Understanding the East Asian peace: some findings on the role of informal processes by Mikael Weissmann, University of Gothenbur

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Understanding the East Asian peace: some findings on the role of informal processes by Mikael Weissmann, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

This article will discuss why the interstate conflicts in the post-Cold War East Asian security setting have not escalated into war despite a lack of security organisations or other formalised conflict management mechanisms. It is argued that there are a number of informal processes in the region that can help explain this paradox. The article is based on the findings of the author’s doctoral project on ‘Understanding the East Asian Peace’ with focus on the role of China in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula.

 

The East Asian interstate peace since 1979 is a paradox. It has continued despite East Asia being a region with a history of militarised conflicts and many of the world’s most persistently militarised problems, including a number of unresolved flashpoints. It is also a region with a high of intraregional distrust including deep unresolved historical issues. In addition to this ther are strong nationalist tendencies and numerous ethnic conflicts across the region. The dominant research paradigm for analyses of the East Asian security setting is that of neorealism. Scholars following this paradigm have painted a gloomy picture of the future prospects of post-Cold War East Asia. They predict it to be a region of perpetual conflict. In addition to the above, neorealists also emphasise the presence of rising great powers and the shifting balance of power as causes of conflict. Still, the level of interstate violence has been very low.

 

It should be acknowledged here that other mainstream International Relations theories do not paint as dark a picture as realism, but they fail to fully account for the East Asian peace. For example, liberalism tends to either give the various institutional arrangements in East Asia more prominence than they deserve, or dismiss them simply because they are so different from the Western ones, while constructivism tends to give more credit to Asian identity building than it deserves.

 

The East Asian peace exists despite the region lacking any security organisation or other formalised mechanisms to prevent existing or potential conflicts from escalating and/or to build peace. Thus, the logical question to ask is whether there are other processes and mechanisms that can help to explain the East Asian peace. If so, what are they, and how do they work? In my forthcoming doctoral dissertation, I aim at developing an understanding of the role and impact of such cross-border interactions that go beyond formal peace-building, conflict prevention, conflict management, and conflict resolution mechanisms. An underlying hypothesis has been that a number of informal processes and related mechanisms can help explain the relative peace in East Asia.

 

The thesis takes account of the full range of informal–formal processes,ranging from those going on within formalised institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the six-party talks, through semi-formal track-two frameworks, to purely informal ones such as interaction within personal networks.

 

Understanding the East Asian peace

 

The findings concerning China’s role in keeping peace in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and on the Korean Peninsula confirm the underlying hypothesis that various informal processes and related mechanisms can help explain the relative peace. Virtually all of the identified processes and related mechanisms have been informal rather than formal. It should be noted that it is not necessarily the same types of processes that have been of importance in each and every case. In different ways these informal processes have demonstrated that the relative lack of formalised security structures and/or mechanisms have not prevented the region from moving towards a stable peace. Informal processes have been sufficient both to prevent tension and disputes from escalating into war and for moving East Asia towards a stable peace.

 

Elite interactions – i.e. personal networks, track-two diplomacy, and other forms of elite socialisation – have been essential both on the official and unofficial levels. Firstly, these interactions have been essential for trust and confidence building, which is of high importance in a region where trust and confidence building are not only key features of the accepted diplomatic norm, but are also deeply embedded in the regional cultures and societies. Elite interactions have been essential for peace in all three cases. They have also been important for the possibility to use back-channel negotiations, something that has been beneficial for conflict prevention across the cases. Elite interactions have also been important for the development of multilateralism and the building of peaceful relations. They have also been essential for enhancing the understanding of the other side(s). Understanding is important, because without an understanding of the others’ thinking, perceived interests and intentions it is very difficult to prevent conflict escalation, and virtually impossible to build a longer-term peace. Understanding is also important to be able to overcome the range of historical issues.

 

Economic integration and interdependence

 

(EII) and the interlinked functional cooperation have been important, as they have pushed positive relations towards a durable peace. This includes not only increasing cooperation and economic growth and development, but also developing a feeling of security as the economic integration and interdependence decreases the fear of others. EII and functional cooperation have also encouraged and created a need for diplomatic relations and intergovernmental communication and agreements. They have also been catalysts for all forms of cross-border contacts including being a driving force for regionalisation. This is clearly seen in Sino–ASEAN relations and the ASEAN+3 process, but also across the Taiwan Strait where it was part of the cause of the shift in power in the 2008 elections.

 

Together with the Chinese acceptance of multilateralism and its shift from big-power oriented foreign policy to a focus on soft power and the building of good relations with China’s neighbours, EII has been essential for the medium to longer-term overarching peace-building process in East Asia. In this context, what has been of particular importance for peace is both the high degree of economic interdependence that has developed, as well as the forces of the pan-regional ‘economics first’ policy focus. Here, the general acceptance of the ASEAN Way as the norm for diplomacy, with its emphasis on conflict avoidance, has worked together with the economic incentives in preventing conflict escalations and building peace.

