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Which more accurately describes the East Asian region after the end of the Cold War: ‘ripe for rivalry’ (Friedberg, 1993/94) or ‘set for stability’ (Berger, 2000)?

The end of the cold war in the early 1990s brought an end to two decades of antagonistic bipolar world order. Despite the apparent easing of tensions, the end to the standoff between the US and the USSR was not welcomed by all. In East Asia, the prospect of a consequential American retrenchment served to greatly increase anxiety in the region, with the prospect of historical rivalries that had hitherto be reigned in since the 1950s being once again unleashed upon the diplomatic and military stage. Speaking from a realist perspective, Friedberg (1993/94) calculated that the region was now ‘Ripe for Rivalry’, positing that an unstable multipolar system would emerge to fill the vacuum. However, in response to this, Berger (2000) used those same realist arguments to demonstrate precisely the opposite, that is, that post-Cold War East Asia was ‘Set for Stability’. He also stated that by far the greatest threat to the current status quo was not the factors indicated by realists (such as a lack of interregional commerce), but rather, “the peculiar construction of national identity and interest on the part of the chief actors in the region”, which could lead to disastrous conflict-inducing miscalculations (Berger, 1993/94, 420). The situation is indeed complex, as both arguments contain valid points, and in order to reach a legitimate conclusion the findings of research employing both structural and constructive security theories must be considered.

In Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War, Mearsheimer (1990) describes a hypothetical situation in post-Cold War Europe in which multi-polarity has taken a grip. His realist approach predicts a grim scene unfolding, in which the increased opportunity for miscalculation leads to instability on all fronts. In addition to this, the removal of the huge arsenals of nuclear weapons see the apparent costs of waging war decrease significantly, thus making it a far more attractive option for expansionists (Mearsheimer, 1990).

The non-realisation of this catastrophic scenario in Europe has led some realist scholars to look for mitigating circumstances to explain why events did not turn-out as predicted. Friedberg (1993/94) points to two key areas where such factors may be found. The first concerns the internal stability of the states involved. The majority of nations in Europe are democracies, which according to Democratic Peace Theory, are not likely to declare war on one another. Furthermore, the relatively equal distribution of wealth results in less internal instability, which in turn negates the likelihood of states carrying out suicidal expansionist missions in a bid to distract public attention from domestic woes (Friedberg, 1993/4).

The second set of mitigating factors fall under the category of linkages. By that, scholars such as Friedberg (1993/94, 13) are referring to the lengthy process of ‘family therapy’ that took place post World War Two (lasting throughout the Cold War period and beyond), when a whole array of European institutions were established, and through which a myriad of bilateral and multilateral security and economic agreements were made. In addition to that, they state that Europe’s ‘shared culture’ nullifies strong feelings of nationalism, resulting in citizens identifying themselves more as ‘European’ than (for example) ‘French’ or ‘German’ (Friedberg, 1993/4).

Having established the reasons why Europe did not fall foul of the pitfalls of a multipolar system of governance, Friedberg (1993/94) then applies the model to East Asia - with devastating results. With few exceptions, the region is shown to be lacking in all the mitigating factors that Europe benefited from.

Referring to a ‘common culture’, he points out that many of the nations, especially those in the north-east, regard themselves as ‘racially different’ from their neighbours. With nationalist sentiments showing no signs of waning, it would seem that the prospect of a shared Asian identity remains remote. The only common history shared by the region – that of being part of a Chinese-centred Confucianist tributary system, is now centuries in the past, and essentially  irrelevant to today’s capitalist world. Without a common dream of a united, harmonious Asia, the establishment of the kinds of institutions necessary for full regional integration (such as the European Union) seem distant (Friedberg, 1993/94, 24). Coupled with this is the huge difference in state ideologies that can be seen across the region, from the ‘democracies’ of Japan and South Korea to the totalitarian regimes of Myanmar and North Korea. Meanwhile, domestic strife is rife: Indonesia, the Philippines and China are but three examples of nations suffering from separatist insurgency movements. On an inter-state level, territorial disagreements (perhaps partly fuelled by efforts to deflect attention from domestic problems) are common too, with virtually all nations involved in some kind of border dispute (Friedberg, 1993/4; Alagappa, 1998). The Spratly Islands, a cluster of rocks and atolls situated in disputed waters in the South China Sea, have seen frequent clashes between littoral nations claiming sovereign rights over them (and by default the gas and oil reserves that lie below) (Sharpe, 2003).

