I became interested in South East Asia in recent years, and I traveled through the region during the summer of 2017. I live in the Bay Area of California,  which is increasingly influenced not only by China, but also by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. America’s identity is deeply intertwined with Asia: The American defeat in the Vietnam war 1 changed America’s political consciousness, and from then on, the US was perceived as the “bad” superpower by many people in the rest of the world.

South‐East Asia is largely the product of external cultural influences. It was formed in the intersection of Indian and Chinese cultures and it became the easternmost extension of the spread of Islam. Beginning with the 15th century, the Europeans arrived and colonized the region. During the 20th century, the rise of the Japanese Empire ended European domination, and in the aftermath of World War II, the countries of the region gained independence. Their confidence and economic strength are growing: the last 50 years saw an unprecedented economic expansion. ASEAN was created with the intention to build a single market. The region now has 650 million people and solid economic growth above 5%.

Since the Vietnam war ended, America has attempted to redefine its role in the Pacific. The rise of China has the potential to end American hegemony in the region. Obama tried to shift American foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East, and towards Asia. He knows the region well because he grew up in Hawaii and spent 5 years of his childhood in Indonesia. For most of his presidency, he worked on a massive trade agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP) that would have created a huge common market comprising 40% of the total world economic output. 2 If China is the emerging counterweight to the American superpower, the countries of South East Asia are natural allies for the US.

The region is very diverse in terms of culture and religion. The interactions between different religions are not always peaceful, as the recent example of ethnic cleansing in Burma demonstrates: During the summer of 2017, more than 500,000 Rohingya were forcefully expelled from their villages and fled to Bangladesh. The reason is clear: they are a Muslim group in a Buddhist country, and the Burmese government wants to avoid Islamic insurgencies 3 Thailand has a massive political problem for the last 40 years with its 3 southernmost provinces, who are predominantly Muslim.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, with approximately 225 million Muslims (87% of the population.). Bangladesh has a Muslim population of approximately 147 million. Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma are Buddhist, and the Philippines are Catholic (74 million, or 80% of the population.) Communist countries like Vietnam or China are secular. Learning how to live together peacefully is a challenging task, and the political classes are afraid that Islam could become more and more politized, as it happened in Europe and the Middle East. Strangely enough, Buddhism also seems to blend well with nationalism, as in Thailand .or Burma.

The region has undergone much political upheaval during the last century. Colonialism was replaced by communism, military dictatorships were superseded by democracies, and Thailand still has a monarchy that seems to be widely accepted by the population. How do the various countries of South East Asia  integrate their histories, and what is the outlook for them? Will they unite and become a major player on the global political stage?

Here are some photos from my trip:

Notes:

  1. The New York Times: How Vietnam killed the Great Society
  2. It would have included the US, all South East Asian States, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Canada, and thus also superseded the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) The creation of this market was also meant to build an economic and political counterweight to China’s growing dominance. But the political winds in America shifted, and the TPP is currently not supported by the American government. It remains to be seen if there will be some kind of follow-up agreement, or if America will simply remain inactive and allow the Chinese to continue to expand economically through Asia.
  3. See: Washington Post: The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya, Sept 18, 2017.