Asia: Skepticism about Optimism

March 1, 1995 Topic: Economics Regions: Asia Tags: BusinessSlavic Countries

Asia: Skepticism about Optimism

Mini Teaser: Perhaps now that Pacific Asians have moved from Marxist to market economics, the logic of economic interdependence has made arms racing and power rivalry less sensible and less likely. On balance, it is probably better for Pacific Asian stability

by Author(s): Barry BuzanGerald Segal

Would it not be marvelous if the inhabitants of Pacific-Asia had not only invented Won Ton and the Walkman, but also invented a formula for peace? James Richardson, in his thoughtful critique of those such as ourselves who suggest that Pacific Asian peace and stability is at risk, argues that the governments of Pacific Asia can trust in their culture and economic interdependence to prevent serious instability or conflict. He thinks that Cassandras such as Buzan and Segal are too steeped in European traditions to understand that people in Pacific Asia are not subject to the habits of international behavior that seem to apply everywhere else in the world.

Professor Richardson rejects the idea that European history has any lessons to offer for the rising new powers in Asia. He places much emphasis on the judgment that Pacific Asian culture has evolved new ways of settling disputes. He talks of informal dialogue, consensus building and non-governmental networks as if they replace or bind relations between states. All we need are "habits of dialogue." But it takes a huge dose of amnesia to forget the ways in which Pacific Asian culture settled disputes not too long ago. We still read of newly uncovered details of Japan's atrocities in its Asian colonies, Chinese human wave tactics as late as the war with Vietnam in 1979, or Indonesian brutality to opponents of the regime in East Timor. And who can forget the unparalleled brutality of the Khmer Rouge?

The concept of unique Pacific Asian notions of dispute settlement is a little like the trendy talk of Confucian social values. Not too long ago people used to see Confucianism as a reason for China's failure to develop. So-called Confucian values (which are little different from Victorian values) interact with other aspects of policy to produce a given outcome. When Confucian values are mixed with open markets and greater political liberalism, then the result is more growth and prosperity. But mix them with Marxism/Leninism and you get Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung and the Cultural Revolution. What matters is the mix. Neither Confucian values nor informal dialogue is a stand-alone solution.

But perhaps now that Pacific Asians have moved from Marxist to market economics, the logic of economic interdependence has made arms racing and power rivalry less sensible and less likely. On balance, it is probably better for Pacific Asian stability that economic interdependence is growing, for it does give more people a stake in peace and may well lead to greater political liberalism. But once again the problem is taking one factor in isolation. In and of itself, economic interdependence may, as it did in most of the world before the Cold War, lead to rivalry and war. Geopolitics and geoeconomics are also about why people and states compete for resources and markets. The competitive aspect is especially strong when the international system itself is being destabilized by vigorous changes in the top ranks of world power.

In Pacific Asia it is the biggest powers that are rising and falling. The falling powers, Russia and the United States, are either well established or fledgling democracies. Japan, a recent and sometimes wobbly convert to democracy, is uncertain about whether it has peaked as a power. Most worrying of all, China, a massive rising power, is undemocratic, deeply certain about its own unity, and equally deeply determined to change the status quo in the international economy and the wider balance of power. The parallel with nineteenth-century Germany is very striking, and we think it would be foolish to ignore the all too familiar risks inherent in this type of situation. When the rising power has an authoritarian government, economic interdependence is more likely to be a cause of conflict. China is set to become the world's largest importer of food and fuel, two trends that will feed and fuel a desire to reorder the outside world to its advantage. It is incumbent on those such as Professor Richardson to suggest why Pacific Asia will buck the near unanimous verdict of history that these are highly unstable conditions. And we have not even mentioned rising military spending in Pacific Asia or a worrying range of unsettled territorial disputes. It will take more than habits of informal dialogue to handle these stresses.

What worries us is the apparent unwillingness in Pacific Asia to confront the magnitude of the problem. Australia carries a small stick and so understandably has to speak loudly. The dependence of Professor Richardson's vision on the continued benign engagement of the United States looks increasingly fragile as that country marches steadily towards a more self-interested and introverted stance.

In the current euphoria about the Pacific Century, it is hard to engage in realistic discussion about the risks of military rivalry. When Europeans remind Asians of pre-1914 euphoria about Europe's future, they are dismissed as Eurocentric scare mongers. Curiously, the most persuasive (though unmentionable) reason to think that 1994 is different from 1914 is the presence of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. There are three declared nuclear weapon powers in the Pacific, with the likes of the Koreas, Japan, and Taiwan not very far away from nuclear status if they wish to begin a crash program. Dare one suggest that Pacific Asians reacted in such a relatively blasŽ fashion to the development of North Korea's nuclear program because they recognized the unstated virtues of nuclear deterrence?

A less cynical approach, and one that might bring out more convergence with Professor Richardson, would be to judge the prospects for stability of Pacific Asia on the basis of whether the peoples there are empowered with democratic rights. The truth is that democracies very rarely go to war. West Europeans have understood that the key variable for peace is democracy, not just free markets and interdependent economies. Free societies seem to come with free markets, but not necessarily the other way around.

There are signs, most notably from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong, that this belated Enlightenment is dawning. Yet in all but the South Korean case, it can be argued that democracy may, at least in the short term, bring greater risk. Consider the peril if the Taiwanese elect a government committed to independence. The key to peace in that scenario is not the economic interdependence between Taiwan and China. Witness the way China looks set to sacrifice parts of the Hong Kong economy for the values of sovereignty. The key to peace is democracy in China. If Professor Richardson wants to promise us a democratic China, then even we may become more optimistic about a pacific Pacific.

Essay Types: Essay