Central Themes and Key Points

by John Bresnan, Senior Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.

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I. Southeast Asia and America since 1492

Southeast Asia is almost as far away from some parts of the United States as it is possible to get without starting to come back. Culturally, too, it seems distant, often exotic.

But Southeast Asia has not been all that far from the United States in a practical sense for a long time. It was the spice islands of Southeast Asia (the Indies) that Columbus was seeking when he found America. One of those islands was traded by England when it acquired the island of Manhattan from the Dutch in 1664. There are records of American ships in the waters of the region as early as the 1600s too. By the end of the 1850s, American missionaries, traders, sea captains, naval officers and diplomats were well acquainted with most of what is now known as Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States became immersed in the affairs of the region when it took control of the Philippine islands. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States fought its only losing war in Vietnam. In the late 1990s, a financial crisis that began in Thailand caused fears for the global system of finance led by the United States. And in the last year of the 20th century, the United States was much involved in East Timor’s acquisition of independence from Indonesia. So Southeast Asia and the United States have figured in each other’s history in many ways over many years.

Knowledge about Southeast Asia has nevertheless been extremely limited among the American population. Distance has always been a factor. In the last generation, the Vietnam War has been an added factor. It is as though, having made a tragic error of judgment there, Americans preferred to act as though the country and the region of which it is a part did not exist.

Teaching about Southeast Asia is important, then, because Southeast Asia has much to tell us about our own history. There are some other things to be said in its favor as well:

  • Because Southeast Asia seems exotic, teaching about it offers an opportunity to help students explore how very much alike human societies really are, even when they appear on the surface to be very different.
  • Because Southeast Asia is a region where all the great civilizations of Asia have come together, and all the great world religions as well, it offers an opportunity to introduce students to these—and to problems of human relations that are very similar to those that America faces, but in another setting, on the other side of the world.
  • Because Southeast Asia is a major world region—it contains more people than all of Latin America or of sub-Sahara Africa—Southeast Asia has all the problems of poverty and politics that we think about when we think about the economically less developed parts of the world
  • Because Southeast Asia has been very much a part of the recent process of globalization, it is strategically involved in economic relations with the United States that are a serious test of American leadership in the post-cold war world.

Of course an individual teacher and class will not be able to follow all these possible themes. The teacher will want to select one that suits his or her own preferred approach and that is in harmony with the program that is being developed for the entire school year. The point is simply that all these approaches are available in the case of Southeast Asia and, because of the diversity of the region, are available with a richness that few other parts of the world offer.

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II. Where Is Southeast Asia?

Teaching about Southeast Asia offers a good opportunity to set students to work on some geography that will be new to almost all of them. It is exotic enough to have fascinated scientists for centuries.

Geographically, Southeast Asia is the region that lies east of India and south of China. The Chinese knew it for at least a thousand years as the Southern Islands. The region became known as Southeast Asia only during World War II. But most people know it by that name today.

Southeast Asia is bordered by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean and includes thousands of islands. Ocean trade and navigation have been important since earliest times. Indeed it was the Malays who invented the Lateen sail, which revolutionized sailing in the 8th century. Originating in Southeast Asia where monsoon winds blow in one direction for several months, this invention permitted navigators to catch the wind even while their ships headed almost directly into it.

Following the map which appears at the end of this guide, from west to east, one sees that Southeast Asia includes the countries that are now known as MYANMAR (formerly BURMA), THAILAND, LAOS, CAMBODIA and VIETNAM, all part of the Southeast Asian mainland. And then, following the map South and to the East, the region includes MALAYSIA, which is made up of the Malayan peninsula and two states on the north coast of the island of Borneo; the small city-state of Singapore at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula; the small state of BRUNEI on the north coast of Borneo; the archipelago of large and small islands that comprise INDONESIA, extending to and including the western half of the island of New Guinea; in the midst of the Indonesian archipelago, the half-island state of EAST TIMOR, independent since 1999; and the further archipelago of large and small islands to the North that comprise the PHILIPPINES.

