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A Roundtable on the History of US-Southeast Asian Relations

Constellations, Issue 4

Jewel Koh

Nov 18, 2019 | News

On the 1st and 2nd August 2019, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and Diplomatic History, official journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, jointly organized an event titled “A Roundtable on the History of US-Southeast Asian Relations.”

In his welcome message, Dr. Ngoei Wen-Qing, the event convenor, shared about how the United States has a long history of involvement in Southeast Asia, from the colonization of the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century through the Pacific War and the revolutionary struggles across the region that intersected with the global Cold War. He emphasized the importance of having a broad, regional focus which pivots from the fixation on the Vietnam War toward examining the overlooked interconnections between America and the different states and peoples within and beyond Southeast Asia. Using a broad regional approach, he continued, reveals new international histories of America’s complex encounter with the region.

Following the welcome message, Associate Professor Masuda Hajimu (National University of Singapore) shared his research on “Reconceptualising the Cold War: On-the-ground experiences in Asia.” Professor Masuda commended the diversification of Cold War studies over the years and shared some major approaches that challenge the conventional narratives of interpreting U.S.-Asian relations using a U.S.-centric approach. However, he noted that still missing from recent developments were the lives of ordinary people and how Asian societies participated in the making of the Cold War. As such, he chose to use oral history archives to reconceptualize the Cold War, with his focus being on social tensions and conflicts as well as ordinary people’s emotions and everyday struggles. He argues that they were not only mere recipients but were also perpetuators of the Cold War ideologies and of the state. With much of history written in a political perspective, he believes it is time we think of Cold War narratives with a social lens.

Associate Professor Joey Long (National University of Singapore) moderated the robust discussion. The main thrust of the discussion related to suggestions regarding the removal of “Cold War” in its entirety and focusing instead on reconceptualizing the various social tensions as phenomena that unfolded after 1945. The vigorous discussion of the utility of retaining the “Cold War” went well into afternoon, concluding the first day of the event.

On 2nd August, Associate Professor Anne Foster (Indiana State University, co-chief editor of Diplomatic History) delivered the introductory remarks on the History of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations. Professor Foster talked about the importance of decentering the U.S. and mentioned that literature relating to this field, not necessarily historical, mainly focuses on trade, ASEAN and terrorism and that very importantly, there is insufficient exploration of the movement of people in the region. This is the reason why adopting a broad vision of the entire region (and not only bilateral relations) is worthwhile. She continued to outline the importance of understanding transitions, in particular the porousness of national boundaries. She noted the increase in scholarship examining the history of commodities such as drugs and encouraged her fellow colleagues to expand into studying commodities, peoples’ mobility, and the implementation of various international laws. Professor Foster ended her introduction with a word of encouragement for scholars to break out of chronologies and explore periodization in different ways, moving beyond the traditional approach.

For the first session, Professor Kenton Clymer (Northern Illinois University) opened with his paper on “The United States and Southeast Asia: Reflections on Where we have been and Where we can go.” He shared about how, for a long time, to many scholars in the United States, Southeast Asia was Vietnam and thus a majority of historical scholarship about U.S.-Southeast Asian relations fixed on Vietnam. However, he noted that Vietnam also stimulated interest in Southeast Asia. He used the example of how literature on U.S.-Philippines relations were scarce before the Vietnam War. Before the 1960s, there were only two books written regarding U.S.-Philippines relations and it was only in the 1970s that there was a surge in such literature. He went on to talk about the varied ways that America dealt with neutralism in Southeast Asia and encouraged the study of cultural exchanges and formal bilateral relationships. His presentation also paid attention to the influence of missionaries and religion in American diplomacy. Professor Clymer ended his presentation with the reiteration that Vietnam indeed stimulated works on SEA but much more can definitely be done regarding U.S.-SEA relations.

Next, Dr. Ngoei Wen-Qing discussed his approach toward a broad, regional focus on U.S.-Southeast Asia relations using the Chinese diaspora as a unit of analysis in a paper entitled “The United States and the ‘Chinese Problem’ of Southeast Asia.” Dr. Ngoei spoke about the transnational dimensions of race, noting how the Dutch and Spanish stirred up resentment among the indigenous against the Chinese merchants during the years of the Qing dynasty in China. This same anti-Chinese sentiment, or distrust of the Chinese diaspora, persisted into the 20th Century. The British called it the “Chinese problem” and from the late 1940s, the U.S. worried about “Chinese penetration” of the region. He noted that the Cold War mindset was, in many respects, a descendant of such racist tendencies. He also revealed how American and British policymakers were in fact afraid that Beijing might use the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia as proxies to promote communist ideologies and undermine western power. In the U.S. documents, policymakers saw Southeast Asia as “part of and ethnically associated with China.” To counter this potential problem, U.S. policymakers tried to redirect those affiliations with Beijing towards Taipei. They increasingly promoted Chiang Kai Shek as the leader of the Chinese and mobilized support for Taiwan, hoping that the overseas Chinese would associate themselves with Taiwan instead of China. As Dr. Ngoei pointed out, using the Chinese as a unit of analysis moves beyond the bilateral relationship of a particular country with the U.S., revealing the complexities of American encounter with the region.

