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National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Book Review

Weak and Strong States in Asia-Pacific Societies

Edited by Peter Dauvergne

Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1998, pp.214

This book is based on the papers presented at the Workshop on Weak and Strong States in Melanesia and Southeast Asia at the Australian National University in August 1997. It contains discussions of many countries by reference to criteria whether they are weak or strong in enumerated respects.

It must be stated at once that this book is both interesting and valuable for those who are concerned to assess Australia's near neighbours. In particular there are valuable discussions of Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Indonesia, for example. Clearly it is important from a defence and security viewpoint, and also for economic considerations, that there should be a full understanding of countries in this region.

However there is a certain artificiality in making the basis of analysis the concepts of weak states and strong states. In what respect is strength to be judged - in military terms, or in terms of population, or in terms of social cohesion, for example? Questions of degree also are involved, and clearly there is room for much debate on questions of terminology.

Despite the artificiality of these distinctions in some respects, they are used in this collection of papers to elucidate, with differing degrees of success, some of the conditions in neighbouring countries of Australia.

The first paper, by Peter Dauvergne, discusses concepts of weak and strong states. The second paper, by Joel Migdal, discusses why states stay intact, but unfortunately does so largely by reference to countries outside the relevant region. The third paper, by Sinclair Dinnen on Papua New Guinea, is weakened by the author's propensity to down-play the current law-and-order crisis as against the difficulties that existed pre-independence. The fourth paper, by Ron May, contains a comparison of features of the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. In the fifth paper Peter Larmour compares various states in Melanesia. In the sixth paper, on Indonesia, Harold Crough makes a surprising reference to "skilled top leaders", amongst whom he includes Castro, Kim Il-sung and Mao Tse-tung. The seventh paper, by Stephanie Lawson, contains an interesting discussion of the extent of influence of Confucianism on Singapore society. The eighth paper, by Peter Dauvergne, discusses timber and logging policies in Indonesia and the Solomon islands. The final paper, by Benedict Kerkvliet, is concerned with land reform in the Philippines and in Vietnam. In the context of this issue he discusses the different governments and societies in these two countries.

Some of the difficulties in any attempted distinction between "strong" and "weak" states are exemplified by Kerkvliet's final sentence, in relation to the failed collectivisation of land by the current Vietnamese regime: "By ultimately coming to terms with villagers' preference for household based farming, abandoning collectivisation, and reallocating farm land to individual village households, the state forsook its plan a sign of weakness to some but bolstered its legitimacy, and thus strength, in the eyes of most rural people."

I.C.F. Spry

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999