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Professor Bernard K. Gordon on “Southeast Asia Revisited in Trump Time”
30 Jun 2020

“Southeast Asia Revisited in Trump Time” is written by Professor Bernard K. Gordon, the author of five books and many articles dealing with trade and foreign policy in East Asia, and Professor Emeritus in the University of New Hampshire. Professor Gordon was scheduled to visit RSIS this year but he has to postpone his trip because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. He is sharing this paper, written to be used during his visit, for our reading pleasure.

Abstract of Paper – Southeast Asia Revisited in Trump Time

  1. This is a complete rewrite of the chapter “Southeast Asia after the Cold War” published in 1993, and updated here to 2019 and 2020.
  1. As in the earlier version, it deals both with the original ASEAN states along with Vietnam and Cambodia, and finds that in economic and political terms the region today is a mixed bag, with some mainly economic high points and others a disappointment. Strong economic progress in Vietnam, and less in Cambodia, exists alongside tight political repression in both, with no signs of change, while Cambodia has become China’s proxy and voice within ASEAN.
  1. In Thailand, aspirations of wider political participation reflected by Thaksin Shinawatra have been crushed by the long-ruling business and military elites in Bangkok supported by the monarchy. Since the 2014 coup, the Thai military has exerted more control over banking and other economically significant sectors. New attention is on the old idea of a Kra Isthmus canal and China’s increasingly prominent presence, while ties with the US have cooled.
  1. In Indonesia, which in 1993 was not focused much on China, its commitment to becoming a strong maritime nation is now more evident as is its loosening of commitment to ASEAN and its “centrality.” Indonesia’s internal political environment is more relaxed than in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, but Jakarta has also turned to a less tolerant and more restrictive form of Islam; indeed many now call for the nationwide adoption of Sharia law.
  1. Malaysia’s politics, always at their core racial, and long dominated by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, nevertheless also achieved significant economic progress. Mahathir’s return to power in 2018 ousted Najib Razak’s corrupt regime and was welcomed by Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian communities, who hoped it might end the many preferences favouring Malays. But those hopes, along with Mahathir’s promise to turn power over to reform-minded Anwar Ibrahim, were dashed in the remarkable ending of Mahathir’s second premiership in February 2020, which assured the continued dominance of the Malays in the country’s politics.
  1. The Philippines, always both institutionally weak and ambivalent about its century-long relationship with the United States, has been dominated by President Rodrigo Duterte since 2016. He began a China policy closer than anything that had gone before, and some in the military disagreed with that posture. In early 2020, Duterte scrapped an agreement on the status of visiting US forces, which is a key element of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US. Only time will tell where that will end.
  1. In the 1993 chapter, I wrote that Singapore’s leaders have recognised “that their small state must represent important value to others who might affect them.” In 2011, founding father Lee Kuan Yew reiterated that “…without a strong economy there can be no defence. Without a strong defence there will be no Singapore.” I close my review and this revised paper by noting that in Trump time those in Southeast Asia committed to their separate identities and existence will need more than ever to see to their defences, which was precisely the point made most recently by Singapore’s current Prime Minister. Writing in the July-August 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs about the security issues faced by Southeast Asian states when dealing with the uncertainties of American policy in the time of Trump, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote that “should conflict occur they cannot automatically take U.S. support for granted” and that “They expect to do their part to defend their countries and interests,” thereby demonstrating beyond any doubt that he and Singapore have fully internalised the lesson his father taught regarding Singapore’s need for a credible and strong defense.

Click on the following parts to read the paper in full.

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