Rising Asia Journal
Rising Asia Foundation
ISSN 2583-1038
PEER REVIEWED | MULTI-DISCIPLINARY | EASTERN FOCUS

THE RISING ASIA REVIEW OF BOOKS

Historic East Asian and Southeast Asian Connectedness and Current Big
Power Rivalry

REVIEW BY VINOD KUMAR PILLAI

Independent Scholar

Yumi Kitamura, Alan H. Yang, and Ju Lan Thung, When East Asia Meets Southeast Asia: Presence and Connectedness in Transformation Revisited (Singapore: World Scientific, 2023), 404 pages, US$148.

This book is a nuanced study of the interactions between East and Southeast Asia in a historical perspective with strong rootedness in the present, offering several extraordinary dimensions. First, for instance, one of the chapters explores Taiwan’s diplomatic strategy, moving from its Go South Policy to the New Southbound Policy toward Southeast Asia after the change of government in Taiwan in 2016, and explains how the Taiwanese mentality had shifted from “Taiwanese Asia” to an “Asian Taiwan” over the past three decades. “Taiwanese Asia” was the outcome of the Go South Policy adopted by Taiwan in the 1990s to build a strong relationship with other Southeast Asian nations and to free itself from the China stranglehold. In 2016, a new Southbound Policy was announced and the idea of an “Asian Taiwan” took shape.

Second, the book presents a perspective on the governing weakness of China’s aid program which is rooted in a dilemma that authoritarian regimes commonly face: that is, the need to solve the fungibility problem of aid without losing the legitimacy of the non-interference foreign policy doctrine. A third chapter explores Hakka families that were connected through blood, marriage, and cross-shareholding in their businesses from 1875 onwards, to set up a network of Hakka families in Kobe, Hong Kong, and Batavia across generations.

Fourth, the book offers a snapshot of Taiwanese traveling to the Dutch East Indies from 1897 through the 1920s, as holders of Japanese passports and expecting the same treatment as Japanese nationals which ran into problems because it was difficult to distinguish the Taiwanese-Japanese who had similar facial features as the Chinese, who enjoyed no such privileges.

Fifth, the book shows that Mandarin-speaking Hui Chinese Muslims from northwestern China even now enjoy acceptance both in Malaysia and China, unlike the Uyghur Muslims who are looked at with suspicion in China, thus restricting their mobility. Sixth, Chinese-Indonesian females from the lower classes are currently migrating to Taiwan on account of economic distress in order to marry a foreign groom so that she can remit money back to her parents to survive and look after her original family.

The book offers a seventh key perspective, demonstrating that in the tumultuous events after Indonesian independence in the 1940s, three prominent magazines of that period—Star Weekly, Pantjawarna, and Java Critic—predominantly carried articles on China and Hong Kong, but Taiwan was modestly presented, a fact that may be simply caused by a lack of correspondents and networks.

Finally, the book offers a significant analysis of events after the 1965 coup in Indonesia, when repression began of Chinese citizens and the Communist Party, and by extension the wayang potehi glove puppet shows, which led to a gradual decline and almost complete extermination of this performing art by 1990. It was only in 2001 that its revival began after Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) became president.

The book addresses a credible proposition that a connect between East Asia and Southeast Asia was the natural outcome of migrations that followed the first human settlement in China. “While some early humans stayed in East Asia, others followed the coastline and continued on to Southeast Asia likely over 50,000 years ago. This was during the glacial period known as the Ice Age. Global temperatures were much colder, and huge sheets of ice covered North America, Europe, and Asia. . .”[1] What facilitated the migration was that the ocean levels were much lower than today, because of the water trapped in the glaciers and consequently Indonesia, Malaysia, and other islands of Southeast Asia were a single landmass called Sunda. At the same time, the southern islands of Japan were also connected to Eurasia, allowing migrations from China. Other seafaring groups from China continued further south and populated Australia.

While this story of our distant past may not be universally accepted and can always be challenged, the current reality is that we live in a world of conflicting interests and ideologies, where economic integration is not easy to achieve. No doubt, East Asian and Southeast Asian governments have taken various initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the ASEAN Economic Community, but economic integration remains a work in progress. Knowledgeable scholars were of the view in August 2018 that “despite these promising moves from ASEAN members, any long-term outlook for East and Southeast Asian economic integration will be greatly affected by the bilateral relationship between the United States and China. Will these two great powers collide or collaborate or will they take a mixed stance in pursuit of their national interests?”[2] 

The situation remained the same in 2023. The Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, while addressing the Boao Forum for Asia on March 30, 2023, spelt out the concern. “Most worrying is the state of relations between the US and China. Big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another, because any clash between them will have grievous consequences, for themselves and the world.”[3] The point is that the United States and China are at loggerheads over issues that defy resolution, like freedom of navigation, cybersecurity, emerging and critical technologies, supply chains, and trade and investments. The only hope is that the two countries will develop mutual trust and respect so that they can cooperate in areas where there is a convergence of interests. 

