Carnegie’s Asia programs span three continents, including extensive work on security, governance, technology, and political economy at our centers in Beijing, Brussels, Moscow, New Delhi, and Washington. But Southeast Asia has not been a central area of focus for some years.
Today that changes with the addition of two renowned nonresident scholars to the Asia team—Sana Jaffrey and Dan Slater.
Strategically, Southeast Asia lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. That is why it is so often treated as an arena for competition, both military and economic, between the United States and China. But to portray the region mostly as a proxy for the competition of outside powers ignores important realities that make Southeast Asia pivotal in its own right.
For one thing, the region is populous, growing, and incredibly dynamic. The ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) encompass more than 642 million people. And staggeringly, that population size is nearly double what it was just thirty-nine years ago.
But that is not all: At a time when Northeast Asia’s two most important economies, China and Japan, are reaping the bitter demographic harvest of rapidly aging populations, Southeast Asians are disproportionately young. In 2017, 85 percent of Southeast Asians were under the age of fifty-four, and some 35 percent of them were under the age of twenty. That means that Southeast Asian countries have enormous space to grow—if they make wise policy choices, tend to macroeconomic fundamentals, invest in infrastructure and human capital, and ensure that politics remain participatory, pluralistic, and stable.
In turn, this points to a second reason that Southeast Asia is pivotal to Carnegie’s work: the region is a laboratory for modes and models of governance. Over the next decade, Southeast Asia will be a testing ground of whether and how countries that are ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse can deliver good governance alongside rapid economic growth. The political systems that do so are likely to prosper and succeed in an increasingly competitive global landscape. Those that do not may falter.
Southeast Asia is a microcosm of these dynamics: Indonesia and Malaysia have succeeded in surprising ways, not least by institutionalizing democratic changes of government. Thailand and Myanmar, for example, have proved much less successful.
In our work on Asia at Carnegie, we aim to capture, analyze, and understand the implications of these dynamics, even as we continue to address the big strategic and international security questions that will shape Asia’s future.
But frankly, a more textured understanding of Southeast Asian domestic dynamics is necessary to assure better strategic policy, too. Here is just one example to illustrate why:
In 2018, many, not least in Washington, predicted that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s shock victory at the head of a Pakatan Harapan coalition would yield a more “confrontational” Malaysian strategic posture toward China. That was because, in his typical style, Mahathir talked tough, insisting that Beijing renegotiate rail and other infrastructure projects on terms more favorable to Malaysia. And then he suspended them as a pressure tactic against Beijing.
But ultimately, a spate of articles in the international media that portrayed the new government as a vanguard of “anti-China” pushback proved incredibly flawed. By 2019, Mahathir had restarted the Chinese-led rail project on his terms. And Putrajaya is now working to establish a special channel to facilitate even more Chinese investment in Malaysia.
Details, nuances, and ground truths matter. And that is why Carnegie is thrilled to have Sana and Dan, who know the region well, join the team.
Here, in their own words, are how they came to study Southeast Asia and what they think is especially important.
I began my research career in Indonesia more than a decade ago, when I was appointed to lead a World Bank project to build an ambitious violence monitoring dataset. Conducting an empirical assessment of Indonesia’s conflict-management efforts enabled me to observe its remarkable success in addressing multiple armed conflicts and religious terrorism within just a decade of the country’s democratic transition. It also gave me a unique opportunity to understand the fallout from these early efforts and identify emerging challenges to the process of democratic consolidation. That became the basis of my PhD research at the University of Chicago.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, part of the National University of Singapore, I am currently working on a book entitled Mechanics of Impunity: Vigilantism and the Travails of Liberal Democracy. The book investigates the rise and entrenchment of mob lynching in new democracies, increasingly spurred on by disinformation on social media platforms. It draws on original quantitative data and extensive fieldwork in Indonesia to show how legacies of authoritarianism interact with democratic politics to produce subnational patterns of order and disorder.
I am pleased to join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as a nonresident scholar. Having been a long-time admirer of the organization’s work on South Asia, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Carnegie’s efforts to now extend its expertise to Southeast Asia. I intend to build on my ongoing research in Indonesia to provide timely commentary about major political developments in the region’s largest economy and their policy significance while offering prescriptive ideas for impact.
Understanding the domestic drivers of political change and stability in Indonesia is critical for rebuilding future U.S. engagement in the region.
The experience of the world’s third-largest democracy—one that also houses the world’s largest Muslim population—can also generate relevant lessons for other diverse societies that are struggling to balance preservation of liberal rights with the urgent need to address mounting challenges from religious intolerance and trans-national terrorism.
As a college student fascinated by economic development in the early 1990s, Asia seemed to me to be the place to study. Even before China began booming and changed the face of the global economy, Asia was already where the so-called Tigers, Dragons, and Miracles all were.
But there are, in fact, many Asian regions, and I had to choose one to study. China, India, and Japan seemed like obvious places to focus my academic attentions and learn a language. And yet the more I learned about politics and history, the more I became intrigued by a region I had learned literally nothing about as a U.S. high school student—Southeast Asia. Squarely between China and India lay a whole region, with hundreds of millions of people, nondescriptly called “Southeast Asia,” whose economic development was also incredibly impressive, at least in certain spots.
Surely, I thought, there was a place in that distant zone—far from the United States—where I could both learn about a totally unfamiliar place and draw broader lessons about how development worked in general.
My eyes eventually landed on Indonesia. It was then the fifth-largest country in the world (back then, the Soviet Union was still around and ranked number four.) It was the largest Muslim country on Earth. And it was a land of both skyrocketing development and backbreaking poverty.
But it wasn’t just development and poverty that captured my attention. No matter what issue might engage me in the future—from the environment to gender to religion to you-name-it—Indonesia had it all. Better yet, learning the Indonesian language could help me to get by in neighboring Malaysia, whose language is similar (and as Southeast Asian languages go, that kind of similarity doesn’t exist for any other two languages because Thai, Burmese, Khmer, or Vietnamese are distinctive). Perhaps best of all, the Indonesian language required fewer credit hours in college than either Chinese or Japanese! I wasn’t lazy; it was just that fewer hours spent in a language classroom would free me up to spend more classroom hours learning about politics, history, and the world economy.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998 would shift the topic that most interested me about the region. While living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I watched one dictatorship collapse in Indonesia while another one stood tall in Malaysia. And I was utterly confused about why that was the case. So for the ensuing twenty years, the politics of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia captured more of my attention than the politics of development.
That’s been my area of focus for two decades, including now as the director of a research center and a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Indeed, exactly as I had imagined it in college, Southeast Asia presented me with endlessly fascinating material once my topical attention shifted in this way.
Joining Carnegie offers me an incredible opportunity, not just to keep thinking and writing about authoritarianism and democracy in Southeast Asia. It also lets me go back to the questions of economic development that originally drew me to the region. And it promises to draw my attentions to new topics: maybe even ones I haven’t yet imagined.