Academic World Ignores Southeast Asia to its Peril

Discourse in the west and Australia about Asia is so dominated by academics and assorted pundits who have or claim expertise on China, that the rest of Asia is often forgotten. In their world only two countries seem to matter, the US and China.

It is a fault that applies both to those who urge greater US involvement as well as those who see China’s regional hegemony as inevitable.

This is perhaps not surprising given the neglect of Southeast Asian studies in US and British universities. In the UK, for example, Cambridge University’s Asian studies faculty has 12 people devoted to China studies and not one to Southeast Asia, let alone the wider Malay world of 400 million people.

The discourse, particularly in an Australia dependent on commodity exports to China, is currently weighted toward the view that as China is on the way up and the US on the way down so sooner or later US allies will fall away and China assume its supposedly natural position as hegemon of Asia. This argument combines a weak grasp of Asian history with apparent contempt for the interests and power potential of other Asian states.

It is a matter of fact, obvious to those who live there or follow their media, that Vietnamese, Filipinos, Malaysian and Indonesians are all to a greater or lesser degree worried about China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea. Yet according to one of Australia’s best known pundits, Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University writing in the Australian journal The Monthly they have got it wrong. Island building in the sea, Hughes says, “is driven not by territorial claims, nor by resource extraction, but by the desire to humiliate America. The bases are a public challenge: Either America forces China to back down — or America itself backs down, and lose the confidence of its Asian allies

Such a comment in effect sets up the argument that the US has no practical way to confront China’s moves and hence other countries will learn that depending on the US and its allies is a poor bet. Other countries, Australia included, must draw the conclusion that they have no choice but gracefully to concede China’s dominance of the region and hence allow it to make good on its so-called “historical” claims over almost the whole South China Sea.

China-focused commentators in Australia seem often to reflect the fear that with its tiny population and vast resources it is a more attractive target for China, than Indonesia with its 250 million. Thus instead of standing with its neighbors, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines they counsel what amounts to appeasement.

The fact is that China has been making these maritime claims since long before expanding its island seizures to accommodate air strips. These not only ignore the real historical claims to the sea of the littoral states but flout UN Law of the Sea rules on Exclusive Economic Zones. But rather than regarded as legitimate defenders these rights these countries are seen as pawns in a US/China struggle for control dominance in Asia.

Given that Australia’s own history since the British conquest is so short, it is perhaps understandable that its pundits are insufficiently aware of the previous 2,000 years of history of the South China and adjacent seas in which China played a minor role until quite recently.

Yet when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo makes a point of emphasizing that Indonesia is a maritime nation which must defend its waters, it is criticized by China-focused pundits, attacking Joko’s high-profile efforts to capture and destroy foreign vessels fishing illegally in its waters and spending money to beef up a tiny navy. This, we are told, is not good neighborly conduct and threatens relations with China and others.

Given the history of trading states from Maluku to Aceh via Makassar, Majapahit, Banten and Sri Vijaya spawned by the Indonesian archipelago and the islands role in settling Madagascar and developing trans-Indian ocean trade, is it not natural that it should seek to defend its waters? Or are (generic) Malays only supposed to be servants of the Middle Kingdom and exploited by businesses run by Sino businessmen from the safety of Singapore?

Possession of strategic weapons capable of equaling or surpassing those of the US and obliterating Los Angeles is anyway of little relevance in the context of an Asia with one largish nuclear and rocket power, India, and several middling ones either small but highly developed like Korea or relatively poor but populous Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Anyone who doubts that India has at least as much long-term interest in the South China Sea as China should read their history. It is not one of invasion from the west when the Europeans arrived, but of traders and the religious and cultural influences they brought to the Austronesian speaking islands. The main expansion of the ethnic Chinese role in the region came centuries after Indian and other impacts. It reached its peak when Southeast Asia was under European colonial rule when China was over-populated and Southeast Asia was not. Times have changed. Demographics have reversed, access via colonial regimes is closed.

As for China’s supposed past domination of the region via “tributary” states, that was mostly a matter of trade interests on the Southeast Asian side and empty but grandiose “submissions” to appeal to the vanity of Chinese emperors on the other. The one brief occasion when China sought to impose itself on the maritime zone to the south – the imperialistic voyages of Zheng He’s vast fleets around the South China sea and Indian ocean in the early 15th century – achieved “awe” but little else. They were abandoned for the good reason that they were very costly and irrelevant to China’s main strategic interests.

The same may well apply today. The Chinese state is almost at the largest extent it has ever been. There were times when it stretched a little farther west but those were before Manchuria, Mongolia and Taiwan were added during the Qing dynasty. Today China’s vulnerability lies not – despite its nationalistic show of rockets and tanks a la Pyongyang – vis-a-vis the US but on its own fractious borderlands. The lands which produced Tibetan, Mongol and Manchu states which once struck fear into Han hearts are yet not still.

Demography now dictates that these are no more securely Chinese than Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan were Russian. Then there is the question of relations with Russia and Korea, all with their own histories and grudges over vast territories which really belong to none of them.

The vulnerability of western borderlands links to another issue: the vulnerability of India, Bangladesh and most of mainland Southeast Asia to water supply from the Tibetan plateau. To date China has seen little willingness to listen to downstream concerns. Whatever may be the result of this fact of geography, its potential to be a focus of future conflict is clear, whether or not the US still has fleets in the South China sea. Beijing’s ability to make enemies of its neighbors has been shown as clearly as its ability to make intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The US became a world power partly by the accident of European wars. Its decline doesn’t mean China replaces it even if it surpasses it economically and militarily. It simply means that China faces not the ring of states lined up by a faltering US in an attempt to stem Chinese influence – the current Chinese theory of encirclement – but by a bevy of independent states of varying degrees of power. These may not love each other, and some of which may become temporary, opportunistic allies of China. But they have no interest in being any more subservient to China than the Javanese who tricked and defeated the Yuan dynasty invaders in 1293.

The idea that China can impose some “Monroe Doctrine” to keep foreign powers out of Southeast Asian waters is absurd if only because this maritime zone has for millennia one of the major thoroughfares of international commerce. China can no more succeed than did the mighty Ottomans succeed in making the Mediterranean a “Turkish lake.” Latin America never was thus – nor were more than small pieces ever controlled by the US and the continent mostly traded with Europe.

Southeast Asia has always been, like Europe, politically fragmented but a culturally connected, maritime focused world. It will remain so, which makes it a poor target for a centralized continental country like China. China experts who lack understanding of the histories and interests of Asian countries from Iran to Japan, Kazakhstan to Indonesia are worse than useless as guides to the Asian future.