Three new books show how China's influence is rising over Southeast Asia. Picture: Pinterest

“The first four months of his term passed without a single meeting or telephone conversation with a Southeast Asian leader, although during the same period he had fifteen phone conversations with heads of state in the Middle East, fourteen from Europe, seven from Latin America, six from Northeast Asia, three from Africa, two from North America and one from South Asia.” 

So writes David Shambaugh in Where Great Powers Meet about President Donald Trump.  Give or take a figure or two, including over six months and not four, he could be just as pointedly writing about US President Joe Biden. 

Whether planned to coincide with an election year or not, Shambaugh’s book and two others from 2020 – Murray Hiebert’s Under Beijing’s Shadow and Sebastian Strangio’s In the Dragon’s Shadow – offer America’s president three pitches for why not to strike out in Southeast Asia.

Each worthy in its own right, the books’ shared dateline but very different bylines make for a comprehensive and complementary series. Shambaugh is among America’s foremost experts on modern China and a decorated academic at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. 

He is curious, empirical and, preferring “to research and write about things that are new and about which I do not know much,” refreshingly modest. 

Hiebert is ensconced at the influential Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, but spent decades living in Beijing, Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. 

Strangio is a consummate journalist: grounded in background but most at home on the ground, where the effects of geopolitical shifts can be seen, sensed and heard for oneself. 

Thus it should not be surprising – yet still is, given the new “Washington Consensus” that Beijing is bent on forcing its interests and ideology on the region – that no single view emerges from the books. 

The obvious reality of a waxing China and a waning America is duly acknowledged, but whether those trends are causal of one another or coincidental is either not addressed or not agreed. 

This is in part because, as the books and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) both serve to remind, Southeast Asia is less a region than a construct; 10 deceptively different countries whose past and present interface with the Great Powers varies dramatically. 

All three authors cover nine of the countries sequentially, while readers are in further debt to Shambaugh and Hiebert for also covering the current ASEAN chair and chronically under-reported Brunei.

Shambaugh’s fresh eyes are reason enough to read Where Great Powers Meet, as they yield equally fresh observations and arguments. His work is essentially a study, approached with clear questions in mind and a systematic methodology toward reaching answers. 

It consists of rigorous desk research focused substantially on measurables (numbers, figures, percentages, lists), which are then colored and contextualized by visits and interviews with professional peers in the region. 

Structurally, and to his credit, Shambaugh attempts to assess not only “where Great Powers meet” in Southeast Asia, but where – from its own perspectives – Southeast Asia meets the Great Powers. Where coincidence between these vantage points is strongest and divergence weakest, he suggests, the greater of the two powers will have emerged.

The book’s recounting of pre-modern history and first contacts is sometimes conspicuous but makes for a richer read. For America at least, Southeast Asia has only been viewed independently of other major powers (Japan during World War II, China and the USSR through the wars in Indochina) since the early 1980s.  

Such accounts for its sudden fall in importance in Washington for 20 years thereafter – as well as for its sudden rise again alongside new adversaries in Islamic terrorists in 2001 and, today, a “revisionist” China.  

Shambaugh clearly believes, however, that “the Obama administration was the exception to the rule” and thus, contrary to convention, that its “pivot” to the region was realized. 

Underpinning the case are Obama’s unprecedented visit to Laos in 2016, new engagement policies on Myanmar and Vietnam, advancement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and consistent prioritization of ASEAN meetings.

Indeed, Shambaugh’s book is unique among the three in distinctly addressing US and Chinese relations with ASEAN, which he describes as “an under-institutionalized and under-resourced body with minimal representative powers and poor capacities for implementation.” 

Then-president Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders take part in a group photo during a US-ASEAN special summit meeting at the Sunnylands estate, February 16, 2016, in Rancho Mirage, California. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

He faults the US for persistently misunderstanding the body’s mandate and for maintaining an equally under-resourced mission that has lacked an ambassador (now as then) since July 2019. Its policy toward ASEAN is no more than “the sum of the parts of US relations with individual countries in the region.” 

In contrast to his findings in reverse, “there is little – if any – centralized and coordinated strategy for competing with China in the region.”

That said, Shambaugh’s research also reveals that the US is not the only Great Power to take its eye off the ball. Compared to other “area studies,” including of Africa and Latin America, Chinese academic and think tank expertise on Southeast Asia is “surprisingly sparse,” particularly in Beijing. 

That which does exist tends to focus more on America’s role in the region than on the region itself. Moreover, and equally worrisome for Beijing, “there appears to be a parallel dearth of expertise on China in Southeast Asia.” 

Yet in part because area studies in the US were gutted after the Cold War (despite having helped win it), Chinese influence has widened and deepened anyway. Shambaugh addresses the stark situation in Laos, possessing little leverage and “land-linked” to China itself, as well as the more geopolitically significant – and deliberate – shifts by US treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines. 

As the “least involved Southeast Asian nation with China” until President Duterte’s election in 2016, he observes, the Philippines has effectively rebalanced its foreign policy to the point of equidistance from the Great Powers. 

