The Washington Method in Southeast Asia
Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World (New York: Public Affairs, 2020)
How do you get policymakers in Washington to think more about Southeast Asia, a strategic region of more than 600 million people? Talk to them about something they actually care about, an American counterpart once joked to me. If you portray Southeast Asia as an arena for competition with a rival great power (China today, the Soviet Union previously) or for pushback against a dangerous ideology, be it Islamism or communism, you just might get some interest.
In doing so, however, you risk a Pyrrhic victory. For, having framed the region around a broad, sweeping threat, you will find it very hard to argue for a nuanced approach to the diverse and divergent nations of Southeast Asia. And without clear thinking and a carefully calibrated approach, a great power such as the United States risks doing its own position in the region more harm than good.
The Donald Trump administration is the latest to rediscover this reality, as it has tried — and failed — to push its China containment drive into Southeast Asia. It would be a stretch to say that it has advanced a policy toward Southeast Asia. But, in between weakening the State Department and failing to show due regard for the region’s premier security forum, it has leaned on Southeast Asian governments to join it in a broad pushback against China. While advising Southeast Asian nations to reject mobile technology from Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, or rebuff Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the administration has not offered much in the way of viable alternatives.
But more concerning than this practical shortcoming is the deeper misunderstanding of how most of the region’s governments see the intensifying U.S.-Chinese rivalry. The 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations vary greatly in terms of their warmth toward Beijing and Washington respectively, with Cambodia and Laos the most Chinese-friendly and Singapore and Vietnam (for now) the most U.S.-friendly.
However, none of these nations want to go all in with either great power. All, including Cambodia and Laos (sometimes seen as “vassal states” in Washington), have concerns about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive positioning. But they all have very close economic and trade relationships with China, too. They all, to different extents, value the U.S. security presence in Asia as a balancing force, as well as access to U.S. capital and markets. But they also have concerns about Washington’s reliability and its track record of attempting to interfere in their internal affairs.
The heavy, but shaky, hand of the Trump administration has alienated key U.S. partners in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, while doing little to win over the likes of Cambodia and Laos. A case in point is Washington’s recent request to Jakarta to allow P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to land and refuel in Indonesia, presumably while monitoring the South China Sea and other contested areas. The Indonesian government was always likely to reject such a tin-eared ask, because it jealously guards its nonaligned status and is wary of upsetting Beijing. That it even would make such a request signals to Indonesia that Washington does not understand its very clearly stated “independent and active” foreign policy, helpfully laid out in English in Foreign Affairs magazine by Mohammad Hatta, one of the nation’s founders, in 1953.
The P-8 controversy brings to mind another, far more high-profile incident, involving U.S. aircraft operating in Indonesia 62 years ago — a time when Washington also saw Southeast Asia through the lens of great-power competition and ideological rivalry. In May 1958, Washington’s secret backing for separatist uprisings in Indonesia was exposed when a B-26 bomber piloted by CIA agent Allen Lawrence Pope was shot down by the Indonesian military over Ambon and Pope was captured. The CIA had been trying to weaken Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno, who it feared was getting too close to the Indonesian Communist Party and the Soviet Union. But, as Vincent Bevins argues in The Jakarta Method, Washington misjudged Sukarno and ended up being “exposed in Asia as an aggressor against one of the world’s leading neutral powers.” Sukarno took the Pope incident personally. “I love America, but I’m a disappointed lover,” Bevins quotes him as saying. With bitter irony, the United States drove Sukarno’s Indonesia in the direction from which it had been trying to divert it: a more anti-Western, more pro-Soviet Union, and pro-China path.
Howard Jones, who served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia during this increasingly fraught period in the bilateral relationship, had tried to push for a more conciliatory approach to Sukarno, insisting that Washington was wrong to see Indonesia as another domino at risk of falling to communism. “This was the all too common weakness of Americans — to view conflict in black and white terms,” Bevins quotes him as having written. “There were no grays in the world landscape. There was either good or evil, right or wrong, hero or villain.”
Bevins’ crisply written book documents how this blinkered approach contributed to tragedy upon tragedy in the developing world. Washington’s covert and overt efforts to oppose communism in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Indonesia helped to precipitate or support mass violence and military coups. In Indonesia, at least several hundred thousand alleged leftists were massacred in 1965 to 1966 after Sukarno was ousted by Gen. Suharto with backing from Washington. Bevins describes how U.S. diplomats in Jakarta shared lists of purported communist sympathizers with the Indonesian army knowing that they would be murdered, just as had been done in other countries.
The Jakarta Method shows how the United States and its anti-communist local allies rolled out a disturbingly familiar playbook across the world to violently suppress leftists movements, parties, and partisans, even where they were not likely to come to power. In the early 1950s, U.S. officials had spoken of a “Jakarta axiom” in their foreign policy. That meant respecting the neutrality of independent states such as Indonesia, rather than pressuring them to choose a side in the Cold War. Twenty years later, “Jakarta” had become a byword for the murderous U.S.-backed repression of leftists. In 1973, the name of Indonesia’s capital was spray-painted onto the streets of Santiago as a warning of the impending murderous purge of leftists that followed Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed military ouster of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile.
Using a mix of documentary sources and interviews with participants across multiple continents, Bevins shows how U.S.-backed violence shaped the world we live in today. More contentiously, he argues that this violence was an important contributor to the ultimate Western victory in the Cold War — an outcome that surely stems more from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East bloc satellites than to U.S. meddling in third countries.
Although the author admits that there was no central plan for a global campaign of extermination, at times he seems to succumb to the black-and-white, U.S.-centric approach of which he is rightly so critical. When U.S. interventions fail, such as in the Pope incident, they are depicted as ham-fisted and tragicomic. When U.S. allies succeed in ousting leftists, Washington is presented as an all-knowing, evil mastermind. But the margins between the success and failure of anti-leftist coups and uprisings were more often decided by the balance of political and military power on the ground than by the machinations of the CIA and U.S. diplomats.
In putting so much emphasis on the U.S. role in these turbulent events, Bevins risks underplaying the deep domestic divisions that were the key drivers of conflict and overlooking the agency of local actors. Such is the dizzying force of U.S. power that it can blind its sternest critics, as well as its strongest supporters, to the gray zones where most other nations exist. Viewing the world in black and white, through the lens of great-power competition: You might call it the Washington Method.
Ben Bland is the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute. His most recent book is Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia.