158 – The emergence of the regional concept: South East Asia

Posted on August 28, 2012 by

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We can trace the contingent emergence of the regional concept of South East Asia to WWII. It was created to give Dickie MOUNTBATTEN nothing to do[1]. Too well connected to the British Royal Family and too self-aggrandizing to be sidelined, Dickie – the Master of Disaster to his colleagues – was given the South East Asia Command on the understanding that it would mark the absent presence of Britain in the Pacific. The war against Japan would essentially be fought by the US, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

After the war the concept took on a life of its own – it was a convenient term for a region that has once been called the East Indies, Indo-China, and what else – all terms that underlined the influence of surrounding civilizations but implicitly denied Southeast Asia an identity of its own. A geographer concluded: “Southeast Asia turned out to be an aggregate of nations – individually distinct and collectively a battleground in, first, the Pacific War, then the Cold War, including two Indochina wars, and finally, in Cambodia, a Sino-Soviet ‘proxi-war’.”[2]

South-East Asia’s boundaries are somewhat arbitrary. Sri Lanka shares deep cultural roots with the region, but is excluded. The Philippines are included, though this country has been mainly influenced by Western civilizations since the Spanish conquest and culturally only shares[3] with the rest of South East Asia a small Islamic presence in a few islands. The division between South Asia and South East Asia runs directly through the territories of numerous small-scale societies. As a result, liberation movements have kept the regions in upheaval. Anthropologists have argued that above the 300 m line one encounters peoples who have developed “the art of not being governed”. The territory associated with them – it has been called Zomia – is probably larger than Europe[4].

Admittedly South East Asia is an extreme case of a “region” that in history has been interstitial to other civilizations. I’ve put “region” in quote marks because it is not an objective geographical term, but a mental construct – a meta-geography.

We continuously create meta-geographies: “a set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world: the often unconscious frameworks organize studies of history, anthropology, economics, political sciences” and… yes, diplomacy[5]. The clustering of human activity into “regions” – by continent, by religion, by civilization, by nation-state – is an attempt to compress an often chaotic wealth of information about societies and human activities by neatly ordering it through nestling (akin to Russian matrioska dolls) [6]. Examples are: “the West and the Rest” or the “(democratic) West and the (autarctic) Orient[7]; Asia’s boundaries have mutated continuously, and the world of “China” was meant to include Korea and Japan at times – a sort of derivative imperialism; and Tartary was once the land of Gog and Magog (pg. 177).

Once accepted, such meta-geographies are difficult to dislodge, or undo. They are myths that beget myths[8]. They may linger on and create acrimonious disputes like “where are the boundaries of Europe?” which can be eternal, because there is no unique criterion for decision. At the UN memebership in regional groupings will reflect conventions  (and political expediency), rather than logic, and create disputes.

Martin LEWIS and Kären WIGEN conclude: “It is no accident that the global geographical framework in use today is essentially a cartographic celebration of European power. After centuries of imperialism, the presumptuous worldview of a once-dominant metropole has become  has become part of the intellectual furniture of the world” (pg. 189). This statement is not to be read as polemic, but as fact – the past informs our thinking – particularly our visual thinking – in many subtle and subconscious ways.

What’s more “unchanging” than a mountain, or the location of a city[9]? Conflating physical geography and meta-geographies on the same map suggests notions of a stable, hierarchical world order; the net of boundaries that have emerged with the nation states – and often hug physical features at variance with history – reinforce this sense of permanence. Such projections onto geographical maps give meta-geographies an aura of permanence and unassailability they lack, for they are meant to reflect the ever changing evolution of human activity: “World regions are artifacts of human history” (pg. 186).

So far meta-geographies were “merely a means to an end; what mattered was to put in place a workable structure around which to organize policy” (pg. 166). Or put it another way: it suited the political intent of the “organizer”. When using an old regional maps, or their terminologies, diplomats may be unwittingly accepting and promoting policies long vanished or implicitly projecting environmental and geographical determinisms long discredited.

Whether “objective” meta-geographies will ever emerge is a question I need not decide. One comment may be appropriate though. In an ever more globalized and mobile world the cultural, political, and economic are increasingly disjoined. “Rather than perpetuating straightforward Western hegemony late-twentieth century capitalism appears to be characterized by both multi-centric growth and fractioned economic differentiation” (pg. 191). Indeed the realm of the multinational company and that of the nation state are diverging and a map of the “financial world” would ignore nation-state border altogether. Meta-geographies should reflect this dynamic, not constrain it.

As tools meta-geographies are useful, as long as they faithfully hug human activities. Always check the use-by date.


[1]               Martin W. LEWIS – Kären E. WIGEN (1997): The myth of continents. A critique of metageography. University of California Press, Berkeley; pg 172.

[2]           Donald K. EMMERSON (1984): “South East Asia” – what’s in a name. Journal of South Asian studies XV 1-21.

[3]           Ancient migrations have left cultural traces everywhere. Yet, as a first order approximation one might argue that commonalities have been overridden by extraneous differences. See e.g. Anthony REID (1993) (ed.): Southeast Asia in the early modern era: trade, power and belief. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

[4]               See e.g. James C. SCOTT (2010): The art of not being governed. An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven.

[5]           Ponderous to a fault, Martion W. LEWIS – Kären E. WIGEN op. cit. nevertheless shows quite clearly how the concepts have evolved over time to suit various political agendas.

[6]           A recent example is Samuel HUNTINGTON’s division of the world into “civilizations”, which are supposed to clash. His “civilizations” are based on “religion”. This meta-geographical ordering of the world has now entered the public discourse: though few have read the book or verified the concepts, many unthinkingly and uncritically use his ordering.

[7]           This “Orient” includes Morocco and thus begins west of Great Britain. Such is the plasticity of meta-geographies.

[8]           I’ve always been a contrarian : when my boss wanted to propagate the slogan : “Europe, the continent of technology” I returned the proposal to him after having scratched out the term “continent” and replaced it by “peninsula”. It killed the proposal…

[9]           Not even a geographical map in innocent. Since the world is a sphere and the map is flat, projections inevitably imply distortions. Current maps grossly distort relative size of continents by stretching high latitudes. Whether to place Eurasia or the Americas in the center of the map is not innocent, nor that of relegating Australia to the bottom right (after all, why should North be on top?).