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The lesser of many possible evils


THE UNITED STATES IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC SINCE 1945, by Roger Buckley. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002. 258 pp., $65 (cloth)

This is a wide-ranging, ambitious and informative work on an immense subject. Given the vast terrain and limited space, Roger Buckley has had to resist the temptations of detailed analysis and thorough examination, and has deftly compromised on the side of simplicity. Readers thus benefit from a concise overview mercifully free of jargon and theoretical posturing. The target audience is undergraduate students, and the text is therefore pitched at those who are assumed to have little background knowledge and limited capacity or time to absorb the rarefied debates.

The eight chapters, arranged chronologically, give us a swift tour of what the author refers to as Asia’s American half-century. The Cold War figures prominently through much of the narrative, and there are separate chapters on the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Readers begin with the aftermath of World War II and are projected into the first two decades of the 21st century with only the central anchoring position of the United States remaining unchanged. Buckley argues that this position was earned in World War II and that the region has, with some prominent exceptions, generally benefited from the U.S. presence.

In his view, these benefits have long been underestimated and unappreciated. In response to those who argue for withdrawal, Buckley writes, “Any American attempt to quit Asia would likely produce regional confrontation and conflagration, mass migrations and widespread misery, as well as the more prosaic factors of the loss of markets and capital investment.”

The Cold War proved a powerful catalyst for intensifying and sustaining U.S. involvement in the region, and provoked the U.S. to underwrite the economic reconstruction of Japan. This is the most enduring and positive legacy of U.S. engagement in Asia, and to some extent it set the pattern for relations with South Korea and pro-Western Southeast Asian nations. Clearly, the contest for Asia and divisions resulting from Cold War machinations strongly influenced U.S. policy in the region, with often unhappy consequences for those caught in between.

Oddly, given his generally sympathetic views toward the U.S., Buckley overlooks one of its early triumphs. In discussing the birth of Indonesia he stops mid-labor with British bungling, but doesn’t mention how the U.S. pressured the Dutch government to accept independence in 1949 after four years of intermittent fighting and negotiations with the nationalists. On the other hand, he also slides over subsequent U.S. support for regional rebellions in the Indonesian archipelago during the 1950s and involvement in the coup d’etat in 1965 that led to widespread massacres and the rise of a pro-Western, repressive military regime under then-President Suharto. Obviously the dictates of space and the breadth of subject matter take their toll, but the omissions regarding Indonesia that reveal a darker side of U.S. foreign policy in the region are important. The short shrift accorded to the Philippines is also odd given extensive U.S. involvement and influence there. This uneven coverage probably reflects the author’s greater concern with Northeast Asia, involving China, Japan, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

The tone of U.S.-Japan relations was set during the Occupation. The U.S. needed an ally in the Cold War, or at least a forward staging area for its troops, and sought to promote Japan’s economic growth to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism. For three decades, security imperatives pushed economic frictions to the sidelines and were the main recurring source of bilateral tensions. However, the troubled marriage between the U.S. and Japan took a turn for the worse during the 1980s, as trade tensions boiled over. Earlier, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone had been getting along fine, united by their shared perceptions of the Soviet Union’s “evil empire,” but growing criticism of Japan’s neomercantilist economic policies forced the government’s spokesmen into “. . . explaining, prevaricating and defending their behavior,” a task made more difficult due to a “. . . disappointingly dilatory response.” However, “The criticisms from a host of enraged U.S. manufacturing interests turned Japan into a football ready to be kicked by every industry that faced hard times. Japan became a very visible scapegoat for valid and spurious criticism alike.”

Despite these bilateral troubles, Buckley still sees fundamental strengths and mutual benefits in the bilateral relationship and no signs of a fundamental rupture in the near future. He writes, “As a result of stark political, constitutional and social divisions at home, postwar Japan still finds coming to terms with its own record of past imperialism most difficult, and therefore has yet to achieve any particularly deep relationship with its Asian neighbors. This has played directly into American hands. Japan has been left dependent on Washington because it possesses few genuine friends abroad and is hampered by a hesitant public that refuses to reckon with the concept of international responsibilities where the lives of its civilian and military personnel might be at risk.”

Sino-Japanese relations are complicated by their shared history of bellicose animosity and the U.S. presence in Japan. Buckley points out that “China still regards Japan’s strengthening security links to the U.S. as a barrier to progress, while Japanese governments, of whatever hue, look with increasing annoyance at what is widely seen by the man on the street as Chinese arrogance as its rise in international stature continues.”

Despite evident perils, especially on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, the book concludes on an optimistic note about future prospects in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps writing before the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks were apparent, Buckley dismisses the possibilities for a U.S.-China detente. However, the war on terror has made for strange bedfellows and realignments that he could not have anticipated. And, the current thaw in relations may well revert to pattern as divisive pressures re-emerge. In urging the U.S. to take the region more seriously and embrace multilateral approaches, the author apparently did not have the U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” in mind and must be dismayed at the a la carte approach to multilateralism currently favored in Washington. Given recent developments, it seems he is right in suggesting that for the Asia-Pacific region, “The first decades of the 21st century may prove less manageable and more turbulent than the later part of the previous century.”