The East Asian Peace

The 6-year East Asian Peace (EAP) program at Uppsala University led by Stein Tønnesson of PRIO and Uppsala University has been undertaken in a period with increased uncertainty about peace and stability in East Asia.

China’s rise and increased rivalry in the region has made stability in East Asia the most important topic in current international affairs, and the content of the EAP program even more relevant. On May 9th, two books from this research program were launched at PRIO. One is a monograph by the program director, Stein Tønnesson, Explaining the East Asian Peace, the other a volume edited by Elin Bjarnegård & Joakim Kreutz, Debating the East Asian Peace. I am very grateful for the invitation to comment on these two books.

Book launch. Marte Nilsen, Stein Tønnesson, Jo Inge Bekkevold & Nils Petter Gleditsch. Photo: Ebba Tellander / PRIO

The editors of the anthology Debating the East Asian Peace provide three overarching conclusions.

  • First, that East Asia has maybe not been that peaceful after all, depending on how you define peace.
  • Second, the current peace is shallow.
  • And third, threats to the current peace can come from within nations as well as from interstate relations.

I do not find any of these conclusions to be ground-breaking. The research program deserves credit for including a wide range of theories and explanations for why the East Asian Peace came about, how viable it is, and the risks threatening the peace. However, I would have liked the editors and the research program to be more specific with regard to the relative importance of the different explanations behind the East Asian Peace, and why it is under threat. I find the contributions by Yongwook Ryu on nationalism and Robert S. Ross on great power politics and China’s turn to the sea to be of particular interest, and I will revert to these two topics later.

Nevertheless, the editors emphasize that the main purpose of the research program has been to stimulate further research and debate on the East Asian Peace and the threats facing it, and in this regard the research program has been very successful.

In the monograph Explaining the East Asian Peace Stein Tønnesson goes one step further providing more specific conclusions. Tønnesson presents a number of sharp observations on the modern history of East Asia post-WWII. One important observation he brings forward is that Japan has not received the credit it should for contributing to peace in the region through its post-WWII strategy, often referred to as the “Yoshida Doctrine”. Tønnesson’s main contribution to our understanding of the East Asian Peace is the “Peace by development” proposition, arguing that political leaders’ priority to welfare above warfare has been a main factor leading to peace in East Asia. “Peace by development” enriches the debate about peace, as it is different from peace by trade and economic integration or peace by democracy as explanations of peace.

Notwithstanding, I have a few comments to the arguments and conclusions presented in Stein Tønnesson’s monograph Explaining the East Asian Peace.

MY FIRST COMMENT is on the relationship between peace by development and peace by security. Despite presenting “Peace by development” as his main explanation for the East Asian Peace, Tønnesson on page 45 in his monograph states that the decision to prioritize economic development depends on security, that the national leadership in any country has to feel safe, and that the national security of a country has to be sufficiently safe for it to bet on export-driven economic development. It would seem that Tønnesson here actually acknowledges that security is paramount to achieve peace.

SECOND, Tønnesson argues that the combination of nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence is a guarantee for continued peace in East Asia. Again Tønnesson acknowledges the importance of security. However, my concern here is if nuclear deterrence is enough as a credible deterrence, or if deterrence in conventional terms as well as nuclear deterrence is required to achieve stability.

Let me give you two examples:

To begin with, India has developed a military doctrine called “Cold Start”, and its intention is to allow India’s conventional forces to punish Pakistan in a limited manner without triggering nuclear retaliation in case of a conflict. Whether this would work in reality is uncertain, but it raises important questions with regard to the utility of nuclear deterrence as the sole deterrence capability.

The other example is the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC, formerly known as Air-Sea-Battle) being developed by the United States in case of a conflict with China, where one of the scenarios is to punish China hard without triggering nuclear retaliation. Because the threshold for using nuclear weapons is high, and correctly so, deterrence by conventional forces is also of great importance. I would argue that a credible deterrence strategy to achieve stability requires both nuclear and conventional deterrence.

THIRD, I find some inconsistency in Tønnesson’s use of agency versus structure as explanatory variables. Tønnesson emphasizes agency, through his “Peace by development” proposition, as the main explanation for how the East Asian Peace came about. However, looking into the future in his conclusions (on pp. 197-225), Tønnesson identifies five troubling trends that might end the East Asian Peace, and these are mostly structural level variables:

  • Power transition from the US to China
  • Changes in Great power alignments, that we now see a return to the situation of the 1950s and 60s
  • Build-up of military capabilities in the region
  • Growing nationalism, and
  • Slowdown of economic growth

I fully agree with Tønnesson that leadership matters, and that Deng Xiaoping and his comrades could have decided on a different course than economic development for China in December 1978, but at the same time I find that Tønnesson might underestimate the importance of structural level factors explaining how the East Asian Peace came about, and in particular the importance of the security environment.

