China, Japan, and the Failure of Internationalism

by Julian Ku

The seemingly minor disputes between Japan and China that I noted some time ago here have continued to fester. This past week, thousands of Chinese marched in sometimes violent (but state-organized) protests against Japan’s attempt to gain permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council and Japanese history textbooks that have whitewashed Japanese atrocities during WWII (indeed, Japan has run into almost identical disputes with South Korea, as I noted here). Meanwhile, normally deferential Japan continues to provoke Chinese ire by allowing undersea gas drilling in disputed territories and denouncing China for violating the Law of the Sea Treaty in its own drilling.

Although today it looks like a happy-go-lucky region benefiting from stupendous economic growth, Asia, and East Asia in particular, may be the most dangerous place in the world. It is full of territorial disputes over oil-rich undersea territories. Various countries are poised to acquire nuclear arms in reaction to North Korea’s continued defiance of the U.S. China and South Korea still harbor serious (and justifiable) anger at Japan over WWII atrocities and everybody is worrying about a strong China (and a weak Taiwan). What makes this situation in Asia so dangerous is that all of these lurking disputes could spark military conflicts between wealthy and extremely well-armed states.

As Francis Fukuyama notes, Asia lacks a serious multilateral organization in which all the countries in the region can work out and resolve the various territorial disputes or provide compensation or punishment for damages and atrocities suffered during WWII. Asian countries have no equivalent of the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights and have rarely (or never) resorted to the International Court of Justice for resolution of disputes. Indeed, the refusal of Asia to jump on the internationalist bandwagon suggests that internationalist Europe is the exception rather than the rule.

So internationalism and international law can’t and won’t save Asia from its future conflicts. In fact, like Europe, it is arguable that U.S. political, economic, and military dominance has up to now been the main stabilizing factor in the region. As this dominance fades, it is up to good-old-fashioned balance-of-power politics by the major actors in the region, including the U.S., to find a way to head off future conflicts that would make us pine for the days when all we had to worry about were international terrorists and the war in Iraq.

2 Responses

  1. What utter tripe. For all your jingoistic chest-beating about “U.S. political, economic, and military dominance,” the facts are that:

    -The Chinese hold hundreds of billions of dollars in Treasury reserves, and the Chinese central bank is basically propping up our increasingly untenable budget deficit. Do you honestly believe that the US is going to make any genuinely aggressive moves against the Chinese when they’re holding our domestic economy by the cojones?

    -Likewise, our supposed “military dominance” is being pissed away in the Iraqi desert. How ’bout stop-loss orders? Plummeting army recruitment? How in the hell do we pose a credible military threat to the Chinese when we can’t even stabilize a country of 22 million people?

    Sorry, Julian, but when China overtakes us as the global hegemon sometime this century, the international law and multilateralism that you so petulantly despise is going to look a lot more attractive here in the U.S of A.

  2. A couple points that may or may not convince you to read the post as a good faith exploration of future foreign policy problems rather than as tripe (but the tone of your comment makes it hard to imagine this will work):

    (1) Japan held and continues to hold hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury Reserves. So do lots of other countries. But it has rarely made any difference in U.S. foreign policy This looming debt-weapon has always been overblown because countries that buy U.S. debt do it not to hold the U.S. hostage, but to secure their own economic interests. If China dumps U.S. treasury bonds, the domestic consequences of a plunging economy will be much worse than anything the U.S. military can hand out.

    (2) My post actually assumes reduced and possible non-existent U.S. military dominance in the future. My point was that U.S. dominance in the past (and I don’t think you can fairly dispute this) has been the guarantor of political stability in the region (and not multilateralism or international organizations)

    (3) China may or may not overtake the U.S. in the future and this may or may not be a good thing. My post simply points out that China (and Japan for that matter) are utterly uninterested in the European-style mechanisms of international cooperation. They never have been (in the past when they were weaker) and they won’t be in the future (when they might be stronger and more powerful than the U.S.).

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