PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES — The U.S. public rarely gives larger-than-life Indonesia, the most populous country in Southeast Asia, more than passing thought, and even on those rare moments it might mainly be thinking about nothing more than a dream vacation in Bali. Yet, as every cosmopolitan knows, the world’s fourth most populous nation, home to more Muslims than any country – more than in the entire Arab world – is one huge growing deal.
Trust me: My suntan-lotion caricature is only a slight libel on America’s grasp of global reality. Except for rare exceptions – the late, great diplomat Richard Holbrooke and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell come to mind – even most foreign-policy potentates tend to psychologically lock their gaze across the Atlantic Ocean, in the fashion of France’s famously narrow-minded Maginot Line. Even our vaunted pivot to Asia turned into little more than a China pit-stop.
Southeast Asia’s key multinational institutional presence is the Association of Southeast Asian states, a conglomerate of 10 nations hitting its 50th birthday next month. To be sure, NATO it is not; then again ASEAN, with a coordinating secretariat in Jakarta. reflects the consensus views of ten nations whose aggregate population of 650 million is half China’s and twice America’s. That’s something.
Big power snubs and missteps in Southeast Asian diplomacy are recounted with professional polish – and a splash of relish – by Kishore Mahbubani in ‘The ASEAN Miracle’ (his latest, written with diplomat/writer Jeffrey Sng). This exceptionally informative and deeply knowing book lays out almost everything important about the current state of Southeast Asia, especially a well-documented portrait of major-power geopolitical myopia, in China but especially in the U.S., even in the supposedly well-informed academic community: “Many American social scientists on Southeast Asia who seem to rely primarily on New York Times press clippings for raw information on the region,” they write, “ do not really know well the societies of Southeast Asia.”
This critical view of Anglo-Saxon views has been long been a trademark touch of Dean Mahbubani, a celebrated career Singaporean diplomat who in 2004 became the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, often ranked Asia’s number-one. His range of thought is vital to comprehend today’s world politics. (His first stereotype-smashing book – ‘Can Asians Think?’ – has been required reading in my university classes since the ‘90s … including in my ‘Introduction to the Media and Politics of Asia’ class this Fall.) Ethnic Indian and Singapore-born, he caught the diplomatic-world’s eye during his first tour as its UN ambassador in the eighties, in an era when the controversial Lee Kuan Yew was reigning prime minister.
Much like LKY, Mahbubani has been an unrelenting realist about world geopolitics – but leavens his with an attractive, almost unexpected core optimism and, alternatively, a spicy tendency to kick sleeping dogs rather than let them lie. A current concern includes the dilemma of smaller Asian nations seeking recalibration of voice, attitude and profile in this roiling era of a rising China and a flat-lining America. Though ‘The ASEAN Miracle’ offers original portraits of this fidgety class of countries, it is its savvy treatment of the question of ‘ASEAN and the Great Powers” that breaks such important ground.
For the China-U.S. relationship does not depend simply on the two greatest powers relating only to one another, as if there was no one else of consequence on earth. Each may obsess as claustrophobically as it wishes in peering through the two-way trans-Pacific telescope; but the bilateral is only part of a complex chemistry. While America has only Canada and Mexico immediately pressing against it, the country-count on China’s border is no less than fourteen. Some of its neighbors are easy enough – Mongolia and Laos keep few lights burning late in the foreign affairs ministry in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. But some border neighbors, such as Vietnam, are anything but.
It is true that except for Japan and India, none can credibly scare China for very long. But when wrapped altogether in the economic lacuna of shared interests, historically anti-communist ASEAN is to be reckoned with – and it includes even socialist/communist Vietnam. What should China do? Beijing can seek to erode ASEAN unity (shoving aid at ASEAN member Cambodia, for example, was not subtle). Or it can accept it for what the LKY School Dean senses it is: a growing force in world politics, potentially even a mechanism for leveraging Washington’s Seventh Fleet away from (as Beijing sees it) intrusive unilateral involvement. ASEAN is thus a potential tool for China, not a present impediment. As Mahbubani and Sng put it “… If China wants to prove that – unlike the United States – it will emerge as a peaceful power, the best place to show the contrast is with ASEAN.”
They note that China’s President Xi Jinping has proposed a new type of great-power relations. To this end, ASEAN should be a diplomatic instrument for Beijing to want to work with, rather than shatter into separate nations.
What about the U.S.? It needs to wake up. Even the administration of President Barack Hussein Obama, who once lived in Indonesia, offered inadequate attention. Now we have much worse, concludes the “The ASEAN Miracle”: “Unfortunately, the election of Donald Trump will lead to a greater distance between America and ASEAN as Trump is woefully ignorant about ASEAN.” The Trump administrations’s slasher attack on the U.S. State Dept. budget tells volumes as to where its head is. Nor surprisingly, U.S. public opinion soundings suggest the American people increasingly believe their President knows little more about the world than they do. Bali, anyone?

Prof Tom Plate is Asia Media International’s founder and Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. His next book is ‘Yo-Yo Diplomacy: An American Columnist Tackles the Ups-and-Downs Between China and the U.S.’ An earlier version of this essay appeared in the South China Morning Post, where Prof Plate is a columnist.