New Book Analyzes the Dynamics of Inequality Between China and Southeast Asia

In a new volume, Donald Emmerson explores how the ASEAN nations are navigating complex political and policy issues with China during a time when political cohesion within ASEAN is fractured and China is increasingly assertive in its goals.
Cover of the book 'The Deer and the Dragon' on the background of a Southeast Asia map

Weighing only a few pounds and standing only a foot or two tall, the mousedeer of Southeast Asia are the smallest hoofed mammals in the world. Small and agile, they avoid predators through camouflage and stealth, blending quietly into the forest foliage around them.

These tiny deer also provide the opening metaphor in The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century, the newest book of Donald Emmerson, a senior fellow emeritus at FSI and the director of APARC's Southeast Asia Program. Emmerson uses the imagery of the deer—small but strategic—in contrast with the dragon, a creature of might and strength, to illustrate the power dynamics between the countries of Southeast Asia and China.

[Listen to our conversation with Emmerson about the book and keep reading below. To stay connected with our scholars and their research, sign up for APARC newsletters.]

The ASEAN nations trail the PRC by enormous margins in geographic size, population, and GDP. Though ASEAN overtook the EU to become China’s main trading partner in Q1 of 2020, China’s economic capacity is easily quadruple that of all ASEAN’s member countries combined.  Southeast Asia is also one of the most diverse regions in the world, and these differences have proven a historic and ongoing challenge to ASEAN’s effectiveness as a political body. This has been particularly observable in the fractured responses to China’s increased presence in the South China Sea. But these factors do not mean Southeast Asia must always fall in line with the policy goals of Beijing. Like mousedeer, these smaller nations can draw on other strategies and strengths to push back against encroachments from PRC initiatives.

Agency is not a property of the strong alone. Weaker powers can be proactive, too, however limited and contingent their agency may be.
Donald K. Emmerson
Senior Fellow Emeritus at FSI and Director of the Southeast Asia Program

The fourteen chapters in The Deer and the Dragon aim to provide perspectives on how such strategies can be developed, as well as giving detailed context on the complexities of Southeast Asia-China relations and the impact these dynamics have both for the region and the global community. The contributors offer insights into the tensions between diversity and dependence in ASEAN-China investment and trade, discussions of the very divergent strategies nations such as Singapore and Indonesia have taken in their relations with China, and remarks on the political and developmental disparities nations such as Cambodia and Laos face in trying to balance their autonomy against China's influence and levy influence within ASEAN.

In looking at the broader conclusions of the book, Emmerson writes, "The future of Southeast Asia will greatly and probably decisively depend on what its individual states themselves either do or fail to do, [and] nothing can substitute for the creativity of Southeast Asian states in individual and joint pursuit of their own and their region’s security."

The volume will be available August 2020 through APARC’s in-house series with the Brookings Institution Press and on Amazon.

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