Thoughts on East Asia

I’m following a class at Harvard, on The Governance and International Politics of World Regions. I have to write a number of articles for this course, each connected to a particular class, also meaning each connected to a particular region.
The class on East Asia, roughly Japan, Taiwan, the Koreas, with spillovers into China and Russia, to me felt like it warranted a response, in part because of how the US is seen as an influencer in the region. Below, a slightly adapted version of my thoughts.

East Asian integration, and the role of the US

Foot and Goh mention it early in their article The international relations of east Asia: There is good reason to believe that DHC are characteristic of other regions, too. That is, not just, as per what is really their claim, of East Asia.

DHC stands for ‘Duality’, ‘Hybridity’, and ‘Contingency’. Duality for the growing economic integration and prosperity, paired with increased security tensions. Hybridity for the mix of indigenous, western, and global norms and systems. Contingency for the need to balance uncertain outcomes with alternatives, due to duality and hybridity.

A reasonable take, but one that, indeed, in at least some degree will apply to anyone, anywhere, in any situation. The degrees of D, H, and C will just vary from place to place, from sub-region to sub-region, from time to time.

To understand East Asia, they say, we need a study, leaving existing paradigms aside, with a focus on process, not outcomes. And we need research frameworks sensitive to dualistic tensions, or opposing dynamics, where individual actors are driven by conflicting objectives, and norms.

This is done, they say, using a ‘conjunctions analytics framework, with a focus on where the regional/global meets the local/regional, highlighting ‘content’, ‘boundaries’, and ‘change’.

This also seems reasonable, but examples they use to highlight this, like that East Asian states that appear to support US primacy might do so because this is currently useful, seem to be blind to the fact that this kind of realism is, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the norm in international politics. For one, America itself supported, say, Saddam Hussein when it was useful, and did not support him when it wasn’t.

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The authors refer to Acharya (2014), claiming that Asia’s security is based on a model of ‘consociation’, a fancy word for a mix of power-sharing and mutual accommodation. To me, this sounds a lot like a description of the inner workings of the EU, even if Acharya disagrees, and more so, of many loosely organised cooperations of nation states.
Then, the authors refer back to earlier work of Goh, suggesting a ‘layered hierarchical order’ in East Asia which to me also sounds like a description that can apply to the EU in terms of where ‘real’ power lies within the union. The only difference being, perhaps, that power shifts in East Asia have been more noticeable in the last few decades, than they have been in the EU.

On security, Foot and Goh use the example of China, economically growing but also modernising militarily, used in part to tackle domestic instabilities and humanitarian disasters, and to build regime security, but not necessarily increasing military tension (in the region). Except that Lind, in Geography and the Security Dilemma in Asia, writing five years before Foot and Goh, takes a different stance, highlighting the rising military tensions in the region exactly due to China’s rising military ambitions, which to me seems a more reasonable take.

The article’s final part on how coalitions, perhaps in general, deal with external threats to economic or political survival, states they might crack down, shift to a more international focus, strengthen economic relationships favouring the status quo, or break out in a more globalist direction. 

The authors continue, listing a few examples, including Vietnam, China, and Indonesia, where they are perhaps not wrong, but seem to fail to explain how these countries’ trajectories are uniquely East Asian. 

The earlier mentioned Lind reasonably identifies in the maritime geography of East Asia a powerful defence dominance, with a ‘dark side’ (sic) being that it makes it very challenging for the US to project its power in the region. 

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It is difficult for me to presume that Lind would use the term ‘dark side’ to describe the difficulties of, say, Russia, projecting its power into countries in Eastern Europe, suggesting Lind’s mindset is somewhat dressed up with neo-colonial drapes. 

Reading on, Lind talks about East Asian distrust towards Japan for its past aggression and human rights violations, and, through that, the necessity of forceful US power projection in the region. It is hard to not also read this as justification for the broad mistrust and pushback against American activities outside its own borders.

Victor Cha, in an anecdote at the start of Powerplay: The origins of the American alliance system in Asia recounts an example of what sounds like American realpolitik: With the emergence of the EAS, the East Asia Summit, “the first true indigenously created regional institution”, a US official said that it is “a bad idea whose time has come”, there being some realisation that it was time (in 2010) for the US to take a step back in the region from its role as leading an ‘informal empire’.

The US’s realpolitik, if existing, is underscored by Cha’s own analysis that if small powers try to control a great power, multilateralism works, and if great powers seek control over smaller ones, bilateral control is more effective and efficient. The US, in East Asia, ended up with multiple bilateral relationships, the center of a ‘hub-and-spokes’ model, suggesting a policy based on opportunism, not conviction. Cha defines the US approach in East Asia as ‘powerplay’, which is a bit like saying the US wanted to have the most control at the lowest cost, presumably to avoid ‘entrapment’ as their objective.

Interestingly, Izumikawa in Network Connections and the Emergence ofthe Hub-and-Spokes Alliance System in East Asia states does not concur that the US purposefully sought out bilateral relations, stating that “the historical record reveals that the United States desired and sought a multilateral alliance in East Asia until the early 1960s”, more in congruence with European integration.

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Izumikawa specifically dismisses opposing claims by others; Katzenstein’s argument that the lack of a collective identity between the United States and its Asian allies (which Cha properly labels as ‘racism’) had been an important cause of the absence of a multilateral alliance; Acharya’s of the region-specific, Asian, norm which prioritises the nonintervention aspect of state sovereignty; Dufeld’s, in that the historical memories of Japan’s atrocities before and during World War II made other states in the Asia-Pacic reluctant; And Cha’s powerplay argument, in that they overlook the Eisenhower administration’s continued efforts to create a multilateral alliance even after establishing bilateral alliances in East Asia.

Specifically, Izumikawa points to Japan’s unwillingness to provide security regionally as a major driver for the US to maintain a strong security-oriented presence based on the multiple bilateral agreements.

To me, Izumikawa’s dismissal of these other theories seems a bit too convenient, as what appears more likely, was that all factors played a role up to a certain level, while perhaps the US’ early ambition to establish multilateral cooperation was abandoned for the lack of feasibility. To me, Katzenstein, Acharya, Dufeld and Cha all make valid points. However, not one of their justifications would likely have been the sole reason for failed multilateral agreements, so shortly after the war.

Either way, none seem to put much emphasis on the relative lack of integration of East Asian states, after the second world war, as well as the vastly different geographical scale, compared to mainland Europe; East Asia has no relevant micro nations, distances are much larger, economic integration at the time was insignificant.
All these could count as justifications for national leaders to not pursue close multilateral integration, so having little choice but to deal with the de-facto regional hegemon at the time, the United States.