Southeast Asia in 2020: economic and social hardship, and strategic strain

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit Southeast Asian states hard. From a health perspective, the region has managed the pandemic comparatively well, with fewer reported cases and deaths as a percentage of the population than other parts of the world. But measures applied to stem the spread of the disease have caused a deep economic contraction in the region, seen rises in unemployment and poverty, strained already fragile governmental institutions, and in some cases created political instability. Beyond these domestic coronavirus challenges, in 2020 ASEAN member states have experienced a sharp deterioration in their external strategic environment as the already tense relationship between the United States and China became even more hostile and confrontational. From March 2020 onward, the Trump administration accelerated its campaign against a range of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies and diplomatic narratives. The escalation of tension, and in some instances hostility, between the United States and China has placed even greater pressure on Southeast Asian states and tested the long-standing hedging strategies they have used to manage relations with the two great powers. It is becoming more difficult to avoid making a choice between the two in one way or another—as the contradiction between their security and economic interests are becoming more acute. Indirectly, both the United States and China have been asking Southeast Asian states to “choose” between two alternative orders: a liberal rules-based order on the one side and a hierarchical China-centric order on the other. Some have shown a propensity to “push back” against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea in limited ways—such as Vietnam, Indonesia and, more recently, Malaysia—whilst others remain passive, seeking to avoid Beijing’s ire. The countries of Southeast Asia could be described as adopting a crouch, brace and hold position while they attempt to lead their domestic populations through the worst of the health and economic crisis, and while delaying any firmer response to the deteriorating regional security environment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSoutheast Asian Affairs 2021
EditorsDaljit Singh, Malcolm Cook
Place of PublicationSingapore
PublisherInstitute of Southeast Asian Studies
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9789814951753, 9789814951760
ISBN (Print)9789814951180
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameSoutheast Asian Affairs
Publisher ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute
ISSN (Print)0377-5437


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