The Asian Sleepwalkers

SEOUL – Whether East Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to nineteenth-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 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations 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, then and now, is a power shift. Back then, Great Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since German unification in 1871.

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Similarly, at least in terms of economic, if not military, capability, the United States and Japan seem to have begun a process of decline relative to China. Of course, this process is not irreversible: Effective political leadership and successful domestic reforms in the US and Japan, together with China’s failure to manage political pressure from below, could yet halt this seemingly inexorable 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 to their actions.

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 1930’s – 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, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, announced that China would adhere to the path of peaceful development. But 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 the country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, 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 in the years ahead.

America’s 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 nineteenth-century Europe gave way to an increasingly bipolar order in lockstep with rising tensions between Germany and Britain. America’s so-called “pivot to Asia” might have been necessary from its point of view, given the concerns of its Asian allies about China. But, 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.

A confrontational US approach toward China, moreover, would imply an additional destabilizing factor: Japan might become much bolder than necessary in its foreign policy. After Wilhelm II stopped engaging Russia in the 1890’s, bilateral relations worsened, which provided his ally, Austria, diplomatic carte blanche in dealing with Serbia – and, more important, Serbia’s Russian patron. Thus, Wilhelm unintentionally contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914.

There are already some worrying signs of a Japanese miscalculation. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, reportedly said that he is considering renouncing the Kono Statement of 1993, which acknowledged that the Japanese military had raped and enslaved Asian and European women during World War II. If Abe does so, Japan’s relations with South Korea and China will suffer serious damage.

That is in no one’s interest, including Japan’s, given that the Japanese share many security concerns with South Korea. So US diplomacy will need to be dexterous. It must ease Japan’s sense of insecurity in the wake of China’s rise, while persuading Japan’s new leaders to behave prudently and refrain from excessively nationalist behavior. Frankly, with two decades of economic stagnation already behind it, Japan has more important matters to pursue.

In contrast to its multilateral efforts in Europe, the US created a hub-and-spoke security framework – formed by US-centered bilateral alliances – in Asia following WWII. One result is that no direct channel for security cooperation among Asian countries was ever established, which has contributed to the low level of trust in East Asia, even among close US allies like Japan and South Korea. And it is precisely here that South Korea, a medium-sized ally of the US, will be in a better position than Northeast Asia’s bigger powers to act as a facilitator.

There is much to learn from the diplomatic failures that led to WWI. A new history, by Christopher Clark, of the diplomatic prelude to that war is called, fittingly, The Sleepwalkers. The question for the US and East Asia’s leaders today is whether they will wake up and develop effective multilateral mechanisms for security cooperation before doing themselves serious harm.