Asia and the Rest: Lines, Circles and Triangles

In this brief reflection Marco Pellerey explains why the international political chessboard should be understood as a set of straight lines, circles and triangles: a place where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the perpetual conflict between realists and the various schools of constructivism in international relations, the former are often accused by the latter of oversimplifying reality, cynically reducing and shaping every situation to strip political protagonists of every psychological dimension that is not rational, calculating and clearly self-serving. Here I would like to propose an extension of this reasoning, adopting a geometrical perspective in order to underline certain cultural aspects that I believe hold great relevance to the current international context.

I invite the reader to imagine the importance that the straight line (and the ideal of total inflexibility that it represents) have had in the development of the so-called “West”. Consider the Macedonian phalanx, with soldiers arranged in neat rows ready to confront the enemy standing directly before them. And so too it was in the trenches of the First World War and in the skies of the Second World War: courage, glory and victory only spring forth from head-on and decisive conflict. The game of chess embodies the epitome of the West in its binary arrangements: blacks and whites, ‘winning’ or ‘captured’ pieces, aristocracy and humble pawns. Nature’s metaphor would be that of the majesty of an oak, whose straight and unyielding trunk defies the elements, splitting rather than retreating.

The eastern equivalent could be represented by the bamboo. A flexible plant which, rather than resist with head held high, instead bends to the wind, adapting in order to then raise itself once more, tracing a wide circle in the air. The superlative quality transforms itself from rigidity to flexibility; a quality which is inherent to the Chinese strategy of war, as Sun Tzu stated in some of his most celebrated aphorisms:

The art of war lies in subduing the enemy without having to confront him;

In every conflict regular manoeuvres lead to confrontation, whilst unexpected manoeuvres lead to victory

This asymmetry is incompatible with linear European logic and has often been interpreted-especially by travellers in the 19th century-as a sign of unreliability, almost genetic ambiguity and therefore inferiority with respect to Europeans. On the battlefield it has been interpreted as cowardice typical of those wishing to avoid exposure to conflict.

The perceptual differences are primarily cultural and have deep implications for daily life. Whilst Asia seeks harmony between forms, always seeking to establish a cosmic equilibrium between the parts (Yin and Yang), avoiding verbal and physical conflicts as far as possible, on the contrary Westerners believe that from direct confrontation –above all in politics-new and innovative ideas arise, denouncing anything which does not proceed in a direct and unambiguous manner. Could we not term America the country of straight talk?

To these geometric metaphors, on which numerous scholars have commented at length, can be added a third, which is essential in order to better understand the political games in Asia: the triangle. How to resolve conflicts between individuals or nations without being too overt and therefore running the risk of causing offence, or worse, causing one ‘to lose face’ to the adversary? The solution is to delegate to third parties who act as intermediaries. It is a game which enables parties to lessen their exposure to risk but which allows greater efficiency and frankness. There is a need, however, to find a reliable interlocutor who enjoys the confidence of both sides.

The recent strengthening of regional agreements in East and South-East Asia should also be understood in this context. The ASEAN (The Association of South-East Asian Nations), for example, counts among its members nations who have gone to war with one another in the last thirty years. Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea in 1978 was particularly bloody; the centuries-old conflict between Thais and Burmese; border disputes which continue to this day between Thai and Cambodian control of a temple which lies on the border, or even the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian Army from 1975-1999. Although it is perfectly normal that an air of reciprocal mutual mistrust still lingers, ASEAN serves an additional purpose for its members, as it is able to act as a lubricant on the area’s political tensions, offering an ideal forum in order to abate conflicts between governments and institutions.

Other similar regional forums have been created with the intent of promoting a multilateral solution to problems regarding rival countries. The Mekong River Commission and Sustainable Development (MRC), based in Vientiane, is another sub-regional body, used as a diplomatic support to heal conflicts by way of intermediaries.

It would not, therefore, be incorrect to depict the international political chessboard as a geometrical set of straight lines, circles and triangles, where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.

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Original Article: Asia and the Rest: Linee, Cerchi e Triangoli

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: Present&Correct

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