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East Asia - Foxes and Hedgehogs

The Greek poet Archilocus is said to have remarked: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. It was a line that inspired Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he opined that writers and thinkers could be divided into two camps:

those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel … and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way…

Berlin readily admitted that this was an 'over-simple classification', but maintained that it nevertheless offered 'a starting-point for genuine investigation.'

It’s in this spirit that we can use the idea of the fox and the hedgehog to understand what’s happening in East Asia today. And the first thing to note is that there is, indeed, a lot happening.

Just in the last few weeks, we’ve seen (among other things): the APEC and East Asia Summits attended by regional leaders; the US’s decision to undertake freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea (SCS); the yuan’s listing as an official reserve currency by the IMF; a rare meeting between Xi Jinping and the Taiwanese president, who faces voters in January; another rare meeting between Li Keqiang, Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe to try to improve Northeast Asian ties; a ‘free and fair’ election in Myanmar at which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party performed strongly; and wobbles in the Japanese economy.

This follows in the wake of the finalisation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a slowdown of the Chinese economy (coupled with interventionist responses by its leaders), a dramatic flare up between North and South Korea, and China’s controversial founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

This has left Asia watchers scratching their heads, and confronting the same question: ‘what does all of this mean?’

There are, of course, a few ways this question can be answered. There’s the straight-up-and-down answer: ‘it means x’. There’s the more complicated answer: ‘it means x and y’, along with a potential ‘but not z’. And finally there’s the honest answer: ‘I don’t know’. As a general rule, most people prefer the first answer, academics – practised, at least in theory, in living with cognitive dissonance – prefer the second, and almost no one prefers the third.

We can see at this point that Asia-watchers are being pulled in two directions. The rapidly expanding set of ‘facts on the ground’, none of apparently decisive significance (such as a war), requires investigation and analysis. This often leads to a more complex and nuanced explanation. But the ‘what does all of this mean?’ question which arises from the sheer number of moderately important events seems to cry out for an overarching, straightforward answer that can unlock the secret that, underneath everything, links them all together.

So what should the Asia-watcher do? Should he examine each event closely, and mimic the fox? Or should he think big, and channel the hedgehog?

The only sure option is the former. The latter approach has too many flaws to commend it.

Take the most obvious hedgehog explanation: the rise of China and its assertive behaviour is causing concern in the region and, as a result, an increasingly assertive response from the US and its allies in return. On this view, it is the behaviour of these two great powers which matters the most, and the rest is merely elaborate window-dressing.

The US-China strategic rivalry does explain a lot, such as the SCS dispute in recent weeks, but it misses just as much. For instance, it doesn’t explain the frictions in the South Korean and Japanese relationship. To explain this, we have to look elsewhere (at the importance of hierarchy in traditional Asian society and international relations, for instance) and ask different questions (such as 'why are historical grievances from World War II and before flaring up now, when the numbers of people alive with memories of those times is rapidly decreasing?’)

Another hedgehog explanation is that China is creating a new tributary system in Asia. The problem with that view is that it is equally misleading. It downplays the economic and political associations within Asian countries themselves that don’t directly or solely involve China – supply-chain networks, for instance, or ASEAN – and their complicating influence. It disregards the economic rise of many other states in Asia (some that predated, or ran alongside, China’s rise itself). And it fails to account for India and Japan and the nature of their roles in any such order.

In short, a hedgehog approach to understanding East Asia today fails to adequately account for the region’s complexity, because it tends to direct our focus overwhelmingly – and, ultimately, disproportionately – on China.

China is obviously, and will doubtless remain, a hugely significant part of East Asia. But focussing almost entirely on it – presupposing its significance in relation to almost every issue – will not tell us the whole story.

Then again, perhaps not even a fox can tell us that.

Finian Cullity recently completed bachelor’s degrees in Arts (Japanese and International Relations) and Laws (First Class Honours) at the University of Queensland. He will work as a judge’s associate in the Supreme Court of Queensland next year.

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Image credit: IQRemix (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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