In today’s world where scary dragons, eagles, bears, and elephants (and sometimes octopuses) regularly appear in magazine covers or articles’ illustrations when they discuss international politics, it might be helpful to for us to look back at old fables to get some critical lessons that we might miss. In my case, I would suggest we look at the old stories from Indonesian and the larger Malayan societies that revolved around “Sang Kancil.” While more research needs to be done to see the connection between the traditional fable of kancil and the geopolitical location of Southeast Asia, which throughout history continue to be the location where great empires compete for influence, I contend that the stories might teach us one or two pearls of wisdom on geopolitics.
Rather than a mighty eagle, dragon, bear, or elephant, the main protagonist of the Malayan fable universe is “Sang Kancil” (“The Mousedeer”). A small, not-so-powerful, but kind and intelligent dweller of the forest. Through his wit, the tiny kancil defeated the powerful tiger to save the strong but naïve buffalo. He also tricked a group of hungry crocodiles into allowing him to cross the river. In another story, he stopped an invasion by an army of elephants. Kancil’s rare defeat came from creatures smaller and weaker than the mousedeer. He was outsmarted by the snails, whom he deemed as having no leverage against him.
The stories often reminded the audience that great powers might give us some leverage, but they could also be the cause of our downfall. Power is dangerous, even for our protagonist, because it makes us unable to understand the situation better by leading us to not listen to others. This might be an essential lesson for us all, including the Great Powers.
Shadows of the Perceived Enemy
One of the common mistakes of the Great Powers blinded by their desire to contain their rivals is their inability to understand the complex relationships between them and others. They see the world in the shadow of their perceived enemy, not the reality itself. This led to the failure to comprehend appropriately the motivations and behaviors of non-Great Powers, which were reduced into their relationship with the enemy. This approach is not going to work in Southeast Asia or the larger Indo-Pacific, a region that is marked by fluid relationships.
This fluidity is often misunderstood as inconsistency, but we better understand it as the natural consequence of the multidimensionality of relationships in the region. Many Southeast Asian countries do not see their hard stance on the South China Sea against China as something that is contradictory to their increasing economic cooperation with Beijing. Indonesia is showing off its resolute position on the Natuna Sea and at the same time inviting Beijing to invest more and more in the country. Other ASEAN members also do the same with different degrees and contexts.
Rather than a single chessboard in which China and US are competing for supremacy, Southeast Asia is a region in which people play multiple board games with different rules at the same time. Mixing the rules of different board games would not bring victory. All players need to patiently identify the situation in each game and then act based on the specific context. I argued that even ASEAN regionalism is actually a “compartmentalized regionalism,” which I define as “a political project to reorganize a particular regional space along defined economic and political lines, which actually consists of multiple and separated/compartmentalized patterns of arrangements of the regional space(s) but combined and identified as a single project.” (Choiruzzad, 2017).
ASEAN-China survey in 2020, which asked 1000 respondents with different backgrounds (including policymakers, academics, business sector, civil society, and students) from 10 ASEAN countries, found that ASEAN people see China (and the US) in a nuanced manner. They did worry about China’s assertive behavior in the region, but at the same time also saw it as an essential partner to help solve the challenges faced by the region (Foreign Policy Community Indonesia, 2020). This led ASEAN countries to use the “a la carte” approach in their relationship with Great Powers such as China or US. Their position depends on the specific issue and context. They see that it is possible to see “China as a security actor” as different from “China as an economic actor.” In the case of COVID-19, China is also increasingly seen as a “public health actor,” which is crucial to provide ASEAN countries access to vaccines.
Unfortunately, both US and China seem to be increasingly forgetting this multidimensionality and are attempting to mix different issues together in the New Cold War chessboard. Infrastructure development or investments, direly needed by ASEAN countries, were increasingly turned into instruments to extract loyalties (David Shambaugh, 2018; Mobley, 2019). If not managed well, initiatives to create connectivity can turn into disconnection.
The Importance of Listening
Literature on international politics often suggests actors take the initiative, ranging from showing our intention through the material display of power, making demands, giving stick and carrot, setting the stage, to developing attraction. After all, power is often understood as the ability to influence others. This often makes us oblivious to the importance of listening in international politics. Kancil was victorious not only because of his wit but also his willingness to listen to others, weak or strong. When he feels he is smart enough and thus unwilling to listen to smaller creatures such as snails, he is defeated.