The region is divided geologically and ecologically. Tectonic plates under the ocean floor extend south and eastward from the Asian landmass, and the shallow seas shown on a physical map depict areas that were above sea level during the ice ages. People and animals travelled across the land bridges, and plant life travelled with them. Thus the flora and fauna of Asia are found in such islands as Sumatra, Java, and Borneo (or Kalimantan, as it is known to the Indonesians), including the elephant, tiger and rhinoceros, some of which still survive in the wild, principally in game reserves. Another set of plates extends north and westward from Australia, and the plant and animal life of the eastern islands is related to that of Australia. Here are found the exotic birds of paradise and marsupials. This division of the region was discovered by the great English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin.

The clash of the tectonic plates has created a major line of earthquakes and volcanic activity. Indeed, a large percentage of all the active volcanoes in the world lies in island Southeast Asia, and they have been a major factor in human settlement. The volcanoes bring large quantities of minerals from the depths of the earth up to the surface, and from here they are spewed across the landscape and into the air, fertilizing the soils and making them ideal for intensive farming. In areas where volcanoes remain active, such as the islands of Luzon in the Philippines and Java in Indonesia, the density of human populations is among the highest in the world. Elsewhere, tropical rainfall feeds the growth of tropical jungles, but the soils are thin, and the population scanty.

Situated astride the Equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, Southeast Asia has a climate that is hot and humid. The monsoons, or strong winds that reverse direction in different seasons, are an important factor of life, agriculture, and navigation of the seas in Southeast Asia. Depending on the direction in which they are blowing, the monsoon winds bring dry weather or heavy rains. The timing of the rainy season varies, however, North and South of the Equator. Temperature varies by altitude; it is hottest in the lowlands and coolest in the mountains. Capital cities tend to be port cities and so are at sea level, making them hot most of the time. Many mountain towns are favored as resorts and centers of education.

The geography of Southeast Asia is so extensive, and its ecology is so complex, that many aspects of the region are still largely unexplored. The same is true of its people, especially in the more remote areas. One explorer in recent years was Michael Rockefeller, a young man from one of the wealthiest families in America, who led an expedition to collect the art of primitive tribal groups in New Guinea. Michael lost his life in New Guinea, but his team brought back an extraordinary collection of boats, shields, masks, and other art forms that now fill an entire wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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II. Americans in Southeast Asia

Americans have been directly involved in the affairs of Southeast Asia since the end of the 19th century. The most dramatic ways have unfortunately been bloody: Americans have been involved in fighting three wars in Southeast Asia during this period. That says something about ourselves as a country—and about the ways that Americans and Southeast Asians have tended to think about each other.

The first occasion was the Spanish-American War. In the last years of the 19th century, the last Spanish colonies were in rebellion—in Latin America and in the Philippine islands. The United States intervened. In Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt led a famous charge up San Juan Hill, the intervention led to independence. In the Philippines, it led to colonization; the United States fought a popular independence movement for several years before eventually putting it down. One justification offered at the time was that the people of Southeast Asia were not ready to govern themselves; all the people of the region except those of Siam (now Thailand) were governed by European powers. But colonialism was not suited to the American psyche. Self-government was introduced, and the independence of the Philippines was recognized in 1946. The American legacy to the Philippines continues to be primarily political. When Ferdinand Marcos attempted to remain president by stealing an election in 1986, the people protested in a non-violent display of “people power” that forced Marcos to flee the country. This peaceful revolution, watched on television the world over, helped establish the idea that democracy is not suited only to the rich industrial countries of the West.

The second time Americans fought in Southeast Asia was during the Second World War. The Pacific part of that war was fought in the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Japanese had occupied every country of Southeast Asia in order to be sure to have supplies of food and fuel for their fight against the United States. Americans under Douglas MacArthur fought back up the island chain from New Guinea to the Philippines in a series of naval and land battles that are now famous in American military history. Many brave men on both sides lost their lives. The Americans were preparing to invade the Japanese home islands when the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered. Those bombings introduced a new family of awesome weapons into human experience that we are still struggling to bring under some kind of control.

The third time Americans fought in Southeast Asia was during the Vietnam War, from 1965 to 1973. It was the most controversial war in America’s history, and the only war in which America was defeated. The reasons for the fighting were never fully accepted by the American people, and the experience has changed the politics of our country. Members of Congress have not been willing since to leave foreign affairs to the President, but have fought for a larger role in deciding foreign policy themselves. The Vietnam War provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn how what happens far away can have a powerful impact on our own society.

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IV. Southeast Asians in the United States

For the first two centuries of America’s history, almost all its people came from Europe. That has changed in the past generation. The Immigration Act of 1965, which was initiated by John F. Kennedy, dropped the quotas that formerly favored Europeans. This paved the way for an increase in migration from Asia, and by the 1970s there were as many Asians as Europeans coming to the United States to live and work on a permanent basis.

The Philippines has been the country of Southeast Asia that has produced the largest number of immigrants into the United States. In one recent year, 1996, the Philippines ranked second by country of birth in the number of immigrants the United States received from all over the world. The rank order of the top countries, with their numbers (in thousands), were: Mexico, 163; Philippines, 55; India, 44; Vietnam, 42; China, 41; Dominican Republic, 32; and Cuba, 26. These data argue that the Asianization of America has been proceeding at a pace only somewhat slower than the pace of Hispanization.

The case of the Philippines is easy to understand. The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, the only one in Asia. Its national political and economic affairs are conducted in English. Its high level of education makes it easy for its people to find employment in the United States and prosper here. In addition, the American colonial period introduced the Philippines to many aspects of American culture, so that many Philippine men and women tend to feel quite comfortable living and working in the United States.

The other large numbers of immigrants from Southeast Asia all trace from the Vietnam War. Between 1981 and 1995, the totals by country were (again in thousands): Vietnam, 676; Laos, 180; Cambodia, 116; and Thailand, 95.

The Vietnamese were people of South Vietnam, which the United States supported in the war. Many were military or civilian officials of the defeated South, some of them Roman Catholics whose families had fled North Vietnam when it had fallen to the communists in the mid-1950s, and some others people of Chinese descent who were employed in small family businesses and were treated like pariahs by the conquering communist forces. Many of them left Vietnam by spectacular means, going (or being forced to go) out to sea in dangerously small boats, filling the South China Sea with “boat people,” and stirring the conscience of the international community. Well educated and industrious as they are, the Vietnamese also have prospered in America.

The people who came from Laos were, on the contrary, mostly tribal people from the mountains of Laos, who lived with scant access to modern technology. These Hmong people sided with the Americans against the leaders of their country, who in turn had been installed by their more powerful Vietnamese neighbors. Lacking the affinities that have been helpful to the people of the Philippines and Vietnam in adjusting to life in America, the Lao refugees as a group have been in need of considerable support.

Immigrants from Cambodia are survivors of the infamous regime of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communists who emptied the cities, tried to kill off all the educated elite of the nation, and were responsible for the death by violence or starvation of a million people. Coming from among the better educated parts of the Cambodian population, these refugees also have adapted well to life in America. Some younger members of this community, after growing up in America, have returned to Cambodia to try to help in its recovery.

The immigrants from Thailand did not come as refugees. Thailand, like the Philippines, supported the United States in the war in Vietnam. Major air bases in Thailand housed elements of the U.S. air force, where many thousands of U.S. airmen served. Thailand also was a favored place for American soldiers to take leave from the fighting in Vietnam. Thai-American families resulted, like the family of Tiger Woods, the golf champion. Thai-Americans also include many who became acquainted with Americans during the war and were attracted here by the greater professional and business opportunities. Obviously these newcomers also have tended to prosper on their own.

Most urban communities in the United States now have sizable numbers of these new Americans from Southeast Asia. The children of these communities are found in many classes in our schools. They are not likely to know a lot about their heritage, but are often eager to learn. Some attention to that heritage in the schools could go a long way toward correcting stereotypes that other children have about them.

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V. The People of Southeast Asia
Mountains, Lowlands, and Cities

All the varieties of human experience are found in Southeast Asia. In the mountains of the mainland and the major islands, tribal peoples still live in ways that are largely unchanged from the ways their ancestors lived thousands of years ago. (Southeast Asia was populated very early in human experience, and the first remains of early humans were found there — the remains of Java Man, for example, were the first to be labeled pithecanthropus erectus.) Young American university students still go to Southeast Asia in relatively large numbers each year to study these societies, because they tell us things about human experience that seem fundamental, and so teach us what is important about ourselves as well. In some communities, teachers should be able to arrange for one of these students to visit their classes for a day to talk about their experience.

