Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Asia’s Military Revolution

SEOUL – 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 allies.

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 peaceful ties.

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 and deregulation.

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 US-Japan alliance.

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.

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  1. Commentedhari naidu

    If you read the tea leaves coming out of Beltway think-tanks, Obama's rebalance to Asia is sounding more and more like a dead duck. Why? Because after Abe hosted POTUS to classic Japanese gourmet Sushi, Japan got the political nod to re-militarize. Japan's neighbours in S.E. Asia are all aghast at Abe militarization of the post-war Japanese Constitution - reason why rebalance to Asia may sound more and more like rebalance to China.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Can Mr. Yoon really speak of a "military revolution" in Asia? There is an arms race going on, but one can hardly speak of a "revolution"!
    The purge of the highest-ranking Chinese official, General Xu Caihou was an evidence that President Xi Jinping has made good on his pledge to fight corruption. His campaign serves to discipline the functionaries and cleanse the state apparatus of criminal actions.
    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has - thanks to a new interpretation of the country's 1947 constitution - written a new chapter of Japan's military history, permitting its Self Defence Forces to participate for the first time in collective self-defence related activities.
    Mr. Yoon laments about "the rising regional tensions that inspired these moves". There is no smoke without fire. It is clear that "these moves" were the follow-up to previous incidents that have led to "rising regional tensions". The relationship between Japan and its neighbours - China and South Korea - had been tainted by a historical trauma. Both China and South Korea had been invaded and occupied by Japan. Since Abe became politician, he had taken a more chauvinistic stance towards his country's troubled past.
    Hubris and nationalism pose an obstacle to building regional institutions in Asia, that boost cross-border relations. Immanuel Kant's theory in his 1795 "Perpetual Peace" claimed that a world where every state was a democracy would be a world of perpetual peace. Free peoples were inherently peaceful and would make war only when driven to it by tyrants. There are many, who doubt Kan'ts wisdom, because it all depends on how one defines democracy.
    Mr. Yoon wonders if China is trying to impose its own "Beijing Consensus" to replace the 40-year-old orthodoxy - the "Washington Consensus", which favours free trade, free capital flows, liberalisation, privatisation and open markets - all policies that promote economic growth. Experts doubt if there is a "Beijing Consensus". Even if there were one, how would it work? The "Washington Consensus" has not proven to be a success in developing countries.
    It is true that Asia lacked "figures like Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, and Disraeli – who crafted durable international alliances" in the past. Today it lacks leaders like Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer. The French politicians Schuman and Monnet were the architects of modern day's European Union and German Chancellor Adenauer contributed to building a modern, democratic Germany and forging good relations with its neighbours. Indeed, Xi and Abe are not "willing and able to look beyond their narrow national interests" for the sake of stability in the region.

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Japan may become part of Asia's security problem, not part of its solution. This sounds like what Prof. Yoon really wants to say here.

    The US underestimation of "regional concerns" over Japan's potential remilitarization. There are only three countries iin East Asia which have such concerns, China, South Korea and North Korea. These are all countries caught in straightjacket of Zhu Zi's Confucianist philosophy.
    Which country is devloping nuclear toys while leaving its people hungry and dirty? Which country's overbearing policy has made the US pivot to East Asia? Which country once tried secretly to develop nuclear weapons like its brother in the north? The President of the last one is kissing up to an authoritarian leader while ignoring her country's security dependence on the close cooperation of the Uninted States, Australia and Japan, etc.

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