Book Review: Cowboys and the Wild East — “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century”

By Justin Grosslight

Proceeding largely country by country, Sebastian Strangio penetratingly explores Southeast Asia’s multifaceted struggle with its behemoth Chinese neighbor.

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century by Sebastian Strangio. Yale University Press, 360 pages, $30.00.

Anyone curious about global affairs could hardly overlook China’s fidgety behavior. Flash points are coming with increased regularity: anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong, militarization of the South China Sea, tightened up social controls. And there is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s aggressive, multibillion-dollar undertaking to link itself to the Eurasian continent, Africa, and, ultimately, the globe through investment in a vast matrix of railways, roads, ports, pipelines, and industrial zones. Its announcement in September 2013 – shortly after Xi Jinping assumed leadership as China’s President – signified China’s strongest attempt to reestablish its dominance, to avenge a “century of humiliation” led by Western imperialism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ironically, while much ink has been spilled over China’s influence on Central Asia, East Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea – “new silk roads,” per se – surprisingly less has been written about its growing impact on Southeast Asia. Sebastian Strangio’s book, In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, lucidly illuminates what is at stake for this vibrant region nestled between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and perched at China’s doorstep.

Populated by over 650 million people that drive the world’s fifth-largest economy, the eleven countries that constitute Southeast Asia — Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — make for strange bedfellows. No uniform language, religion, political ideology, culture, currency, or imperial experience unites these nations. Their grouping has been more an accident of modern geopolitics than anything else. Yet similarities lurk beneath the veneer of difference. Each nation covets its sovereignty, and most have purged imperial ambitions or insurgent Chinese communist groups from their borders. Regional solidarity has been fueled by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an economic union founded in 1967 by five nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) as a bulwark against communism. Since then, ASEAN has expanded – literally and ideologically – to include ten Southeast Asian nations (East Timor applied for ASEAN membership in 2011).

More critically, Southeast Asia’s boundaries with China are neither as well-defined nor as settled as they appear to be. The fallout from contested maritime claims has resulted in Chinese fishing boats straying into foreign waters and, more importantly, China militarizing reefs and islands in the South China Sea – its first major naval expansion since the fifteenth century. Terrestrial borders are more firmly demarcated, even though China’s Guangxi and Yunnan provinces have more in common (historically) with mainland Southeast Asia than with Beijing. Of late, Yunnan’s authorities have taken aggressive measures to secure its frontier in an effort to stanch the flow of narcotics, trafficked individuals, wildlife, and other contraband goods along the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and other borders. Chinese officials have even obtained jurisdiction to pursue criminals downstream to Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” region, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma intersect. China has extended its reach even further down the Mekong through the creation of multilateral institutions charged with overseeing the river’s development. These actions have improved international commerce, but the control exerted by Chinese dams in the Upper Mekong has given the country the ability to manipulate, at will, ecosystems and riparian communities in alluvial Cambodia and Vietnam. Obviously, such actions blur the line between “where the Chinese state ends and where private initiatives begin.”

Common economic and environmental challenges have pulled Southeast Asia into China’s orbit. Planned railways, ports, roads, hydroelectric plants, and other projects inevitably bind Southeast Asia to China –they encourage trade and generate profits. But they also expand Southeast Asia’s indebtedness to Beijing. Chinese tourism also has blossomed in the region, but the stimulus has often come at the expense of hamstringing local businesses along with alienating residents. Despite these drawbacks, Beijing’s doctrine of non-interference in domestic matters has driven its successes in the region. Southeast Asia’s leaders like China’s no-strings-attached support in times of crisis. The West – especially America – is hindered by its loud moralism. Meanwhile, China’s soft power diplomacy has been tailored to charm the region’s 32.7 million (presumably documented) ethnic Chinese. Mandarin language schools, television broadcasts, Confucius Institutes, and university programs are part of a strategy to set up reconnections with the motherland. At the same time, they also have sparked fears of political suasion. So does China’s reliance on a “nine-dash line” map that it circulated in 2009, which proclaims its sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. Though the map’s claims were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 – China continues to dispute the ruling – the affected Southeast Asian nations remain infuriated.

