This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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In November 2012, Barack Obama was about to make history as the first sitting president to visit Cambodia, the country the United States had once secretly bombed as part of the Vietnam War. Shortly before his arrival, two large banners could be seen hanging outside the East Asia Summit venue in Phnom Penh. “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” they proclaimed.
As far as diplomatic snubs go, this one was less than subtle.
The Obama administration was in the midst of its “pivot” to Asia to counter the rising power of China. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, was making clear whose side he was on.
I covered the summit for the ABC and remember feeling relieved that there was actually a decent story, given the mind-numbing dullness of many regional forums.
A few months earlier, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit had imploded when Cambodia – that year, chair of the regional bloc – vetoed even a mild reference to China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea. For the first time in its history, the summit failed to issue a joint statement. In ASEAN terms, this was epic.
After all those years of “no strings attached” Chinese financing, the patient puppeteer had finally yanked. And Cambodia dutifully kicked.
Recounting the episode in his new book, Sebastian Strangio notes, “A few weeks earlier, Chinese President Hu Jintao had visited Phnom Penh, promising millions of dollars in investment and assistance.”
Strangio has a keen eye for moments like these – the nubs of history, where the money and power plays and symbolism are revealed, if only for an instant.
The Australian journalist spent eight years based in Cambodia (we both worked for The Phnom Penh Post, although at different times) and moved to Chiang Mai to finish writing In the Dragon’s Shadow.
Covering nine countries, it is a serious and rewarding account of China’s history, influence and possible future in South-East Asia, with little treasures scattered throughout, such as: “So far, ASEAN’s preferred approach has been to bind the Chinese Gulliver with a thousand multilateral threads … [of] the bloc’s signature mode of sometimes glacial consensus-based diplomacy. It is an approach that amounts to a sort of narcotization by summitry.”
Thinking back to the lows and highs of my ASEAN reporting experiences, desperately seeking anything even remotely newsworthy, that certainly resonates.
From the ritual kowtows before ancient emperors to the cash injections following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Strangio does an admirable job of distilling centuries of history into a manageable primer. Two of the big themes of the book are the impacts of China’s showpiece Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the role that South-East Asians of Chinese descent have played and might play in the future. “As in the US and Australia, where the CCP’s wooing of diaspora communities has been the subject of recent alarm, state efforts have extended beyond cultural outreach, seeking to convert Chinese cultural affinities into sympathy for [China’s] state policies and support for official schemes like the BRI,” he writes.
China’s actions sometimes undercut its efforts to woo, Strangio points out, leading to a diplomatic strategy that ends up “less charm and more offensive”.
Despite these quotable zingers, Strangio is most definitely not joining the chorus of critics taking pot shots at Beijing. I sense a writer genuinely trying to understand the motivations of China and each of its southern partners, and to fairly portray their actions. And if China’s words and actions go awry sometimes, or appear contradictory – well, that’s in the book too.
Some of those contradictions are captured by what the military strategist Edward Luttwak calls “great state autism”. It’s an apt phrase that pops up throughout the text. As this is a book primarily about China’s impact on the world, most examples are of Beijing’s “tin-ear for public opinion” or presumptions of superiority when dealing with smaller nations. But for balance, there’s an acknowledgement that the United States also has “a tendency to view the region’s political developments through the lens of its own sense of exceptionalism … [believing] the American way is ‘the ultimate destination of humankind’”. As the uptake of authoritarianism in Cambodia and Thailand shows, many ASEAN states are quite partial to the Chinese model.
Conversations about the power struggle between the region’s two superpowers – the United States and China – often cast South-East Asian nations as passive. While they may exist in the economic umbra of the dragon to the north, Strangio gives them agency and a backstory. Each country gets its own chapter – apart from Cambodia and Laos, which are sensibly grouped together, and East Timor and Brunei, which Strangio says were regrettably omitted due to time and space. These distinct national flavours are distilled into evocative chapter subheadings such as “Bamboo in the Wind” (Thailand), “Slouching Toward Beijing” (Philippines) and “Phobos and Deimos” for Cambodia and Laos. That last one is multi-layered. Like the two moons of Mars, Cambodia and Laos may indeed be small satellites “being drawn into close orbit around the red planet”, but Strangio leaves it to the reader to discover that Phobos and Deimos are also the twin Greek gods of fear.
The chapter on Singapore provides the scope to analyse China’s maritime ambitions, a crucial element in Beijing’s rise. Strangio describes how the legendary Chinese Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He is being revived as “the official mascot of China’s new march to the sea”, a peaceful alternative to the rapacious fleets of European colonisers. But he also notes historian Geoff Wade’s caution that Zheng He’s imperial armada wasn’t as peaceful as is often made out.
This maritime theme is returned to in the chapter on the Philippines. Here, Strangio gives us the potent image of a solitary group of Filipino marines posted to a makeshift base fashioned from a rusting grounded ship, facing off against the freshly concreted island fortresses China has built nearby, troops, missiles and 3000-metre runways at the ready. The wild lurching of foreign policy under President Rodrigo Duterte is noted, but there’s also an effort to see beyond the spectacle, to try to understand the wobbly, sometimes sweary balancing act between China and the United States.
Strangio offers insights from his interviews with prominent South-East Asian thinkers, as well as the occasional ‘pub test’: the views of market sellers and social media users, incensed at ill-mannered Chinese tourists or migrants. It is refreshing to see the region covered with clarity and nuance – not always common bedfellows.
For any reporter, diplomat, aid worker or businessperson heading to South-East Asia for the first time, In the Dragon’s Shadow is a new entry on the “must-read” list. For those already entranced, it should become a well-thumbed reference of ideas, dates, quotes and further reading.