John D. Ciorciari, The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975.

Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 320; map, tables, figures, list of abbreviations and acronyms, notes glossary, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Ian Storey.

The Limits of Alignment, by John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, provides a timely and cogent analysis of the politics of alignment in Southeast Asia. The book represents a valuable addition to the literature on regional security. It elucidates the policy preferences of Southeast Asian states vis-├а-vis the great powers over the past four decades. Perhaps more importantly, it provides pointers as to how the ASEAN states might position themselves in response to the seemingly inevitable acceleration of Sino-American competition in the coming decades, competition that is likely to center on Southeast Asia itself.

Ciociari’s central argument is that developing countries (which he somewhat annoyingly renders as “DCs”) such as those in Southeast Asia have options beyond the “tricotomy” of what specialists in the field of international relations call neutrality, balancing, and bandwagoning when it comes to relations with external powers. True, some Southeast Asian states have opted to remain neutral or to balance against a great power. (There is no evidence of bandwagoning in the region, even in the case of post-1988 Myanmar.) But invariably the punishing costs of neutrality have greatly outweighed its meagre rewards. Instead, whenever possible, developing countries prefer what Ciorciari terms limited alignments – a middle path between tight alliance and genuine non-alignment that allows states to maximize the security benefits provided by external powers while minimizing the costs and risks. In the author’s assessment, since 1975 Southeast Asian countries have opted for limited alignments 70 percent of the time, tight alliances or alignments one-fifth of the time, and genuine non-alignment in only one-tenth of observed instances (p. 240). Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War, limited alignments have become the norm; Ciorciari predicts that this is unlikely to change in the immediate future, bar a tectonic geopolitical shift.

In Chapter One the author expounds on his main thesis. Genuine non-alignment or neutrality in Southeast Asia has, he argues, been rare. When attempted, it has left countries exposed and vulnerable. Burma between1949 and1988 proves Ciorciari’s point: although the governments of U Nu and Ne Win professed neutrality and equidistance between the country’s two giant neighbors India and China, Rangoon repeatedly tilted toward Beijing, and ultimately this deference turned to dependency. Cambodia’s and Laos’s brave attempts at neutrality also came unstuck in the 1960s.

Tight alliances have been more common, especially in Mainland Southeast Asia during the Indochina Wars. Tight alignments are usually a last resort–entered into only when states are faced with dire security threats that they are unable to meet on their own. The costs of such arrangements are high: states that tightly ally with a great power risk the triple perils of domination, entrapment, and abandonment. And, the tighter the alliance, the greater the risks. Domination – that is the loss of political autonomy – is a particularly emotive issue in Southeast Asia; all but one of the ASEAN states were subject to both Western and Japanese colonialism.

Vietnam in its three states – South, North, and reunified – is, of course, the example par excellence of a developing country that paid a high price for tight alliances. North Vietnam bristled at perceived attempts by the PRC to control its political destiny. It felt that its great-power ally sold it down the river at the 1954-1955 Geneva Conference, when Beijing persuaded Hanoi to accept partition in order to avoid a possible confrontation with the United States. The Nixon Doctrine and “Vietnamization” marked America’s gradual abandonment of South Vietnam. And alliance with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s contributed to reunified Vietnam’s international isolation and economic dependence on Moscow. As Pham Van Dong lamented in 1978, “Whenever in our four thousand year history Vietnam has been reliant on one large friend, it has been a disaster for us” (p. 185). A disaster? In some senses, perhaps. But without the massive material, financial, and political support provided by China and the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1975, Hanoi would never have achieved the cherished goal of national liberation and reunification. Pham Van Dong would surely have conceded this point; Ciorciari omits it from his narrative.

