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The problem with two Asias

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In Brief

Amitav Acharya’s essay, ‘Why Two Asias May be Better Than None’, uses our recent article in Foreign Policy, ‘A Tale of Two Asias’, as a conceptual framework for thinking about the future of this dynamic and important region.


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But his piece misunderstands or fails to address many of our key arguments about the contradictions between what we called ‘Economic Asia’ and ‘Security Asia’.

On some points, we agree with Acharya. For example, he notes that Japan ‘started the process’ of economic integration in Asia, or what we term ‘Economic Asia,’ and ‘still plays a vital role in it’. We made precisely this point when we argued that ‘Tokyo has long been an exemplar of Economic Asia and a motive force behind the quest for greater regional economic integration’. But this only reinforces our argument about the emergence of two increasingly irreconcilable Asias.

Post-war Japan has incubated a variety of pan-Asian regional ideas and ideologies, especially with respect to Asian monetary integration. Still, if Japan — and South Korea for that matter — truly privileged economic integration over nationalism and political competition, they would surely find ways to finesse the political tensions that have increasingly hindered their cooperation.

Our principal point is that Asia’s incredible economic dynamism and growing integration are at risk because of debilitating security competition and sharpening political disputes within the region, not just between the United States and China, but among Asia’s major economies as well.

And there is a growing body of evidence that security competition risks undermining economic interchange, from attacks on and boycotts of Japanese firms in China to Beijing’s apparent use of economic levers to restrict farm trade with the Philippines over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If this is a harbinger of what is to come, it cannot possibly bode well for the region, especially in the context of a fragile global financial and economic situation. Yes, Asia’s economic links ‘have significant drivers and dimensions beyond the region’, as Acharya states, but Asian economies have become increasingly reliant on pan-Asian regional trade.

Fifty-three per cent of Asia’s trade is now conducted on an intraregional basis, and this interdependence may become more pronounced amid protracted austerity in Europe and slow growth in the United States. It is difficult, therefore, for us to understand how a sharpening of contradictions between economics and security in Asia could be, in Acharya’s words, ultimately ‘to the region’s advantage’. To the contrary, we cannot afford to presume an economic determinism that suggests that economic interdependence between the United States and China, and among Asian economies, will automatically serve as ‘conflict-mitigating mechanisms’. That is why our essay noted Norman Angell’s 1910 bestseller, The Great Illusion, which similarly argued that globalisation and economic interdependence made war in Europe obsolete.

Nor do we share Acharya’s confidence in the ‘conflict-mitigating’ power of Asia’s regional institutions. For one thing, form rather than function has been the principal driver of nearly all Asian multilateralism for more than two decades. Senior officials meet regularly through Asia’s many regional institutions, and that is a good thing. But none of these groups has truly taken collective action in the face of Asia’s most recent urgent problems. As a result, East Asia’s security challenges have not become any easier to address because these forums exist. If new groups capable of mitigating the region’s debilitating security competition are to emerge, they will need to enable those actors with the greatest capacity to tackle specific problems, and they will require a greater focus on function than on form. Sadly, security and political contradictions, what we call ‘Security Asia’, are making this harder to achieve as well.

We agree with Acharya that Asia needs a US policy that ‘pursues balancing without containment’. But after four decades during which Washington has enabled China’s rise through large-scale economic interchange, technology transfer and support for a larger Chinese role in global institutions, the idea that the United States is ‘containing China’ is fanciful.

For reasons that many are still trying to comprehend, China is itself driving many of the balancing behaviours in Asia to which Beijing so strenuously objects. Clearly, China has scared some of its neighbours silly. And that is why doors to security cooperation with the United States are now open across Asia, in ways that were simply unimaginable when we served as officials working on East Asia during the George W. Bush administration.

Some of this Chinese behaviour predates the so-called US rebalancing. China’s efforts have intensified since the Obama administration’s policy was announced, but Beijing’s forceful assertion of its nine-dotted line in the South China Sea, and its increased maritime presence in both the East and South China Seas, is having an undeniable effect on the security calculations of other states in Asia.

The reaction across the Indo-Pacific has been an increased desire to cooperate with the United States and a strong willingness to see Washington serve not as a hegemon but as a credible balancer. China has thus been a more effective enabler of America’s reinforced security role in Asia than has the US strategic rebalancing, which, in security terms, is still modest.

Ultimately, a bipolar Asia would not be a good thing. But if we aim to avoid it, then we need to address the dynamic that we have termed ‘two Asias’. The United States and China are the dominant players now shaping Asian security. Acharya describes China’s underlying strategy as ‘denial without dominance’, but this strikes us as simply wrong: Beijing’s strategy of denying access to the US Navy, if successful, would by definition leave it dominant. If others in Asia viewed China’s strategies and actions as defensive and focused solely on ‘denial’, then Beijing would not be causing such anxiety across the region. And since the United States is still viewed by most as an essential strategic balancer vital to stability, the more that security fears trump economic hopes, the more the region risks drifting into the debilitating bipolarity nobody seeks.

Put simply, competing nationalisms and the scars of national memory remain potent forces in Asia. And they risk undermining the economic gains that have done so much to promote integration, boost growth and foster opportunity. If military conflict becomes a prerequisite for China and Japan to reconcile as France and Germany did after World War II, then our ‘tale of two Asias’ has the potential to become tragedy.

Evan A. Feigenbaum is vice chairman at the Paulson Institute, University of Chicago.

Robert A. Manning is senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council of the United States.

Both served in the US Department of State from 2001 to 2009.

A version of this article was first published here in World Politics Review.

One response to “The problem with two Asias”

  1. Looking at the history of Asia since the end of WW2 and major US pullout since Vietnam. Asia has become quite a resilient and relatively peaceful. Since Vietnam only Suharto with genocide in East Timur and Recent spat seen in Japan vs China and spratly’s and SCS philippines vs China and spratlys plus paracel islands.

    On their own mostly Asians have proven they can handle most affairs on their own. SEA nations have very good reasons since 1997 financial crisis created Pan Asianism precisely because they understood not ideology but Reality that Washington Consensus is ideology and designed to benefit the west with unfettered hot money that destablize their economies.

    Amitav Acharya preference of the scenario of no complete dominance of either US or China and the resulting Peace and economic benefits is the ideal situation for Asia.

    The Author of this post is worried precisely that this situation would occur is unsurprising based on Past US Foreign Policies we all know what the US wants. Full dominance or at least the most dominant player that shape it to its interest. We own the World Principal applies.

    Based on the record since the end of WW2 and after US pullout since Vietnam. Asia has proven they have not much desire for Hegemony on any side and independence for all and Peaceful record is impressive without much help from the US as seen of missing US military involvements since Vietnam and Indonesia resulting in East Timur Genocide.

    ASEAN has wisely wanted only US security balance without choosing sides which is a great long term win for them.

    Why does the US insist they have the right to patrol off China’s Coast is again clear example of the Principal “Who Owns the World”.

    With US controls in Japan, South Korea and Philippines a pseudo US colony Asia is bound to be divided between their own interest and interest of the US. Knowing Future Growth will be concentrated in Asia the US of course wants to shape it to its advantage never mind what is good for everybody or Asia itself. They are just looking out for themselves.

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