The future of Southeast Asia | How maths could prevent a war

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No unifying theme this week, in fact, two stories about as far apart as you can get:

  1. 🍜 Southeast Asia: an overview of one of the world’s most important regions.

  2. 🤯 Zero-knowledge proofs: how complex mathematics could prevent a war.

🧳 A Shoestring Guide to Southeast Asia

By Helen

For many young Aussies, a trip through Southeast Asia (SEA) during school holidays was the ultimate coming-of-age flex to your mates.

Armed with a crusty copy of Lonely Planet’s Shoestring travel guide, zero-to-minimal local language skills, and a backpack full of linen kaftans, young Aussies flock to this diverse region for its f̶u̶l̶l̶ ̶m̶o̶o̶n̶ ̶b̶e̶a̶c̶h̶ ̶p̶a̶r̶t̶i̶e̶s̶ historical and cultural wonders. (How Australians are still welcomed back to parts of SEA despite past behaviour is gobsmacking to me 😬).

These days, the region is most important as a key stage for the geopolitical theatrics of China and the US.

Okay, maybe not the most important - that’s still the people, culture, history, beaches, food, and weather - but another important thing is that SEA’s geopolitical relevance will only grow as the China-US rivalry gets spicier. 

⭐️ The essentials of Southeast Asia

For the wet-behind-the-ears geopolitical traveller, here’s the basic info:

Where it is:

  • Technically, SEA is made up of 11 countries: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei Darussalam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste.

What to expect:

  • Ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. For example, the Philippines is ~86% Christian, Indonesia (pop: ~275 million) is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia have enclaves of practicing Hindus.

  • Political disparities. SEA has governance systems ranging from democracies (Singapore, Indonesia) to a constitutional monarchy (Thailand) to a one-party communist state (Vietnam), and all shades in between. Most notably, Myanmar was a fledgling democracy until its recent coup.

  • Surprisingly strong cooperation. Despite these differences, ten SEA countries (awkwardly excluding Timor-Leste) formed ‘The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) in 1967 to facilitate economic, security, and political cooperation. Since then, ASEAN has been effective at managing seemingly intractable intra-ASEAN conflicts like Indonesia-Singapore and Malaysia-Philippines.

What to watch for:

  • Trade routes. SEA’s central location bridging the Indian and Pacific Oceans makes it a vital hub for maritime shipping. Nine of the ten biggest ports in the world are in Asia and they’re only getting bigger - Singapore is the biggest in SEA.

  • Growing economic power. SEA's population is roughly 2.5x that of the Middle East, 1.5x the European Union’s, and 1.2x North America’s. An increasing percentage of the SEA population is young, literate, and urbanised.

Stuck in between China and the US

To boil down the geopolitics of SEA to China v the US is an oversimplification to be sure. But China and the US are the 500kg panda and weirdly skinny, bearded, always pointing at you Uncle in the corner of the room.

Here's how that’s playing out:


It’s time for Asian people to run the affairs of Asia

– Chinese President Xi Jinping

🐼 China has a complex history with SEA (some were China’s ‘tributary’ states), and leverages the sizeable Chinese diaspora in SEA to foster closer political ties. It ‘divides and conquers’ in ASEAN, pulling less-developed states like Cambodia and Laos closer to its orbit to block policies unfavourable to China.

👴 The US has had a presence in SEA since WW2. Since then, both Thailand and the Philippines have signed treaties with the US covering economic matters and defence. The US attempted to promote democratic institutions and liberal values in the region, though the Vietnam War arguably did more harm than good on that front. 

⭐ My take: China’s successfully chipping away at the US’ political clout in SEA, particularly as ASEAN states with increasingly autocratic leaders warm to China’s brand of non-interference in their troubled domestic politics. The US would be the partner of choice for some SEA countries, but the lack of consistent US focus in SEA worries democratic ASEAN states like Singapore.


If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?

– Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

🐼 ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in 2020, with two-way trade reaching US$731 billion - ahead of the EU, the US, and Japan. China’s also thrown plenty of cash into SEA to build infrastructure. Crucially, China spearheaded a huge trade deal with ASEAN called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The US was not invited.

