Reinventing East Asia: Multilateral Cooperation and Regional Order

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THE CHANCES OF DIRECT MILITARY CONFLICT between the major powers in East Asia are lower now than at any time this century, largely because economic forces have created positive incentives for cooperative international behavior. China in particular has substantially improved its bilateral relations with almost every country in East and Southeast Asia. Moreover, Chinese ties with Russia have improved dramatically over the past two years, culminating in a series of recent agreements on border disputes and confidence building measures. Yet East Asia remains a dangerous place. China has territorial disputes with virtually all of its neighbors, and tensions across the Taiwan Strait are higher now than at any point since the late 1950s. The conflict on the Korean peninsula is far from resolved and shows signs of becoming more unstable in a period of leadership transition in North Korea and in China. Furthermore, defense modernization is proceeding apace in virtually all of the countries in the region, and the lethality of armaments is increasing substantially.

Beyond these immediate problems lies deeper uncertainty about the structure of security relations in a post-Cold War environment. Governments and security experts are less convinced than the business community that deepening economic interdependence will ensure peace. Concerns include the consequences of the rise of China, the possibility that Japan will expand its force projection capacities, and the uncertain future of the US military presence in Asia. The future security order is difficult to project, and, while new mechanisms and processes are needed, they have not yet emerged.

The geographical area known as "East Asia," was defined by John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer in the late 1940s on the basis of the Confucian culture area embracing China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This definition shaped American scholarship for two generations, but "East Asia" defined in this way is rarely used in policy circles and needs revision to be of analytic use. From the perspective of trade, investment, and production, the regional dimension of globalization must be mapped on an Eastern Asian, Asia Pacific or intercontinental basis. From the perspective of security issues, Russia and the United States are integral parts of regional dynamics even in the post-Cold War era. The more frequent definitions of the region are thus Northeast Asia (East Asia plus Russia and Mongolia), the North Pacific (Northeast Asia plus the United States and Canada) or Asia Pacific (the North Pacific plus Southeast Asia and the South Pacific).

Yet it is interesting to look at the East Asian dimension of regional affairs, not only because of the size and global significance of the states in the region, but also because ideas and practices with deep historical and cultural roots in East Asia continue to shape diplomatic and security interactions in an area much larger than East Asia itself. Asia has not produced the kinds of multilateral mechanisms and institutions that have developed in Europe and across the Atlantic, and East Asia has been the most resistant to new forms of multilateral security cooperation and dialogue.

The explanation for this East Asian difference, as Fairbank and Reischauer noted, is at least partially historical. East Asia was a latecomer to the nation-state system developed in Europe. The traditional international relations of East Asia reflected the predominance of China and were built on the principles of hierarchy and bilateralism embodied in the tribute system. The imposition of Western imperialism destroyed this system and created both new forms of nationalism and a competitive balance of power system to which the countries of East Asia had to adapt. East Asian states did not fare well in the international institutions and multilateral diplomacy that came in the wake of Western gunboats. China, for instance, felt it was on the losing end of the Versailles Treaty. …