Asia-Pacific: The Case for Geopolitical Optimism

December 1, 1994 Topic: Economics Regions: Asia Tags: Cold WarMuslimGulf WarYugoslavia

Asia-Pacific: The Case for Geopolitical Optimism

Mini Teaser: Uncertainties concerning the nature of the emerging international order are nowhere greater than in the vast region of the Asia-Pacific.

by Author(s): James L. Richardson

Uncertainties concerning the nature of the emerging international order are nowhere greater than in the vast region of the Asia-Pacific. Prognoses concerning the political future range from expectations that economic growth will bring democratization, respect for human rights and peace, to forebodings that latent historical animosities, cultural cleavages, demographic and ecological pressures, and the rivalries and arms races characteristic of changing power balances foreshadow a turbulent future--and quite possibly, a disastrous one.

The optimism of economists on the prospects for continuing growth is at odds with the pessimism with which strategists contemplate potential security threats, but the tensions between these two approaches are for the most part addressed quite perfunctorily. What is needed is not only to link these dimensions, but to place them in a broader political setting. The more imaginative and challenging attempts to do this, like the "clash of civilizations" thesis with its alarming implications, are often marred by Western ethnocentrism. This is true of a recent broad-ranging survey, in many ways illuminating, by Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal, writing in Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The assumptions made and the conclusions reached by these two European authors bear close examination, for they help clarify the problems involved in contemplating the region's future.

A Pessimistic Reading

Buzan and Segal offer a uniformly pessimistic reading of the legacies of history--unresolved rivalries, above all that between China and Japan; border disputes along the Sino-Russian, Sino-Indian and Russo-Japanese frontiers; and potential flashpoints such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the two Koreas. China, determined to reassert its traditional pre-eminence, claims the right to change the territorial status quo; Japan is politically enfeebled by hostility stemming from its occupation of most of the region during the Second World War; and the smaller states fear domination by either power. Tensions are heightened by the uneven pace of economic development and uneven coping with the pressures of modernization. More generally, the historical legacies point to "political fragmentation and hostility:" as Cold War distortions unravel, suppressed historical patterns reappear. "There is little that binds [the region's] states and societies together," they conclude, "but much that divides them."

Most of the specific observations made by Buzan and Segal are right in themselves--there are indeed many sources of tension and unresolved issues, and a few potential flashpoints of great concern--but overall their analysis lacks balance. It neglects successful diplomatic efforts to resolve or defuse conflicts by ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), for example, and the region's extensive economic cooperation, including that between Japan and China. It overlooks the new self-confidence in the successful societies of the region, the sense of release from centuries of Western domination, of new opportunities, and indeed of the prospect of out-performing the West. Why should these opportunities, these shared interests and aspirations, be forfeited to the pursuit of ancient conflicts in which the stakes are relatively minor? Making due allowance for special cases such as Korea and Taiwan, are the legacies of past conflicts so serious as to outweigh the common interests which have opened up in the present?

There is less to question in Buzan and Segal's account of the military balance. While they draw attention to the arms build-up in the region, they rightly conclude that it does not amount to an arms race. Except in Korea, "there are as yet no highly focused competitive arms accumulations," though they acknowledge that the risk, should North Korea acquire nuclear weapons, that South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan may do the same, is particularly disturbing. They properly acknowledge some significant countervailing tendencies, such as Japan's anti-militarist attitudes and the advantages of strategic insulation by water. That said, however, their equation of the reduction in the American military presence with a power vacuum gives currency to alarmist imagery, and while they correctly point out that the region has limited historical experience of "indigenous modern international relations," the suggestion that the situation might have a parallel in the relations "emerging out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union, where a group of wholly new states have both to find their feet and work out their interrelationships," shows a readiness to write off the diplomatic experience of several decades as well as to ignore huge differences in the two situations. As in much current strategic analysis, where argument falters, imagery is recruited to help out.

Buzan and Segal offer several reasons why increasing economic interdependence may not make for regional cooperation or remove incentives for war. East Asia's involvement in the global economy is highly uneven--the most striking case of non-involvement being the interior regions of China--and most Asian states retain extensive forms of non-tariff protection. Where there is interdependence, it is more global than regional, and where it is regional, it tends to mask relations of dominance and dependence. The dependence implied in interdependence could leave East Asia highly vulnerable--indeed "in the weakest position of all the major industrial centers"--in the event of a breakdown in the management of the global economy, a contingency which the authors consider should be taken seriously. And if it is the presence of democratic government rather than economic interdependence which renders war unlikely in the West, Asia's authoritarian political cultures render conflict and misunderstanding among them all the more likely.

Allowing that these points in themselves have some substance, the argument reads more as an advocate's brief than a balanced analysis. It is rather facile, for example, to assume that Japan's extensive trade and investment links in the region amount to dominance, and the burgeoning investment in China from Taiwan and the overseas Chinese certainly cannot be seen in this light. Even if one shares the authors' skepticism concerning the "governance" of the global economy, the political and financial influence of those engaged in global transactions appears sufficient to rule out a return to the 1930s levels of protectionism--and short of a breakdown of those dimensions, East Asia is the region best able to achieve unequivocal gains from interdependence. In the industrialized West, intensified interdependence may bring gains, but it also involves very significant costs in the form of unemployment and social polarization. Elsewhere, there is the increasing deprivation of those unable to compete in the global marketplace. It goes without saying that the region's rapid economic advance is fraught with tension, at present most visible in China, but the balance sheet needs to take account of strengths as well as vulnerabilities.

The same point applies to Buzan and Segal's discussion of the final dimension of security, "international society." No doubt security can be enhanced where it is underpinned by numerous multilateral networks and institutions, but is it appropriate to apply European yardsticks so confidently, as the authors do--especially when the limitations of the European institutions have been so painfully exposed in the former Yugoslavia? It is true that, in contrast to Europe, there are few formal multilateral institutions in East Asia, but Buzan and Segal's assessment of those few is far too negative--a point to which I shall return below. More importantly, they do not take account of implicit and informal networks which have existed for some time, nor of the widely shared Asian preference for proceeding gradually, relying on informal understandings rather than formal rules and institutions. They go on to argue that the weakness of international society reflects the prevalence of weak states in the region--a generalization that recalls the long-discarded domino theory. Allowing that there are some notable weak states, such as Cambodia, and that the political future of China is among the greatest uncertainties, the region has more than its share of strong states (the newly industrialized countries), and the states of Southeast Asia have consolidated to the point that their security policies are driven more by external than internal concerns.

Given Buzan and Segal's premises, their conclusion would indeed follow: East Asia's future would be determined by power politics much more than by interdependence. But there is no reason to concede their premises. This does not mean that the alternative prognosis--peaceful interdependence--has been rendered plausible. The authors raise legitimate and fundamental questions concerning that prognosis: it is their answers to those questions that, lacking balance, fail to convince.

Historical Legacies

The lessons of history are open to contradictory readings, and a concentration on earlier patterns can blind observers to the potential for innovation. What was there in the previous five centuries of European history, for example, dominated as they were by the rivalries and wars of the great powers, which pointed towards the integration of Western Europe after 1945? If East Asian history can be characterized in terms of "fragmentation and hostility"--and which history cannot?--this does not establish that the end of the Cold War will restore that familiar pattern. Arguably, East Asia's traditional patterns have been more thoroughly disrupted than any others. A Sino-centric system gave way to fragmentation through Western dominance; the indigenous reaction, nationalism, was constrained by the Cold War in complex ways; and the region now finds itself propelled into the forefront of global economic growth. The crucial question, in Asia as in Europe, is how today's elites respond to their reading of the relevant history, in a present which is radically different from earlier historical settings.