What are the benefits that countries derive from limited alignments with the great powers? Aside from avoiding exposure to the risks of domination, entrapment and abandonment, Chapter One of The Limits of Alignment argues that limited alignments provide developing countries with room for manoeuvre should geopolitical conditions change – in other words, with the flexibility that they desire in a fluid strategic environment. Limited alignments also result in a steady flow of tangible benefits, including economic largesse, military hardware, and training. Later in the book Ciorciari goes farther, arguing that limited alignments are not only beneficial to the developing countries concerned, but also help promote regional peace and stability. For a limited alignment with one great power does not generally provoke retaliatory measures from another. Tight alliances, on the other hand, have a tendency to calcify divisions between competing states (p. 241).

In the post-Cold War era, tight alliances have been not only disagreeable but also unnecessary. American primacy has been the key factor. In the era of pax Americana, existential threats that might have pushed the ASEAN states into tighter alignments with the great powers have been mercifully absent. Moreover, America’s overwhelming political and military power provides significant disincentives: it would be foolhardy to try and balance against the United States, while too close an association might open the door to American domination. Other factors are also at play. Globalization, complex interdependence, and the wide range of economic opportunities available to countries have militated against the need for tight alliances. And although the author of The Limits of Alignment is himself not full-throated in his praise for multilateral security forums, he concedes that the “dense institutional landscape” is seen by ASEAN leaders as being conducive to promoting regional peace and stability, and thus rendering tight alliances unnecessary.

While in his opening chapter Ciorciai offers examples of developing countries in other regions of the world that have opted for limited alignments, he argues that there is no better test bed for his thesis than Southeast Asia. He cites two main reasons. First, while the United States still enjoys relative primacy in this economically and strategically important region, the rise of China has created “space” for geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing. The ASEAN states’ reaction to increasing Sino-US rivalry could well be a bellwether for the ways in which developing countries in other parts of the world–say, in South America or Central Asia–respond to China’s ascendance. Second, Southeast Asian responses to America’s “war on terror” provide compelling empirical evidence to support the contention that limited alignments provide the flexibility required in a nearly unipolar system, where too close an association with Washington would have adverse domestic consequences, in some countries at least. Ciorciari could also have reinforced Chapter One of The Limits of Alignment by adding a third reason: ASEAN’s two-decade-long endeavor to keep the great powers engaged, and to promote a balance of power, interests, and influence among them, through the creation of multilateral organizations such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three cooperation, and the East Asia Summit.

Over the course of its next four chapters, The Limits of Alignment charts the development of relations between Southeast Asia and the great powers to add flesh to the bones of its arguments. Chapters Two and Three deliver a comprehensive overview of the evolution of the regional security environment between 1975 and 2010, while Chapters Four and Five provide more detailed examinations of the policy choices of individual countries in, respectively, Maritime and Mainland Southeast Asia over the same period.

Overall, the analysis, assessments, and conclusions in these chapters are fundamentally sound and insightful. This reviewer has a few quibbles though.

First, while correctly and perceptively identifying the limitations to Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s tight relations with China, Ciorciari displays a tendency to overstate the closeness of Sino-Laotian and Sino-Thai relations. He suggests that, in the early post-Cold War period, China emerged as Laos’s most important security partner and that this was one reason that Vientiane failed to gain admission into ASEAN in 1995 (pp. 105, 112). In fact, Vietnam has remained Laos’s most important security partner since the mid-1970s, and military assistance from the PRC has been extremely modest. Similarly, it is hard to accept Ciorciari’s assessment that Sino-Thai defence links are nearing equivalence with US-Thai military-to-military links (p. 123). While China has sold more arms to Thailand than to any other core member of ASEAN, the Thai armed forces have always been dissatisfied with the quality of Chinese-made weapons systems and have preferred instead to look to arms vendors in the West (though admittedly relying less on the United States today, and more on Europe). Combined military exercises between the armed forces of Thailand and China – six to date since 2005 – have been very limited in scope and duration. In size and complexity they remain a far cry from the several dozen annual exercises between the United States and Thailand–not least Cobra Gold, Asia’s largest military manoeuvres. And China is not a treaty ally of Thailand. America is.

