GEORGETOWN JOURNAL OF ASIAN AFFAIRS
APLN member Cheng-Chwee Kuik explores how Southeast Asian countries perceive the narrative framing of great power competition, focusing specifically on regional interpretations of three key concepts: rules, like-mindedness, and de-risking.
The intensifying U.S.-China rivalry is not just a rivalry over trade and technology; it is also one over narratives. Narratives matter in international politics as they reflect preferences, shape perceptions, and affect policy choices. Both superpowers construct their own narratives and counter their rival’s in an attempt to woo and win over other states. While China has developed its own narratives (e.g., a community of common destiny, Asia for Asians), it is trailing in this competition. By comparison, the United States—at times acting together with its allies—has been the primary driver in pushing clusters of ideas, values, and words into the mainstream, thus forcefully shaping the cause—and the course—of world politics in the post-Cold War era. Terms such as “rules-based order,” “like-minded nations,” and “de-risking” (modified from “decoupling”) are among the more recent examples of the core mobilizing and rallying ideas central to the United States and its key allies’ converging (albeit not necessarily coordinated) efforts to render the “Indo-Pacific” construct into geoeconomic and geopolitical realities. This essay provides a brief analysis of the Southeast Asian states’ perceptions of and responses to the Indo-Pacific construct and related narratives. It examines how and why the small and secondary states in Southeast Asia view the three aforementioned core terms in the ways they do. The terms have been selected because each of them, which entered the lexicon at different junctures (“rules-based order” was among the earliest, “de-risking” the latest), reflects different aspects of the Indo-Pacific construct. That is, “rules-based order” is about system-wide arrangements, whereas “like-mindedness” is about relationships and sources of solidarity among state actors and “de-risking” is about ends and means. Each of these terms captures the prevalent perceptual gaps between the mainstream powers and the global South countries.
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