Against this backdrop, the book under review, When East Asia Meets Southeast Asia: Presence and Connectedness in Transformation Revisited, offers a very different perspective that looks at the flow of people, investments and socio-cultural connectedness between these regions. That the political landscape in East and Southeast Asia in the coming decades is unpredictable is acknowledged by the editors of the book. But they contend that “the dynamics of flows between the two transcend politics” (p. xv). Their hope is that the book “displays the richness of those flows from both historical and contemporary perspectives and sheds light on the further understanding of the configuration of regionalism in East and Southeast Asia.” The book focuses on the practical, and the doable, and examines the historical and emerging relationship between East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan) and Southeast Asia (Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) against the backdrop of “the rise of people-centred connectedness in shaping the international and regional order” (p. xi).

The volume is edited by Yumi Kitamura (associate professor at the Kyoto University Library in Japan), Alan Hao Yang (distinguished professor, National Chengchi University in Taiwan), and Ju Lan Thung (senior researcher at the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency, BRIN in Jakarta, Indonesia). Alan Yang has contributed one of the fourteen chapters. The other thirteen chapters are contributed by researchers, lecturers, and professors from institutes/universities in Japan (five); Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia (two each); Australia (one); and one chapter by the founder of a non-profit organization from Taiwan. The book consists of three parts: (1) “Contending regional approaches” (four chapters); (2) “Economic flows of capital and people” (seven chapters); and (3) “Socio economic connections” (three chapters).

As explained by the editors in their introduction, Part 1 “consists of four chapters to guide readers in gasping (sic) the involvement of East Asia in the historical context” (p. xiii-xiv). We are also told that Part 2, “consists of seven chapters mainly examining the flows of capital and people between Indonesia and Taiwan from the colonial period to the present and how this flow changed both societies” (p. xiv). Finally, they tell us that Part 3 consists of three chapters which is “a unique contribution to the scholarship that focuses on the transformation of both traditional and popular culture in Southeast Asia, China, and Taiwan by focusing on different agents” (p. xv).

Part I - Contending Regional Approaches

Part I begins with the chapter “The Diplomatic Efforts of the Republic of China Toward Southeast Asia, 1950-1978,” by Jason Lim, senior lecturer in Asian History, University of Wollongong, Australia.  It outlines the diplomatic efforts of the Republic of China (ROC) riding on the credibility built on account of their phenomenal economic take-off. “In a bid to discourage newly emerging nations in Southeast Asia from establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC [People’s Republic of China], the ROC promoted itself as a place to train technicians in agriculture and industry” (p. 6). The ROC also projected itself as the true repository of Chinese culture to appeal to the overseas Chinese living in Southeast Asia. The essay goes on to detail the approach of the ROC in building relationships with Southeast nations (except Burma, Indonesia, and Vietnam) on three dimensions—cultural diplomacy, economic diplomacy, and military assistance. Burma, Indonesia, and North Vietnam were excluded as they were considered to be lost causes after these three countries recognized the PRC, and consequently wanted very little contact with the ROC.  These efforts in building relations with the remaining Southeast Asian nations did pay off especially after October 25, 1971, when United Nations Resolution 2758 allowed the PRC to take over the China seat in the UN in place of the representative of Chiang Kai-shek. Yet, “ROC diplomacy had been successful in preserving ties with Southeast Asia since the departure of the ROC from the UN and the subsequent switching of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing did not mean the end of all diplomatic ties” (p. 20).

The next chapter (Chapter 2), “Unpacking Taiwan’s Presence in Southeast Asia: The International Socialization of the New Southbound Policy,” by Alan Hao Yang, presents the developments after the period covered in the first chapter till the present day, focusing on a new strategy that involved a shift from reliance on state institutions to a people-centred social interaction-based approach. The author argues that Taiwan’s diplomatic strategy moved from the Go South Policy to the New Southbound Policy toward Southeast Asia after the change of government in 2016, and explains how “the Taiwanese mentality has shifted from ‘Taiwanese Asia’ to an ‘Asian Taiwan’ through an examination of the transformation and progress of the Go South Policy over the past 30 years” (p. xiv). Even before Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration as president as the leader of the Democratic People’s Party which came to power in 2016, Tsai declared that she would promote a new initiative called the New Southbound Policy. As discussed above, Taiwan adopted the Go South Policy in the 1990s to balance the Chinese pressure and the difficult cross-strait situation in the economic and political spheres, by slowing China-bound investment and establishing intergovernmental linkages with Southeast Asian nations, relying on public sector, state-owned enterprises, and Guomindang-affiliated businesses.

