Malign Interference in Southeast Asia

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This paper provides a succinct macro-survey of Southeast Asian countries’ understanding of and experiences with foreign state interference, given that strategic competition is increasingly taking place in the ‘grey zone’ and between states, with an end to pursuing national strategic interests without resorting to war.

The increasing wariness of governments in Australia, the US and the UK over potential foreign state interference by countries like Russia and China in their domestic affairs has sparked a greater examination of the tactics and objectives of malign state actors. However, the debate over this challenge is unclear in other parts of the world.

Malign interference can be characterised as activity that takes place through covert means that obfuscate the role of the state directing the activity, not in conformity to national law, is conducted through coercive means, or seeks to create confusion amongst a population through disinformation efforts. The paper also briefly discusses the concept of ‘sharp power’, which best captures the unique nature of the threat of political interference – namely, co-optation of key decision-makers, influencers and thought leaders for the purpose of internalising, advocating for or advancing the interests of foreign authoritarian powers.

Across Southeast Asia, a region of strategic interest to authoritarian and democratic countries alike for its economic dynamism and strategic location, public debate and academic engagement on the question of foreign state interference is limited. This is likely due to political sensitivities over whether governments are seen to be sufficiently addressing the challenge and, where it concerns China, whether they could be seen as taking sides in the wider geopolitical tension between China and the US. Discussion around domestic actor malign interference, for example through disinformation on social media platforms, is somewhat easier, as seen in the case study chapters.

Given the sensitivity of the subject of state interference, this paper primarily relies on open source material, supplemented by interviews with key policymakers and experts in Southeast Asia under rules of non-attribution. The paper analyses the main vectors of malign foreign influence across key Southeast Asian states, as well as the region’s geopolitical relevance to authoritarian foreign states potentially interested in conducting interference for political objectives. The combination of these three factors affects their vulnerability to malign foreign influence. While this paper cannot address the challenge of foreign state interference in its entirety or map each country’s specific experience in depth, it seeks to offer a starting point for further research and discussions. The paper provides brief policy recommendations as a basis for this. It goes without saying that any long-term solution should be anchored in a systematic recognition of the agency of Southeast Asian states in light of their decades-long struggle for autonomy and national development. However, given the international challenge of foreign state interference, this paper highlights a few ways in which partner countries who are seeking to mitigate their own domestic experiences of the challenge can work with Southeast Asian countries to share lessons learned and exchange issues on risk mitigation. These are:

  • Continue support for local media and civil society.
  • Offer alternatives where investment is needed in the region.
  • Increase information exchange on malign interference.
  • Help develop risk mitigation strategies in the region.

WRITTEN BY

Veerle Nouwens

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

International Security

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Alexander Neill

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