BOOK REVIEW: Under Bejing’s Shadow

Southeast Asia’s China Challenge, by Murray Hiebert, Rowman & Littlefield, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC. 590 pages. Hard cover, US$40.

There have been several recent books on China and Southeast Asia. Murray Hiebert’s stands out for the thoroughness of its reporting of recent issues in China’s struggle for the hearts and minds of its southeastern neighbors whether by use of the soft power of friendly persuasion, harder power in the form of hard cash, and the seriously hard power of an ever-growing military presence in the region.

Hiebert mostly eschews generalizations. The book has one chapter at the beginning, “China’s March South Greeted by Hope and Anxiety” and one concluding one: “How Close to China is Too Close?” which aptly sum up the overall sense of a region in which China’s rise is no longer seen as largely benign development.

Instead, this book takes each member of ASEAN in turn and examines, with a sentence or two of background history, recent developments in economic and political relations with China and the dilemmas that governments have in dealing with Beijing. The chapter heading give the flavor: Cambodia: China’s Proxy in southeast Asia; Myanmar: Marriage of Convenience, Not a match Made in Heaven: Singapore: “You are ethnic Chinese, So you Should not Oppose us”.

Most countries other than Brunei get roughly equal space which is both a strength and a weakness given that Laos and Indonesia are of such different magnitudes in terms of size, population, and the type and breadth of issues involved. Indeed. Hiebert, a former Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent based in Bangkok, Hanoi, and Kuala Lumpur for more than three decades, seems more comfortable with the mainland than the maritime states.

The chapter on the Philippines is largely devoted to Duterte’s effort to switch his nation’s orientation towards China and is curiously lacking in description and analysis of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict on Philippine claims against China. This had huge implications for all the littoral states and will reverberate long after Duterte is gone.

One could of course ask for more and better historical background and for house other important Asian players fit into how ASEAN nations respond –Japan, Korea, Australia, India, all with crucial economic interests and concerns about the seas and straits which have made the region historically so important to global trade. Some though to demographics would have been a plus too.

However, one cannot ask everything in one volume encompassing eleven countries. This book is indispensable to those diplomats, academics, journalists, and general readers wanting to keep up with events and issues in the region which may well determine whether China becomes the hegemon of Asia. Or will it, as is the past, face challenges on too many fronts to make more than spasmodic efforts (as with Kublai Khan or the Zhen He voyages) to impose itself on southern neighbors or extend Han cultural boundaries into Tai, Burman, Viet, and Malay territory?

The book is very up to date. However, that strength may also be a weakness. The underlying themes may not go away but policies everywhere change, mostly in response to domestic issues. So it would be nice to think that CSIS might commit to use this as a template which can periodically be edited updated to maximize its coverage of a region whose importance is inadequately recognized in the west.

Philip Bowring is a consulting editor and co-founder of Asia Sentinel

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