Southeast Asia and the Great Powers

Southeast Asia and the Great Powers

Author(s): Nicholas Tarling

ISBN: 978-0-415-68990-8

Publisher: Routledge

Year: 2013

Price: $54.95

Reviewed by Erwin S. Fernandez, Abung na Panagbasay Pangasinan [House of Pangasinan Studies], Pangasinan, Philippines

From a discussion on the Chinese exercising influence in manifold forms over Southeast Asia, the limelight shifts to the great powers when China was wrecked by internal rebellions and foreign wars, a time when its political sway in Southeast Asia was at its lowest with Western powers taking its place. Nicholas Tarling closes his tetralogy on Southeast Asia with what he called an “epilogue” (p.2) to the first three volumes dealing with how the Great Powers: India, Britain, France, Japan, Russia, United States, China, and Australia and New Zealand, shaped their respective foreign policies relative to this dynamic region. It is his belief that their interest in Southeast Asia and the countries within that region “has almost always been limited” and “often their involvement was the product of their own rivalries and their interest in the region of an extrinsic rather than intrinsic nature, spurred by their contentions elsewhere” (p. 8, 12). It seems this thesis is supported by events in the narrative as reflected in the foreign policy of each great power relating to issues affecting Southeast Asia of importance to their interest particularly in matters of security and defense.

I have read Tarling’s slim tome, Nations and states in Southeast Asia (1998), earlier and I found in the same volume the same articulacy and copious notes of an empiricist historian in the present work. Here, however, he delves into the region by looking at how the great powers involved themselves in international issues using a long-term historical perspective with each country and the region as a whole. But it is not clear how he did arrive at selecting the great powers and the choice he made may raise some objections whether some can be considered a great power or not. India, for example, lacks military and economic advantage although it had influenced Southeast Asia before the contemporary period by coastal Indian states, not the present Republic of India (see Brewster 2012). The inclusion of Australia and New Zealand, which are dealt with in the last chapter, the author himself states, is “perhaps questionable”; “they have sought to influence the role the great powers played, though sometimes having merely to accept what they decided” (p. 197). Also, there is not much theoretical discussion as promised but more of historical approach detailing from the late 18th century to the present the actions and moves by the great powers. Tarling devotes on each chapter the historical underpinnings of the involvement of a particular power, which appears to be “segmented” and some details are repeated since a lot of the issues like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and others involved one or two powers with their interest overlapping with one another.

France entered the contest on Southeast Asia in Indochina to check Britain while Japan’s interest in Southeast Asia lied in its resources imperative to its wartime effort. Russia was drawn to Southeast Asia rather reluctantly due to the cold war intensified further by its rivalry with communist China with respect to Vietnamese struggle for independence under Ho Chi Minh. The United States, on the other hand, had “limited and largely indirect” interest on the region being its springboard to the vast market of China (p. 136). There is no doubt that China is “a Southeast Asian power” for its influence from the ancient times down to the present is felt and effective not only because of the presence of Chinese communities all over the region but also because its policies impinge on the national affairs of each Southeast Asian country (p. 164). The reality of a superpower in their midst had destroyed the myth of ASEAN’s clout to counter a hegemon in the recent impasse on some contested isles and shoal. The US seems to agree with the book when it announced the planned transfer by 2020 of the majority of its naval fleet to Asia-Pacific: “The US should still be involved as part of a balance of power against China” (p. 196).

For an ambitious research such as this one undertaken by Tarling, it requires the mastery of the subject and the wide use of sources on Southeast Asia. While relying on secondary sources cannot be helped, consultation of primary sources is still necessary. Whenever possible, Tarling cites reports and comments from the British Foreign Office but his dependence on these make the narrative leaning on the British perspective. Country-to-country discussion is very uneven and imbalanced with the Philippines absent mostly from the issues affecting Southeast Asia as the great powers deal them or as a country inciting the interest of these powers. It is evident in the narrative its bias in favor of countries formerly controlled by Britain in the space provided for their role in international relations. One can also sense a prejudice against Russia particularly on Khrushchev as “opportunist” (p. 129). Nonetheless, it is shown that there is great cooperation between the United States and Britain – the Anglo-American alliance, which is still a crucial factor in international diplomacy – in the achievement of their respective national interest in foreign affairs with their overarching interest coinciding with one another as in the containment of the People’s Republic of China at the height of the cold war with Southeast Asian countries becoming pawns in the ideological struggle. There is a good index but typological errors could have been avoided with excellent proofreading (i.e. now instead of no [p. 23]; lii-treatment instead of ill-treatment [p. 34], passim). A chapter dealing with summary and conclusion is missing. It lacks a list of abbreviations that reader might recourse to when lost with the abrupt use of an acronym in the text.

Both books complement each other for the first dissertates on the extent of Chinese participation in the economy of Southeast Asia while the second makes a study on the policies of great powers in the region including China, which is trying to recover its lost ascendant position. For students and experts on the field of Chinese and Southeast Asian studies, the former is a good read while the latter is a good introduction to students and young scholars of international relations.