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  • Nationalism and Power Politics in Japan’s Relations with China: A Neoclassical Realist Interpretation by Lai Yew Meng
  • Ming Wan (bio)
Nationalism and Power Politics in Japan’s Relations with China: A Neoclassical Realist Interpretation. By Lai Yew Meng. Routledge, London, 2013. $135.00, cloth; $135.00, E-book.

Much has been written about Sino-Japanese relations by scholars and policy analysts. Lai Yew Meng’s book contributes to this growing body of literature by focusing on nationalism from an international relations (IR) [End Page 424] perspective. As he makes clear in the introduction, he wants to employ an explicit theoretical framework to examine how nationalism matters.

A divide exists between area specialists and IR scholars. Area specialists spend much time on the ground, immersing themselves in the cultures and languages and connecting with scholars from other disciplines studying the same region. They normally focus on what is unique and special about their subject matter. By contrast, IR scholars mostly see themselves as social scientists seeking to discover general laws that govern state behavior across cases and over time. Some scholars bridge the two sides. Lai positions his book in that zone.

Lai is explicit about what he intends to accomplish, and he is thorough in collecting the relevant sources and in matching evidence to his arguments. His book is thus a valuable addition to the scholarship on Sino-Japanese relations. It does not, however, offer the final word on how nationalism matters in Sino-Japanese relations, for two reasons.

First, Lai’s theoretical framework, “neoclassical realism,” is arguably not the best approach to study nationalism. He has borrowed his theoretical framework from Gideon Rose’s 1998 review article.1 Lai seems to like neoclassical realism’s take on international structure as indirect and complex. However, all realist schools share a common emphasis on power and national interests. Indeed, Rose has the following to say: “[neoclassical realists] argue that the scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by its place in the international system and specifically by its relative material power capabilities. This is why they are realist.”2 As Lai himself recognizes, nationalism is often viewed as similar to national identities. As such, the first order debate over nationalism is whether it is material capability or identity that matters in international relations, typically between realism and constructivism. Constructivism maintains that our knowledge of the material world is socially constructed and the material world itself is also socially constructed in the sense that all classifications are social in nature. Thus, socially constructed nationalism and national identities play crucial roles in international relations. By contrast, realists emphasize the primacy of the power relations between great powers. While neorealists like Kenneth Waltz do not address nationalism, classical realists like Hans Morgenthau did. Morgenthau discussed nationalism extensively in his classic Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (Knopf, 1948). But like Waltz, Morgenthau emphasized the struggle for power among great powers.

Judging by the arguments advanced in his book, Lai has selected neoclassical [End Page 425] realism because it allows him to provide a foreign policy analysis of nationalism as a factor in Japan’s policy toward China. By contrast, neo-realists such as Waltz famously dismiss foreign policy as an integral part of international relations theory.

There is nothing wrong with using realism as a framework for analyzing nationalism. Many have. However, most of those scholars do not treat nationalism as their central research concern. It is then self-constraining to emphasize nationalism but use a realist framework that treats nationalism as secondary to power calculations. Is nationalism important or not important? For those who have observed visible expressions of nationalism in Sino-Japanese relations and hope to learn more, the book does not offer a clear answer.

Second, Lai has offered a brief background survey of nationalism in Sino-Japanese relations and two more detailed cases, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and the territorial disputes between China and Japan. To be sure, these are strong cases for demonstrating the salience of nationalism in Japanese foreign policy. One can readily observe strong nationalist sentiment...


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pp. 424-427
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