasions. Hence border conflicts between both countries were aggravated by historical animosities, leading to greater tensions.
Traditional disputes also acted as root causes of tensions by contributing to confusion and competition among countries. For example, the current separatist movement in southern Thailand had its causes from an arbitrary border imposed by the British between Malaysia and Thailand. The creation of the border was not considered valid by both the Thai and Malays; for the Thais, they had been steadily extending down the Malay Peninsula until being stopped by the British, and for the Malays, they believed the four Muslim-majority southern provinces of Thailand should join Malaysia. After Malaysia gained independence, it tried to exert pan-nationalism which interfered in the Thai south, giving rise to border tensions between Thailand and Malaysia. As a result, colonial legacy carried down to the contemporary period as a main source of tensions among countries.
Contemporary tensions were sometimes not due to traditional disputes at all. For example, the Sabah dispute between Thailand and Malaysia was ‘traditional’ but not a ‘dispute’. The Philippines believed that the British colonial rulers had no right to transfer the lease of Sabah to independent Malaysia, since the Sultanate of Sulu (which the Philippines was the successor state) only leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company. Thus, after independence, Sabah was disputed by Philippines because the lease expired after the North Borneo Company was dissolved. Hence it was in the contemporary period that tensions erupted, so traditional disputes had nothing to play.
In conclusion, traditional disputes are not as important as thought before in contributing to tensions. Though they acted as root causes in some cases, in other cases, they only aggravated tensions.
Southeast Asia was indeed characterized by diverse tensions and it did seem that it was doomed to be the ‘Balkans of the East’. However, states are pragmatic and able to cooperate. Ultimately state interests dominate in foreign policies. When their national interests demand that emphasis on commonality is beneficial than emphasis on differences, they will pursue a foreign policy of cooperation with other states. Yet diplomatic relations can neither be defined solely by conflict nor cooperation. Southeast Asian states are definitely pragmatic in their pursuit of cooperation, with persisting tensions in the background.
Interstate relations are sometimes poisoned by tensions and prevent states from cooperating with one another. Perceptions of differences by states can last long, especially when their national interests dictate that these differences should be stressed. These tensions create suspicions and distrust, and discourage cooperation. The persistence of the Sabah problem between Malaysia and Philippines resulted in deepening hostilities and prevented any effective cooperation between the two states. Hostilities between them resulted in the failure of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), the predecessor of ASEAN. The Sabah dispute continues to be extremely sensitive to both sides and it has characterized the suspicions and distrust in their bilateral relations.
However, when the benefits of cooperation exceed the benefits of conflict, diplomatic relations cannot be defined solely by conflict. States which are able to find commonality will have greater incentive to cooperation, if the benefits of commonality exceed the differences. Both Singapore and Malaysia have vast differences but they have commonality in state security and economic development, since the two countries are closely linked. The high volume of trade between them gives both a stake in each other’s economy; hence benefits of cooperation will provide stability for even greater growth to sustain legitimacy for both countries, as opposed to the benefits of conflict, which yield less legitimacy for their governments. The Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) allows both countries to strengthen their security collectively, rather than acting independently of each other. Cooperation thus predominates if its benefits are far greater than that of conflict, which can create large amount of costs. In the next section, we shall see how because of this, ASEAN was formed.