👴 The US has historically supported SEA states through economic programs focused on trade and investment, technology transfer, and education. It’s one of the largest investors in SEA. But getting excluded from RCEP and kicking an own-goal by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has probably shrunk US power in SEA.

⭐ My take: Even though China is dominating economically in the region, some SEA states are growing resentful towards China’s business practices, including disregard for the environment, importing Chinese workers, and economic bullying (check out the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’). The US has a good chance of pushing back if Biden can get his ducks in a row.


We are going to focus on the international rules of the road

– US President Biden

🐼 China’s infamous nine-dash line has unsettled most SEA states, particularly the Philippines, whose senior officials frequently tweet colourful quips about the divide. Shockingly, the tweets have not dampened Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.

👴 The US has not backed down from asserting military presence in SEA. The US recently invested US$3.5 million in a maritime training centre in Batam, Indonesia. The location is no accident - Batam is at the southern entrance of the Straits of Malacca near Singapore, a vital trade route for China.

⭐ My take: The US will continue to push back on Chinese assertiveness. China certainly won't back down. As John flagged in our Oceans edition, the next international conflict is very likely to be sparked from a clash between the US and China on the South China Sea.

Zoom out

The ‘ASEAN way’ of managing this geopolitical rivalry will be to ‘hedge, balance, and bandwagon’ with both the US and China. Much like living in the same small town as your in-laws, SEA nations understand that living with China in the neighbourhood is unavoidable, but comes with convenient economic benefits.

As ASEAN matures, it will use this positioning between the US and China to get the best deal for its member states, likely by pushing for more US-China cooperation. 

As I noted above, ASEAN has been adept at managing conflict in the past, but they’ve never faced an issue as important as the China-US relationship. Let’s hope they’re up to the task.

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🤯 Zero-knowledge proofs: how complex mathematics could prevent a war

By John

This piece was inspired by Packy McCormick's excellent article on zero-knowledge proofs. His newsletter Not Boring is well worth your time.

‘Trust’ between nations

Trust, but verify.

- Russian proverb popularised by President Reagan in a speech on nuclear disarmament

…because in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in your country is very much my business.

- President Bartlett, Season 2 of The West Wing

International relations are humanity’s way of trying to build trust across cultures, geographies, histories, philosophies, and ideologies.

So, for as long as humans have organised, politicians and diplomats have created concepts like alliances, treaties, multilateral organisations, and international law to build an architecture within which trust and cooperation can thrive. 

But what those two quotes - one from an actor pretending to be a president, the other from the West Wing (boom! 👊) - are really saying is that there’s no such thing as real trust between nations.

They’re saying that, at best, we’ve created a system where we don’t assume another country is trying to screw us, but we still need evidence to make sure that’s not the case. Thing is, getting that evidence can cause all sorts of other problems.

What are zero-knowledge proofs?

Simple. They’re incredibly complex mathematical calculations that can prove something exists without revealing any information about what that thing actually is.

😖 Wait, that confused even me. Let’s start over.

Imagine a blind man has a bag containing two balls (stop sniggering, you’re better than that).

Anyway, his two balls are different colours. But the blind man does not believe that his balls are different colours, so he asks a stranger to prove it to him... actually, you know what, let’s change the man to a woman so we can just get through this.

How can the stranger prove to the blind woman that the two balls are different colours - she blind!

Surely she either has to trust the stranger to tell the truth, or go on with her day having no idea whether the balls are really different colours, right?


👩‍🦱 Blind woman: I’m going to withdraw a ball and I’d like you to tell me what colour it is.

👲 Stranger: Okay! That one’s blue.

👩‍🦱 Blind woman: Thanks! I’m still not sure you’re not a liar (bit rude tbh), so I’m going to put that ball back in and take out the other. (Unbeknownst to the stranger, the woman takes out the same ball again).

👲 Stranger: That one is also blue. (The stranger is not lying…so far).

👩‍🦱 Blind woman: Thanks! (This time, the blind woman pulls out the other ball). What about this one?

👲 Stranger: That one is red.

After this exchange, the blind woman thinks to herself: I might have one red ball and one blue ball. But what if the stranger is tricking me, and both balls are actually blue? He might have guessed that I didn’t switch the balls the first time, but did switch them the second time.

