Critical Issues Confronting China Summary–The East Asian Peace: Can It Last?

December 19, 2016

From the end of World War II in 1945 to 1979, Asia was embroiled in one military conflict or another, from civil wars in China and much of Southeast Asia in the late 1940s, to the Korean War in the early 1950s, to the Vietnam War from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. About 80 percent of global battle deaths during this period were in East Asia. But since 1979, there has been a remarkable period of peace and stability in Asia, and this percentage has fallen from six percent in the 1980s to less than two percent during the period 1990-2015. East Asia has enjoyed a long peace, in spite of the ongoing power shift and a large number of unresolved conflicts. What explains this drastic change? And can peace in Asia last? The Honorable Börje Ljunggren, former Swedish Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Vietnam, interpreted the historic dynamic behind this positive change, examined the relevant forces in recent years, and anticipated a very uncertain future in a recent Critical Issues Confronting China seminar.

He attributed this prolonged peace in Asia to two factors: an altered security environment in much of the world as a result of Sino-U.S. normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979 and the priority shift of most Asian countries to economic development. An “economic Asia” had emerged. Many events are emblematic of these two larger trends in Asia: from the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru's call after World War II for concentrating all available means to economic growth to the East Asian economic miracle of the 1990s, from ASEAN's expansion in the 1980s and 1990s from five member countries to ten member countries and, first and foremost, from Deng Xiaoping's policy of reform and opening up in 1978 to China's accession to the WTO in 2001 as a result of the U.S. deliberate shaping of the international environment to integrate China into the world. Having taken a leap in economic and technological growth, China has become the largest economy in the world in terms of PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), and the largest trading partner of 130 countries. It has become a global economic power, notwithstanding “a lonely power” without military alliances.

Ljunggren was concerned about the current orientation of Asia, showing signs of drifting towards a “security Asia.” The disputes over the South and East China Seas, North Korea's advance in nuclear development, deteriorating Sino-Japanese relations loaded with historical baggage, the unresolved question of Taiwan and a more assertive China, are all salient issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that the Pacific Ocean is large enough for both China and the U.S., and that China, with its 5,000-year history, would rise peacefully and not cause another example of the Thucydides Trap, of which Harvard Professor Graham Allison has warned, if China and the U.S. could work together. Yet good wishes do not necessarily translate into the facts on the ground. The Philippines took China to the UN arbitration tribunal in 2013 when China occupied and built on the Scarborough Shoal, just 120 miles off the Philippine coast. It received a favorable verdict this past July, but China condemned it, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte described it as just a piece of paper. China continues to build military installations, and the South China Sea area remains vulnerable without a code of conduct for conflict resolution and weak regional security mechanisms. The defiant young Kim of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has continued on the path of developing nuclear weapons, with no signs of abating, and the country is about to become a de facto nuclear state. Solutions looked remote and Asian countries have begun to hedge their bets, and have increased military expenditure significantly. U.S.-Chinese relations are comprehensive but marked by strategic distrust.  

In Ljunggren's view, the East Asian peace is getting fragile. On top of this fragility, Donald Trump, with no prior government experience and an erratic temperament, is worsening the uncertainty in Asia. He has, as Kissinger put it, “no baggage” but a load of ill-informed views. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election, we would be fairly confident that she would pursue the U.S. pivot to Asia, strengthen U.S. alliances, adopt tough lines against North Korea, confirm U.S.-Taiwan policy, and attach importance to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea and human rights. Tensions would remain but the rules of the game would have been known. Trump’s approach is transactional as illustrated by his attitude towards Taiwan and the One China policy. You could expect him to confirm key U.S. alliances like the U.S.-Japanese alliance, but will he develop a comprehensive approach to East Asia ensuring trust in a sustained U.S. presence?
If the U.S. retreats further from its conventional global role, in which President Obama is deemed as a transitional figure, we could see the end of the world order of the last seven decades. Globalization is adrift and the third wave of democratization is losing momentum while authoritarianism is in vogue. China will perceive a gap in global leadership and will try to fill it with its own institutions and initiatives, such as the One Belt One Road and the ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). President Xi Jinping moved promptly in November at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru to fill the vacuum created by Mr. Trump’s abandonment of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Xi Jinping’s China is at the same time getting increasingly authoritarian while economic reforms are badly needed.

Will China be a risk taker in its run up to the centennial anniversary of the Communist Party (CCP) in 2021 or will it become an increasingly “responsible stake holder" of the international system? Can Sino-U.S. relations be redefined, as President Xi Jinping wishes, to a new type of big-power relations which defies the Thucydides Trap that characterizes past confrontations between an established power and a rising power? With Trump's world view, Ljunggren anticipated a very bumpy road ahead.