Southeast Asia Needs More Attention

Bridget Welsh and
Bridget Welsh Senior Research Associate, Center for East Asia Democratic Studies - National Taiwan University
Catharin E. Dalpino

February 14, 2002

Recent news from Southeast Asia is alarming. Arrests in Singapore last month uncovered a regional network of Muslim extremists, the Jemmah Islamiah, with direct links to Al Qaeda.

Evidence and rumors of Southeast Asian connections to terrorism have been mounting, and the Singapore revelations are a wake-up call.

Both the reach of the group—with cells in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia—and its affiliation with Al Qaeda negate the conventional view that Southeast Asia is only a way station to terrorism, where groups with local agendas are coopted by more lethal foreign extremists. We know now that terrorism there is more indigenous and coordinated.

Southeast Asia remains an inherently moderate region, but the arrests are a reminder that such a situation cannot be taken for granted.

These developments are also a wake-up call that U.S. relations with Southeast Asia are in serious disrepair. The region is a policy backwater in Washington.

This has been a long, slow slide. U.S. attention to the region evaporated after 1973, when American troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam. For the past three decades, officials and analysts have viewed the region as marginal to security in Asia, focusing instead on threats in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula.

Policy has been ad hoc and event-driven, with brief bursts of attention to single countries—Burma after the 1990 elections and the political exile of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Cambodia immediately after the 1991 peace accords, and Indonesia after the fall of President Suharto. This patchwork approach has allowed other countries China, Japan and Australia to take the lead in the region. Relations suffered another downturn when several Southeast Asian nations were hit hard by the 1997-1998 economic crisis. In their eyes the American response was lackluster and remote.

Washington’s focus was on Indonesia, to the exclusion of Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Resentment of U.S. policy during the crisis still simmers. With China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, Southeast Asians fear that the United States, the largest trading partner and investor for several countries in the region, will shift its trade and investment to Northeast Asia.

This is even more likely if Southeast Asia is viewed as an unstable or dangerous place to do business. The Bush administration needs to assure Southeast Asian countries that economic development remains a priority, even as attention shifts to the terrorist threat. Part of the problem is in the United States. Washington lacks expertise on the region in both official and unofficial sectors. Southeast Asian area studies, funded generously by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War, all but disappeared in American universities after the fall of Saigon. The few remaining programs are supported by private foundations.

Economic assistance, an effective means to reach everyday citizens, has been slashed or discontinued in most Southeast Asian countries. It is a significant factor only in Indonesia and in the Philippines, where U.S. aid has been boosted to accompany the joint miltary campaign to fight the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.

Since the 1997 crisis, fewer Southeast Asians have gone to the United States for education. American tourism to the region has dropped off dramatically with the current recession and post-Sept. 11 travel fears. Despite the region’s significant measures to restructure economies and stimulate growth, U.S. business is relunctant to invest in Southeast Asia.

This leaves few mechanisms for dialogue, at a time when dangerous views are emerging on each side. For every American persuaded that Islamic radicalism is sweeping Southeast Asia, an Indonesian or a Malaysian is convinced of an anti-Muslim conspiracy in the West. If the United States does not help repair this breach, it could push Southeast Asia toward greater anti-Americanism, even radicalism. To reverse these trends, the Bush administration should strengthen relations with Southeast Asia on several fronts. Increased economic assistance to improve governance and alleviate poverty would help convince Southeast Asians that the United States views them as partners rather than mere proxies in the war against terrorism.

Citizen exchange programs should be expanded to promote dialogue across the Pacific, and the U.S. government should increase funding for Southeast Asian area and language studies, to rebuild expertise in the United States.

The Bush administration’s budget submitted does not envision such an expanded policy for Southeast Asia in the war against terrorism. To protect U.S. interests and American lives, the coming debate on the budget should make this a clear concern.