Most of the people of Southeast Asia, however, live in the low-lands. Most of them are farmers, and their most common crop is rice. Most of these farmers are highly sophisticated in their work, because their lives depend upon it. Much of the land is terraced where there are hills, or criss-crossed by canals where it is relatively flat, so that water is available to as much of the land as possible. Modern research stations are developing new varieties of rice that have doubled production in recent decades. Modern fertilizers are in widespread use. There has been a revolution in rice farming in just the last two decades or so. It is part of what has been called "the green revolution." And it has had some of its most powerful impact in Southeast Asia, where many farm families have doubled their income, and now own television sets, motorcycles, and many of the other material things that used to be enjoyed only by city people. They also are now able to send their children to school; primary education is almost universal in Southeast Asia, and it is not unusual to find farm families that are sending children right on up to the university.

Cities are where the population is growing most quickly, however, because young people have been streaming to them to get a better education and in hopes of finding better jobs. Some of the cities of Southeast Asia are now among the largest in the world. Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta, for example, all have populations that are larger than New York or Los Angeles. These cities have all the problems that big cities elsewhere have — crowding, crime, homelessness, pollution. They also are where many new industries are located. Shirts and shoes made in these cities are now sold in American department stores. When people talk about protecting American companies from foreign competition, they often mean protecting American clothing and shoe manufacturers from the new companies making the same things in these Southeast Asian cities. It's a hard choice for Americans, because these other people are our friends, and these new industries are very important to them. How we decide to handle the problem will have a big impact on the cities of Southeast Asia.

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Language and Culture

The region is divided culturally, but here the lines do not follow precisely those created by geographic and ecological factors or by political boundaries.

The dominant peoples of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam all speak languages related Chinese, and are believed to have moved into the areas they now inhabit from Southern China in relatively recent times. The insular peoples of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and Philippines speak another family of languages, known as Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian, and are believed to have occupied the islands over a very long period of time. The population of Singapore is predominantly Chinese and was settled only in the 19th century.

The divisions of the region among countries are not the same as the divisions among cultures. Most of the current political borders were established by European colonial powers, which were less concerned with ethnic and linguistic homogeneity than with modeling Southeast Asia after the Western system of nation-states with well-defined territories. On either side of these borders today are usually found people who are related to each other, or at least speak the same language, and who were traveling back and forth, and trading back and forth, long before the Europeans arrived. In addition there are many linguistic divisions among the indigenous peoples, as the language map in the rear of this guide only begins to suggest. There also are significant numbers of non-indigenous peoples in each country, most notably migrants from China.

The Chinese have had their biggest cultural impact on Vietnam, which was ruled as a province of China for the first thousand years of the current era. Subsequently they came to other parts of Southeast Asia to trade Chinese goods for tropical products. Still others came during the colonial period to work for the Europeans in ports and on plantations. Chinese make up most of the population of Singapore today, and as a result of their industry and ingenuity, Singapore in 1998 ranked as the second richest country in Asia after Japan. People of Chinese descent make up about a third of the population of Malaysia. The Chinese also make up large minorities of the big cities of Thailand and the Philippines, although they have intermarried to a considerable extent, and are relatively well assimilated into the local populations. Others of Chinese descent make up a small part of the population of Indonesia, where they are nevertheless the leaders of commerce and industry.

Such ethnic heterogeneity is one of the outstanding characteristics of Southeast Asia, and the source of some of its most serious social and political challenges.

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Religions in Southeast Asia

Because Southeast Asia lies across the sea routes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, explorers and traders have been interested in it for at least the last two thousand years. Missionaries have traveled to and through the region for at least as long. Hindu and Buddhist missionaries converted many of the people of Southeast Asia by the 12th century. Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are still predominantly Buddhist today, and traces of Buddhism can be found in other parts of the region. On the little island of Bali in Indonesia, for example, which is famous for its graceful dancers and is one of the most popular tourist sites in the world, the population still practices a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism in its daily life.

