The emergence of Southeast Asia as a Sino-American battleground

In the blinding spotlight of news coverage and commentary on terrorism and Iraq, what the United States is doing in the rest of the world has been mostly ignored. Yet in many ways, how the USA is dealing with the rising power of China will be far more important in the long run than anything that's going on in the Middle East now.

Preserving American power over Southeast Asia is a key component of the American strategy to contain Chinese power and defend US hegemony. Following closely a playbook written in the Cold War, American planners are restoring close patron-client relationships with the region's militaries. The goal is to ensure that, should it come to a showdown with China over control of Southeast Asia, the men with guns will be on the American side.

Yet the situation is very different from Cold War days, when revolutionary China inspired and aided left-wing uprisings against colonialism and national elites. Then, America brutalized Indochina and armed the military dictatorships in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Vietnam, and Thailand, all to keep the region in its grasp. Military aid was used mainly to suppress internal anti-American left-wing movements. Southeast Asia's national elites stood united against against this threat and looked to the USA for protection.

Now the threat is very different. China no longer stands for revolution, but instead for the capitalist status quo. Southeast Asia's national elites exterminated those who challenged them and now face no significant internal opposition. As the internal and external threats to Southeast Asian elites have receded, the fear that drove them into the American embrace has as well.

That leaves them exposed to the blandishments of China. China is no longer the closed country of the past, sponsoring attacks on established power in the region. It has become an economic powerhouse and a cautious participant in regional politics. As China forges more and more trade links with Southeast Asia's business elites, political authorities are less and less fearful of China's rising power.

Since 9/11 the US government has redoubled its efforts to counter China's growing influence. America has little advantage over China in monopolizing the affections of Southeast Asia's business elites, but it has much more to offer the region's other main powerbrokers - military men. Under cover of the war on "terrorism", the USA has rapidly rebuilt extensive links with militaries thruout Southeast Asia (see my analysis of the Indonesian case).

This is a dangerous game - dangerous, at least, for the people of Southeast Asia. Only thru great effort and sacrifice were military dictatorships pushed aside, and despite the winning of bourgois democracy the militaries of the region retain inordinate power. US strengthening of these militaries not only subverts Southeast Asian countries' autonomy in making decisions about their foreign relations, it also threatens to undo what few advances toward democratic societies have been achieved. And should an open confrontation between China and the United States develop, it promises to embroil Southeast Asians in another cold war. The last one cost millions of lives.

With all this in mind, USA-Southeast Asian relations should be a key topic of debate in the United States. Yet the media simply pass on the American government's bland public pronouncements on the situation, typified by this Council on Foreign Relations q-and-a, "New Focus On U.S.-Southeast Asia Military Ties" (also published on The New York Times website here). Like other coverage, this article ascribes American motives to the war on "terrorism" and blithely ignores the containment of China as an explanation for American moves in Southeast Asia. It provides distorted information on Southeast Asia's Islamist groups, casting them as mere Al Qaeda affiliates rather than exploring the much more salient domestic factors that gave rise to them. It misrepresents the Indonesian military (TNI) by playing down its continuing abuses, uncritically accepting the State Department's clearing the TNI of involvement in the killing of several Americans in Papua, and completely suppressing the bloody history of the Cold War relationship between America and the TNI. Worst of all, it fails to raise the key issues of how American military aid could tip the balance of power within Southeast Asian countries toward undemocratic forces, and the potential repercussions of using Southeast Asia as a proxy battleground in the developing contest with China.


New book by Michael Albert

As anyone likely to read this knows, I'm a big proponent of participatory economics as a replacement for capitalism. In my opinion, Michael Albert - one of the two who first proposed the parecon system - is one of the most important theorists of leftist politics now working. Altho I'm less taken by his prose style and interpersonal skills, I strongly recommend Albert's writing for anyone interested in progressive social change.

Albert's new book, Realizing Hope: Life beyond Capitalism is coming out this month. In it he goes beyond his previous work on parecon and movement building to discuss much more broadly what kinds of social arrangements we might work toward for a society of equality and participation. He takes up race, gender, the political system, and the environment; more narrowly focused issues like education, art, and crime; and ideological debates around Marxism and anarchism. He explores how a participatory economy would interact with these systems, and what our strategy could be to pursue radical change.

I haven't kept up with Albert's writing over the last couple years, so I'm interested to see what he has to say (especially on the matter of "other species", since his disdain for animal welfare/liberation movements has been all too evident in the past). Thinking thru the institutional basis for the kind of ethnic/racial, gender, and political relations we should be fighting for has been almost entirely abandoned by the left, and enunciating what kind of society we want is an urgent priority. Our strategy for pursuing radical change is similarly neglected, and sometimes it seems like Albert is the only one out there raising these issues. Hopefully this book makes the kind of vital contributions Albert has made in the past, and even more important, that it helps stimulate the discussions we need to be having on vision and strategy.

book info and table of contents
Introduction to the book
interview with Albert on the book