GROWTH cannot be income accumulation over time, in other words a fattening and growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), since a larger GDP may not have sound and reliable equity distribution to incentivize the top to the bottom of the economic pyramid to partake in economic shared prosperity (ESP).

Thus the book review of Professor KS Jomo in the Journal of East Asia Book Review in 2017, of the work of Michael Rock's Dictators, Democrats, and Development in Southeast Asia: Implications for the Rest, while complimentary, was not sufficiently compelling. Professor KS Jomo argued in his review essay that Michael Rock's got it right on Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (IMT) based on strong qualitative studies and econometrics.

Professor KJ Jomo further affirmed that Michael Rock was correct to argue that the economic growth of Southeast Asia – including IMT's attendant problems – were different from the "rest" in Northeast Asia.

Of course, Southeast Asia has to be different from Northeast Asia. The latter was made from the Korean War, as Bruce Cummings in University of Chicago argued, while Southeast Asia was shaped by pouring in huge amount of resources to either bomb Laos into smithereens or south Vietnam into the stone age, literally, until the United States finally backed off in 1975, when Washington DC realized that the casualties of 50,000, almost 10 percent of the close to 500,000 troops they placed in Vietnam at the height of the war in 1967, was never going to convince the Baby Boomers in the United States to either participate or support the war.

The Pentagon planners were right. Starting from the mid 1970, the likes of Strobe Talbot, Bill Clinton, including the current President Donald Trump, all refused to serve in Vietnam on a variety of reasons.

The Korean War, which began in 1950 and stopped in the form of an armistice in 1953, was a different creature altogether. It permanently placed the United States squarely in the political economy of South Korea, Japan, and to a large degree, even Taiwan and Hong Kong. These four entities had the know-how and the market knowledge from their friends in the US military and diplomatic circuits to weave together a successful export strategy. Thus it wasn't just the East Asian state itself who has the strategic and industrial policy to export into the largest consumer markets in the world, the US and European Union, but they had the help of their Western counterparts who could see beyond the tip of their noses in the military service.

The academic literature hasn't been very good at explaining how US military empowered the export sectors of the rest of Northeast Asia. But if the mere location of American soldiers, or, sailors, can create a thriving red light districts in these territories, characterized most acutely in The World of Suzy Wong which made Wanchai in Hong Kong at famous show front, both in celluloid and in flesh trade, surely lust, plus the luster of the private sector, must have influenced the US military to form a cabal or work in cahoots with local Northeast Asian leaders. Be it the attempt by CIA to save the life of Kim Dae Jung in South Korea when he was about to be thrown into the sea, or, the attempt to sabotage the administration of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka who was deemed too friendly with Communist China, the US military worked with conservative elements in Northeast Asia to keep the grave train of pork barrel politics going.

In Southeast Asia, the US commercial presence was less concentrated through the military, since the military's involvement in Vietnam was started in 1962 and ending only in 1975. It was far too long, with high turn over of American military personnel, to allow them to form any useful friends with the key leaders in IMT.

The one person who did i.e. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore saw the growth of Singapore on the back of US backed export regime. Scholarship but Rock and Jomo are admirable. But by ignoring the US military industrial complex over two different kinds of wars in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, neither they could capture the growth trajectory of Southeast Asia, or, the lack thereof.

In this sense, China's Belt and Road Initiative has been seen as a grand success by local Southeast Asia governments, even though most are also beginning to understand that they are walking into a debt trap diplomacy.

* Datuk Dr Rais Hussin is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's chief strategist.

** The views expressed here strictly of the author's and do not necessarily reflect Astro AWANI's.