Islamic missionaries also traveled to Southeast Asia, and established schools of learning there by the 15th century. The people of the Malay peninsula, and the people living on the coasts of the islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi (Celebes), and Mindanao, were converted to Islam. These places are now parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Islamic—it has more Muslims than any other country in the world — and in Malaysia Islam is the state religion. Throughout these populations, a great debate is taking place about their religion and especially how they should interpret it in the modern world. Some argue that the modern world is evil and Muslims have a duty to oppose it. Others argue that Islam is not just about the hereafter, that it has lessons to teach about how to make the world a better place, and that Muslims should work with other people to make life better for everybody. This debate is taking place all over the Islamic world, of course. In Southeast Asia it is likely to work out in ways that are different from the Middle East, partly because Islam in Southeast Asia is no more homogenous than the societies are.

Christianity was the last of the great world religions to reach Southeast Asia, coming only with the Europeans in recent centuries. Many of the European explorers, and the missionaries who traveled with them, were aiming to penetrate China and Japan. They failed to do so to any great extent, but along the way they established themselves in other places, and nowhere with greater success than in the Philippines. Except for the island of Mindanao in the South, the Philippines is a predominantly Roman Catholic country today, part of its heritage from Spain. Catholic missionaries from France converted people in Vietnam. Other Christian missionaries, some of them Protestants, also converted some of the people of Indonesia’s islands, including people in Central Java, North Sumatra, North Sulawesi, and many of the islands of Eastern Indonesia, up to and including western New Guinea. These Christians tend to be well educated and have held many positions of consequence in Indonesia.

Confucianism is, strictly speaking, not so much a religion as an ethical system, and it is not present in Southeast Asia to anything like the extent of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. However, it is found among the Chinese populations of Southeast Asia, and these populations are, as noted above, an important element in the great mixture of races found in the region.

The tendency for religious differences to fall along the same lines as ethnic divisions has made it easy for conflict to break out in Southeast Asia, and made it difficult for governments to keep on good relations with each other and to keep relations peaceful at home. It is to the credit of political leaders that they have been as successful as they have in dealing with these problems. When political leadership is weak, as in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998, it has not been surprising to see violence break out, and not surprising that it has been directed at ethnic and religious minorities like the Chinese of Jakarta and the Christians of the Maluku islands.

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VI. Politics in Southeast Asia

Is Southeast Asia becoming more democratic? The success of “people power” in the Philippines in the mid-1980s naturally raised the question about the rest of the region. And it is an important question for Americans. We are proud of our political values, and we feel more secure when we know that they are shared by other people. It’s when we see large parts of the world living under authoritarian governments, which is often a polite way of referring to governments that are corrupt and prone to violence, that we feel uncomfortable about the state of the world.

The short answer to the question is: “Yes, but…” The experience of the Philippines, especially the dramatic way in which ordinary people were able to overturn a dictator, did have an impact on opinion elsewhere in the region, particularly among students and intellectuals. But the Philippines, some said, was different from the rest of Southeast Asia, too Americanized, and long accustomed to changing its government every few years. The other countries of the region had a different history. They were for the most part colonies of Europeans who did not look forward to the colonies’ independence. There were experiments with European-style politics in the first days of independence in the 1950s, but these all gave way to autocratic rulers in time.

Thailand was an exception. It was the only Southeast Asian entity to escape becoming a colony of a Western power. It was the only one to retain a functioning monarchy. And the Thai armed forces held the real power in their country ever since they forced a constitution on the King in the 1930s. But a growing number of Thais who studied in Western Europe and the United States came to want their own government to become more open and more responsive to their rapidly changing society. In 1973, students briefly were able to take the political initiative away from the armed forces. In 1992, civilians were helped by the King to take over the government, although retired army generals continued to play a role. When the financial crisis struck in 1997, Thailand did have a functioning parliament, which voted out a cabinet led by a former army commander, and voted in a civilian-led government. Subsequently the Thais added an elected Senate, replacing an appointed one. From at least the early 1990s on, the Thais also have had, like the Philippines, a free press. This open political system had yet to be tested in the absence of a strong monarch who is, at the same time, a democrat. But even with that caveat, Thailand has been one of the most democratic countries of the region coming into the 21st century.

