The Newsletter 78 Autumn 2017

Unresolved Disputes in Southeast Asia

Sampa Kundu

Reviewed title:
Alfred Gerstl & Maria Strasakova (eds.) 2016.
Unresolved Border, Land and Maritime Disputes in Southeast Asia
Leiden and Boston: Brill
ISBN 9789004312180

Unresolved Border, Land and Maritime Disputes in Southeast Asia is an edited volume containing 12 chapters including introduction and conclusion. Broadly speaking, this book recounts and analyses three intra-regional and extra-regional land and maritime border conflicts involving Southeast Asia, namely Preah Vihear spat between Thailand and Cambodia, Koh Tral island dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia and row over South China Sea islands, atolls and islets between China and multiple members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Many of the contributing authors of this book agree with one point which says, land and maritime border conflicts in Southeast Asia actually represent the remnants of the colonial legacy. The European masters who ruled most of the present-day Southeast Asia for centuries were not careful about the ethnic and linguistic lineages of the local populace and divided the region based on their own convenience and power sharing agreements and treaties. Throughout the book, it has been argued that before the arrival of the colonial rulers, the concept of border was unknown in the region. The Europeans even divided the seas and oceans which were earlier used freely by the local people for trading and transportation purposes. The chapters by Petra Andelova, Filip Kraus, Richard Turcsanyi (and Zdenek Kriz) and Maria Strasakova  point out that the creation of artificial borders in the region have resulted in numerous conflicts including the one in Preah Vihear and the Koh Tral dispute. These authors have also spoken about the influences the domestic political situation practise to determine the contemporary characteristics of these conflicts. For instance, the chapter by   Maria Strasakova   explains how territorial border conflicts are used in Cambodian political scenario to influence the voters during election campaigns.  Land is treated as a matter of national prestige in Cambodia, argued Maria Strasakova.

A number of the chapters of this book are contributed to elucidate the severity of the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN’s responses to it, perceptions and behaviour of few individual countries like Vietnam, Philippines and Cambodia to the problem and finally, to offer some solutions to the problem which include prospects for joint development programmes. Scattered over various chapters, while reading the book, a reader will discover the past and present and understand the implications of the South China Sea disputes. The narrative offered by Josef Falko Loher clarifies; Chinese government practises a synchronised strategy to enhance its power in the region on the one hand and on the other hand, tries to keep the extra-regional powers at bay. Simultaneously, in an order to ensure dominance over the region, China tries to divide the ASEAN members on the South China Sea issue and economically weak countries like Cambodia serve the interests of the giant neighbour in doing so. The territorial disputes involving Cambodia on the one hand and other ASEAN members on the other hand further instigate Phnom Penh to accept China’s regional actions, even at the cost of a disintegrated ASEAN. Alica Kizekova and Alfred Gerstl pointed out that ASEAN follows the path of multitrack diplomacy and engaging China with the regional institutionalism initiatives to avoid further escalation of tensions in the region. Truong – Minh Vu and Jorg Thiele analyse Vietnam’s (and to some extent, Philippines’) responses to the South China Sea crisis through multidimensional ways including making friends in the region (including Japan and India), taking the issue to the international forum (such as Permanent Court of Arbitration), provoking popular mandate against China domestically and using strategic restraint by encouraging joint development initiatives.

The advantages of reading this book are manifold. First, it offers wide variety of information both on the intra-ASEAN and extra-ASEAN territorial disputes covering the land borders as well as the maritime ones. Second, it has discussed about the land border disputes that happened to exist in the past; and hence, mostly forgotten by the present generation of students. Therefore, this book should be appreciated as a well-documented fact book containing historical information and analyses. More specifically speaking, this book is cherished as it has explained the impacts of the mentioned conflicts for contemporary Asia-Pacific studies.

This book offers few new arguments. First, besides China, United States is also responsible for the existing divisions within ASEAN as it often indulges itself in the great power rivalries in the region leaving little options for the smaller Southeast Asian countries except to be either with the United States or with China. The role of the United States in the great power game in the region however could have been expounded in a more comprehensive way. Second, in their co-authored chapter on Preah Vihear, Richard Turcsanyi and Zdenek Kriz mentioned that ASEAN countries are coming closer to each other against China. While this logic sounds stimulating and optimistic, the author needs to put more efforts to clarify the reasons behind this particular thinking. Third, Padraig Lysaght, in his chapter, noted that the South China Sea disputes have almost become an anarchical situation, thanks to the roles played by the great powers. However, to add more value to the chapter, the author could have studied the role of the small powers in that anarchy. One striking limitation of this book is the lack of discussions on China’s role as the most valued economic partner of ASEAN. Economy plays a pivotal role in dividing ASEAN on the maritime disputes involving China.

However, overall, Unresolved Border, Land and Maritime Disputes in Southeast Asia is a most welcome new addition to the existing literature on the political history of Southeast Asia, South China Sea issue and the history of border conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. This would be definitely helpful for the students, scholars and experts on the region as it deals with Southeast Asia in a lucid manner which is the centre of contemporary world affairs.

Sampa Kundu, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi