Humphrey Hawksley on an insightful and very personal portrait of the politics and players shaping South East Asia’s future
One perception of South East Asia is of cityscapes lined with glass-fronted skyscrapers, sun-drenched beaches and busy factories feeding the global supply chain while wealth spreads through communities under the paradigm of an Asian tiger. There is another view, however, bravely told by Michael Vatikiotis, of a region that has been fought over and trampled by outside powers for centuries and is bracing itself for another Cold War-style conflict. South East Asia is a nut between the arms of a giant geopolitical nutcracker, he graphically argues when laying out his backdrop for Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern South East Asia.
Two elements merge in Vatikiotis’ convincing thesis. One is that South East Asia is becoming a front-line testing ground in the rivalry between the United States and China. The disputed South China Sea, now probably the world’s most strategic waterway, remains far from being resolved. The other is that the ten countries of this region have not yet formed a robust enough bloc with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to dilute China’s growing influence. Compared to swathes of the Middle East and Africa, South East Asia has made remarkable progress over the past half century. But China has moved faster, raising questions as to what will happen next.
From here, Vatikiotis takes us into the heart of this region. His anecdotes are compelling, his analysis revealing and his writing draws you in towards a ‘land perpetually wet, densely overgrown and always hot and humid… on calm, turquoise sea glistening in sunlight.’ But once there, weak government, corruption and conflict become enduring themes as he asks how South East Asia’s 626 million people with their $2.4 trillion economy, their rich diversity of religion, culture and ethnicity, manage to cope with such chronically poor governance and persistent inequality.
Poverty may have halved in the last fifteen years, but forty per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people live on less than two dollars a day. South East Asian leaders have brandished symbols of wise munificent leadership, but enriched their families and brooked no dissent, leaving anger and conflict in their wake.
Vatikiotis arrived in South East Asia in 1979 enveloped in the adventurism and confidence of youth. Over the years his work as a journalist chiselled down his self-confessed idealism to carve out the picture he paints for us now. More is drawn from his current job as a mediator with a conflict resolution organisation, The Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue, and it is with this eye that Vatikiotis gives us his prediction of what the region might become over the next half century.
South East Asia is no stranger to being a theatre of war for others, a place where in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries, aspirations of independence clashed with opposing forces of communism and democracy.
Cambodia’s Killing Fields from the 1970s are well-chronicled with war crime trials still going on today. Indonesia’s anti-communist killings of half a million or more in the 1960s, have drawn a dimmer spotlight, mainly because Western governments tacitly endorsed the massacres and Indonesia has not yet openly come to terms with what happened.
Vatikiotis, the mediator, tells how he sat in on meetings where Indonesia decided, because historical divisions remained unresolved, it would not issue an apology. The reopening of old wounds would be too dangerous. The military was still angry with the communists for killing its general. Muslim gangs carried out many of the killings. There is the ethnic Chinese factor and, concludes Vatikiotis, a ‘stunning absence of compassion for those murdered by powerful people’.
Throughout South East Asia, history has been swept under the carpet, leaving the already corrupt and fractured institutions a long way from being robust enough to handle the type of violent divisions that might erupt. This flaw has led to a fear of social change.
Beijing is skilled at exploiting such vulnerabilities with a record of fomenting uprisings while offering financial inducements. More recently, it has shown its hand in hard power with its claims to the South China Sea, a Monroe Doctrine-style message to the US, or any other government, not to meddle in China’s backyard.
Add into this mix the influence of Middle East-inspired extreme Islam, already impacting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the region is taking on a very different shape from what it was in the late 20th century. Vatikiotis compares its future more closely to the era before the 1500s and the arrival of European powers.
He envisages the weakening of the nation states and the emergence of ‘smaller autonomous entities’ relying on trade with China carried along roads and railways built by China. He cites special autonomy agreements already given to Indonesia’s Aceh province, Mindanao in the southern Philippines and gives us detailed accounts of his own attempt to forge a settlement for the conflict in southern Thailand. In this respect, the US has been short-sighted, argues Vatikiotis, giving the example of Washington’s reluctance to deal with the military government in Thailand, thus allowing China to step into the vacuum.
Had this current cycle of global power shift taken another fifty years, South East Asia might have been strong enough to put up more of a united front. But we are where we are and it is now up to the Western democracies and the ten individual countries to decide what, if anything, to do about it.
Given its rich tapestry of insight, Blood and Silk could have delivered us a tighter conclusion. It ends not with a big vision, but with a thought about corruption in Cambodia. Earlier observations might have made a more fitting ending to this superbly drawn assessment, a jolt of reality to offset the shopping malls and glass towers, that this is a region where leaders have promised their people happiness and prosperity and left them divided and deprived.