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.
Most of these states are supportive of a U.S. role in the region to balance China, but they are not prepared to serve as front-line states as part of a purely confrontational policy. One of the reasons that Trump administration policy in the region has fallen flat is that it has been far too combative and not attentive enough to the balancing act that these governments must maintain for their own security. While the U.S. has been absurdly obsessed with Iran and preoccupied with the fantasy of disarming North Korea, Southeast Asia has been strangely neglected despite its growing economic power and strategic importance. Given this unfocused and inconsistent engagement, it is no wonder that so many regional governments, including allies, want to hedge their bets.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the success of ethnic Chinese immigrants in establishing themselves in many Southeast Asian countries. That reflects the longstanding ties of trade and culture between China and the region that have been built up over centuries. Each political upheaval in China resulted in new waves of migrants that found new homes in neighboring countries, and over time these Chinese communities have become prosperous and influential. That has sometimes provoked violent backlashes from the ethnic majority, but it also created connections with China that have facilitated improved relations between these countries. Malaysia has struggled to manage tensions between the Malay majority and its ethnic minorities, and that has been further complicated by the newer influx of mainland Chinese, who now seem to enjoy preferment over Malaysian Chinese. When relations with China have turned sour in the past, it has often been the ethnic Chinese minorities that have borne the costs in the form of persecution, massacre, and expulsion. That pattern is something that needs to be kept in mind when we think about the possible consequences of a U.S.-China rivalry and what could happen if the U.S. encourages these states to take a more openly anti-Chinese position.
Compared to the extent and depth of Chinese engagement in the region, the U.S. is barely making an effort. As Strangio says of the U.S. government, “Southeast Asia remained a blind spot on its radar.” When the U.S. does take an interest in the region, Washington’s habit of commenting on and criticizing their internal affairs is an irritant that gives China a political advantage. These states are inclined to favor good relations with Beijing because of their proximity to China and their reliance on Chinese investment and tourism, but they don’t wish to become mere satellites, either. If the U.S. were capable of smart diplomacy, it would be better able to exploit the cleavages in these relationships, and it would be able to take advantage of clumsy Chinese overreaching, but for all the loud talk about “great power competition” Washington doesn’t know how to compete if it doesn’t involve organizing a militarized coalition against a common foe. Southeast Asian nations have remained decidedly cool on U.S. ambitions for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” because they fear that this will require them to make a costly and dangerous choice to be aligned openly against China.
The U.S. misunderstands Chinese ambitions in the region and the world, and there is a growing consensus in Washington that mistakenly perceives China as pursuing a role as global hegemon when it is mainly seeking regional dominance. Strangio notes that “China seeks revisions to an international order in which it has always been an uneasy participant,” but he adds that China’s “approach has been a good deal more selective and strategic.” China behaves like a typical great power in that it seeks to “expand its influence and shape political outcomes in a region that it views as essential to its national interest.” It is sharply constrained in its pursuit of regional domination by the competing interests of almost a dozen Southeast Asian nations. These nations are willing to cooperate with China up to a point, but they remain jealous of their independence and they prefer to hedge and balance between the great powers that they are forced to deal with.
The Trump administration’s framing of the rivalry with China in ideological terms is mistaken. As I have said before about H.R. McMaster’s abuse of the concept of “strategic empathy,” hawks project their own aggressive global ambitions onto China and assume that Chinese foreign policy must be an ideologically driven, missionary one like the one they support. Strangio reaches a similar conclusion:
Viewing U.S.-China competition as a new ideological showdown thus looms as a textbook example of “great-state autism” and mirror-imaging: one that projects an American missionary exceptionalism onto its Asian rival, transmuting a singular China into the inverted phantom of America’s own virtuous self-image.
While China hawks spin fantasies about a new Cold War with Beijing, all of the governments of Southeast Asia are clear that they want no part of such a conflict. These nations, Strangio says, “cannot afford to indulge in such binary thinking.” Even our formal treaty allies in Bangkok and Manila would prefer to find some modus vivendi with China instead of the stark ideological clash that the Trump administration has been promoting in recent years. What if the U.S. declared a Cold War and no one in the region chose to side with us? That is the possibility that our government faces in a Southeast Asia that Washington doesn’t understand.