HNC-in-Southeast Asia: HNC Students meet with scholars and professionals in Vietnam and Singapore

HNC-in-Southeast Asia: HNC Students meet with scholars and professionals in Vietnam and Singapore

HNC students in Singapore

The second-ever HNC-in-the-World trip—a Hopkins-Nanjing Center initiative to allow students to explore China’s global engagements—took place in Southeast Asia during the center’s Fall Break between November 19th and 26th, 2022. Co-Director Webb and Professor David Arase led 19 students, including myself, on an 8-day trip split between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City to learn about China-ASEAN engagement with ASEAN-US relations and embed this triad of bilateral relations in the larger Sino-US geopolitical contest for influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Last semester, students had the chance to visit Peru in April 2022. Read more about the trip to Peru here! 

The trip had two main components: The first part of the trip led by Professor Arase was a mini-course called “Sino-US Rivalry in Southeast Asia.” Students met with experts and Ph.D. candidates from the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and East Asian Institute, and Fulbright University Vietnam. After these insightful sessions, students got a sense of ASEAN’s increasing geopolitical, economic, and social importance and how China and the U.S. are viewed as Southeast Asian economic and security partners. A moment that stood out to me was learning how Singapore felt the President Biden was not doing enough for Southeast Asia; to them, the American policy of “strategic patience” meant inaction. This assessment put my own experiences interning at the U.S. State Department on the maritime and mainland Southeast Asian country desks into perspective: I was constantly reading and writing about all the projects and relationships the U.S. was building in the region, yet the reality seems to be the opposite.  


National University of Singapore - East Asian Institute

Students also gained a foundational understanding of ASEAN as an international organization, its strengths, and its weaknesses. While ASEAN countries are each trying to hedge and balance the US-China rivalry in the region, ASEAN as an organization, which operates on a consensus basis, continues trying to remain united and relevant. The multiplicity of actors across the region and the consensus basis can prove to be a strong obstacle for an effective and impactful international organization. This dynamic was made especially apparent during discussions of Myanmar’s political and humanitarian crisis.  


As, second year MAIR+HNC Certificate student Tan Yanglong expressed, “an enlightening moment was when [Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Director of the NUS Middle East Institute Bilahari Kausikan] likened ASEAN to a cow: you can’t expect a cow to run like a horse, but you need a cow to be good at plowing the fields before the real horses can run,” he said. “It was a good reminder that for all the criticism of ASEAN as a sluggish and ineffectual organization, it is still seen as a vital organization by countries in the region.”  


The second part of the trip was a career trek led by Professor Adam Webb and first-year MAIR+HNC Certificate student Matthew Sperzel. Students had the chance to meet with high-level business leaders and executives (most of whom were HNC alumni) to learn how students can apply their skillsets to a wide range of careers and for a chance of networking beyond SAIS’ three campuses. “We realized the wide range of opportunities available for SAIS’ers in Southeast Asia, which aren’t limited explicitly to international relations or the public sector,” Sperzel commented.  

 The career trek also offered students a view of the interaction between US-China rivalry politics and the region’s business strategies in real time. For instance, in Vietnam, students met with Director of Games Investments at the online games company VNG Corporation and HNC alumnus, Christopher Liu. Students learned how VNG’s expansion of the Vietnamese mobile gaming industry to Latin America and beyond came into competition with other gaming giants of China and South Korea.

Visiting HSBC's office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Posted on September 14, 2023  |  Johns Hopkins University