Whether East Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to nineteenth-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 cooperation. While economic interdependence among China, Japan, South Korea, and the members of the Association of Southeast 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 World War I.
One common characteristic, then and now, is a power shift. Back then, Great Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since German unification in 1871.
Similarly, at least in terms of economic, if not military, capability, the United States and Japan seem to have begun a process of decline relative to China. Of course, this process is not irreversible: Effective political leadership and successful domestic reforms in the US and Japan, together with China’s failure to manage political pressure from below, could yet halt this seemingly inexorable power shift.
Major power shifts define eras in which key political leaders are likely to make serious foreign-policy mistakes. Indeed, poor management of international relations at such critical junctures has often led to major wars. Rising powers tend to demand a greater role in international politics, declining powers tend to be reluctant to adjust, and key policymakers are likely to misunderstand the intentions of other countries’ leaders and overreact to their actions.
Historically, rising powers tend to become too confident too soon, leading them to behave imprudently, 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 1930’s—recalled that of Wilhelmine Germany. In both cases, insecurity resulted not from an external threat, but from top policymakers’ own actions.
In late 2010, I was relieved—somewhat—when a key Chinese leader, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, announced that China would adhere to the path of peaceful development. But the rhetoric of some Chinese, particularly in the military, concerning the South China Sea and other disputed Chinese sovereignty claims