Recent history has burdened the region with its share of conflicts, the most serious of which stem directly from the Cold War--the division of Korea, the weakness of the former Indochina and the uncertain status of Taiwan, each of which has the potential to generate major tensions. Longer historical memories underlie the Russo-Japanese dispute over the apparently secondary issue of the "northern islands." At the height of the Cold War the United States discouraged compromise; more recently, while the strategic significance of the islands for Russia has declined, the political sensitivity of making territorial concessions has increased. The use of force being ruled out, Japan cannot offer economic incentives sufficient to outweigh these political costs, and perhaps prefers not to, seeing no reason to assist Russia in becoming a more active power in Northeast Asia. But this has less to do with historical memories than with straightforward realpolitik.

In other instances of territorial conflict stemming from the period of European expansion--most notably the disputes over China's borders which led to war with India and acute tensions with Russia at moments in the Cold War--the parties have proved willing and able to negotiate practical agreements. While these have not required a renouncing of historical claims, they have permitted agreements to demarcate the lines of actual territorial control, a reduction of military tensions and a normalization of relations (including, in the Sino-Russian case, an upsurge in cross-border trade). Such claims could, no doubt, be revived in the future, but this would be a matter of political calculation in the context of redefined interests, not simply an expression of historical animosities. The important point is not the existence of historical grievances, but the manner in which they are addressed: especially since the waning of the Cold War, the governments of the region have done so pragmatically, or have set them aside in the interests of practical collaboration.

Generalizations about fragmentation and an absence of unifying factors in the region do scant justice to the experience of ASEAN, whose members have substantially enhanced their diplomatic influence through maintaining solidarity towards outsiders and through setting contentious issues aside if they cannot reach internal accommodations. In pre-colonial times, Southeast Asia had a degree of cultural unity but experienced frequent warfare among its empires and kingdoms. Neither this unpromising heritage nor the separateness imposed by colonial rule has prevented the original five (now six) members from forming an exceptionally cohesive politico-diplomatic association, one which is planning to accept additional members, and one whose annual ministerial meetings now provide the venue for whatever region-wide security dialogue may emerge at governmental level.

Economic Perspectives

Even though a degree of skepticism is in order concerning the more euphoric projections that export-led growth in East Asia will lead to all good things politically--democracy, respect for human rights, peace--there are solid grounds for regarding the region's economic dynamism as the primary influence shaping its prospects, at least in the medium term, and as favoring peaceful external policies, if not necessarily the full range of political reforms anticipated in the West. The premise, of course, is that sustained economic growth in the region is likely to continue. Assuming that international markets remain reasonably open, the precedent of the newly industrialized countries (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) suggests that China, the members of ASEAN and possibly other neighboring states may indeed be able to sustain export-led growth, while the original nics continue to move up the ladder of technological sophistication. Since there are now more countries seeking to export clothing, textiles and other light manufactures, however, and since they are far more populous, it may be doubted that their rates of growth can remain as spectacular as previously--at least, unless greater impetus comes from internal markets.

This points to even greater competitiveness among the next generation of nics, especially if India is included, but this in turn is likely to enhance the incentives for restraint in foreign policy. In a competitive setting, a state which manifestly violates international norms is likely to incur serious penalties. The use of force to maintain internal order is another matter, but here international opinion is likely to be divided. While harsh measures could be a source of international tension, there are always likely to be powerful voices for maintaining "business as usual." Moreover, although rapid growth can generate its own internal tensions, it offers a far more favorable setting than economic stagnation for averting major civil conflict.

