Will Asia’s peace endure? The answer depends on how policymakers cope with growing structural pressures that increasingly encourage miscalculations, arms races, and reckless foreign policies.
A number of well-known yet largely overlooked regional trends make conflict more likely than in the past: mistrust; uncertainty; and widespread military modernization. The greater risk of conflict over time comes from the convergence of these trends with Asia’s longstanding flashpoints.
Now more than ever, Asian states express twin uncertainties about the intentions of a rising and increasingly assertive China on the one hand, and the willingness of the United States to maintain its stabilizing role in the region on the other. Apart from great power uncertainties, Asian states are wary about each other’s long-term capabilities and intentions as well — especially as much of the region undergoes a transition to larger and diverse militaries with more advanced capabilities. All of these insecurities become compounded by the limited ability of Asian states to forge deep security cooperation because of enduring mistrust of one another. Binding agreements are incompatible with the prevailing regional norm of consensus-based cooperation, yet even non-binding but transparent and predictable patterns of behavior are also largely absent from the regional security landscape.
These trends feed security dilemma dynamics among states purely interested in stability and the status quo, but they also risk impeding cooperation in the face of aggression. Bonding together over a common threat is much harder when rules and norms of cooperation are fragmented, mistrust pervasive, and uncertainty about the look and feel of the future regional order rampant. This is a principal danger of a more multipolar Asia, and is arguably what we see today with multiple South China Sea claimants facing growing Chinese assertiveness — the structural conditions of the security environment, exacerbated by domestic political antagonisms toward regional neighbors, create barriers to regional coalescence against a more aggressive party.
From Korea to the East and South China Seas, Asia is home to many familiar flashpoints that have somehow avoided triggering war for decades. It may be tempting to conclude that since these disputes have not yet destabilized the region, they are unlikely to do so in the future.
For some, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, believes that the region is headed for a “golden age” because Asian policy elites share a consensus that economic development and modernization are more important than conflict. David Kang of Dartmouth College has argued that a China-centered regional order has historically been peaceful, which helps bolster his claim that Asian states are not balancing China (circa 2007). And Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University argues that, contra Washington’s claims, China’s behavior in its many territorial disputes is not particularly new or assertive. Asia’s national economies, moreover, are becoming increasingly interdependent; the costs of conflict would surely outweigh any conceivable benefits.
But even putting aside the accuracy of these characterizations of contemporary Asia, which are themselves highly debatable, there are a number of reasons why such rosy outlooks offer little cause for optimism. First, economic development is valuable to Asian policy elites because it strengthens domestic legitimacy, but channeling nationalist passions still remains key to the legitimacy of most Asian governments. Under the wrong conditions, whipping up nationalist sentiment against neighbors can trump economic development. Second, militaries across Asia are building their capacity to not only provide for internal security, but to project power outside their borders while denying other militaries the ability to do the same. Many small-scale disputes have erupted between low-capacity Asian militaries in the past 30 years of relative peace. It is conceivable that as military capacities increase so too will the likelihood of small-scale conflicts becoming larger scale ones. Third, economic interdependence increases the stakes of conflict but does not necessarily prevent it, or even increase the cost of it. Many middle powers operate their economic and political policies on separate tracks — Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been explicit about this in Japan’s policy toward China and ASEAN nations have deliberately done this as part of a complex strategy to navigate the great powers peacefully.
Finally, and most importantly, none of the optimistic characterizations of Asia engage with the realities of current trends — mistrust, multiple types of uncertainty, and military modernization. If all is well, why is the region militarizing? Why aren’t stronger norms of cooperation in place? Any explanation of why Asia will remain peaceful must account for the prevalence — and potentially perverse effects — of these attributes of the Asian security environment, but none do.
It may be the case that Asia remains peaceful for the foreseeable future, but if it does it will be because statesmen and strategists attend to the region’s core insecurities, not because they ignore them.