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A Dutch Example for U.S.-Asian Relations?

Will the United States have to pay for its neglect of Southeast Asia?

November 20, 2002

Will the United States have to pay for its neglect of Southeast Asia?

In 1906, as the Dutch rounded out the acquisition of their Southeast Asian empire, they closed in on Bali's remaining autonomous regency — including the now-infamous Kuta Beach.

Recognizing the looming European victory, and preferring death with honor to life in submission, Bali's entire nobility did the inevitable.

They bathed at length, clothed themselves in white gowns — and marched into the Dutch cannons. Those whom the Dutch did not immediately slaughter committed suicide with their own swords, the famous kris.

Fortunately, that tragic story known as the Puputan in Balinese — or "Ending" — has a redemptive end. Apparently disgusted by their own barbarity, the Dutch gave more autonomy to Bali than to any other region of their empire.

Unfortunately, the United States does not yet seemed to have learned the lessons that the Dutch learned so painfully. Instead, in the wake of its Vietnamese disaster, the United States took a "dog-in-the-manger" attitude towards Southeast Asia.

While it is often forgotten now, Thailand and the Philippines sent troops to Vietnam to support the U.S. military effort at the time — sticking their necks out in their own region. So they were all the more shocked when, after 1975, Washington distanced itself from its old allies.

To be sure, over the next two decades, the United States and most of Southeast Asia did manage to make up. The often-condescending attitude of the United States — and its view of Asia as a competitor — may have irritated some. But such tensions have a way of dissipating — as long as the proverbial gold is flowing.

After all, what’s a little bilateral tilt — as long as the Asian economic miracle was turning the dirt paths of cities in Thailand such as Chiang Mai into motorways?

Plus, the countries that played ball with the United States all got relatively rich during that dance. Look at Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. Meanwhile, the countries that did not play along — Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma — stagnated.

But those happy days ended when the Asian economies crashed. For one, there was a clear sense that the United States contributed to the collapse.

It was U.S. hedge fund managers who originally broke the dam in Thailand in July of 1997. Then, America was slow to come to assistance.

In Indonesia, the United States was also slow to assist. When the assistance finally came, via the IMF, the definitive image was of then-IMF chief Michael Camdessus haughtily standing with his arms crossed as President Suharto signed away his national dignity.

That image not only infuriated proud Indonesians. To many other Asians, it also neatly encapsulated the extremely smug response of the West to the crisis.

Asians were upset that their grave economic troubles were seen as nothing more than confirmation of the failure of Asian values — as well as the corruption of Asian economic institutions. Never mind that it was the very same time when Enron was putting many of the final touches on its Ponzi schemes.

Even more undiplomatically, the then-U.S. Ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Gelbard, repeatedly came close to expulsion from the country with his morality lectures.

They revealed a profound indifference on the part of the United States to Indonesia's predictable instability after the collapse of a 30-year authoritarian regime. After all, Suharto's regime had been buttressed with enormous U.S. credits, military assistance — and unlimited diplomatic support.

But perhaps the worst fallout for U.S. diplomacy from the recent Asian economic crisis was the unmistakable conclusion that the countries which did the best were the ones that paid the least heed to American advice — such as Malaysia and Taiwan.

China — which avoided globalization on U.S. terms — has continued its own major economic miracle as its more economically open neighbors on all sides grasp for air.

This creates a dangerous precedent because a half-century trend — where the countries that sided with the United States prospered the most — is being reversed. And this has given new policy ideas to countries — such as Korea — which, until now, did not really fathom straying from the line "shaped" by the United States.

U.S. diplomats have taken the countries of Southeast Asia pretty much for granted. After all, they assume, the basic economic system is similar — and therefore, those countries share America's political and economic ideas.

But the many irritants of the past decade are causing some of Southeast Asia's leaders and people to look elsewhere for different ideas — ideas that might not be to the liking of the United States.