The phrase “the great game” has a history beyond my ability to cover in this post, but has come to be associated with great power rivalry.
Southeast Asia has had its share of great power contests over the centuries, with some great powers well known and some less so. Major polities to contest and project power over the centuries include Srivijaya, Majapahit, Khmer and Siam. Siam is an intriguing case, with the present day Thai King being the last remaining feudal monarch of Southeast Asia and the efforts to retain this hierarchy into the 21st century threatening to tear Thailand apart.
Nevertheless, the great powers* seeking to influence and compel Southeast Asia today are arguably led by China and the United States. The United States has had the lead in the region for the best part of three quarters of a century, primarily from its ultimate triumph in the Pacific theatre at the end of World War II, but this status quo, and the stability it offers, is being shaken.
Thailand appears to be rapidly moving into the Chinese orbit. While the United States may argue otherwise, signs of both the US/Thailand strain and the Chinese/Thai warmth are becoming increasingly difficult to hide. To quote from the latter link, “Joshua Wong, the student activist who became a global symbol of the fight for democracy in Hong Kong” would be a particularly sensitive arrival in the Thai Kingdom given that he was “due to address students at Chulalongkorn University at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of a massacre of students in 1976“. Little wonder that China and Thailand are on the same page there.
The Philippines, long a vassal state of the United States in the region, is also suddenly a less dependable ally. With a recent timeline that has seen the Philippines, or more particularly its President, call the US President “the son of a whore”, liken himself to Hitler (which has been interpreted in the context of genocide, but yet prove to have a different meaning in the context of an armed conflict), ordered a review of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between his country and the US, suggested that (Chinese president) Xi Jinping would be his close friend and that US President Barack Obama could “go to hell” and that at some point, “I will break up with America”.
How much of this is rhetoric and how much is serious intent is ambiguous, but irrespective of intent these are easy ways to lose friends in the great game, and history appears set to move again in Southeast Asia.
* An argument could be made that this should include non-state actors such as Facebook and globalisation, but that will be for another post.