Peace for Asia

19. Oct 2009

By Stein Tønnesson

Research Professor, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)

No Peace for Asia is the title of a famous book published by Harold Isaacs in 1947. The end of the Second World War in Japan’s surrender, he showed, did not bring peace for Asia. Instead it led to a series of civil wars and revolutionary wars in China, Indochina, Indonesia and elsewhere. When Isaacs’s book was republished in 1967, his message was even more appropriate. The world’s worst wars in the three first decades after 1945 were mainly in East Asia: the Chinese Civil War, the First Indochina War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. 1950 is the year after 1945 when the greatest number of people have been killed in war. This was because of the Korean War. The Vietnam War is the war since 1945 with the highest total number of casualties. The great majority of people killed in war during 1945-79 were East Asians. The region also saw a number of other man-made catastrophes with millions of casualties: the Chinese Great Leap Forward in 1958-61, the Indonesian massacre in 1965, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966-76, and the Cambodian genocide in 1975-78.

1979 was a turning point. The Chinese three-week invasion of Vietnam from 17 February that year – in retaliation for Vietnam’s invasion of China’s ally Kampuchea – is the last war in Asia till this day that has caused a truly significant number of casualties in a relatively short time: some 20-30,000 on each side. In the 1980s, the armed conflicts in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines would sometimes lead to several thousand battle deaths in the course of one year, but since 1988, according to the best estimates in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), not one single East Asian conflict has had more than 2,000 battle deaths in one year. Low-intensity conflicts have lingered on, or flared up, in Burma, Indonesia and Thailand, but the general tendency is that armed conflicts are diminishing in intensity in Southeast Asia. Nor have the militarized disputes in Northeast Asia led to armed fighting. While East Asia dominated global warfare in the first three decades after 1945, it is the region with the lowest number of battle deaths since 1979 (if we count all of Europe as one region, and all of the Americas as one region).  Since 1979 there has been just one major catastrophe that could be seen as man-made: the North Korean famine of 1995-97.

So from today’s viewpoint, Harold Isaacs’s book title is no longer valid. If new wars were to break out soon, then historians could speak of East Asia’s thirty years’ peace‘ in 1979-2009. Hopefully they will instead seek to explain the onset of a much longer era of peace. What kind of explanation will they find?

Since 1979 is so clearly the turning point in statistics of armed conflict in East Asia, it is tempting to seek the causes among the changes on the international scene during the 1970s. In East Asia the main change was Sino-US rapprochement. In the 1950s the Sino-Soviet alliance stood against the United States and its allies, so East Asia became the main region of cold-war confrontation. The cold war was cold in Europe, but hot in East Asia. In the 1960s, China was more radical than the Soviet Union, and the two communist states rivalled each other for supporting armed liberation struggles in Vietnam and other former European colonies. Then, when the People’s Republic of China took over China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971, when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, and after China and the United States established full diplomatic relations on 1 January 1979, China and the USA formed a de facto alliance, directed against the USSR and its client state Vietnam. Within this Sino-US alliance there was a power balance that has lasted till this day: while the USA has allowed the PRC to dominate the East Asian mainland, the PRC has tolerated US domination of East Asia’s maritime rim through naval preponderance and a system of alliances with insular and peninsular states. This could explain the ‘thirty years’ peace’ in East Asia – and make us worry when Chinese naval power grows.

In the explanation above, the main change was the realignment of China, which had to do with internal political changes in China itself. The next step in explaining the East Asian peace would therefore be to analyse the change of priorities in China’s foreign policy during the last years of Mao Zedong’s reign, and notably during the period 1976-78, when Deng Xiaoping established himself as Mao’s successor. We shall also notice the significant fact that while China was involved directly and indirectly in most of East Asia’s wars during the Mao era, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not been involved in any armed conflict since 1979 – except some fighting on the Sino-Vietnamese border during the 1980s, notably in April 1984, and a naval clash in the Spratly Islands in 1988. While much attention is given in international media to the modernization of China’s armed forces, there is not much talk about the fact that the PLA today lacks combat experience. If it is to gain such experience in the years ahead, it will most probably do so by extending its participation in UN peacekeeping operations to include combat forces, not by engaging in warfare against any of its neighbours.

When future historians discuss how to explain the onset of the ‘East Asian peace’ in 1979, there is little doubt that they will emphasize political changes in China during the 1970s. However, they will also have to struggle with the term ‘onset’. When explaining the outbreak of a war, one looks for long- and short-term causes in the period up until the moment when the war begins; what happens later is of no significance. If one explains a peace agreement, all explanatory factors will also be found in the run-up to the act of its signing, but the ‘East Asian Peace’ did not begin with a peace agreement. The ‘East Asian peace’ is not an event that took place in 1979, but a pattern of avoiding armed conflict that has lasted for thirty years since. The explanations cannot therefore be found only in events and processes from before and during 1979, but must be sought in the whole period thereafter as well. This makes explaining the ‘East Asian peace’ intellectually challenging and politically important. The explanatory effort may, if it becomes part of East Asia’s public debates, in itself contribute to prolonging the peace.

Stein Tønnesson is a research professor at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), where he served as director 2001-2009. His most recent publication is Vietnam 1946: How the War Began (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). See and