Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John FrankensteinMarch 18, 2014

Southeast Asia is a geographer’s term of convenience (like “Europe”) that conceals a fascinating mix of cultures and history. To an American the region may seem far away: Singapore lies more than 8,400 watery miles from San Francisco; it is over 10,000 miles and 12 time zones from New York to Jakarta. It takes a sensational mystery like the disappearance of Malaysian airliner MH370 or stories of massive destruction, like the Sumatran earthquake and tsunami in 2004, which killed thousands of people from Indonesia to India, to make the U.S. front pages or the evening news. But other major stories, like the smog from Indonesian fires choking Singapore and Malaysia, or China’s gun-boat diplomacy in the South China Sea, tend to barely reach the inside pages or PBS. The media need to do better.

And we would do well to pay attention. The region is a strategic link between Middle Eastern oil and the Pacific. While it is hardly the cockpit of major power contention, it is where the political and economic interests of India, China, the United States and Japan rub up against each other. The region itself, an ethnic and cultural shatterbelt, where the Cold War was hot and where revolutionary struggles ended decades of colonialism, should excite our interest. The location, bounded on the north by China, on the south and west by the Indian Ocean and on the east by the South China Sea and the Pacific, can only suggest the range of the region’s enormous diversity. Yet as diverse as it is, there are certain commonalities as well. Understanding the mix is essential for an appreciation of the 10 countries of Southeast Asia.

Demographic statistics reveal the diversity. Populations range from Brunei’s 415,700 to Indonesia’s 251 million. Singapore is a Chinese city-state about the size of greater Washington D.C. Indonesia’s 17,000 islands stretch across more than 3,000 miles, from Sumatra to New Guinea. (See map, left.)

The region weathered the global financial crisis of 2008 well, and has seen faster economic growth than the world average of between 5 percent and 7 percent in recent years. (The finance ministers of the region had learned their lesson from the Asian financial crisis of 1996, which saw currencies and exports collapse.) The aggregate economic power of the region is more than US $2.2 trillion (roughly equivalent to that of France, tenth in the world). Average yearly personal incomes (calculated as U.S. dollar equivalents G.D.P./capita) range from Myanmar’s $1,400 to Singapore’s $61,400. But averages conceal unequal distributions. While there is an emerging urban middle class, topped by a small group of extremely wealthy families, poverty remains an issue throughout the region; between one-fifth and one-third of the populations of Myanmar and Cambodia are deemed to live below the official poverty line.

Peoples and Beliefs

Ethnicities and religions add further complexity to the region. The populations of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are mainly of Malay origin. The Vietnamese, Thais, Laotians, Cambodians and Burmese are all quite distinct peoples with their own languages and alphabets. The Vietnamese, who formerly wrote in Chinese, today employ a modified Latin orthography. The other writing systems are based on Indian scripts. In each country there is a significant Chinese minority (almost one-quarter of the Malaysian population) that traces its origins to Southern China. It dominates the regional economy through a so-called “bamboo network” of fellow provincial and clan members. Their minority status and economic power have made them targets for discrimination or, in some cases, race riots, even though in the Philippines and Thailand they have integrated with local elites.

Local, often animistic, beliefs infuse the various flavors of the majority religions practiced in the region. Catholicism, brought by the Spanish to the Philippines in the 16th century, retains its Iberian fervor (remember that the islands are named after Philip II, a zealous protector of the faith and the most powerful king in Europe at the time). Islam, brought to Southeast Asia by Arab traders, dominates in Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim nation) and in Malaysia, a self-styled Islamic state. It remains in enclaves in Myanmar, Thailand and, most significantly, on the island province of Mindanao in the Philippines, where it fuels a separatist movement. Thailand is predominately Buddhist, as are Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. In Vietnam, officially an atheist Communist state, Buddhism and Daoist faiths are widely practiced.

Political Diversity

The diversity deepens when we look at the political systems of the region. Brunei is an oil sheikdom. Myanmar is slowly emerging from decades of stifling, isolating military rule. Leninist parties rule Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia is still struggling with the disaster of the genocidal Pol Pot regime. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, but its government is under great pressure from popular demonstrations that have paralyzed Bangkok, and the potential for a military takeover, which has happened in the past, cannot be ruled out. Malaysia’s parliamentary system has been long dominated by ethnic politics—the United Malays National Organization, representing the majority Malay population, has retained electoral power since the 1960s. The People’s Action Party monopolizes Singapore’s “Confucian democracy.”

Indonesia survived Sukarno’s idiosyncratic rule by personality and Suharto’s military-dominated regime and now has a lively parliamentary system with more than nine political parties contending. Americans should find the Philippines’ often abused presidential system familiar; it was bequeathed by the United States following the end of American colonial rule in 1946. Despite the different systems in these nations, national pride and a strong attachment to the principle of sovereignty marks them all.

