14 Apr China, Japan, and the Failure of Internationalism
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.