Some other quibbles. Brunei, a country ten times the size of Singapore, is referred to as a “microstate” (p. 133). Has Malaysia really become more democratic in the post-Mahathir era, thereby creating more of an “ideological affinity” (p. 150) between Kuala Lumpur and Washington? Few would agree. Finally, Ciorciari repeats the unsubstantiated claim–germane to the recent rise in tensions between Beijing and Manila in the South China Sea–that in the mid-1980s the United States informed the Philippines that the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty did not cover the latter’s territorial claims in the disputed Spratly Islands (p. 169). But in the grand scheme of things these are minor issues. They do not detract from otherwise excellent scholarship that characterizes The Limits of Alignment.

One of the most important themes that Ciorciari explores in Chapter Six and in the Conclusion of his book is whether the ASEAN states can continue their obvious preference for limited alignments as China rises, American primacy erodes, and these two countries increasingly bump up against each other in Southeast Asia.

On China’s relations with Southeast Asia, it is hard to find fault with the analysis in The Limits of Alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, China’s diplomatic pragmatism and economic dynamism have reduced ASEAN leaders’ perceptions of the PRC as a threat and pre-empted the fashioning of “any potential ring of containment” (p. 243) against its rising power. Fear of a loss of economic opportunities and the risks of incurring China’s wrath have, moreover, provided “concrete disincentives” to tightly allying against Beijing (p. 116). And, while Southeast Asian countries do to varying degrees have concerns about China’s rising power, and consequently support the US military presence in the region, they do not want to become embroiled in Sino-American strategic rivalry and thus be forced to choose sides. All good.

As The Limits of Alignment was in press in 2010, a significant shift in Southeast Asian perceptions of China was already underway, caused, in the main, by Beijing’s more assertive posture in the South China Sea and the rapid modernization of China’s navy. In 2011, the situation worsened, as China’s adoption of more aggressive tactics over its territorial and maritime boundary disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines brought into sharper relief the disconnect between Beijing’s words and deeds. And while the PRC was not yet viewed as an “immediate and incorrigible menace” (p. 221), its increasingly belligerent behavior sent ripples of concern across Southeast Asia. This concern underminined China’s “peaceful rise” thesis and pushed some ASEAN countries closer to the United States.

Will the advent of more muscular diplomacy by the PRC in the second decade of the twenty-first century propel Southeast Asian countries to move “en masse toward the US to keep the PRC down” or perhaps convince them that China is “an irresistible force to be accommodated” (p. 230)? Ciorciari sticks to his guns, ruling out the possibilities that Southeast Asian states will balance against or bandwagon with the PRC and that they will opt for collective neutrality, for the reasons outlined earlier in his book. At least in the near term, he foresees a continuation of the status quo: the ASEAN states will continue to favor limited alignments – a degree of accommodation of China on the part of states in Mainland Southeast Asia (bar Vietnam), with the Maritime Southeast Asian states acting as “strong nodes of American naval power” (p. 235). Recent events have borne his conclusions out, including outgoing American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s announcement at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2011 that the United States would forward deploy littoral combat ships to Singapore.

The medium term is, of course, far harder to discern. If great power relations remain stable, the ASEAN states can continue to enjoy the luxury of limited alignments. But if Sino-US relations deteriorate, maintaining a balancing act between Washington and Beijing will inevitably become more challenging, and limited alignments may gave way to tight alliances (p. 235). For his part, however, Ciorciari is optimistic that the ASEAN states will be spared unpalatable choices. While the days of “clear” American primacy may be numbered, US power will remain formidable, such that no other great power i.e. China, is likely to challenge it. Moreover, great power rivalry will, he contends, be muted by complex interdependence and the presence of multilateral security forums. From the perspective of mid-2011, this best-case scenario still seems plausible. But it is far too early to rule out the polarizing effects of Sino-US competition. John Ciorciari may disagree, but limited alignments may well have a limited shelf life.

Ian Storey is Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security (Routledge, 2011) and the editor of the journal Contemporary Southeast Asia.