What are the prospects for peace and cooperation in Asia?

Asia is a region where tensions run deep. Both historical and modern rivalries dominate the area, with conflict taking place throughout history; especially in East Asia. Many have claimed that over the past decade, these tensions have started to disappear, with some of the countries working together. While at first glance progress seems to be occurring rapidly, with free trade agreements and other economic agreements seeing trade barriers reduced across the area. However, it’s not quite time to get people’s hopes up. Those modern and historical rivalries are still very significant, and it is likely to be a long time before these economic agreements transform into more important cooperation in the region.

Agreements over the past few years include a series of deals in 2010 between the Association of South Eastern Nations and China, Australia and New Zealand, creating free trade agreements. China, Japan and South Korea are also currently in the process of negotiating an agreement. A recent agreement between China and Taiwan also saw trade between the two nations increase by 13% as tariffs and quotas were reduced on both sides.

However, potential economic and political alliances are held back by history. The area is full of flash-points that stretch back decades, and like volcanos, have the ability to return at anytime, with potentially deadly consequences. Tensions between China and Vietnam still exist, with the potential to flare up at anytime, with border agreements being a big disagreement. The Korean War might have ended decades ago, but the consequences are still being felt, with North Korea and the United States still technically at war, never having signed a peace treaty.

Countries also find it difficult to forget the Japanese conquest of practically all of Southeast Asia, including China, Korea and Taiwan, creating another stumbling block. Progress seemed to be made when South Korea planned to sign a military pact with Japan, but this was halted hours before it was supposed to be signed, due to anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, showing that World War II is far more explosive in the region than it is in Europe or the United States.

China is also problematic, laying claim to over 770,000 square miles of the South China Sea. A real source of tension, this has led the United States to shift it’s concentration to the Pacific. Five other countries, plus Taiwan, lay claim to the area, which includes some tactically significant islands. China has also failed to advance in other areas, still pointing approximately 1,000 missiles at Taiwan, an area that it has controlled since 1949. With China still feeling the need to use that extreme measure more than 60 years later, it certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.

Japan, China and Taiwan also contest a series of uninhabited islands in the Pacific, striking a nationalist chord amongst the rival nations. Neither one of them prepared to back down, creating another source of tension that has the potential to flare up at any moment, if one of them makes an incorrect move.

With the East Asian countries becoming increasingly wealthy, and many countries such as South Korea and Japan being very stable, you would have thought that they would have moved to establish regional allies, to help protect both their sovereignty and their own interests. However, that is not the case. In part due to the historical tensions and mistrust, there is only one regional alliance that requires a military response to an attack on either nation; that between China and North Korea. It is worth noting that the United States has formal military agreements with many of the countries in the area, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Close partnerships also exist between the US and Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. However, with these agreements not tested since the Korean War, it is unlikely that most of them can be counted on. It would take a big event for the United States to even consider honouring one of these agreements, with China growing in power since they would have been agreed. Of course the US and the rest of the world would back up the countries if China did something wrong, but that’s a lot different to proposing military action, and as we’ve seen too often recently, diplomacy can only get so far.

In other parts of the world, at this stage in the region’s economic and political development, regional alliances and partnerships were forming. When countries focused on defence, they tended to grow together, trying to form alliances to ensure that they would be in the best position to avoid conflict. On the other hand, in Asia, the opposite is happening; with the countries growing apart. Even though there is an agreement in place from 1971 between Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, with the countries agreeing to consult each other over external aggression in the area, this too is likely to be too old to be significant.

Strained by the growth of China, these countries have little opportunity to manoeuvre. As China is their biggest trading partner, the nations are reluctant to place their economies at risk by confronting China directly, even if they have concerns about its growing military power and nationalist agenda. At the same time, China feels vulnerable. With no agreements in place, it feels that is alone, with only the one alliance with North Korea existing amongst its 14 neighbours.

Over the coming years it is likely that the countries in the region will continue to grow apart. Not only will China feel more alone, but the other countries will feel increasingly isolated and powerless in the shadow of Beijing. With tensions already high, and historical rivalries unlikely to end anytime soon, it is likely that the problems will only get worse. China has already shown that it is incredibly difficult to deal with, only making the situation worse.

Some progress has been made, with democratic Indonesia opening up, Burma liberalising and Chinese relations with Taiwan improving over the past few years. The economic agreements in place throughout the region are also a start, but there is still a long way to go. At this point, the area needs a leader. China would probably proclaim that it is in prime position. Even so, it wouldn’t be a very good candidate. With a crazy communist regime, other countries are unlikely to want to work with the country. Also, looking at its response to previous tensions, including those in: Syria, where the country is helping to prop-up Assad; those over the disputed area of sea and its belief that it still needs to point around 1,000 missiles at Taiwan, the prospects don’t look good for the area’s future.