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Short Reviews
By Nayan Chanda, John Delury, Taehwan Kim, John Nilsson-Wright, David Plott
There Are Three in This Relationship

 

Veteran China scholar Lowell Dittmer’s book offers an original take on post-Cold War Asia caught in the pull and push of big powers. He argues that with the US and China engaged in a contest for control of Asia, regional relations have taken on a triangular dynamic. He seems to agree with Washington’s fears that “America’s Asia is becoming China’s Asia.”

 

The result is a fascinating tapestry that reveals the undercurrents of strategic, economic and political interests of Asian countries as they interact with the rival powers. After presenting a masterful summary of US-China relations in a chapter on “Contesting Hegemony,” Dittmer spends six chapters examining how the triangular approach shaped the relations of Russia, Japan, India, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, Australia and 10 Southeast Asian countries. The red thread running through the book is China’s obsessive ambition to surpass the US. While accepting the likelihood that China will, he thinks a “major hegemonic war” is unlikely, because both the US and China are acutely aware of the cost of such a conflict.

 

Dittmer sees the current state of relations in Asia broadly as “a romantic triangle in which the rest of Asia ... enjoys better relations with both China and the United States than the latter have with each other.”

 

But the demonstration of strategic power and harmless diplomatic maneuvers that Asian countries have faced so far may prove ephemeral. It could simply be “elevated discourse above the diplomatic table and kicking beneath it.” Dittmer’s depth of research and incisive analysis makes the book a valuable contribution to understanding modern Asia.

 

Reviewed by Nayan Chanda

 

 

Foreign Policy With An Indian Twist

 

Visiting Japan to seek support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Shyam Saran, former Indian foreign secretary and the prime minister’s special envoy, faced Tokyo’s habitual resistance. Foreign Minister Taro Aso solemnly read out the ministry’s brief on its opposition, but on the short walk to the elevator later, he asked Saran to take home a message from his prime minister: “Japan may have to ‘make a lot of noise’ at the NSG, but would not oppose a consensus in favor of India,” he said. As it turned out, India did overcome all the obstacles.

 

Saran’s erudite book — part memoir, part history, part a discourse on the origin and development of India’s search for strategic autonomy — is full of such telling anecdotes. What makes the book a page-turner is Saran’s engaging style and the depth of knowledge and personal experience he brings. Especially engaging are the chapters on the India-China boundary negotiations, the India-US talks on a nuclear deal and the climate negotiations — to all of which he brings an insider’s perspective. For instance, he shows how a smart maneuver by US President Barack Obama earned him a public relations victory as the savior of the climate pact, while in reality the US contributed nothing. Saran’s book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the foreign policy of this vast and ancient country.

 

Reviewed by Nayan Chanda.

 

 

Which Path Will South Korea Take?

 

Amid the “fire and fury” of 2017, South Koreans fretted over a perilous sense that the country was being bypassed. So far this year, however, President Moon Jae-in seems to be “in the driver’s seat,” or at least with a hand on the wheel, in steering a dramatic diplomatic effort at peace and denuclearization. These recent developments render this new book by Scott Snyder, a longtime Korea watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, remarkably timely.

 

He uses an elegant framework of South Korea’s desire for autonomy and need for alliance as the essential tension in near every major foreign-policy decision since its birth as a state 70 years ago. In a sense, his real subject is not South Korea per se, but its alliance with the US. Snyder explores little-known passages, like the early 1980s origins of the US “nuclear umbrella” as something designed not to protect Seoul against Pyongyang but rather to prevent Seoul from pursuing its own bomb — as it had been doing. Snyder lays out the foreign-policy strategies of the last decades, and his chapter on the 2008-2013 Lee Myung-bak administration is probably the most incisive treatment of that period in English.

 

Finished before the Trump-Moon era, the book does not dictate a path forward for Korea, though Snyder argues that full autonomy, in the sense of ending the US-South Korea alliance, is not a viable option. But his rich and balanced treatment of South Korea and its US alliance gives readers a viewing point from which to look for themselves at the road ahead.

