Short Reviews


Teaching Japan to Pack a Punch

Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzō

By Michael Green

Columbia University Press, 2022, 328 pages, $30.79 (Paperback)


Pre-eminent US Japan hand Michael Green, of Georgetown University, offers a timely analysis of Japanese grand strategy, studying former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s impact in ensuring Japan’s status as a “tier one” power, Asia’s most influential liberal-democratic state and key US ally. Green sees Abe’s proactive security policy as a lasting departure from the economic mercantilism and low-profile diplomacy of the Yoshida Doctrine (named after the early and influential post-1945 premier, Shigeru Yoshida).


Focusing on the maritime rather than continental domain (a departure from pre-1945 Japan), Abe’s approach has been multi-dimensional, developing Japan’s military capacity through strengthened alliances and mini-lateral security partnerships, but also relying explicitly on diplomatic, economic and ideational tools. Most importantly, Japan under Abe has shown an ability to influence the US, not just play a passive role, and this shift to a more activist, results-oriented strategy is likely to persist both under Fumio Kishida now and subsequent leaders.


Exploring Japan’s approach to China, the US, the Korean Peninsula and the wider Indo-Pacific, Green offers a comprehensive, sophisticated analysis. With his long career in government and academia, and impressive linguistic strengths, Green has had unparalleled access to Japan’s leading political and bureaucratic players. This deep familiarity lets him situate Japan within the long sweep of history while recognizing the long desire of its conservatives to return to a position of influence in global affairs, but without necessarily embracing historical revisionism.


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


A Stout Defense of Classical Liberalism

Liberalism and its Discontents

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 192 pages, $15.70 (Hardcover)


Political theorist Francis Fukuyama gives a short but stimulating and vigorous defense of classical liberalism, with its core focus on individual autonomy, the rule of law and personal freedom in the face of excessive state power. It’s essential, given 15 years of “democratic recession” in which there has been widespread erosion of political rights and civil liberties. Economic neoliberalism in the 1980s and globalization have bolstered a form of unregulated capitalism that has swollen wealth inequalities, while social diversity as an expression of autonomy has threatened traditional religious, cultural and communal identities.


Out of this discontent has emerged an existential threat to liberalism, reflected in growing nationalism and anti-pluralism. To combat it, Fukuyama wisely calls for a moderation of liberalism’s principles to embrace a legitimate role for the state based on trust and non-partial intervention. Overly economic definitions of success need to be qualified by more socially aware policies; central government needs to leave room for local political actors; public free speech needs to tolerate the need for personal privacy and accept that group rights can’t trump individual rights. Equally, liberals need to accept that group identity matters and there are valid emotional reasons for whom we seek to identify with. Above all, moderation is needed in weighing these different claims.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


Finding Fragility in Authoritarianism

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World

By Gideon Rachman

Other Press, 2022, 288 pages, £25.01 (Paperback)


Authoritarianism’s rise and the 15-year retreat in democratic governance is a global phenomenon. In Brazil, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Philippines, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, including the UK and France, trends that imperil liberal values are rising and have taken analysts by surprise. This is a key feature of this compelling study by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman.


For new “strongman” leaders such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who pose such a threat to democratic values and institutions, Rachman argues there are four key modes of action: personality cults, contempt for the law, an anti-elitism agenda, and the use of fear and nationalism, underpinned by opportunistic use of political nostalgia to bolster their authority. The rise of such figures has been facilitated by a crisis in liberalism prompted by disruptive economic, social, technological and geopolitical change. Strikingly, the authoritarian turn, fueled by populism, can take hold in countries experiencing relative economic growth (India and China) rather than decline.


Looking ahead, will this authoritarian trend continue? Rachman wisely notes the cyclical nature of political change and points out that the popularity of the strongmen depends on delivering national success (by no means assured) to their supporters and that it may also be threatened by ill-health and succession crises (in the case of dictators), as well as by the apparent resilience of institutional guardrails within democracies: Small comfort in a new age of increasing and widespread popular anxiety and disorder.


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


The Importance of Considering Culture

International History: A Cultural Approach

By Akira Iriye & Petra Goedde

Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, 344 pages, $28.04 (Paperback)


Akira Iriye and Petra Goedde, history professors at, respectively, Harvard and Temple universities, present an innovative, wide-ranging analysis of international relations that departs from the traditional focus on military, political or economic power relations. Without neglecting that, they make a persuasive case for examining the causal, not contextual, importance of culture broadly defined in shaping events.


They see non-rational, emotional, ideological and moral perspectives as critical in influencing an often dynamic interaction between national and international factors that are interdependent and not necessarily inherently conflictual or zero-sum. They show how culture shapes narratives that influence political actors. They divide their study into four broad historical eras (1800 to 1870, to 1920, to 1970, to the present). Stepping outside traditional frameworks lets their analysis include issues of race, gender, religion, modernity and human rights, while challenging arguments that stress the key role of the nation state. 


Material culture, the rise of consumerism, migration, the impact of pandemics, and debates about the nature of modernity between Western and non-Western cultures feature heavily and provide an insight into a key but understandably unresolved question: Is the world retreating from globalization into a narrowly divisive nationalism?


Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright


How to See China For What It Is …

Getting China Wrong

By Aaron L. Friedberg

Polity, 2022, 246 pages, $29.95 (Hardcover)


The three-decade China engagement policy has failed. Shattering Western optimism, Beijing has grown more repressive and militantly nationalistic at home, more aggressive and revisionist externally, and more committed to mercantilist, market-distorting economic practices. What went wrong?


Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg’s answer is clear: The West got China wrong; it misunderstood the true nature of its Communist regime. He addresses China’s political, economic and external grand strategic aims and argues that Xi Jinping isn’t a break from the past but is following in his forebears’ footsteps, striving for the same objectives. Friedberg’s understanding of today’s reality is solemn: Democracies are now confronted by a powerful, hostile state, ruled by a technologically sophisticated, dictatorial regime seeking to reshape the world in ways that threaten their interests and are inimical to their values.


Given the nature of the Chinese regime, Friedberg sees real peaceful coexistence as unlikely in the foreseeable future. From this pessimistic analysis, he proposes a new strategy for the West: Incorporating the key elements of containment, decoupling and regime change in China in a new Cold War era, democracies must invest more in capabilities to balance against Beijing’s growing power. Counterbalancing, especially in the Indo-Pacific, is vital. Economically, Friedberg argues for a “partial disengagement,” a second-best solution for a global economy divided into liberal and illiberal spheres.


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


… and What Its Future May Hold

Daring to Struggle: China’s Global Ambitions under Xi Jinping

By Bates Gill

Oxford University Press, 2022, 320 pages, $29.95 (Hardcover)


What does China want in the world? Bates Gill, of Macquarie University in Sydney, explores the primary objectives motivating China’s international pursuits and behavior in the Xi Jinping era. He highlights six fundamental drivers: the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule as the highest priority, then sovereignty, wealth, power, leadership and ideas.


Gill probes how the CCP uses certain foundational foreign-policy narratives, including its responsibility to end the “century of humiliation” and maintain vigilance against foreign threats, plus deliver economic development and international respect for China. Under Xi, he observes, Beijing has increasingly embraced economic and military coercion as valuable instruments foreign-policy interests. He argues that its increased hard power has pushed Beijing’s notion of sovereignty well beyond the traditional one. It includes securing strategic advantage and denying potential enemies, accessing resources essential for national power and economic development, and operating more freely within the international system.


As China will double down and “dare to struggle” to continue its quest for these six fundamental objectives, Gill suggests that the US, its allies, and other partners should prepare for intensifying competition with China, and where possible, continue to seek common ground where interests overlap.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim


Out Goes Repression, In Comes Deception

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

By Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman

Princeton University Press, 2022, 360 pages, $26.96 (Hardcover)


In an era of democratic decline and autocratic rise across the globe, two renowned Russia scholars explore and explain the nature of current dictatorship. In fascism, communism, corporatism and military dictatorship in the past century, fear and terror served as an all-purpose tool for dictators to maintain their rule, but the authors contend that the new generation are “spin dictators” who share a distinctive modus operandi focused on shaping public opinion by deception. In manipulating the media, engineering popularity, faking democracy, limiting public violence, and opening up to the world, new dictators can fool people into compliance and even enthusiasm.


