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Book Review on Tsuneo Akaha, ed., Politics and Economics in Northeast Asia

by Jing Zhao

Tsuneo Akaha, ed., Politics and Economics in Northeast Asia: Nationalism and Regionalism in Contention (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 398pp, ISBN 0-312-22288-2.

Geographically, Northeast Asia consists of the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Northeast China (former Manchuria) and Pacific Russia (no map in the book, though). Politically, as well as economically, it also includes Mongolia, the rest of Greater China and Russia. Northeast Asia is perhaps the last promising frontier of development in the world, yet "[the] countries in the region remain suspicious of each other politically and unintegrated economically. …share neither a common cultural identity nor a unifying world view. They have little or no experience in collective problem solving or in developing institutions for multilateral cooperation."(Akaha, Introduction)

In recent years, however, the growing importance of economic issues on domestic and foreign policy agendas has led to a call for multilateral economic cooperation at the regional level. A few relevant governmental and non-governmental mechanisms exist that deal within regional contexts, including APEC, KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) and TRDP (Tumen River Area Development Program). However, they operate either at a conceptual level without working policies or are limited to narrowly defined problems where policies are being implemented. There are few publications, in any language, on Northeast Asia as seen from the perspective of regional cooperative arrangements involving demographics, security, and markets.

Through the edited collection, Politics and Economics in Northeast Asia, Professor Tsuneo Akaha of Monterey Institute of International Studies, California, has made a significant contribution to our understanding of this region. The book contains 18 articles from experts from these Northeast Asian countries, as well as from the U.S. and Canada.

The Preface by Robert Scalapino, the Introduction and Conclusion by Akaha, and two chapters in Part 1 give readers an overview as well as a US-based perspective on Northeast Asia.

Four chapters in Part 2 deal with the interests and perspectives of the region’s major powers - Russia, Japan and China. Three chapters (two on South Korea, one on Mongolia) in Part 3 discuss small players’ interests and perspectives. Regrettably, there are no authors from Far Eastern Russia, Mainland China and North Korea.

There are two interesting chapters on Russia and North Korea in Part 4 ("Reform, Crisis, and Demographic Changes: Security Implications"). Vladimir Ivanov’s theme is: "Russian Crisis: Will Northeast Asia links help?" He shows that the far eastern provinces have lost their previous privilege and have fallen into a more serious crisis than any other part of Russia. It reminds readers of Peter Kropotkin’s "Far Eastern Republic" development dream to separate this region from the corrupted Czar Russia to compete with the rising power in the opposite American Continent. Nevertheless, although Far Eastern Russia is the only strategic exporter of energy resources in Northeast Asia, we still are not given a vision of "how to manage the transition from current economic malaise to the export bonanza" as a "fuel tank" for the promising economies of East Asia.

Alexander Mansourov, a former diplomat at the Soviet embassy in the DPPK and now living in the U.S., criticizes both the U.S. and Japan’s current policies. "Many [western] policymakers and observers still prefer to plead ignorance of the current situation in North Korea rather than seek to re-evaluate the gravity of the North Korea military threat, to downgrade it, and if necessary [, to] deal with it accordingly."(p. 266) "Plainly speaking, how many North Koreans should die from starvation before the Japanese government decides to de-link the issue of humanitarian assistance to the DPPK from that of Pyongyang’s full accounting regarding the whereabouts of a few allegedly kidnapped Japanese citizens?" (p. 275)

"Part 5: Nongovernmental Cooperation" is the weakest part of this volume, mainly due to the fact that there is little regional cooperation from non-governmental sectors. Chapter 15, for example, focuses on South Korea’s non-governmental initiatives, but the information contain here could easily be summarized in a single paragraph.

Aside from some weaknesses, this volume as a whole is well organized and informative. If we accept that Russia cannot make any significant policy adjustment in the near future, a discussion of China’s perspective is highly expected. The possible establishment of a mechanism for managing development cooperation, economically as well as politically, in the Northeast Asia region will help to link to the closely related Taiwan issue, which seems to have no solution. I highly recommend that my colleagues of the Association of Chinese Political Studies read this book.

US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute, San Jose

(Thanks to David Palmer, American Studies, Social Sciences, Flinders University, Australia)

[reviewed for Journal of Chinese Political Science, the official journal of the Association of Chinese Political Studies, February, 2000]