Pacific Insecurity: Emerging Threats to Stability in East Asia

By Pollack, Jonathan D. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Pacific Insecurity: Emerging Threats to Stability in East Asia


Pollack, Jonathan D., Harvard International Review


EAST ASIA IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S primary arenas of international competition and collaboration in the post-Cold War era. Over the past century and a half, the region has experienced recurrent great power rivalries, military intervention, colonialism, revolutionary nationalism, and interstate as well as civil conflict. In recent decades, however, revolutionary upheaval has been supplanted by rapid and sustained economic growth, enabling the region to achieve unparalleled well-being and enhanced political stability. This unprecedented economic expansion has also allowed numerous states to augment their military power in pursuit of longer-range national security goals.

As the next century approaches, a pivotal question is whether the states of East Asia will be able to create a political and security structure commensurate with their economic success. Can the nations of the region define a satisfactory framework for interstate relations in pursuit of their separate national interests without inducing destabilizing geopolitical realignment or overt military hostilities? To some observers, the cessation of the US-Soviet global rivalry, the absence of a serious regional military crisis since the Sino-Vietnamese border war of 1979, and the nascent emergence of region-wide economic and political institutions suggest such a prospect.

However, these signs of stability may be misleading. Beneath a veneer of shared interests (especially related to economic development) loom deeper differences and potential incompatibilities that defy ready resolution. Although East Asia as a whole has achieved prosperity unimaginable several decades ago, the transition toward a more autonomous and powerful region is uneven, incomplete, and replete with uncertainty. As a consequence, the outlines of a more durable security order are barely discernible at present. Indeed, rather than guaranteeing a peaceful or stable regional system, East Asia's political and economic emergence could generate new patterns of competition and conflict that will shape some of the principal contours of the international system into the next century.

Potential For Crisis

Among the possibilities of a serious crisis, the prospects loom largest on the Korean peninsula, the one locale in global politics where the legacy of the Cold War remains largely intact. The latent potential for destructive military conflict in Korea has not diminished. North Korea is an embattled regime, heavily armed yet largely bereft of its previous sources of economic and security support, and many observers believe that the regime's days are numbered. Any internal unraveling in North Korea would affect the interests of all the major powers in the area, but first and foremost those of South Korea. Implosion, however, is not the only scenario. Under some circumstances, leaders in Pyongyang might yet opt to renew their truculence in relation to the outside world, even toward those whose assistance North Korea presently solicits. Therefore, all states in the region have an obvious incentive to work credibly with one another on the Korea problem, as none would be immune to the potential consequences of another Korean confrontation.

Quite apart from the antagonism between North and South Korea, the historical animosities between Korea and Japan remain profound. The early 1996 tensions between the two countries over the demarcation of their respective maritime boundaries could prove a portent of future trends. Indeed, despite Japan's stature as the world's second largest economy, Japan's political role, both regionally and globally, remains circumscribed and unsettled. Japan is not yet able to deal fully with its conduct in the Pacific war or its colonial record in Northeast Asia. Although Japan has moved somewhat closer to an acknowledgment of the legacy of its historical conduct, there is as yet no domestic consensus permitting a comprehensive judgment of Japan's past behavior toward its neighbors. …

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