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Rediscovering The Invention Of Southeast Asia

July 30, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Few regions are as distant from the world’s consciousness than Southeast Asia. Often reduced to a collection of tourist getaways, or worse, as a stereotypical nowhereland ruled by lawlessness and vice, the importance of Southeast Asia is simply unacknowledged. This isn’t just rooted in ignorance–easily cured by a good book or two–but a severe recency bias. In fairness to Southeast Asia, the idea of a “Southeast Asia” is ambiguous and only came to prominence during the mid-20th century. It took a world war and turbulent geopolitics but everything worked out in the end and Southeast Asia did prosper.

Here’s how it happened.

The British author and journalist Philip Bowring explained it well enough when summing up his magnum opus Empire of the Winds. Best described as a long view of “Asia’s Great Archipelago,” a place he refers to as Nusantaria, it wasn’t until a chastened British Army was faced with the daunting task of rolling back Imperial Japan in World War 2 that Southeast Asia arose as a helpful placename for what used to be the East Indies or Malay Archipelago. Even the US Army had its own nomenclature, reducing a theater encompassing nearly 20,000 islands and 50 million people to the “Southwest Pacific Area,” a term whose usage endured in post-war Australian politics.

The Japanese historian Kyoichi Tachikawa cites the exact moment Southeast Asia transitioned from an idea to a geographical reality. It was in August 1943 when a joint US-UK summit in Quebec, Canada led to the creation of a “Southeast Asia Command.” After a Japanese offensive stalled in early 1944 the Allied 14th Army spent the rest of the year settling accounts in Burma, with smashing success. Everybody knows how the last world war ended in Asia. But the very conception of a Southeast Asian region dates a little earlier. Once again, it’s Bowring who offers a clue: Tonan Ajiya.

The term is Japanese and is believed to have originated in school textbooks during the terrible years of World War 1, a conflict that left Asia unscathed for the most part. It’s speculated usage of “tonan ajiya” coincided with a growing awareness that Japan was on its way to becoming a modern industrialized empire with overseas territories. Yet it was the crucible of World War 2 that established Southeast Asia in popular language and laid the groundwork for a new supra-national awareness when former colonies gained independence. The idea of a shared identity was indispensable during the 1960s when a regional bloc formed after many false starts.

With the failure of the “MAPHILINDO” project (combining Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) and the US-led anti-communist SEATO alliance the region’s statesmen had to cobble together a workable grouping for avoiding war between their countries. Indonesia under the rule of its strongman Sukarno posed an unmistakable threat. Its large population and military buildup made it an emergent regional power allied with the Chinese and Soviets and hostile to the West. Resource-rich and obsessed with territorial expansion, Indonesia’s neighbors were justified in their unease, and Australia sent its troops to guard the borders of Malaysia and Papua. In 1959 the CIA attempted a coup d’etat involving rogue generals and weapons transported from the Philippines. It failed, of course, but Sukarno was finally overthrown in 1965, again with the tacit involvement of the CIA.

These were difficult times, with the US committed to prosecuting a war in South Vietnam and festering territorial disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia, a lasting solution was needed. On August 8, 1967, a group of foreign ministers agreed to the principles that formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. Its original iteration involved Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and then Brunei by 1984. Four other countries–Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar–were added in the 1990s and today the 10-member ASEAN’s combined economic footprint would make it the fourth largest in the world. ASEAN is still growing and may soon welcome new members.

Even more impressive, it has managed to uphold a semblance of peace for a generation now.

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