This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More

The East Asian region—by which I mean China, Japan, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—is currently at the center of some of the world’s most pressing security concerns. Whether it is the unresolved status of Taiwan, the unstable nature of the regime in North Korea, or the rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, there is seemingly much to be concerned about. And yet at the same time a number of books and articles have been written about the durability of the so-called "long peace of Asia." At the very least the security situation in East Asia is unusual and distinctive.

One of the reasons why East Asia generates such different perspectives among observers is because of its own inherent diversity. It is possible to find examples of every conceivable form of political organization from fully-fledged democracies to military juntas—not to mention examples of all of the world’s religions—in countries that vary in size from the largest like China to the island state of Singapore. The region’s militaries have also played a distinctive and important role in the evolution individual states. They still do, most obviously in Thailand, Burma/Myanmar and North Korea. But in a number of other states such as Indonesia, the Philippines and—most importantly, perhaps—China, the military remains an important actor in the background. Whether the entire region can be civilianized and the military unambiguously confined to a subordinate role remains unclear. Although examples of some states such as Singapore, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and even Vietnam, suggest that progress is possible and durable.

It might seem a foolhardy enterprise trying to distill meaningful generalizations from such a highly disparate mix. In many ways it is; especially if we add the not unrelated question of whether it actually makes sense to talk about ‘East Asia’ as a coherent region in the first place. After all, if East Asia really does refer to something other than simple geography, we would expect to see evidence of a capacity to act collectively. While there are a surprisingly large number of regionally-based political initiatives of one sort or another, some with a specific mandate to address security issues, East Asia’s potential to act collectively is a function of the countries that compose it. The willingness of the members act in concert is constrained by some very specific, historically contingent factors that continue to cast a long shadow over contemporary events. Trying to make sense of why it has proved so difficult to resolve or even talk about some of the region’s most enduring security problems involves looking at the general trajectory of historical development that has made East Asia a region like no other.

History Matters…

Many of the historical factors that continue to shape contemporary intra-regional relations are well known—even depressingly familiar—but they merit rehearsing nevertheless. Even though outsiders may find the continuing salience of history slightly baffling, it is clear that it remains a highly sensitive issue for many in the region and a fundamental obstacle to addressing some of the regions most pressing problems. Indeed, in many ways, history is actually the source of many of East Asia’s most intractable disputes and tensions.

The most prominent current example of this possibility, of course, is the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. China’s claims to much of the South China Sea may look implausible to non-Chinese and profoundly threatening to many in Southeast Asia, but that is simply not the way this issue is understood in China itself. On the contrary, it is difficult to find many Chinese people who think their country’s claims are not historically credible and legitimate. In this regard it is impossible to overstate the depth of feeling in China about this and about what they see as the rather impertinent complaints of the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam about China’s current actions.

It is important to recognize that national sensitivities have been inflamed by a sense of historically based indignation fueled by China’s so-called "hundred years of shame." European imperialism and—even more gallingly—Japanese invasion destroyed China’s old order and plunge the country into chaos and division. Only now is China recovering what many of its citizens see as their rightful place at the regional and even international center of things. Being recognized as a great power with great ambitions is a major part of China’s evolving policies. The time when China was seeking to follow Deng Xiaoping’s dictum about keeping a cool head and maintaining a low profile is long gone. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping in particular, China is boldly seeking to assert its influence and pursue its interests in high profile, potentially confrontational fashion.

It is not only in the South China Sea that China’s newly assertive policy stance is evident, however. Potentially even more consequential is China’s quarrel with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. Whatever the relative merits of both sides claims, the reality is that compromise remains difficult if not impossible and the potential for actual conflict cannot be dismissed. Not only is there the real possibility of a clash—especially an accidental one—between old rivals, but Japan’s relationship with the United States means that any incident could rapidly spiral out of control. Japan’s own troubled history means that it has effectively outsourced responsibility for its security to the US. While this may have been a triumph for America’s own strategic goals in the East Asian region, it means that it is now unambiguously committed to the defense of Japan. If the US failed to assist Japan in any conflict with China, the value of American security guarantees around the world would be fundamentally undermined. Consequently, historical ties mean that, even if Japan is unambiguously in the wrong, the US may find it difficult not to support its principal Northeast Asian ally.

…And So Does Sovereignty

The principal manifestation of this possibility is the so-called "ASEAN Way" of diplomacy, which revolves around consensus, voluntarism and non-binding agreements. The underlying, albeit tacit, rationale is that members must feel comfortable with any policy proposals and not risk losing face when confronted with unpalatable choices. The all-too-predictable result of such a modus operandi is the politics of the lowest common denominator and a very underwhelming track record of actual policy achievement. True, there has been no war worthy of the name between ASEAN members since its founding in the midst of the Cold War in 1967, but there haven’t been many interstate wars anywhere else either. In other words, it is not at all clear that ASEAN deserves the credit to ‘Asia’s long pace’, when interstate war has been in dramatic decline everywhere.

