In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Relations in Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Colonial Legacies
  • Decolonization, Cold War, and the Emergence of a Southeast Asian International System
  • The Indochina Wars
  • Diplomacy: From SEATO and Bandung to ASEAN
  • Foreign Policy
  • Southeast Asian Security in the Era of United States-China Rivalry
  • In the First Image: Biographies and Memoirs
  • Journals and Websites

Political Science International Relations in Southeast Asia
Deepak Nair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0363


Situated at the geographic and cultural crossroads of China and India, Southeast Asia has historically attracted the attention of larger powers and has been a site for several experiments in self-determination, regional autonomy, and order building. The region has featured prominently in global processes past and present: from colonial rule in its various Euro-American and Japanese permutations, and decolonization in revolutionary and neo-colonial stripes, to the three Indochina Wars that spanned the arc of the Global Cold War, and a new era of Sino-US Great Power competition. These historical experiences inform the themes that structure the academic study of Southeast Asia’s international relations. These include: the foreign policies of the regions’ states vis-à-vis one another and the outside world, the involvements of the Great Powers, and diplomatic projects spearheaded by Southeast Asian elites to express their vision for regional order. A conspicuous feature of the International Relations (IR) scholarship on Southeast Asia is the dominance of often apolitical and indeed depoliticizing “regionalism studies” centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—the region’s most enduring project in multilateral diplomacy created during the Cold War. Notwithstanding its significance, the focus on ASEAN and regionalism has been arguably excessive. It has led to a fixation with narrow theoretical debates centered on ASEAN and has stymied a wider exploration of the region’s international politics drawing on area studies, international history, foreign policy analysis, and political sociology which would shine the spotlight on how colonialism, race, gender, class, emotions, populism, trade, political parties, interest groups, state-society relations etc. have shaped the regions international politics. Indeed, some of the more exciting new scholarship on the international relations of Southeast has been emerging in other disciplines and fields, namely, Cold War international history, comparative politics, and new currents in IR inspired by political sociology and microsociology. This article outlines these new literatures with a view to open the study of international relations in Southeast Asia in historical, theoretical, and substantive terms. This essay is divided into nine sections. Following General Overviews, the section Colonial Legacies looks to the colonial period to understand patterns of class and identity formation that have structured contemporary fault lines in regional relations. Decolonization, Cold War, and the Emergence of a Southeast Asian International System foregrounds how Cold War international pressures internationalized decolonization struggles and shaped the birth (and splintering) of Southeast Asia’s post-colonial international system. The Indochina Wars highlights the pitched “hot” battles of the Cold War that unfolded in Southeast Asia, most famously as the three Indochina Wars. Diplomacy: From SEATO and Bandung to ASEAN examines the diverse diplomatic responses by Southeast Asian elites—including Bandung and ASEAN—in crafting a preferred vision for regional order. Foreign Policy surveys some of the key works in the genre of foreign policy analyses of Southeast Asia’s major states. Southeast Asian Security in the Era of United States-China Rivalry examines a body of conceptually innovative literature on how the region’s small and middle powers have responded to the escalating post–Cold War rivalry between the United States and China. In the First Image: Biographies and Memoirs foregrounds the large but underutilized genre of biography and memoir on Southeast Asia’s diplomatic players, a resource that could be better integrated with emerging “first-image” studies in IR. The final section identifies some of the major journals and platforms for online commentary that serve the study of Southeast Asia’s international politics.

General Overviews

There are only a handful of overviews on the international relations of Southeast Asia. This contrasts with cognate fields of Southeast Asian comparative politics and Southeast Asian history where one finds several sophisticated and up-to-date overviews of the region. The few available overviews are framed around specific themes. Acharya 2014 and Weatherbee 2015 offer an account of Southeast Asian international relations (IR) from the perspective of ASEAN’s history and development. Liow and Emmers 2006 and Haacke 2005 offer a general account of the field by surveying the intellectual legacy of the late Michael Leifer. Clive 2001 offers a rare intellectual history of Southeast Asian responses to colonial rule and the Cold War. Sidel (Sidel 2012, Sidel 2021) uses comparative historical sociology to look at the longue durée of Southeast Asian history—from precolonial patterns of state and class formation; and colonial era integration of colonies into the world economy; to postcolonial Cold War pressures— to advance a deeply international and cosmopolitan account of nationalism and revolution in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Hamilton-Hart 2012 surveys the region from the standpoint of the region’s foreign policy elites and their perceptions of the Great Powers.

  • Acharya, Amitav. Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315796673

    Among the most well-known and widely cited texts in the field. This book single-handedly plugged ASEAN to a wider IR constructivist research program on security communities, norms, identity, and socialization. It has also fueled a long-running debate on the effects of ASEAN diplomacy for peace and security in the region.

