Challenges to peace in East Asia by Jordi Urgell

2. Nov 2009

This article attempts to contribute to the discussion about the emerging concept of ‘East Asian Peace’, which in its narrower formulation refers to a dramatic decline in the number of battle deaths from 1979 onwards. By using the data on armed conflicts and peace processes from the School for a Culture of Peace at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the following article raises some academic questions that need further research.

Although there is a clear decline in warfare and battle-related deaths in East Asia since 1979, there are some issues in the discussion around the concept of East Asian Peace that need further research. While the number of active armed conflicts is already very high, especially in Southeast Asia , the several cases of latent, low-intensity or non-resolved conflict in East Asia increase the risk of warfare in the region. Moreover, the protracted character of many of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region – their duration is significantly higher than the world average – seems to illustrate the complexity of the disputes in East Asia. Finally, there are two more issues that need to be explained. First, is the reduction of battle deaths since 1979 attributable to economic, political or geostrategic systemic change or is it due to the fact that the armed groups no longer have the military capacity to pose a threat to the national security of the East Asian states? Second, why have there been so few peace agreements during the period of the ‘East Asian Peace’?

The many active and potential armed conflicts

While Northeast Asia has not had any major wars since the 80s, Southeast Asia continues to be one of the regions in the world with the highest number of armed conflicts – understood, according to the School for a Culture of Peace, to be any confrontation involving regular or irregular armed forces in which the continued and organised use of violence causes at least 100 battle-related deaths in the course of a year and has a serious impact on the human security of the population[SP1] . According to the School for a Culture of Peace data, there are currently five active armed conflicts in the region: one in southern Thailand, one in Burma and three in the Philippines – the Government against the New People’s Army (NPA), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group. If, as suggested by some authors, North East India is considered a part of Southeast Asia – for geographic, historical, and demographic reasons – then the number of active armed conflicts increases to seven due to the disputes in the states of Assam and Manipur. Then Southeast Asia alone would have 25% of all active armed conflicts in the world, and surpass regions like South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan (northeast and Baluchistan) and India (Kashmir and the communist insurgents of the CPI-M); the Great Lakes and Central Africa: DR Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Uganda; the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan (Darfur and South); the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Israel/Palestine; Europe: Turkey and the Russian regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia; Latin America: Colombia; and West Africa: Nigeria.

In addition to the active wars, there are many other cases of latent or unresolved conflicts. In the last decades there has been a significant number of relatively sudden outbreaks of violence, such as those in Kalimantan in 1997, Maluku and Sulawesi in 2000 and 2001, Southern Thailand in 2004, Timor-Leste in 2006, Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. In other cases, the potential for conflict stems from long-standing international disputes, such as between China and Taiwan, North and South Korea and, to a lesser extent, the claimants to the Spratly Islands. There is also the territorial disagreement between Thailand and Cambodia over the access to the temple of Preah Vihear. Other non-resolved, long standing, internal disputes are the self-determination conflict in West Papua (Indonesia), the repression of the Hmong minorities in Laos because of their support to the US in the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. Even in those cases that were settled through a peace or ceasefire agreement – with the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines in 1996, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka in Aceh in 2005 and with several armed groups in Burma and Northeast India during the 1990s – new episodes of violence have often occurred and the risk of renewed conflict has not completely disappeared. Finally, there are several countries whose political stability is threatened by massive demonstrations (Thailand), frequent rumours about military coups d’état (the Philippines) or the holding of elections boycotted by the internal opposition and the international community (Burma).