Because the region ranks as the only clear winner in the present competitive global economy, and can look to the prospect of joining the West, if not replacing it, at the apex of the system, its member states have every reason to avoid the kind of internecine conflict which, twice this century, accelerated Europe's loss of its pre-eminence in world affairs. Whereas the Europeans took their superiority for granted, the Asians know that theirs is still to be won. They are assisted by political geography: the distances between the major capitals are far greater than in Europe, and the powers do not jostle against one another in the same way. Nor do they have a tradition of fighting hegemonic wars, as did the Europeans over five centuries. Projections by European analysts which assume that this kind of Western pattern is likely to be repeated in East Asia show little regard for the interests of the states in question in a historical setting quite different from the former European one. Buzan and Segal, to their credit, acknowledge that the United States and Europe might indeed "welcome a deterioration in security relations within Asia...[t]he rise in tensions would prolong the West's view of itself as being more civilized than the rest of the world and would give it more leverage over Japan and China." There are indications that some Asians are aware of this potential Western interest, and of their own interest in circumventing it.

That said, it is to be conceded that states are not always rational actors pursuing their own best interests, and although there are substantial reasons for expecting East Asian governments to maintain the priorities which have brought unprecedented economic success, history seldom moves so smoothly over such an extended time span. Moreover, the global economy might not prove so hospitable to expanding Asian exports. Even if a 1930s-style collapse or retreat into autarky is unlikely, a general sluggishness and a disenchantment with globalization and free trade are quite conceivable. If Western societies are unable to deal effectively with their mounting social problems, they are likely to become more inward-looking and perhaps engage in a fundamental rethinking of goals and of the relationship between economics and politics. The supremacy of the market, the ruling norm of Western policy for a generation, would be unlikely to survive such rethinking.

Even if global markets remain open, one or more of the region's major economies may falter, for a variety of political and economic reasons. In this respect, China presents the most complex set of uncertainties. The Chinese themselves appear well aware that economic prosperity depends on political order. Beyond the immediate question of the political succession to Deng Xiaoping, there are the questions of legitimacy: Can the Communist Party find new ways of legitimizing one-party rule? If not, can there be an orderly transition to a new political system? How serious are the centrifugal forces which have led to the erosion of much of the effective power of the central authorities over the provinces, especially those experiencing the most rapid growth, and how serious are the tensions between the eastern seaboard, where the growth is concentrated, and the disadvantaged regions of the interior? Even more fundamental are the ecological concerns. China's land, water, and forest resources are already subject to severe stresses. Can its ecosystem support the combination of further population growth and rapid development, especially if, as some analysts suggest, its agriculture is especially vulnerable to the early effects of global warming?

If some observers fear that a weakened China could pose the greatest threat of regional instability, others fear the consequences of China's strength. The Australian commentator, Paul Dibb, for example, noting China's "old-fashioned attitude to the use of force," points to a number of disturbing possibilities as its strength increases: China's contending with the United States for leadership, "unbridled competition between Asia's great powers," and "major Asian wars two or three decades hence." A Singapore-based analyst Denny Roy suggests that a more powerful China is likely to be "bolder, more demanding, and less inclined to cooperate with other powers in the region."

While such potential threats cannot be altogether discounted, the image of China depicted in these projections appears anachronistic. It is not just that interdependence and globalization are assumed to be of no real consequence, but that the role of regional hegemon (more bluntly, regional bully) is unlikely to satisfy the ambition of a China strong enough to challenge the United States for global leadership (whatever that term may mean two or three decades hence). By then, according to the recently revised estimates of its GNP, China is likely to have the largest economy in the world, and its aspirations to global leadership will probably express themselves in the assumption of a central role in global political and economic institutions. Such a China would inevitably be influential in its region, but that it should seek regional domination to the point of provoking major wars, at the expense of its global influence, appears an unlikely ordering of its priorities.
If a strong China would be a threat, should Western policy refrain from contributing to the strengthening of China?

Should it limit trade, and withhold investment? This may be the logical consequence of the preceding thesis, but Roy appears to be alone in recommending it. Fortunately, Western governments, and also the World Bank, appear to be acting on the assumption that interdependence--involving China deeply in the global economy--is the safer bet. To treat China as an enemy today because of fears for the day after tomorrow could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The interdependence hypothesis is not, unfortunately, self-fulfilling, but to act on it improves its chances of realization. More generally, the positive economic prognoses for the region are not simply predictions, but are also prescriptive. What they prescribe--a reasonably open international trade and financial regime--appears likely to enjoy sufficient political support to be maintained in its essentials, even if it is subject to more serious questioning than in the recent past.

