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Reviewed by:
  • The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century ed. by Donald K. Emmerson, and: Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia by David M. Lampton et al.
  • Yun Sun (bio)
The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century. Edited by Donald K. Emmerson. Stanford, California: Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, 2020. Softcover: 375 pp.
Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia. By David M. Lampton, Selina Ho and Cheng-Chwee Kuik. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2020. Hardcover: 336 pp.

As intellectual curiosity about China's expanding influence in Southeast Asia grows, studies concerning the relationship between the region and its giant northern neighbour are flourishing. This year alone, at least six books have been published on Southeast Asia's relations with China. Two among them are particularly interesting and unique in terms of their intellectual rigour and analytical perspectives: The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century, edited by Donald K. Emmerson, and Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia, by David M. Lampton, Selina Ho and Cheng-Chwee Kuik.

In The Deer and the Dragon, Emmerson, one of the most eminent thinkers on Southeast Asia, has rallied an army of top regional experts to examine the nature, dynamics and implications of the power asymmetries between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. In the region's folklore, the motif of the mouse-deer and dragon represents the triumph of brain over brawn. Drawing from that analogy, the book critically investigates the myths and realities of China's preponderance in the region to draw attention to how Southeast Asian countries have been adept at employing strategies such as hedging and balancing to counter China, while also leveraging regional organizations and mechanisms to maximize their strategic autonomy. [End Page 425]

The Deer and the Dragon provides a sobering reality check on several key fronts. It examines regional perceptions of China and the United States while identifying their respective leadership deficiencies as Great Powers. It challenges the conventional wisdom that Southeast Asia is China's "strategic backyard", highlighting the differences between Chinese aspirations for the region and Southeast Asia's resistance to China's hegemonic vision. For example, Li Mingjiang discusses Chinese traditional perceptions of Southeast Asia, which forms an illuminating contrast to the region's views of China, as discussed by Yun-han Chu, Min-hua Huang and Jie Lu. See Seng Tan presents a dissection of Singapore's coping strategy with China, which reveals the importance of the strategies and the desire for strategic autonomy in comparison to Indonesia's "underbalancing" of China as explained by Yohanes Sulaiman. Cambodia and Laos have demonstrated the least desire and intention to counterbalance China. Daniel C. O'Neil and Kearrin Sims each offer their explanations for their strategic choices, and raise important questions regarding the consequences for the society and the nation. The chapter on the South China Sea by Emmerson himself is particularly illuminating, as it foregrounds not only the tactics that China uses to exert control over the South China Sea, but also the "institutionalized mirage" (p. 152) of ASEAN that will have to be addressed if there is to be a solution. Minilateralism is perhaps the way to go.

In its discussion of China's bilateral relations with Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos, as well as on the Mekong, The Deer and the Dragon brings unprecedented new insights about the depths and dimensions of these countries' relationship with China. For example, Singapore's careful pairing of strategic autonomy with the diversification of trade and investment relations; Indonesia's internal juggling among bureaucratic priorities, economic goals and the need for a more active foreign policy; as well as the cycle of Cambodia and Laos' dependence on China for the needs of these two states but which comes with at cost for their people—all vividly present the profound impact different strategies have rendered on individual Southeast Asian countries. The factors that determine their responses to China include their strategic thinking about China, their relative dependence on the...


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pp. 425-430
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