James Ho, the executive director of the National Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, just returned from a five-week study trip to more than a dozen countries in Asia. In part 1 of this series, he talks about what’s happening in the region and what Washington must do to contain it.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Recently I had the opportunity to come to the opening of a US pavilion at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The scene could have been more than 100 years ago when the Great Game began. While sitting at a reception, I looked out over the empty bowl of bronze beige sheets from the Armani and Celine boutiques. No cars, dogs, people, anything. It was like visiting a silent film set during a silent movie.
This sleepy city, nestled just off the coast of the South China Sea, is, as I was told, 100 years too early. The last century was turbulent and dangerous. The 2013 wave of mass demonstrations, and the violent urban riots that followed, were not the first of their kind. Even a nation of nearly 30 million is a long way from Wall Street.
Kuala Lumpur is surrounded by lush jungles and hard-baked rice fields. Cheek-and-cheek neighbors, Myanmar and Thailand are just 2-3 miles away. An elephant drags one of the young tuskers through its tusk, jumping on it. When I later asked a nurse about the incident, she told me elephants are taught to differentiate between nationalities. The great bears were her brothers.
Down the coast, Cairns—population 15,000—is bustling with Chinese, Malay and Indonesian people. The island is where the Philippines acquired exclusive access to the South China Sea. In a breathtaking moment, the ocean is lined with acacias, short tropical shrubs. People were having fun, my relatives told me. For fun, they play “cardboard choo-choo.” They look like funnel cakes — whose other nickname is peanuts. Cairns residents get their name from its lazy straight line, where people ride the train down the hill to have breakfast.
But all this harmony would be undone were anyone to step into the water. A peaceful Indian boy aged 7-8 had just shivered in the placid and balmy waters near his village. I noticed that something was amiss. This was not the picture of a relaxing and leisurely vacation spot.
These scenes from the South China Sea dominate the collective memory of many Malaysians. The administration of Malaysia’s longtime leader, Mahathir Mohamad, has been accused of being tough on the seas. He said as much during his 25-year reign. Residents of eastern Malaysian states say such talk drives away the tourists.
Today, Malaysia’s deepwater navy has rapidly become the second most powerful in the world. The navy is proud of its size, power and performance, Ho says. The navy’s next step is to tap into the rest of the ocean. Ho calls the seaweed patches over the water “the glitter zone.” It’s rich and varied, and contains organic chemicals that make it a potential source of income for the navy. But like everywhere in Asia, most of this tiny hydrograin of the Sea of Japan has yet to be tapped.
Across Southeast Asia, another major issue has emerged. In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has clearly described how much security interests and financial fears have been fed by growing regional insecurity. A Beijing-Thailand “bromance” is a prime example of this.
A Trump-Kim summit in Singapore has focused attention on security. What is happening in the South China Sea is creating a crisis within a crisis. In spite of Beijing’s media savvy and nationalist spin, it has failed to outflank the United States in the South China Sea. And China’s coercive economic practices are causing long-term damage to its economy.
Alarm bells are ringing all over this region. Some of these same issues are germane to more the development of Northeast Asia. The cool pace of Asia is fascinating and alarming at the same time.
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