MY FOURTH COMMENT is related to how to measure a shift in priority. Tønnesson argues that he now see a shift in political priorities in the region towards coercive diplomacy and military modernization (as a result of the five troubling trends highlighted above), and that this shift is most obvious in the political leadership in China and Japan.

This may be true, but I would have preferred Tønnesson to elaborate further on how to measure that shift in priority. For instance, most countries in East Asia spend less on defence as percentage of their GDP today than during the Cold War. China and Japan have spent only two and one percent respectively of their GDP on defence for a number of years. Furthermore, Alastair Iain Johnston reminded us recently in an article in International Security that China’s so-called new assertiveness might not be that new or assertive after all compared with earlier Chinese policies.

FIFTH, Tønnesson argues that the East Asian Peace cannot be pinned down to 1979 as the starting point, and identifies five so-called ‘turning points’ in the East Asian Peace:

  • 1945, with the end of WWII and Japan being pacified.
  • 1953-54, with the death of Joseph Stalin giving more room for diplomacy, the end of the Korean War in North East Asia, and the Geneva Conference on Indochina.
  • 1965-67, with the founding of ASEAN.
  • 1979, with Deng Xiaoping and China pursuing economic development, and the fact that no new interstate war has taken place in East Asia since 1979.
  • 1989, with the end of the Cold War.

The explanatory factors in each of these turning points have not been fully explored in the project, and I would encourage Tønnesson to examine in further detail why peace came about at each of these turning points, and why it in some cases did not last. Also, I think there is one more turning point that should be added to the list, and that is the Sino-US rapprochement in 1971.

SIXTH, Tønnesson see changes in great power alignments in the region as one of the five main troubling trends threatening the East Asian Peace, and he points specifically to recent developments in Sino-Russian relations.

Tønnesson is correct that Beijing and Moscow has a broader and deeper cooperation today than perhaps ever before, but it is important to keep in mind that the respective roles of China and Russia within the Sino-Russian alignment today have shifted dramatically in comparison to the Cold War era.

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union (Russia) was the senior partner, and throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union played a relatively important role in Asian affairs. Today, China is the senior partner, and Russia does not have any significant leverage in East Asia. Beijing pays great attention to its relationship with Moscow, because it is important for China to keep its rear safe and to mitigate any Russian concerns as a result of China’s rise, but in the big picture of Asian affairs today, Russia plays a minor role. With a GDP at the same level as Canada’s, or the combined GDP of the Netherlands and Switzerland, Russia in 2017 is hardly a great power.

MY FINAL COMMENT concerns Tønnesson’s predictions about the future. Tønnesson argues in his monograph (page 81) that China holds the key to the future of the East Asian Peace, and that the biggest threats to the East Asian Peace come from Sino-Japanese relations and Sino-US relations (page 160).

In other words, Tønnesson makes the case that the great power challenge is the most serious threat to the East Asian Peace. This is also the argument put forward by Robert S. Ross in the edited volume in this project. History tells us that a sharp shift in the balance of power between states in the international system often leads to conflict and war.

China’s rise is changing the balance of power in Asia in fundamental ways, and has set in motion a shift in the foreign policy of not only the United States, but also that of Japan and India. History furthermore tells us that when a traditional big land power develops sea power capabilities, this also often leads to conflict and war. China is a traditional land power now developing sea power. Illustrating the importance of China’s current turn to the sea, we should remember that China has only once before in its history managed to develop a true maritime outlook, and that was during the late Song and early Ming dynasties in the 13th and 14th centuries.

China’s ongoing turn to the sea is probably the most fundamental structural change in international politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This change in outlook is reflected in China’s Defense White Papers. China’s 2004 Defense White Paper was the first public announcement of a priority shift in defense resource allocation to the PLA Navy. While China’s 2013 Defense White Paper stated that “China is a major maritime as well as land country”, the 2015 Defense White Paper had an unprecedented maritime emphasis, stating that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… ”.

It is also important to keep in mind that China is not shifting from land to sea, but adding sea power to its land power, making China a hybrid. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt through Eurasia tells us that China is still also very much a land power.

It is too early to tell if China is on its way towards regional hegemony in Asia, but we will certainly see an increased rivalry between China and the United States about influence and alignments in East Asia in the coming years. The road ahead is unfortunately not made any easier by the still distinct historical narratives between the three major powers in East Asia – China, Japan and South Korea, fueling nationalist sentiments. Explanations like Peace by Development, Peace by Trade and Economic Interdependence, and Peace by International Law will truly be put to test in East Asia, as China continues to rise and the balance of power is changing.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is Head of Centre for Asian Security Studies at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS). His research focuses on China’s rise and Asian Security. Among his recent publications is International Order at Sea: How it is challenged. How it is maintained, co-editor with Geoffrey Till (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges, co-editor with Robert S. Ross (Georgetown University Press, 2016). Bekkevold is a former career diplomat.

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