 

A common feature of most of the processes is that they can be understood as aspects or manifestations of the East Asian regionalisation process. For example, elite interactions are in a sense both manifestations of, and catalysts for, regionalisation; these forms of interactions are an unavoidable result or regionalisation, while at the same time, elite interactions are in themselves important for driving regionalisation. The regionalisation process has been of foremost importance for virtually all East Asian states’ overall foreign policy interests and behaviours.

 

It has been important for ASEAN’s attempt to socialise China into becoming a responsible big power in the regional community, in order to ensure that the Chinese interests would gradually become integrated with the interests of East Asia as a whole. Over time, China has re-interpreted its role and interests as a rising power and has engaged in the ASEAN+3 process and embraced multilateralism and the ASEAN Way. This has been a reciprocal process between China’s ‘soft power diplomacy’ and ASEAN’s ‘constructive engagemen
t’ policies. It is difficult to say what has caused what, i.e., to what extent China has been socialised by ASEAN to accept current practices and to become what seems to be a more benign power, and to what extent the Chinese policies have influenced ASEAN’s increased acceptance of China as a partner and a (relatively) benign, peacefully rising power. It is most likely that it is not an either–or question, but a transformation where there have been synergy effects between ‘soft-power diplomacy’ and “constructive engagement”. Regionalisation has also ensured that China (and others) adheres to an ‘economic first’ foreign policy focus, and that the overall peaceful relations in East Asia have developed and have been institutionalised. Although multilateralism and institutionalisation have only been identified in the South China Sea and Sino–ASEAN relations, they still have a spill over effect on Chinese behaviour in other conflicts. If China would behave badly in one case, it would risk losing its laboriously built trust towards ASEAN.

 

Lastly, the USA has contributed to peace by working as a frame for acceptable behaviour, safeguarding against conflict escalation over the war threshold. It has helped to ensure that negative relations do not escalate into or beyond (temporary) crises. This is important, as little has been done to address and resolve underlying incompatibilities, tensions, and disputes. By its presence, the USA also gives space for the range of other processes beneficial for peace to develop in a positive direction. In short, as the USA is perceived as a safeguard against violent confrontations, the regional parties can focus on developing good relations and continue to increase cooperation in the economic and other spheres.

 

Mikael Weissmann is a doctoral candidate in Peace and Development Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and the holder of one of the Swedish School of Advanced Asia Pacific Studies’ (SSAAPS) Ph.D. Fellowships. Mr. Weissmann has published on conflict prevention and peace building in East Asia. He has also written on informal networks, early warning and conflict management theory.

 

by: Mikael Weissmann, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. This article will discuss why the interstate conflicts in the post-Cold War East Asian security setting have not escalated into war despite a lack of security organisations or other formalised conflict management mechanisms. It is argued that there are a number of informal processes in the region that can help explain this paradox. The article is based on the findings of the author’s doctoral project on ‘Understanding the East Asian Peace’ with focus on the role of China in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula.

 

 

Introduction

The East Asian interstate peace since 1979 is a paradox. It has continued despite East Asia being a region with a history of militarised conflicts and many of the world’s most persistently militarised problems, including a number of unresolved flashpoints. It is also a region with a high level of intraregional distrust including deep unresolved historical issues. In addition to this there are strong nationalist tendencies and numerous ethnic conflicts across the region. The dominant research paradigm for analyses of the East Asian security setting is that of neorealism.  Scholars following this paradigm have painted a gloomy picture of the future prospects of post-Cold War East Asia. They predict it to be a region of perpetual conflict. In addition to the above, neorealists also emphasise the presence of rising great powers and the shifting balance of power as causes of conflict. Still, the level of interstate violence has been very low.

It should be acknowledged here that other mainstream International Relations theories do not paint as dark a picture as realism, but they fail to fully account for the East Asian peace. For example, liberalism tends to either give the various institutional arrangements in East Asia more prominence than they deserve, or dismiss them simply because they are so different from the Western ones, while constructivism tends to give more credit to Asian identity building than it deserves.

The East Asian peace exists despite the region lacking any security organisation or other formalised mechanisms to prevent existing or potential conflicts from escalating and/or to build peace. Thus, the logical question to ask is whether there are other processes and mechanisms that can help to explain the East Asian peace. If so, what are they, and how do they work? In my forthcoming doctoral dissertation, I aim at developing an understanding of the role and impact of such cross-border interactions that go beyond formal peace-building, conflict prevention, conflict management, and conflict resolution mechanisms. An underlying hypothesis has been that a number of informal processes and related mechanisms can help explain the relative peace in East Asia. The thesis takes account of the full range of informal-formal processes, ranging from those going on within formalised institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the six-party talks, through semi-formal track-two frameworks, to purely informal ones such as interaction within personal networks.

