In the early 1990s, I received a Fulbright grant to do a research year in Singapore. When I told one of my colleagues that I was going to Singapore soon, she wished me all the best and just to be sure where Singapore is in China. At one level, her question could be read as ironic, perhaps even sardonic – but it also indicates a general lack of awareness of the subject in American society and science. Only 1.4 percent of the 10,980 members of the American Historical Association – the largest and most respected general historical organization in the United States – list Southeast Asia as a primary interest, and data from the Multidisciplinary Association for Asian Studies tell us that is only about 15 percent of the time over 6000 members of the group are Southeast Asian. Fortunately, things are changing. Whether because of the beatings of American Michael Fay in 1994, the island nation’s often-mocked policies on the sale of chewing gum, or most likely John Chu’s 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians”, more people in the US have heard of Singapore and know more or more less where it is. Hipster elements of the population may even have read (or heard of) cyberpunk writer William Gibson’s 1993 snappy article on Singapore entitled “Disneyland With the Death Penalty” Wired.
Despite the modest rise in Americans’ awareness of Singapore over the past few decades, it is fair to say that both the island nation and Southeast Asia to which it belongs are still obscure or even unknown areas in our geographical conceptions, with one notable exception. This exception, Vietnam, because of the American phase of the protracted “Thirty Years War” there. The strangeness of Southeast Asia to most Americans can also be seen in other ways. After a 2018 piece in the New York TimesOnly one of the top 25 international travel destinations for Americans is in Southeast Asia – the Philippines (# 14) – and its rank is largely due to visits from Filipino Americans. Of course Asia is far away, but seven other Asian countries / travel destinations have made it TimesTop 25: Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, India and China. Even Thailand’s famous charms couldn’t get the country higher than # 26 on the list.
The above observations are intended to show that, for whatever reason, Southeast Asia is still under the radar for many Americans, or to use a different image, is a lumpy zone in our seemingly ever flatter world. I believe this situation is unfortunate for many reasons, some of which I will set out below. As those familiar with Southeast Asia know, the region’s population is shaped by acronyms, abbreviations, and mnemonics that may reflect the amazing diversity of Southeast Asian languages and cultures and the educational challenges that remain. Based on the title of this piece, I’ll introduce a new mnemonic below to organize my comments: GEODE. A geode is of course a rock, often volcanic, with one or more cavities filled with crystals or other minerals. Geodes are often most closely associated with arid, desert-like areas (which Southeast Asia is certainly not), but they are also common in Southeast Asia, particularly in volcanic parts of the region belonging to what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire – Indonesia – and especially the Philippines. As geode as it is, what letters can help us keep track of some of the reasons the region is so important today:
- (G) geopolitics
- (E) Economic importance
- (O) openness
- (D) diversity
- (E) Equipoise
Like the value of real estate, the geopolitical importance of Southeast Asia is closely related to three aspects: location, location, location. The region’s name, Southeast Asia, came about during World War II to denote the theater south of China and east of India. The fact that these two countries are central to the emerging narrative of the 21st century only suggests the spatial importance of Southeast Asia. The 11 countries of Southeast Asia stretch from the Bay of Bengal in the west to the Pacific in the east, from the Himalayas in the north to almost Australia in the south – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor- Leste and Vietnam are in the midst of the most economically dynamic part of the world, an area where there is increasing rivalry between China and the United States Mention intra-Asian competition between China and India. The numerous development projects in Southeast Asia emerging from the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should, at least in part, be viewed and interpreted in this light.
The geopolitical importance is often, if not always, closely related to the economic importance. In the case of Southeast Asia, the two work hand in hand. The region is home to one of the busiest and arguably most important shipping lanes in the world – the Strait of Malacca – as well as two of the busiest ports in the world (Singapore and Port Klang in Malaysia), two of the twenty busiest airports in the world (Changi in Singapore and Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok, Thailand) and numerous other regional hubs. The Southeast Asian countries have a total population of over 660 million (teenagers excluding Thailand and Singapore) and a combined GDP in 2020 of well over $ 3.1 trillion. In relative terms, if the Southeast Asian nation-states were combined into one unit, this unit, which makes up around 8.4 percent of the world’s population, would have the fifth highest GDP in the world. In other words: Southeast Asia, with less than half of the Indian population, has almost 17 percent higher GDP. And remember, India is a BRICS member.
Jim O’Neill, the British economist / investment banker who coined the term in 2001 (originally as BRIC before South Africa was later added) when he worked at Goldman Sachs in 2001, came out in 2011 with an updated list of the emerging markets watch called “Next eleven”. The list included three very different countries from Southeast Asia: Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. And as we shall see in a moment, part of the region’s economic importance grows from its openness and diversity.
