The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every country around the world in a manner not seen since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, and is perhaps one of the most transformative events in decades. Most countries and governments have played catch-up to the pandemic, trying to get a handle on case numbers after an explosive increase. But a few places: Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam and China appear to have kept the virus largely under control.

If 2020 ends up being remembered as a pivotal year along the lines of 1914, perhaps as the year the 21st century actually began, COVID-19 is likely to be the main cause. Much of what was considered “normal” in everything from everyday life to geopolitics has been swept away. What hasn’t changed, however, is that publishing, like nature, abhors a vacuum: books on the subject have already started to arrive.

For the countries of Southeast Asia, geographical proximity to China is a blessing and a curse. In the Dragon’s Shadow, Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, by Sebastian Strangio, manages to sketch the history these nations have with China and detail the current geopolitical situation in an engaging fashion. While the book is prefaced with an imposing list of acronyms for the political parties and economic agreements discussed, this Yale University Press publication is the work of a journalist with an excellent grip on history rather than an academic.

During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.