While presenting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a heuristic case of spin dictatorship, Guriev and Treisman view Xi Jinping’s China as a hybrid regime — a mix of ruthless repression, outdated ideology, modern stagecraft and cutting-edge IT. As driving forces, they identify higher education, rising incomes, technology and Internet penetration, and international linkages. Another is globalization, combined with modernization to create pressures for political openness. Spin dictators pose threats to liberal societies as they spread disinformation, cultivate and exploit corruption in these societies, and infiltrate Western alliances and institutions. Underscoring the idea of liberal democracy as the strongest weapon against them, the authors suggest “adversarial engagement,” in which the West should exploit an interconnected world to defend its interests and nudge dictatorships toward free government.


Reviewed by Taehwan Kim


How Cambodia’s Lifeblood Is Ebbing

Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia

By Abby Seiff

Potomac Books, 2022, 162 pages, $19.18 (Paperback)


For centuries, foreign visitors to Cambodia marvelled at Tonle Sap — the lake that has been a miracle of life in the country’s center. Bloating to six times its size by the monsoon rains and contracting in the dry season, Tonle Sap has been Cambodia’s pulsating heart. Its annual bounty of tens of thousands of tonnes of fish has historically been the protein bank not only for the country but for the entire Mekong basin. But deforestation, mining leading to silting, and overfishing have slowly strangled the lake. 


Building of dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong, especially in China where the mighty river cascades down from Tibet, has sounded the death knell. Droughts and forest fires brought by climate change have dramatically shrunk the fish harvest. Millions who made a living off the lake have abandoned their homes to join the growing army of day labourers, maids and sex workers in towns, some migrating to Thailand.


Abby Seiff, a young American journalist who has lived in Cambodia for more than a decade, has now written a lyrical elegy for the dying lake: “If it is too late to turn back the clock and restore the Tonle Sap, as I fear it may be, let this be some small attempt to memorialize a place and time before it vanishes.” In her evocative prose, the Tonle Sap has become a metaphor for the tragic country once celebrated as an oasis of peace in battle-ravaged Southeast Asia.


Reviewed by Nayan Chanda, founding editor of YaleGlobal Online and a Global Asia editorial board member.


Do Monumentalists Have the Best Tales?

Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea

By Katie Stallard

Oxford University Press, 2022, 304 pages, $29.95 (Hardcover)


In Dancing on Bones, Katie Stallard draws on her years posted with Sky News in Moscow and Beijing, plus at least one visit to Pyongyang, to tackle the bigger questions posed by her reporting. She seeks to penetrate the veil presented by three larger-than-life autocratic leaders — Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un — by tracing master narratives of the past that each regime tells its countrymen. These narratives are what Friedrich Nietzsche termed “monumentalist” — using heroic tales of the past to inspire national pride in the present.


Tracing the historiography back to its origins after 1945, Stallard shows how tales of glory in the Second World War were elevated to new heights of narrative fervor by Putin, who even today casts his brutal invasion of Ukraine — absurd as the claim is — as a fight against fascism. Putin and Xi have both railed against historical nihilism and revisionism and passed new laws to punish those who question historical orthodoxy. Xi nurses the grievances of China’s century of humiliation before the Communist triumph in 1949, just as Putin stokes resentments of Russia’s debasement after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet both leaders offset those depressing tales with triumphalist narratives of imperial greatness. Xi and Putin’s removal of term limits position them to try to match the third leader in Stallard’s troika, Kim, who is set to rule for life over North Korea, where nationalist historiography reaches its apotheosis in the near-deification of the ruling family.


Reviewed by John Delury, Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and Global Asia Associate Managing Editor.


