Review: “Powerplay,” by Victor Cha

The book successfully answers its central question: Why aren’t America’s Asian alliances built the same as in Europe?

Victor Cha, a colleague of mine at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown, is one of the smartest people I know. His magisterial 2012 book, The Impossible State, captured the complicated history and current economic and political climate of North Korea. Cha’s latest book, Powerplay, published in August, delves into the American alliance system in Asia. As the former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Cha brings his policy practitioner expertise to bear on the historical origins of the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Practitioners and academics alike should read the result.

Cha use the term “powerplay” to describe the U.S. alliances that exert power, control, and influence over East Asian countries. The book uses the concept of a powerplay to grapple with one central question: Why do U.S. alliances in Asia look so different from those in Europe? The web of interlocking institutions in Europe feature the United States as an equal partner — NATO and the European Union are prime examples. In Asia, U.S. alliances are built on a “hub and spokes” structure, with the United States as the central “hub.” This model was created for a specific purpose — controlling “unpredictable” Asian allies in the 1950s, as well as creating a particularly deep set of ties with Japan. The decision to use this powerplay form of alliances continues to shape U.S. relationships in Asia today.

These soft bind relationships accommodate for allies that go rogue. “Reckless” Chiang Kai-shek, “belligerent” Syngman Rhee, and occupied Japan made for challenging, constantly shifting partnerships in East Asia, all requiring more careful management and oversight than a multilateral relationship like NATO would accommodate. Japan’s reconstruction, in particular, required constant attention from the United States to avoid backsliding and the possibility of Japan becoming a Soviet satellite state.

One part of the book that is worth some extra time is Cha’s comparison between Asian relationships and other U.S. alliances — including the alliance with Spain. Powerplay with Spain in the 1950s was the first major step in returning Spain to the European family after the Spanish Civil War. Spain had been left behind as Western institutions flourished elsewhere, under the Marshall Plan, the European Economic Community, and NATO. In return for assistance and diplomatic engagement, Spain allowed the United States to establish military bases in Spain. The new U.S.-Spanish alliance helped Spain return to Europe.

Powerplay has two small weaknesses. The first is overambitiousness: in a few places it veers too far into policy or theory. The second is perhaps not a weakness but a quibble. As someone who focuses on international development in my day job, I was surprised that Powerplay did not spend time on the incredible development success stories of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Given the historical focus of the book, it would have created a more complete narrative to include the development of these countries within the context of the alliances, along with the many ways that the United States contributed to the amazing progress of these countries.

All in all, Cha’s Powerplay demonstrates an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge, solid research, and accessible analysis. It is an excellent backgrounder for context on the history and evolution of U.S. alliances in Asia, and while it does not pack the same punch as The Impossible State, it shows the same deep understanding of the economic, political, and cultural landscapes of East Asian nations. Powerplay successfully answers its central question: Why aren’t America’s Asian alliances built the same as in Europe?

article published in on December 30, 2016.

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