Southeast Asia cannot be a bystander amid escalating global crises

If geopolitical trends were assessed the way economic projections are calculated on a quarterly basis, the global security landscape would perpetually curve upwards on the axes of time and complexity.

In just the first quarter of 2024, we have experienced the reverberations of a war in Ukraine with no definitive end in the sight, the live streaming of a plausible genocide in Gaza that has galvanised sentiment around the world and flashpoints in Taiwan and the South China Sea that are as much about cyber and disinformation campaigns as they are about military ones. For Southeast Asia, these disparate developments around the world challenge the region’s conventional assumptions in three ways.

Firstly, as major powers jostle for dominance, whatever previous distinctions there were between economic and security agendas are now considerably blurred.

This fuzziness is not new of course. The securitisation of global economic networks stretches back decades with the United States wielding tools including dollar weaponisation and trade sanctions, as well as using capital for geopolitical gains. China’s past economic coercion of Australia and Vietnam is simply a borrowed play by a different team.

Unsurprisingly, as in centuries past, much of this competition is enabled by and pursued for technological advancement. The US’ move to shut down TikTokwrapped up with legislation to boost the military capabilities of Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel – is the latest reminder that even capital has a cost, especially if it’s the wrong kind of foreign capital.

Secondly, the technology that is disrupting the status quo is bringing the roles, responsibilities and allegiances of private entities behind such disruption to the forefront. Contrary to the standard practice of treating military and civilian applications of technology as separate discussions, we have seen a greater obfuscation of the two.

Ukraine war no longer ‘remote’ for Southeast Asia a year on

For example, Russia’s war against Ukraine prompted unprecedented support for Kyiv from the likes of Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Clearview AI. But it also led to questions about how the private sector can be drawn into ongoing hostilities as participants, potentially triggering obligations under international humanitarian law.

Elon Musk seemed to recognise this dilemma when he declined Ukraine’s request to activate Starlink in Crimea for fear of complicity in conflict escalation, despite having provided coverage to Ukraine earlier in the war.

An evening launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 22 Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base is seen over the Pacific Ocean from Encinitas, California, US, on April 1. Photo: Reuters

The larger question for third-party countries that heavily rely on Big Tech for their own digital transformation agendas is how to navigate partnerships with private companies as geopolitical tensions increase, especially if ideologies do not neatly align. By operating in Ukraine, Palantir’s chief executive officer, Alex Karp, advanced his company’s opportunity to “defend the West”, doubling down on his position that employees should “be on the side of the West, making the West a better society”.

In Southeast Asia, Palantir’s platforms are exclusively resold in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam by Hanoi-based FTP Software. Other companies might be less blatant about where they stand but their bottom line calculations may not always be politically agnostic even when they operate internationally under different forms of governance. Profits, it seems, can in fact have a patriotic patina.

Thirdly, existing policy discussions in Southeast Asia do not sufficiently account for these cross-cutting changes. In the region, governments appear determined to expand their economic wiggle room as a means of strengthening their international agency. This is partly borne of necessity because the region is enmeshed in the global trading system; it must adapt to external change while preserving autonomy.

Southeast Asia’s pursuit of digital technology must go beyond economics

Focusing on economic measures also enables states to execute their domestic agendas and sidestep sensitive political or security issues with their larger neighbours. As such, Southeast Asian stakeholders have chosen to treat major power access to critical mineral resources and integrated circuits as an opportunity to capitalise on in the short term, despite deep anxieties about a bifurcating strategic environment in the long run.

Similarly, although geopolitical pressures surrounding subsea communication cables have grown stronger, as evidenced by changes to ownership structures, routing decisions and the imposition of national security agreements on principally commercial negotiations, discussions in Southeast Asia are still tethered to the commercial and connectivity gains of these cables.

Undersea cables send data between continents, serving as the backbone of the global internet. Photo: Shutterstock

As a grouping, member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are also hampered by an institutional structure that divides issues into political-security, economic and sociocultural buckets. Since technology is primarily seen as a lever for growth and development, it is the Asean economic community that drives the digitalisation agenda.

However, a strategy of avoidance is not a sustainable one and by now, Asean should realise that the long game of international affairs has always been about setting rules, standards and agendas rather than just simply easing the movement of goods, services and data.

If Asean fails to address cross-cutting challenges as they evolve, the organisation’s political-security, economic and sociocultural communities will exacerbate its own three-body problem of currency, centrality and relevance.

In the coming quarters of the year, the strategic landscape will look even more opaque. Creeping toxic nationalism is casting a shadow over the remaining calendar of major elections worldwide. Technological innovation will keep disrupting economic spaces while eroding traditional borders between war and peace.

After all, disinformation is already serious business; dual-use code can power both commerce and conflict, sometimes simultaneously. It is time for Southeast Asia’s stakeholders to connect these increasingly converging dots.

Elina Noor is a senior fellow in the Asia Programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace



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