 

Reviewed by John Delury, Associate Professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and book reviews co-editor of Global Asia.

 

 

Beijing Faces New Challenges

 

In his landmark 1994 book, The Rise of China, William Overholt presciently anticipated the decades of explosive economic growth awaiting the world’s most populous nation. Now he argues that the very success of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening-up” policy has created an impasse for President Xi Jinping’s quest to realize “the Chinese dream.” At the core of this dilemma is the contradiction between the freedom and complexity of social and economic life and the simplistic formula of authoritarian rule.

 

Overholt explains four areas of growing challenge — inequality, corruption, pollution and globalization — as manifestations of this deeper “crisis of success.” Along the way, he draws on a deep knowledge of neighboring countries — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, to name a few — to put China’s success and the crisis it now faces in comparative perspective. The Asia-wide lens is also useful in thinking through future scenarios. For example, Overholt warns of signs that China is heading into a version of Japan-style stagnation. Yet he does not rule out the possibility that China’s political economy could adapt and reinvent itself with the kind of dynamism evident in South Korea’s trajectory. He offers no easy answers or cheap predictions, but shines light on the problem facing the leadership in Beijing, whose failure or success will impact the region and the world.

 

Reviewed by John Delury.

 

 

The Marshall Plan That Ran Aground

 

The last time generals played so prominent a role in US politics and diplomacy was at the end of the Second World War, when General of the Army George Marshall was possibly the most revered man in America. He was ready to retire to his country home, but President Harry Truman saw him as an irresistible choice to take on the hardest job in post-war foreign affairs: Brokering a peace in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, editor at Foreign Affairs, reconstructs his year-long mission in exquisite detail, chronicling a tragic failure at intervention by a great statesman on behalf of a nation at a peak of global power. Historians of US-China relations have studied the episode in depth, but The China Mission is the first telling geared to a wider audience.

 

Marshall’s complicated, exasperating relationships with Chiang and Mao make a fascinating case study in third-party mediation. His struggle is a cautionary fable of the limits of US influence in Asia, and contrasts with the better-known “miracle” tale of America’s rebuilding of Europe, known simply as the Marshall Plan. As Kurtz-Phelan points out, Americans to this day invoke “a Marshall Plan for X” as the cookie-cutter foreign-policy solution to every ill — the most recent example being the notion that North Korea could denuclearize in return for the chance of massive American investment. But with the rise of China to great power status and the retreat of America from global leadership, the Marshall Mission may have greater resonance and hard lessons than the Marshall Plan.

 

Reviewed by John Delury.

 

 

Short, Sharp Answer to China’s Questions

 

Sometimes the best answer to a complex question is the simplest one. China in the 21st Century proves that some of the best books on China are the shortest ones (and easiest to read).

 

Distilling Chinese history, culture, politics, society and economics into a couple hundred pages, scholars Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham cut to the core without oversimplifying. They relate ancient philosophy (Who was Confucius?) to current affairs (Why is the Communist Party bringing Confucius back?) They bring deep knowledge of Chinese history to bear in thinking through the big questions of today, such as whether President Xi Jinping truly represents a revival of imperial-style governance, as the famous Economist cover suggested (the authors find the analogy overstated). They also pose unsettling questions about the dystopian tendencies of the current political system, which combines “hard” methods of control based on fear, á la Orwell’s 1984, with “soft” methods of control by desire, along lines imagined in Huxley’s Brave New World. The authors look in depth at the shifting trajectories of Hong Kong and Taiwan in their mainland relations and explore many facets of US-China relations. Asian readers will be disappointed by a lack of attention to China’s role in the region. But as a snapshot of the forces shaping modern China, China in the 21st Century is a superb place to start.

 

Reviewed by John Delury.