In seeking to further demonstrate why East Asia will fall victim to the “intrinsically unstable” nature of a multipolar system, Friedberg (1993/94, 9) argues that the region is lacking in many of the interstate-links that have helped to build European solidarity. Whilst it is true that the institution-building process is prone to setbacks (the current refusal by China to meet with Japan and South Korea being a typical example [Japan Times, 2005]), significant progress has been made, most notably due to the increasing influence of the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The realist fear that a post-Cold War US would no longer see the need to maintain a significant military presence in East Asia has since turned out be unfounded, with US policy having changed very little in over two decades. Indeed, the 1990’s saw only a 20% reduction in the number of US military personnel deployed in East Asia from the previous decade, despite the collapse of its Soviet enemy (The Heritage Foundation, 2005).

It is here that the realist argument, based upon the concept of an ‘intrinsically unstable’ multipolar system, starts to fall apart, as it is simply irrelevant to the situation on the ground. The continuing presence of an estimated 800,000 US army personnel ensures that belligerent nations are kept in check, whilst the security umbrella that they provide means that nations that may otherwise feel the necessity to devote precious resources to arming themselves against their neighbours can instead concentrate on economic reform. Perhaps the biggest benefit to regional security provided by the US presence is its nullifying effect upon Japan’s necessity to rearm, a prospect that China finds highly alarming (Xinbo, 2000). The fact is, is that whilst the US remains in the region, the realists’ anarchic nightmare is unlikely to be fulfilled.

From a liberal perspective, the rate of interdependent economic growth also gives grounds for optimism, with the volume of interregional trade having increased from a third to over a half of all transactions carried out in 1985 and 1992 respectively (Berger, 1993/94, 417). As economic ties increase, so do the potential costs of war. China, with a huge and fast-growing economy to support, depends heavily upon Foreign Direct Investment to carry out the changes necessary for modernisation (Lardy, 1995). Pragmatic reasoning dictates that any attempt at territorial expansionism by the Chinese would result in crippling economic repercussions.

The same is true of the other potential regional hegemon, Japan. Were it to revoke Article 9 of its peace constitution and attempt to carry out a program of imperial expansionism, the resulting loss in energy supplies would soon bring the nation to its knees. In addition to this, due to its wartime legacy, such aggressive actions would almost inevitably result in the regrouping of its historical enemies, a sobering prospect for the most militant of leaders (Berger, 1993/94).

In responding to the issue of a lack of democracy in the region, liberals may point out that whilst it is the case that totalitarian regimes do remain, the general trend seems to be towards a democratic governing style. Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan have all seen advancements in this area; meanwhile, membership of regional and international organisations aimed at increasing cooperation between nations continues to grow. The most prominent amongst these is the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which, since its foundation in 1967, has provided an opportunity for ministers of its nine member states to meet with a view to promoting the economic development of the region (ASEAN Secretariat, 2005; East Asia Study Group, 2002). ASEAN is unique in that it primarily functions through informal, low level meetings aimed at building confidence and trust between members, rather than through establishing a strict legal framework to which all must adhere. With its policy of non-interference in domestic matters and the non-use of force to settle disputes, it has enjoyed some success in creating closer ties in the region where other organisations may have failed (Sharpe, 2003). Projects undertaken by ASEAN include those in the fields of environmental protection, education and academic research, inter-regional investment and free-trade agreements; all of these also aid the process of the establishment of an ‘Asian identity’. Spin-off organisations of ASEAN which have also contributed significantly to regional development and stability include the ASEAN Regional Forum (encompassing 22 nations both within and outside East Asia, primarily concerned with security issues), and ASEAN+3, involving the ASEAN nations and Japan, China and South Korea (Bessho, 1999; Sharpe, 2003; Terada, 2003; ASEAN Secretariat, 2005). In terms of Asia-Pacific co-operation, the majority of East Asian states have signed up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which, like ASEAN, does not set legally binding obligations, but rather encourages co-operation through both formal and informal dialogue, and decisions based on consensus (APEC Secretariat, 2005). Together, these institutions enable East Asian nations to deal with potential conflicts in a non-confrontational manner. By building up trust between nations they are aiding the slow process of the construction of an ‘Asian Identity’, to match that apparently enjoyed by Europeans.

Based on this evidence, a liberalist would predict that taking into account the huge economic incentives that East Asian nations have for co-operation, the presence of a stabilising US military force, and the numerous links that are being formed at both ministerial and non-ministerial level, the region is ‘Set for Stability’ (Berger, 2000). Whilst the pessimistic realist argument is correct in highlighting the dangers of existing inter-regional conflicts and the rise of an as yet unknown quantity in the form of China, it neglects to acknowledge mitigating factors which, although currently far weaker than those seen in Europe, nevertheless do exist and will grow in strength with time, possibly to the extent that cross-border warfare will never again be considered as a viable option for asserting state authority.

