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Reviewed by:
  • China's Footprints in Southeast Asia ed. by Maria Serena I. Diokno, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, and Alan H. Yang
  • Karen M. Teoh (bio)
Maria Serena I. Diokno, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, and Alan H. Yang, editors. China's Footprints in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press, 2019. vi, 249 pp. Paperback $36.00 SGD, isbn 978-981-4722-89-6.

Many today are tracking China's extension of its influence, regionally and globally, with anticipation and consternation. While some forms taken by this expansion may be new—as foreign investment, developmental aid, and cultural institutes, for example—the impulse behind them are not. The imperial tribute system, used by Chinese emperors as a means for conducting diplomacy and trade, could be considered an earlier form of exerting political power over states that sought positive relations with China or were informally dependent upon it. Scholars have characterized this strategy as typically Confucian as it assumed the centrality of the Chinese state and civilization—or at least compelled others to engage in rituals upholding that image. Most importantly, this strategy was not coercive. It did not depend on military force, relying instead on the purportedly attractive power of Chinese goods and culture. [End Page 29]

This book briefly acknowledges the long history of this approach but is more interested in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It concentrates on how the People's Republic of China (PRC) has deployed its soft power in its own neighborhood of Southeast Asia. Consisting of an editorial introduction and eight essays, this volume's central premise is Joseph Nye's definition of soft power: the ability to influence others through attraction rather than coercion or payment, or getting others to accept, internalize, and act to advance one's own values, institutions, and goals. Depending on one's perspective, this could be seen as pursuing mutual benefit or deploying a kind of slow-release Trojan horse. Building on this premise, editors Diokno, Hsiao, and Yang put forth the notion of China's "soft footprint" in the region, describing it as the "tangible presence, mark, or effect of China's exercise of soft power" (p. 16). The essays in this volume reveal the forms and effects of these footprints in various Southeast Asian nations, assessing China's use of economic and socio-cultural tools to achieve its foreign policy goals.

The disciplinary approach in this collection is social scientific, drawing from political science, sociology, economics, and international relations. Chapters 1 and 2 open the conversation by providing some historical background to contemporary Sino-Southeast Asian relations and setting up discursive frameworks for examining them. The book's editors use Chapter 1 to give a broad overview of different phases in these relations and to argue for the concept of the "footprint" as a space for influence and contestation. Although much of the information in this chapter is useful, such as a narrative of specific Chinese diplomatic policies and a list of dates when diplomatic ties were formally established between the PRC and each Southeast Asian nation, the larger conceptual notions could be more precise. For example, the phases of Sino-Southeast Asian relations are given as "From Mutual Suspicion to Diplomatic Relations, 1950–90," "From Softening Up to Chinese Assertiveness, 1990s–2012," and "Aggressive Diplomacy (2013 to the present)." Besides being very broad in chronological terms, these category titles do not completely reflect the nuances within each phase, such as the fact (acknowledged by the editors) that the "aggressive diplomacy" of the 2010s is more accurately defined by balancing diplomatic outreach with strategic geo-political measures—often non-diplomatic—that safeguard Chinese interests. More significantly for the volume as a whole, the concept of the footprint is not applied with equal success across every chapter. Perhaps this reflects the challenge inherent in regional studies and trying to create generalizations or unifying theories that apply evenly across multiple political and socio-economic situations.

In Chapter 2, Teng-Chi Chang explores the discourse and implications of China's evolving foreign policy strategies from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. This chapter is distinct from the others in two ways: its detailed discussion of China's sociolinguistic and conceptual formulations...


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