Asia’s Military Revolution
Project-Syndicate Jul.3, 2014
A vast revolution in military affairs is taking place across East Asia. The latest signs are Chinese
President Xi Jinping’s purge of General Xu Caihou, an ex-Politburo member and former
vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, on charges of corruption, and Japan’s
“reinterpretation” of Article 9 of its constitution to permit the country to provide military aid to its
Despite the rising regional tensions that inspired these moves, China’s relations with its neighbors
and the United States are not fated to lead to direct confrontation. But the relentless march of
new initiatives to meet the perceived “China threat” will require the region’s political leaders,
including the Chinese, to address their disputes in new and more creative ways if that outcome is
to be avoided.
In general, there are three ways to foster international peace: deepening economic
interdependence, promoting democracy, and building international institutions. Unfortunately,
because East Asia’s political leaders have failed to pursue the latter objective, they now find
themselves playing dangerous balance-of-power games reminiscent of Europe a century ago.
Deepening economic interdependence in the wake of Asia’s 1997 financial crisis has not generated political momentum for peace and cooperation. The region’s business leaders have been unable to prevent deteriorating foreign relations from harming their interests. By contrast, military lobbying
now deeply influences foreign and defense policies – witness China’s double-digit increase in
defense spending and rising US arms sales in the region.
What explains this failure? International-relations theorists since Immanuel Kant have held that
democracies rarely (if ever) fight one another; as a result, political leaders, such as US President
Woodrow Wilson, have tried to promote democracy as a means to spread peace. Until recently,
the US seemed to have assumed that China’s engagement with Western democracies would bolster
But, since the 2008 financial crisis, China’s confidence in its authoritarian development model has
grown stronger. Its leaders now increasingly appear to believe that a new “Beijing Consensus” of
mercantilism and state intervention has replaced the old “Washington Consensus” of free trade
China’s ideological incompatibility with the US thus is making the shift in their relative power
difficult to achieve peacefully. In the late nineteenth century, a rising US was able to cooperate
with a declining Britain, owing to their shared culture and values. China’s leaders, however, tend
to suspect that the US is deliberately trying to undermine their country’s political stability by
questioning its record on human rights and political freedoms. Meanwhile, Xi’s domestic policies
seem to be taking the country ever further from Western norms.
It is this ideological divide that is undermining the development in East Asia of institutions that
establish principles, rules, and decision-making procedures for the region. While much of the
West is bound together by institutions like the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe
and NATO, East Asia’s main body, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is too weak to play an analogous
role, leaving the region beset with unregulated rivalries.
So far, US and East Asian leaders have done little beyond offering rhetorical support for the
creation of multilateral security institutions. With the exception of the almost defunct six-party
talks aimed at eliminating the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Asia’s powers refuse to be
constrained by international rules or norms.
Instead, East Asia’s leaders resort to realpolitik. Unfortunately, unlike Europe’s nineteenth-century
political masterminds – figures like Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, and Disraeli – who
crafted durable international alliances, Asia lacks leaders willing and able to look beyond their
narrow national interests.
For example, China’s leaders seem to believe that the 2008 economic crisis and the high costs of
two foreign wars have left the US in no position to exercise international leadership. That may
explain China’s recent foreign-policy assertiveness, particularly in its dispute with Japan over
control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which could be intended to probe the strength of the
Testing US power in this way could prove to be a dangerous miscalculation. Though weakened
economically, the US remains a military superpower. Its interests in East Asia date back to the late
nineteenth century. Just as Britain refused to concede naval supremacy to Germany a century ago,
the US will not easily accept any Chinese challenge to its strategic position in the western Pacific,
especially given that so many East Asian states are pleading for US protection.
China and the US need to talk. Despite their economic interdependence and some 90
inter-governmental channels for bilateral dialogue, the two superpowers are caught in a perilous
tug-of-war over interests in the East and South China Seas and the western Pacific.
Sino-Japanese relations are particularly fraught, with two decades of economic stagnation in Japan and rapid growth in China fueling nationalist overreaction on both sides. Having become
accustomed to outsourcing its security to the US, and despite having the world’s third-largest
economy, Japan neglected to develop its own constructive diplomatic vision. It remains to be seen
whether Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation, cloaked in the language of regional
cooperation, advances such a new vision.
It does not help that the US wants Japan to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining Asia’s
security, a position that may make sense strategically and financially, but that betrays a lack of
understanding of the political context. The US seems to underestimate regional concerns over
Japan’s potential remilitarization. By providing Japan with a diplomatic carte blanche, the US may
find itself hostage to Japanese interests, with the result that Japan becomes part of Asia’s security
problem, not part of its solution.
Asia-Pacific leaders must shake off their complacency. Serious efforts and far-reaching compromises are needed to begin the process of building institutions for regional security cooperation.
Otherwise, the much-heralded “Asian century,” far from bringing economic prosperity and peace,
will be an age of suspicion and peril.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/yoon-young-kwan-traces-the-region-s-growing-tensions-to-its-leaders--failure-to-build-multilateral-institutions#eFuSj2RiORxWUVrX.99