If you tire of the gastronomic travel tours of the Sunday Times, try Paul Theroux, who replaces complaisant companions with a bottle of booze (The Old Patagonian Express), and with a canoe in The Happy Isles of Oceania. Theroux is above neither praise or criticism, but his sardonic observations about the smaller islands of Oceania, which he navigated largely by canoe, and alone, have the ring of truth, if possibly skewed. The islands Theroux describes are not happy, conforming to the general tendency of humans to make a hell out of paradise.
It’s important to take a guess at the accuracy of his observations. I think they’re pretty good. These small places have character, which can no more be neglected than the heritage of Chinese mythology described by Henry Kissinger. Theroux describes a Melanesia and Polynesia whose inhabitants hate the sight of the sea, vomiting on ferries that cross harbors and small straits. Fear of the sea could not be predicted from the history of those historic seafarers, who traveled thousands of miles in open boats guided by stars. But the sea is now not an opportunity, but an obstacle, source of the terrors of tsunamis and typhoons. Perhaps some gene of exaggerated fear kept them alive, when they had to go and come back, go, and come back…
So they turn their backs to the sea, try to pretend it doesn’t exist, focusing instead on their land and their squabbles, in a word, being human. And there we have the paradox of small nations. The ratio of border length to land area gives greater relative exposure to the outside, so they tend to curl up in protective balls of self-absorption, of which the small islands of Oceania are the extreme. The larger island nations tend also towards inward attention. The larger the nation, the more likely to project. Russia, the largest country, devours Ukraine. The Philippines, tiny in area (but not population) by comparison, voice effete protests against Chinese, who expand by planting stakes on land reclaimed from the sea. The atolls have always been there, ignored by Manila except as some vague future promise. Only Vietnam threatens China with a fleet of submarines. But China drills in territory disputed by Vietnam, and Vietnam merely complains.
Complaints! Every member of ASEAN bordering on this sea disputes economic zones, atolls, and islets with the others. There is not a shred of cooperation against their common adversary, which happens to be their largest trading partner. A few years ago, some pundits averred that the Asian tradition of consensus prior to agreement might not be correctly understood by western diplomats. But the disputants may not understand it themselves. Sometimes a charade shrouds a meaningful process, and sometimes, a charade is just a charade. Part of this charade are claims against Japan by the Republic of China, a country that occupies the island of Formosa, the whole of which is claimed by The People’s Republic of China. It’s a very convoluted charade!
Philippines Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr. said, “We are really amazed by the pace of China’s reclamation. It’s fast but I hope it’s not furious, …We are in a very difficult situation because now, they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. If they reclaim Mischief Reef, we will be cut off,” he added. The Philippines calls Mischief Reef Panganiban Reef.
In composition of U.S. foreign policy, the passivity of these nations, and their preference for isolated individuality, cannot be ignored. As facts of behavior, they are as important as facts on the ground. To be effective, the pivot towards Asia must catalyze an alliance. But the ASEAN nations squabble among themselves with competing claims. The Philippines have asked ASEAN to take a stand. Perhaps there will be a statement, against the facts on the reclaimed ground China is creating. China has insisted that each dispute is purely bilateral. Surely, they could not be thinking, divide et impera!
The lack of cohesion against what some perceive as a major threat to the international order is not simply the result of the competing claims. With a few multicultural exceptions, Southeast Asia is a place of pervasive ethnic separatism, expressed by the word communalism, which in southeast Asia has a definition markedly different from the western, conveying the desire of various groups for ethnic and political isolation from other groups. Homogenous groups that already have separation, such as Japan, manifest a xenophobia to keep it that way. In a broader sense, most of these countries have some kind of a creation myth or heavenly mandate as their form of “exceptionalism.” And the inseparable companion of superiority is antipathy to “the other.”
This is the cultural backdrop of the pivot towards Asia. The lenses diplomacy and negotiation, if relied upon too much as a framework of thought, fail to capture the human angle, and so can’t catalyze the goal. In chemistry, catalysis is the promotion of a chemical reaction by an element that is not itself consumed. In the absence of catalysis, a foreign policy consumes resources without commensurate benefit. Cost/benefit analysis, a concept of economics, has always been the weak sister of diplomacy.
Next: power projection.