THE GEOPOLITICS OF EAST ASIA: The Search for Equilibrium, by Robyn Lim. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, 208 pp., £65 (cloth).

East Asia is a dangerous neighborhood and thus professor Robyn Lim admonishes Japanese leaders to abandon “head in the sand” pacifism and acknowledge that at the dawn of the 21st century there are no risk-free security choices and that the Cold War “free ride” cannot continue. Here are the security views of an Australian firmly planted on the Heritage Foundation/Margaret Thatcher axis.

“Geopolitics” focuses on how geographical and historical forces shape international relations in the region and provides a brisk diplomatic history stretching from the roots of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 through to current jockeying over the Korean Peninsula. Lim argues that since 1905 there have been four key actors — China, Japan, Russia and the United States — that have actively tried to influence the regional balance of power. She suggests that U.S. policies are driven by its interest in maintaining a regional power equilibrium and the strategic security of Japan. Of course, one nation’s equilibrium is another’s hegemony.

In Lim’s East Asia, the name of the game is power brandished with brio and rooted in realpolitik; like Teddy Roosevelt (America’s 26th president) she believes in carrying a big stick and acting assertively. She admires leaders who unapologetically act to secure national interests, but it is not always clear how one can define those interests nor what will work. Josef Stalin emerges from these pages as a far greater statesman and more adroit practitioner of geopolitics than Jimmy Carter. She writes, “The confidence of U.S. allies at both ends of Eurasia was rocked by one of the most strategically inept administrations in U.S. history. Evincing a visceral distaste for ‘power politics,’ Carter employed a misplaced moralism by which human rights were placed at the forefront of U.S. policy.” U.S. policies toward the Korean Peninsula are derided as “Carter’s follies” since he believed that reducing the threat level might induce North Korea to negotiate directly with South Korea.

However, “Carter’s follies had some positive effect in shaking the Japanese out of their complacency. Thus, in 1978, Japan agreed to new guidelines for defense cooperation.”

The congruence of bilateral strategic interests that have been the foundation of the U.S.-Japan alliance is described as follows: “For the U.S., Japan became a vital link in a global chain of maritime power that depended critically on nuclear weapons in order to counter overwhelming Soviet proximate power in Europe. In return for furnishing the U.S. with bases just off the East Asian littoral, Japan was afforded maritime and nuclear protection in ways that did not disturb its neighbors.” Of course the Soviets, Chinese and North Koreans might demur.

Lim starkly warns that China now represents the chief challenge to the balance of power in East Asia and, “America’s essential task is to help integrate a rising China peacefully into the global and regional order, while reassuring Japan.” It is not encouraging that, “America’s interest in maintaining a balance of power in East Asia led into all its wars there — the war against Japan, the Korea War and the Vietnam war.”

The Cold War orphan, North Korea, is depicted as the regional rogue and everyone’s headache as it pursues a foreign policy based on nuclear blackmail. Lim argues that China’s essential strategic interest on the Korean Peninsula is to have the dominant say in reunification.

She castigates the Clinton Administration’s “wobbly” handling of North Korea, although the Bush administration seems similarly wobbly now that it has backed off of its initial saber rattling, and agreed to negotiate. But then again, in “Geopolitics” anything short of a “whiff of grapeshot” is pooh-poohed as “wobbly.” The benefits of diplomacy, negotiation, multilateralism, economic interdependence, promoting democracy and human rights, arms control, confidence-building measures, etc., are not the stuff of resolute geopolitics where those with a hammer see every problem as a nail in waiting.

The lopsided U.S.-Japan security relationship is here described as unsustainable and potentially destabilizing. Lim believes that the U.S. needs to retain regional bases because of the benefits of forward deployment in reacting to crisis, but Japan needs them more. She must be encouraged by recent developments as Japan has all but abandoned its 1972 decision to ban collective self-defense and as neoconservatives like Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shinzo Abe exercise growing influence.

She predicts that “the next fluctuation of the East Asian quadrilateral might see Russia and the U.S. moving closer together in order to check a rising China.” Sounding like a Cold War warrior, she warns against strategic accommodation of China’s interests, but does not explain why this is the best option nor what it may cost. Instead, she suggests there may be a future need for containment of China and inconsistently concludes with a wobbly bromide that “America needs to keep its alliances in good repair, while encouraging China further into the global economy, where market forces may indeed act as ‘solvents’ of tyranny.” Sensible advice but a rather odd prescription from an author who only a few pages earlier scorns those who see stabilizing benefits in economic interdependence.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.