Strangio highlights areas of disaffection among the Southeast Asian nations. They “differ considerably on the question of China in general, and on the South China Sea disputes in particular, opening up gaps into which Beijing has thrust wedges of economic inducement.” To this end, China has nimbly employed a “divide and conquer” attitude in the region, pushing for bilateral engagement instead of group consensus. And while every Southeast Asian country has its own level of toleration for China’s behavior, none yearns for America’s liberal prescriptions. Each seeks to reach its own comfortable balance of power, occasionally looking to Japan or even India for succor. And while “no two countries approach China in quite the same way,” each is aware that “China’s return to Southeast Asia… marks the closing of a brief historical parenthesis – five hundred years at the most – in which Western power was predominant in Asia.” Part of an imperial tributary system or seafaring mercantile network in the past, much of Southeast Asia today is grappling with Chinese clout in the Indo-Pacific. Proceeding largely country by country, Strangio penetratingly explores Southeast Asia’s multifaceted struggle with the Chinese behemoth.

From Hanoi, the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) has walked a tightrope between wanting economic relations with China yet managing popular disdain for its “greedy” northern neighbor. Flourishing trade and Chinese tourism — together with plans to create liberal Special Economic Zones (SEZ) — are helping Vietnam to prosper. Still, Chinese brinkmanship in the South China Sea, worries about Chinese machinations, and concerns about VCP corruption linked to them has encouraged digitally-active patriots to foment “nationalistic spot-fires.” American arms and financial support have curtailed Chinese influence, but Vietnam remains wary of embracing either BRI investment or Western initiatives. Though the VCP relies heavily on Beijing for economic and ideological legitimization, it has maintained civility with both superpowers, mostly by doing its best to erase Cold War memories from national consciousness.

Like two sides of the same coin, Cambodia and Laos have let China run its tentacles deep into their territory, partially to curb Vietnamese influence. In Cambodia, “Chinese ‘no-strings’ support has provided Hun Sen’s government a crucial escape hatch from the conditions that were often attached to Western aid money.” Chinese funding has cultivated manufacturing, improved transportation networks, enhanced electricity grids, and encouraged casino tourism. All of this in exchange (perhaps) for having Cambodia side with China over ASEAN in South China Sea disputes as well as covertly granting China access to the country’s Ream Naval Base. Meanwhile, Laos continues to evolve “from ‘landlocked’ to ‘landlinked’” as it lets China robustly augment existing transport, trade, and hydro-power plans. Beijing has striven to lure the Hanoi-inclined Lao People’s Revolutionary Party out of Vietnam’s orbit through national-level diplomacy. A decade of fiscal negotiation has finally resulted in the beginning of the construction of a $6.2 billion high-speed rail from Kunming to Vientiane, but only with a complementary Vietnamese-backed rail traversing its southern panhandle.

Author Sebastian Strangio — his sinewy prose brings all of the book’s elements together into a cohesive narrative.

Thailand’s “tilt toward China” has been punctuated by a series of “breakthrough moments” encouraged by the withdrawal of American support – most recently its suspending security assistance and scaling back military engagements after the Royal Thai Army’s 2014 coup d’état. As America’s presence fades, Chinese tourism has boomed and trade along the Mekong has burgeoned. Government officials have welcomed BRI discussions and revived interest in constructing a canal through the Isthmus of Kra. The latter project would create myriad jobs and reduce shipping times from the Indian Ocean to East Asia, but it would also cripple commerce through Singapore and the bustling Straits of Malacca. China has upped its soft power presence through the founding of numerous Confucius Institutes and cultivating connections on both sides of Thailand’s political divide. Nevertheless, Thailand has dithered on executing BRI projects, hoping to reduce its trade deficit with China as it looks for patronage elsewhere in order to ensure its survival.