The second session began with Dr. Matthew Phillips’ (Aberystwyth University) paper, entitled “Turning Aid into Tribute: King Bhumibol’s 1960 visit to the United States and the Re-ordering of the Cosmos.” Dr. Phillips shared that Asian statesmen had to find ways to assert their independence and sovereignty despite accepting U.S. aid and seeming to be dependent on America, and in a subordinate position. His research showed that King Bhumibol managed to portray his friendship with the U.S. in ways that were palatable to both the Americans and the Thais. To the Americans, King Bhumibol portrayed himself as a friend learning from the Americans, which created a favorable impression and won over U.S. leaders. To the Thai people, he framed U.S. aid within Theravada Buddhist cosmological concepts and “transmogrified” U.S. aid into an American tribute to the Thai King, a bid to win merit from the spiritually advanced Thai King. This attempt to “transmogrify” aid into tribute was meant to change its meaning into an American act of generosity with no attachments, and no infringement of Thai sovereignty. Thus, Dr. Phillips notes that Bhumibol cannily used Buddhist cosmology to depict Thailand at the center of the universe, allowing him to portray America as a powerful but peripheral non-Buddhist nation.

Next, Associate Professor Bradley Simpson (University of Connecticut) presented his paper, entitled “A Social Engineering Project of Monumental Proportions”: Indonesian Transmigration and the Crisis of Development, 1968-1985.” Professor Simpson explored how transmigration was the symbol of Indonesian authoritarianism in the Suharto era as the government spent millions of dollars on transmigration to counter the remnants of communism as well as assert political, social and economic controls over the vast population. For example, Jakarta transferred retired personnel from the armed forces from the city to the resettled areas as a form of military-dominated authoritarian control. And it resettled large numbers of Javanese into areas where non-Javanese communities had historically been restive or challenged the Jakarta government. Experts at the time (of the World Bank and donor nations that funded the project) actually noted that transmigration would not actually hasten Indonesia’s economic modernization but was merely a way for Suharto to craft his narrative of developmental success. Ironically, organizations like the World Bank still gave aid to the Suharto regime despite noting all the failures of the project. Professor Simpson ended his presentation arguing that transmigration actually undermined its own goals. Instead of promoting an Indonesian identity, regions such as Sumatra, Aceh and Kalimantan sharpened their own local identity, becoming a network of activists, eventually undermining the Suharto regime itself.

Dr. Joy Sales (Washington University in St. Louis) concluded the presentations by sharing her paper, entitled “Gender, Political Detention, and Human Rights in the Philippines.” Dr. Sales explained that at the beginning of martial law in the Philippines in 1972, there was a mass detainment of people, including women political leaders. Alongside this detainment were also waves of gender-based violence. Thus, her research focuses on how the martial law was synonymous with Marcos’s treatment of women, and how the history of human rights in the Philippines must be told in relation to the women of Philippine society. According to the records Dr. Sales studied, women political detainees were threatened with rape while the men were threatened with rape of their wives or other female relatives. She examined the involvement of women during the martial law years and what womanhood meant for various women who opposed the Marcos regime. Dr. Sales focused on U.S.-Philippine relations through non-state actors and the grassroots, as well as the use of internationally circulated paraphernalia created by Philippine women activists to publicize the gender-based violence of the Marcos regime. Various feminist movements in the Philippines assisted Filipino women prisoners by sharing images of themselves in detention, emphasizing their identity as mothers vulnerable to harm from Marcos, appealing to a wide audience in and beyond Philippines and demanding for the release of those women political detainees. Dr. Sales ended her presentation by noting that more can be explored with this topic as the killing of activists in Philippines did not stop after the Marcos era but has been continuing till today and more can be written about women political detainees and their part within the burgeoning feminist movement.

The roundtable event saw various scholars of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations convening to share their various research. Through the event, it became evident that even though much has already been written, there are still areas waiting to be explored. The event also showcased the various methods that can be used to analyze the region. From using the Chinese diaspora as a unit of analysis to studying Thai authorities’ use of Buddhist cosmology, Indonesian transmigration and women political detainees in the Philippines, the scholars showed that there is room to move beyond the purely political perspective and into the social and cultural sphere to examine commonly overlooked interconnections. These works showed the possibility of pivoting away from the Vietnam story and toward other parts of the region, revealing the complexity of U.S. encounter with Southeast Asia. n

(Pictures by Nur Amira bte Mohamed Amidun)