Ian Storey, Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security

Routledge Security in Asia Series. London and New York: Routledge, 2011, paperback edition 2013. Pp. xvi, 362; map, tables, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by David Dapice.

Ian Storey is an old Asia hand – a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and editor of Contemporary Southeast Asia. He is widely published in relevant journals and also writes books, shorter pieces in leading newspapers and specialist assessments. His deep background is evident in this book about the foreign policies of Southeast Asian states towards China and China’s stance towards each country. The period that he covers is from 1949 to 2010, a time which has seen a shift in China’s policies from support for armed national Communist movements to trade and investment on the one hand and the pursuit of larger foreign policy interests on the other. Initial antagonism with many nations – Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, though not Burma – has given way to a complicated set of relationships reflecting China’s more pragmatic policies, its increasing influence and the interests and constraints of the particular states.

While the main emphasis in Storey’s book is on the “problem” of China’s rise as seen by individual governments (and China’s rise is not always a problem – it does present opportunities as well as challenges), he also points out Chinese interests and the reasons for its adoption of certain policies. In general, as relations with China have been normalized, Southeast Asian nations have increased economic intercourse, tried to bring China into regional fora in order to engage it diplomatically and in some case hedged by encouraging the United States to maintain or increase its involvement in the region as a counterbalance to China’s rising power. It is a strength of Storey’s understanding that he correctly emphasizes that Southeast Asian governments do not want to have to choose between the US and China. They want both to remain involved and on reasonably good terms with each other. This gives Southeast Asian states more freedom of movement and independence.

Part I of the book has three chapters, which chronologically follow the evolution of Southeast Asian relations with the People’s Republic of China. The first chapter covers the onset of the Cold War to 1989. The second covers the 1990s and the third the decade after 2000. Part II has five chapters, one treating each Mainland Southeast Asian country and its relationship with China. Each story is also told chronologically. Part III has six chapters, one for each Maritime Southeast Asian nation, with a similar format. There is also a short epilogue, which updates developments through 2010 and places special emphasis on China’s more assertive behavior.

Before this review goes further into the substance of Southeast Asia and the Rise of China, it must be said that the book is clearly a very useful analysis and compendium of a huge amount of diplomatic history. Anyone trying to understand where Southeast Asian foreign policy has been and why it has changed should refer to this book. While this reviewer will ask for more coverage of certain items, he feels rather like a diner at the end of a four-course meal asking for six courses. The other point is that this book addresses a topic in which events are moving at a fairly rapid pace. A second edition with a revised epilogue, if nothing more, would help bring recent and important events into the author’s purview. This is more important with Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines than with Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia.

Rather than review each chapter, a more efficient strategy will be to provide a few examples of the author’s analysis in those cases of which the reviewer himself also has some knowledge. In the case of Myanmar, Storey was correct at the time of his writing to say that China had and has extensive investments and influence in the country. It made deals with the military rulers, supposing that they could and would prevent any ethnic or popular opposition from derailing the agreements. However, recent political opening in Myanmar has created a new landscape, one which is still uncertain but definitely tilting in the direction of some input or influence from previously suppressed groups. The suspension of construction of the large Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy two years ago was a shock to China, and the Chinese are still trying to reverse this decision. It remains to be seen if that dam or many of the several others on the tributary rivers will be completed and, if so, on what terms. The old (still applicable) terms were that 90% of the power generated would go to China and 10% to Myanmar. This arrangement gives fewer net resources to Myanmar than Laos got with its Nam Theun 2 dam. In any case, it will not be easy for Myanmar to transform its relationship with China from one that was negotiated from isolated weakness and thus nearly neocolonial into a more “normal” one in which more of the benefits of trade and investment flow to the local population. The nuance of Yunnan and Beijing having somewhat different interests is another point that could be developed further in an updated edition of this book.

Myanmar is one country where important developments have recently occurred and further analysis is needed. However, Storey’s main line of analysis is correct. Myanmar must coexist with its larger neighbor and find ways to benefit from its proximity rather than be dominated. The end of diplomatic isolation from Europe and the US will certainly make this task easier, but not easy.

In the case of Vietnam, the flow of recent events is significant but less seismic – but the role of Japan is not examined in the book. Japan has invested heavily in Vietnam and kept its economy fairly buoyant in spite of relatively poor economic management in Vietnam’s state-enterprise sector and the country’s shaky macroeconomic stability. While Japan’s more recent nationalistic stance is outside of the immediate focus of the book, its much longer and fundamental role in the development of Southeast Asia should be covered more. Japan is a major investor and trading partner for Southeast Asia. It was almost equal to China as an export market for Vietnam in 2011, and it was a much larger investor, though a much smaller supplier of imports relative to China.

More generally, Storey shows the export and import growth over time of each nation with China but not the relative importance of China to that nation. China only purchased 5.5% of Vietnamese exports in 2007 (the latest year for which he provides data) but 15% of imports. Likewise with FDI: in 2011, China accounted for only 2% of total licensed FDI in Vietnam. Because Japan can act as a partial economic counterweight – especially if paired with Taiwan and South Korea – its role needs more attention. This is especially true if the meteoric rise in economic intercourse slows down along with China’s economy.

It is the Philippines that may test the extent of ASEAN solidarity and Chinese assertiveness. The Philippines has brought a legal complaint under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both nations have agreed. The complaint pertains to China’s aggressive enforcement of the “nine dash line”, which basically claims most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters even when these are quite close to the major islands of the Philippines (or to the coast line of Vietnam). These claims are backed by quasi-military fisheries and coast guard ships. Having negligible naval forces, the Philippines is trying to use international law to assert its rights, which are pretty clear under the applicable provisions of the UNCLOS. China resists any multilateral or international negotiation and asserts that only bilateral negotiations are appropriate. While many within ASEAN sympathize with the Philippines, few want to infuriate China. This is an ongoing dispute and its resolution will tell us much about the future of ASEAN-China relations.

The United States has chosen to “pivot” towards Asia, but a combination of continuing tensions in the Middle East and budgetary battles and political paralysis in Washington makes it hard to persuade skeptics of its staying power or reliability. China’s aggressive behavior has made it easier for the US to argue diplomatically that it is needed, and there are clear signs of regional support. Even so, neither China nor the US is rationally interested in real conflict since they share so many intersecting economic and political interests. The US has pointedly not taken sides in the Senkaku/Diayou Island dispute. Most ASEAN economies no doubt hope that this dispute, as well as those in the South China Sea, will be resolved peacefully.

One question that Storey does not address directly is how well ASEAN can function if China continues its assertive diplomacy. If unanimity is required, as in the case of the European Union, ASEAN is likely to find itself unable to move forward on issues even when almost all agree. If solidarity is lost when a common position might sway China, it will be hard for the views of the region or the organization to weigh heavily. ASEAN has proven itself useful as a place to talk and negotiate and has made some economic gains. However, it is not at all clear that it will allow Southeast Asia to assert itself as a region. In that case, bilateral relations with China will predominate, and that situation would inevitably put most ASEAN members in a weaker position. Perhaps this is the real challenge for ASEAN – to assume a collective role in foreign policy, even if that currently seems unlikely. Yet it is hard to see any single nation dealing from a position of anything but weakness if it must negotiate only on a bilateral basis. Clearly, a second edition of Southeast Asia and the Rise of China will be needed!

David Dapice is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Tufts University, and Chief Economist, Vietnam Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.