The third chapter, “China’s Financial Statecraft in Southeast Asia: Aid Fungibility and the Authoritarian Donor’s Dilemma,” by Chia-Chien Chang, assistant professor, Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies, National Sun Yat-sen University, provides an overview of China’s financial statecraft, its compulsions and options in terms of bilateralism and multilateralism, and the impact on relations with Southeast Asia. This chapter argues that “the governing weakness of China’s aid is rooted in a dilemma authoritarian regimes commonly face when wielding their financial power globally. That is, authoritarian regimes need to solve the fungibility problem of aid without losing the legitimacy of non-interference foreign policy doctrine” (p. 94). The chapter also discusses China’s ambitious financial statecraft initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and New Development Bank (NDB), as well as the country’s efforts to promote the international usage of RMB currency and reform of global financial governance.

The fourth and final chapter in Part I, “Historical Change of the International Trade of Southeast Asia and its Relations with Japan,” by Hiroyoshi Kano, emeritus professor, University of Tokyo, provides a similar overview of Japan-Southeast Asia relations. “The principal purpose of this chapter is to make a survey of the historical change in economic relations between Southeast Asia and East Asia for the last 100 years from the 1910s to the 2010s, with special attention to the Japanese position and role . . .” (p. 101). Beginning with primary commodity imports and exports in the 1920s, we see how the gradual industrialization of Southeast Asian economies impacted trade with Japan as well as other ASEAN nations. The analysis is supported by numerous tables showing the composition of imports and exports, and country-wise trade data and foreign direct investment destinations at different points in time. One of the key findings is that in the past ten decades, through the industrialization of Southeast Asian nations, the appreciation of the Yen and consequent relocation of Japanese manufacturing to neighboring Asian nations, the proportion of trade with a single nation (including Japan) never exceeded 30 percent of the total international trade of Southeast Asia.

Part II - Economic Flows of Capital and People

The first chapter of Part II (Chapter 5), “The Role of Hakka Merchants in Asia: Focusing on the Family Network between Kobe, Batavia (present day Jakarta), Hong Kong and Meixian in Early 20th Century,” by Laixing Chen, School of Economics and Management, University of Hyogo, Japan, “brings us back to Batavia at the beginning of the 20th century and examines the international business network of prominent Hakka families between Indonesia and various places in East Asia, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Kobe” (p. xiv). This is done by way of biographical sketches of five prominent families who had their roots in Meixian in the PRC, and speak the Hakka dialect. The essay shows how the families got connected through blood, marriage, and cross-shareholding in their businesses to set up a network of Hakka families in Kobe, Hong Kong, and Batavia across generations. 

“Proving Japaneseness: Passport and Identification Problems of Japanese in the Dutch East Indies” (Chapter 6), by Makoto Yoshida, Professor, Nanzan University, Japan, “explores the nationality problem of Taiwanese-Japanese or ‘Taiwan sekimen,’ who migrated from Taiwan to the Dutch East Indies at the beginning of the 20th century” (p. xiv). The Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 that ended the Sino-Japanese War. Soon afterwards, the 1896 Japan-Netherlands Treaty of Commerce and Navigation came into force, which granted most favored nation treatment to both countries. At that point, the Japanese government requested the Dutch government to extend most-favored nation treatment to the Dutch East Indies so that the Japanese subjects there were treated on par with the Dutch. As a result, a new law came into effect in 1899 changing the legal status of Japanese in the Dutch East Indies from “Foreign Orientals” to “Europeans.” The Taiwanese traveling to the Dutch East Indies had Japanese passports and expected the same treatment, which ran into problems because it was difficult to distinguish the Taiwanese-Japanese who had similar facial features as the Chinese, who enjoyed no such privileges. This chapter discusses the problem from various angles illustrated by case studies.

“Entangled Mobility: Hui Migration, Religious Identity and Cultural Capital in Malaysia” (Chapter 7), by Hew Wai Weng, Fellow, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia, focuses on the recent Hui migrants in Malaysia, who are Mandarin-speaking Chinese Muslims. Hew’s research shows “how the piety motivated their migration” (p. xiv). Hui Muslims from northwestern China enjoy acceptance both in Malaysia and China, unlike the Uyghur Muslims who are looked at with suspicion in China, thus restricting their mobility. While in Malaysia, the Hui migrants share their language with the local Chinese and their religion with the Malay Muslims. This chapter illustrates through case studies “how cultural capital (speaking Chinese and mastering Islamic knowledge) are turned into social capital (networking with religious leaders) and economic capital (working as an Imam and running a part-time business)” (p. 180). The Hui migrants also travel freely from Malaysia to China to study, travel and to run business.

