Thomas Fingar. Uneasy Partnerships: China's Engagement with Japan, the Koreas, and Russia in the Era of Reform. Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 264 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-0196-3; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0141-3.
Reviewed by Steven Jackson (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
The cover photo of the book Uneasy Partnerships—the uncomfortable handshake between Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the sidelines of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Jakarta in April 2015—captures the book’s argument. Neither man evinces any warmth, but the need to repair the Sino-Japanese relationship impels minimal effort. Underlying the strained exchange is a deeply troubled relationship, one of several in Northeast Asia.
Uneasy Partnerships comes out of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. This volume grew out of a 2012 conference in Beijing with many prominent scholars in Chinese and East Asian international relations speaking freely on China’s relations with its neighbors, and those neighbors’ actions and policies in return. Unlike other books on China’s foreign relations, this one considers how other countries react to China, their policies, and their options. It is closely related to an earlier study, also edited by Thomas Fingar, titled The New Great Game: China and South and Central Asia in the Era of Reform (2016), which was reviewed in H-Net by Sumit Ganguly. Like the previous work, the final chapter of Uneasy Partnerships makes some brief comparisons to the Central, South, and Northeast Asian relationships. Much of the research by the authors appears to have been completed in 2012, though Fingar’s chapters clearly were finished later, and the book was published in early 2017. The writing throughout the chapters flows evenly. Fingar served as chair of the National Intelligence Council; was the head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the US State Department, and (full disclosure) was an instructor in a few of my undergraduate courses at Stanford, where he received his PhD. He is also the author of four and a half of the ten chapters of this edited volume.
Uneasy Partnerships focuses on Northeast Asia: China, Japan, North and South Korea, and Russia. Fingar chose not to include Mongolia and Taiwan in the analysis, the former because it has a relatively small strategic impact, and the latter because the nature of its relations with China and others is fundamentally different than the diplomatic relations of the others. The choice made sense in 2012 when Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang government in Taiwan was pursuing a friendlier relationship with mainland China than Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party government beginning in 2016. The omission does make sense as a simplifying mechanism for a study of Northeast Asian international relations. The choice to leave out Mongolia is unfortunate, because it would have further strengthened the argument of the study.
Fingar sets up a clear and well-reasoned framework for analysis. The editor describes it as “an empirically-based macro analysis of China-centered interactions in Northeast Asia since 1979” (p. 21). It does not have the level of diplomatic historical detail that other books provide, and though it stresses the role of economic relationships in Northeast Asia, particularly between China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, it does not contain much actual economic data. There is one graph in the book and there are no tables. The central argument is that “China’s relationships with other nations are shaped primarily by calculations about whether and how the other country threatens or might contribute to China’s security, and by what a country can contribute to China’s quest for modernization and economic growth” (p. 226). Fingar argues that China has two basic priorities in its foreign relations: security and development. He argues that these two priorities reinforce each other: a secure and stable regional environment assists economic development, and economic development has allowed China to develop its security mechanisms, especially its military, to an impressive degree.
Within the ten chapters of the book, two cover Sino-Japanese relations. Zhao Suisheng’s “Beijing’s Japan Dilemma” is a very good, detailed examination of the relationship, particularly focusing on the historical legacies of World War II, and the ways in which the Chinese government has revived, encouraged, and nurtured anti-Japanese resentment beginning in the 1990s. Zhao’s conclusions, however, are not optimistic, posing China’s Communist leaders as “Riding the Anti-Japan Tiger” of nationalism that they cannot entirely control (p. 90). Zhao’s analysis is nuanced and shows a deep appreciation for the tension in China’s policy between exploiting nationalism and endangering the prosperity coming from the intensive trade and investment ties between the Chinese and Japanese economies. Zhao also does a good job of discussing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island disputes, the rare earth metals embargo, and the other incidents that made relations between Tokyo and Beijing very frosty in the early 2010s. Takagi Seiichiro’s following chapter renders a Japanese take on the bilateral relationship, and in particular looks at Japanese public opinion of China, and the notable deterioration beginning in 2004. These two chapters do not lead to any rosy optimistic or hopeful conclusions about the political ties between China and Japan, though the economic relationship remains generally quite solid and increasingly intertwined due to complex linkages through Japanese corporate production chains.
China’s relations with Korea is the subject of the next three chapters. The first is a broad historical overview by Fingar, focusing on the role Korea has played in China’s security, given their long common border. The chapter goes back to 1949 and focuses on the shifts in periods of good relations between China and the North, then the normalization of relations between Beijing and Seoul, much to the chagrin of Pyongyang. The North Korean response of developing a nuclear weapons program fills out the chapter, and Fingar does include the most recent source of conflict between China and South Korea over the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
Yu Myung-Hwan’s chapter covers South Korea and its policies and approaches to China. Like Fingar’s chapter, this includes some broad history, but is particularly good in its detail on the economic relationship between China and South Korea. Naturally, the North Korean issue plays a major part in this chapter, and Yu gives a good account of that country’s actions in shaping the ties between Seoul and Beijing. Yu also explores the South Korean dilemma of security dependence on the United States against threats from the North but increasing economic dependence on China: “If relations between the United States and China are good, South Korea should be able to maintain good relations with both. If, however, the United States and China antagonize each other and engage in a strategic competition, Korea will find it extremely difficult to side with either” (p. 159). Of course, one could easily substitute several countries in East Asia for “Korea” in that sentence. Yu’s conclusions are that the Sino-South Korean relationship will always have limits as long as North Korea exists as a major source of frustration for Chinese and South Korean governments alike.