Where Khrushchev and Deng Meet

Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao

By Joseph Torigian

Yale University Press, 2022, 312 pages, $65 (Hardcover)


Where cutting-edge political science theory meets old-school archival diplomatic history, you’ll find Joseph Torigian, assistant professor at American University and global fellow at the Wilson Center. His ambitious first book re-examines critical junctures in Soviet and Chinese history, putting up a revisionist case against the consensus view of Deng Xiaoping and Nikita Khrushchev as reformers. Applying social-science theory to Russian and Chinese sources, he argues that policy differences among post-Stalin and post-Mao leaders were minimal. And contrary to their posturing as critics of the cult of personality, Deng and Khrushchev each broke party rules, trampled institutional norms and relied on power over “the gun” (the military and security services) to gain dominance. The similarity isn’t just coincidence: Torigian documents CCP leaders after Mao’s death explicitly invoking the model of Khrushchev’s power grab after Stalin’s death.


In the end, “personal prestige, rule manipulation, and reliance on coercive organs” proved decisive in setting up what is more charitably known as the Khrushchev Thaw and Deng’s Reform and Opening Up. Or, in Torigian’s vivid phrase, it was simply they who won the intra-party “knife fight with weird rules.” The author stops short of saying so, but the reader gets the sense that, if this telling is right, Xi Jinping is more of a Dengist than commonly appreciated.


Reviewed by John Delury


The Many Ways to Get Nuclearized

Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation

By Vipin Narang

Princeton University Press, 2022, 400 pages, $29.95 (Paperback)


In Seeking the Bomb, MIT professor Vipin Narang (currently on public service leave working in the Pentagon) makes a simple substitution: rather than ask why nations pursue atomic weapons, he looks into how they do so. This ingenious attention to means instead of ends allows Narang to identify a four-fold typology of paths to the bomb and generate a systematic accounting (labeled Proliferation Strategy Theory) of why a government is likely to choose one over the others.


The earliest proliferators (Russia, France, and China) got there by “sprinting” out in the open, a method whose popularity waned (Australia is cited as a rare example of a potential future sprinter). Then there are the “hedgers,” who flirt with acquiring nukes but choose to stop short — an especially intriguing case study is the less-familiar one of Sweden. Perhaps the most studied type includes what Narang labels “the sheltered pursuers,” smaller powers that manipulate great-power complicity or neglect to acquire a deterrent. Israel got the bomb under US shelter, North Korea went nuclear under Chinese shelter, and Pakistan relied on the shelter of both Washington and Beijing. Finally, Narang examines the most dangerous and difficult path, trodden by “hiders” like Iraq, Taiwan and South Africa (an unusual case by succeeding and by surrendering its bombs).


Seeking the Bomb avoids simplistic policy solutions to the conundrum of managing the spread of nuclear weapons. Instead, Narang gives us a better map to use in navigating the hard choices to be made now and in the future.


Reviewed by John Delury


Where Glorifiers Fear to Tread

Attack at Chosin: The Chinese Second Offensive in Korea

By Xiaobing Li

University of Oklahoma Press, 2020, 263 pages, $29.95 (Hardcover)


China’s highest-grossing film, last year’s The Battle at Lake Changjin, offered audiences a heroic story of national unity and martial spirit in the face of imperialist aggression, an historical narrative with ominous implications given worsening Sino-US relations. Linked to centenary celebrations of the founding of the ruling Communist Party, the film’s success has already spawned a sequel, Battle at Lake Changjin: Water Gate Bridge, released in February.


The movies don’t pretend to be strictly factual; they mine the Korean War to inspire faith in the power and virtue of China’s way of war. As historian Li Xiaobing documents in his meticulous study, Attack at Chosin, in fact the battlefield reality and strategic impact were quite complicated. The bitter fight at Chosin Reservoir, as the Marines called it, brought a humiliating US defeat. But China’s victory came at a terrible human and military cost to the Chinese People’s Volunteers. Li scrutinizes where the films sanitize (leaving out mistakes by Mao Zedong and his generals that led to thousands of deaths, from the freezing Korean winter as much as superior US firepower). The war is also shown as a binary fight between Chinese and Americans, with North and South Koreans not even meriting cameo roles and the larger geopolitical context mostly ignored. The Manichean view of the past seems to reflect the rising jingoism of the present.


Reviewed by John Delury


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