Unlike Europe, where the Yalta System collapsed and the wall dividing the East and the West was completely demolished by the early 1990s, the regional cold war structure, foundation of which was laid in the early post-WWII years, essentially continues even to the present day in East Asia. The region has gone through significant transformations from time to time. Yet, China and Korea are still divided, with the communist or authoritarian parts still intact; the lingering territorial and other regional conflicts also continue to provide sources of instability; accordingly the US presence through its hub-and-spoke regional security alliance system (the “San Francisco Alliance System”) and associated problems, such as the “Okinawa problem”, also continue.
The economy is the glue connecting the East Asian states. They have track records of advancing their cooperative relations while shelving the territorial and other disputes. Economic-driven multilateral cooperation and institution building developed notably with the creation of multiple institutions, especially since the 1990s, expanding their communication networks and paving the way for confidence-building measures (CBMs) among neighbouring states. Once policy shifts to the economy or other common areas of interest, neighbouring states can work together for more cooperative relations. Deepening economic interdependence also helps motivate regional states to deter their conflicts from escalating.
As long as the sources of conflicts remain unchanged, however, no matter how much CBMs are enhanced and relations improved, there is always a possibility that tensions resurge and conflicts escalate. The relaxation of tension seen in the Cold War thaw in the 1950 and détente in the 1970s in both instances gave way to deterioration of East-West relations. Similar phenomena have been observed in East Asia, e.g. the US-China conflicts, tensions in the divided Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, and the territorial and other unsettled issues among the neighbours.
To the extent that the fundamental structure of cold war confrontation remains, the dramatic relaxation of tensions seen in East Asia since the late 1980s is more like the periodic détente than the “End of the Cold War” per se. Yet, considering that the 1975 Helsinki Accords recognised the status quo of the (then) existing borders in Europe, the political status quo in East Asia, where disputes over post-WWII borders still continue, may not have reached the level of the 1970s détente in Europe.
The major regional conflicts in East Asia share common foundation in the post-WWII settlement with Japan which was made somewhat vague in the context of the regional Cold War. Among them, tangible conflicts as seen in the territorial disputes have often been associated with other intangible conflicts of their unsettled past, and have led exacerbation of nationalism and deterioration of the neighbouring relations. Basically, it is extremely difficult to change the existing borders without waging wars again. Yet, wars should be the option to be avoided.
That there is common recognition, or consensus, about the political status quo and existing borders contributes to regional peace and stability. The 1975 Helsinki Accords was the wisdom based on the European experience of repeating wars over territories and borders. Asia is different from Europe and certainly behind in dealing with the past. Although European models may not be perfect, just as the concepts of nation states, territorial sovereignty, or modern international relations framework spread from Europe, the wisdom to overcome their challenges may be learned or applied in Asia as well. In order to bring stability and create peaceful regional community, there are important lessons to learn from the European experiences.
Kimie Hara is the Renison Research Professor at the University of Waterloo (Canada), where she is also director of East Asian Studies at Renison University College. She was recently a featured speaker at the Friends of Europe conference, ‘The Asia Paradox – Rising wealth, lingering tensions’. Read the report from the conference here.”
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – The British Library