International Relations in Southeast Asia – The Struggle for Autonomy

International Relations in Southeast Asia

Author:      Donald E. Weatherbee

ISBN:          978-0742528437

Publisher: Rowmann and Littlefield Publishers

Year:          2009

Price:        £34.95


Reviewed by: Dr Taufiq Tanasaldy, Lecturer in Asian Studies and Indonesian, University of Tasmania, Australia

This book is an excellent addition to the existing literature on international relations in Southeast Asia. Unlike similar books, its approach is thematic and moves away from a traditionally historical approach.

The book has ten chapters. The first introduces the region, its history, boundaries, and main issues. In defining the region (pp. 9-18), the author introduces one very important aspect: its diversity. It illustrates the different level of political openness, economic disparities, social religious differences, historical antagonism, and geographical settings. The chapter concludes with a brief theoretical consideration.

The next three chapters provide an important foundation on which one can build an understanding of this region. Chapter 2 introduces the main actors in the region, both state and non-state. It gives an up- to-date overview of what is happening in each of the countries in the region as well as explaining how extra-regional countries such as the US, China, Japan, Australia, India, PNG and Russia, have keen interests in the region. Chapter 2 also explains the role of some international organizations in this region. The following chapter takes the region back to the Cold War era since the end of Second World War and Chapter 4 focuses on ASEAN and its evolution. It also introduces other forms of sub-regional cooperation, such as SIJORI (Singapore, Johor in Malaysia, and Riau Islands in Indonesia).

Conflicts and crimes in the region are discussed in Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 begins with an introduction of the “ASEAN Way” and its mechanism in finding a solution for conflicts (or potential conflicts) in the region. In spite of those soft and non-intrusive approaches, conflicts do occur between states because of reasons such as territorial disputes, cross-border problems, resources sustainability, etc. Other growing security concerns in the region are the issues of separatism, which occasionally tied to terrorism.

Chapter 7 examines economic cooperation and regionalism in the region. Main issues discussed are economic regionalism, free trade agreements, economic relations with main partners as well as the economic crisis of 1997 and the region’s responses.

The last two chapters deal with human security and environmental issues, two pressing issues in contemporary Southeast Asia. Chapter 8 examines the case of refugees, humanitarian relief, pandemic diseases, and issues related to the protection and abuse of human rights. Chapter 9 considers environmental problems such as deforestation, the haze, as well as fresh water management.

The concluding chapter presents not only a summary of the book but it also serves to strengthen some of its findings. It reiterates the importance of the state as an actor, the importance of ASEAN amidst its weakness due to its lack of binding commitments, the growing importance of a non-traditional agenda and the difficult solution in some cases (such as human rights) as a result of a differing agenda of member states. It also argues the increasing importance of the region as a result of the campaign against terrorism and potential contention between the US and China.

This book is highly recommended for those who want to gain a general understanding of events in Southeast Asia in the context of international relations.  The book is less suitable for readers who are looking for a condensed discussion of security issues or for those who want deeper theoretical insights. The narrative is succinct with ample subheadings enhanced with illustrative tables and statistics. The facts are up to date, correctly presented and put into context.

This book, however, has a few shortcomings. As an introductory book, this book naturally covers a large number of topics. Many of the discussions, as a result, are brief and sometimes selective, potentially excluding important points. For example, important non-geographical contentions between Indonesia and Malaysia do not appear in the main discussion when it examines conflicts between Malaysia and Indonesia (Ch. 5), although it is mentioned briefly later in the conclusion (p. 298). The author acknowledges this limitation and provides a list of further reading at the end of each chapter.

More maps are desperately needed as the book introduces many geographical terms, particularly when discussing conflict, crime, and environmental issues. The informative and fluent narrative lost some of its value with the exclusion of maps. The two general maps at the beginning of the book are not quite adequate.

Another possible improvement is to make clearer distinctions between the ASEAN as regional institution vis-à-vis the members of ASEAN when drawing conclusions. It is the intention of the author to separate them (p. xix), however, the term ASEAN is ubiquitous throughout the book undermining the author’s efforts.

Finally, but less significantly, the book would benefit from a more considered check on the vernacular terms used.  There are misspellings such musjawarah (p. 128, it should be musyawarah) and pesantran (p.171, it should be pesantren).