A vast revolution in military affairs is taking place across East Asia. The latest signs are Chinese President Xi Jinping’s purge of Gen. Xu Caihou, an ex-Politburo member and former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, on charges of corruption, and Japan’s “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of its Constitution to permit the country to provide military aid to its allies.

Despite the rising regional tensions that inspired these moves, China’s relations with its neighbors and the United States are not fated to lead to direct confrontation. But to avoid that outcome, the relentless march of new initiatives to meet the perceived “China threat” will require the region’s political leaders, including the Chinese, to address their disputes in new and more creative ways.

In general, there are three ways to foster international peace: deepening economic interdependence, promoting democracy and building international institutions. Unfortunately, because East Asia’s political leaders have failed to pursue the latter objective, they now find themselves playing dangerous balance-of-power games reminiscent of Europe a century ago.

Deepening economic interdependence in the wake of Asia’s 1997 financial crisis has not generated political momentum for peace and cooperation. The region’s business leaders have been unable to prevent deteriorating foreign relations from harming their interests.

By contrast, military lobbying now deeply influences foreign and defense policies — witness China’s double-digit increase in defense spending and rising U.S. arms sales in the region.

What explains this failure? International-relations theorists since Immanuel Kant have held that democracies rarely (if ever) fight one another; as a result, political leaders, such as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, have tried to promote democracy as a means to spread peace. Until recently, the U.S. seemed to have assumed that China’s engagement with Western democracies would bolster peaceful ties.

But since the 2008 financial crisis, China’s confidence in its authoritarian development model has grown stronger. Its leaders now increasingly appear to believe that a new “Beijing Consensus” of mercantilism and state intervention has replaced the old “Washington Consensus” of free trade and deregulation.

China’s ideological incompatibility with the U.S. thus is making the shift in their relative power difficult to achieve peacefully. In the late 19th century, a rising U.S. was able to cooperate with a declining Britain, owing to their shared culture and values. China’s leaders, however, tend to suspect that the U.S. is deliberately trying to undermine their country’s political stability by questioning its record on human rights and political freedoms. Meanwhile, Xi’s domestic policies seem to be taking the country ever further from Western norms.

It is this ideological divide that is undermining the development in East Asia of institutions that establish principles, rules, and decision-making procedures for the region.

While much of the West is bound together by institutions like the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe and NATO, East Asia’s main body, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is too weak to play an analogous role, leaving the region beset with unregulated rivalries.

So far, U.S. and East Asian leaders have done little beyond offering rhetorical support for the creation of multilateral security institutions. With the exception of the almost defunct six-party talks aimed at eliminating the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Asia’s powers refuse to be constrained by international rules or norms.

Instead, East Asia’s leaders resort to realpolitik. Unfortunately, unlike Europe’s 19th-century political masterminds — figures like Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, and Disraeli — who crafted durable international alliances, Asia lacks leaders willing and able to look beyond their narrow national interests.

For example, China’s leaders seem to believe that the 2008 economic crisis and the high costs of two foreign wars have left the U.S. in no position to exercise international leadership.

That may explain China’s recent foreign-policy assertiveness, particularly in its dispute with Japan over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which could be intended to probe the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Testing U.S. power in this way could prove to be a dangerous miscalculation. Though weakened economically, the U.S. remains a military superpower. Its interests in East Asia date back to the late 19th century.

Just as Britain refused to concede naval supremacy to Germany a century ago, the U.S. will not easily accept any Chinese challenge to its strategic position in the Western Pacific, especially given that so many East Asian states are pleading for U.S. protection.

China and the U.S. need to talk. Despite their economic interdependence and some 90 intergovernmental channels for bilateral dialogue, the two superpowers are caught in a perilous tug of war over interests in the East and South China Seas and the Western Pacific.

Sino-Japanese relations are particularly fraught, with two decades of economic stagnation in Japan and rapid growth in China fueling nationalist overreaction on both sides. Having become accustomed to outsourcing its security to the U.S., and despite having the world’s third-largest economy, Japan neglected to develop its own constructive diplomatic vision.

It remains to be seen whether Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation, cloaked in the language of regional cooperation, advances such a new vision.

It does not help that the U.S. wants Japan to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining Asia’s security, a position that may make sense strategically and financially but that betrays a lack of understanding of the region’s politics.

The U.S. may underestimate regional concerns over Japan’s potential remilitarization. By providing Japan with a diplomatic carte blanche, the U.S. may find itself hostage to Japanese interests while Japan becomes part of Asia’s security problem, not part of its solution.

Asia-Pacific leaders must shake off their complacency. Serious efforts and far-reaching compromises are needed to begin the process of building institutions for regional security cooperation. Otherwise, the much-heralded “Asian century,” far from bringing economic prosperity and peace, will be an age of suspicion and peril.

Yoon Young-kwan, former minister of foreign affairs and trade for South Korea, is professor of international relations at Seoul National University. © 2014 Project Syndicate/ Europe’s World

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