- Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge by Murray Hiebert
Southeast Asia is now often depicted as a region beneath China's waxing shadow. Many observers understand that metaphor to portend Chinese hegemony in the region. However, that outcome will hinge heavily on the responses of Southeast Asians residing where China casts its shade. Murray Hiebert explores that theme in Under Beijing's Shadow, an impressively comprehensive look at the many Southeast Asian perspectives about the region's relationship with China.
The book sets out "to provide a snapshot of how Southeast Asia experiences and perceives China today" (p. 4). The image it offers is panoramic—more an elaborate tapestry than a quick snapshot. Hiebert draws on decades as a journalist and policy analyst in the region to provide nuanced accounts of China's relations with each of the ten members of ASEAN, referencing the past to serve his focus on the present. Readers nostalgic for the rich coverage of Southeast Asia that Hiebert and his colleagues once offered in The Far Eastern Economic Review will recognize and appreciate the same qualities in the book.
The book's central thread is the "cocktail of hope and anxiety" (p. 13) which greets China's advances into Southeast Asia. Hiebert rightly avoids shoehorning the region's diverse local dynamics into a simple story of resistance or accommodation. To varying degrees, China's relations with each of the ten regional countries have an uneasy and unsettled quality as Southeast Asian governments and their citizens view and react to China's surging influence in different ways.
To capture some of that variation, he arrays Southeast Asian states along a rough spectrum and divides them into three clusters. The first consists of countries most vulnerable to Chinese influence: Cambodia, a "Beijing bandwagoner" (p. 7), as well as Laos and Myanmar, which respectively exhibit "frustrated" and "bristling" dependence on China (pp. 7–8). In the second group are Thailand and Vietnam. Both countries enjoy greater strategic heft and thus have greater scope to engage Beijing and Washington in a bi-directional balancing game. Thailand is a "partial hedger", while Vietnam is a "hard balancer" (p. 8). The five maritime ASEAN members form the third group, insulated to some degree by the waters that separate them from China. Their postures range from Indonesia's [End Page 431] "fiercely independent" behaviour to Singapore's "hard balancing" and Malaysia's "soft balancing" (pp. 9–10) to Brunei's accommodation and the Philippines' ambivalence.
While these rough labels and categories help provide a more organized picture of complex regional dynamics, Hiebert appropriately does not invest too much in them. The bulk of the text, and the book's prime strength, is the granular discussion of each country's circumstances. All ten states receive roughly comparable attention, including welcome details on Chinese relations with Laos and Brunei, the two states most frequently skipped over in scholarly tours of the region.
The book is analytic but not highly academic; Hiebert does not seek to advance a central theoretical model or claim. He draws on concepts such as hedging and balancing to provide a richer descriptive account of Southeast Asian behaviour rather than to refine those concepts or evaluate their explanatory power. For scholars, the main value of Under Beijing's Shadow lies in its empirical breadth and depth.
In general, the chapters offer excellent reviews of state-to-state relations between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, as well as public responses to China's rising influence. Hiebert embraces the complexity and ambivalence which characterizes the many local relationships with China in the region. The Myanmar military continues to rely heavily on China for weapons and training, for example, but officers chafe at Chinese support for rebel groups along the border and raise eyebrows at China's aspirations for a deep-water port on the Bay of Bengal. Vietnam hosts mounting Chinese investment even as it holds China's signature Belt and Road Initiative at arm's length and has to manage popular anti...