Asia's uneasy alliances

Asia's uneasy alliances
File photo of the city government of Tokyo's survey vessel sailing around a group of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea.

CHINA- China's decision to declare a maritime air defence zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea late last month, together with the more recent response of Japan and South Korea, is both alarming and rather surprising.

This is, after all, a region that has been essentially conflict-free for decades, despite containing some of the world's most seemingly combustible flashpoints and deep-seated rivalries. The sudden deterioration in the security environment is shattering some of our most fundamental assumptions about the basis of regional security.

To get a sense of how important and unexpected all this is, it is helpful to place these events in historical context. The institutional architecture that has kept the region remarkably stable for decades was established in the aftermath of World War II. True, there were major wars in Vietnam and Korea, but within the non-communist camp, at least, peace prevailed.

One of the key reasons the so-called "capitalist peace" endured was not that making money proved more attractive than making war, but rather because the grand bargain was actually imposed. Despite not being part of the region, the US enjoyed an unprecedented dominance in East Asia and effectively determined the post-war regional order.

Two aspects of the East Asian region at this time were crucial.

First, although one tends to think of the Cold War as largely being about the containment of communism, it is important to remember that in East Asia it was also about containing Japan.

The US had a particular interest in ensuring that Japanese militarism was eradicated. Japan's so-called "peace Constitution" and the subsequent focus on economic development ensured this happened.

While China's economic rise seizes the attention of the world these days, it is important to remember that it was Japan that pioneered Asian-style, state-led economic development. It was also Japan that became the cornerstone of the entire economic and strategic order that allowed the region to take off in a way that astounded the world.

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