For the past generation, China has seen Burma (Myanmar) as “a proxy for the Western coast that it lacks.” Before the Tatmadaw (armed forces) sought in 2011 to rebrand Burma as a ‘democracy’ and after the National League for Democracy’s 2015 electoral triumph, China has sought to achieve its goals by leveraging Burma’s ethnic and political problems. It is doing so by offering solutions to Burma’s Rohingya Muslim crisis in the littoral Arakan province as well as furnishing military advice and weapons to local militias in provinces along its border. China is also pushing forward on plans to create a deep-water port and industrial zone in Kyaukphyu, to run trains from Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal, and to develop border trade zones in Burma’s Kachin and Shan States. Burma hopes Beijing will brighten its economic future, but the public’s trust in China remains low as the nation ponders engaging Japan and India as alternatives to BRI support.

Singapore – arguably “the only country in the world to have a special relationship with both China and the United States” – has managed China with tact. China is its leading trade partner, so the country supports the BRI. Still, Singapore’s maritime trade protection relies on American weaponry and military support. As a micro-nation that is ethnically three-quarters Chinese, Singapore has increasingly grown wary of Beijing’s attempts to increase its influence through the propagation of its nationalist ideology via the Mandarin language media and cultural venues. (Vigilance ran so high that when Beijing in 2015 opened a China Cultural Centre in Singapore, the country countered by opening its own Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre in the financial district.) Singapore has maintained itself economically by supporting innovative industries, such as petrochemicals, advanced information, and medical technologies. Its political alliances have been determined more out of shared interests than common values.

In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s reputation foundered after exposure of his involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal – in which Najib had funneled roughly $681 million of the fund into his pockets and billions into shell companies and offshore accounts. Acting as a savior out of self-interest, China purchased parts of the noxious fund, helped Najib finance BRI projects at “above market profitability” as a means to relieve 1MDB debts, and secretly gained approval for its naval vessels to dock in two Malaysian ports. Accusations of race and corruption concerns then stoked riots in Kuala Lumpur, compelling nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad to come out of retirement and oust Najib. Following Malaysia’s 2018 elections, its fourth prime minister was sworn in as its seventh. But Mahathir “differed from his predecessor in degree rather than in kind.” He fully supported BRI projects while renegotiating their prices. Along with soft power tactics it uses elsewhere in Southeast Asia, China has awarded overseas scholarships to Malaysians and has exploited affirmative action policies to reduce Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese population and drain its intellectual resources. Right-wing Malays fear that Chinese Malaysians are protected by Beijing, and political affairs since Mahathir Mohamed’s 2020 resignation have stalled progress on ethnic unity.

Following Suharto’s 1998 resignation and racial unrest, once-restricted ethnic Chinese reconnected with their homeland while China emerged as Indonesia’s top trading partner. Indonesia has continued to grow, progressing more rapidly than it can manage. Craving infrastructure support, current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo quickly befriended Xi Jinping and signed contracts for numerous (still outstanding) BRI projects. Simultaneously, he has tread carefully in an effort to protect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In order to combat illegal fishing, he has cleverly detained foreign vessels in Indonesian waters, scuttling just enough Chinese ships to silence opponents but not enough to alienate Beijing. All the while he is boasting of Jakarta’s “non-claimant” status in South China Sea disputes and passing off such concerns to ASEAN. He also has contended with the pressures of a persistent anti-Chinese nationalism and critics who have bemoaned the numerous illegal Chinese workers on Indonesian soil.

