Whether East Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to 19th-century European balance-of-power politics than to the stable Europe of today. Witness East Asia’s rising nationalism, territorial disputes and lack of effective institutional mechanisms for security cooperation. While economic interdependence among China, Japan, South Korea and the members of ASEAN continues to deepen, their diplomatic relations are as burdened by rivalry and mistrust as relations among European countries were in the decades prior to World War I.
One common characteristic is a power shift. Back then, Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since German unification in 1871. Similarly, at least economically, the US and Japan seem to be in decline relative to China. Of course, this process is not irreversible: Effective political leadership and successful domestic reforms in the US and Japan, and China’s failure to manage political pressure from below, could halt this power shift.
Major power shifts define eras in which key political leaders are likely to make serious foreign policy mistakes. Indeed, poor management of international relations at such critical junctures has often led to major wars. Rising powers tend to demand a greater role in international politics, declining powers tend to be reluctant to adjust and key policymakers are likely to misunderstand the intentions of other countries’ leaders and overreact.
Historically, rising powers tend to become too confident too soon, leading them to behave imprudently, which frightens their neighbors. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Otto von Bismarck as chancellor in 1890, less than 20 years after the formation of the Second Reich, and began to destroy Bismarck’s carefully crafted alliance network. His rough diplomacy frightened France, Britain and Russia, making it easier for them to unite against Germany.
China’s new diplomatic assertiveness in 2010 — closely following the eruption of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s — recalled that of Wilhelmine Germany. In both cases, insecurity resulted not from an external threat, but from top policymakers’ own actions.
In late 2010, I was relieved — somewhat — when a key Chinese leader, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國), announced that China would adhere to the path of peaceful development. However, the rhetoric of some Chinese, particularly in the military, concerning the South China Sea and other disputed Chinese sovereignty claims, suggests that not everyone in the country’s leadership is committed wholeheartedly to such a path. The extent to which policymaking by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) takes into account the insecurity felt by China’s neighbors — and abandons a quest for absolute security for China — will be one of the key variables influencing East Asia’s security environment.
The US’ foreign policy will be another key factor. If the US pursues a predominantly confrontational approach, East Asian politics will inevitably become polarized, just as multipolar 19th-century Europe gave way to an increasingly bipolar order in lockstep with rising tensions between Germany and Britain. The US’ so-called “pivot to Asia” might have been necessary from its point of view, given the concerns of its Asian allies about China. However, unless the US wants a Cold War-style confrontation in Asia, it must try harder to engage China in shaping a viable regional security structure.