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  Global Views
Rise of China, Future of Peace in Asia
Special Contribution
By Dylan Motin
Hall of Supreme Harmony — The Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿) or simply the Great Hall of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, is the major spot for foreign tourists. The world's largest palace complex is located at the center of the Chinese capital. Banned for ordinary folks the 10-meter high and 8-meter thick walls of the Forbidden City made the general public wonder about things within.

Foreign trade represented an important part of the major states’ wealth, increasing the interdependence among the world powers. A nascent network of international institutions further promised to pacify the relations between states in this era of globalization. Growing societal and cultural connections led to the birth of a truly global community. The idea that a war between great powers, now dependent economically on each other and intertwined in networks, could occur looked ridiculous to all reasonable observers. Yet, when Germany violated Belgian neutrality on August 3, 1914, most great powers of the time became engulfed into a destructive world war.

A similar story repeated two decades later in the 1930s, leading to an even more horrendous war worldwide. And again, directly after the end of World War II, it seemed that the world was poised for another large-scale conflict. However, the Cold War never escalated. The advent of nuclear weapons and American efforts to maintain the balance of power in Europe and East Asia succeeded in avoiding a Soviet bid for hegemony.

The history of the 20th century underpinned the approach of international relations known as "realism." For realists, the world is populated by sovereign states with no central authority above them to forbid aggression or ensure peace. States are left to their own devices in a potentially deadly environment. Consequently, the wisest course of action to survive is to build strong military forces and make sure that no one country gets stronger than oneself. This endless struggle for power renders war endemic.

Nearly 20 years ago, a prominent realist thinker, John Mearsheimer, in his Tragedy of Great Powers Politics, asserted that if China continued to develop at a fast pace, it would inevitably transform its economic prowess into military might. Asian nations and the United States alike would grow wary that China would eventually dominate Asia and, thus, try hard to balance against it.

Most analysts dismissed Mearsheimer’s realism as a fossil from days long past. They had ironclad confidence that the temptation of economic gain, and the so-called "international community," was now stronger than the will for survival and power. They dismissed the lessons of the pre-World Wars situations, to the tune of "this time is different." They furthermore ignored the fact that war between Moscow and Washington never broke out, despite that there existed no significant economic or human interdependence between the two great powers. Yet, the already weak theory that economics had vanquished great power competition has been utterly demolished by recent American, Chinese, and Russian behaviors. The global village, not yet constructed, is already burning.

Russia, after two decades of weakness, is back on its feet and has decided to push back against American influence. The Russians’ worries are easy to understand, as the U.S.-led NATO, probably the most powerful military alliance in history, is now bordering their homeland. China has now become the second power in the world, and its willingness to dominate Asia is crystal clear. China does not feel secure knowing that the U.S. Navy and its allies roam the adjacent seas, and that Washington is trying to contain Chinese power in its own backyard. Indeed, America, which cannot accept that competing great powers reach hegemony over Asia or Europe, is trying hard to stem the rise of Beijing and Moscow. The Russians and the Chinese have legitimate motives to dominate their respective regions; the Americans and their allies have legitimate motives to contain them. This conflict is why great power competition, once deemed to be a museum piece, is now making the headlines on a daily basis.

Accordingly, South Korea is in an uncomfortable position. As if the North Korean problem was not enough, it has to deal with a rising China, hell-bent on subjugating its smaller neighbors. Beijing is notably displeased that Seoul offers a foothold to America in mainland Asia. This frustration is the reason why China never seriously tried to disrupt the nuclear program of its buffer state, North Korea, and will not do so anytime soon. Then, what should Seoul, Washington, and like-minded capitals do in light of this situation?

Nuclear weapons, as the ultimate deterrent, were effective at preventing great power wars up until now. Yet, they are not a panacea. Nuclear deterrence has a record of failure. For example, in 1950, Chinese troops attacked the nuclear-armed United States. Furthermore, in 1973, Egypt and Syria went va banque on Israel and almost triggered a nuclear response. In 1982, likewise, Argentina invaded the Falklands despite Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The 1999 Kargil War is another example of two nuclear states fighting each other.

More recently, Indian nuclear weapons did not deter Chinese forces from entering disputed territory. Besides, it is impossible to know whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella can effectively deter China from blackmailing or attacking its non-nuclear neighbors.
The United States will have a hard time matching China ship-for-ship and tank-for-tank on its own borders. Although Washington will provide the heavy lifting, it is unlikely to prevail without the resources and territories of like-minded Asian states. As during the Cold War, it will need its small allies to muster strong conventional forces. America will oversee the balancing coalition aimed at deterring the rising great power from aggressive expansion. Russia, more concerned with the affairs of Europe, has already chosen to side with Beijing. Australia, India, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others, in order to avoid Chinese hegemony, must maintain strong militaries and work together with the United States to balance Beijing.

It is vital to remember the lessons of the two World Wars and the Cold War. Globalization, economic interdependence, and international institutions failed to prevent conflagrations both in 1914 and 1939. On the contrary, peace was maintained during the Cold War thanks to both nuclear and conventional balancing. This lesson must not be forgotten if we are to maintain a durable peace in Asia.

The above writer, Dylan Motin, is a Ph.D. candidate majoring in political science at South Korea's Kangwon National University. The French scholar and writer specializes in international relations theory, interstate conflict, and great power politics. He can be reached at dylan.motin@kangwon.ac.kr




 

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