The author is strongest however on Cambodia, which he departs the mainstream to call a “full-blown Chinese client state,” replete with all of the term’s uneasy implications of mutual dependence and manipulation. 

In this, he illustrates another of his main points; namely that geopolitical agency among most Southeast Asian countries is understated.

Shambaugh concludes by outlining four potential future scenarios among an assumed increase in Great Power competition in Southeast Asia. He refrains from comparing their likelihood, but once again breaks with the dominant narrative in assessing that it is the US, and not China, that boasts the stronger line-up – by far. 

America’s advantage in military power and force projection is unsurmountable in the near-term, while that of its opposite “soft power” is greater still. Even in economic terms, Beijing’s strong suit in the region, US dominance in a range of services outperforms its competitor’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

A promotional poster for the 414-kilometer Laos-China railway project that promises to transform Laos from landlocked to land-linked. Photo: Facebook

And if the BRI continues to evolve to encompass everything from the Mekong River to maritime trade, such is as much evidence of Beijing’s over-reach and heavy-handedness as of sustainable ascendency. In that sense, suggests Shambaugh, America’s tyranny of distance is counter-balanced by China’s discomfiting proximity. 

At the same time, he admonishes that the US needs “to do much better in telling its own story,” since “competition with China may be won or lost in the information domain.” This speaks to the hard facts that perception in Southeast Asia is far more than a matter of oversight or quick fix, and that having the upper hand only matters if one is prepared to play it.

Under Beijing’s Shadow

Murray Hiebert’s Under Beijing’s Shadow adds value to the shelf for the very different reason that it is more a reference tool than an examination of “Southeast Asia’s China Challenge.” 

While the author offers little analysis as to why China and the region are alternately locking arms and horns, he does offer a truly comprehensive compilation of what they are doing in one another’s spheres. 

In that sense, his style is less that of a former journalist (with the storied Far Eastern Economic Review) than reporter, duly chronicling and categorizing developments in often single-sentence paragraphs. 

These in turn are frequently of a point/counter-point pattern that further reinforces the book’s non-committal but inclusive approach. Indeed, the advantage of privileging facts over argument is that, at more than twice the length of its two companion volumes combined, Under Beijing’s Shadow is invulnerable to charges of bias or selectivity.

The result is a trove. From 2003 through 2015 China participated in a total 130 joint military exercises, nearly a quarter of which with Southeast Asian militaries. In 2016 alone the total figure hit 124. 

In the South China Sea, during just a 20-month period prior to 2015, China “created” 17 times more land – including entire islands – than four other claimants together had done during the previous four decades. 

Yet, China still only controls seven land features in the sea compared to the Philippines’ nine and Vietnam’s 21. Cambodia’s well-known efforts to keep the competing claims off of ASEAN’s agenda have been driven not only by Chinese pressure, but – far less known – its own disillusionment with ASEAN itself since its handling of the Thai-Cambodian Preah Vihear dispute through 2011. 

This in turn calls into question ASEAN’s presumption that the biggest threat to its all-important “centrality” comes from outside its ranks. Economically, Deng Xiaoping commenced China’s engagement with Southeast Asia around 1980, when two-way trade registered a humble $8 billion. 

Author Murray Hiebert is a long-time fellow at the CSIS think tank in Washington DC. Photo: Youtube / Screengrab

From then through 2018, that figured grew by an average of $15 billion per year. On the US side of the ledger, American companies invest more in Southeast Asia’s 10 nations than in China, India, Japan and South Korea combined.

Like Shambaugh, Hiebert provides welcome historical context in each of his chapters, not merely as interesting background but as integral to understanding the foreground’s sometimes strange topography. 

Unlike Shambaugh but similar to Strangio, he does not cover America’s role in the region explicitly, but often does so as a reason for noting Chinese and Southeast Asian actions and reactions. And as with both of his fellow authors, Hiebert’s chapter on Myanmar is at once informative and, grace a coup d’etat six months ago, ancient history. 

Thailand’s two 21st century coups played starring roles in a geopolitical game already underway; Myanmar’s upended the game altogether in a manner recalling China’s Cultural Revolution and Cambodia’s Year Zero – and to many of the same effects. 

Despite notably understating the nature and gravity of the Rohingya “crisis”, Heibert rightly points out that “multiple layers of different Chinese government and Communist Party departments and organizations often have dif­ferent, and even conflicting, priorities” in Myanmar. 

The International Liaison Department of the Party’s Central Committee, for example, engages the powerful United Wa State Army to promote Beijing’s long-term strategic and economic interests. 

This is a natural vestige of strong but bygone relations between the CCP and the Burmese Communist Party. How those interests are defined, however, is hardly clear: the PLA supplies the Wa with serious weapons for use against Myanmar’s army, while local government, companies and ethnic groups in China’s bordering Yunnan province work to keep the Wa engaged in Myanmar’s divisive peace process. 

It is good to be reminded of what China’s dynasties and dictators have never forgotten, that the Middle Kingdom is not a monolith.

In the Dragon’s Shadow

In the Dragon’s Shadow serves as the closer among the three books and is the most impressive and complete, not least because its author is simply a writer’s writer. 

