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A nation must think before it acts.
Most people today closely associate Asia with robust economic growth, fueled by expansion in infrastructure, manufacturing, and services. Even though there have been bumps along the way, notably during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–1998, both before and after that crisis hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty. Throughout the 1990s, many Asians even spoke of a special set of Asian values that contributed to their success. And while some values have proved to be double edged, many came to see at least one of them reflected in Asia’s general attitude toward international relations—a preference for consensus over confrontation. That preference, the theory goes, gave rise to the notion that economic development should take precedence over political competition, paving the way for greater regional and regime stability.
Indeed, it may be better said that much of Asia came to choose economic development over political competition not because of any special set of values, but rather because of weariness with many decades of conflict. Now, after three decades of relative peace and economic prosperity, armed conflict seems a distant possibility to many Asians. Even on Taiwan, which faces increasing diplomatic isolation and periodic Chinese threats of forced unification, most Taiwanese are relatively nonchalant about the possibility. And, until recently, something similar could be said of Japanese, who viewed Russia’s territorial claims on their northern territories with greater concern than those of China on the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, if you happen to be in Beijing).
Besides, after the Cold War ended, many Americans believed that their continued engagement with Beijing and in the region would relieve the tensions associated with China’s rise and defuse the need for any arms race in Asia. From the Chinese perspective, their country’s rise would not be a cause for concern among its neighbors, as it would be simply reasserting its traditional (and rightful) place in Asia. Indeed, China’s rise would benefit all Asians. And, in any case, surely no country—least of all China which has so greatly benefited from the extended period of peace—would have much incentive to upset its own economic growth with the potential for conflict.
But clearly those expectations have their limits. China has grown increasingly strident in its maritime disputes with Japan and the countries that ring the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s dam building on the Mekong River without the consultation of its Southeast Asian neighbors has not endeared the country to those on the Indochina peninsula. And with Chinese influence spilling into the Indian Ocean, India has grown nervous too. It turns out that not all of China’s neighbors share its unreserved fondness for the way things were during imperial China’s heyday. Hence, tensions across Asia have increased as Chinese behavior has become more assertive, matching its enhanced economic and military prowess. And so, many Asian countries have begun to rearm, most recently Japan, which shifted its military focus southward and boosted its defense budget for the first time in over a decade.
For a time, it did seem as though the prospect for war in Asia had been entirely banished to the shadows. However, it has become apparent that the ever-greater certainty of peace had bred a sense of complacency that long-simmering tensions would ultimately be amicably resolved or indefinitely postponed. Today, some of those tensions have resurfaced. Politics still matter and once again threaten to take primacy over economic ties. Hopefully, with the renewed attention devoted to them, Asia can put some of these tensions to rest and return to its economic development. Otherwise, they are likely to augur ill for the future.