Perhaps the most difficult choice in starting this blog was the preferred blog name.
I settled on The Southeast Asia Blog as I felt that title would give me sufficient scope to cover enough topics of interest to both the readers and myself, but (as any economist would agree) with any choice comes a cost.
Among those costs is that a label, any label, is by definition an act of exclusion. The Southeast Asia element clearly excludes not Southeast Asia. But surely Southeast Asia is all encompassing of Southeast Asia, right? Well, maybe.
One way to consider this is to ask how many Southeast Asians would, when asked who they are, reply that they are Southeast Asian. I suspect very few. Responses such as <nationality>, <ethnicity> and maybe <religion> would probably rate highly, while I suspect that affinity with ASEAN wouldn’t rate significantly.* Each of the responses <nationality>, <ethnicity> and <religion> are, you will note, characterised by the inherent exclusion of others.
It is nearly 50 years since the great O.W. Wolters wrote in his classic work The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History that “Each region was, for its ruler and his spokesmen, the centre of the world”, and I think little has changed in the thousand years since, particularly with the use of labels.
A very good example of the labels being both exclusionary and demonstrating their self-centeredness is emerging in the rising tensions in the <South China Sea>.
The label <South China Sea> is exclusionary in suggesting that the sea is orientated towards China’s presence, but the title also denies others their self-centredness. Among those who reject the <South China Sea> label are the fishermen of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, who consider the sea the <Natuna Sea>. Less vehemently perhaps there are those Vietnamese who consider it their <East Sea> and the Filipinos who consider it their <West Sea>.
How these international tensions in the <South China Sea> will play out is, of course, still a matter of conjecture I may consider in another post. What I will say here though is that China’s description of the sea as (their) <South Sea> bodes poorly for regional stakeholders, as the exclusionary and self-centred labels involved complicate the search a peaceful, long term solution.
The problem is that the labels are really a proxy for the extent of political power which is underpinned by military power, and that isn’t a contest China is likely to lose in the region unless checked by a great power.
Of course Chinese rulers and spokesmen from the centre of their world could simply invent a harmless sounding label such as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. That label doesn’t exclude anyone and seeks to positively accommodate everyone’s self-interest.
The problem is that the last time a rising Asian power tried that labelling approach, an ambitious Japan over 70 years ago, their ambitions were firmly halted by the same great power from across the Pacific that China might ultimately confront.
Just whose labels of exclusion and self-centeredness prevail in the <South China Sea>, conflict or not, may yet be the great contest of 21st Century Southeast Asia.
* This is educated guesswork on my part, so I would be delighted if any reader could point me to any research in this area.