As China continues its unremitting rise, people throughout East Asia are wondering whether their states will ever be able to achieve the peaceful, stable relations that now characterize Europe. Given the regularity of serious diplomatic spats — over everything from tiny atolls in the South China Sea to the legacy of World War II — this may sound like an elusive dream, but with nationalism and military budgets rising sharply, achieving consensual stability has become imperative for the region. Can it be done?
The “liberal” view of international relations recommends three ingredients: political democratization, deeper economic interdependence and viable institutions through which East Asian states can conduct their affairs in a multilateral way. Because, as Immanuel Kant noted long ago, states with democratic political systems tend not to fight with each other, democracy should be encouraged in order to secure peace.
Pursuit of a Pax Democratia has long been embedded in US foreign policymaking and European states have, since 1945, made democracy a core element in their integration, but East Asia’s wide variety of political systems makes such a democratic consensus highly unlikely, at least for now.
On the other hand, economic interdependence among East Asian states has been deepening. For 30 years, East Asians have received the ample rewards of Adam Smith’s insight that free trade would bring material benefits to participating countries. Regional policymakers nowadays are loath to risk this progress through hostile behavior.
Economic interdependence in East Asia gained momentum following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, but confrontations between the US and China, the US and Japan, and China and Japan over the past year have left many wondering whether economic interdependence alone can bring about stable regional relations.
The third liberal route to peace — institutionalizing international relations — aims to regularize the behavior of states through a system of norms and rules, thereby creating order (and peace) out of quasi-anarchy. Such thinking motivated then-US president Woodrow Wilson’s desire to establish the League of Nations after World War I and it also underlay former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s push to create the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions after World War II.
Likewise, European states accept the common norms and rules of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and are almost always prepared to be regulated by them. Indeed, the EU is the fruit of a long, continuous effort to strengthen common norms and rules among European states.
In contrast to Europe, East Asia is composed of states that are radically different in terms of their size, development and political-economic systems. East Asian policymakers understand that there is little that they can do to alter their neighbors’ political systems, nor can they do much in an official way to deepen economic interdependence in the short term.
So it is natural for the region’s policymakers to focus more on institutionalization, with lively discussions regularly taking place about the region’s nascent constellation of groupings: ASEAN Plus Three, the East Asian Summit, the East Asian Community, APEC, the Asia-Pacific Community, etc.
However, this process has been politicized and riven by an acute behind-the-scenes competition for influence among the major powers. Indeed, East Asia seems to lack the equivalent of major EU architects like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman — visionaries with the stature and political support needed to begin building a framework for regional peace in a time, like today, of great change.