Despite all the social diversity outlined above, the one historical fact of colonialism links the nations of Southeast Asia. With the single exception of Thailand, all of the countries in the region were colonies of a Western power at the turn of the 20th century. The Dutch East India Company arrived in the vast archipelago of Indonesia, then romantically called the Spice Islands, in the early 17th century. Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) fell to France in the late 19th century. The British in the 19th century extended their rule of the Indian Raj to Myanmar and later occupied the Malay Peninsula from the Thai border in the north down to Singapore and parts of Borneo at the tip of the Malacca Strait. The United States ruled the Philippines, a brutally seized prize of the Spanish American War in 1898.

World War II changed all that. Japan occupied much of Southeast Asia during the war, but ironically, promoted national liberation by showing that the ostensibly all-powerful West was not invincible. The colonial powers slowly ceded independence to their subjects after the defeat of the Japanese. The Philippines, a self-governing U.S. commonwealth since the 1930s, gained full independence in a peaceful transition in 1946. But changes were not always calm.

Malaysia was plagued by a Communist insurgency in the 1950s and ’60s (a conflict known as the Emergency) and endured conflicts with Indonesia and the Philippines after gaining independence from Britain in 1957. In 1965, Singapore, originally part of the Malaysian Federation, split off following racial disturbances and irreconcilable differences between Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore and Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur.

Independence came to Indonesia in 1949 only after a bitter struggle with the Dutch. And in the case of Indochina, the reunification of Vietnam in 1975 took 30 years of war, first with France and then, tragically, with a disastrously misguided United States, culminating in the reunification of Vietnam. And in the wreckage of that conflict, the Maoist revolutionary Pol Pot, zealously attempting to create a perfect agricultural society, tortured and murdered some 3 million of his fellow Cambodians, only to be deposed himself by an invasion from Vietnam.

The Asean Solution

But despite, or perhaps because of, this bloody and tumultuous history, the nations of Southeast Asia were compelled to find a way to manage their issues. In 1967, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand came together to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The aim was to create a forum to discuss regional issues and to establish a much-needed zone of peace and neutrality. Internationally, they were surrounded by the Vietnam War and the insane chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China.

While Indonesia had ended its territorial confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore, the bloody anti-Communist and anti-Chinese pogrom that followed the fall of Sukarno, with perhaps a million victims, had shocked the world. Indeed, they all mistrusted China. The People’s Republic had been involved in the earlier Malayan Emergency and was seen to have had a major role in the Indonesian Communist Party’s attempted coup and assassination of Indonesian military leaders as Sukarno fell. Surely the time was ripe for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As a Southeast Asian proverb states: when the water buffalo fight, the grass suffers.

Today, Asean has expanded to include Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and, most recently, Myanmar. Asean, headquartered in Jakarta, sponsors major international summits that attract leaders not only from Asia but the United States and Europe as well. Economic and social development, trade and security cooperation are its main foci. It is a important regional grouping, attracting the northeast Asian economic powerhouses of China, Japan and South Korea to affiliate as “Asean+3.” It serves as a kernel for other international groupings like the 27-member Asian Regional Forum (a security forum) and the Asia-Pacific Cooperation, a 21-member grouping of states from around the Pacific, including the United States.

The “Asean way” is to talk through difficulties. Reaching consensus and understanding is more important than hard-boiled confrontation. One Asian saying has it that “a bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit.” As such, some deride Asean as a “mere” talking shop. But, as an official once confided to me, the real value of Asean meetings is that they allow working officials to get to know one another, so when an issue arises, problems can be dealt with by personal phone calls rather than official démarches.

Asean is working towards becoming a grouping that will greatly liberalize trade and investment. The target date for the establishment of an Asean Economic Community and the elimination of regional tariffs is 2015. Increasing intra-regional trade and consumption will be crucial. The final destination for most of Asean’s production still lies outside the region. The region has promoted free trade agreements with China, Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. Other international agreements cover investment, aviation, services and education. The United States, for its part, has promoted plans to promote increased trade and investment with the region.

Social Problems, Security Dilemmas

But trade and development make up only one part of the story. Social issues are never far away. Alleviation of poverty remains an Asean goal. Countries must prepare against the severe natural disasters—typhoons, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—that periodically rack the region. Drugs still flow from the notorious Thai-Myanmar-Laos Golden Triangle poppy fields. Human trafficking remains a stain. AIDS has compromised public health and life expectancy in the poorer countries. Labor issues need to be addressed. Religious conflicts throughout the region and laws against conversion in Malaysia put religious freedom at risk. Freedom of expression is not always honored. Criticize a Singaporean official and you may be hit with a libel suit.

And, of course, strategic and security issues are significant. For starters, perhaps as much as 40 percent of all ocean-borne commerce, including oil from the Middle East destined for China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, transits the long but narrow Malacca Straits on its way north and east, a passage between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and the Pacific. Maintaining freedom of navigation in those waters, then, is in the interest of all nations, particularly the Asean states and the United States.

There is no dispute that Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia must cooperate when it comes to the straits. But China has claimed that the South China Sea is, in fact, its territorial waters, and is in conflict over potential energy and fishing resources with every country on the sea’s littoral—the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. No matter that most maritime experts find that China’s claims are based on dubious historical and legal reasoning and probably contravene the United Nations’ Law of the Sea.

