SEOUL – As China continues its unremitting rise, people throughout East Asia are wondering whether their states will ever be able to achieve the peaceful, stable relations that now characterize Europe. Given the regularity of serious diplomatic spats — over everything from tiny atolls in the South China Sea to the legacy of World War II — this may sound like an elusive dream. But, with nationalism and military budgets rising sharply, achieving consensual stability has become imperative for the region.
Can it be done?
The “liberal” view of international relations recommends three ingredients: political democratization, deeper economic interdependence, and viable institutions through which East Asia’s states can conduct their affairs in a multilateral way. Because, as Immanuel Kant noted long ago, states with democratic political systems tend not to fight with each other, democracy should be encouraged in order to secure peace.
Pursuit of a Pax Democratia has long been embedded in U.S. foreign policymaking. And European states have, since 1945, made democracy a core element in their integration. But East Asia’s wide variety of political systems makes such a democratic consensus highly unlikely, at least for now.
On the other hand, economic interdependence among East Asia’s states has been deepening. For 30 years, East Asians have received the ample rewards of Adam Smith’s insight that free trade would bring material benefits to participating countries. Regional policymakers nowadays are loath to risk this progress through hostile behavior.
Economic interdependence in East Asia gained momentum following the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. But confrontations between the United States and China, the U.S. and Japan, and China and Japan over the past year have left many wondering whether economic interdependence alone can bring about stable regional relations.
The third liberal route to peace — institutionalizing international relations — aims to regularize the behavior of states through a system of norms and rules, thereby creating order (and peace) out of quasi-anarchy.
Such thinking motivated U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to establish the League of Nations after World War I, and it also underlay President Franklin Roosevelt’s push to create the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions after World War II.
Likewise, European states accept the common norms and rules of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and are almost always prepared to be regulated by them. Indeed, the European Union is the fruit of a long, continuous effort to strengthen common norms and rules among European states.
In contrast to Europe, East Asia is composed of states that are radically different in terms of their size, development and political-economic systems. East Asian policymakers understand that there is little that they can do to alter their neighbors’ political systems. Nor can they do much in an official way to deepen economic interdependence in the short term.
So it is natural for the region’s policymakers to focus more on institutionalization, with lively discussions regularly taking place about the region’s nascent constellation of groupings: ASEAN-plus-3, the East Asian Summit, the East Asian Community, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asia-Pacific Community, etc.
But this process has been politicized and ridden by an acute behind-the-scenes competition for influence among the major powers. Indeed, East Asia seems to lack the equivalent of major EU architects like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman — visionaries with the stature and political support needed to begin building a framework for regional peace in a time, like today, of great change.
So, for now, East Asians should be very pragmatic about institutionalizing regional affairs. Rather than spending energy on trying to build large-scale institutions covering the entire region, it would be better to focus more on smaller, issue-oriented institutions.
For example, the first successful step toward regional economic cooperation in East Asia was the Chiang Mai Initiative for international currency swaps, which followed the 1997-1998 crisis. Similarly, the six-party talks on the denuclearization of North Korea, though producing no significant results so far, remain the only useful mechanism for addressing the problem collectively.
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, could give rise to another issue-specific regional institution, this one focused on nuclear safety. For Japan’s neighbors, the International Atomic Energy Agency is not enough; their urgent worries are creating pressure to establish a regional mechanism. The coming summit between South Korea, China and Japan on May 21-22 in Tokyo, for example, will focus on nuclear safety and prepare a regime for closer regional cooperation.
With 88 nuclear power plants operating in South Korea, Japan and China, the initiative is an important one. What would happen if any of their reactors develops problems similar to those at Fukushima? Moreover, North Korea has been running its Yongbyon nuclear facility without international inspection. According to the wife of a North Korean defector who worked for 20 years as a nuclear scientist at Yongbyon, safety standards there are dangerously lax.
More broadly, only through the establishment of less ambitious, smaller-scale, and functionally oriented institutions can momentum be built for a regional framework for peace.
After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the EU — rooted in the post-war European Coal and Steel Community — began with similar small steps toward integration.
Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea’s foreign minister in 2003-2004, is professor of international relations at Seoul National University. 2011 Project Syndicate