Bruce Cumings. Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. 304 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2276-4.
Reviewed by Mark T. Berger (The University of New South Wales (Sydney, N.S.W., Australia))
Published on H-US-Japan (December, 1999)
The University of Chicago-based historian, Bruce Cumings has emerged as one of the most influential students of South Korean (and Northeast Asian) history and political economy (as well as U.S. diplomatic history) writing in English today. Parallax Visions brings together a number of his previously published articles (all of which have been expanded and/or revised) along with a couple of new chapters. In terms of its significance and its outlook this book has some important similarities to Benedict Anderson's The Spectre of Comparison: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (London: Verso, 1998). Both collections contain a range of engaging and insightful essays which are knitted into a relatively coherent whole. Unlike Anderson, who is more of a cultural historian, Cumings links historical analysis to political economy; however, what is similar about both writers and sets them apart from much of the literature produced by historians, political economists and Asian studies specialists is the way in which they adjudicate marxist or marxist-derived theory and post-structural approaches and apply them to a range of questions to do with power and change. Their work is also notable for the effective way in which they illuminate contemporary concerns and issues via an understanding of Southeast Asian and Northeast Asian history. Furthermore, both scholars consistently set their analysis of trends in Southeast and Northeast Asia against the wider backdrop of world history.
A particular hallmark of much of Cuming's work is his effort to grapple with the complex character of U.S. hegemony, the Cold War and North American liberalism. At the beginning of Parallax Visions he emphasizes that most North American analysts of U.S. relations with East Asia take a great deal about the U.S. for granted, assuming "that their native country is transparent, known, a thing understood". Cumings argues, by contrast, that the United States "is difficult to understand". Because of a "deep, abiding, and often unexamined 'consensus'" which is deeply "rooted" in the U.S., there is a powerful tendency for Americans to "conceive of themselves as people without ideology". Furthermore, when a group of people believe that its "goals are self-evident and universal" it has a great deal of difficulty "grasping that it is bound by its own history and particularity". While noting that Benedict Anderson (in his well-known book Imagined Communities [New York: Verso, 1991]. p. 16) has argued that "no nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind", Cumings suggests that "the United States might be the exception to that rule". He concludes that the "primary pattern" of the United States' role in international affairs involves a cycle in which the U.S. attempts "to transform the world" in its own "image" and this is succeeded "by a predictable failure and a retreat into some form of isolationism" (pp. 4-5).
Another major, and closely related, theme of Cumings' book (and his work more generally) is that, despite the widespread view in North America and Western Europe which treats 'Japan' as an "independent" and "mysterious entity, to be loved or reviled", Japan along with other countries in Northeast Asia, particularly Korea and Taiwan, "have nested for most of this century in a Western hegemonic regime and are nowhere near the self-definition and comprehensive autonomy that local nationalists have long sought" or that many Western observers have often feared (pp. 23, 225). Since 1945, says Cumings, the U.S. has been "busily if surreptitiously containing Japan" and this process actually "deepened in the 1990s, when the Pentagon's main object of containment, the USSR, disappeared" (p. 169). He makes clear in some detail that, "however close it may be to hegemonic emergence" (and he does not "think it is very close"), Japan has, throughout the twentieth century, been a "subordinate partner" in either a U.S. hegemonic project or an earlier U.S.-British hegemonic alliance. In what he regards as the most controversial aspect of this wider argument Cumings contends that the only "exception" to this trend was the period between the attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th of December 1941 and the Battle of Midway in early June 1942 (he allows that this "exception" could be stretched to encompass the four year period running from the middle of 1941 to the middle of 1945). At the same time, Cumings emphasizes that, since the late nineteenth century Japan has "usually" thrived within this shifting network of politico-economic subordination (pp. 16, 23). He concludes that Japan's future prospects are deeply conditioned by when the U.S. "truly enters its period of hegemonic decline" and thus creates the circumstances in which the Japanese government can move beyond the post-1945 settlement (p. 225).