“Taiwan Investment in Southeast Asia: The Choice of Taishang and Their Response in the Changing Asia” (Chapter 8), by Kristy Hsu, Director, Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center in Taiwan, “provides both a historical overview and an update on their (Taiwanese entrepreneurs) and their companies in Southeast Asia, emphasizing their importance during the COVID-19 pandemic” (p. xiv). Actually, when Taiwan wanted to build relations with Southeast Asian nations, it faced challenges in dealing at a government level with the host nation/government if that nation was serious in implementing the One-China policy. That was when Taishang and Taishang companies (the term Taishang refers to both Taiwanese entrepreneurs as well as Taiwanese companies operating in Southeast Asia) became crucial for Taiwan in building business to business contacts and pushing up investments in the host country. The Taishang set up manufacturing operations and business networks in Southeast Asia from the 1980s. Although many Taishang relocated to China in the early 2000s, the deteriorating business climate in China, and U.S.-China trade conflicts, have since reversed the trend. Overall, the Taishang were very successful in establishing linkages with many Southeast Asian countries and played an important role in trade diplomacy and their use of Taiwan’s soft power. This chapter looks at the historical and current role of Taishang in various south-eastern countries as well as diversification in process after the economic slowdown of China and the supply chain dislocation that followed the pandemic.

 “Marrying out of Indonesia and Global Householding: Chinese Indonesian Women from West Kalimantan across Taiwan and Transnational Chinese Community” (Chapter 9), by Sachiko Yokota, University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan, “explains the marriage migration of Chinese Indonesians from Singkawang in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, to Taiwan” (p. xv). The migration mainly involves Chinese Indonesian females from the lower classes migrating on account of economic distress to Taiwan and getting married to a foreign groom so that she can remit money back to her parents to survive and look after her original family. Detailed case studies illustrate how these stories unfold and the manner in which many girls from a single family migrate by turns and remit money for the family back home.

“Indonesia-Taiwan Relationship Under the New Southbound Policy: A Perspective from Jakarta” (Chapter 10), by Rita Pawestri Setyaningsih, Researcher, National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), Jakarta, highlights the point that while “the New Southbound Policy stresses people-to-people relations, the real life experiences of migrant workers and Taiwan as host society are facing several challenges” (p. xv). After Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected the president in 2016, Taiwan adopted the New Southbound Policy. This new policy, replacing the earlier Go South Policy, targeted ten Southeast Asian countries, six South Asian countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan), and also Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, the new policy relies not only on economic cooperation but also on people-to people exchanges. Capital flows under the New Southbound Policy from Taiwan to Indonesia is discussed. The people flow is separately discussed in terms of international students going for education/internships to Taiwan, transnational marriages, migrant workers constituting the Indonesian Diaspora Network, and finally halal tourism and the business potential for halal products. Halal tourism refers to the initiatives by the Taiwanese government to attract Muslim tourists mainly by issuing halal certificates to restaurants and lodges as well as issuing Muslim-friendly guidebooks for Muslim tourists.

“Taiwan’s NGOs and Southeast Asia” (Chapter 11), by Kevin Chen, Founder, One-Forty, Taiwan, “shares his experience as the founder of One-Forty, a non-profit organization that tries to empower migrant workers from Southeast Asia based in Taiwan and provides insights into a more diverse and inclusive Taiwan” (p. xv). This chapter details the experiences and learnings gathered by One-Forty from their work with migrant workers since 2015. In a world where there is a need for greater mobility of human resources, the insights in this chapter are valuable both for migrant-exporting countries as well as migrant-importing countries.

Part III - Socio-Cultural Connections

The third part begins with Chapter 12, “The Socio-Cultural Connections: The Chinese Indonesian Popular Magazines on Taiwan and China in 1945-1955,” by Yerry Wirawan, Lecturer, Sanata Dharma University, Indonesia. This chapter looks at  the Chinese-Indonesian perception of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China during the first decade of post-colonial Indonesia (1945-1955) by examining the social and cultural articles appearing in the leading Chinese Indonesian magazines of the time. 

