Where Great Powers Meet
America and China in Southeast Asia
Oxford University Press, 2020, 352 pages
Book Review published on: January 28, 2022
The “comprehensive rivalry between the United States and China” is the “primary dynamic in international affairs today,” notes David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and author of Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia. No region of the world is more important to the competition taking place between China and the United States than Southeast Asia. Yet, despite Southeast Asia’s significant importance, the region has frequently lacked consistent attention from the United States. This is a norm that Shambaugh argues needs to change if the United States is going to offer Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states a reliable partner with whom to hedge against China. Based on his authoritative knowledge of China, impressive access to academics, diplomats, and policy makers, and his extensive research into the ten ASEAN member states, Shambaugh’s book stands out as a must read for anyone interested in great power competition between China and the United States generally, and the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia as the epicenter of that competition specifically. Shambaugh writes in a crisp, exceptionally readable style, which makes for a book that is approachable to both the interested layman and seasoned national security professional.
Where Great Powers Meet is an international relations monograph that draws heavily on history and current events. The book offers a well-researched and balanced assessment of the competition between China and the United States in Southeast Asia. The author begins by making clear the significance of the region to both China and the United States, proceeds to examine Chinese and American legacies and contemporary roles in the region, and then turns to ASEAN member nations’ relations with, perceptions of, and navigation between China and the United States. The author’s interviews offer insights into how China and the United States view the region and their competition within the region, but even more importantly, how ASEAN states view their relations with China and the United States.
Shambaugh makes educated judgments about the spectrum of ASEAN states’ relations with the United States and China. Based on this constantly changing spectrum, seven of the ten ASEAN states are already tilting toward China, with Cambodia and Laos described as virtual client states of China. Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines are described as increasingly connected to China but still registering closer to the United States along Shambaugh’s spectrum of relations. He notes that the Philippines remains on the U.S. side of the spectrum despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 announcement of a separation from the United States while visiting China. This is because of the deep ties between the peoples of the two countries, institutional linkages, and because Duterte’s tilt toward China centers on his personal leadership rather than on an enduring national change.
Shambaugh provides four possible scenarios that could define future Sino-American competition in the region. These scenarios include further pro-China bandwagoning and alignment, which he describes as a current megatrend; continued “soft rivalry” and competitive coexistence between the United States and China; “hard rivalry” and polarization; and more neutral hedging. Perhaps most importantly, Shambaugh offers compelling advice for U.S. foreign policy makers and implementers. This advice includes showing up and maintaining consistent presence in the region, including senior-level visits and participation at ASEAN events and meetings; not forcing Southeast Asian nations to choose between China and the United States; and avoiding any temptation to utilize a containment strategy against China in the region, as this would alienate Southeast Asian nations that, due to proximity, have no option but to be significantly reliant on China. Most importantly, the United States needs to be a present and reliable partner that can serve as a hedge against China, particularly when it overreaches. Related, the United States should place more emphasis on ASEAN as an important regional association, which should be reflected by increasing the size and function of the U.S. mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, Indonesia. Finally, he argues that the competition between the United States and China in the region could be won or lost in the information domain. The United States has many good stories to tell regarding its important contributions and offerings to Southeast Asian countries, which he admonishes the reader need to be more fully articulated to publics in the region through expanded public diplomacy outreach.
For those interested in great power competition, China, Southeast Asia, and foreign policy, Shambaugh’s Where Great Powers Meet is a timely, important, and authoritative work. ASEAN perspectives on the United States and China, which the author discusses at length in the book, offer important insights into the direction the United States should take as it competes with China in the region. International relations and national security practitioners would be well-served by taking note of Shambaugh’s foreign policy prescriptions.
Book Review written by: Terry D. Mobley, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas