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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 241-244

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Book Review

Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century

Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century. By BRUCE CUMINGS. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. vi + 280. $27.95 (cloth).

Most readers dealing with East Asia will have come across Bruce Cumings, and bits and pieces of this book, before. Cumings is a well-known historian of Korea and an equally well-known commentator on American relations with East Asia. Here he assembles revised versions of several previously published papers and conference presentations. He hopes they add up to more than the sum of their separate parts: "In this book I have made a conscious attempt to take nothing for granted but to step back and cast sidelong glances at East Asia and the United States as a means toward understanding, toward getting at truth, and toward speaking truth to power" (p. 4). Cumings believes in power and in systems. His main conclusion is that "Japan and its neighbors in northeast Asia 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" (p. 225).

The tone of this book is often angry, and Cumings's anger seems to stem from his belief that Americans fail to recognize their own country's dominant position in the system of power that he believes governs the world. Debate within the United States over the conditions of American society "from right to left" focuses on the obvious symptoms of social decay. But whenever Americans look at the world "the ills and pathologies of American civil society curiously disappear" and an unrealistic, idealized image of America becomes the norm against which other nations are judged (pp. 95-97). Cumings believes this tendency is an old one, inherited from the British. Debate over any "late" industrializer, whether Germany, Japan, Korea, or China, has oscillated between two poles: acceptance and approval, so long as they appear to be moving towards the Western model and do not become too powerful, and rejection and disapproval, if they fail to fit the model, or become a genuine threat (pp. 18-19). "The image of Japan can turn [End Page 241] on a dime" (p. 25), but the discourse has remained constant for over a century.

Cumings believes that these internal contradictions in the American view of the world have not only distorted American perceptions, but also have led more or less directly to the conflicts and failures that have marked American relations with Asia. The confrontation between American and Japanese imperialisms that led to the Pacific War was masked by maneuvering the Japanese into striking the first blow (p. 47). The Korean War was branded a war of aggression by North Korea despite its being "military action occurring within well-recognized Korean national territory, when no Korean was a member [of the United Nations] and no Korean assisted the United States in drawing a line at the thirty-eighth parallel" (p. 43). More recently outcry in the United States over North Korea's nuclear program and China's claims to the South China Sea have masked the facts of the continual threat American forces pose to North Korea and the continued hegemonic containment that the United States imposes on all Asian states including China. Cumings is persuaded that North Korea always intended its nuclear program for power generation, and that China posed no objective threat in the foreseeable future. Both, however, are branded "rogue" states to justify continued American involvement in the region, and in addition to justify "an enormously expensive Pentagon that has lost its bearings" (chs. 5 and 6, especially p. 169).

Cumings also believes that American Asian specialists have been complicit in creating and maintaining this situation. They have acquiesced and cooperated in definitions of their field and its methodology that have supported...