- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
In spite of East Asia’s rising tensions, not a few pundits have said they are optimistic about China’s future relationship with her neighbours, and with the United States. Yet there are competing reasons to worry, not just about the so-called “China threat” but also the way conflicts are being handled by the region’s political leaders.
International relations experts see the three ways of making peace as deepening economic interdependence, promoting democracy and building international institutions. Unfortunately, political leaders of the major states in East Asia have so far not succeeded in making peace through any of these three approaches. Instead, they are playing the same dangerous balance of power game that European politicians did a century ago.
Although economic interdependence in the region has been deepening, especially since the Asian financial crisis almost 20 years ago, this hasn’t translated into political momentum for peace and cooperation. Business leaders in countries like China, Japan and the U.S. have not been able to mobilise their domestic political influence enough to prevent foreign relations from worsening at the expense of their own commercial interests. By contrast, both the military sector and the military-industry complex in these states have been able to exert their political influence in unconstructive foreign policy-making. The double digit increase in China’s defence budget and the prospering sales of the U.S. arms industry are examples of the wider problem.
The Chinese political leadership seems, for instance, to have decided that the U.S. is no longer willing or able to exercise international leadership as the result of the 2008 economic crisis and America’s huge budget deficit
International relations scholars have agreed since the days of Immanuel Kant that democratic states rarely fight with each other, leading many American political leaders like President Woodrow Wilson to believe that promoting democracy would increase the chances of peace around the world. In the U.S., opinion leaders have expected that China would be gradually assimilated into the democratic West as the result of engagement policies, assuring peaceful relations between China and the West. Of late, though, they have become less sanguine after watching Chinese political leaders become much more confident of their own authoritarian development model since the 2008 financial crisis. The Chinese leaders seem to believe that the days of the ‘Washington Consensus’ are gone, and those of ‘Beijing Consensus’ are now coming.
This ideological incompatibility between China and the U.S. is making the peaceful shift of relative power more difficult, if not impossible. More than a century ago, in the mid-1890s, the United States, the rising power, and Britain, the established power, were able to maintain peaceful and co-operative relations because they shared a common culture and values. In contrast, Chinese leaders tend to think that the United States has been deliberately trying to undermine the domestic political stability of China by raising issues like human rights and political freedom. President Xi Jinping’s domestic policy direction these days seems to suggest a widening divergence rather than convergence of the Chinese and western political systems.
The crucial characteristic of the foreign relations in East Asia is the absence of international institutions for security cooperation. Europe has institutions like the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the NATO alliance which have principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures that affect the international behaviours of their member states. East Asia has the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), but it is too weak to influence the behaviour of each state effectively. The lack of such institutions has made international relations in the region unstable and beset with rivalries, with political cohesion among democratic countries much weaker since the end of the Cold War.
Political leaders in East Asia, and in the U.S. too, used to stress their interest in promoting multi-lateral institutions. But this amounted to little more than political rhetoric as those leaders didn’t actually invest much political capital in institutions concerned with security co-operation. The almost defunct Six Party Talks mechanism on the de-nuclearisation of North Korea may be the only exception to this, but in general major Asian states appear to think themselves too big and too important to be constrained by the international rules or norms.
All the liberal roads towards international peace thus seem to be closed for the time being, leaving East Asian political leaders to depend on power politics as the modus vivendi for international relations. Yet the dangers of realpolitik were clearly demonstrated exactly a century ago by the disastrous events leading to World War I. Until then, a few masterminds of power politics – Austria’s Prince of Metternich after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 or German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck after German unification in 1871 – were able to craft international alliances, but today there are no comparable political geniuses. Those at the top in Asia’s major states seem captivated by their own narrowly defined national interests.
The Chinese political leadership seems, for instance, to have decided that the U.S. is no longer willing or able to exercise international leadership as the result of the 2008 economic crisis and America’s huge budget deficit. That judgment may be behind Beijing’s recent assertiveness in foreign policy and Chinese leaders may have also been testing the U.S. will to defend Japan in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku (or in Chinese Diaoyu) Islands.
Another source of danger is the psyche of today’s Japanese leaders. Two decades of economic stagnation in Japan at a time of China’s rapid rise has resulted in the rise of nationalism and of over-reaction
If so, they seem to be underestimating the fact that the United States, though weakened economically, is still by far the predominant superpower militarily. The U.S. has also had a century-long history of military and political commitment in East Asia since the late 19th century. Just as Britain when still the world’s naval superpower would never give in to the German challenge of naval supremacy in the early 20th century, the United States will not easily acquiesce to any challenge by China in the western Pacific. Still less so with most East Asian states so frightened by the China’s assertive behaviour that they are pleading the United States to maintain its commitment in East Asia.
Right now, in spite of the deepening economic interdependence of China and the United States, and in spite, too, of the 60 or so inter-governmental channels that exist for annual talks between Washington and Beijing, a perilous tug-of-war is taking place between the two over the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the western Pacific. And what is making matters more complicated is the difficulty that top Chinese leaders have in coordinating the conflicting interests of their country’s diverse government departments and interest groups, especially when related to military and security matters. China is no longer a monolithic state in which the top leadership firmly and consistently controls external security policy. This trend in China’s decision-making procedures towards a greater diversity of power risks causing misunderstandings and over-reactions on security matters.
Another source of danger is the psyche of today’s Japanese leaders. Two decades of economic stagnation in Japan at a time of China’s rapid rise has resulted in the rise of nationalism and of over-reaction. A major problem is that Japanese leaders who had become accustomed to the Yoshida doctrine of leaving security policy to the United States, no longer seem to have their own constructive vision for international peace, despite being the world’s third biggest economic power. Instead, their world view seems to be stuck in the 1930s, witness Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine honouring Japan’s war dead, including war criminals, and his regressive remarks on the country’s wartime history.
At the same time, the United States has seemed mainly interested in boosting Japan’s military role. From a U.S. military perspective, that may make sense strategically and financially, but it seems to lack serious consideration of the political dimension. U.S. leaders have tended to underestimate the worries of Japan’s neighbours over the retrogressive behaviour of some of the current Japanese leadership and the risk is that Washington may soon find Japan becoming more the source than the solution of international problems. Put bluntly, the United States may unconsciously be providing Japan with a diplomatic carte blanche, and may someday find itself hostage to Japan.
These and the many other factors in play mean it is high time for leaders in the Asia-Pacific to wake up from today’s dreamy and complacent politics. Some major compromises and a serious effort are needed to begin the process of institution-building for Asian security co-operation. If not, the Asian century may increasingly be fraught with peril.
- By Nona Zicherman
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