Long conflicts, short peace

According to the data from the School of Peace Culture[LH2] [i], the average duration of the active armed conflicts in East Asia (31 years) is significantly higher than the average duration of the armed conflicts in the rest of the world (17 years). Several factors could explain this. Firstly, most of the conflicts in the region revolve around identity and self-determination issues, and are therefore more difficult to resolve than power- or resource-based conflicts. Secondly, many of the ongoing conflicts in Southeast Asia are closely related to the formation of the current states during the decolonization process. Some minorities, like the Acehnese and the Papuans in Indonesia, the Moros in the Philippines, the Karen in Burma or the Nagas in Northeast India, have strongly opposed their inclusion in the newly independent countries claiming illegal transfers of sovereignty, fears of repression or internal colonialism. Thirdly, the fact that many countries in East Asia were ruled by authoritarian regimes during most of the second half of the 20th century has prevented these armed conflicts from being resolved through negotiation and peace agreements. Fourth, with a few exceptions, the international community has not been involved in peace-making or conflict-prevention activities in the region as most of the conflicts in East Asia are do not feature in mass media and do not enter the international agenda, or because almost all the governments, and even the ASEAN, have traditionally rejected any outside interference as a violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Considering the very few peace agreements that have been signed in East Asia over the last three decades, it seems that the decline in warfare in the region cannot be attributed to an increase in peace making capacity, but only to a certain degree of conflict avoidance. To synthesize, three kinds of agreements have been reached in East Asia since 1979: a) international agreements, e.g., between China and India in 1993, 1996 and 2005; between Indonesia and Malaysia in 2002; and between North and South Korea b) internal peace agreements, e.g., concerning Mindanao 1996; Cordillera 1986; Cambodia 1991; Sulawesi and Maluku 2001 and 2002 c) internal ceasefire agreements, e.g, in Burma and Northeast India, as well as the 2003 agreement between the MILF and the government of the Philippines. Although some of these agreements have successfully reduced the mortality rates in the region, in general terms they have either not addressed the root causes of conflict (like the ceasefire agreements with the ethnic armed groups in Burma and Northeast India), or they have not been fully implemented (like the 1996 peace agreement in Mindanao) and have thus not removed the risk of fresh outbreaks of violence.


Depending on the meanings attached to peace, diff
erent views of the situation in East Asia emerge. It can be argued that the governments in the region have managed the conflicts in a way that has prevented them from escalating to the stage of open violence, and that this has kept the number of casualties low – in comparison with East Asia before 1979 and with other world regions after 1979. However, there is also an alternative, more pessimistic view that regards these latent conflicts as a constant danger and emphasizes that East Asia has not been able to resolve its deep-rooted conflicts in a sustainable way, so violence may easily flare up again and spread.

Whatever the truth, further research is needed on the factors behind the dramatic decline in battle-related deaths from 1979 onwards. One plausible explanation may be that political, economical and geopolitical structural changes have created systemic conditions more conducive to peace. An alternative explanation, however, is that the non-state armed groups in East Asia have lost some of their former military strength to launch major attacks on the state. With the exception of the MILF and the NPA in the Philippines, all the armed groups in the region are small and factionalized – Abu Sayyaf, as well as the dozens of outfits operating in Northeast India and Southern Thailand, or old and ill-equipped -the OPM in West Papua, the MNLF in the Philippines, the KNU, the KNPP or the SSA-S in Burma, the ULFA or the NSCN in Northeast India. The reduction in the military capacity of the armed opposition groups is probably related to the end of the Cold War when most guerrillas stopped receiving economic, logistical and political support from foreign countries, and to the ‘Good Neighbour Policy’ prompted by the increase in regionalism and trade – the ‘liberal peace’ – during the 1990s.


[i] School for a Culture of Peace, /Alert 2009. Report on conflicts, human rights and peacebuilding/, Icaria Editorial, Barcelona, 2009.



Jordi Urgell is researcher at the School for a Culture of Peace

(Autonomous University of Barcelona). His teaching and research areas

include conflict analysis, peace negotiations and resolution of

self-determination struggles. He has done field research in conflict

areas in Latin America and Asia, like in India, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand.


 [SP1]Whose definition is this? Compare to the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset which defines conflict as: “a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths.”

 [LH2]Please add reference: autor/editor, year of publication, full title, place of publication