The economic, diplomatic and military world of East Asia these days has a lot in common with pre-World War I Europe, minus the colonial drive.
Economically, the rapid rise of China is creating challenges throughout the Asia-Pacific region, with older established economic powerhouses such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan scrambling to find a market niche that can take advantage of China’s economic might, while protecting themselves from over-reliance on the juggernaut.
Diplomatically, there is a heavy reliance on secret regional agreements that are either meant to constrain the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or create secret alliances against the hegemonic power — the US — just as secret agreements before World War I created alliances against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Militarily, East Asia is beset by a balance-of-power dynamic devoid of any regional multinational alliances meant to stop conflict, such as the League of Nations, UN or EU, just as Europe had no mechanisms to stop a war from breaking out prior to 1914.
Academics have described the 20th century as a long, drawn-out attempt to constrain the economic might of Germany. After Germany’s unification in the late 1800s, it experienced World War I, the reparations regime in the inter-war period, World War II and division during the Cold War, before melding itself to the EU. All these upheavals were in effect a painful means of integrating the German economy into the wider European sphere.
China is about 30 years into a similarly rapid economic expansion, although it was sparked not by unification, but by the end of the Cultural Revolution and the ascension of economic reformers into leadership roles. The countries around China still have not figured out how best to benefit from this opportunity without being absorbed.
Taiwan jumped in earliest, but perhaps due to its history, it is not faring that well — the nation risks being absorbed economically by China. South Korea seems to have figured out how to protect itself while still increasing trade, but Japan is in the doldrums, from which it cannot seem to extricate itself. And this is only the beginning.
The secret agreements taking place are best represented by the closed-door meetings between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the CCP, which began in 2005 and were promptly followed by the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), his signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China and more recent talk of a cross-strait peace pact. It seems obvious the KMT and CCP came to an agreement on all these issues in secret.
Another example is what appears to be US consultations with Beijing before selling arms to Taiwan, a move that would be against US law.
The effect of these secret agreements is that people have no way of knowing where their governments’ loyalties actually lie and where they would stand if conflict broke out.
As to the military sphere in East Asia, might makes right, which is why countries employ balance of power strategies, hoping this will prevent a war, just as the Europeans did before World War I. However, these strategies only work as long as the regional powers are actually balanced. US power is waning, China’s is expanding, Taiwan is almost defenseless, the Koreas are at a stalemate and Japan is trying to quietly build up its military in a way that does not alarm its neighbors.
Moreover, the lack of a regional security mechanism increases the chance of conflict — China defines the Taiwan Strait problem as a domestic issue and the Koreas are basically in a state of civil war.
East Asia has a lot in common with pre-World War I Europe. Let’s hope Asian leaders can steer clear of the mistakes the Europeans made.
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