The third Korea chapter by Fingar and David Straub focuses on North Korea and its connection to China. Most Western writing on North Korea tends to be somewhat hostile toward the government in Pyongyang, and few Western policymakers would ever even try to look at the world from North Korea’s perspective. That is the strength of this chapter; it looks at the world through the lens of a small, isolated ideological set of leaders who are seeking regime survival in a world with no friends and very few options. The authors emphasize the suspicion with which Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-il, and finally Kim Jung-un all view China; revolutionary slogans were worn thin long ago, and China’s recognition of South Korea in 1992 confirmed Pyongyang’s sense of betrayal. After that and the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea no longer had the option of playing Moscow against Beijing, and now China could play Seoul off of Pyongyang. Little wonder that the government there began to develop the ultimate guarantee of security. But one is also struck in this chapter how unrealistic it was for Kim Jong-il to expect to both keep nuclear weapons and improve relations with the United States. His son has not improved matters with China, either, having shot Jang Song-thaek, China’s best connection in Pyongyang, in 2013. Fingar and Straub do not see an easy way out of the current situation in North Korea.
One of the few chapters in the volume that does have a somewhat more positive outlook on a Northeast Asian bilateral relationship is Artyom Lukin’s piece on Soviet/Russia-China relations. That positivity may not please Western policymakers, but Lukin makes a good case for Sino-Russian relations being better than many Western analysts (me included) would credit. Lukin’s analysis goes back to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the highs and lows of subsequent interactions, including the Sino-Soviet split, the period of the strategic triangle, the later normalization of relations under Mikhail Gorbachev, and the collapse of the USSR. Lukin is at his best in dealing with the Russian Federation period, and shows a fine sense of the ups and downs of relations during a period in which the relative power of these two countries was shifting dramatically in China’s favor. Russia has benefited from China’s rapid growth, selling energy and military technology to that country, the former an important part of China’s ability to secure supplies of oil that cannot be stopped by instability in the Middle East or potential US naval interdiction. Lukin goes so far as to describe the relationship as a “de facto alliance,” following many other Russian scholars (p. 205). This is where Lukin’s analysis may be going a step too far, in my opinion. China’s strategic partnership with Russia is unique in its hierarchy of such diplomatic honorifics (“comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”), but it is not an alliance and probably never will be because China emphatically speaks out against alliances as Cold War remnants. Russia’s oil does play a role in China’s energy diversification, but it is one of several countries with that role. Russians would very much like the relationship to be an alliance; they are the ones under Western sanctions for the Ukraine war, and clearly the weaker partner in the relationship (as much as it probably galls them to admit it). The weaker partner always emphasizes the alliance more than the stronger partner, and China would probably be reluctant to bind itself to another country with as many strategic liabilities as Russia. Furthermore, Lukin clearly understates the degree of commercial rivalry developing in Central Asia between China and Russia, a competition that Chinese products are clearly winning, much to the resentment of the Russians, who still regard those areas as “their” sphere of influence.
If Ganguly had a quibble with the title of The New Great Game, then I must similarly register my quibble with the title of Uneasy Partnerships. One of the recent trends in Chinese diplomacy with nearby countries has been to elevate “neighbors” into various forms of diplomatic “partnerships.” Yu’s chapter discusses this matter in respect to China and South Korea. Yet China does not describe two of the key relations of this book as “partnerships”: Japan and North Korea. North Korea is listed as a “traditional friendship.” Japan is a “close neighbor.” It is indicative of the chilly nature of these relations that they have not been elevated to any sort of partnership, easy or uneasy.
The volume in question is primarily aimed at other scholars of China’s foreign relations, but many of the chapters provide just enough historical background information to the relationships in question that they might be used individually as readings in upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level courses on the international relations of East Asia. And given the reasonable cost of the paperback edition, this would be a good supplementary text as a whole for such courses. What is clearly missing between The Great Game and Uneasy Partnerships is a treatment of the China-Southeast Asia relationships. That volume is being edited by Donald Emmerson, titled The Deer and the Dragon: China and Southeast Asia in the Era of Reform, also by Stanford University Press, though it is unclear when it will be published.
. Sumit Ganguly, review of The New Great Game: China and South and Central Asia in the Era of Reform by Thomas Fingar, ed., H-Net Reviews (November 2016): http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48293.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Steven Jackson. Review of Fingar, Thomas, Uneasy Partnerships: China's Engagement with Japan, the Koreas, and Russia in the Era of Reform.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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