When it comes to openness, few areas of the world can compete with Southeast Asia, which has been “global” for millennia and whose character has largely emerged from engaging with the outside world and selectively incorporating elements from Southeast Asia into “foreign” influences one’s own cultural mixes. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is impossible to approach the study of Southeast Asia without considering the temporal effects of outside influences from India, China, Islam and the West which, however mediated, are frequent were profound. In terms of trade, Southeast Asia has long been a major global hub. Tomé Pires, a Portuguese merchant who wrote a detailed, two-volume report on trade in Asia at the beginning of the 16th century, described the port of Malacca on what is now Peninsula Malaysia as sounding a lot like the nearby island-nation of Singapore today. According to Pires, 84 languages were spoken in polyglot Malacca at the time, and the European merchant wrote admirably (and extensively) on Malacca’s wealth, low taxes, the dazzling variety of currencies exchanged there, and sophisticated business practices. And by and large he was right: Malacca’s prime location on the street that bears his name – like today’s Singapore – put it in a prominent position along the shortest sea lane between China and India, making it a trading center analogous to contemporary Singapore .
The region’s economic openness is clearly reflected in its trade statistics. The value of trade (exports plus imports) exceeds GDP in six of the region’s eleven countries, making Southeast Asia one of the most open parts of the world. The trade-to-GDP ratio in tiny Singapore was 319 in 2019, the third highest in the world (behind Luxembourg and Hong Kong), and even in a large country like Vietnam with nearly 100 million people, the ratio ranks seventh in the world at 210 . Furthermore, at a time when economic globalization is increasingly being called into question, it is instructive that ten of the fifteen signatories to the November 2020 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – the most important globalizing trade agreement of the last few decades – were in Southeast Asia (With the exception of Timor-Leste, every nation state in the region was included).
Given the openness of the region – Southeast Asia’s preferred option to include the outside world, so to speak – it is not surprising that the region is so diverse, Diversity visible everywhere. In other words, Southeast Asia is characterized – and I would call it blessed – an astonishing diversity of peoples, languages, religions and cultures, as well as geographical and economic diversity. How else can you describe a region in which the great world religions all have a long history, whose geographical features include a mountain – Hkakabo Razi in northern Myanmar – which is up to 5881 meters high, a tropical rainforest (Taman Negara in Malaysia ) This is roughly 130 million years old, some of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies on earth, as well as a place like Singapore, arguably the most futuristic place on the planet.
The economic diversity of the region is as remarkable as it is competitive and offers opportunities for economic activities of all kinds, regardless of how small or how high the added value is. The region includes four very poor countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Timor-Leste), three middle-income countries (Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines), two higher-middle-income countries (Thailand, Malaysia) and two of the richest countries in the world World (Singapore and Brunei). Some of these countries are very, very rural (Cambodia and Laos) while one is almost entirely urban (Singapore) and the others are somewhere in between. Virtually any type or level of economic activity can be practiced in the region, from unskilled work with very low wages / salaries to activities that require the most demanding skills. Regarding the latter, it should be noted that one Southeast Asian country, Singapore, ranks at or near the top of the global rankings not only in terms of per capita income but also in terms of the level of education and the quality of its leading universities.
Last but not least, the balance of the region – a word that suggests balance, regardless of whether it is used as a noun or a verb. Simply put, the region is broadly interested in positioning itself as an area that is friendly, or at least open to the major powers currently competing for hegemony in Asia, but not in the US or China. I say “by and large” because some influential commentators – for example former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan – recently suggested that two weak Southeast Asian nation-states (Cambodia and Laos) were reduced to puppet status by China as a result of this their economic dependence on the PRC. The other countries in the region, recently even Myanmar, have worked to assert or maintain more independent positions even as Chinese trade and investment in the region accelerate. Its leaders recognize that much of their economic gains over the past seventy-five years have been driven by the US-dominated international economic order and the umbrella of US security. Considerations that they don’t take lightly, however many BRI infrastructure projects always come away.
In their 2017 study The ASEAN miracleKishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng made the provocative case that the regional grouping, despite all its imperfections, made numerous important contributions to both the region and the world in the first half century of its existence. In their view, ASEAN has not only fostered economic growth and development in the region, but has also helped to minimize cross-border military clashes and to build a sense of community among the various nation-states in the organization. They also argue that the traits some view as weaknesses – the lack of strong leadership, weak compliance / enforcement mechanisms, etc. – can sometimes turn into strengths, especially when outside parties are looking for non-threatening third party brokers to look for in engagement, etc. Although the authors never mention him or his work, the fellowship from the respected sociologist Mark Granovetter is relevant in this regard as well, particularly his seminal 1973 paper The Strength of Weak Ties, in which Granovetter argued, ironically, allowing a variety of domains To reach and influence weak ties with parties, target groups, markets, etc., which is unattainable with strong ties.
Given the above considerations, it is unlikely that ASEAN will, as some hope, join the so-called Quad anytime soon. This informal “security dialogue” from the US, Japan, Australia and India has been meeting since 2007 to discuss ways and develop strategies to respond to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The fact that ASEAN will not turn the quad into the quintet shouldn’t unduly concern western observers as it is unlikely to sign a defense pact with the PRC either.
The acronym GEODE captures a lot about contemporary Southeast Asia, a rock star in the wait. However, like ASEAN, the region still has numerous weaknesses: poverty, cavernous underdevelopment areas, immense inequality, threats of terrorism, political corruption, a democratic deficit (confirmed by the recent coup in Myanmar), etc. However, the facets addressed in social and political crystallography suggest that this emerging region – a region full of hope and optimism – deserves a bigger place both in global political economy and in our geographical perceptions, especially in these troubled times.
Further reading on e-international relations