Southeast Asia Isn’t Interested in Joining a New Cold War, by Daniel Larison

The nations of Southeast Asia would rather walk the tightrope between the US and China than take either one’s side. From Daniel Larison at

U.S. policy in the region has completely ignored the intimate ties these countries retain with China.

A Bangkok shop owner seated in the middle of his store. Mr. Pornchai (73) is the son of a Chinese immigrant. (By GoranE/Shutterstock)

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, by Sebastian Strangio (Yale University Press: September 2020), 360 pages.

Southeast Asia is a region that the U.S. has largely neglected over the last thirty years, and when it has paid attention it has often pursued policies that have alienated many of the states there. China has steadily built up its economic, diplomatic, and cultural influence throughout the region, and it has strengthened its ties to ethnic Chinese minorities in many of these countries. Today the countries of Southeast Asia want continued economic cooperation with China, and they are not interested in a zero-sum rivalry between the U.S. and China. Many of them are open to cooperation with the U.S., but they have no wish to be used as cannon fodder as part of some great power showdown. If U.S. policy in this part of the world is to have any chance of success in checking Chinese influence, it will have to take account of the varied local conditions that prevail in each country, and it will have to learn to respect their sovereignty and independence.

This is the region that Sebastian Strangio describes so well in his In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. He considers the history and foreign policy of nine Southeast Asian countries, and he explains how they have historically related to China and to the Chinese immigrants that have settled in their country over the centuries. Strangio moves from one country to the next, beginning with the countries on the mainland and then turning to Indonesia and the Philippines. His primary focus is on recent history and the current relationships between these countries with China, but he does a good job of providing capsule histories of each country so that readers understand where each state has come from and why it views Chinese power the way it does.

Perhaps the most important contribution that Strangio’s book makes is that it emphasizes that these countries have their own agency and interests, and it shows that they are not pawns to be manipulated in a great power struggle between Beijing and Washington. Each one of these governments accepts that growing Chinese power and wealth are realities to be confronted, and their responses are shaped by the experience that they have had with China in the past. In Vietnam’s case, that has involved imitating and learning from China in order to defend against its predations. In the case of Singapore, that has involved cultivating closer economic ties while insisting on its own distinctive identity. A large portion of Thailand’s political and business elite has Chinese ancestry, but they also maintain a fierce tradition of independence that they have maintained for centuries while everyone else around them was colonized. Myanmar became heavily dependent on China during the decades under the military junta, in no small part because of misguided Western sanctions.

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