The willingness of Great Powers to listen and understand the concerns and conditions of Southeast Asian countries, as well as the larger Indo-Pacific region, is not only important for these less powerful countries. Power is contextual, and without proper understanding of the context, the materially more powerful entities were often failed to achieve their ambition.
The history of Southeast Asia is full of this lesson. In the 13th century, the powerful Yuan Dynasty invaded Java to punish Kartanegara, the King of Singasari. It ends with a disaster for the 30,000-strong expedition, which was destroyed by the newly established Kingdom of Majapahit. While Yuan Dynasty’s military was clearly stronger, it was not familiar with the tropical climate and terrain and, more significantly, with the politics in the island.
A more contemporary example is the US initiative during the Cold War to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). In September 1954, then-Secretary of the State John Foster Dulles gathered US allies in Manila and established SEATO to contain communist influence in the region. While Southeast Asia was in the name, most of the members were from outside the region. A year later, the Asian African Conference was held in Bandung, declaring the defiant mood of Asian African countries which resisted being pulled into Great Power politics. SEATO did not work effectively both for the US and for Southeast Asian countries.
In contrast to SEATO, ASEAN, which was established by five Southeast Asian countries without much interference from the US, was not only successful in helping its members to navigate the Cold War but also beneficial for the Great Powers. For the US, the relatively stable and peaceful Southeast Asia, which focuses on economic development, enabled the US to develop the US-Japan-Southeast Asia triangular trade system. Originally designed to avoid Japan’s dependency on China for its post-war economic development, the triangular trade system would also be crucial to integrate China into the global economy following US-China rapprochement in the 1980s as part of US strategy in the Cold War (Shiraishi, 2019, pp. 12–13). ASEAN was also crucial in managing the conflict in Indochina and also stabilizing the regional order following the end of the conflict, including by integrating Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam into ASEAN after the end of the Cold War.
For Japan, a stable and peaceful Southeast Asia is a significant factor in its economic success by providing a market and enabling the creation of region-wide production networks. Of course, the development of these production networks also benefited Southeast Asian countries, who enjoyed economic growth due to the supply of capital from Japan (and the US) and the diffusion of production and process technology, although at the pace controlled by the parent companies in Japan. Later, when the US-China relationship was revived, Chinese business, which has a strong and longstanding connection Southeast Asian economy, quickly joined the party. It is not a surprise that ASEAN economic integration project in the 1990s has been largely driven by the private sector, especially by the activities of Japanese Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and overseas Chinese business, while states play a rather reactive role (Stubbs, 1995). After the 1997/1998 Asian Crisis, Japan and China became increasingly entrenched in the region, and they committed to further supporting the region’s integration. Japan even helped to establish and sustain ERIA (Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia), a think tank that is very influential in shaping the blueprint for ASEAN economic integration.
At least in the last decade of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, the US, China, and Japan had increasingly accepted the centrality of ASEAN as a mutually acceptable way to engage the region without provoking external and internal resistance. ASEAN was increasingly becoming “the node in the cluster of networks,” which places it as a central hub in the regional architecture (Caballero-Anthony, 2014). ASEAN’s weakness turned into its strength because the Great Powers are less suspicious towards ASEAN, thus making ASEAN acceptable to be the central actor in the region (Stubbs, 2014).
Unfortunately, now this material weakness had returned to be a contextual weakness again. Afraid that they could not count on ASEAN to keep their rivals in check, Great Powers started to rethink their acceptance of ASEAN centrality. The mutual acceptance of ASEAN centrality is now fading away with the increasingly aggressive China and US actions (Acharya, 2017, pp. 275–277). The Great Powers are starting to not be listening again. History teaches us that when Great Powers are unable to listen, the story will not end well for them and for the others.
In this context, listening to the voices from inside the region (Southeast Asia as well as the newly emerging Indo-Pacific region) is a crucial first step that is important to understand the region beyond the shadow of the New Cold War. Only by understanding the multidimensionality of the region and the fluidity of international relations within it the Great Powers can secure their interests and, at the same time, secure the stability and prosperity of the region known as one of the global engines of growth. In this context, the establishment of meaningful engagement through multiple channels is crucial. Indo-Pacific Circle, hopefully, could be one of the important channels to create this meaningful and empathic engagement. Let us listen to each other.
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