1.4. Managing the Legacy of Conflict in Southeast Asia

Chair: Mr Prem MAHADEVAN

Panellists: Mr Ralf EMMERS; Mr Ramses AMER; Mr Thao GRIFFITHS


Rapporteur:  Mr Prem MAHADEVAN, Centre for Security Studies, ETHZ

The session opened with the observation that the South China Sea dispute was highly topical due to the impending verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, on the ‘Philippines versus China’ maritime dispute. The panel session reflected a focus on China-US and China-Vietnam relations, as these were viewed to be among the most historically fraught in Southeast Asia in the context of current tensions.

What are the salient geopolitical and historical points of conflict in Southeast Asia?

The salient points of conflict are maritime disputes between China and other littoral states of the South China Sea, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines. However, in both cases, the risk of dramatic and violent escalation is assessed to be low, due to the common desire of all parties (including the US as a military ally of the Philippines) to avoid a direct conflict. The main threat of escalation comes from local Chinese commanders acting semi-autonomously in a provocative manner and without clear instructions to the contrary from Beijing.

The interconnectedness of Asia and Europe through the anticipated One Belt, One Road vision, makes developments in Southeast Asia crucial for European security. East European states in particular, are susceptible to Chinese inducements which can undermine EU commitment to shared norms. The latter could be de-emphasized in order to obtain larger shares of foreign investment and access to the Chinese market.

How can points of conflict in Southeast Asia be overcome effectively and sustainably?

Greater dialogue between all parties, combined with a credible military presence by the United States to deter adventurism by regional navy or coast guard vessels, will help manage tensions at a level that will stop below the threshold of warfare. However, the commitment with which the belligerent parties hold to their positions, makes settlement of disputes unlikely in the immediate future.

Is cooperation between Southeast Asian states becoming more or less difficult to achieve in the future in light of political tensions and potentialities for technical cooperation respectively?

Optimists would suggest that cooperation is becoming easier to achieve due to a common wish to avoid causing mass-scale human suffering. However, while the risk of conflict escalation is not high, the probability of de-escalation is not good either. For this reason, it might be suggested that cooperation (including in humanitarian aspects, especially de-mining) is getting better at managing tensions, but not yet at resolving them. The latter remains a political task, for which the necessary focus is yet to be manifested in world capitals.


The South China Sea and Southeast Asia have become de facto areas of international concern, partly due to the reclamation activities of China. This, despite the fact that China was not the first country to reclaim features in the Sea. The scale and speed of Chinese efforts to consolidate military control over the contested water body, coupled with apprehensions about Beijing’s long-term intentions further afield, give cause for European countries to remain observant of its behaviour even as they welcome the economic benefits of trading with it.