Threats to Security

Even if the long term offers no fundamental reason to expect major regional wars, the short term presents a number of threats to security--longstanding disputes, flashpoints, an arms build-up, and fears of nuclear proliferation. An enumeration of potential threats, as in many strategic tours d'horizon, is well calculated to generate a sense of alarm, but gives little indication of their seriousness, either in absolute or in relative terms.

We may postulate that the most serious are those which endanger the very existence of a state, or a regime. (From the point of view of those in power, a threat to a regime may be as serious as a threat to the state itself.) In North Korea, both the state and the regime are precarious, and the attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is best understood as a desperate attempt to shore up the security of both. Here, failing a sudden collapse of the regime, the best that can be hoped for is a process of gradual reform from within, leading eventually to a process of peaceful reunification. The worst is a second Korean war, the initiation of which becomes increasingly irrational as the relative military position of the North declines. At the time of writing, these tensions had been defused by the agreement between the United States and North Korea whereby the latter would cease producing plutonium in return for assistance with its civil nuclear program. Even if this agreement should prove difficult to implement, it offers more promise than the recourse to sanctions which had been canvassed earlier. Sanctions would prolong the regime's siege mentality, precluding gradualist reform, and severely punish the unhappy population.

Neither diplomacy nor sanctions can ensure that a perception of North Korean nuclear weapons, however few in number, will not lead to further proliferation, especially in Northeast Asia. The United States, as the nuclear ally of both Japan and South Korea, is best placed to seek to dissuade both states from the momentous decision to acquire nuclear weapons, but if Japan, in particular, should do so, this need not be seen as undermining the nonproliferation regime. The world was able to live with China's acquiring nuclear weapons at a time when it was perceived as dangerously bellicose. Japan would present no such image, even though its "going nuclear" would undoubtedly create alarm in the region.
China, it has been widely observed, enjoys a greater measure of security against external threats than it has for more than a century, but its regime is sufficiently insecure to be hypersensitive to external pressures on human rights and democratization. Britain's eleventh-hour democratization in Hong Kong, presenting a potential threat to China's internal political balance, ensures that the transfer of sovereignty in 1997 will be more tense than had earlier appeared likely. It could generate a major international issue if outside powers claim a right to a voice in the relations between the Chinese government and the local authorities in Hong Kong.

The future status of Taiwan remains formally disputed. China remains committed to the goal of "one country, two systems;" Taiwan proposes "national unification guidelines" for a "peaceful and democratic process" of reunification, starting with the recognition of Taiwan as an equal political entity. Meanwhile both have encouraged a spectacular growth in trade, travel and investment across the Taiwan Strait, and at the same time the sense of a separate Taiwanese identity is being articulated more strongly. China refuses to renounce the right to use force against territory over which it claims sovereignty, but Taiwan has sufficiently advanced air and naval capabilities to deter an invasion, at least under normal circumstances. The one circumstance which could provoke a crisis would be if Taiwan declares its sovereign independence, but on present indications its leaders are more likely to proceed gradually, avoiding such an inflammatory step.

After Korea, the Spratly Islands are most widely referred to as a flashpoint, no doubt because of the prospect of major offshore oil resources in their vicinity. China used force here against Vietnam in 1988, claims sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea today, and is undertaking a substantial naval build-up. Indonesia has sponsored several informal "workshops" in an attempt to secure practical agreements on resource exploration, setting aside the competing territorial claims--of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, as well as China and Vietnam. China's signals are ambiguous: while endorsing the principles of joint development and a negotiated settlement, it so far rejects formal negotiations. The issue has come to represent a test case for China's relations with Southeast Asia, and the political cost of any attempt to enforce its claims to sovereignty would be very significant. It is doubtful whether exploration and oil drilling could proceed satisfactorily except on an internationally agreed basis.