Indonesia had the more common experience: a long history of European rule (in this case, Dutch), some post-1945 fighting, early cabinets on the European pattern, and then Sukarno as “president for life,” succeeded by an army general who lasted for 32 years. The financial crisis struck Jakarta in 1998; there was rioting, the flight of capital, a corrupt and divided army, and the long-time president, Suharto, was out—leaving nothing in the way of institutions to provide continuity. It took almost 18 months to select a successor—a blind Muslim religious teacher whose party came in only third in direct elections, but a preacher of tolerance who it was hoped could lead the nation to reconcile its now-bitter divisions between Javanese and non-Javanese, Muslims and Christians, Malay and Chinese, civilians and military, the corrupt and the reformers—all the detritus of a failed regime. The press was free, elections were relatively free and fair, but years would be required to build modern political parties, a deliberative parliament, independent courts, and a civil service free of major corruption, all components of a functioning democracy.

Malaysia has all the institutions of a democracy. Three political parties represent Malays, Chinese and Indians, one for each. Electoral politics are played out within these parties and in parliamentary elections, all of which are free and fair enough. But the parties are otherwise locked together in a National Front, through which they have formed a series of governments by secret bargaining. The aim is racial harmony; the actuality has become a system that has grown inflexible and lent itself to a growing autocracy. The courts have lost their independence. The mass media have come to serve the governing parties. Loyalty to the system has become the test of merit. Another leader could in future lead Malaysia back to its earlier openness, but Indonesia’s inter-ethnic violence may have given Malaysia’s race-based system a new lease on life.

Singapore has one of the region’s tightest political systems. Parties and elections are designed to protect the elite civil service that rules the society and its economy. It needs to be said that this civil service is of high merit. It has a reputation of incorruptibility. And it has produced impressive material rewards for the Singapore population. But its justification lies in its self-image as an anomaly: a small Chinese island in a large and sometimes hostile Malay sea, caught as it is between Malaysia, which has often been unfriendly, and Indonesia, which has often been anti-Chinese.

The remaining nation states of the region are decidedly not democratic in their politics. Myanmar (Burma) is ruled by a military junta in spite of the fact that elections in 1990 selected the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of modern Burma’s founders, to govern the country. Vietnam is ruled by a Leninist party that by now is of doubtful legitimacy in the eyes of many of its own people. Cambodia also is ruled by a Leninist party, but one that has made room for non-communists in a fragile coalition at the behest of foreign donors on whom it is heavily dependent. Laos continues under the rule of a communist party. Brunei is a Southeast Asian version of a Persian Gulf sheikdom. East Timor is still a question mark.

In short, Southeast Asia is becoming more democratic, but slowly.

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VII. Southeast Asia in the Larger World

Southeast Asians have thus had a long history of active interaction with the larger world, and they have grounds for mixed views about it. The region has long been in contact with Europe and America through trade, which spurred economic growth in the region, but also brought on a colonialism that was prejudicial to the welfare and self-respect of Southeast Asians in the end. Independence owed more to the Japanese ability to take control of the entire region during World War II than many Southeast Asians yet care to admit. The cold war divided the region deeply, but only some governments had reason to see the United States as a beneficent power.

The financial crisis of the late 1990s reinforced the sense of outsiders as a source of benefits and danger. Private capital poured into the open economies of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines from the mid-1980s. The money came from banks and investment houses in Western Europe, North America and Japan, and it financed a great burst of development, initially in manufacturing for export, raising annual growth rates to 7 and 8 per cent of GNP. But eventually the foreign funds were poured into real estate, and this was preliminary to the crisis. Local business people borrowed dollars to build urban towers that did not earn dollars to repay the debt, on the assumption that dollars could always be bought at the same rate of exchange. When the value of the Thai currency fell, and dollars became more costly, Thai borrowers defaulted and the resulting crisis ricocheted around the world, eventually extending even to Russia.

