Webinar on “Autonomy and Agency in Southeast Asia: Rethinking “Don’t Make Us Choose” and Resolving the Deer-Dragon Dilemma”

In this webinar, Dr Donald Emmerson, editor of The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century, discussed the “Don’t Make Us Choose”, a popular Southeast Asian plea to the United States and China in light of their rivalry in the region.


Friday, 23 April 2021 — In a webinar titled “Autonomy and Agency in Southeast Asia: Rethinking “Don’t Make Us Choose” and Resolving the Deer-Dragon Dilemma” at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Professor Donald Emmerson discussed what Southeast Asian countries can and should do amidst the great power rivalry between the United States and China. Prof Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University where he is also a faculty affiliate of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.   

Prof Donald Emmerson
Prof Donald Emmerson described how the DMUC refrain creates an illusion of parity between the United States and China. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Emmerson highlighted that the plea of “don’t make us choose” (DMUC) by Southeast Asian countries to the great powers is an “abstract”, “negative” and “passive” stance that reflects what the countries do not want rather than their substantive choices, desires and preferences. Furthermore, it elevates the role of the outsiders and their respective agendas rather than the interests of the Southeast Asian states. 

Prof Emmerson described how the DMUC refrain creates an illusion of parity between the United States and China. He however underlined the geographical reality of China being a regional neighbour and the United States being 10,000 miles away from the region: the great powers are neither equivalent nor equidistant. For Southeast Asia, the problem with China is its presence, while the problem with the United States is its distance and/or absence. He also discussed how China is trying to use its size to encourage a sense of inevitability about its regional hegemony, pointing to Beijing’s attempts to establish ownership over the South China Sea through creating “maritime facts on the water” and “weaponised features” that rival Southeast Asia claimant states will have no choice but to accept. 

Prof Emmerson also explored whether DMUC as a policy-making mantra—which implies equal distrust of both powers—might be breaking down. Drawing on the ISEAS State of Southeast Asia Surveys over the past few years, he highlighted that while both powers were distrusted in 2018, regional elite opinion has tended in favour of the United States in 2019 and 2020. 

Prof Emmerson argued for disaggregating Southeast Asia and recognising how it is a “variegated region in multiple dimensions”. Hence, it is important to move away from the abstraction of DMUC and instead examine the specifics of the Deer/Dragon and Deer/Eagle dilemmas. He explained that both strands of the dilemmas have to be elaborated and explored fully, which means that the Deers of Southeast Asia must calculate what the Dragon and Eagle can each offer in various different domains, while also considering the associated risks of being co-opted or retaliated against. Significantly, the Southeast Asian countries must also consider the domestic implications of these choices, in recognition of how politics are becoming “intermistic” (with increasingly blurred lines between domestic and international politics). In the end, the Southeast Asian Deers will have to determine what they want to do on the basis of “empirical assessments based on facts and normative judgments based on values”.

Prof Emmerson additionally mulled the possibility of a political or ideological separation between the mainland and maritime countries of the region. In light of assessments by third party survey organisations about the autocratic nature of mainland Southeast Asia countries, he contemplated the eventual prospect of an increasing Sinification of the mainland region, and the possibility that the unity of ASEAN may be further affected as a result. 

In the subsequent discussion with an audience of 120 from Singapore and abroad, Prof Emmerson fielded questions relating to fatalism about China’s rise as a global power, the possibility of China evolving into a more peaceful and less aggressive power, the diversification of the Southeast Asian strategic environment and Japan’s role in doing so, the South China Sea dispute, the future of ASEAN, and the role of the Quad among others. 

120 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)