 

 

Two Bears With Much in Common

 

There is a sizable English-language literature on the Russia-China relationship in general, and the rapid rapprochement more recently, but this book grows out of the observation that most Western analyses are skeptical, biased or outright incorrect. Alexander Lukin, professor at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, contends that the Moscow-Beijing rapport is far more solid than the West perceives, as it is premised on normative affinities between the two: similar views on the world geopolitical situation and the common prospects for a polycentric system of international relations.

 

Lukin traces the evolution of the relationship from each side’s perspective and probes the details of the maturing strategic partnership, drawing on official documents from both countries. Having lost its trust in, and being disillusioned with, the West as a partner during a turbulent period in the 1990s, Russia has been shifting to Asia and deepening its ties with China. Lukin finds a core reason for this, beyond economics, in geopolitical considerations: the world is now moving towards a polycentric order, in which several new non-Western centers of power are seeking opportunities to co-ordinate efforts as a counterweight to a world unified on Western terms as a form of hegemony. Against this backdrop, Lukin delineates the rapprochement as a “partnership of consequence” rather than a tactical “partnership of convenience,” and forecasts that the partnership will remain a linchpin of global and regional stability.

 

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim, Associate Professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy and book reviews co-editor for Global Asia.

 

 

Why Beijing Has Been Going Global

 

Modern China has a long tradition of reaching out to the developing world. In the Cold War era, this was made mostly in the context of ideological competition with the West and the Soviet Union. In the early 2000s, Beijing saw developing countries mostly as sources of commodities and outlets for its manufactured goods, but its focus has evolved into the ideological and military dimensions.

 

Ten China experts here explore China’s engagement in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, under a uniform set of questions including Beijing’s primary objectives, means and evaluation of regional engagement, and other countries’ perceptions and responses to its growing influence. The book draws key patterns of China’s strategy: Pursue a package approach, or “comprehensive engagement,” bringing economic, political and soft power to bear in a co-ordinated manner. The authors argue in unison that Beijing has sought to partner with developing countries to foster a more “democratic,” multipolar international order, aimed at countering US pre-eminence and limiting its scope for unilateral action. In this way, China ushers in an era of illiberal rejuvenation in which Beijing’s powerful economy and a message of non-intervention resonate in autocratic states, kleptocracies, Islamic republics, and with anyone suspicious of the West.

 

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim.

 

 

Use Others’ Eyes to See Yourself

 

Engagement versus confrontation is an incessant bipolarity of international relations. It is cyclical, with a period of intense competition and conflict suddenly giving way to co-operation and peacemaking. Here Mel Gurtov, professor emeritus at Portland State University and senior editor of Asian Perspective, navigates the bipolarity through cases of successful engagement (US-Cuba, US-Iran), halfway engagement (US-China) and disengagement (US-Russia, US-North Korea), as well as relations trapped in historical animosities (Israel-Palestine, China-Japan), from an idealistic “human interest” perspective that underscores human values such as empathy, respect, nonviolence and social justice.

 

Gurtov argues that the purpose of engagement is to improve one’s own security by enhancing mutual security. Therefore, it should aim at building trust and reducing tensions between adversaries, with due regard, even empathy, for the other party’s political, socioeconomic, cultural and historical circumstances. This book draws on both successful and unsuccessful case lessons: A fundamental key to success of engagement diplomacy is empathy, seeing the world through the other party’s eyes. If Chinese and Americans, Russians and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, and North Koreans and Americans accept each other’s international legitimacy, acknowledge each other’s grievances and understand each other’s security needs, a genuine transformation would be possible. For this purpose, the author suggests building a collective dialogue mechanism for “collaborative security” in Northeast Asia.

 

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim.

 

 

How the Hermit Kingdom Lives

 

The past two decades have witnessed a silent, dual transformation within North Korea — a move from socialism to a feudal dynasty at the regime level, and to a de facto market economy through spontaneous marketization-from-below at the social level. Yet relatively little is known about this.

