Paul Lachine

The Asian Sleepwalkers

Whether East Asia’s leaders like it or not, the region’s international relations are more akin to nineteenth-century European balance-of-power politics than to the stable Europe of today. Will the lack of an adequate regional security structure cause East Asian countries to blunder, like Europe prior to 1914, into a major disaster?

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.

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.

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