East Asia’s 21st Century Could be Like Europe’s 20th Century

Will the unfolding of economic, technological and political trends in East Asia result in a 21st Century environment as chaotic and violent as that experienced by Europe and, as a consequence, the entire world in the last century? The current economic transformation of East Asia is similar in many ways to that which Europe and the United States went through in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The last time the world experienced the combination of explosive economic growth based on rapid industrialization, swift technological advancement, the globalization of trade and mass movements of people from rural to urban environments the consequence were two world wars, numerous revolutions and countless atrocities.

Then, like now, many political scientists and pundits sought reasons why war between states had become outmoded. It was argued that trade ties would deter conflicts. Politics, particularly the rise of democratic governance, would inhibit governments from engaging in wars. Advances in military technology made war so horrific that no government or population could long endure the consequences of major hostilities. The development of a set of governing norms for interstate relations and the creation of international institutions to manage conflict would make war unacceptable as a tool of policy.

One has only to look at recent events in East Asia to have a sense of how precarious the peace of the region may be. A dispute between China and Japan over a few barren rocks in the East China Sea has resulted in a wave of nationalistic fervor, particularly in the former. Since this dispute began, the sale of Japanese goods in China has declined precipitously. Japan’s new prime minister ran on a platform calling, in part, for a revision of the post-war Constitution’s restrictions on the military. North Korea just successfully tested an ICBM.

Advances in military technologies and national capabilities also created uncertainty and potential instability. The PLA has invested in large quantities of theater ballistic missiles capable of executing a massive, preemptive first strike against regional targets. Chinese military writings discuss ways of using kinetic, electronic and cyber weapons to render an adversary deaf, dumb and blind at the outset of a conflict. These writings seem eerily like Germany’s Schlieffen Plan developed prior to World War One and the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg doctrine developed in the interwar period. Giving further impetus to a hair trigger military doctrine is Beijing’s lack of regional allies. Its best friends in the region, North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Russia remind one of Germany’s closest European allies in the last two wars: Austro-Hungary and Italy.

As the U.S. executes its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region it needs to consider how to best deter potential great power conflict. Military strength is a necessary component of such a strategy. But so too are defenses against surprise and preemption. Expanded deployments of air and missile defenses, creation of a region-wide ISR network, expansion and hardening of forward bases and close working relations with allies and partners could go a long way to dissuading potential belligerents from taking aggressive actions in a future political crisis.