Southeast Asian perspectives on US–China competition

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The post heading is the title of a recently released publication available here.

This is a high quality publication with input from some of the giants in the field of Southeast Asian studies. I highly recommend the work, but (gentle hint) it is written for serious scholars.

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Islam in Southeast Asia

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Putting together a quick post, I decided to return to one of my original interests in Southeast Asia and look again at the region’s Muslim populations.

I am conscious of and seek to respect the ethics around copyright protections, so in this post I will simply insert hyperlinks.

The post that prompted this post was the one by the Pew Research Centre looking at the future of the global Muslim population available here. For interested readers the complete .pdf report is here.

A couple of years later Tom Pepinsky contributed his work to the topic here. I am always fascinated by information presented diferently, and the cartogram in that link prompted me to search for what else might be available.

That led me to the great infographic from The Observer that is reproduced here. One problem I have with presenting that to you dear readers is that it again reinforces the nexus in the public consciousness between Islam and terror. To my mind that says more about the focal points of the Western media and their perception of what is of interest to their readers. That is fair enough from a commercial perspective, but it sells short (no pun intended) the vast number of other intriguing stories on what is happening with Islam in the region.

There is, for example, my recent post here on the dynamics on who is now becoming more and less welcome in Indonesia. There is fascinating work on Islamic education in Myanmar available here, revelations about Asia Islamic Fashion Week here and here, stories on Malaysia’s efforts to become a global hub of Islamic finance here and further cementing of ties between the region and the Middle East with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz sending an invitation to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, inviting him to attend the Arab-Islamic-US summit, set to take place in Riyadh later in May available here.

Again, there is a lot happening, but little that bubbles to the surface of Western media.

The most recent graphic I could find on Southeast Asia’s Muslim population, again from the Pew Research Centre, is available here. The numbers in the graphic look neat are precise, but the true picture is messier, more complicated and much, much more intriguing.

The state of play in the South China Sea II

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Sinking of the first Prince of Wales on 10 December 1941

In the intial post here I mentioned the last time the British sent the pride of their fleet, the capital ship Prince of Wales, to see off the Asian challege to the white man demonstrate that Britain still ruled the waves. That Prince of Wales is now on the sea floor off the coast of Kuantan, Malaysia, or would be if the metal from the wreck is not being pirated as described here.

Lest anyone think that history never repeats itself, or that the British still haven’t got the hint that the world has moved on from their great power ambitions, the British now plan to do exactly the same thing with their next Prince of Wales. As described here they intend to use their new naval toy next to show the Japanese Chinese who are the masters and who are the servants in the international order.

The new Prince of Wales is just as shiny, strategically impotent and as attractive a target as the last one. The newer ship is also much, much bigger and is unlikely to be attacked by Japan, but those who know their history will know that it was a lack of air cover that doomed the first Prince of Wales.

The more recent Prince of Wales will be protected by the new do-everything Lightning II multi-role fighters. Given the genuine fears over that plane’s development program and ultimate combat performance and how, like the Japanese, the Chinese are unlikely to be intimidated by Britsh bluster and strategic overreach, I can’t imagine what could possibly go wrong this time either…

The welcome and unwelcome in Indonesia

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Surabaya skyline

Among the biggest frustrations with this blog is the number of great topics to explore and so little time in which to write about them.

I will as a result quickly flag the possibility that Indonesia is, in a historical sense, in the midst of another national identity crisis. There are two ways a nation state works its way through such doubt, seen in efforts to define both what the country is and what the country is not. In practice, this manifests itself as painting certain social groups as being welcome and unwelcome.

Efforts to make others unwelcome are always more newsworthy, particularly for outsiders seeing Indonesia through the prism of international media.

You can define non-Muslims as being unwelcome neighbours, seen here, but they also need to be the right kind of Muslims or they too are unwelcome, as seen here. Of course there are the unwelcome others that persistently rejected, rightly or wrongly, for their perceived threat to the very fabric of Indonesian society. Chief among these recurring targets of moral panic are drug dealers here and gays as seen here and here.

And who is welcome? Sadly anyone with enough money. Even a strange and seedy tinpot President like the one mentioned here. Sad.

The view inside Southeast Asia

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Image source: Pew Research Centre here

Again the data is getting a bit older than the ideal, but the great graphic from the Pew Research Centre here is very revealing.

Some of the sentiments expressed have very deep roots. Some of the strongest indicators of support can possibly be traced back over a century to Japan’s stunning challenge to Western colonial powers. This assertion of Japanese self-reliance and confidence was seen in the Russian/Japanese War, subsequently gained further credence in World War 2 and was, arguably, the ultimate inspiration for many acts of national independence through Southeast Asia last century.

Another point I would note is that countries that see themselves as inferior to another tend not to go to war against that state. In contrast, powers that see themselves as equals are often locked into, at best, an endless state of friction and at worst an inevitable conflict. The comparable degrees of disdain felt among Japan, China and South Korea for each other bode poorly.

An alternative interpretation of this point is that the countries in the region who see other Asian states so far above them are betraying an ingrained sense of inferiority at the “superior” state. If this is the case, South Korea really does have a lot of image promotion work to do.