In Cambodia, the initial promise of the un-sponsored settlement and the high level of participation in the ensuing election have been overshadowed by the weakness of the state, the instability and corruption of its politics and the revival of the Khmer Rouge's threat to the regime. If the internal settlement unravels, there may be a return to conditions which prompted outside intervention and rivalry, thereby rekindling animosities between China and Vietnam, once again involving ASEAN, and quite possibly posing greater threats to its cohesion than the protracted Cambodian conflict through the 1980s.

The foregoing cases do not exhaust the list of potential security threats, but they are the most prominent. They are not the kind of issues which tend to generate great wars. Perhaps the most adverse pattern that can be discerned in the shadows cast by them, should they be mishandled, is a general alignment of the states of the region against China--a new kind of cold war which could indeed negate the positive economic prognoses sketched earlier. But this would presuppose rather gross and persistent diplomatic misjudgment on all sides.

For some analysts the most alarming trend is the regional arms build-up. Contrary to developments in the rest of the world since the ending of the Cold War, arms expenditure is increasing, and the emphasis is no longer on internal security but on air and naval forces--that is, power projection capabilities. In particular China, after reducing its arms spending in the early years of the economic reforms, has increased it since 1989, though only marginally in real terms. There are concerns that if others respond in kind, the region will be closer to a genuine competitive arms race, and this in turn could conceivably create pressures for preemptive strikes if, at some time in the future, political tensions were to increase.

Dangers of this kind appear remote. The regional arms build-up needs to be seen in terms of sub-regions and special cases such as the two Koreas, clearly the most heavily armed states in the region, relative to GNP. Taiwan's heavy expenditure on advanced weaponry also has its obvious explanation in its need to deter invasion; Japan, partly due to American prompting, has built up a formidable capacity to defend its immediate environment. The increase in China's military outlays since 1989 no doubt reflects the increased influence of the military, but also the high cost of modernizing China's largely obsolescent forces, especially after the perceived lessons of the Gulf War on the advantages of high technology. In Southeast Asia, starting from a lower level, most states are similarly engaged in modernizing and upgrading their armed forces and in acquiring more effective maritime capabilities, both in order to protect their exclusive economic zones and as a hedge against a further withdrawal of the American presence. This does not amount to a competitive arms race, but the members of ASEAN can be seen as countering the image of a power vacuum, at least in some measure, and to this extent enhancing overall regional stability. We may conclude, then, that with the possible exception of Korea, the various arms build-ups in the region have limited rationales, and that their significance should not be over-dramatized.

Regional Institutions

It is true that multilateral institutions at the governmental level have been slow to emerge along the Pacific Rim and that their significance will not be clear for some time, but this is not the whole story. Non-governmental economic institutions have existed since the late 1960s, and since the late 1980s there has been a proliferation of institutions engaging in a security dialogue. "Track two" diplomacy--bringing together civilian government officials "in their private capacity" with non-governmental elites (business, military and/or academic)--has become the characteristic format of the various dialogues, some involving a small number of parties, some the Asia-Pacific region as it is currently understood (East Asia, North America and Australasia), and a few extending even more broadly to include states from South Asia or Latin America.

Indeed, the thickening acronym soup of regional organizations is beginning to rival that of Europe. On the economic front, there are paftad (conference on Pacific Trade and Economic Development), pbec (Pacific Economic Basin Council), and pecc (Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference, and later Council), which have collectively provided a basis for the formation of the intergovernmental body APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 1989. Thus far APEC has been a forum for high-level political discussions (including, importantly, both China and Taiwan), not an institution with specific functions and bureaucratic structures. The most contentious issue with respect to economic institutions has been Malaysia's proposal to establish an East Asian Economic Caucus, a grouping which would exclude APEC's North American and Australasian members. It is now expected to be a sub-grouping within APEC.

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