This was a period marked by significant transformations. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Sukarno declared Indonesian independence and was appointed president, but the Dutch did not concede and recognized the independent status only after a prolonged struggle that ended in December 1949. Parallelly, the PRC was established in October 1949 after the Guomindang retreated to Taiwan and setup what is now known as the Republic of China. This chapter discusses briefly the tumultuous events of this period and its impact on the Chinese population in Indonesia. It then looks at three prominent magazines of that period—Star Weekly, Pantjawarna and Java Critic—and the kind of articles that appeared in them. “Comparing the news in these magazines, we immediately realize that China and Hong Kong were dominantly reported. Meanwhile Taiwan was modestly presented, a fact that may be simply caused by a lack of correspondents and networks” (p. 313).  

“Wayang Potehi: Cultural Connection between Taiwan and Indonesia” (Chapter 13), by Kaori Fushiki, professor, Taisho University, Japan, “explores one of the performing arts in Indonesia, Wayang potehi, a glove puppet show mostly performed in Klenteng (Chinese temples) and compares it with Potehi (Budaixi) in Taiwan” (p. xv). The history of the migration of wayang potehi from Fujian, China to Java (modern Indonesia) in the eighteenth century is discussed as also the debate over the extent of Indonesian-ness in the modern form of the puppet theatre as it exists in Indonesia. It is interesting, that after the 1965 coup, the repression of Chinese citizens, the Communist party, and by extension wayang potehi, began and led to a gradual decline and almost complete extermination of this performing art by 1990. It was only in 2001 that the revival began after Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) became president.

“Screen Connections between Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China” (Chapter 14) by Thomas Barker, Research Affiliate, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Nottingham, Malaysia, “explores the connection and encounters between Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China by looking into the Chinese-language film industry in Malaysia” (p. xv). It also takes note of the impact of rising Chinese transnationalism and weighs the options before Malaysian-Chinese filmmakers, actors, musicians, and artists of all kinds—the options of working in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the PRC—as well as their experiences in those places.

This book is largely centred on the PRC, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, and Malaysia (South Korea is ignored completely), and to that extent there are gaps. In fact, the book looks at people-centred connectedness and interaction between Taiwan, China, and Japan on the one hand, and Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, on the other. Only two ASEAN countries (Malaysia and Indonesia) figure in the analysis and the remaining eight (Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) are missing.

 It is also debatable whether the people-centered connectedness that is expected to shape the international and regional order, can rise above the dynamics of U.S.-China rivalry unfolding in Asia. The region’s countries are trying, in their various ways, to avoid getting bogged down in big power rivalry that can trigger conflicts and compel Asian nations to align one way or the other, which may not be conducive to the collaboration that is sought to be built on the historical connectedness of East Asia and Southeast Asia.

As for the book itself, it would do a lot of good for the copy editing to be raised a few notches, so as to make it an easy read and not distract from the fine scholarship. That said, although not intended for the general reader, the book is a unique compilation, packed with a lot of information and scholarly insights on historical connections, capital flows, human flows, socio-cultural entanglements, etcetera, and would be of great interest and invaluable to scholars and researchers, as well as professionals and policymakers interested in Asian studies.

Note on the Author

Vinod Kumar Pillai is an independent scholar with an interest in literary fiction, development studies, popular science, and short-story writing. He has published book reviews in the Rising Asia Journal (www.rajraf.org) on topics related to the literatures and politics of Southeast Asia, and is a reader for the Bengal Club Book Club. He holds a graduate degree in Agricultural Sciences, and worked for over thirty years in banking, specializing in behavioral science and counseling. Besides literary fiction, development studies, popular science and training, he also devotes time to cinema, podcasting, and stock photography.

END NOTES

[1] Caitlin Finlayson, World Regional Geography (Montreal: Pressbooks, 2019), http://caitiefinlayson.com/WRGTextbook.pdf

[2] Choong Yong Ahn, “Is There a Future for Economic Integration in East and Southeast Asia?” East-West Center (2018): para 10, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24988

[3] Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong,” March 30, 2023, https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-at-the-Boao-Forum-for-Asia-Annual-Conference-2023

WORKS CITED

Choong Yong Ahn. “Is There a Future for Economic Integration in East and Southeast Asia?” East-West Center, 2018). https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24988

Finlayson, Caitlin. World Regional Geography. Montreal: Pressbooks, 2019. http://caitiefinlayson.com/WRGTextbook.pdf

Kitamura Yumi, Yang, Alan H., Thung Ju Lan. When East Asia Meets Southeast Asia. Singapore: World Scientific, 2023.

“PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Boao Forum for Asia.” Annual Conference 2023. March 30, 2023.  https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-at-the-Boao-Forum-for-Asia-Annual-Conference-2023