Finally, in the Philippines, strongman Rodrigo Duterte has wooed struggling citizens with populist rhetoric and a macabre war on drugs. His policies on China, despite popular disapproval, stress cooperation. Contending that “Duterte’s ‘pivot to China’ was neither as new, nor as irrational, as it seemed,” Strangio argues that agreements on infrastructure projects, industrial development, tourism, and oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea are not a turnaround. Maritime frictions, however, persist: Chinese flotillas harass Filipino fishermen and Chinese engineers are in the midst of constructing artificial islands in the Spratlys. What’s more, Chinese fortification of Subi Reef has upset municipal officials, who remain loath to ask Manila for defense support given that the government is receiving funding from Beijing. Complicating the issues: American apathy regarding protecting the Philippines has aggravated an already hostile Duterte. That leaves Filipino bureaucrats in a vulnerable position: torn between wanting to support their American ally while not alienating their president.

The ambition and meticulousness of Stragio’s research is impressive; it is the result of over a decade of legwork that presents the reader with a farrago of louche entrepreneurs and sober-sided diplomats along with a motley crew of river pirates, municipal officers, café owners, museum founders, war veterans, government protestors, and drug dealers dispersed across nine countries – some of these voices are located in highly remote areas. Strangio’s accounts are judicious and nonpartisan, providing a sweepingly even-handed overview of China’s role in Southeast Asia. Perhaps by necessity, In the Dragon’s Shadow is a multifaceted study: part history, part political economy, and part picaresque adventure, Strangio’s sinewy prose brings all of the elements together into a coherent narrative. Detailed maps and well-chosen images help readers navigate the storyline. Country-specific chapters can be read either independently or enjoyed as an ensemble. For those aspiring to learn more, an extensive reading list is furnished at the back of the book.

Yet for all the area that the book covers, it overlooks some vital areas in the region. For example, Strangio discloses that, due to time and space limitations, “this book regretfully omits detailed discussions of Brunei and East Timor, the two smallest Southeast nations by population.” Neither of the nations are talked about, which makes the fact that Brunei’s flag is on the book’s cover and East Timor’s isn’t somewhat perplexing. Nevertheless, both nations have embraced Chinese intervention. In Brunei, whose economy hinges on oil and gas exports, ardor for Chinese investment has colored relations – so powerfully that in 2018 Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah replaced six top ministers after rumors surfaced that chief government officials had awarded contracts on Chinese-backed projects to family members. China’s “nine-dash line” claims extend well into Brunei’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a prime area for nonrenewable energy exploration, and many of Brunei’s civil servants have remained mum. Key BRI projects in Brunei include bridges and dams along with the Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor, which aims to enhance the Muara Container Terminal with adjacent industrial, agricultural, and medicine zones. There are also plans to construct a nearby oil refinery at Pulau Maura Besar. In East Timor, BRI projects such as the Suai Highway and new port at Tibar Bay will upgrade the nation’s outmoded infrastructure.

The book’s reliance on headline events in Western media, academic literature, and broad economic data makes way for minor lacunae. This is clearest in Strangio’s chapter on Vietnam, which overlooks quotidian affairs such as mass aversion to Chinese-made products, letters and petitions to the VCP remonstrating against China, and the appallingly frequent Chinese assaults of Vietnamese fishermen at sea. Scholar Benedict J. Tria Kirkvliet estimates that the Chinese attacked over two thousand fishermen in Vietnam’s EEZ between 2000 and 2015, which resulted in stolen equipment, damaged boats, and extorted funds. Russian influence also flies under the radar in Strangio’s account. Despite its meager trade and modest investment with ASEAN, Russia has long been Southeast Asia’s largest arms supplier – particularly to Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, Laos and Burma. Engagement with Moscow has provided Southeast Asian nations with an out: an affordable, accessible option to arm themselves while avoiding qualified procurement terms from China, America, or Europe. Additional material on sex trafficking, wildlife smuggling, managing transnational hydro-power norms, and remnants of colonial influence would have been real benefits to Strangio’s book.