The economies of Southeast Asia have been in dynamic contact with distant markets since at least the early 16th century. The region was initially a source of spices. European colonialists made it a source of tropical agricultural products such as coffee, tea, sugar and hemp. The Japanese took an interest in the region in 1941 as a source of petroleum, tin and rubber, all needed to prosecute the war. Since then the principal markets for Southeast Asia have come to be the wealthy industrial economies of the United States, Japan and Western Europe, in that order. In return Southeast Asia has looked to these same economies for capital and technology, and in recent decades has developed a wide range of new industries. Now the most valuable exports of Southeast Asia are Armani shirts, Nike running shoes, and Gateway hard-drives.

This experience has had a powerful impact on Southeast Asian life and on Southeast Asian thinking about the rest of the world. The countries that benefited most have been the ones that have been most open—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Organized in their own Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since the late 1960s, they have not only seen their economies improve but they also came to speak with a common voice and so increase their influence in world affairs. At the center of this strategy was the commitment to avoid differences among themselves that might attract outside powers to interfere in the region’s affairs.

The biggest challenge this strategy faced was the difference in ideology that developed outside the ASEAN membership between Vietnam and Cambodia, the former with the support of the Soviet Union and the latter that of China. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and the fighting soon reached the border of Thailand. That activated the ASEAN members into playing a role in resolving the conflict. With the end of the cold war, the remaining states of Southeast Asia were invited into ASEAN, which at this point was widely viewed as a model regional organization. ASEAN was unprepared to act, however, when the financial crisis occurred in 1997-98, or when East Timor fell into chaos in 1999. After these failures, it was widely thought that rebuilding the regional organization would take time—and the rebuilding of cohesion in Indonesia, its largest member. Forty per cent of the population of the ASEAN states is within the borders of this one nation, and its leadership had been critical to the earlier record of ASEAN success.

The ambiguity in attitudes toward the external world extends to the United States. The United States is well understood to be very powerful militarily and economically, and it is treated circumspectly for that reason. Countries that have had the closest working relationships with the United States, such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, tend to view the United States as beneficent on the whole, but distant and inattentive except at times of crisis. Vietnam, understandably, remains highly wary. Others, with mixed experience, such as Indonesia, tend to see the United States as unpredictable, inclined to act unilaterally, and tending to do so with its own domestic political agenda very much in mind. Needless to say, this range of attitudes places a burden on United States-Southeast Asia relations that is not easily accommodated by the world’s lone superpower.

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VIII. The Future of U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations

America’s strategic interest in Southeast Asia is of long standing. Since the beginning of the last century, presidents of both parties have seen it as in the American interest to assure that Southeast Asia, like the rest of East Asia and the Pacific, is not dominated by any power that is potentially hostile to the United States. Fear that China and Russia might together obtain such a position had much to do with the American involvement in Vietnam. In present circumstances, the domination of Southeast Asia by a hostile foreign power seems to most analysts to be an unlikely prospect. In addition, the probability of an international conflict in the region into which the United States might be drawn is relatively low.

As a result, the long-term American interest in Southeast Asia is seen by most responsible officials today to lie in the peace and prosperity of the region. As this is written in mid-2000, the chief threat to that goal is the economic and political disarray in Indonesia resulting from the financial crisis of 1997-98 and the fall of the Suharto government. The United States played a significant role in opening East Timor to international peacekeepers after its people voted for independence from Indonesia. At the same time, the United States identified Indonesia as one of four countries in the world to which it undertook to give priority assistance in their efforts to become functioning democracies. The United States committed itself to the territorial integrity of Indonesia, thus lessening the prospect of destabilizing separatism. It broke off relations with the Indonesian military because of its failures to punish officers responsible for gross abuses. And it committed itself to helping the efforts of Indonesia’s elected government to lay the groundwork for a nation under the rule of law.

Such official American intervention in the affairs of a country in Southeast Asia is not the norm in the twenty-first century, however. Most of the time, private business, student exchange, and tourism dominate the U.S. agenda in this region. That is as it should be. And one hopes and trusts that such a state of affairs will return soon again to all the countries of Southeast Asia and to U.S. relations with them.

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IX. Map of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Political Map (2003)

SE Asia Map

From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu