Asian power shift has echoes of pre-war failures

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Whether east Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to 19th-century European balance-of-power politics than to the stable Europe of today.

Witness east Asia’s rising nationalism, territorial disputes and lack of effective institutional mechanisms for security co-operation. While economic interdependence among China, Japan, South Korea and the members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations continues to deepen, their diplomatic relations are as burdened by rivalry and mistrust as relations among European countries were in the decades prior to the First World War.

A common characteristic is a power shift. Back then, Great Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since unification in 1871. Similarly, at least in terms of economic capability, the United States and Japan seem to have begun a process of decline relative to China. Major power shifts define eras in which key political leaders are likely to make serious foreign-policy mistakes. Poor management of international relations at such critical junctures has often led to major wars.

Historically, rising powers tend to become too confident too soon, which frightens their neighbours. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Otto von Bismarck as chancellor in 1890, less than 20 years after the formation of the Second Reich, and began to destroy Bismarck’s carefully crafted alliance network. His rough diplomacy frightened France, Britain and Russia, making it easier for them to unite against Germany. China’s new diplomatic assertiveness in 2010 – closely following the eruption of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s – recalled that of Wilhelmine Germany. In both cases, insecurity resulted not from an external threat, but from top policymakers’ own actions.

In 2010, I was relieved when a key Chinese leader, state councillor Dai Bingguo, announced that China would adhere to the path of peaceful development. But the rhetoric of some Chinese, concerning the South China Sea and other disputed sovereignty claims, suggests not everyone in the leadership is committed to such a path.

The extent to which the country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, takes into account the insecurity felt by China’s neighbours will be one of the key variables influencing east Asia’s security environment in the years ahead. America’s foreign policy will be another key factor. If the US pursues a predominantly confrontational approach, east Asian politics will inevitably become polarised. America’s “pivot to Asia” might have been necessary from its point of view, given the concerns of its Asian allies about China. But, unless the US wants a Cold War-style confrontation in Asia, it must try harder to engage China in shaping a viable regional security structure.

A confrontational US approach toward China, moreover, would imply an additional destabilising factor: Japan might become much bolder than necessary in its foreign policy. After Wilhelm II stopped engaging Russia in the 1890s, bilateral relations worsened, which provided his ally, Austria, diplomatic carte blanche in dealing with Serbia – and, more important, Serbia’s Russian patron. Thus, Wilhelm unintentionally contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914.

There are worrying signs already of a Japanese miscalculation. New prime minister Shinzo Abe is reportedly considering renouncing the Kono Statement of 1993, which acknowledged that the Japanese military had raped and enslaved Asian and European women during the Second World War. If he does so, then relations with South Korea and China will suffer serious damage.

In contrast to its multilateral efforts in Europe, the US created a hub-and-spoke security framework – formed by US-centred bilateral alliances – in Asia following the Second World War. One result is that no direct channel for security co-operation among Asian countries was ever established, which has contributed to the low level of trust in east Asia, even among close US allies. It is precisely here that South Korea, a medium-sized ally of the US, will be in a better position than north-east Asia’s bigger powers to act as a facilitator.

There is much to learn from the diplomatic failures that led to the First World War. The question for the US and east Asia’s leaders today is whether they will wake up and develop effective multilateral mechanisms for security co-operation before doing themselves serious harm.

• Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea’s foreign minister in 2003-4, is professor of international relations at Seoul National University