In The Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia In The Chinese Century
In The Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia In The Chinese Century
New Haven, Yale University Press, 2020, By Sebastian Strangio
By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
To understand the strength of a book, any book on Southeast Asia, especially one written on the contemporary period extending between 1989–2020 essentially the arch that marked the end of Cold War and the beginning of the pandemic of SARS Cov II, the book has to be able to match the scholarship of various talented Southeast Asianists.
Among the leading ones, they are Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council for Foreign Relations, Khong Yuen Foong who was previously at University of Oxford, Tim Harper at University of Cambridge and a bevy of scholars at the Center of Southeast Asia Studies in Kyoto University and potentially those at Yale University and Cornell University too.
One can of course measure the works against the benchmark of the scholarship produced by the Center of Southeast Asia Studies at City University of Hong Kong as well, ultimately some late scholars’ work such as D. G. E. Hall, Benedict Anderson, and Khoo Kay Kim; the latter an expert on Malay and Malaysian studies.
Sebastian Strangio’s book, “In The Shadow of The Dragon: Southeast Asia in The Chinese Century” with the legendary beast being China, is unique if not superb. Having lived in Cambodia from 2006–2016, not one of the most easiest countries to navigate, due to the under currents of the politics of the old guards of the murderous Pol Pot regime, the book was able to cover 11 countries in Southeast Asia, including Timor Leste or East Timor, with the caveat by the author that he should have covered this country and Brunei “more extensively” but can’t.
The humility is but perfunctory. What Sebastian Strangio has done is actually a master piece, if not a master class, on why and when Southeast Asia has begun to struggle with Sino-US rivalry. Yet, all eleven countries in Southeast Asia do want to benefit fully from the growing economic power of China too since the latter’s economic reopening in 1979.
This epic story, rendered in clear prose, is essentially one where Southeast Asia, which has traditionally been the bastion of former colonial influence of what Professor Akira Iriye at Harvard University, called “ABCD” and “F” ‘s formal or informal empire constant struggle within the context of global forces.
Together, they are the cumulative influence of America, Britain, China and Dutch (or the Netherlands) in Indonesia, and France in Indo-China, primarily Vietnam, at one stage, and Cambodia and Laos too.
What is even more unique about the book is the description of Southeast Asia on a country-by-country basis without any reference to empty rhetoric such as ssociation of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Community by 2025, which government leaders like to peddle without any sincerity or deep conviction.
Sebastian Strangio, who is the Editor of thediplomat.com on Southeast Asia, did not rely totally on the perspective of the scholars at the Australian National University, or Murdoch University, let alone Sydney University, or for that matter, University of Melbourne, all of which have tried to excel in Southeast Asian Studies to be the guiding light of their respective states, or on behalf of the Australian government based in Canberra.
The strength of this book, in spite of the country-by-country break down, is the bold thesis at the end of the book that Southeast Asia is too complex, fragmented, indeed, too hyper nationalistic, as it is, to come under the effective control of China, even if Beijing can charm and try to co-opt them.
The author should have ended the book by quoting the eminent Professor Wang Gung Wu, though, and not Bilahari Kausikan, the latter is a former diplomat of Singapore, who has just stirred up a hornet’s nest in Cambodia by calling for it to be removed as a member of the ASEAN.
This is a mistake of Bilahari Kausikan, however, as there are no provisions in ASEAN Charter that deals with any misbehaving members that for the moment are pro China.
Bilahari Kausikan was suggesting that Cambodia was close to becoming a colony of China, with the Cambodian diplomats staging a feisty response that Singapore is no less a stooge of the United States or the West too.
Sebastian Strangio cannot be blamed in its entirety over this tit-for-tat between Cambodia and Singapore, as it was a recent event that happened in the third week of October 2020. If anything, at the introduction, Sebastian Strangio made a brave effort to explain the arrival of the pandemic, and the manner by which China has controlled it first.
Thus, it looks more and more likely that Chinese tourists and investments, invariably China’s naked ambitions in all their soft and hard form over Southeast Asia and South China Sea, will begin to manifest first in this dyad, potentially, into a serious rivalry with the United States.
If there are any scholars or thinkers out there who are trying to make sense of Southeast Asia and South China Sea, such as the likes of Donald Emmerson at Stanford University or Lee Jones at Queen’s Mary College in London, both of whom are eminent political scientists in their own right, this book is an absolute must have by the two of them and their students. Joshua Kurtlantzick at the Council for Foreign Relations should also invite Sebastian Strangio to blog in his think tank.
In Japan, the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, or, GRIPS, which seeks to train emerging leaders and bureaucrats from the member states of ASEAN, should also pay serious attention to this book.
As for China, the Chinese Academy of Arts and Sciences, that have close to 5000 analysts, cannot miss the strategic importance of this book too.
In Kuala Lumpur, the head quarter of the Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena, a management consultancy cum think tank, which has official representatives in Amsterdam, Jakarta, Istanbul, London, Bangkok, Tokyo and New York, will take Sebastian Stragio’s work very seriously, as is his previous work on “Hun Sen” which was completed at Yale University Press in 2014.
South Korea, with its Look South policy on Southeast Asia, introduced by President Moon Jae-In in 2017, should take this book seriously too, especially his top advisor Professor Chung In-Moon. India, with its Act East Policy to re-engage South East Asia, should not miss out as well.
Given Sebastian Strangio’s talented forays into South East Asia, he can be expected to be a top authority to look into the strength of the “Quads” or the Quadrilateral movement, perhaps “Quads Plus” that (for now) involve the United States, Japan, India and Australia, potentially more democracies, or non-democracies, which are still charry of the growing footprint of China in South East Asia, to join this initiative. This book is an absolute must have. This book has many strengths and few flaws, and deserve a global readership.