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Can East Asians Cooperate?

SEOUL – 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 Asia’s 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 American 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 Asia’s 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.