Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, David Shambaugh

Reviewed by Bonny Lin


Examining historical legacies and contemporary roles, David Shambaugh offers a timely, rich, and in-depth study of how the United States and China are competing for influence in Southeast Asia. Where Great Powers Meet begins with three distinct accounts of encounters with the region from the U.S., Chinese, and Southeast Asian perspectives. The fourth part of the book ties together the prior analysis to assess the overall nature of competition, future directions, and implications.

The book starts from the time when the United States and China first ventured into Southeast Asia. For China, this dates to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). U.S. activities in the region from the 1800s are documented in more detail, and the book teases out variations in U.S. policy throughout successive U.S. administrations. Both histories are expertly presented, with interesting anecdotes and facts to engage readers throughout.

Shifting to contemporary roles, the book analyzes U.S. and Chinese diplomacy, economic and commercial relations, security and defense ties, and soft power vis-à-vis ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) countries. It argues that U.S. commercial relations with the region are deep, diverse, and expanding and that the United States has much closer defense and security ties to the region and is a soft power magnet. The perception and narrative that China has more influence in Southeast Asia is based on an overemphasis on China and an underappreciation of U.S. strengths. Shambaugh argues that the United States and ASEAN countries need to do more to educate the public about U.S. involvement.

The third part of the book surveys how each of the 10 Southeast Asian countries views its relationships with China and the United States. The chapter argues that there is pervasive ambivalence toward both powers and that no single country “has found a ‘sweet spot’ of establishing an equidistant position between Beijing and Washington, as all manage to ‘tilt’ more toward one or the other” (p. 184). This chapter covers significant ground, but it is uneven; for example, it spends three pages on the Philippines and five pages on Vietnam and nearly double that length on Thailand and Myanmar. The succinct descriptions of Vietnam and the Philippines do not leave room for detailed discussion of factors that might complicate how these two countries position themselves. The chapter could have devoted more ink, for instance, to explaining how party-to-party ties between Vietnam and China give Beijing leverage over Vietnamese leaders and limit Hanoi's tilt towards Washington.

The final chapter of the book is the shortest and the most wanting. For example, Figure 7.1 (showing the spectrum of ASEAN states’ relations with the United States and the People's Republic of China, p. 243) is eye-catching and will likely be viewed as a key finding of the book. Although Shambaugh offers the caveat that the figure is “subjective” and based on the author's judgment in mid-2020, it is difficult to piece together a replicable methodology for how countries were placed on the spectrum between the United States and China. The prior chapters focused on U.S. and Chinese engagement with countries individually and provided only limited comparisons of ASEAN nations. Even for individual countries, the book leaves much room for elaboration. For instance, Hanoi's threat perceptions of China and concerns with Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea are highlighted repeatedly. Despite characterizing China's trade with Vietnam as “actually not that great” and limited in comparison with China's trade with South Korea, the facts presented in the book show that Vietnam is more dependent on China economically than the United States (p. 212). Does Vietnam's placement closest to the United States mean that security concerns dominate Hanoi's positioning instead of economic considerations? The book could have benefited from further discussion of these and other issues.

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