IN THE EARLY DECADES OF THE TWENTY-FIRST century, relations among the nations of East Asia may be characterized by high and rising levels of economic interdependence, expanding cooperation in a lengthening list of international institutions, growing trust and a deepening and ever more stable peace. Or, on the other hand, they could be marked instead by mutual suspicion, shifting diplomatic alignments, arms races, crises, and periodic wars. While many observers hope that Asian international politics in the years ahead will resemble the patterns that have come to prevail in Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, skeptics fear that they may be more similar to those that marked the previous four hundred years of modern European history.
The way different observers characterize the future of East Asian security depends, among other things, on their beliefs about the fundamental character of world politics and the relative strength of the contending forces that are reshaping the international system. Although it is not always couched in these terms, the debate over Asia's future is, at base, a dispute between adherents to very different theories of international relations. Whether or not they identify themselves with such labels, those who are most pessimistic tend to be guided in their thinking by the tenets of political "realism" while those who take a more optimistic view are usually recognizable either as "liberals" or as what are referred to in contemporary academic jargon as "constructivists."
At present, the realists appear to have the better part of the argument. Given the complex and contingent character of international politics and the inadequacy of existing theoretical tools for understanding it, confident predictions about the future should be regarded with great skepticism. Still, there are good reasons to fear that, as the next century begins, Asian international relations will be characterized more by competition and conflict than by cooperation and harmony.
In trying to anticipate the likely pattern of relations among a group of states, realists begin by attempting to analyze the distribution of material power among them. Here, in considering Asia, they find several immediate and substantial causes for concern. For a combination of long-term economic and short-run geopolitical reasons, the distribution of power in Asia has changed very rapidly in recent years. The extremely high rates of economic growth that a number of states in the region have been able to sustain over the past two or three decades has helped to make them wealthier and, in the process, has increased their capacity to generate military power. In addition, since the end of the 1980s, a series of unanticipated political developments has begun to transform the relations among the region's major powers. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement with much-weakened Russia has encouraged at least a partial withdrawal of US military forces. The end of the Cold War and the demise of a common Soviet threat have also contributed to some loosening in the ties between the United States and Japan and to a far more dramatic parting of the ways between the United States and China.
The sheer speed with which these economic and political changes have been occurring is in itself worrisome. Realists believe that, in the absence of a higher authority to resolve disputes, impose order, and keep peace, states must always be concerned first and foremost about their own security. Rapid changes in power relationships lead to uncertainty (with some states becoming increasingly anxious about their position, and others more confident and assertive), and uncertainty can increase the odds of misperception, miscalculation, and conflict.
Even during the Cold War, Asia was never simply bipolar like Europe, divided down the middle by the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. …