Avoiding World War III in Asia
Democratic peace theory is both inspirational and aspirational—but at this moment in history it is of limited applicability.
What might a technocratic peace process look like? As with any structured negotiation, each party goes in with a firm sense of what it will not accept, what it is willing to concede and what it seeks to gain. In devising a solution accepted by all sides, each will be able to claim certain victories and point to others’ concessions. While each national leader’s reputation will be no doubt be affected by domestic perceptions of the outcome, the locus of attention—whether praise or blame—will lie with the independent process. Leaders, meanwhile, will craft their domestic narrative to elevate their status as statesmen who have seized the moral high ground in having taken the path of compromise over conflict.
Another important virtue of a technocratic approach is that it is not biased towards legal conventions or frameworks not all parties view as legitimate. In the border dispute between India and China, as well as over the South China Sea, boundary demarcations have their origins in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial-era conventions, and parties do not accept as final the map of the world at the time of the United Nations’ founding in 1945. Similarly, the complicated status of Crimea has its origins in political and demographic ties between the Soviet-era Russian and Ukrainian republics, hence Moscow does not accept the notion that Crimea’s status should be based strictly on the boundaries set in 1991. These conflicts, then, are effectively prelegal with respect to contemporary international law. Until sovereignty is settled, how is the law of nations to apply? When Western diplomats speak of the need for a rules-based international order, they need to understand that in many of these conflict formations, the rules have yet to be agreed in the first place. The legal clock can only legitimately start ticking after these disputes are resolved, not before.
In technocratic negotiations, the autonomy and confidentiality of deliberations, even the anonymity of individual participants’ views, is essential to ensuring the consensus nature of outcomes. As the political psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued, too much transparency into decisionmaking inhibits participants from making apolitical judgments in the long-term public interest. Extended to the realm of diplomacy, this means negotiators must be freed from the fear of backlash from often ignorant publics unfamiliar with the complexity of the issues. Recall how, after four years of private negotiations between the Colombian government and rebel farc militia, a peace agreement aimed at ending fifty years of civil war was signed in late 2016, only to be narrowly rejected in a national referendum full of “fake news”—but then accepted two months later.
As the parties come close to settlement, parliamentarians and other national political figures can be briefed on the contours of the agreement to prepare to sell it at home. For example, South Koreans strongly favor reunification, and youth across China, Japan and South Korea are more favorably predisposed towards each other than the elderly who have wartime memories. The younger generation, by contrast, is actively learning each other’s languages and studying abroad on each other’s campuses. They are a very important propeace constituency and should be utilized as such. But while a democratic process is important in ratifying solutions, it is not necessarily effective in finding them in the first place.
Modern diplomacy has its origins in the Renaissance era, with ambassadors converging in capitals far from home and forming an independent caste of like-minded professionals. As much as they were tasked with representing the “national interest,” they developed a common worldview distinct from any one state, a higher-order obligation to international peace. The seeming paradox of an “independent diplomat” is precisely what is needed again, reminding us that just because states have interests does not mean that those interests exist in a zero-sum relationship with those of others.
Secret diplomacy has a rich history. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved through back-channel communications during which it was agreed that the Soviet Union would remove missiles from Cuba and the United States would not invade it (and separately, the United States would remove nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey as well). The secret diplomacy between the Nixon administration and Beijing is considered one of the great breakthroughs in changing the global structure of power, formalizing China’s break from the Soviet Union and setting the stage for a multipolar Eurasia. Given the sensitivities of trying to pry two authoritarian allies apart at the height of Cold War, few (if any) in retrospect deny the importance of secrecy in this diplomatic episode. America’s participation in the Vietnam War was also ended through secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese, resulting in a Nobel Prize for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. In none of these cases was the long-term outcome guaranteed given unpredictable shifts in the international and regional environments, but these processes can be said to have brought stability to unstable situations. More recently, secret channels were crucial in achieving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the United States, European allies and Iran—with Switzerland and Oman playing host to direct talks between high-level American and Iranian officials.
There is a justified caution about major diplomatic initiatives being conducted entirely in secret. The gilded rooms of the nineteenth century perpetuated divide-and-rule colonialism. Problems lingered into the twentieth century as great powers carved up countries, all too often with the lines drawn in the wrong places—or drawn where they should not have been drawn at all. But there is ontological difference between imperial negotiations to subjugate far-off lands and peace settlements aimed at deescalating civil and international conflicts.
The United Nations has been involved in peacemaking activities since its founding—from arbitrating an end to the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949 to managing dozens of peacekeeping operations around the globe to hosting nuclear disarmament talks between the United States and Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. During the 2000s, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission sought under UN auspices to independently demarcate a volatile section of the two African countries’ disputed border. Ethiopia, however, rejected the awarding of the town of Badme to Eritrea, and sporadic clashes continue to this day. Currently, the UN is facilitating the negotiations between Greece and Turkey over the divided island of Cyprus. But neither here nor in other situations today is the UN empowered to propose solutions and set deadlines. Not surprisingly, then, the past few months have witnessed military flights over disputed islands in the eastern Mediterranean, once again pushing Greece and Turkey to the brink of conflict.
Independently managed negotiations provide a novel precedent worthy of emulation. In 2017, after a conciliation process under the auspices of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Australia and East Timor accepted a package of proposals offered by a five-person commission that provided for maritime boundary delineation and revenue sharing from a large gas field straddling their respective territories. Former Singaporean foreign minister Tommy Koh, one of the architects of UNCLOS, points out that such conciliation processes have the advantage of not being adversarial legal proceedings—such as at the International Court of Justice. Rather, they are inclusive of two representatives from each side plus an agreed upon independent commissioner. Rather than drawn out legal proceedings with appeals, the Australia–East Timor conciliation set a deadline of one year to reach a settlement—and did so.
Without prescribing any specific end states, an independent conciliation approach lends itself extremely well to situations like Kashmir, Ukraine, Cyprus, the South China Sea, Palestine, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and other conflict formations. After all, most leaders know that the same back-of-a-napkin approach that caused so many of today’s territorial tensions can also be used to resolve them.
Today’s backrooms don’t have to be as opaque as a century ago. Instead of brandy and cigars, negotiators can enjoy pomegranate juice and sugar-free chewing gum. Either way, high stakes and a long shadow of the future should be sufficient to concentrate the mind on moving beyond a “business-as-usual approach”—that has become wobblier with each passing year.
This brings us to the current developments on the Korean Peninsula. Recall that the Six-Party Talks have been going on for two decades, with some even calling for them to be institutionalized as a set of ongoing confidence-building measures. Such timid thinking has been superseded overnight by the decision of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in to meet face-to-face with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to discuss reunification and denuclearization. The former process was content to mediate endlessly; the latter has its sights set on settlement, with clear benchmarks such as North Korean mothballing its nuclear sites and a joint formal declaration ending the Korean War.
As with the Koreas, the potential for a similar process between China and Japan would be enough to significantly reduce bilateral tensions and ease markets. Even if talks are initially inconclusive, they may well contribute to reducing the threat perception in that all parties entered the negotiation in good faith. In the aftermath, they are more likely to commit to further talks than to resorting to arms.