Why war is unlikely in Asia
Barry Desker
Wed, Jun 25, 2008
The Straits Times
THE Asia-Pacific region is both a zone of relative insecurity as well as one of relative stability.

On the one hand, it contains some of the world's most significant flashpoints: the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, the Siachen glacier. Tensions between nations at these points could escalate into major wars. The region is also replete with border issues, acts of terrorism and overlapping maritime claims. It is a strategically significant area, sitting astride key sea lines of communication and important choke-points.

Nevertheless, the region is more stable than one might believe. Separatism remains a challenge, but the break-up of states is unlikely. The North Korean nuclear issue, while not fully resolved, is moving towards a conclusion with the likely denuclearisation of the peninsula. Tensions between China and Taiwan seem unlikely to erupt into conflict, especially after the recent victories of the Kuomintang in Taiwan. The region also possesses significant multilateral structures such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the nascent Six-Party Talks forum and, in particular, Asean.

Although the United States has been the hegemon in the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II, it will probably not remain the dominant presence in the region over the next 25 years. A rising China will pose a critical challenge to the US, probably more difficult than the challenge posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This will lead to a profound change in the region's strategic environment.

But the rise of China does not automatically mean that conflict is likely. First, a more assertive China does not mean a more aggressive China. Beijing appears content to press its claims peacefully (if forcefully) through existing avenues and institutions.

Second, when we examine the Chinese military buildup, we find that there may be less there than some might have us believe. The Chinese war machine is not quite as threatening - although still worrisome - as some fear.

Instead of Washington's perspectives shaping Asia-Pacific affairs coercively, the rise of China is likely to see a new paradigm in international affairs. The nascent 'Beijing Consensus', for want of a better term, would consist of the following attributes: The leadership role of the authoritarian state, a technocratic approach to governance, an emphasis on social rights and obligations over individual rights, a reassertion of the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference, support for freer markets and stronger regional and international institutions.

The argument that there is an emerging 'Beijing Consensus' is not premised on the rise of the 'East' and decline of the 'West', as sometimes seemed to be the sub-text of the earlier 1990s 'Asian values' debate. But like the previous debate, this new debate will reflect alternative philosophical traditions.

At issue is the appropriate balance between the rights of the individual and those of the state. This debate will highlight the values China and other states in the region share. By contrast, one conventional American view is that Sino-American competition will result in 'intense security competition with considerable potential for war' in which most of China's neighbours 'will join with the United States to contain China's power'.

Asia's shared values are likely to reduce the risk of such conflict and result in regional pressure for an accommodation of and engagement with China, rather than a confrontation with it.

In its interactions with the region, China itself is beginning to be interested in issues of proper governance, the development of domestic institutions and the strengthening of regional institutions. Nor is Chinese policy unchanging, even on the issue of sovereignty.

For example, there has been an evolution in Chinese thinking on the question of freedom of passage through the straits of Malacca and Singapore. China supported the claims of the littoral states to sovereign control over the straits when the Law of the Sea Convention was concluded in 1982. But its increasing dependence on imported oil shipped through the straits has led to a shift in favour of burden-sharing, the recognition of the rights of user states and the need for cooperation between littoral states and user states.

China has also revised its earlier advocacy of strict non-intervention and non-interference. Its support for global initiatives such as peacekeeping and nuclear non-proliferation - as well as its restrained use of its veto in the UN Security Council and its active role in the World Trade Organisation - indicates it is aware that responsible participation in global institutions can shape perceptions of a rising China.

Beijing has also greatly lowered the tone and rhetoric of its strategic competition with the US. This is significant as most South-east Asian states prefer not to have to choose between the US and China, and have adopted 'hedging' strategies in their relationships with the two powers.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is certainly in the midst of the most ambitious upgrading of its combat capabilities since the early 1960s. Its current defence doctrine is centred on the ability to fight 'Limited Local Wars'. The emphasis is on pre-emption, surprise and shock value, given that the earliest stages of conflict may be crucial to the outcome of a war.

Thus the PLA has pursued the acquisition of weapons for asymmetric warfare. It mimics the US military in terms of the ambition and scope of its transformational efforts - and therefore challenges the US military at its own game. Nevertheless, China is still at least two decades behind the US in terms of its defence capabilities. It is certainly acquiring new and better equipment, but its current military buildup is indicative of an evolutionary, steady-state and sustaining - rather than disruptive or revolutionary - innovation and change.

War in the Asia-Pacific is unlikely. But the emergence of East Asia, especially China, will require adjustments by the West, just as Asian societies had to adjust to Western norms and values during the American century.

The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.

This column is rotated among eight heads of research institutions.


The rise of China does not automatically mean that conflict is likely. A more assertive China does not mean a more aggressive China.


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