I know, I’ll continue this experiment ten times. If both balls are blue, the chances that the stranger will be able to correctly guess whether I pull out the first or second blue ball are so small, that I will know that either the balls really are different colours, or that this prick (again, just rude) is lying.

In fact, the chances of 'that prick' successfully tricking the blind woman ten times in a row are 1/1024. Repeat the experiment 20 times, and the chances blow out to 1/1,048,576.

The blind woman, for any realistic purpose, has proven that the balls are different colours.

But most importantly, she has done so without having any idea what the colours actually are. Perhaps they are black and white, or coquelicot and skobeloff. No information other than the fact that the two colours are not the same was revealed.

That is a very simple example of a zero-knowledge proof (ZKP): the ability to prove something as true without having any knowledge of the thing itself.

The ZKP concept was ‘invented’ in 1985 (which is not that old right? 😳), but mainstream applications have only emerged alongside the rise of cryptocurrencies. So you probably guessed that the maths behind ZKPs gets very complex, very fast. 

But what the hell do ZKPs have to do with geopolitics? Well, let me tell you another story.

For more complete explanations of ZKPs, check out this, and this.

A geopolitical hypothetical

Trust but verify is a great quote, but in the real world, it’s really hard to do.

Imagine a world with a made-up dictator called… Smaddam Smussein, and a definitely not real President called... Smeorge Smush, and let’s throw in some weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) for good measure.

From Smush’s perspective:

The UN has verified that five years ago, Smaddam did not have WMDs. But Smaddam has prohibited UN weapons inspections for the last four years, and there are plenty of good reasons for Smaddam to want to acquire WMDs. So unless he lets the UN do a full and thorough inspection, we’ll assume Smaddam does have WMDs, and we’ll invade Smiraq.

From Smaddam’s perspective:

I do not have WMDs, but Smush wants me to let the UN in to see what weapons I do have. I think the UN is the lapdog of the imperialist pigs, and I think they’ll tell President Smush exactly what types of weapons we do have so they can invade us, and kill me. Death to Smamerica!

A conundrum as old as 18 years.

But what if you could apply the concept of a ZKP to develop inspection methods that would reassure Smush that Smaddam has no WMDs, while at the same time revealing no information about the weapons that Smaddam does have?

By Smeorge! You just might stop an imaginary unjust war.

The future

Back in the real world, governments are already doing something similar by using ZKP methods in nuclear disarmament. And the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively exploring other use cases of ZKPs in the context of national security.

If you stop and think, you’ll start seeing use cases for ZKPs everywhere in geopolitics:

  • Proving that a government didn’t hack another without revealing what hacking abilities that government does have (i.e. help solve the attribution problem).

  • Acting on covertly gathered intelligence without blowing the spy’s cover.

  • Verifying secret blockchain transactions without seeing the actual transactions (might this be the future of regulating international commerce?).

  • Confirming the truth of a leak without compromising the journalist’s source.

ZKPs are an exciting new tool in a diplomat’s arsenal, with the potential to make ‘trusting but verifying’ a lot easier in certain circumstances. But let's be clear: ZKPs aren’t going to magically solve the geopolitical problems of the world anytime soon.

For example, if Smeorge Smush didn’t actually care whether Smaddam Smussein had WMDs and was just using that as an excuse to invade, hypothetically of course, well then there’s not much even ZKPs could do to help.

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➕ Extra intrigue

  • The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), announced new cybersecurity pipeline regulations last week. 😴… okay okay, but hold on! This is the first time the US Government has imposed cyber regulations on an industry and experts say it’s a signal that cybersecurity will soon be required, rather than strongly advised. That’s all great, but we mostly just want to keep our shoes on at the airport.

  • Russia completely disconnected itself from the global internet two weeks ago. But unlike [insert your local ISP], it wasn’t a technical fault, rather an annual test mandated by Russia’s sovereign internet law. The tests route all Russian web traffic through points controlled by the Russian Government. This is vital for state security, of course.

  • Live-streamed videos of African chefs cooking Chinese food are going viral in China. China’s rising influence in Africa is well-documented, but the focus is usually on money or military matters rather than ‘soft power’. It’s not surprising that China’s most persuasive cultural export - its food - is a hit in Africa. And it’s not surprising that videos of foreigners enjoying Chinese food are a hit in China.

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