In the case of China, Cumings emphasizes that the U.S. approach to the middle kingdom is mediated by long-standing images which emphasize the country's "unfathomable-in-a-lifetime vastness, its long history" and "its huge population". This has resulted in a continued emphasis on China's "overriding importance to the world we live in". Directly linked to this is "a cacophony of expert opinion offering 'scenarios' for where China is going and what" the U.S. should "do about it" (pp. 151-152). Cumings tackles the views, which are widespread amongst journalists (he singles out Charles Krauthammer of Time Magazine and Karen Elliott House of the Wall Street Journal) and realist policy intellectuals in the U.S., that Washington must "contain China", that the two countries are "on a collision course", and that "China's growing capabilities will soon yield an assertive China intent on dominating East and Southeast Asia, or even the world". By contrast, he concludes that China has historically confined "its expansion to its near reaches" and when the post-1949 Chinese state "used force" this was done "within its historic region, and more than once it did so judiciously and effectively" (pp. 167-168). He concludes that in post-Cold War East Asia a "rough balance of power" exists and will continue for some time. In particular China's nuclear capability and large standing-army is "offset" by the economic significance of Japan, not to mention the large conventional forces on the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and in Vietnam, while decades of "industrial growth" has "built power throughout the region". In this situation, he counsels maybe the U.S. should "let well enough alone". But, the reason the U.S. cannot is "because China is a metaphor for something else". It stands for "an enormously expensive Pentagon that has lost its bearings; for neoconservatives who no longer have a Left worthy of serious attack; for American idealists in search of themselves, in a country that also has lost its moral center; for an American polity that imagines itself coterminous with mankind and therefore cannot understand true difference" (pp. 168-169).
Cumings also argues against the not uncommon view that China could fragment as uneven capitalist development exacerbates social and economic divisions between the booming coastal regions and the impoverished interior. Disagreeing sharply with this school of analysis, Cumings emphasizes that, with the return of Hong Kong and the growing investment and trade ties with Taiwan and people of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia, the "ever-increasing involvement with the several countries of 'greater China' is a far more likely outcome than domestic disintegration" (p. 160). He then goes on to say that Deng Xiaoping "was really nothing more than the Park Chung Hee of China" concluding that "to figure out where China will be in the next couple of decades, look at where Korea and Taiwan have been since about 1970" (pp. 161-165). Cumings then expands on his earlier policy advice, arguing that a "wise policy begins with China's long-term humiliation at the hands of the West, and therefore Western humility". He suggests that "we should do what little we can to encourage a less dominant central government, the rule of law, and basic political rights for China's citizens--without illusions that we will make much of a difference". He asks "do we want a China shooting missiles across Taiwan's bow, or a China that polishes its application to the World Trade Organization with trade concessions to the United States?" Clearly advocating the latter he says that the story will "probably end merely with China captured by the gravity of the world market", but it could also end "with both peoples rediscovering the core of their own different, civilizations" (pp. 170-171).
It is in relation to Cumings' arguments about China where I want to introduce my main criticisms of Parallax Visions. While, I agree with his analysis of the weaknesses of much of the China-watching which takes place in the U.S, by arguing as he does, that China's future is South Korea and Taiwan's present Cumings ignores his own sophisticated analysis of the South Korean trajectory and the way in which South Korea (and Taiwan) emerged as capitalist dynamos against the backdrop of the particular history of Japanese colonialism and total war prior to 1945 and U.S.-centred Cold War hegemony after 1945. He also ignores his own emphasis on the particularity or singularity of China's history ("China is different" p. 168). Furthermore, despite his criticisms of those commentators who emphasize the potential for domestic upheaval and even disintegration in late twentieth century China, Cumings never really addresses the fragmenting and destructive elements in the wider dynamics of capitalist development (something he does emphasize in much of his other work), elements which could well be exacerbated by China's growing deference to the "gravity of the market".
Finally, his hope that relations between the U.S. and China could unfold in a way that would lead to "both peoples rediscovering the core of their own different, civilizations" also runs contrary to his own analysis. Such an expectation appears to succumb to, rather than challenge, the U.S.-centred liberal narrative about greater economic and political interaction and cooperation leading to greater understanding and sympathy. This approach ignores the fundamentally unequal power relations which prevail currently and historically in international affairs. The very power relations which Cumings so effectively draws to our attention. It is worth concluding by noting that the Chinese government and the U.S. have just recently reached an accord on trade and China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, somewhat ironically, if events inside and outside the organization's meeting in Seattle at the beginning of December 1999 are anything to go by, China's entry into the WTO, may coincide with growing division within the international trading body, and disillusionment with (and hostility towards) the market-driven world it is promoting.
Despite these criticisms, Bruce Cuming's work over the years has provided an original and critical (and always stimulating) excursion into the history and political economy of twentieth century East Asia. Parallax Visions is no exception in this regard. It should be read by anyone remotely interested in the history and future of the Asia-Pacific region.
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Mark T. Berger. Review of Cumings, Bruce, Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century.
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