  • Clive, Christie. Ideology and Revolution in Southeast Asia 1900–1980. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2001.

    A rare work of intellectual history in the field which explores Southeast Asian responses to colonial rule and the Cold War. Christie shows how indigenous elites drew upon and interacted with European intellectual currents (like Marxism-Leninism) as they articulated new anti-colonial, national, and pan-Asian solidarities.

  • Goscha, Christopher E., and Christian F. Ostermann, eds. Connecting Histories: Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, 1945–1962. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Stanford University Press, 2009.

    A finely edited collection of essays that shines light on a formative period in the international history of Southeast Asia. True to its title, the book teases out the interconnected trajectory of political and international developments in the newly independent states of the region. Chapters by Christopher E. Goscha, Samuel Crowl, and Michael Charney are discussed separately in this bibliography.

  • Haacke, Jürgen. “Michael Leifer and the Balance of Power.” The Pacific Review 18.1 (2005): 43–69.

    DOI: 10.1080/09512740500047108

    This article uses the late Michael Leifer’s oeuvre to appraise the career of the balance of power concept in the foreign policies of several Southeast Asian states. Haacke highlights Leifer’s mild irreverence toward Anglo-American IR theories to make a wider point about the importance of area expertise, theoretical eclecticism, and fieldwork in the study of international relations in Southeast Asia.

  • Hamilton-Hart, Natasha. Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7591/9780801464034

    Arguably one of the most important and theoretically sophisticated works on Southeast Asian IR in the last two decades. Hamilton-Hart asks why the United States is viewed as a benign power by foreign policy elites in several Southeast Asian states despite its long history of waging war and subversion in the region. She argues that belief in America as a benign power has less to do with objective facts or reasoning than with the security and economic interests of Southeast Asian states’ ruling elites whose regime interests incentivize American geopolitical eminence in Asia. The book draws on social psychology, political economy approaches, and new revisionist histories of Southeast Asia.

  • Liow, Joseph, and Ralf Emmers, eds. Order and Security in Southeast Asia: Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer. London: Routledge, 2006.

    A defining figure of Southeast Asian IR, Michael Leifer’s oeuvre was prolific and diverse. His writing included classic studies of the foreign policies of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore; major works on regional diplomacy during the Indochina conflicts; and an exhaustive encyclopedia on Southeast Asian politics. Expertly edited by Leifer’s last two doctoral students at the London School of Economics, this book offers a critical introduction to the major concepts and intellectual contributions of Leifer.

  • Sidel, John T. “The Fate of Nationalism in the New States: Southeast Asia in Comparative Historical Perspective.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54.1 (2012):114–144.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417511000612

    A work of comparative historical analysis that shines light on the importance of Cold War international pressures (alongside precolonial patterns of state and identity formation) in shaping the fate of nation-building projects in postwar Southeast Asia. Features three paired comparisons which provide succinct overviews of the political and international histories of states across island and mainland Southeast Asia.

  • Sidel, John T. Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781501755637

    A major work that straddles international history and comparative history sociology as it tracks the transnational sources, circuits, and drivers of revolutionary mobilization in Southeast Asia in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Sidel pushes against primarily nationalist and internalist frames of reference for explaining Southeast Asia’s famous revolutions—namely, the Andersonian thesis of elite bilingual intelligentsias spearheading anticolonial nationalisms, and a contending “history from below” account of indigenous culture and popular movements. Instead, Sidel shows how revolutions in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam were products of institutional, symbolic, discursive, and affective infrastructures that were deeply international and cosmopolitan in origins. Liberalism, Republicanism, and Freemasonry (in opposition to the Catholic Church) supplied key material for the Philippines’ Revolution (1898); Islam and Communism entangled in driving the Indonesian Revolusi; while involvements in the circuits of international communism (Chinese, French, Comintern) alongside inspiration from anti-colonial movements in Africa informed the fate and timing of the Vietnamese revolution.

  • Tan, See Seng. The Role of Knowledge Communities in Constructing Asia-Pacific Security: How Thought and Talk Make War and Peace. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

    A rare work on epistemic communities by a leading critical IR scholar in the field of Southeast Asian IR. The book studies the community of defense and security intellectuals housed in think tanks and research institutes across Southeast Asia and explores the effects of their routine professional involvements as they converge in “track two” dialogues. Tan critiques these networks and actors for a lack of self-awareness on how their discourse naturalizes a conservative and authoritarian rendition of Asian security.

  • Weatherbee, Donald E. International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

    The closest there is to a traditional overview of the subject. Now in its third edition, this book examines Southeast Asia’s international politics from the Cold War until the present with a special focus on ASEAN and its claims to centrality. The updated third edition also includes chapters on non-traditional security, human rights, democracy, and environmental degradation.

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