Generally confined to the clear but uninspired prose of short-form journalism as the Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor, Sebastian Strangio is free to display his talents more fully in the book and turn a far more interesting phrase. 

Thus China’s 1979 attack of Vietnam, expressly intended to “teach it a lesson,” was a “pedagogical invasion,” while its erstwhile charm offense in Southeast Asia is today “increasingly less charm and more offensive.” 

A statue outside the region’s oldest church is missing an outstretched hand but, “Unperturbed, St Francis extends his stump toward the distant Straits of Malacca.” 

Yet there is more than artistry at work, as Strangio’s description of mid-19th century China as “forced into in the humble constraining straight-jacket of the modern nation-state,” speaks to both its previous civilizational identity and present “wolf warrior” complex.  

Author and journalist Sebastian Strangio. Picture: Twitter

Likewise, ASEAN’s defense against Beijing’s bilateral approach to regional differences is illustrated by its efforts to “bind the Chinese Gulliver with a thousand multilateral threads.”

Following a portrait of China’s Yunnan province, whose deep links to Southeast Asia’s mainland give modern meaning to “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” the book leads the reader on an overland journey to the sea.  

Strangio begins in Vietnam and ends in the Philippines – that is, on the extremes of Southeast Asia’s historical interchange with China. Rather than include it purely as introduction, he mainstreams such history throughout, as he does others’ voices and views and a cascade of situational vignettes. 

Barely buried in the ground along Vietnam’s Chinese border is an enmity belying “Friendship Pass” and its bustling trade; the author’s aging informants’ memories are still young. 

In Cambodia, his “two days sitting beneath the ceiling fans” in the National Archives betray the limited relevance of a “rising China” that has never not been prominent. And thanks to his research of a late 19th-century explorer, we know that the British and French colonial powers saw Burma as the opposite of what China sees it as today: a northward corridor into the “incalculable” and untapped Chinese market. 

Four decades later, a new generation of British colonialists supplied Chinese nationalists by building the famed Burma Road, which is today “the main economic gateway” to Burma for the side the nationalists were fighting.

Next stop and the jewel of Southeast Asia’s littoral, Singapore abounds in irony and invention. Dismissed from Malaysia for essentially being too Chinese, the ever-precocious city-state later had a profound influence on Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. 

Yet, Lee Kuan Yew’s point was self-evident in speaking to Deng only in English – even as he implemented a domestic “Speak Mandarin” campaign to foster unity at home and economic fluency in Beijing. 

In Singapore’s demographic antitheses, Indonesia and the Philippines, where ethnic Chinese make up just over 1% of each’s population, Strangio unwittingly tells a cautionary tale. 

Confine the Chinese to the economic sphere, as Indonesia did through the late 1990s, and lo and behold they control a third of the nation’s wealth by the time the economy goes to pieces in 1998. 

The Philippines, occupied with (and by) the Spanish, Japanese and Americans through the end of World War II, is comparatively new to China – which helps explain its president’s recent and credulous appeal to novelty.  

While the author tops and tails the book with some collective observations and conclusions and draws parallels throughout, he rightly affords each country its own unique narrative. 

This exposes the work’s only noteworthy flaw, however, the omission of Brunei “Due to restrictions of time and space.” A fellow author appreciates the pressures of publication, but the book feels mildly incomplete without the inclusion of a claimant state in the South China Sea and ASEAN’s current chair.

This photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Summary

On the other hand, it is the only of the three books to (briefly) mention the Covid-19 pandemic, which has dominated the Chinese story and the US-China dynamic in Southeast Asia since all three went to press. 

Although Beijing jumped out to a large and early lead in “vaccine diplomacy,” recent and growing distrust of Sinovac and Sinopharm has created the kind of opening for America that Shambaugh identifies in Where Great Powers Meet

Only last week, the US donated 1.5 million doses of its Pfizer vaccine to Thailand, while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Yet less than 6% of Thailand’s 70 million people are fully vaccinated, and the treaty ally did not appear on Austin’s itinerary. Contrast this with China, whose vaccines account for roughly half of all those administered thus far in Thailand, and whose foreign minister has visited nine of ten ASEAN nations since last October and hosted all ten in June. 

Contrast it too with America’s response to the region’s last major humanitarian crisis, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, when its nearby Seventh Fleet – not unlike the largest overseas presence of the US Center for Disease Control in Bangkok – saved lives in real time. 

In so doing, it also eased bitter memories of Washington’s ham-fisted handling of the regional financial crisis seven years prior, and left no doubt as to the Great Power of record.

In that sense, after more than six months of silent phones in the breast pockets of Southeast Asian leaders, all three otherwise solid books read similar to their chapters on Myanmar, detailed snapshots of a place on the eve of a bellwether event. 

No less essential for that, their final chapters are still in train. How they end will depend on whether and when those phones start ringing.

Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, David Shambaugh, Oxford University Press, 2020

Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge, Murray Hiebert, Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, Sebastian Strangio, Yale University Press, 2020

Benjamin Zawacki is a Senior Program Specialist at the Asia Foundation in Bangkok and the author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China (second edition forthcoming October 2021).