With the demand for books describing the rise of China and regional dynamics in Asia, more and more translations of works from Asian thinkers have been making it into English. Back in 2015, Shiraishi Takashi, professor and prominent foreign policy commentator in the daily newspapers of Japan, gave a series of influential lectures that were collected and edited into a book. Maritime Asia vs Continental Asia: National Strategies in a Region of Change presents a framework for examining the changing political environment in Asia.
The author highlights key trends, suggesting ways Japan can navigate this new Asia framed along maritime and continental lines. This English translation provides a rare glimpse into how Japanese thought leaders view Japan’s role in the face of a strengthened China. The 2008-2009 financial crisis dispelled any remaining confidence in regional American primacy, opening a gap for China to try and step into. This shift in geopolitics saw Japan, once perfectly content as merely an economic actor working in the background, now pushed onto the frontline of China’s growing power.
Shiraishi positions himself not as a traditional realist or liberal internationalist, claiming his methodological approach is one of “eclecticism.” He writes: “the theory of hegemonic shifts tilts rather too far toward realism” and “to assume that states can act and think rationally and logically simply does not accord with reality.” Despite raising these objections, the content of his book heavily leans on traditional realist paradigms, concluding that 21st-century Japan should engage in “politics of power and balancing”.
The book is divided into four sections. The first is a familiar macroeconomic analysis of a rising East and declining West, the familiar “Asian Century” narrative. Here Shiraishi lays the bed for seeds of risks to look out for and mitigate. For example, he identifies wealth disparity as political risk: economic development leads to rising expectations of the population which need to be addressed through wealth transfer. Another risk for national strategy makers is falling into the middle income trap. Shiraishi points out that “economic growth… will have an impact on the balance of power” giving the orthodox view that macroeconomic policy is key to a national strategy. Countries must pursue policies to improve their position in global value chains while avoiding policies that may cause the flight of investment.
The middle sections cover the current status of the United States and China, and a number of ASEAN states respectively. Unfortunately, as the original Japanese version of the book was published in 2015, this new release misses the transformative years of the Trump and Xi regimes. For this English-language edition it would have been well worth the effort of adding an addendum for as the subtitle of the book suggests, Asia is a “region of change.”
Shiriaishi concludes with a consideration of Japan’s place amongst the dynamic Asian context presented in the book. He argues Japan must come up with a “grand strategy”. No longer the region’s foremost economic power, Japan still can lead in the rebalancing of Asia. Among other things, Shiraishi suggests moving the regional security architecture away from the US-centric hub-and-spokes system, established in the 1950s, to a network of alliances. Japan has been actively following this suggestion under the Free and Open Indo-Pacific banner. Japan also looks to have followed Shiraishi’s line in strengthening the global financial order by bringing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to completion as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the Trump Administration backed out the United States in 2017.
Shiraishi has long been an influential voice in mainstream Japanese foreign policy thought, and so it is not surprising to find, six years after its original publication, that the Japanese government has generally followed his script. The one piece of Shiraishi’s advice Japan has yet to follow is facing up to its own imperialist and colonial past. As an acclaimed scholar working on Southeast Asia for decades, Shiraishi is very familiar with this topic, and the book urges reconciliation in its final pages.
Despite six years having passed since the original publication, this English edition of Maritime Asia vs Continental Asia contains useful insight into establishment Japanese thought. Beyond that there are some interesting ideas worthy of further exploration. Buried amid the theoretical scaffolding of the first chapter is a fascinating account of how uneven urbanization is creating new regional hub cities which compete with one another across transnational lines, effectively dissipating centralized power. However, despite his “eclectic” methodology, Shiraishi’s thesis is not particularly novel, essentially arguing that in this transformative era Japan must step up and fight to maintain the status quo—the customary clarion call of a declining power.