Despite ASEAN’s rather modest record of achievement, its diplomatic style has been adopted by other regional organizations such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping and—most importantly for the purposes of this discussion—the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ASEAN Way has become the template for other regional organizations not because of its efficacy, but because this was the price that had to be paid to ensure ASEAN’s participation in any putative regional grouping. Consequently APEC and the ARF have proved to be equally ineffective in addressing their ostensible policy goals. This has been especially disappointing in the ARF’s case as it is potentially a pivotally important organization that contains all of the region’s key strategic actors—even North Korea is a member—but which has achieved little of consequence. The reason for this failure to tackle key regional problems like the territorial disputes is the same as it is for ASEAN: some regional states will simply not participate in, or be bound by, any multilateral organization that threatens to undermine their independence or freedom of action.

Northeast Asia may have the most fraught and consequential internal relations in many ways, but they are not unique. Not only is Southeast Asia the epicenter of East Asia’s most tense confrontation over disputed territorial claims, but it also highlights the underlying concern—even obsession—about domestic sovereignty that makes the resolution of the overall region’s various disputes so complex. For the still relatively new states of Southeast Asia in particular, sovereignty remains a jealously guarded feature of national identity and security. Any perceived infringement of national territorial space or domestic political authority is vigorously resisted. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the protection of national sovereignty has been the principal motivation behind the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the various diplomatic initiatives it has subsequently spawned. Not only does this make transnational disputes potentially difficult to resolve, however, it has given a particular character to the domestic and regional security architecture of Southeast Asia’s states as a consequence.

It should be emphasized that this is not an exclusively East Asian problem, although the region’s states do seem to be obsessed with sovereignty to a striking degree. The United States is also guilty of protecting its autonomy and ‘forum shopping’ when it suits its perceived national interests to do so. Indeed, this is what all powerful states tend to do if they think it suits them and they can get away with it. In the case of the United States and China there is very little the region’s less powerful states can do to make them act obligingly if they don’t want to. It is worth remembering that the ASEAN grouping’s supposedly finest diplomatic hour—their role in resolving the Cambodian crisis of the 1970s—was only made possible by the fact that both China and the US wanted the crisis resolved, too. Had either great power felt differently, it is unlikely ASEAN’s efforts would have made much difference.

On a Road to Nowhere?

Nevertheless, the polite fiction in East Asia remains that ASEAN remains ‘in the driving seat’ when it comes to regional diplomacy and leadership. There is something in this, but it is primarily because there is little alternative on offer. The reality is that relations between China and Japan, the region’s obvious candidates for leadership, remain so poisonous, and their mutual rivalry is so intense, that there is little chance of leadership coming from elsewhere. Even the United States is finding it increasingly difficult to offer the sort of leadership that some scholars (especially in the US itself) think is so vital in maintaining regional stability. Not only does this sort of commentary generally overlook the fact that the US was actually the principal protagonist in the region’s two most important recent wars—Korea and Vietnam—but it is currently in a period of seemingly relative decline as a consequence of the rise of China.

The end of American hegemony has been predicted many times before, of course, but it has never been confronted by a genuine peer competitor of China’s scale and intent. It is not necessary to believe that conflict is inevitable to recognize that China’s rise really is the proverbial game changer at least as far as East Asia’s security dynamics are concerned. China is the main trading partner for just about every country in the region, and its smaller neighbors must decide whether the Middle Kingdom’s reemergence at the center of regional affairs represents more of a threat or an opportunity. The calculations will not be simple and the policy consequences will be equally complex. Optimists hope that the logic of economic interdependence will ensure that the region remains stable as all parties recognize the gains that accrue for cooperation and stability. Pessimists argue that nationalism and the implacable imperatives of national security, pride and identity may make compromise difficult and negotiation impossible. China is also an authoritarian state with no democratic mandate for its leaders’ actions. Backing down in the face of external pressure or accepting the judgment of an independent umpire to resolve intra-regional disputes will be difficult for a regime that has done much to champion a new sense of national pride.

For good or ill, East Asians are ultimately responsible for their own destinies. Whether this will be achieved collectively or through the competitive actions of individual countries remains to be seen. At the national level, putting national militaries in their proper place, outside the political process, be it democratic or authoritarian, is clearly part of the process. At the regional level, the challenges are even more daunting. Nevertheless, it is a chance for someone or some country to demonstrate a sense that good outcomes may necessitate a policy framework that transcends the narrow national interests that have constrained regional policies and the institutions that have generated them for so long. To judge from ASEAN’s track record, it looks incapable of providing such a vision. We must hope that China can rise to this challenge.


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