Understanding the East Asian peace

The findings concerning China’s role in keeping peace in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and on the Korean Peninsula confirm the underlying hypothesis that various informal processes and related mechanisms can help explain the relative peace. Virtually all of the identified processes and related mechanisms have been informal rather than formal. It should be noted that it is not necessarily the same types of processes that have been of importance in each and every case. In different ways these informal processes have demonstrated that the relative lack of formalised security structures and/or mechanisms have not prevented the region from moving towards a stable peace. Informal processes have been sufficient both to prevent tension and disputes from escalating into war and for moving East Asia towards a stable peace.

Elite interactions – i.e. personal networks, track-two diplomacy, and other forms of elite socialisation – have been essential both on the official and unofficial levels. Firstly, these interactions have been essential for trust and confidence building, which is of high importance in a region where trust and confidence building are not only key features of the accepted diplomatic norm, but are also deeply embedded in the regional cultures and societies. Elite interactions have been essential for peace in all three cases. They have also been important for the possibility to use back-channel negotiations, something that has been beneficial for conflict prevention across the cases. Elite interactions have also been important for the development of multilateralism and the building of peaceful relations. They have also been essential for enhancing the understanding of the other side(s). Understanding is important, because without an understanding of the others’ thinking, perceived interests and intentions it is very difficult to preve
nt conflict escalation, and virtually impossible to build a longer-term peace. Understanding is also important to be able to overcome the range of historical issues.

Economic integration and interdependence (EII) and the interlinked functional cooperation have been important, as they have pushed positive relations towards a durable peace. This includes not only increasing cooperation and economic growth and development, but also developing a feeling of security as the economic integration and interdependence decreases the fear of others. EII and functional cooperation have also encouraged and created a need for diplomatic relations and intergovernmental communication and agreements. They have also been catalysts for all forms of cross-border contacts including being a driving force for regionalisation. This is clearly seen in Sino-ASEAN relations and the ASEAN+3 process, but also across the Taiwan Strait where it was part of the cause of the shift in power in the 2008 elections.

Together with the Chinese acceptance of multilateralism and its shift from big-power oriented foreign policy to a focus on soft power and the building of good relations with China’s neighbours, EII has been essential for the medium to longer-term overarching peace-building process in East Asia. In this context, what has been of particular importance for peace is both the high degree of economic interdependence that has developed, as well as the forces of the pan-regional ‘economics first’ policy focus. Here, the general acceptance of the ASEAN Way as the norm for diplomacy, with its emphasis on conflict avoidance, has worked together with the economic incentives in preventing conflict escalations and building peace.

A common feature of most of the processes is that they can be understood as aspects or manifestations of the East Asian regionalisation process. For example, elite interactions are in a sense both manifestations of, and catalysts for, regionalisation; these forms of interactions are an unavoidable result or regionalisation, while at the same time, elite interactions are in themselves important for driving regionalisation. The regionalisation process has been of foremost importance for virtually all East Asian states’ overall foreign policy interests and behaviours. It has been important for ASEAN’s attempt to socialise China into becoming a responsible big power in the regional community, in order to ensure that the Chinese interests would gradually become integrated with the interests of East Asia as a whole. Over time, China has re-interpreted its role and interests as a rising power and has engaged in the ASEAN+3 process and embraced multilateralism and the ASEAN Way. This has been a reciprocal process between China’s ‘soft power diplomacy’ and ASEAN’s ‘constructive engagement’ policies. It is difficult to say what has caused what, i.e., to what extent China has been socialised by ASEAN to accept current practices and to become what seems to be a more benign power, and to what extent the Chinese policies have influenced ASEAN’s increased acceptance of China as a partner and a (relatively) benign, peacefully rising power. It is most likely that it is not an either-or question, but a transformation where there have been synergy effects between ‘soft-power diplomacy’ and “constructive engagement”. Regionalisation has also ensured that China (and others) adheres to an ‘economic first’ foreign policy focus, and that the overall peaceful relations in East Asia have developed and have been institutionalised. Although multilateralism and institutionalisation have only been identified in the South China Sea and Sino-ASEAN relations, they still have a spill over effect on Chinese behaviour in other conflicts. If China would behave badly in one case, it would risk losing its laboriously built trust towards ASEAN.

Lastly, the USA has contributed to peace by working as a frame for acceptable behaviour, safeguarding against conflict escalation over the war threshold. It has helped to ensure that negative relations do not escalate into or beyond (temporary) crises. This is important, as little has been done to address and resolve underlying incompatibilities, tensions, and disputes. By its presence, the USA also gives space for the range of other processes beneficial for peace to develop in a positive direction. In short, as the USA is perceived as a safeguard against violent confrontations, the regional parties can focus on developing good relations and continue to increase cooperation in the economic and other spheres.

Mikael Weissmann is a doctoral candidate in Peace and Development Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and the holder of one of the Swedish School of Advanced Asia Pacific Studies’ (SSAAPS) Ph.D. Fellowships.  Mr. Weissmann has published on conflict prevention and peace building in East Asia. He has also written on informal networks, early warning and conflict management theory.<

Understanding the East Asian peace: some findings on the role of informal processes by Mikael Weissmann, University of Gothenbur
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