Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Internal discord the greatest threat to Southeast Asian unity

Reading Time: 5 mins
Retreat session of the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, 11 May 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Mast Irham/Pool)

In Brief

As great power rivalry casts its long shadow over Southeast Asia, the imperative of regional unity grows more urgent. Yet diversity, divisions and disputes remain consequential features of the region that pose a significant threat to unity.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Differences in cultures, languages, religions, historical experiences, political systems and developmental pathways have shaped Southeast Asia as it stands today. Geopolitically, these differences make the challenge of forging unity a particularly onerous task.

During the Cold War, diversity manifested in the ideological division of Southeast Asia into communist and non-communist states. This division also assumed a geographical expression in terms of the divide between mainland (mostly communist) and maritime (non-communist) Southeast Asia.

Yet the picture that emerges on closer inspection is far more complex. Among the communist mainland states were Chinese and Soviet clients, at a time when the Sino–Soviet split was at its height. While relations among non-communist maritime states were more harmonious, they were still fraught with residual suspicion and mistrust, much of which took the form of sovereignty disputes stemming from decolonisation projects.

Since 2022, diversity has also manifested in regional states’ positions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Regional powers such as Vietnam (because of longstanding ties with Russia) and Indonesia (because of its foreign policy non-alignment principle) have taken restrained positions, whereas Singapore has openly condemned the invasion and imposed unilateral sanctions.

Meanwhile, the military junta that seized power in Myanmar in February 2021 has unsurprisingly been one of Russia’s staunchest supporters. While other Southeast Asian states voted at the United Nations to condemn the invasion, they have avoided taking more robust stances.

Then come divisions. One of the most pressing challenges to ASEAN cohesion is the Myanmar crisis. While ASEAN has strained to maintain a semblance of unity in its efforts to pressure the junta leadership in Myanmar, differences between member states on the issue diminished the prospects of the organisation resolving the crisis.

In the lead-up to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta in February 2023, Thailand departed from the organisation’s formal exclusion of the junta from regional talks by reaching out to it in different capacities. Thailand hosted an ‘open-ended informal consultation’ with the junta in December 2022 that involved several other mainland Southeast Asian states. In February 2023, Thailand invited Myanmar to the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus meeting on maritime security that it co-chaired with the United States.

Thailand’s visibly accommodative posture contrasts to those of several other ASEAN member states who continue to pressure the Myanmar junta to abide by the five-point consensus agreed upon at the 2021 special summit. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim even reached out to his Thai counterpart on 10 February 2023, urging Bangkok to take a firmer stance against the junta. These divisions prevented ASEAN from issuing a joint statement on the second anniversary of the coup.

Persisting fault lines in Southeast Asia have periodically given rise to diplomatic disputes and even low-key conflicts. For instance, in 2013, militants from the Sulu archipelago of the Philippines landed in the East Malaysian state of Sabah to assert the sovereignty of the historic Sulu Sultanate over that territory. The situation served as a reminder that the Philippine claim to the Malaysian territory of Sabah remains unresolved.

On the Southeast Asian mainland, differences exist between Mekong riparian states over Laos’ unilateral move to build dams — with Chinese assistance — along sections of the river that pass Laotian territory. In maritime Southeast Asia, the Philippine move to submit their case against China over their South China Sea territorial disputes in 2013 to an international tribunal was described by a senior official from an ASEAN member state as an ‘unfortunate development’ and an ‘inconvenience to ASEAN’.

Detractors have often criticised ASEAN for its inability to resolve differences between member states. This criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of ASEAN’s intended role and limitations. Since its creation, ASEAN’s primary purpose has been to create a more conducive environment for cooperation among Southeast Asian states. It also seeks to manage their differences such that these do not hamper broader aspirations to enhance cooperation. Though ASEAN’s success on this score has been patchy, it was never envisaged to be the panacea for all the region’s problems.

In that sense, it should be no surprise that member states have never used the mechanism of the High Council in Article 14 of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Dispute resolutions involving Southeast Asian states have usually come in the form of third-party mediation and efforts of international institutions such as the International Court of Justice.

Southeast Asia has come a long way from the Cold War years when it was described as a ‘region of revolt’. Still, despite the attention on great power rivalry and its consequences for regional security, intramural conflicts persist.

Unless Southeast Asian states can get their regional house in order, the challenge of fostering much-needed regional unity in the face of sharpening great power rivalry will grow more acute — as will the consequences of their inability to do so.

Joseph Liow is Dean and Tan Kah Kee Chair Professor of Comparative and International Politics at the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.

This article was developed based on the author’s presentation at the Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update at The Australian National University on 1 May 2023.


Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.