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Book Review: Where Great Powers Meet: America & China in Southeast Asia

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

Shambaugh book review cover
Shambaugh book review cover
Shambaugh book review cover
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell
VIRIN: 210412-F-YT915-001

Where Great Powers Meet: America & China in Southeast Asia, by David L. Shambaugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021, 252 pp.


A repeated theme in US–China competition is the rivalry over the South China Sea and the radically divergent strategic goals of the competitors. But this particular conflict is just the most public of the competitions happening in Southeast Asia and the holistic rivalry playing out across the region and in every domain. David Shambaugh in points this out directly in his introduction: “the region is extremely important in its own right, but it is also a microcosm of many of the features of US-China great power rivalry that is taking place worldwide” (xix). Shambaugh is preeminently qualified to make this assertion, being a senior professor of Asian studies, political science, and international affairs at George Washington University and a nationally renowned expert on China, with more than two dozen books to his name. Where Great Powers Meet is a slightly new tack for him, looking at China not directly but through the lens of Southeast Asian rivalry, a region often neglected by diplomats and US policy makers. Shambaugh argues that the tactics employed in the region will be the first salvos of major rivalry and will be exported elsewhere.

Shambaugh minces no words and certainly does not paint an overly rosy picture: China’s influence in Southeast Asia is growing, Beijing has largely surpassed the United States in both diplomatic and economic arenas, and countries in the region have passed the tipping point where they would be willing to “choose” the United States in a direct, binary choice. His analysis gives sharp confirmation to the National Defense Strategy’s comment that China is “gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”1 Countries will hedge whenever possible, seeking benefits of both great powers, and the pervasive narrative in the region (even if fundamentally untrue) is that the United States is in decline, while China is rising. This is not to say the situation is hopeless for the United States, which still has unsurpassed cultural influence and dwarfs China in military cooperation. Furthermore, China is certainly capable of overplaying its hand economically and diplomatically, and all countries in the region are beginning to feel and resent China’s growing power and tendency to throw its weight around aggressively.

The author’s great strength is always his meticulous research and weight of analysis. Where Great Powers Meet is the fruit of more than six months of travel and dialogue through the region combined with analysis of statistics, polls, other academic sources, and firsthand accounts. Shambaugh begins with an overview of the competition, and then looks at each country’s history and contemporary relations. Interestingly, he next turns the tables and looks outward from each country in the region to assess how their unique blend of history, culture, demography, geography, economy, and government shapes relations with the two competitors. He closes with some overarching analysis and the prediction that the US–China dynamic reflects a soft rivalry, where the two powers conduct their business and influence largely parallel to each other, not always in direct competition or in reaction to the other’s moves. This is opposed to the Cold War’s hard rivalry, which was “one of direct action-reaction, tit-for-tat, zero-sum competition” (247)

Going country by country, the author finds that all ASEAN countries have drifted toward China in recent years, but other broad characterizations mask key nuances in their relationships to the two rivals. Cambodia has tilted the farthest toward China (Shambaugh goes so far as to say that it should be considered “a full-blown Chinese client state” [205]), and surprisingly, he asserts that Vietnam tilts the closest to the United States. While governmental ideology and some of its history predispose Vietnam toward China, other parts of its history, as well as geography and current territorial disputes (specifically, the South China Sea) encourage Vietnam’s American shift. Each ASEAN country leans differently, usually within the distinct diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) dimensions.

Missing from his analysis however is the influence of “middle-tier” powers in the region, such as Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, and (to a lesser extent) Russia. Lost in the US–China dichotomy are these powerful actors that possess unique attributes valuable to promoting joint interests with the United States (except for Russia). Japan, Australia, and India are partners that the United States has begun to embrace through intensified use of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (usually shortened to Quad), most recently and dramatically in a COVID-19 vaccine distribution pledge to support the region2; as a scholar has recently written for the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs: “China’s once phantom concerns regarding the Quad are quickly becoming a reality. This is fueled by the increasing potency of the Quad.”3

Additionally, Shambaugh’s somewhat bleak assessment of the situation may even be optimistic, as the US–China rivalry has been heating up rapidly and is quickly approaching the kind of hard rivalry Shambaugh used to characterize the Cold War. Sparring over COVID blame narratives,4 increasingly harsh language and actions in Hong Kong,5 and the recent US–China summit in Alaska reveal fundamentally divergent core interests and progressively belligerent execution.6

One potential fault in the author’s logic is that he takes it for granted that the United States should expend copious resources maintaining its presence and power in the region vis-à-vis China, without a full analysis of exactly what US core and important strategic interests are. I would invite a conversation between Shambaugh and Stephen Walt in light of the latter’s recent book The Hell of Good Intentions, which advises that the United States reconsider its basic post–Cold War foreign policy. Walt says that “America needed a radically different grand strategy” and instead concentrate on core strategic interests, focusing increasingly tight resources to defend only the most important points of influence.7

Where Great Powers Meet has direct suggestions for those who shape and express the military power of the United States: “The United States’ greatest strength and asset remains its hard military power. The United States is far and away the leading provider of security assistance to Southeast Asian militaries. . . . It is the US Navy that keeps the sea lines of communication open” (245). The book is worth reading for those who shape policy in the region, for those interested in understanding the nuances of each individual country (treating them like the diverse, individual states that they are), and for grasping how the US–China rivalry is currently playing out in each. This advanced research into the region’s centers of gravity and points of vulnerability is just as important for the battle for influence in soft competition as it is for hard kinetic operations. Where Great Powers Meet is an outstanding place to start. However, let us hope treating Southeast Asian countries individually instead of with overly broad summary statements becomes the norm going forward.

Maj Benjamin Pierce

Deputy Inspector General

480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing

Langley AFB, VA


1 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 2.

2 David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina, and Jeff Mason, “U.S., India, Japan and Australia counter China with billion-dose vaccine pact,” Reuters, 12 March 2021.

3 Amrita Jash, “The Quad Factor in the Indo-Pacific and the Role of India,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 4, no. 2 (Spring 2021), 78, https://media.defense.gov/.

4 Kaiping Chen, Anfan Chen, Jingwen Zhang, Jingbo Meng, and Cuihua Shen, “Conspiracy and debunking narratives about COVID-19 origins on Chinese social media: How it started and who is to blame,” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review 1, no. 8 (December 2020), 1–30, https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/.

5 Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom, “U.S. announces new sanctions on six linked to Hong Kong mass arrests,” Reuters, 15 January 2021.

6 Matthew Lee and Mark Thiessen, “US, China spar in first face-to-face meeting under Biden,” Associated Press, 19 March 2021.

7 Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 11.

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