AS THE coronavirus roiled global economies and fractured relations among major powers, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the five permanent members of the Security Council to declare a global ceasefire to calm conflict zones such as Syria and Yemen. But geopolitics does not stop in crisis. Often, it accelerates. In Asia, China has used its rapid recovery from the pandemic to accelerate its probing for weaknesses from Taiwan to Indonesia to India, seeking to tilt outstanding disputes in its favor. This reminds us that there are two interpretations of the adage to never let a crisis go to waste: To press for advantage or to build a new and more stable order. China is doing the former. But can its actions ultimately inspire the latter?
The most fundamental test of whether Asia’s principal powers can maintain stability is whether they can resolve outstanding territorial disputes. Asia has managed three post-Cold War decades of great power stability, keeping major escalations from crossing the point of no return. From the South China Sea and Taiwan to North Korea and the Senkaku Islands, many flashpoints that have elevated fears that World War III would break out in Asia have not yet come to pass. But past success does not guarantee future stability: Asia’s evolution into a mature system is far from guaranteed. On the contrary, Asians have not developed sufficiently robust dispute resolution mechanisms to keep conflicts from boiling over.
The biggest risk of conflict in the twenty-first century thus stems from not settling the conflicts of the twentieth century. Can Asians embrace a cartographic pragmatism similar to what they have achieved in the economic and social spheres? The answer will play a key role in determining whether today’s Asian arms race can give way to the type of stable multipolar equilibrium that has characterized Asia’s most prosperous eras.
SINCE THE collapse of the Soviet Union, Asians have made remarkable strides in maximizing economic interdependence. More than 60 percent of Asia’s trade is internal to the region (ranking just behind Europe at 70 percent), and most foreign direct investment is intra-regional as well. Recent events make clear, however, that we cannot neatly separate geo-economic convergence from geopolitical divergence. Furthermore, America’s potent military presence across Asia and its regional alliance system have been a continuous factor in suppressing escalation. The 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil War are among the most prominent examples.
But over the past two decades, the George W. Bush administration’s shift in focus and resources to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Barack Obama’s inability to deliver a comprehensive strategy for Asia (including failure to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement), and President Donald Trump’s highhanded demands that Japan and South Korea pay more for housing U.S. troops (while imposing tariffs on their industries) have rankled many Asians to the point where Japan and South Korea are more seriously considering crossing the nuclear threshold. America’s allies in Asia, therefore, sense that while they still need America, they no longer necessarily want America.
There is no doubt that the United States remains engaged across the region. While its attempts at peacemaking with North Korea have proved futile, it has been crucial (as in the Cold War) in mediating between Japan and Korea during a significant rupture in their trade and intelligence sharing ties. The Trump administration has been strongly committed to Taiwan’s security, and the U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) through the disputed South China Sea have served as a partial deterrent to some Chinese aggression (though not its island building activities). However, because these U.S. operations do not in themselves actually resolve the island disputes, they inadvertently justify China’s accelerated deployment of military assets to the region.
The greatest challenge to the longevity of America’s outside-in security architecture for Asia thus comes from China’s growing assertiveness. While China’s preferences have been clear, its ability to act on them has changed the dynamic with all its neighbors as well as the United States. China’s rapid military modernization in all domains from undersea warfare to space-based weapons has signaled its willingness to inflict devastating attacks on American assets in its immediate proximity as well as out to the second island chain that includes Guam, from which the United States withdrew all bombers in April. Meanwhile, China’s multifaceted commercial and social ties with most Asian states have forced even American allies into complex calculations. South Korea’s plans to deploy the U.S.-made THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to counter the threat from North Korea has rankled China given its potential to deter Chinese missiles as well, leading to harsh reprisals against key Korean industries from tourism to entertainment to cosmetics. South Korea has pledged its good offices to mediate between the United States and China in the event of a direct confrontation, a sign that it holds self-preservation higher than alliance loyalty.
At the same time, new patterns of military coordination are emerging that signal neither an end to America’s fundamental commitment to Asian stability nor China’s unilateral substitution of U.S. hegemony. Notably, Chinese aggression has prompted Japan to boost investment in hypersonic weapons and India to upgrade its armed forces to more confidently patrol the Indian Ocean and Himalayan frontier. Together with the United States and Australia, these Indo-Pacific democracies have formed a tacit “Quad” partnership, both to coordinate their own military strategies vis-à-vis China but also to reinforce the capabilities of South China Sea littoral states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, enabling each to more confidently stand up to China. This complex multi-directional hedging implies that while China may not give up its recently gained possessions, it faces limits on future territorial coercion.
Asia’s powers have become confident enough in their own capabilities—not least due to significant arms procurement from the United States—that they want to take more of a lead role in determining a regional security architecture. Ironically, then, U.S. defense analysts tend to focus too much on China’s growing capability and too little on these complex regional dynamics within which it would be exercised. Despite the power asymmetries and economic leverage China has accrued vis-à-vis its many neighbors, it is the complexity of having so many neighbors that constrains China more than its increasingly sophisticated military arsenal suggests. If America can continue strengthening Asians’ military capabilities while allowing them to lead their own security architecture, China might be convinced that peaceful conflict settlement is more in its interest than preemptive aggression.
WHAT CAN be done to resolve Asia’s numerous legacy conflicts? What strategies might lead both to conflict resolution as well as to building a new and more stable Asian equilibrium? As is evident from today’s confrontations, “frozen” conflicts are nothing of the sort. Until they are settled, they are a perpetual, latent casus belli. To move beyond today’s dangerous escalations, we must do more than tactically suppress historical tensions. We must hack the map.
Maps are history’s foremost propaganda tool, a nationalist rallying cry for an exclusive cartographic vision. But we can also use maps as a visioning tool to create an image of a common destination, a layering of political boundaries, functional connections, and institutional partnerships that provide sufficient security guarantees and mutual benefit to all sides. Like economics, geography does not have to be zero-sum.
The fact that Asian leaders such as Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi, and Moon Jae-in are all in strong positions domestically is an important underlying condition favoring settlement negotiations. With political capital in hand, they boast a desire to prove that they can resolve their own disputes without foreign intervention, and each can afford to make compromises while claiming them as evidence of their statesmanship. At the same time, none can unilaterally dominate their adversaries (either materially or ideologically), and conflict would undermine their more important domestic agendas of restoring economic growth and historical greatness. Whether authoritarians, strongmen, or democratically-elected leaders, each is a realist but also a pragmatist. Endless military maneuvering is the result of tactical thinking. Asians have the capacity for collective foresight with the aim to eliminate the need for such tactics in the first place.
What has been missing is a process suited to taking advantage of these propitious conditions. Asia requires its own version of the prevalent Western paradigm known as “Democratic Peace Theory,” which states that democratic societies do not wage war against each other. Democratic peace theory is both inspirational and aspirational, but either way, it is of limited applicability to Asia given its dissimilar regimes (including non-democracies such as China) and cultures. An approach more suited to Asia might be what I call “Technocratic Peace Theory.” Less than a predictive hypothesis, it suggests that expert arbitration is the approach to permanent dispute resolution best suited to the region’s heterogeneous landscape. Given that Western scholars and diplomats lack the empathy to grasp both their own and Asian perspectives simultaneously, much less the creativity to reconcile them, it is up to Asians to do this themselves.