Southeast Asia and the Great Powers

Southeast Asia and the Great Powers

Southeast Asia and the Great Powers

Southeast Asia and the Great Powers


The success of regionalism in Southeast Asia depends on the attitudes of the states within the region but also on the attitude of those outside it. This book is an erudite and stimulating study on the latter. Placing these states in a long term historical context Tarling brings out the way in which the rivalries of those powers within the region and outside it have affected the states within the region. He also shows how divisions within the region, and within states in the region, offered invitations and opportunities for intervention from outside, and so perhaps gave Southeast Asia an importance in international relations it would not otherwise have had. Regional leaders appear in recent decades to have recognised what may be construed as one of the lessons of history; if Southeast Asia can provide security for the Straits route, and stable conditions for trade and investment, it might enjoy both peace and a measure of prosperity.

Southeast Asia and the Great Powers is an important read for students and scholars of the history and international relations of Southeast Asia.


Over the past forty years Southeast Asia has secured both a large measure of interstate peace and cooperation and a degree of autonomy from great powers outside the region that few observers had hoped for and scarcely any anticipated. Those have been coupled with a measure of economic and social development that, though far from equitable in its coverage and set back by a major crisis in the late 1990s, also indicated a remarkable transformation. A region of revolt had become a region that invited investment, though also speculation.

In discussing this achievement, my book, Regionalism in Southeast Asia [2006], tended to celebrate the creation and the subsequent work of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations]. About that, again, observers had been sceptical, and many were disappointed with its slow progress towards the cooperative economic projects that it set out as its priority. What was achieved was what that vaunted priority in fact, by design or otherwise, tended to conceal, a practice of political collaboration that in the event was to open up much wider economic prospects.

By contrast to the European regional project, ASEAN was avowedly based on the nation-state. That was the prime source of its success, though some would also say its ultimate limitation. The books that with Regionalism turned out to form a sequential trilogy, Imperialism in Southeast Asia [2001] and Nationalism in Southeast Asia [2004], suggested reasons why Southeast Asian leaders took that course. The region had come almost entirely under the formal rule of Western powers and been segmented into parts of their empires. Within the frontiers they had created or affirmed, however, their rule had come to be contested by a nationalism that they had also helped to create. Within the colonial states they built up, an alternative leadership offered the way to modernity. The destruction of the Western empires by the Japanese gave it, rather unwittingly, an opportunity it would not otherwise have had so soon or perhaps so amply. But its achievement, the winning of independence, was won piece-by-piece, colony by colony, and the new states, though claiming as modern states now did, to be nation-states, inherited the colonial frontiers. Just as the colonial states had little in common but their colonialism, those that replaced them had little in common but their nationalism. Any attempt to build regionalism – an endeavour always beyond the . . .

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