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Trio Of Books Shows A Southeast Asia Caught Between World Powers

Southeast Asia
Getty Images
Southeast Asia

Over the course of just a few weeks in the fall, Southeast Asia became the stage for a flurry of diplomatic visits.

First Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited Indonesia and Vietnam during his inaugural overseas trip. Then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made stops in the same two countries on his last trip before the U.S. elections. A short while later, representatives of all Southeast Asian nations as well as Japan and China, and a few others, inked the world's largest trade deal, the RCEP, just as the U.S. Navy pitched a whole new fleet to enhance its presence in the region.

This series of events highlights Southeast Asia's increasing importance on the global stage, as China's growing influence there is coupled with the U.S.'s desire to somehow counter that influence.

This is the focus of three new books that aim to shed light on the hopes and fears that China's extraordinary rise, and concurrent assertiveness, engenders in what it considers its own backyard.

<em>In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century,</em> by Sebastian Strangio
/ Yale University Press
Yale University Press
In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, by Sebastian Strangio

Two of the volumes, Sebastian Strangio's In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century and Murray Hiebert's Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge paint a nuanced, in-depth picture of one of the world's most religiously, geographically, and politically diverse regions — stretching from Myanmar in the west all the way to the archipelago of the Philippines in the east.

According to both authors, history roots the region's fervent desire not to be dominated again by a great foreign power — most of these 10 nations (or 11, if you count East Timor) were for centuries first vassal states of China, then colonies of Western nations (Thailand, the sole exception), and eventually targets of Chinese political meddling during the Cold War when Beijing supported communist parties and funded insurgencies.

The two volumes strikingly resemble each other in scope and structure and, in that sense, perhaps lack originality. But they more than make up for that with their wealth of details. And coming as they do at nearly the same time, help to put the region's complex relationship with China, from booming trade and investment ties to somewhat frayed social and ethnic links, into clearer focus.

A third book, David Shambaugh's Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, inserts an additional and increasingly vital dimension by shining a light on how the region, with its 650 million people, is simultaneously becoming center stage in the increasingly heated confrontation between China and the U.S.

"Great power rivalry is back," Shambaugh writes in what is an enlightening, if perhaps occasionally academic, study. Shambaugh is a professor of Asian Studies at George Washington University (full disclosure: I was a student of his a decade and a half ago). Under the Trump administration, he states, "American strategy and actions are being taken intentionally to counter China," and the U.S. has "gone on the offensive against China."

<em>Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge</em>, by Murray Hiebert
/ Center for Strategic & International Studies
Center for Strategic & International Studies
Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge, by Murray Hiebert

China's rising power and influence in the world has grown dramatically over the past two decades, and nowhere that is more evident than in Southeast Asia. China is the largest trading partner to pretty much every single country in the region, and the biggest by far to the region as a whole; the provider of much-needed investment, second only to Japan; through its Belt and Road Initiative, it now aims to fulfill the region's urgency to build critical infrastructure; and, crucially, it is agnostic to the prevailing political system in the country or to accusations of human rights or other abuses.

Unsurprisingly, most Southeast Asian nations have welcomed the chance to grow alongside China. But there are irritants, as Hiebert and Strangio point out: China has so far proven inept at wielding soft power and, under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has embraced and often adopted an aggressive, unsympathetic posture — for example by claiming much of the South China Sea for itself and punishing states like Philippines and Singapore when they are either critical of, or don't toe, Beijing's line.

Hiebert and Strangio have extensive reporting histories in the region — and their books are engaging. And while they both touch on the emerging competition between the U.S. and China, Shambaugh's volume tackles it head on by the way he frames his book. His book is an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and Chinese approach to the region — and the struggle and desire of Southeast Asian nations to balance against their primary provider of security and military aid on one hand, and largest trading partner on the other.

All of the authors are critical of U.S. policy — for not showing up to regional summits, for not doing more to publicize its great soft-power advantages, for ignoring the region for periods of time.

But they are perhaps a tad too restrained in critiquing the ineffective, chaotic mess that's been the Trump administration's Asia strategy, some of the fantasies evident in it, and how it runs head first into the realities of the region — from the framing of the U.S.-China competition as an ideological choice between the "free world" and "communism" (when most countries there are not democratic, or in name only, and in the case of Vietnam, actually communist); to the simplistic demonization of China's Belt and Road Initiative as a neo-colonialist plot (which implies that other countries have no agency, when the opposite is more the case); to U.S. demands to shun Chinese telecom giant Huawei's relatively cheap 5G technology without offering a viable alternative leading most countries there to simply ignore Washington.

<em>Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia,</em> by David Shaumbaugh
/ Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press
Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, by David Shaumbaugh

Shambaugh, Strangio and Hiebert all agree that there is no desire in Southeast Asia to pick Washington over Beijing — a finding supported by the studied silence these countries have maintained this past year as President Trump and his administration have railed against, and punished, China's supposed misdeeds, from its early misteps on the coronavirus, to attempts to squash the democracy movement in Hong Kong, to repression in Xinjiang — which ought to lead to a more realistic assessment of where things stand.

Though the Trump administration may have mismanaged things, one has the lurking suspicion that the U.S. — torn between competing priorities overseas, increasingly capricious and dysfunctional politics at home, and an inability to accept its decline in relative power — is no longer capable of constituting a realistic or coherent – forget, grand – strategy, making it an increasingly unreliable partner.

The incoming Biden administration would do well to read these books and imbibe the lessons they contain: that a better U.S. strategy needs to look at the region not just through the lens of containing China and preserving U.S. hegemony but also through the prism of the region itself.

The last time the U.S. slugged it out with another superpower, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it was the region that suffered — the war in Vietnam, the bombings of Laos and Cambodia, or the mass-murder of thousands of communists in a U.S.-backed coup in Indonesia. Shambaugh hopes that great power competition this time will turn out better for the region, with the countries there able to "maximize benefits from both powers." But if history is any guide, it's just as likely that Southeast Asia is in for a rough time.

Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia editor.

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Nishant Dahiya
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