Bruce Cumings' latest

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 17 12:05:32 MST 1999

Published by H-US-Japan at (December, 1999)

Bruce Cumings. _Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian
Relations at the End of the Century_.
Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. 280 pp., Notes and index. $27.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-8223-2276-5.

Reviewed for H-US-Japan by Mark T. Berger <mt.berger at>, The
University of New South Wales (Sydney, N.S.W., Australia)

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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Louis Proyect

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