Then there are questions of dissecting the intersection of politics and enterprise. Strangio suggests that entities controlled by Malaysian sugar baron Robert Kuok and Sino-Thai agribusiness conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group thrived in China once it opened its market to the world. It would be interesting to know if, during these crucial years, they helped sell China’s image in Southeast Asia or assisted in strengthening diplomatic ties. What about the fortunes of large-scale Chinese projects that were not affiliated with the BRI? Strangio, for example, considers Forest City, a luxury living establishment situated in Johor Bahru’s Iskandar Malaysia SEZ. Were such business decisions purely rational? Borrowing loosely from Faisal Z. Ahmed’s research, to what degree does the presence of foreign aid, remittances, or foreign direct investment sustain autocratic regimes abroad?

There are also places where the author’s conclusions aren’t convincing. In his Singapore chapter, Strangio suggests that the People’s Action Party has come up with an equitable “policy of multiracialism that hold the various groups [Chinese, Indians, and Malays] in steady proportion.” Demographically this may be true, but as Michael D. Barr has shown, preponderant numbers of Chinese Singaporeans were chosen for positions as university students, polytechnic students, and winners of Public Service Commission scholarships. Making good on founder Lee Kwan Yew’s wishes, entry into Singapore’s elite favors those who exhibit “Chineseness.” In Indonesia, Suharto’s regime has indeed extirpated Chinese communists after they assumed power. Yet it hardly “steered Indonesia into the anti-Communist camp” as firmly as Strangio asserts. Relations with Beijing decayed but ties to Hanoi, Moscow, Pyongyang, Havana, and several communist Eastern European nations persisted. Strangio also overlooks Suharto’s conscious infusion of Islamic perspectives into politics, such as his coopting the Muslim newspaper Republika and having his network set up the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). By overlooking this, he depicts Indonesia’s Islamic growth as more of a symptom of anti-Chineseness than a movement in its own right. Assessing the Philippines, Strangio goes easy on Duterte’s “canny… manipulation of the media.” Absent is discussion of how Duterte’s cyber trolls presented alternate facts, harangued his opponents, manipulated online polls, and generated frisson among digitally-savvy Filipinos for his political gain. An Oxford University study suggests that hired goons were paid £150,000 for their digital services in 2016. Fleshing out these points would have added vital nuance to the text.

Finally, some readers may be startled by the claim that, “[w]hile China is not looking to replace the US as the global hegemon, it does want to reclaim something of the centrality it enjoyed in East Asia prior to its subjugation by the Western empires and imperial Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Strangio’s own evidence suggests that some Chinese actions could be interpreted as hegemonic. For example, he writes that China is pursuing a policy of “anti-access and area denial” in waters bounded by its “first island chain.” That means eventually costs for American vessels entering the area will be ratcheted up so high that the US will be evicted from the region. Another (weaker) example of China’s plans for predominance might be its establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is “intended to supplement American-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.” America has not joined, but the many countries who have are helping to grow Chinese networks, standards, equipment, and technologies across Asia: the expanse will eventually far exceed Chinese territory at its zenith. China’s intentions here, and in other contexts, remain opaque. At their best, these efforts are expressions of China’s attempt to protect itself in domains that it believes are its own (e.g., “great state autism”); at their worst, they suggest that Chinese “centrality” means isolating America – behavior indicative of an aspiring hegemon. To be sure, Southeast Asian nations will not take sides in a superpower spat unless provoked.

Despite my criticisms, this volume stands as an outstanding contribution to understanding China and its neighbors in the tropics. Few volumes have covered Southeast Asia in the Xi Jinping era so exhaustively and with such a wealth of pungent, on-the-ground detail; even fewer have proffered such cogent prose in the process. In the Dragon’s Shadow brilliantly synthesizes history, politics, and culture while packing a profound intellectual/realpolitik punch — its wallop will resonate for years to come.

Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard, Justin currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam working as a consultant and mentor. He has traveled extensively throughout China and to all eleven Southeast Asian nations.

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