The final pont I would make is that the data may suggest that the generation that survived World War 2 really has passed into history. Little in the data above suggests a lingering resentment for the barbarity of Japanese invaders during World War 2. The exception is perhaps in South Korea and Japan, where those wounds run particularly and grieviously deep in the national psyche.

I could say a lot more here, but alas time is always the enemy of us all.

The exciting discoveries now and ahead of us

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Sumatra 1903

For those readers who don’t follow the news too closely, perhaps the most astonishing news this week was presented in (of all places!) the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

As the article preview here suggests, the central discovery was evidence that Australia’s indigenous people arrived, at some 65,000 years ago, much, much earlier than previously believed. Note that this is simply a new minimum, as additional evidence may yet push the date back further, but this discovery is already extraordinarily significant.

As you read this you may wonder what the link is to Southeast Asia. Well, the answer this time is pretty simple. If these first humans arrived in Australia much earlier than previously believed, then they are also anticipated to have passed through Southeast Asia much earlier than previously believed.

Somewhere, in caves, under the ash of Indonesian vocanoes or in locations we have either not looked or haven’t yet recognised, the chances of finding stunning evidence in Southeast Asia that could dramatically rewrite the story of our human species’ emergence from Africa has suddenly become more realistic. The discovery of the Flores Hobbit mentioned here may yet be dwarfed in the annals of Southeast Asian archeology.

And that, to me, is tremendously exciting.

Food security in Rakhine State

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Sadly this blog rarely visits Myanmar, but that is hardly because all is well in that part of the world. One area that is particularly troubled, and has been for some time, is Rakhine State in the west of the country.

As the recently released World Food Program report (available here) makes clear, food security continues to deteriorate. To quote from the report…

“…the survey confirmed a worsening of the food security situation in already highly vulnerable areas after the October 2016 incidents and subsequent security operations. Nearly one third of the population was severely food-insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. Only 14 percent of women achieved minimum dietary diversity and none of the children met the minimum adequate diet. Income opportunities were scarce and households could not access sufficient food to cover their needs. About half of the markets were not functioning or were only partially operational, food prices were highly volatile and supply of affordable foods in many markets was scarce”.

With over 80,000 children under 5 years of age expected to suffer acute malnutrition over the next twelve months the unfolding humanitarian disaster shouldn’t be forgotten, but probably will be by those unaffected.

Marawi and the future of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia

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Image: Ma’ahad Jamio Mindanao Al-Islamie, Marawi City

To quote from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict here

“The battle for Marawi in the southern Philippines is likely to have long-term repercussions for extremism in Southeast Asia. The ability of pro-ISIS fighters to occupy an entire city and hold the Philippine armed forces at bay for almost two months has already inspired violence elsewhere in the region and may lead to more attacks in the region’s cities; a more coordinated regional strategy among extremist groups; and strengthened capacity among pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia”.

The full report, available here, makes grim reading. I concur with the page 23 assertion that there is “simply no chance in Indonesia of a military-style assault by extremists on a town centre“, however I also agree with the report’s argument that an entrenched disconnection from the benefits of democratic governance in the region, including accountability and equality, will continue to provide fertile soil for extremist ambitions and strategically scratchy assaults on state power.

Note – Taking a step back and considering conflict more broadly across Indonesia and the Philppines, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict website here is an excellent source of information and analysis that goes beyond the headlines, while the images on the site here marvellously convey the Islamic culture that permeates the region.

The Chinese and Indian diaspora

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Image source: The Economist here

One influential element in Southeast Asian history has been the impact of external great powers. Some of these powers have risen to prominence more recently, such as Japan and, even more recently, the United States, but others have had a significant impact over a much longer period.

Few of these external great powers have had a greater impact than China and India. These power centres haven’t always been recognisable in their current forms, but the underlying Sino-Indic tensions and influences have been present for centuries and have significantly shaped the contemporary political and cultural landscapes.

This is evidenced in a vast range of examples, spanning the Brahmanic traditions in Thai Royalist rituals, the syncretic form Islam in Indonesia with its Hindu-Buddhist traits and the Chinese mercantile philosophy embedded in Singapore’s deep state.

Looking at contemporary societies in Southeast Asia it is tempting to consider these Sino-Indic influences as being largely historical relics, slowly being erased by global forces including capitalist consumerism and radical Islam, but I think that view is only partially correct.

The graphic above is, and can only be, a hazy snapshot of a point in time. How, for example, is starting or stopping being Chinese or Indian defined? How accurate is the visual depiction here? Despite the difficulty of answering those questions I believe two broad assertions are valid.

One is that most of the great Indian diaspora is not seeing, and has not seen for some time, a future for themselves in Southeast Asia. Whether this is by choice or compulsion is a different question, but I see the region as now being much more inclined (demographically) to a Chinese orientation.

The other is that, notwithstanding the rubbery figures presented, the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia would itself be a sizable nation state. In other words, China has already established a presence in Southeast Asia that goes beyond seizing control over some small and other inconsequential rocks in the South China Sea.

What is much more ambiguous however is the extent to which this diaspora can, and desires to, access and exert political power in support of its Chinese origins and against the interests of its host state/s.

That test of loyalty is complex and from what I have read seems to throwing up some interesting answers, but must sadly be a topic for another day.