 

This book, which grew out of the weekly column “Ask a North Korean” on website NK News, offers a rare chance to look into “normal” lives in an “abnormal” country. Subjects covered span from economic life, work, study, health and welfare, religion, and fun and leisure to love and sex. Also revealed are the differences in daily life between residents of Pyongyang and the rest of the country, and between nouveau riches and the rest of the population.

 

Ironically, it was the Great Famine of the 1990s that would ultimately improve people’s livelihood and choices. North Koreans had to figure out ways to survive, independent of the state, making them hugely resourceful and resilient. Also, the influx of outside information on tiny USB drives is bringing cultural changes that include perceptions of the outside world and the spread of Hallyu among young North Koreans. The influence of markets, combined with this outside information, is far more powerful than the state expected. North Korea’s path to a normal country may have already started from within and from below.

 

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim.

 

 

Middle-Class Mythbreaking

 

In considering South Korea’s miraculous post-war economic growth, it has been customary to view the emergence of the middle class as among factors that helped overturn the long period of authoritarian rule and usher in the democratic transition of the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, since the candlelight protests of 2016, it has been common to point to a new grassroots political resurgence that some observers have likened to a new democratic revolution.

 

Myungji Yang’s innovative new study challenges such assumptions, outlining the state’s manipulative role in advancing a narrative of social change premised on a depiction of middle-class prosperity that was more myth than reality. Widespread middle-class identity was often more aspirational than actual, particularly for salaried and self-employed workers. Also, the middle class has been increasingly split into winners and losers, with the former benefiting from a “selective and exclusionary” process fueled by real-estate speculation and preferential state-led policies. Through a history of three stages of social development — the Park Chung-hee era, the Gangnam real-estate boom of the 1980s to 1990s, and the post-1997 financial crisis to the present — Yang explains persuasively the rise of middle-class alienation, disaffection and anti-elite sentiment — trends that may, at some point, lead to a challenge to the democratic values and norms at the heart of South Korea’s recent history.

 

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer, University of Cambridge, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Chatham House, and a regional editor for Global Asia.

 

 

Setting Japanese Security in Context

 

Debates over Japanese security policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are often led by the question of whether Abe should be seen as a pragmatist or as a revisionist nationalist. Andrew Oros’s timely new work steps back to argue that the changes in security policy reflect long-term, evolutionary changes, accepted across the Japanese political spectrum, in response to a more threatening post-Cold War security environment in Northeast Asia and beyond.

 

Japan’s security “renaissance” has been reinforced by a weakening of some taboos that once dominated security debates in Cold War Japan. At the same time, the country’s identity politics remains split between contested narratives about the wartime era, the country’s anti-militarist and pacifist beliefs, and ambiguities around the long-term US alliance. Oros skillfully blends English and Japanese-language scholarship to give us a comprehensive picture of the intersection between domestic politics, security policy and debates about the past. He offers an optimistic view of the future in which Japan continues its gradual, evolutionary trajectory towards greater security activism, without compromising its measured approach towards foreign policy. He persuasively depicts Abe as advancing a gradualist process of security policy reform, not forcing an abrupt and radical departure from post-war norms and values.

 

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright.

 

 

From Hedgehogs to Foxes and Back

 

In a world ever more threatened by the revival of national rivalry and great-power conflict, a fresh analysis of the nature of strategic thinking seems timely. John Gaddis, America’s pre-eminent Cold War historian, departs from his traditional focus on contemporary history to offer a wide-ranging analysis of leadership and strategic thinking from 5th century BCE Greece to the present.

 

Inspired by Oxford intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin, Gaddis uses the simplifying distinction between leaders as “hedgehogs” (motivated by a single, central vision) and “foxes” (embracing multiple and often contradictory ends) to present a view of strategy that encompasses both general principles and the peculiarities of personality, chance and unique conditions. Contrasting the strategic strengths and weaknesses of a diverse group of historical figures (military commanders, political philosophers, monarchs, politicians and presidents), Gaddis takes the reader on a fascinating biographical excursion encompassing, in part, Xerxes, Pericles, Sun Tzu, Augustus, Augustine, Machiavelli, Elizabeth I, Philip II of Spain, the Founding Fathers of the US, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

 

Imaginatively incorporating von Clausewitz and Tolstoy, Gaddis highlights the similarities between artists and strategic thinkers: The importance of originality and ingenuity, the value of experience in adapting to both regularities and uniqueness in complex situations, and the ability to tolerate inconsistencies while applying common sense in the face of differences of scale, space, and time.

