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BOOK REVIEW | 'A Western Pacific Union: Japan's New Geopolitical Strategy' Supervised by Shinichi Kitaoka

Edited by a former JICA president, the expert-infused book offers a thought-provoking recommendation for Japan and the world: a Western Pacific Union.

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Book cover of "A Western Pacific Union: Japan's New Geopolitical Strategy" (© JPIC)

The United Nations, at which the supervising editor of the book being reviewed served as Japan's deputy ambassador from 2004 to 2006, defines the "Western Pacific" as a region of 37 countries and areas comprising 1.9 billion people. It is also an area of many religions, cultures, and languages. Not to mention numerous territorial disputes, increasing competition over natural resources, and varying political systems. 

Yet, Shinichi Kitaoka and the 15 authors who joined him in this detailed survey of the region and Japan's relations with it, argue that a union of sorts could be forged among many of the different countries within it. 

Kitaoka admits the concept "is still a work in progress" and that "even among the contributors … there is not really a clear consensus" (p. 18). But if Europe has the European Union and Africa the African Union, "could we not also have" (p. 15) what he calls a "Western Pacific Union," he asks.

This in itself is a bold question. But the concept is even more provocative in that it would exclude the United States and China. This, I know, just got your attention, as it should. But Kitaoka has several reasons for it.

Western Pacific
A map of the Western Pacific region by WHO. (© WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific 2009)

Why Exclude the US?

First, the WPU would not be a military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but more like the EU (p. 12).

Second, while the US as a superpower is an important player globally, Kitaoka observes that "regional integration involving superpowers does not work well. The relative success of both the European Union and the African Union is due in part to the fact that neither includes superpowers among their members" (p. 28). 

He also argues that it would be better for US interests to "connect [with countries with antipathy toward the United States] … indirectly through Japan rather than trying directly and aggressively to win them over to the American side" (ibid.).

Third, Kitaoka views China as an anti-democratic hegemon that doesn't recognize the "existence of higher values — freedom, democracy, human rights, etc." (p. 26). He argues that China is attempting to create a "new Chinese world order" characterized by "the lack of a principle of sovereign equality [with other nations], the absence of reciprocity, and the indivisibility of politics and economics"(ibid.). Thus, "in order to resist China's expansionism, it is necessary to create a large grouping of nations" (p. 27).

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Shinichi Kitaoka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Southeast Asia at the Center of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

If that is the case, it would seem logical to include the US as a full member. But this is where the analogy with the EU and NATO comes in. Kitaoka in his "Preface to the English Edition" writes, "Just as the security aspect of the EU is supported by NATO, the WPU would be backed by the US-Japan alliance and other security arrangements" (p. 12).

Kitaoka heads off possible criticism of the WPU — "that Japan is such a close ally of the United States that its advocacy of the WPU might lead to the perception that the union is little more than an American puppet." He does this by explaining that "the interests of Japan and the other members of the WPU cannot possibly overlap completely with those of the US — just as those of the European do not" (p.17).

One of the key sub-regions in the WPU is Southeast Asia, which is facing intense pressure from China. Kitaoka felt that Southeast Asia "was not given a proper place" (p. 16) in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the concept in November 2016. 

Kitaoka explains that one of the reasons for conceiving the WPU came from a desire to "redefine the ties between Japan and Southeast Asia, further develop them, and place them at the center of a free and open Indo-Pacific region" (ibid.). 

Further, he warns that if SEA were to "fall under the influence of China, much of the value of FOIP would be lost" (ibid.). So true.

Late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for a group photo with ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN-Japan Summit in Singapore November 14, 2018. (© Reuters by Edgar Su)

Japan and Africa

Interestingly, the book also includes a chapter on Africa. Indeed, Abe's FOIP proposal was made in Nairobi, Kenya at TICAD VI (the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development). Japan's engagement with Africa is little known but an incredible story. One that Kitaoka, during the six and a half years headed the Japan International Cooperation Agency (2015-2022), was directly involved.

TICAD 8
Farmers raising catfish and tilapia with technical assistance from JICA's Project for Extension of Inland Aquaculture (PROVAC) in Republic of Benin. (© JICA by Masataka Otsuka)

The book is comprised of 21 chapters divided into three parts. They include two prefaces (one for the original Japanese language edition and the second for the English edition), an introduction, and a conclusion. 

The authors are country and regional experts, both academics and practitioners (including those with experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, JICA, Japan External Trade Organization, and the United Nations Development Programme, among others). It was skillfully translated by David Noble and Marie Speed, and beautifully edited.

It is a massive book, with more than 500 pages. But it is well worth the read to better understand the region and its possibilities. Let's hope Kitaoka's proposal for a complementary arrangement (rather than an alternative as some might fear) gets further attention.


About the Book:

Title: A Western Pacific Union: Japan's New Geopolitical Strategy

Supervising Editor: Shinichi Kitaoka

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Authors: Shinichi Kitaoka, Nobuhiro Aizawa, Yusuke Takagi, Ryo Ikebe, Ichiro Kakizaki, Toshihiro Kudo, Ayame Suzuki, Hiroshi Yamada, Souknilanh Keola, Kei Koga, Maya Hamada, Takehiro Kurosaki, Shin Kawashima, Hitoshi Hirata, Oi Ayako, Mie Oba, 

Publisher: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (2023)

ISBN Paperback: 978-4-86658-243-6, 511 pages, ¥6,050 JPY (about $47 USD)

ISBN E-book: 978-4-86658-244-3, ¥4,235 JPY (about $33 USD)

For more information, see the publisher's website.


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Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge