by Keith Leong. First published in The Sun 7 December 2012.

THERE has been much talk of a “New Great Game” in Southeast Asia, of the struggle between the United States and China for influence in the region.

Certainly, the divisions within Asean over the South China Sea – witness its inability to take a unified, coherent stand on the issue at its July and November meetings – suggest that the association’s attempts to keep Great Power influence out of the region is failing.

But what can the “old” Great Game tell us about what the future may hold for Southeast Asia?

The historical Great Game refers to the strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia in the 19th century.

After the fall of Napoleon, the British feared that Russia – which was embarking on an aggressive expansionist campaign against the Central Asian khanates – would threaten their Indian colonies and hence sought to win influence among these states as well as China, Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia to slow their perceived advance.

What followed then was political intrigue, diplomatic jockeying, and espionage schemes as well as limited armed conflict. While open war (barring the Crimean War) never broke out between the two, the Game proved costly to all sides.

The Great Game ended when the rise of Imperial Germany led Britain and Russia to set aside their differences to check the former – the denouement of which was WWI.

More significantly, the Anglo-Russian contest for influence arguably laid the seeds for the instability and poor governance inherent in Central Asia today, as the states there crumbled in the face of strong external pressure and were unable to build strong structures by themselves.

Fast forward to the present and it seems like things seem eerily familiar.

A “New Great Game” industry of sorts seems to have sprung up, providing employment and notoriety to the modern-day descendants of the explorers, soldiers, strategists and alarmist journalists who populate the pages of books like Peter Hopkirk’s classic The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia.

On the one hand, the US under President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” seeks to check the spreading power of China and renew its destiny as a Pacific power.

The advent of shale gas is speeding up its economic recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008 and is setting the stage for its eventual exit from its quixotic adventure in the Middle East.

On the other, we have China, whose economic might is being tempered by an ageing population and increasing societal tensions caused by growing inequalities. At the same time, its hunger for energy is leading it to boost its naval might.

The impact of the growing rivalry between the US and China – not to mention dark horses like India, Russia and Japan – on Southeast Asia cannot be overstated.

The last two Asean meetings have all but proven Beijing’s influence over Phnom Penh. At the same time, China’s aggressiveness over the South China Sea has driven the Philippines and Vietnam closer to the American orbit.

Not that the rivalry is necessarily a bad thing entirely: the remarkable democratisation in Myanmar is at least partially inspired by the junta’s desire to become something other than just satraps for Beijing.

Also – and this is a hunch – like the first Great Game it could very well be that China and the US will never openly fall into conflict, but eventually come to some sort of accommodation and work to forge a new geopolitical order.

Still, all of this great power activity in our region raises major questions about the relevance of Asean and the direction of its states. The former, after all, was supposed to keep Southeast Asia a neutral and distinct bloc in world affairs.

We cannot underestimate the deleterious effect that not having a say in the affairs of our region will have on our countries.

Southeast Asia – and Malaysia – must decide whether it wants to become a player, or be relegated to a spectator, perhaps even a pawn in the New Great Game.

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Keith Leong is a fellow at IDEAS

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