 

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright.

 

 

The Challenge of Japan’s Century

 

Any close observer of Japan could be forgiven for believing that what ails the country is that its body politic is missing the panic gene. What else could explain Japan’s failure for years to deal convincingly with an impending demographic disaster, and its decades-long economic stagnation?

 

Japan’s Population Implosion, edited by Yoichi Funabashi, a distinguished commentator, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun and now chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, assembles a remarkable array of experts to dig deeply into the causes, consequences and possible solutions to one of the starkest threats Japan faces: its rapidly aging population, low birth rate, and the attendant hollowing out of the countryside and the slow demise of its cities. At current trends, Japan’s population of 127 million is expected to decline to 50 million by the end of this century. What’s worse, 40 percent of that reduced population will consist of the elderly.

 

As Inagawa Hidekazu says in the introduction to this fascinating volume, Japan’s demographic crisis “stands as the country’s greatest challenge since the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868.” First published in Japanese in 2015, the volume is now in English translation and is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of Japan.

 

Reviewed by David Plott, Managing Editor of Global Asia.

 

 

Back to Issue
    China’s Asia: Triangular Dynamics Since the Cold War By Lowell Dittmer Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018, 302 pages, $9.69 (Hardcover) How India Sees the World By Shyam Saran New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017, 320 pages, $17.00 (Hardcover) South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers By Scott A. Snyder Columbia University Press, 2018, 376 pages, $33.85 (Hardcover) China’s Crisis of Success By William H. Overholt Cambridge University Press, 2018, 302 pages, $25.99 (Paperback) The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan W.W. Norton and Company, 2018, 496 pages, $28.95 (Hardcover) China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham Oxford University Press, 2018 (third edition), 240 pages, $16.95 (Paperback) China and Russia: The New Rapprochement By Alexander Lukin Polity, 2018, 272 pages, $55.94 (Hardcover) China Steps Out: Beijing’s Major Power Engagement with the Developing World By Joshua Eisenman and Eric Heginbotham (eds.) Routledge, 2018, 452 pages, $150.00 (Hardcover) Engaging Adversaries: Peacemaking and Diplomacy in the Human Interest By Mel Gurtov Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 196 pages, $17.00 (Hardcover) Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation By Daniel Tudor (ed.) Tuttle Publishing, 2018, 288 pages $15.69 (Hardcover) From Miracle to Mirage: The Making and Unmaking of the Korean Middle Class, 1960-2015 By Myungi Yang Cornell University Press, 2018, 183 pages, $41.00 (Hardcover) Japan’s Security Renaissance: New Policies and Politics for the Twenty-First Century By Andrew L. Oros New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017, 320 pages, $30 (Hardcover) On Grand Strategy By John Lewis Gaddis Penguin Press, 2018, 384 pages, $20.80 (Hardcover) Japan’s Population Implosion: The 50 Million Shock By Yoichi Funabashi (ed.) Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 235 pages, $99.99 (Hardcover)
    Published: Jun 22, 2018
    About the author

    Nayan Chanda is founding editor of YaleGlobal Online and a member of the editorial board of Global Asia. He is the author of Bound Together: How Traders Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, 2007).

    John Delury is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, Seoul, and Associate Managing Editor for Global Asia.

    Taehwan Kim is Associate Professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy and a book reviews co-editor for Global Asia.

    John Nilsson-Wright is Senior Lecturer, University of Cambridge, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Chatham House, and a regional editor for Global Asia.

    David Plott is managing editor of Global Asia.

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