However, as constructivist analysts are quick to point out, the situation is not so clear-cut. They argue that the biggest threat to security cannot be assessed using pragmatic reasoning, as it lies not in the realm of logical thought but rather in the murky depths of (sometimes flawed) self-perception on the part of regional actors. A primary example of this would be that of the Japanese in the Second World War, who, believing they were racially and spiritually superior to others set out on an ultimately suicidal mission to conquer all of East Asia. With a historically frustrated China on the rise, and the continued presence of the secretive nuclear power of North Korea keeping the region on edge, it is conceivable that widespread conflict could break out with no prior warning. The Taiwan issue also threatens the current uneasy peace, as China has made it clear that it considers the matter to be a purely domestic affair (People’s Daily, 2005). It is an unfortunate truth that in times of high tension, objective reasoning is discarded, and decisions based on flawed ideological thinking are made (Berger, 2000).

To conclude, one could state that an analysis of the situation in East Asia that employs realist or liberalist theoretical frameworks demonstrates that for the time being, the region is set to continue on the road to economic integration and political cooperation, i.e. it is ‘set for stability’. However, the constructivist approach suggests that the real risks to security lie not in a potential change to a multilateral system, but rather, in the minds of regional actors with subjective memories and a desire for retribution – thus meaning that the possibility of war breaking out can never be fully dismissed.

References and Bibliography

Alagappa, Muthiah (ed.) (1998), Asian Security Practice, Stanford California, Stanford University Press.

APEC Secretariat (2005), History – Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Singapore: APEC Secretariat. Available from <> (Updated 2005, Accessed 05/12/2005 22:51).

ASEAN Secretariat (1976), The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat. Available from < > (Updated 03/2005, Accessed 04/12/2005 16:13).

Berger, Thomas (2000), “Set for Stability? Prospects for conflict and cooperation in East Asia”, in Review of International Studies, Vol. 26, 405-428.

Bessho, Koro (1999), Identities and Security in East Asia, London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Dupont, Alan (1998), The Environment and Security in Pacific Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

East Asia Study Group (2002), Final Report of the East Asia Study Group, Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat. Available from <> (Updated 2005, Accessed 04/12/2005 15:18).

Europa (2004), The European Economic Area (EEA) - Overview, Brussels: Europa. Available from <> (Updated 10/2004, Accessed 04/12/2005 23:15).

Friedberg, Aaron (1993/94), “Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia” in International Security Vol. 18 (3), 5-33.

Heritage Foundation (2005), Global U.S. Troop Deployment, 1950-2003, Washington: The Washington Foundation. Available from <> (Updated 2005, Accessed 05/12/2005 17:59).

Japan Times (2005), China kills summit with Japan, S. Korea, Tokyo: Japan Times. Available from <> (Updated 05/12/2005, Accessed 05/12/2005 01:22).

Japanese Diet (1946), “The Imperial Japanese Constitution” cited in The Constitution of Japan, Ottawa: William F. Maton. Available from <> (Updated 2004, Accessed 05/12/2005 19:57).

Lardy, Nicholas (1995), “The Role of Foreign Trade and Investment in China’s Economic Transformation” in The China Quarterly, No.144, Special Issue: China’s Transitional Economy, 1065-1082.

Mearsheimer, John (1990), “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War” in International Security Vol. 15 (1), 5-56.

People’s Daily (2003), China joins Treaty of Amity, Cooperation in Southeast Asia, Beijing: People’s Daily. Available from <
125556.shtml> (Updated 09/10/2003, Accessed 04/12/2005 16:23).

People’s Daily (2005), Official: No foreign meddling with Taiwan Question, Beijing: People’s Daily. Available from <> (Updated 05/12/12005, Accessed 06/12/2005 00:26).

Sharpe, Samuel (2003), “An ASEAN Way to Security Cooperation in Southeast Asia?”  in The Pacific Review Vol 16 (2), 231-250.

United Nations (2005), List of Members, New York: United Nations. Available from <> (Updated 2005, Accessed 05/12/2005 21:28).

Xinbo, Wu (2000), “The Security Dimension of Sino-Japanese Relations: Warily Watching One Another” in Asian Survey Vol. 40 (2), 296-310.

Examples include the EEC (European Economic Community); EC: (European Community); EU: (European Union); EEA: (European Economic Area) (Europa, 2004)

The deployment of two US carriers to the Straits of Taiwan during the 1995 Taiwan Crisis, in which China sought to pressurise its ‘renegade state’ into not embarking upon a drive for independence, demonstrated that the US was prepared to intervene should the present order in the region be threatened by hostile military actions (Berger, 2000).

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes…” (Japanese Diet, 1946)

Japan currently relies on imports for 90% of its oil, much of this coming from the Middle East (Dupont, 1998, 28).

ASEANS founding principles include: The mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations; The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner; Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and Effective cooperation among themselves (ASEAN, 1976). An example of ASEAN’s success could be seen in 2003, when China, which is notoriously unenthusiastic about multilateral agreements, signed the Treaty of Amity, Cooperation in Southeast Asia, as put forward by ASEAN (People’s Daily, 2003).


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