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Who's the Most Charming in Asian Regional Diplomacy?

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 128-131 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0001

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Hello Kitty and Prince Pickles versus the dragon and the panda. Both sets of national symbols have their charms, but can there be any doubt that it is the golden retriever and the eagle that are ascendant in East Asia today? Not the mythical Chinese golden retriever that Jing Sun humorously refers to in his introduction to Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy (p. 1), but the traditional version from the traditional dominant soft and hard power in the region—the United States. With his new book, Sun has usefully added to the growing list of recent titles that focus on the China-Japan relationship—a relationship that U.S. scholars and policymakers had paid insufficient attention to until recently. However, in doing so, he has made the mistake that most others in this genre have made: failing to systematically consider the critical role of the United States in East Asian regional relations. The "charm rivals" for dominance in the region are not just China and Japan but China, Japan, and the United States—and at the moment, the United States appears ascendant.

Still, Sun's book makes several valuable contributions to the growing literature on China-Japan relations, on broader regional relations, and on the topic of so-called soft-power diplomacy. The most important benefit is the framing of interstate relationships in the region as inherently interconnected rather than following the more traditional approach of considering strategic dyads in isolation. As Sun rightly draws attention to, China's relationships with South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian states have much to do with Japan's relationships with those countries, as well as with China's relationship with Japan. Sun makes a valuable contribution by framing this interconnectedness theoretically and also providing a history and account of these dynamic relationships that draws on existing scholarship, interviews, and archival research in multiple languages from all of these places.

Not only is Sun able to integrate Chinese-, Japanese-, and English-language materials, but he also writes in an engaging, direct, and at times even playful style that is refreshing in a serious scholarly work. I especially like his descriptive yet fun headings, such as "People-to-People Confrontation: Learning to Love Sushi but Hate Koizumi" (p. 50) and "Cultural Exchanges: Increasingly Vibrant, Increasingly Irrelevant" (p. 102). His analysis of the soft-power diplomacy of China and Japan also shows a deep understanding of both Chinese and Japanese domestic politics, including Japan's complicated, annual leadership transitions over the past eight years. The fact that Shinzo Abe is likely to be prime minister again at the time this review appears makes Sun's discussion of Abe's and his successor Taro Aso's "values-based diplomacy" especially pertinent. This is the sort of framing that will appeal to readers of Asia Policy as well as undergraduate students and general readers. The book deserves a broad readership.

Japan and China as Charm Rivals is strongest in the core chapters that focus on the soft-power rivalry between China and Japan vis-à-vis their Asian neighbors in Southeast Asia (ch. 2), South Korea (ch. 3), and Taiwan (ch. 4). Although the book's narrative largely stops with mid-2010, those interested in the latest developments in regional relations can interpret recent events through the useful lens Sun provides. Sun's important takeaway point is that the so-called soft-power initiatives of both China and Japan are clearly motivated by hard-power concerns, and in particular are directed at each other through their relationships with these third states. These chapters contain several useful figures and charts illustrating the rise of trade with China and the concomitant growing closeness with China in other areas. For example, figure 12 (p. 108) shows that in 2009 about twice as many South Koreans were studying in China as Americans and Japanese combined (despite South Korea having less than 15% of the total population of the United States and Japan). This number sharply increased as South Korea's trade with China surpassed trade with Japan in 2001 (p. 108, figure 11). Figure 7 (p. 82) shows that total trade between the Association of Southeast Asian...


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