Here is a case in point: the Scarborough Reef dispute. These fishing waters lie about 120 miles off Luzon, the largest of the Philippine Islands chain. They also lie about 500 miles from the nearest Chinese coast. It would seem clear that they lie within the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone as defined by the Law of the Sea. But Chinese maps put it within the arbitrary “Nine Dotted Line” that defines China’s claim to the area. China has stationed modern coast guard vessels in the area, closing it off to Philippine fishermen. The Philippine Navy is not capable of mounting a challenge.

Vietnam and other Asean members claim other reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. There may be oil and gas beneath the waves. China’s reaction to those claims has been to deny them aggressively, claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters, a “core interest” of the Chinese state. As such, China would prefer to deal with these disputes on a one-to-one basis, but Asean as a group is trying to form a collective response and move to international arbitration. China rejects these moves.

Even more worrying to China are U.S. interests and commitments to the Philippines (like a defense treaty) and other Asean members, as well as the international perception that the sea is, in fact, not a territorial possession but a freely navigable international waterway. Chinese behavior in these cases is somewhat paradoxical. China’s “good neighbor” policies—trade and cultural deals—seemed designed to diminish Asean’s ties to outside powers, but in fact its territorial claims seem to reinforce the perception in South East Asia that a strong U.S. presence in the region is necessary. Indeed, Chinese claims and actions are driving Asian nations together. Japan, also involved in serious maritime disputes with China, has offered its support to the Philippines. There is a strong suspicion that China, flexing its muscles, would like to re-establish the old hierarchical tribute system of imperial times.

The many islands that lie between the Philippines and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea are virtually impossible to police, and they have been known to shelter pirates and some terrorist gangs. The insurgency fomented by Muslim separatists in Mindanao, the Moros, has festered for decades, and putting them down has involved U.S. special forces cooperating with the Philippine Army. The southern area of Thailand bordering Malaysia has seen a long-running, if low level, insurgency pitting Muslims and Buddhists against each either. In Myanmar, ethnic conflicts between Burmese and a Muslim minority in an area bordering Bangladesh and between Burmese and Karin tribespeople in the northern part of the country have been brutal. The Philippines and Malaysia have a long-running armed dispute over Sabah, a territory in Borneo. And in Indonesia, Islamist terrorists have carried out brazen attacks on Indonesians and foreigners alike. The nightclub bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed 200 people and attacks on luxury hotels in Jakarta were the most notorious of these. The group Jemaah Islamiah, which aims to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate and has links to Al Qaeda, remains at large, with cells throughout the region. Police action against terrorism has diminished their activities, but they still remain.

A Positive U.S. Role

Today, even as old struggles still echo and economic and social problems persist, the region’s hopeful political evolution, growing prosperity and increasing importance to the global economy have raised its profile. International investments are increasing to take advantage of Asean’s favorable environment. Asean punches above its weight in the world economy.

Surveys carried out by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore show that U.S. businesses are welcome in the region. Yes, there are problems: corruption, bureaucracy and, in some cases, poor transportation infrastructure. But international firms have an upbeat view of the future of Southeast Asia. Asian and Western multinational corporations have extensive operations throughout the region. The hard drive in your laptop was probably fashioned out of parts from all over the world in a factory not far from Bangkok. According to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S.-Asean two-way trade totaled $220 billion in 2011, with U.S. investment in the region reaching $159 billion the same year. The potential for reaching 600 million customers in a vibrant region cannot be overlooked. Indeed, according to the U.S.-Asean Business Council, in 2012 Asean was the United State’s fourth largest export market at $75.5 billion (after Canada, Mexico and China but ahead of Japan).

The “Asean way” has paid dividends in the relative peace, growing prosperity and political progress of the region. The Asean states and the United States share many interests, with freedom of navigation, free trade and security among them. Surely it is in the interest of the United States that Asean’s development should continue, free of great power interference. Awareness in the United States of the issues in the complex arena of Southeast Asia will help ensure that our involvement there will be positive.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Daniel Joyce
10 years 3 months ago
Fantastic article. As an American living in SE Asia for the past 9 years, I would not have thought it possible to capture the essence of the region as accurately and succinctly as has been done here. Much appreciated.

The latest from america

President Joe Biden's decision not to seek re-election is surprising—but don't call it unprecedented. It happened once before, in 1968.
James T. KeaneJuly 22, 2024
In her keynote address at the Eucharistic Congress, Gloria Purvis warned that disloyalty to Pope Francis, the sin of racism and putting political parties above God threaten the unity of the Catholic Church.
Gloria PurvisJuly 22, 2024
Close up shot of green olives, almonds and bread served on a dining table, to snack on as appetizer during a dinner party. (iStock/fotostorm)
In face-to-face conversations, Catholics can disagree without being disagreeable, moving beyond caricatures to better understand each other’s humanity and heart.
Tim BuschJuly 22, 2024
A Eucharistic pilgrimage from Indianapolis to Los Angeles is being planned for spring 2025, while congress organizers who had been discerning an 11th National Eucharistic Congress in 2033, are now considering planning the event even sooner.