There has been continuous debate over the wisdom of the US strategic “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific since it was announced in 2009. Some argue over its terminology, others debate the wisdom of this approach, but these debates should not and cannot remain the defining feature of the rebalance. The US security community needs to come to grips with a simple reality – too many look at the Asia-Pacific and see Europe.
The Asia-Pacific is hardly the Balkans 2.0 – a tinderbox about to explode and consume the world. Nor is China a rising replacement for the Soviet Union, no matter how much some individuals in Washington quietly wish that were the case. The Asia-Pacific by and large is not readily comparable to other regions or to other time periods. Sure, there are variables and qualities that facilitate comparisons, but by and large the Asia-Pacific has long stood as an outlier.
For decades, the Asian economic miracle has been emulated and replicated without success. Likewise, the region has experienced periods of intense competition that promised conflict long before the South China Sea was recognized as an energy bonanza and China emerged as a global economic power. The region, take it or leave it, has muddled along – doing little to enhance regional security and cooperation, but likewise stepping back from the edges of cliffs. This feature of the region has been attributed to myriad explanatory variables – “Confucian” culture, Chinese expatriate communities throughout Southeast Asia, long political memories of wars past, native isolationism, and so on. The problem with arguments centered on Asian “exceptionalism” is they are largely cultural and over-simplistic.
What I would argue, along with others, is that the Asia-Pacific will remain a tense region for decades into the future, but not suffer a cataclysmic regional war. The reasons for this are economics and internationalism. Or to put it another way – the Asia-Pacific, much like the world at large, is learning to deal with multiple poles of power.
Thirty years ago, the Asian economic miracle was, in fact, a real miracle. States that had long suffered poverty or denigration due to war rapidly developed into modern, dynamic economies. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore became regional economic leaders and models for the rest of the underdeveloped world to copy. However, that was thirty years ago. Today, much of the Asia-Pacific has risen to join these initial economic powerhouses. China’s economy proved that the rapid growth of the early developers was merely a warm up for what they were capable of. The Philippines, long the region’s most underperforming economy, seems finally ready to rise. Indonesia, fueled by new investment and its energy sectors, is quickly developing. Altogether, the region is full of strong and rising economies. The proximity of so many strong economic players has increased tensions as each of these economies needs access to global trade, energy resources, secure shipping lanes, and communication networks.
Yet economic growth is one of the great counterfactuals of international relations. Strong economies regular compete with each other, which increase diplomatic tensions, but they tend not to engage in open conflict lest they risk damaging the economy.
The second reason for regional tension without war is internationalism. It is true that many countries in the region have gone through fierce isolationist periods, but the time of such policies is long past. Save North Korea, a regime that defies comparison, all of the region’s countries have integrated themselves into the global economic and political system. Some have entered willingly, while others reluctantly, but as a region, the Asian Pacific countries have not merely survived in the international system – they have thrived. The reason for this is that most of these societies are in fact not inherently isolationist, at least not anymore.
So, instead of seeking to put today’s events in the Asia-Pacific into the context of the Western tradition, try to look at the region within the framework of its own history. The region is not Europe in the 20th century. It is a tense region full of powerful countries that also happen to be engaging in means to strengthen the international system. The region as a whole, as the Chinese proverb declares, is “crossing the river by feeling the stones”.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.