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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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The Quest for Identity: International Relations of Southeast Asia
Amitav Acharya

Oxford University Press
188pp., PB 13.99, ISBN 0-19-588709-3



This work covers Southeast Asia? as it stands now from pre-colonial times to its latest form. It treats the region in broad and inclusive terms for all but one chapter (chapter 4), which examines the polarization by the conflicting treatment of Cambodia by the main superpowers. Its objective is to analyse SE Asia as a region and to discuss the nature of regionalism, in much the same ways as other scholars have used the state or the international system as the central analytical tool.

It is exceptionally useful in a number of ways, but perhaps a little out of balance in others. A key point that Acharya makes early on is that Southeast Asia, when it came into ?being?, was an artificial construct and that SE Asia is now a politically defined and in some ways economically coherent entity recognised by international institutions and superpowers. It is crucial to understand, however, that for many, the argument about the starting point of the region Acharya is discussing is indeed derived from a construct engineered through the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) and reinforced afterwards through a security treaty. This treaty, known as SEATO, or Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, was again little more than an external construct levied upon pro-Western states in the region by manipulating the fear of a Communist Viet Nam. Much of this Acharya clearly recognizes, but it serves us well to note that whilst it isn?t an artificial construct anymore, its fundamental u! nderpinnings clearly lie as a synthetic entity.

The second excellent contribution Acharya makes to students of the region is that he offers a well-synthesized review of the social and political nature and organisation of pre-colonial SE Asia. He draws on a number of specialists who are often either omitted or remain intellectually less accessible to students. For example, he clearly represents the works of the anthropologist Stanley Tambia and his view of the ?Galactic Polity? to illustrate the concept of centralized authority. He is right to point out that such views are important in explaining political attitudes regarding external relations and their authority. The limitations of central power in extending their reach to distant parts of states impacts, argues Acharya, on the way authority and legitimacy inside and within states works out; this is an area that is perhaps underemphasised in SE Asia text books.

The book develops the themes of SE Asian consolidation and expansion to its natural conclusion, of ?where SE Asia is now? and how to manage the dynamics of this powerful and exciting region. But for that comprehensiveness, the chapter on the polarization of the region and a large part of the world over the presence of Viet Nam in Cambodia after they routed the Pol Pot regime is perhaps overlaboured. This is one of Acharya?s specialisms, and the work he has presented on this in other outlets has exhibited sound analytical quality. But so too have numerous other scholars, and it is the opinion of this reviewer that less time could have been spent on this chapter and its complexities, and more time spent on analyzing the extent to which regionalism is a viable explanatory tool for examining the state of relations within and beyond SE Asia. In this sense, the conclusion, then, was a little lacking; I was left with the impression of not knowing if it was a useful tool or not.


Dr. David W. Roberts, University of Ulster, Magee Campus, Peace and Conflict Studies Programme



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