Global Governance
Asia’s Mouse Deer Diplomacy: ASEAN in the New Bipolar Era

As one of the smallest ungulates, the mouse deer occupies an important place in Malay folklore of the 15th and 16th century, and is often used as an example of how a small animal can take over larger animals or gain the necessary benefits using intelligence, skill and natural instincts, writes Alexander Korolev, Junior research fellow at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Higher School of Economics.

The unprecedented escalation of the US-China rivalry presents both challenges and opportunities for ASEAN. On the one hand, the transition of relations between Washington and Beijing into a new, more conflict-oriented phase makes the Association more vulnerable, due to its high dependence on both partners and the danger of being sandwiched between the great powers as an arena for their struggle for influence. We can clearly observe the example of the conflict in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the current confrontation creates additional incentives for foreign policy manoeuvring, investing in the development of domestic institutions and promoting their own multilateral projects, leaving less time to wait and see. A similar dichotomy also faces the Asian mouse deer, a small even-toed ungulate native to Southeast Asia, which lives in an aggressive environment, and constantly faces opponents that are stronger and more powerful.

Does this mean that the Association was taken by surprise and was not ready for a new wave of great-power confrontation? It seems that the answer to this question is no. Moreover, history shows that over the years, ASEAN has habituated itself to bipolar struggles, and, in a certain sense, developed an immunity, allowing the bloc to survive. At the same time, at each stage, the Association has solved the most important tasks it has faced: from political survival, suppressing the communist threat and resolving armed conflicts to integration initiatives and institution-building.
It is characteristic that throughout the First Cold War (as it has become fashionable to say now), ASEAN constantly relied on multi-polarity, which for the countries of the Association acted both as a tool for increasing their own significance and as an ultimate goal. Examples include the adoption in 1971 of the Declaration on the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in Southeast Asia and the signing in 1976 of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which would later become the roadmap for interaction among the ASEAN partners and an admission ticket to ASEAN institutions.

Of course, the current conflict between the great powers differs in its nature and effects from the confrontation between the USSR and the United States. Leaving aside questions of ideology, the main differences are the high level of economic interdependence between Washington and Beijing, a richer toolkit for mutual containment and the projection of its influence on other participants, including ASEAN, for which China and the United States are the leading partners in a number of strategic issues.

It is worth mentioning the fundamentally new context of ASEAN's development  trade and pandemic wars, the exchange of sanctions threats between the United States and China, and the danger of being hit by unilateral measures, given the extraterritorial nature of American sanctions and the level of commercial ties between ASEAN and China. Along with this comes to the fore the growth of anti-Chinese sentiment in the countries of the Association and dissatisfaction with the conditions of the Belt and Road initiative, as well as a simultaneous increase in mistrust towards the United States, which is directly linked to the Donald Trump factor. As former (and possibly future) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad noted, Trumps style will never take root in Asia.

We must not forget about the new network elements for deterring China  the concept of the Indo-Pacific, an American-centric version which is not very popular, even among the US allies in Southeast Asia, because de facto it presents the countries of the region with a choice, which is the worst possible scenario for ASEAN. 

Mouse deer diplomacy

In this regard, the question arises  how will ASEAN behave amid the new conditions and address international politics in general? Despite the relative short duration of the new stage of the confrontation, an answer can already be given. It is unlikely that ASEANs development strategy will undergo any major changes, including due to adherence to the fundamental principles of the Association, formed in the 1970s, such as equidistance from both centres of power, pragmatism, and balance. The essence of this strategy can be described as Mouse deer diplomacy. As one of the smallest ungulates, the mouse deer occupies an important place in Malay folklore of the 15th and 16th century, and is often used as an example of how a small animal can take over larger animals or gain the necessary benefits using intelligence, skill and natural instincts.

A clear example of Mouse deer diplomacy is to be found in a story about the Sultan of Malacca which was recorded in Malay Genealogy, a historical and literary monument of medieval Malaya. The Chinese ruler, wishing to demonstrate his power, sent the Sultan of Malacca one needle from each possession in his empire. In response, Tun Parapati Puti, the son of the Sultan, sent, as a return gift, a load of sago, one grain at a time, which symbolised the number of people in the Malacca Sultanate. The exact number of grains could not be counted; however, according to Puti, it was several times higher than the number of the Chinese rulers possessions. As a result, the ruler of China recognised the greatness of the Sultan of Malacca and began to perceive him as an equal partner and gave him various gifts.

This term is still found in the political lexicon of Malaysia and the notion can easily be transferred to ASEAN. In fact, the Ten have repeatedly demonstrated resourcefulness and sought flexible and mutually beneficial cooperation with foreign powers. This applies to both trade and economic transactions, and the embedding of larger partners in ASEAN-centric platforms, within which ASEAN achieves the desired result for itself  formal recognition (albeit purely protocol) of its central role in ensuring security and promoting economic processes in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking about diplomatic strategy in the post-coronavirus era, first of all, it should be mentioned that the Association does not have sufficient resources or the political will to try to reconcile the United States and China, and it is well aware of the futility of such efforts. Against this background, a popular proverb in Southeast Asia is worth mentioning, in that it aptly characterises the US-China-ASEAN triangle  When elephants fight each other, the mousedeer dies in the middle.

Instead, the Association relies on other more optimal instruments that fit with the logic of mouse deer diplomacy. So, wishing to stay away from the conflict between Washington and Beijing, ASEAN is trying in every possible way to capitalise on the US-China differences. At the moment, this is most noticeably manifested in the example of the trade war between the United States and China, in which ASEAN has managed to fill the vacated niches in the most sensitive groups of goods for the conflicting parties  equipment, mechanical devices and electronics. The total increase in exports from ASEAN to China and the United States at the end of 2019 amounted to + $27 billion and +$30 billion, respectively. There is no doubt that the Ten will continue to make their efforts in this direction in the future.

Another element of ASEANs strategy will be regular statements on various forums about the inadmissibility of the policy of protectionism, with veiled criticism of the United States and regular calls to resolve all contradictions peacefully.)

We should expect an intensification of ASEANs policy of institutional linking  the involvement of foreign partners in the activities of ASEAN-centric institutions and mechanisms of dialogue partnership. These processes were launched even before the exacerbation of disagreements between the United States and China, as evidenced by the lifting of the moratorium on the formation of dialogue partnerships with foreign partners, which had been in effect since 1999. In recent years, the Association again began to actively move towards this form of cooperation: in 2015, a sectoral partnership was concluded with Norway, in 2016  with Switzerland, in 2017  with Turkey. In addition, a partnership with Germany has been in place since 2016, and a similar partnership with Chile has existed since 2019. The format of dialogue and other partnerships, which is popular in ASEAN practice, often acts as a springboard for the further conclusion of trade agreements and, in general, the expansion of external relations, which is especially important in the current conditions.

And, finally, the last direction, as expected, will be the promotion of ASEAN-centred initiatives and projects in the field of economics and security, including compensation for the negative consequences of the coronavirus crisis. These include the upcoming talks on the establishment of a free trade zone with the EU and Canada, attempts to revitalise negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and periodic reminders of the existence of its own vision of the Indo-Pacific region.
There is no need to keep illusions that ASEAN-centric formats will become an alternative model for the development of economic and political processes under conditions of aggravated great-power rivalry. For this, objectively, there is no reason. However, they perform an important instrumental function  preserving the legitimacy and capacity of ASEAN in the eyes of the political elites of the member countries and individual foreign partners, confirming the reputation of the cunning mouse deer.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.