Modern Diplomacy
Conflicts in East Asia: How Are They Different From Europe?

Both in Europe and in East Asia, international crises periodically flare up, fraught with the threat of growing from the regional to the global level. Conflicts in international relations in East Asia manifest themselves no less, if not more, than in Europe. However, they are based on slightly different reasons than in the Occidental world, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Streltsov.

The conditional East (and East Asia, in particular) is distinguished by a much higher degree of civilisational-historical, ethno-confessional and national-psychological heterogeneity. Unlike the conditional West, which developed under the auspices of a single Christian civilisation, in East Asia such confessional and cultural groupings as Confucian-Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian coexist with each other. The forms of the socio-political system are also more diverse in East Asia: authoritarian regimes coexist there with democracies, and the scale of “authoritarianism” and “democracy” there is much wider than in the Euro-Atlantic space. Under these conditions, it turns out to be practically impossible to ensure any consensus on common “norms and rules” that should underlie the general order, which in the West yields conflict at the systemic level.

If we talk about “common values” that could become the basis of international cooperation in East Asia, they are much less obvious than in the West. For example, Asian cultures are said to prioritise group interests over the individual, order over freedom, and obligation over rights. However, in reality, ethical norms in various countries of the East can either be based on the priority of traditional social hierarchy, or be closer to Western standards, with their emphasis on egalitarianism and equality of opportunity. For this reason, building “collective” or “multilateral” security systems based on a common understanding of the principles that underlie them is a much more difficult task in the East than in Europe.

It should also be taken into account that, unlike in Europe, where crises like the Ukrainian one are associated with the problematic and ambiguous legacy of the Cold War and the post-bipolar world order, a significant proportion of the conflicts in East Asia are rooted in more distant historical eras — colonial and even pre-colonial. These include territorial disputes in the East China and South China Seas, as well as conflicts in connection with the problems of separatism, religious and ethnic extremism, especially in connection with the rise of nationalism of “non-titular nations” and the aggravation of interfaith contradictions, as well as conflicts related to so-called “historical grievances” that can be observed in the relationship between Japan, China and the states of the Korean Peninsula. Such conflicts, even if they are in a smouldering state, tend to periodically come to the surface due to increased sensitivity to them on the part of the public opinion.

Quite often, “historic conflicts” are seeded from above for domestic political reasons. Using the traumatic memory of the events of the past associated with the injustices committed against their own countries, including those that took place decades and even centuries ago, the leadership of the countries of East Asia achieves the consolidation of the population of their countries around the current government with the help of narratives of “historical grievances”, securing its loyalty. In forming an appropriate domestic political environment, such narratives become a significant factor driving confrontation in the relations between these countries and the states that are the sources of these grievances, which leads to serious diplomatic conflicts.

To introduce historical narratives into the public consciousness, a wide range of educational, media and political-ideological methods and means, which the state has at its disposal, are used. This goal is achieved through educational practices within the system of school and university education, in particular, through university programmes and school textbooks. They are reproduced in the media, the speeches of public figures and public opinion leaders, and the publications and comments of representatives of the expert and academic community. They become a powerful means for the patriotic education of the masses. Mnemonic memorials and historical museums also play an important role, designed to provide the “correct” historical education of their visitors.

For example, in China, the discourse around “historical grievances” is closely connected with the concept of the “century of humiliation” (1840-1949) and the need to revive the greatness of the country, which in modern ideology is expressed using the concept of the “Chinese dream of the great revival of the Chinese nation” — the idea of overcoming “historical injustice” in relation to China, for which the “great powers” — the states of the West and its neighbours (and above all Japan) — are responsible. The “theory of colonial exploitation” (an unambiguously negative assessment of the 1910-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule) that dominates the socio-political discourse of the Republic of Korea does not allow for a full-fledged normalisation of relations with Japan, despite the fact that both countries are America’s military and political allies and have common security threats. Similarly, the countries of Southeast Asia cannot agree with China on a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea, largely because of their centuries-old distrust of the Asian giant. There are also “historical grievances” in relations between China and the Republic of Korea, which are based on differences in the assessment of the subjectivity of Korea as an independent state in the period of the Sino-centric world.

Another source of the potential conflict in the region is the unresolved nature of many borders between the countries of East and Southeast Asia (especially maritime ones). The territorial problems of the South China and East China Seas have become a constant source of unceasing conflicts in relations between China and Japan, China and Vietnam, China and the Philippines, etc. These conflicts are connected with the legacy of the colonial system: the colonial powers set the boundaries between their overseas territories quite arbitrarily, without taking into account historical, geographical, demographic, economic and other factors — their agreements among themselves were the main criterion. In addition, the concept of “state borders” fixed by the Westphalian system did not exist in East Asia — it was simply not required within the framework of the Sinocentric vassal-tributary system. The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, by failing to specify the clear geographical coordinates of the territories that Japan abandoned at the end of World War II, and likewise failing to designate the countries in whose favour this transfer was made, in fact, consolidated the unsettled borders between Japan and its neighbouring countries (China, the Republic of Korea and the USSR) and planted a time bomb under the entire regional system of international relations. The situation here is fundamentally different from Europe, where, as a result of the post-war settlement and the conclusion of the Helsinki Final Act, which proclaimed the inviolability of borders on the continent, there are no territorial conflicts related to the results of the Second World War.

In the absence of common approaches to borders, the idea of launching some kind of a regional Helsinki process in East Asia, which would consolidate the principle of the inviolability of borders and the inadmissibility of wars over territories, is not acceptable, and therefore practically unrealisable. This creates additional problems for the security of the countries of the region, which are forced to reckon with the real possibility that the status quo may be changed through military force.

It should also be taken into account that the states of East Asia, being the product of national liberation from colonial or semi-colonial dependence on the West, value their independence and national sovereignty to a much greater extent than the European countries, which often quietly transfer part of their prerogatives, including issues of foreign policy and security, to supranational institutions, as in the case of the EU or NATO. In East Asian countries, the adoption of external obligations in the field of military security and the transfer of some sovereign rights to external entities is seen as a partial loss of sovereignty, and hence the transition to a dependent state. With a lack of value and especially moral and ethical justification for such a step, their own national interests at the national psychological level against this background have a clear priority over regional and interstate ones.

Against this background, the situation in the field of international security, which has not fundamentally changed since the Cold War, is fundamentally different from Europe. This is the notorious axis and spoke system, which is characterised by the presence of the country of the hegemon and its junior partners. The weakening of the United States and the reduction of its military presence is a process which has been observed over several decades, and it has not led to the creation of effective security mechanisms in East Asia. Regional security formats in the Afro-Asian world are purely natural dialogue and do not imply binding decisions. By virtue of their adherence to the principle of inviolability of sovereignty, the countries of the East do not want to embarrass themselves with any restrictions and lose room for manoeuvre. In addition, the effectiveness of multilateral measures in the field of security turns out to be unpredictable due to the volatility and unpredictability for the development of the international situation, fear of the emergence of new “black swans”, etc.

As the processes of deglobalisation intensify and the controllability of the global international system lessens, the trend towards autonomization of the security policy of the countries of East Asia grows. One of the strong motivators of movement in this direction was the coronavirus pandemic. The states reaffirmed their special role in responding to crises and protecting their sovereignty, using emergency methods of managing the economy in times of crisis, with a clear rejection of the possibility of international cooperation. The rise of “pandemic nationalism” has undermined the authority of the institutions of globalisation and the international order, which are based on the principles of multilateralism in solving security problems.

However, there is also a source of conflict in East Asia similar to that in Europe. In East Asia, we are talking about a decades-old conflict between a rising China and its neighbours, who are worried about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in regional politics, primarily with the US allies united by common values in East Asia, who are trying to coordinate efforts to “contain China.” In Europe, this is a conflict between Russia and the collective West. Russia and China, these are the two countries that oppose the “democratic camp” and are in favour of revising the “norms and rules” established by the West, as they consider them unfair. Both of them are psychologically experiencing a similar complex of resentment towards the collective West — China for its “one hundred years of humiliation” and for the dominance of the West in the institutions of global governance, and Russia, for the West’s refusal to take into account its interests after the collapse of the USSR and for the expansion of NATO to the East. The proximity of the interests of Russia and China concerns not the regional, but the global order, and therefore it is precisely these conflicts and the international crises can be linked into a manifestation of the “anti-revisionist” global conflict.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.